Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse

Years ago, when I first started thinking about BDSM and abuse, I — like a lot of feminist BDSMers — was defensive.

We get scared of the accusation that “BDSM is always abuse” … and we’re accustomed to accusations from certain feminists such as “those of you who pretend to like BDSM just have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome and don’t know what you really want” … and often, we’re also fighting our own inner BDSM stigma demons. We get angry that our sexual needs are seen as politically problematic, or unimportant.

And so, for a lot of people, our instinctive angle on abuse in the BDSM community is: “Shut up! That’s not what’s going on!” And that’s a problem.

Obviously, I don’t think BDSM is inherently abusive! Exploring my personal BDSM desires has given me some extraordinary, consensual, transcendent experiences and connections. I also genuinely believe that BDSM has the potential to control, subvert, and manage power. BDSM can be a place where people learn to understand bad power dynamics in past relationships; it can be a place where people learn to manage or destroy bad power dynamics in their current relationships; it can be a place where people find glory, self-knowledge and freedom by manipulating their own reactions and responses to power. Here’s a great, complicated relevant essay by Pepper Mint, and here’s one of my favorite quotations on the matter from violetwhite:

It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.

Still, I’ve seen things happen in the BDSM community that turned my stomach. Terrible manipulative behavior exhibited by people who have the greatest reputations. Blaming the victim when they try to speak up. Telling “rumor mongers” to shut up when people are trying to talk openly about problematic community members. The BDSM subculture has its own version of rape culture, where “lying bitch” and “drama queen” and “miscommunication” are used against abuse survivors. Miscommunications do happen … but not everything that could be a miscommunication is actually a miscommunication.

Oh yes, rape culture can happen in BDSM just the same way it happens in the “vanilla” mainstream. And there are certainly people in my local community who I would never get involved with, because I do not trust them. (Here’s a great call to action by BDSM writer and abuse survivor Kitty Stryker. I also like Asher Bauer’s old post, “A Field Guide To Creepy Dom“, which is all about how to spot predators — although, like Asher, I think the post has a few problems.)

Being defensive about BDSM and abuse won’t help; yes, BDSM is stigmatized and stereotyped, but the abuse is still a problem. So after I started blogging, I tried to move past my defensiveness and write more concretely — to write about what exactly the BDSM community does to work against abuse. One of my first posts on BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse“. It highlighted anti-abuse initiatives within the BDSM community. As I learned more about BDSM and abuse, and my perspective got more nuanced, I wrote a more expansive post called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team“. It covered all the information I’d given in the earlier post, and also talked about how I personally would structure an anti-abuse initiative with alt-sex people in mind.

Looking back now, those posts still strike me as defensive. I was making good points, but I also think that I didn’t fully understand where some feminists are coming from when they react negatively to BDSM. This past year, I’ve learned a lot more about abusive gender-based violence, power, and control. And I’ve concluded that while BDSM is obviously not equivalent to abuse, we need better theory to describe the difference between BDSM and abuse, and we should try to avoid defensiveness while articulating that theory.

One thing I think people can do is try to “start from a position of strength, and seek strength afterwards“. The overall point of that maxim is that any given BDSM activity can eventually make all parties feel more supported, more capable, more powerful in the world. That’s my ideal end goal; that is what I personally would aim for with my BDSM practice. Perhaps I might do an intense BDSM scene that makes me feel terrible in the moment — or for a lot of moments … but I want to be sure it will make me more supported, more capable, more powerful later.

That’s an awfully vague maxim, though, and one that can be different for every person. I may have found a more concrete focus in a 1984 anti-abuse concept — the Power & Control Wheel:

In 1984, staff at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) began developing curricula for groups for men who batter and victims of domestic violence. We wanted a way to describe battering for victims, offenders, practitioners in the criminal justice system and the general public. Over several months, we convened focus groups of women who had been battered. We listened to heart-wrenching stories of violence, terror and survival. After listening to these stories and asking questions, we documented the most common abusive behaviors or tactics that were used against these women. The tactics chosen for the wheel were those that were most universally experienced by battered women.

Here’s an image of the Power & Control Wheel. The text of that and other relevant wheels can be found here. In a BDSM context, a lot of those behaviors could be part of a consensual encounter — violence, headgames, name-calling, all kinds of things can be BDSM. But this part, this is important:

MINIMIZING, DENYING AND BLAMING:
* Making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously.
* Saying the abuse didn’t happen.
* Shifting responsibility for abusive behavior.
* Saying she caused it.

