BDSM vs Abuse

By Tanya Koens

Since the phenomenal success of the 50 Shades of Grey books and movies there has been a lot of media discussion about BDSM.  In many of the articles BDSM has been linked to abuse - either between the people that may be participating in BDSM activities or in the participant’s family background.  BDSM has also been traditionally pathologised through the legal system in child custody cases, in the DSM Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual and by some feminists (Pillai-Friedman, Pollitt and Castaldo, 2015)

I find it distressing that people are so ready to make a parallel to abuse without having any evidence to back it up.  A recent study released showed that people who practiced BDSM had no greater chance of being affected by abuse than the general populace of people who do not practice BDSM (D. Cardaso, 2015).

So lets discuss the difference between BDSM and abuse.

What is BDSM? 

BDSM is the use of bodily sensations to elicit pleasure.  It is a form of consensual power exchange where BOTH participants are empowered. The empowerment comes by way of negotiation and consent.  Before anything happens each participant must negotiate the scene or the exchange and come to an agreement.  To be precise, the "submissive" person is agreeing to fully submit to the dominant person.  Under clearly defined and negotiated circumstances they give their power over to the dominant and agree to act / behave in ways that have been negotiated.  If they do not follow the dominant's directions, they risk being punished or disciplined.

It can create excitement to see your partner.  Seeing your everyday partner playing a role, behaving in certain ways, dressing up can be very stimulating and engaging - its something different that the two people can share. Many people report that it brings a renewed sexual excitement to their relationship and it deepens their connection. 

Trust - BDSM relationships create, rely on and build, trust. Trust that during the negotiations you will be able to say what will work and what will not work for you.  Trust in that one person agrees to totally submit to the other and one person agrees to take responsibility for the person who is submitting. The planned, consensual interaction that produces pleasure and satisfaction for both partners helps create and build trust through a deeper connection.  As these relationships and interactions play out, trust builds as each person allows themselves to let go and immerse themselves fully in the roles they have created.  

Agreement - BSDM is designed to help fulfill the desires of both partners within a safe environment. Both partners agree to what is on and off limits.

Communication - It requires open communication and supports an environment which both parties can talk freely about thoughts and emotions.  Both partners talk about what they would like out of a scene, they discuss things that are off limits and safety measures need to be put in place to ensure both people are safe.  Safety measures include negotiating hard limits, using safe words (the ability to stop play at any time by using an previously agreed upon word), contingency planning and aftercare.

Scene/Play – this is the time when both partners participate in the activities that were previously discussed and agreed upon.

Aftercare – after an intense scene, both partners can be physically, mentally and emotionally drained.  Cuddling and relaxing within each others arms allows both partners a chance to reconnect as they come down from the scene.  

Debrief – when both partners are ready, they can sit down and discuss what they enjoyed about the scene, what did not work and how they can both improve upon future scenes together. Some people like to arrange a debrief with an understanding friend.  This is likely to be more communication than people in vanilla sex relationships!

What is Abuse?

Abuse is a form of physical or verbal violence committed against another person.  It is a way to cause physical, mental and/or emotional damage or harm to another person.  It takes away another person’s power.  It is the cruel and violent treatment of another person.

Lack of negotiation – nobody knows when or how it will happen and there is no negotiation or agreement to what happens.  There is no communication and there is no support.  It is perpetrated by one person onto another.

It is is characterized by guilt – where the abuser becomes worried about consequences and about being caught.

Excuses – the abuser will shift blame, make excuses and rationalize and avoid taking any responsibility for their actions.

Honeymoon – the abuser becomes the perfect partner, bringing gifts and doing all the things the victim has always wanted them to.  This is done to ensure that the victim stays in the relationship.

Fear and Mistrust – abuse causes most people to fear and be afraid of their partner.  It destroys any and all forms of trust.

What are the differences between BDSM and Abuse?

Consent - All of the BDSM activities are discussed and agreed upon.  Parameters for safety and care are built into the agreements.  In an abusive relationship there is no negotiation and zero consent given.

Many BDSM practitioners have been worried to see dangerous practices promoted in the 50 Shades of Grey books/film (the use of cable ties, which are dangerous, and buying rope at the hardware shop not bondage specific rope from sex shops as they have extra give and weight tolerances, for example.)  They are concerned that this will encourage people to contemplate activities that are not deemed safe, that have not been planned and thought through and that may not have been consented to.  

With many people today wanting to "spice up" their sex lives, it is becoming increasingly important not to pathologise sexual behaviours and predilections that may not fit with societal norms.  In working with clients that engage with BDSM practices I find the majority to be ardent followers of the rules "Safe, Sane and Consensual". Elders in the community take time to mentor newer members and provide advice and support.  

Abusive behaviour follows none of these guidelines. It is important that people make the conscious distinction between the differences in motivation behind BDSM and abuse, and cease to compare them as activities of similar motivation when they are not...

References:

S Phillai-Friedman, J.L. Pollitt and A Castaldo. (2015) Becoming kink-aware – a necessity for sexuality professionals. Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Vol. 30, No. 2, 196-210, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2014.975681.

D Cardaso. (2015) Journal of Sexual Medicine 03/2015; 12(4). DOI:10.1111/jsm.12835 ·