Abuse, BDSM and Consent
Abuse, BDSM and Consent
How many times have we heard the phrase “BDSM isn’t abuse”?
The answer in our own minds is usually “of course, BDSM isn’t abuse-to engage in BDSM, one needs to have consent”. And in a kinky utopia, that is absolutely the truth.
However, too many people coming into our circles tend to hear instead “there isn’t abuse in BDSM”. We’re doing a poor job of communicating that, like any other society, abuse most certainly does exist within a BDSM context. Well, we are not a kinky utopia, and because of our need for secrecy, our silence, and our fear, we provide an almost perfect playground for those whose aims are definitely NOT utopian, to hide within while providing them easy access to their victim.
Abuse comes in many forms and abusers come in many varieties. It’s often very difficult for people who play with things like rape fantasies, consensual non-consent, or even merely the thrill of “giving up control” to a mean sadist, to understand that BDSM isn’t immune to abuse simply because many of us believe that one cannot engage in BDSM without consent. We’re talking apples, and people are getting lemons.
Those who engage in BDSM are a cross-section of humanity. It stands to reason that, like all communities, we also have our share of “bad apples”. Knowing who they are isn’t easy. Knowing what to do with them once known is even harder. Helping those that they’ve harmed is the hardest of all.
This three part post will talk about abuse within the bdsm context (which isn’t much different than abuse without it), how to recognize abuse, the responsibilities and obligations that we all have to ourselves and one another, and most importantly- to offer suggestions on how we can as individuals and as a community, combat this hidden problem.
Here's the thing, dear reader: if, as a community, we want to say to radfems, the government and the police that What It Is That We Do isn’t abusive (and we say it a lot), then we need to prove it by treating survivors with respect, listening to their voices, not creating a norm of slut shaming and victim-silencing, encouraging negotiation skills via workshops and demonstration, and holding predatory people accountable, from directly and firmly letting them know their behaviour is unacceptable, to publicly outing and banning them if it’s necessary.
Every time we DON'T hold people accountable, and every time someone says my article is proof that I obviously was an attention whore who was turned on by being forced to do things to men I didn't want to do, or that it’s my own fault for not knowing better, and that this sort of writing is a disservice to the kink community, we are proving the radfems, the government and the police right. We are saying, effectively, that BDSM can be abusive, and that we would rather put blinders on and shun those who speak out than address the issue.” ~ Kitty Styker: I wish I could safeword
What We’re Really Talking About
Throwing a lot of terms around will just confuse everyone. Let’s suffice to say that if you don’t understand what a top/bottom, submissive/dominant, or any other “bdsm term” is, go online and find a few dozen of the really good general dictionaries to use. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to use the following definitions in the most broadest terms possible:
Abuse- non-consensual actions by a person to control the thoughts, actions, or beliefs of someone else. Abuse comes in many forms- from sexual harassment (the “quid pro quo”), to outright and blatant disregard for someone else’s physical or emotional safety. The abuse cannot be stopped with a safeword and may include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and economic abuse. The last of which is often aimed more frequently at male bottoms. Abuse is an ongoing, non-consensual and/or coercive power dynamic between people. Abuse is hardly ever noticed by those outside of such a relationship, and in fact within the context of BDSM, it very often looks too much like two people having a “really good time”.
Predator - anyone who misuses their perceived or actual authority over another to facilitate abuse. Predators often choose their target on the basis of passivity, lack of assertiveness, naivete, low self-esteem, age, lack of education, or other areas of vulnerability - including fetishes. In our communities, this is often the “newbie”. Unsure, unaware, and perhaps not sexually or emotionally ready for playing in this world. Predators come in many shapes and sizes, across all genders and orientations. There is no way to tell who is a predator and who is not at a glance. Whispers and rumors are often ignored. That small voice in your head is likewise ignored. Predators look like everyone else. They’re charming, appear well-connected and always appear to know their shit. Often, they drift to positions of perceived authority on this basis.
Consent - is permission given for an activity, with all the facts known, and requires active and ongoing participation. One cannot give consent when unconscious or asleep. However, it is a mistake to confuse consent as simply “yes means yes” or “no means no”. Yesses and nos can be given verbally, non verbally, implied and anywhere inbetween. In BDSM in particular, where you have predisposition of bottoms to agree, simply hearing a “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean that consent has been given. Unless the person is informed, aware, and actively participating in the activity, then it’s a slippery slope for both sides. If you don’t feel as if you could say no, it is coerced participation and lacks consent. Without consent, BDSM is unethical at the least and criminal at the most.