(The original wheel uses gendered language, but I’d like to note that although abuse is most often perpetrated by men against women, abuse can happen in any kind of relationship and to people of any gender.)

In the brilliant documentary “Graphic Sexual Horror”, which profiles a now-defunct BDSM porn site, there’s footage of a scene with a porn model named S4. The dominant partner slaps S4 across the face, and S4 reacts angrily. She says something like, “We didn’t talk about that in advance!” The dominant doesn’t apologize; he doesn’t take her seriously, and he doesn’t talk to her carefully or work to calm her down. Instead, the dominant partner snaps: “We can’t talk about everything in advance,” and aggressively demands to know whether she’s ready to continue. This is an example of minimizing, denying, and blaming.

I have some sympathy for his awkward position — I’ve made small mistakes as a dominant partner, too, and he’s correct that it’s impossible to talk about everything in advance. But the way to deal with those mistakes is by apologizing sincerely and making sure the mistake never happens again. For example, one of my exes really hated being bitten on the lips, and at one point I bit him on the lower lip. And he called me out, and I said, “I’m sorry,” and I put my arms around him to offer comfort; I said, “I won’t do it again,” and I didn’t.

My experience of BDSM relationships is that it’s best for there to be both communication ahead of time — and lots of discussion and processing afterwards. Both partners get to set “hard limits”: things they absolutely don’t want to do. If one partner has concerns, those concerns get airtime. Both partners acknowledge a role in the proceedings, and blame isn’t spread around; even if something goes wrong, the discussion focuses on how to prevent that from happening again rather than making accusations.

And if BDSM is happening, it must be possible to acknowledge it, even if it’s subtle. For example, I ran into a partner on the street the other day; he gave me a hug and held me in place for a while, even though I tried to move away. This, my friends, is subtle BDSM. Which was fine with me! But it was only okay because I knew I could call him out on it later and be sure it was acknowledged!

And I did mention it later, and he did acknowledge it, and we both laughed and said it was hot. And if I had told him not to do it, that would have been okay too. And the fact that I knew I could talk about it, that I knew I could tell him not to do it and he’d listenmeant that I also could have declined to mention it, and I would have felt fine.

Something else worth acknowledging here is time boundaries. If a person is indeed calling names, controlling what the other person does, etc, then it’s often useful for it to be communicated — and also time-bounded. For example: “You can only call me pathetic during this sexual encounter. Otherwise, please don’t.”

There are BDSM couples that get rid of time boundaries, and have ongoing BDSM relationship situations; there are also BDSM couples that don’t use safewords. I think those relationships require a lot of understanding and care from all parties involved. I’ve never gone without safewords, but sometimes I go without time-bounding, and when I do, I make very sure that I can trust my partner and communicate well with him. (Thomas MacAulay Millar calls safeword-free BDSM “the advanced class”.)

The same group that made the Power & Control Wheel has another useful wheel — the Equality Wheel. Here’s the text of the wheel:

ECONOMIC PARTNERSHIP:
* Making money decisions together.
* Making sure both partners benefit from financial arrangements.

NEGOTIATION AND FAIRNESS:
* Seeking mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict.
* Accepting changes.
* Being willing to compromise.

NON-THREATENING BEHAVIOR:
* Talking and acting so that she feels safe and comfortable expressing herself and doing things.

RESPECT:
* Listening to her non-judgmentally.
* Being emotionally affirming and understanding.
* Valuing her opinions.

SHARED RESPONSIBILITY:
* Mutually agreeing on a fair distribution of work.
* Making family decisions together.

RESPONSIBLE PARENTING:
* Sharing parental responsibilities.
* Being a positive, nonviolent role model for the children.

HONESTY AND ACCOUNTABILITY:
* Accepting responsibility for self.
* Acknowledging past use of violence.
* Admitting being wrong.
* Communicating openly and truthfully.

TRUST AND SUPPORT:
* Supporting her goals in life.
* Respecting her right to her own feelings, friends, activities, and opinions.

All these things ought to be present in a BDSM relationship! Some people do heavy role-play situations where they have specific personas that they don’t want to break out of … and they still can make sure that all those elements are included. For example, they can keep simultaneous journals about the relationship, and thereby keep up with each others’ feelings and consent without breaking out of their roles.

I also think that the list is especially useful in that it highlights places where non-consensual control is likely to happenand therefore, places where BDSMers should be especially careful. For example, failing to support a partner’s life goals would be okay in the middle of an intense BDSM encounter. But afterwards, it might be good to give extra support, just because that can be such an important genuine danger spot.

