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How to Recognize Abuse in BDSM Relationships

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


Young Asian woman shackled naked in a box.
Movie poster in the Kink Out exposition in Los Angeles, September 2023. Cropped. Photo by the author.

One of the key issues in the BDSM community has always been how to distinguish a healthy BDSM relationship from one based on abuse and exploitation.

To achieve that, an agreement was reached back in the 80s based on the criteria “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 has the consent of all participants (consensual). Later come other formulations, like “risk-aware consensual kink” (RACK), but in my opinion they lack the simplicity and directness of SSC.

I will not talk here 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.

Abuse in vanilla and BDSM relationships

In most cases, abuse in BDSM relationships is not very different from abuse in vanilla relationships, and there is no evidence that it is more frequent.

However, it is unfortunately true that BDSM lends itself to facilitate and hide abuse.

First, there are some myths in BDSM culture that make abuse more difficult to recognize. Here are a few examples. That dominance and submission are valuable by themselves. That a “true submissive” must obey the dominant unquestionably. That limits are meant to be overcome. That a BDSM relationship must progress to 24/7 or consensual non-consent.

Second, the lack of acceptance of BDSM by the society makes it more difficult for victims to denounce abuse, because that would entail for them to come out as practitioners of these “perversions” and therefore risking being victimized again by society.

Third, some people are intent on labeling healthy BDSM relationships as abusive for ideological reasons, ranging from social conservatism to radical feminism.

Because of all 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.

A list of red flags

I have created a list of issues that might lead to abuse situations. My goal is to alert potential victims and to call the attention of the BDSM community on this subject,

This list may be incomplete and should be considered an ongoing project. The issues are not meant to refer to specific behaviors but broad attitudes. The fact that a person has one or two of them may not be a cause for alarm, but several should turn on the red light.

I have tried to use gender-neutral language. 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 D/s relationship) and Tops and bottom (implying a sadomasochist or SM relationship).

Jealousy and possessiveness

Jealousy is often at the core of abuse. A lot of intimate partner violence, even murder, is motivated by it.

Dominance-submission forms a perfect cover for possessive relationships because it normalizes control by one partner and total surrender by the other. Hence, the difference between a healthy and an abusive D/s relationship can be hard to tell for anybody outside it.

The key could be in how the dominant reacts to the friendships and social environment of the submissive. Continuous suspicion and using dominance as an excuse for exaggerated control over most aspects of life should be 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.

Not respecting limits

In BDSM, limits are one of the instruments to ensure consent. They are simply the things that a person refuses to do, which are established in a previous negotiation.

Some people differentiate between hard and soft limits. The former are to be respected always, whereas the latter are something that the submissive may be willing to overcome in the future or in some special circumstances.

An abusive top may consider the limits as a personal challenge and set to work to undermine them or just break them directly. 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.

Objecting to a safeword

Another instrument to ensure consent is the safeword: a word that is used by the bottom to stop the kinky play when something goes wrong. It complements limits by providing a way to object to something unexpected.

Some BDSMers do not like to use a safeword because they have other ways of communicating when there is a problem. Some D/s relationships may evolve over time to an extreme form in which the submissive is able to surrender to the Dominant with such trust that a safeword is no longer necessary.

Abusers take advantage of this controversy around safewords to discourage the bottom from using them.

Another strategy is to agree to use a safeword while making it clear that the submissive will be punished for using it. The punishment may consist of stopping the scene and refusing to go back to it, which 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.

Adopting extreme forms of BDSM

Normally, BDSM is practiced in “scenes”: periods of play that last a few hours, after which the participant abandons their roles and return to an egalitarian interaction.

Some couples have such a deep desire for kink that, after some time decide to do it full time. For them, being dominant and submissive is not a role that they take for a limited time but an essential part of their interaction.

Another extreme form of D/s is “consensual not-consent”, in which the submissive agrees to endure anything that the Dominant decides to do, as an act of complete surrender.

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 types 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 reached after a couple has gone through a long evolution in their practice. They are never taken 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 dominants, who have to continuously interact with the submissives so that they get something in exchange for their surrender. Abusers, however, will neglect the submissive once they have obtained the control and exclusivity that they seek.

Secrets

Abusers may demand that you keep complete secrecy of what happens between you and them, 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 they do 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.

Exaggerations and lies

Abusers are not usually honest people. They are surrounded by a thick net of exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies. That serves to hide who they really are and to inflate their egos.

They will make you believe that they are attractive and desired by many people. You are lucky that they have chosen you. You will lose big time if they leave you.

A low self-esteem is often at the root of the need for control that drives manipulative behavior.

Encouraging lying and other bad behavior

Eventually, abusers will try to make you an accomplice to their 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.

Blaming and shaming

The worst abuser is the one who most adeptly uses psychological manipulation to control you.

Guilt and shame are powerful emotions that can be used for psychological control.

A common tactic is for the abusers to cast themselves as the victim, especially if you are trying to leave them. They may tell you how much you have hurt their feelings and how cruel you are for doing so. If you apologize, as most people would, this would only 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 theirs.

Of course, 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 dominant.

Submission becomes an obligation, something that defines your value as a person, instead of being a choice that you make for your own reasons.

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 bottoms who I know well, because this enhances their experience. Still, I believe that tops should refrain from consuming drugs and alcohol before or during a scene, because they need a clear mind to ensure safety and consent.

A submissive that is inebriated or high on drugs may be unable to give consent and to adequately process pain sensations and powerful emotions. This is particularly true for opioids and stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamines.

Needless to say, inducing submissives to take drugs would be an easy way for an abuser to gain complete control over them by decreasing their critical thinking and weakening their will.

Attacks to other people

"If you want to know how your boyfriend will treat you, see how he treats his mother," says the popular wisdom.

You may find that your new dominant is prone to road rage, starting flame wars on the internet and other violent behavior. That should be a clue of how they are 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 dominant 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.

Social isolation

This is a technique widely used by religious cults. They convince you that your family and friends are not good for you, that they are to blame for all the problems you have before.

Jealous dominants may use the same method by, first, ordering you to break up with your friends and, second, by surrounding you with their friends. This way, integrating in 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. They mutually confirm their lies and can even organize elaborate schemes of gaslighting. They cultivate collective beliefs that justify abusive behavior.

Taking control of your life

The worst abusers will try to take control of your money, work, housing, etc.

It could be a great temptation to go live with your dominant. To let them support you financially or use his connections to get you a nice job. Especially if the dominant 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. This is the fantasy promoted by 50 Shades of Grey and countless other romantic novels.

However, this can be the biggest mistake of all. Not only this would increase your social isolation, but once your dominant is in control of your finances and living arrangements, it may become impossible to leave.

This would require a lot of external help from friends and family. But, if they have managed to destroy your relationship with them, what can you possibly do?

Is it malice or ignorance?

After #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.

However, there are also people who are ill-informed, unconsciously possessive, jealous and mindless. And this applies to both dominants and submissives.

Just like dominants may become over-controlling and exploitative, submissives may rush into a type of relationship that they are 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.

What to do when these issues are detected?

If the relationship is starting and the signs are clear, it is best to cut it as soon as possible.

However, breaking is not always the best option. There are relationships that are worth being rescued.

The important thing is to realize that extreme forms of BDSM are incredibly powerful and intoxicating. They 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.

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 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 like 24/7 and consensual non-consent.

Read a lot about it, integrate yourself in the BDSM community, make lots of friends, get a mentor who is not your dominant, and always stay alert for those who want to use BDSM to exploit and control you.

Copyright 2024 Hermes Solenzol.

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