Mistake - the old adage “shit happens” applies here. Genuine miscommunication, accidents, inattention, mistakes in judgment, aim, or reading body language all happen quite frequently within BDSM. Experts fuck up. Newbies fuck up. No one is immune to mistakes. We are only human. We all bring expectations and preconceptions into a scene. When they don’t work out, we find ourselves in the middle of a mistake. Mistakes are unintentional and don’t generally fall under the definition of abuse. Do abusers make mistakes? Quite frequently. But thinking that a mistake is abuse, dilutes the power of those who ARE being abused. I think that the true test of a mistake is in the behavior of the actor when called on it. Do they own their mistake? Do they feel even more awful that they made it? Do they try to make amends? Do they question themselves? Do they ask for help in fixing it or learning better? And most importantly, do they apologize without “butting”? Saying “I’m sorry that I hit you harder than you asked me to, I got carried away with the scene” is one thing. Saying “I’m sorry that I hit you, but you moved in the wrong direction and it was your fault” is another. Nobody intends to make a mistake, but when they happen (and they will), the intention to clean up your own mess, for me, differentiates a genuine mistake from abuse.
RACK v. SSC
RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) and SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual) are short, marketing phrases that too many people believe offers some sort of magical protection against being harmed. Knowing these terms, saying that one is “risk aware”, and believing that those who also can spout these phrases ascribe to the same values, offers a false sense of security and begins a cycle of belief that there is no abuse in BDSM.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Both RACK and SSC are designed to give a voice to an easy to remember mantra of the utopian kink ideal. But neither RACK nor SSC will protect anyone from someone that doesn’t practice them.
Those who engage in BDSM aren't any better or worse than any other group of people who share a similar affinity. You have people who will play by the rules AND people who will pretend to play by the rules for their own agendas. There are sex offenders and predators finding our community daily. There are also vanilla people who just want a little kinky sex finding the scene. Don't believe that just because we have rules for conduct, we preach negotiation, communication, and responsibility that everyone you meet will follow through. Kinky people are PEOPLE...not every member of any "club" is like any other member. Don’t think that just because someone has a Fetlife profile, can copy and paste something that sounds half-way decent, and has followed along enough to integrate themselves into the scene that they can be expected to KNOW what the “community standards and mores” truly are- much less care if they follow them.
“Another woman, who came to the leather scene through Fetlife and other sites, says sheIf there are people finding us that don’t have any idea that there is a risk of injury while flogging, caning, suspending or anything else, is it any wonder that people don’t realize that there are also others that might abuse them within the guise of BDSM?
had no idea there was risk of injury when she first entered the scene.” ~Dallas Observer News
had no idea there was risk of injury when she first entered the scene.” ~Dallas Observer News
Can We Recognize Abuse?
There have been thousands of books written on abuse and abusers in the vanilla world. Abuse within marriage, abuse of children, abuse of pets- those things happen, are written about, and studied by those with actual degrees in psychology. I’m not going to try to recreate the wheel, but I will say that it’s not easy to recognize abuse when it’s happening within the BDSM scene.
“...we’d negotiated a rope suspension scene, and I specifically told him “no sex”. After he suspended me, gagged me, and while I was in a very happy subspace, he opened my legs and started fucking me. When I realized what was happening, I was crying hysterically. I screamed through my gag, tried to undo the rope, and experienced real fear. He finished and whispered into my ear that if I said anything, I wouldn’t be believed because nobody was paying attention and it would be his word against mine...” ~ Author’s name withheld.
Recognizing abuse, even when it’s happening right under our noses, is a tricky thing within the BDSM context. We play with non-consent as a part of many scenes. Begging for something that you don’t really want to happen, roleplaying, rape play, interrogation play...all lend themselves to consensual non-consent. So how does one recognize abuse within all of that? And how does a casual onlooker know the difference between a “really hot scene” and actual abuse?
The truth is, we can’t. When abuse is happening right under our noses, in our parties and dungeons, we can’t tell the difference.
Simply put, BDSM turns to abuse when any of these things haven't been negotiated as part of a scene or relationship:
1. When it devalues you, your thoughts, your fears or your safety.
2. When your limits are ignored.
3. When a timeout cannot be called to discuss a problem.
4. When you are not heard when there is a problem.
It’s difficult for us to spot abuse because for every negative trait abusers exhibit, there is an equal call for such a trait to be evidenced in domination. Some of the more common ones and their analogous BDSM uses-
* Manipulation is at the basis of predicament play.
* Controlling behavior - control is desired by those seeking a D/s or power exchange relationship;
* Use of force- force is often found in most kinky sexual relationships and is most often used in rape play;
* Sadistic fantasies- I hardly think this one needs explanation!
* Cruelty within a scene is common, especially in humiliation scenes.
* Stereotypical gender roles are maintained as a norm especially by het-male-doms;
* Eagerness to Rush into a “dom/sub” relationship. Presses for exclusivity on your part, jealousy in the guise of “protection”
The unfortunate reality is that from the outside, there is little that any person engaging in BDSM would notice as out of the ordinary in another’s BDSM play or relationship.
Unless they’ve been told otherwise.
~Part 2- Obligations and Responsibility: Individual and Community Combined