Just like vanilla people, BDSMers have a lot of unspoken elements of our relationships. For example — the partner I mentioned earlier, who held me in place when I gave him a hug on the street. We didn’t negotiate that particular act ahead of time. But we have an established relationship, and we’ve done similar things before; I knew that if I wanted to talk about it — or ask him not to do it — then he’d listen. And, even more importantly, the rest of our relationship lines up with the Equality Wheel.

Shoutout to Kitty Stryker and Maggie Mayhem, two awesome feminist BDSM writers who will be running a workshop on BDSM and abuse in San Francisco on August 4! (Note: both those blogs are assuredly not safe for work.) More info on the workshop here; event hosted by the awesome Center for Sex & Culture.


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About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
This entry was posted in Dating, Domestic Violence, relationships, Sex and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse

  1. Cyn says:

    Clarisse,

    As a domestic violence and sexual assault survivors’ advocate, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for these ongoing posts you have about BDSM. It takes a lot of courage for someone from ANY community to acknowledge non-consensual violence within their community for so many reasons

    What I like most about this post is that, while you educate so many people who are not aware on issues of domestic and sexual violence, you are ultimately making space for those who are experiencing it to seek help. I want you to know that I often forward your articles (not just this one) to my fellow advocates so that they can acknowledge some of their own biases and be better at their jobs.

    Thank you again for your wonderful insights and contributions.

  2. Hi Cyn, and thank you. I’m glad this work is reaching advocates. I really really really want to feel sure that as BDSM becomes more destigmatized — a process that appears to be happening independent of me and other feminist BDSM writers — that its communication/consent techniques are popularized as well. I want people who engage in these relationships to be understood, but I also really really really don’t want BDSM to be used as a shield to cover abusers.

  3. Pingback: News: BDSM and abuse, Lesbian heroes ignored by mainstream media, and Sexual violence and mental illness «

  4. angelicaliveshere says:

    There is a huge difference. BDSM, properly and safely practiced can be a very amazing experience. You must have safely procedures in place such as “safe words” to be able to stop what is going on in a moment’s notice. It involves an incredible amount of trust and should never be practiced with someone you don’t know or trust. This kind of ‘play’ can have disastrous consequences if one partner is abusive, drunk or unwilling. People are afraid of it because they do not understand what it truly is
    That being said, it can also be a part of a safe, sane, consensual and loving relationship (and often is). .
    I have had long conversations with my therapist about it. It worried me that I enjoyed it so much. My therapist said that BDSM and S & M can be a safe environment where people work out their past issues. Confronting their fears, and (safely) indirectly confronting some of the experiences (and possibly traumas) that they have had in their own past.
    Sometimes people who have a lot of serious responsibilities in their life want the opportunity to be submissive and passive safely.
    .

  5. evie says:

    Thanks for this. It is so important the people stop being defensive on this topic (and in every other community too, including queer women, feminists, alternative spiritualities, lefties, etc) because while people are still invested in the ‘it happens less here’ there will be a tendency to minimise, deny, blame and silence survivors. We naturally don’t want our beliefs in the goodness of our community challenged. But we’ve got to challenge them, and having the tools to learn how and why to do it, like the awesome power & control wheel, is so important.

  6. Emily Hauser says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’m vanilla, but curious about what makes other sexualities tick, and have had questions about the BDSM community off and on (not to mention learning not long ago learned of a friend who recently joined the community [as a grandmother, no less]), and often feel like there are bits and pieces to the experience that I just don’t get, even while I entirely support everyone’s right to express their sexuality in whatever consensual relationship makes sense for them. This is helpful, and I thank you for posting it.

  7. James says:

    I think I may have written 10,000 words, and erased 100,000 others, trying to say this: I disagree.

    I hate being asked into BDSM; I hate participating, I hate watching, I hate hearing about it.

  8. Nice to see an article about BDSM that acknowledges couples that have full-time power exchange dynamics and that do not use safewords. I still think it is very, very difficult to draw up a chart or list of behaviors that can be labelled “abusive” or not, when it comes to those that enjoy “advanced class” BDSM relationships. Almost everything I’ve seen on those “abuse power wheel” charts are things that we sometimes have in our relationship. I still think one of the most reliable indicators of whether something is “abusive” or not, is how the person feels about it. I love my relationship and am incredibly happy in it, thus I don’t view any of my partner’s actions as “abusive”. However, in another context, those same actions could be abusive if they were causing emotional damage and pain to someone else.

