How to Recognize Abuse in BDSM Relationships

Twelve things that a define the boundary between BDSM and physical and emotional abuse

One of the key issues in BDSM has always been how to distinguish a healthy BDSM relationship from one based on abuse and exploitation. To do that, an agreement was reached back in the 80s based on the three criteria of “safe, sane and consensual” (SSC). This means that there should be no serious physical injuries (safe), there should be no emotional manipulation (sane), and that everything that happens should have the consent of the participants (consensual). Later come other formulations, like “risk-aware consensual kink” (RACK), but in my opinion they lack the simplicity and directness of SSC.

There are also techniques that ensure that a BDSM scene is SSC. Negotiation consists of a discussion of the things that will happen in a BDSM scene, done as equals and with a spirit of honesty, respect and open communication. During the negotiation some limits are established: things that the bottom partner does not want to do or to endure. Often, limits are divided between hard limits, which are never to be crossed, and soft limits, things the bottom may accept in some circumstances or in future play. For example, sexual intercourse can be a hard or a soft limit. Importantly, SSC means that consent can be withdrawn at any time during a BDSM scene. The bottom may simply say “no” or “stop” but, since these may be uttered in the screams in a scene, a safeword is used instead. This is a word agreed during negotiation which is used by the bottom to stop the kinky play in an unambiguous way. A lot of people and BDSM organizations use “red” as a safeword, sometimes using “yellow” to ask for the intensity of the scene to be decreased without stopping the action altogether, like in a traffic light. The safeword complements the limits by providing a way to stop something unexpected or that causes unbearable feelings. Some BDSMers do not like to use a safeword because they have other ways of communicating when there is a problem. Other objections to the use of a safeword are that the bottom may be in a state of mind in which it is impossible to say it, or that it can be an excuse for the Top not to check on the bottom. Evidently, a safeword is meant to be used as a safety device in addition to all other precautions that can be taken to ensure that the play is SSC.

BDSM can be practiced in some extreme forms and still be SSC. In full-time or 24/7 BDSM there are no scenes, the Dominant and the submissive are in-role all the time in their relationship. This means that there are rules that the submissive has to follow all the time or else be punished, and that the Dominant can always demand obedience and servitude. For some people in this type of relationship, Dominant and submissive are not roles that they play but it is who they are. Another extreme form of BDSM is “consensual non-consent”, which varies from pretending that the Top is doing something that the bottom does not accept, to accepting being ordered, hit or used sexually by the Top at his or her whim. I mention these extreme forms of BDSM to point out that they are not abusive, as long as they have been previously negotiated and mutually accepted without any form of coercion. In particular, everybody should be able to leave the relationship or to re-negotiate its terms.

Despite all this, it is unfortunately true that BDSM lends itself to facilitate and hide abuse. First, there are some myths in BDSM culture that undermine SSC and promote exploitation. Here are a few examples of these myths: that dominance and submission are valuable by themselves; that a “true submissive” must obey the Dominant unquestionably; that limits are meant to be overcome, or that a BDSM relationship must progress to 24/7 or consensual non-consent. Second, the lack of acceptance of BDSM makes it difficult for victims to denounce abuse, because that would entail to come out as practicing BDSM and therefore risking being victimized again by society. Conversely, some people are intent to label healthy BDSM relationships as abusive for ideological reasons, ranging from social conservatism to some puritanical forms of feminism. Because of this, I think it is crucial to discuss the different ways in which BDSM can be used as a pretext for abuse, emotional control and exploitation. I am not going to talk about rape or physical sexual abuse, which are hideous but easily identifiable, but about more devious forms of abuse based on psychological manipulation and the subversion of common BDSM practices. Of course, emotional abuse can happen in both BDSM and vanilla relationships, and it is not more common in kink.

I have tried to use gender-neutral language as much as possible; otherwise, I alternate between genders. Although is statistically more frequent that the abuser is male and the victim is female, abuse can occur in all kinds of gender combinations. Also, I alternate between referring to Dominant and submissives (which implies a Dominance/submission or DS relationship) and Tops and bottom (implying a sadomasochist or SM relationship). There are peculiarities to different gender combinations (for example, femdom, gay BDSM, lesbian BDSM, etc.), and to DS and SM relationships, but it would be too complicated to discuss them here.

Here is a list of ways in which abuse may occur in BDSM relationships.

1. Jealousy and possessiveness are often at the core of abuse. A lot of violence in couples, even murder, is motivated by jealousy. Dominance-submission forms a perfect cover for possessive relationships because it normalizes control by one partner and surrender by the other. Hence, the difference between a healthy and an abusive relationship can be hard to tell for people outside of it. One clue could be found in how the dominant reacts to the social environment of the submissive. Continuous suspicion and using dominance as an excuse for exaggerated control over most aspects of life should be other warning signs. For example, demanding access to your cell phone is a sign of unwarranted control and intrusion in your privacy. In the specific context of BDSM, an abuser will seek to bypass SSC and subvert BDSM practices to achieve emotional control. This is the common characteristic of the next points.

2. Not respecting limits. An abusive Top may consider limits as a personal challenge and set to work to undermine them. This is often rationalized as the need for the submissive to “grow” in order to experience BDSM more deeply. In reality, the abuser sees your limits as an impediment to the absolute control he wants to exercise over you. He will consider overcoming your limits as a personal success.

3. Objecting to a safeword. Abusers often take advantage of the controversy around safewords (mentioned above) to discourage the bottom from using them. Another common strategy is to agree to use a safeword but making it clear that the submissive will be punished for using it. The punishment may consist in stopping the scene and refusing to go back to it, a measure that is unnecessary unless the bottom asks for it. The Top may also become unkind, passive-aggressive or outright angry. In extreme cases, she may berate or reject the submissive.

4. Adopting extreme forms of BDSM. To maximize their control, abusers may try to quickly escalate relationships to 24/7 or consensual non-consent. This is rationalized as the myth that these type of relationships are the truest form of BDSM, or that they are somehow more desirable because they would make the submissive happier or more prestigious in the BDSM community. The reality is quite different: 24/7 and consensual non-consent are relatively uncommon and are reached after a couple has gone through a long evolution in their practice. They are never assumed casually. Another difference is that 24/7 is most often practiced by monogamous couples that are deeply committed to each other, whereas an abuser may try to impose 24/7 on multiple partners simultaneously, creating what is called a “stable” of submissives. Of course, polyamory is very common in BDSM, what is uncommon is 24/7 relationships with multiple partners. An honest 24/7 relationship is very demanding for the Dominant, who has to continuously interact with the submissive so that she gets something in exchange for her surrender. An abuser, however, will neglect the submissive once he has obtained the control and exclusivity that he desires.

5. Secrets. An abuser may demand that you keep complete secrecy of what happens between you and him, perhaps with the excuse of protecting your privacy or under the fear that your BDSM relationship would not be understood by your family and friends. That deprives you of seeking advice and contrasting what he does with what other people do. Of course, it is reasonable to ask that some intimate things remain private, but excessive secrecy should be a warning sign.

6. Exaggerations and lies. Abusers are not usually honest people, they surround themselves by a thick net of exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies. That serves to hide who they really are and to inflate their ego. He will make you believe that he is an attractive man, that many women are after him, that you are very lucky in that he has chosen you, and that you will lose big time if he leaves you. Narcissism and low self-esteem are often at the root of the need for control that drives manipulative behavior.

7. Encouraging lying and other bad behavior. Eventually, the abuser will try to make you an accomplice of his lies. It is very easy to progress from asking you to keep a secret to making you lie to protect that secret. The abuser may also enlist your cooperation in abusing other people. This would make you feel special, that you have progressed to his inner circle, unlike all those submissive losers that crave his attention. If this creates feelings of guilt and shame in you, they will only serve to encourage you to accept the abuser’s rationalizations. This way, your own bad behavior will cause you to become more entrapped in the abuser’s web of lies and self-aggrandizement.