  9. James:
    I think I may have written 10,000 words, and erased 100,000 others, trying to say this: I disagree.

    I hate being asked into BDSM; I hate participating, I hate watching, I hate hearing about it.

    I’m sorry if you’ve experienced pressure to participate in BDSM without your consent. If you have been pressured, then that is absolutely wrong.

    But the fact that you’re squicked by BDSM doesn’t make BDSM wrong; and it won’t make BDSMers stop existing; and it won’t make us shut up.

    Take just a minute and think about how gross your comment would be if it were about homosexuality, and you left it on a post about abuse in the LGBTQ community.

  10. Pingback: BDSM and abusive relationships « Chicks Dig Me

  11. T. Kulesza says:

    Looking back now, those posts still strike me as defensive. I was making good points, but I also think that I didn’t fully understand where some feminists are coming from when they react negatively to BDSM. This past year, I’ve learned a lot more about abusive gender-based violence, power, and control. And I’ve concluded that while BDSM is obviously not equivalent to abuse, we need better theory to describe the difference between BDSM and abuse, and we should try to avoid defensiveness while articulating that theory.

    Interesting. I recently read these (i guess due to your ‘strength’ post) – and your comments in the trackbacks of other bloggers that commented, and had the same impression, that you were a bit defensive. Which saddened me since i value your writing so much. I’m really glad you got insight into your reaction and don’t feel that way anymore.

    “But the way to deal with those mistakes is by apologizing sincerely and making sure the mistake never happens again.”

    So true and so important. It’s basically a litmus test in most cases, IMO.

  12. Tomek Kulesza says:

    (i changed my name/mail since i had trouble posting comments earlier, but Jill said there shouldn’t be any. I wonder my usual (this one) will pass through…)

  13. LC says:

    I do think that minimizing is where the key element turning it into abuse lies. I’m not sure I ever quite articulated it that way before, but it resonates with me.

    I am at work, so can’t read Pepper Mint’s essay right now, but even when I disagree I tend to enjoy engaging with his ideas, so I will assume it is good.

    As for the comment about vanilla abuse – I often half-joke that the only real TPE 24/7 people I know are hard-core conservative believers in traditional marriage. Mostly because it pisses off both the conservatives and the kinksters, and that amuses me, but there is a core of truth there.

    In fact, to get back to the “minimizing” thing, I think that is my main issue when it gets to larger kink culture. The defensiveness that so often pervades when this subject comes up, along with endless “No True Scotsman” arguments, automatically pushes my “minimizing” button. The moment the backs go up and the wagons circle is the point where I start to suspect there really must be abuse there – why else switch to defensive mode so quickly?

  14. thefallgirl says:

    Thank you for these posts, Clarisse. I’ve been following the discussion on a different site and really like the conclusions you’ve drawn here. I’ve encountered the “all BDSM is abuse” line of thought before and had a similarly defensive knee-jerk to it without being able to articulate my objection in stronger words than “Nuh uh, because in BDSM people are consenting!” but that has the potential to minimize situations where it’s both BDSM and people are not consenting, and that isn’t my intention at all. I think my own defensive stance has been further strengthened by the fact that the only abuse and sexual violence I’ve ever experienced has been in the context of vanilla relationships. The argument as a whole has made me take a closer look at what I’m saying and how I’m thinking, and on top of loving having a voice advocating for kinky folks on this blog, I sincerely appreciate reading your perspective since it helps me broaden mine.

  15. Jenae says:

    Thanks for this. I left the BDSM community over the sheltering of creepy Doms. I met some really great people but the amount of respect given to people (mostly men) who called themselves “Master” or “Sir” was ridiculous. The public scene became this constant game of play-acting and I was just not. interested.

    I will say though that if it hadn’t been for some really awesome ppl I met in the scene, I would never have discovered my own sexuality and I wouldn’t have my partner (we met on CollarMe).

  16. Yuki says:

    James:
    I think I may have written 10,000 words, and erased 100,000 others, trying to say this: I disagree.

    I hate being asked into BDSM; I hate participating, I hate watching, I hate hearing about it.

    Then with all due respect, why are you reading this? Your preferences are your own, but they don’t dismiss the important points Clarisse has made in regards to abuse.

  17. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for this, Clarise. I organize a kink group for young adults, and having words to describe this sort of thing to the fresh, bright-eyed people that show up is endlessly useful.

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