8. Blaming and shaming. The worst abuser is the one who most adeptly uses psychological manipulation methods to control you. Guilt and shame are very powerful emotions that can be used for emotional control. A common tactic is for the abuser to cast himself as the victim, especially if you are trying to leave him. She may tell you how much you have hurt her feelings and how cruel you are for doing so. If you apologize, as most people would do, this would only serve to start a dynamic in which you continually have to atone for your fault. You find yourself constantly on the defensive. Your behavior is always questioned, but never his. Of course, all of this may happen in vanilla relationships, but in BDSM there is the added element that you are supposed to be submissive, to give yourself completely to the Dom. Submission becomes an obligation, something that defines your value as a person, instead of being a choice that you make for your own reasons.

9. Drug abuse. It is a widely held belief in the BDSM community that drug use should be avoided in a BDSM scene. Personally, I make an exception for the use of cannabis by my bottom when I have been playing with her for many years, because this enhances her experience. Still, I believe that the Top should refrain from consuming drugs and alcohol before or during a scene, because he needs a clear mind to ensure safety and consent. A submissive that is inebriated or high on drugs may be unable to give consent and process pain sensations and strong emotions. This is particularly true for opioids and stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Needless to say, inducing a submissive to take drugs would be an easy way for an abuser to gain complete control over her by decreasing her critical ability and weakening her will.

10. Attacks to other people. “If you want to know how your boyfriend will treat you, see how he treats his mother,” says popular wisdom. You may find that your new Dom is prone to road rage, starting flame wars on the internet and other violent behavior. That should be a clue of how he is going to behave with you once the relationship settles down. The infliction of pain and the giving of orders in BDSM should be done without anger. The Dom should be in a state of self-control all the time. Otherwise, a scene can slip into physical abuse before you realize what is happening.

11. Social isolation is a technique widely used by religious sects. They convince you that your family and friends are bad for you, that they are to blame for all the problems you had before. A jealous dominant may use the same method by ordering you to break up with your friends and then surround you with his own friends, people who are loyal enough to him to support his lies and gaslighting. Integrating into the social environment of the abuser deprives you of the referent of people who can advise you, putting you in a situation of psychological vulnerability. Sophisticated abusers interact with people who think and act like them, cultivating collective beliefs that justify the abuse.

12. Taking control of your life: money, work, housing, etc. It could be a great temptation to go live with your Dom, let him support you financially or use his connections to get you a nice job. Especially if the Dom is wealthy your financial situation is not so great. You may have fantasized about finding your own Christian Grey, a powerful alpha male who will completely envelop you with his amazing power, providing safety and security forever. After all, isn’t this the common theme of countless romantic novels? However, this can be the biggest mistake of all. Not only this would increase your social isolation, but once your Dom is in control of your finances and living arrangements it may become practically impossible to break up with him. This would require a lot of external help from friends and family but, if he also has managed to destroy your relationship with them, what can you possibly do?

In this era of #MeToo, it has become fashionable to divide people between abusers and victims. Abusers are evil people who are irredeemable and should be avoided and ostracized, while victims are blameless souls who should always be believed and protected. Unfortunately, life is much more complicated. Yes, there are predators out there who are unscrupulous, selfish and full of bad intentions. But far more common are people who are ill-informed, unconsciously possessive, jealous and mindless. And this applies to both dominants and submissives. Just like a Dom may become over-controlling and exploitative, a submissive may rush into a type of relationship that she is not prepared for, be it 24/7, consensual non-consent, a live-in situation or financial dependency. Which is to say, unhealthy BDSM relationships may happen more out of ignorance than malice. It is important to realize that extreme forms of BDSM are incredibly powerful and intoxicating, and can easily lead to psychological dependence by undermining your self-esteem.

It is hard to talk about these things without feeding into the narratives of those who want to condemn BDSM. Also, let me emphasize that 24/7 and consensual non-consent are legitimate forms of BDSM, that they can be practiced safely and enrich the lives of the people who adopt them. They are just things not to rush into, especially when you are young or inexperienced. My advice is to practice BDSM by scenes, returning to your independent, autonomous self in between. Only after doing that for many years you should venture into extreme BDSM. Read a lot about it, integrate yourself in the BDSM community, make lots of friends, get a mentor who is not your Dom, and always stay alert for those who want to use BDSM to exploit and control you.

UCLA professor. Neuroscientist doing research on pain. Writes about science, philosophy, politics and kinky sex. https://sexsciencespirit.blogspot.com/

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