How BDSM Is–and Isn’t–Like Domestic Abuse

A friend of mine recently suffered through a breakup with her boyfriend. He was your typical schmuck–he belittled her, demeaned her in front of his friends, make her feel cheap and unloved. She kicked him to the curb.

Not that unusual, except theirs had been a BDSM relationship. The boyfriend had been her Dom. And that’s where the lines get blurred (any references to Robin Thicke are coincidental). What had been consensual? What had been abuse?

The BequestIn The Bequest, Mac–the Lawyer to the Doms–has to explain BDSM to Cal Raynes, the book’s hero. Cal’s vanilla, raised by a single mother to be respectful and considerate of the women he dates. As far as Cal’s concerned, when kinky sex goes far enough to be called BDSM, it’s just a license for the Dom to abuse the sub.

Mac sees it differently. He explains it to Cal this way:

“Just because millions of wives are the victims of domestic abuse, we don’t outlaw marriage—we outlaw the abusive behavior. Are there dominants who abuse their submissives? Yes. And as a community, we ensure that those crimes come to the attention of the authorities, the subs get help, and the community gets educated.”

“How can someone who’s submissive say that it was abuse? Isn’t it consensual?” Cal asked.

Mac smiled. “You’d be surprised how assertive a submissive can be when he or she knows a dominant has overstepped the terms of the consent.” He took a sip of wine. “Your point is still valid. Some submissives get wrapped up in a relationship, giving away more and more of their power. That’s pretty analogous to domestic abuse. We watch for that, and intercede when needed. It helps that we’re a community.”

Remember, though–this is a work of fiction. In real life, people like my friend find themselves in bad relationships because their dominants are schmucks, assholes, criminals, or just plain bent. Mac’s assurance to Cal is perhaps too optimistic, just as the rest of the story is a bit too vibrant and glittering to be realistic.

holding hands 2At the same time, I agree with Mac. We don’t outlaw marriage–an institution that works well in a lot of cases–just because some marriages are crappy, scary, abusive, or otherwise criminal. We outlaw the abuse. That’s because we, as a society, see the advantages to marriage outweighing the risk of domestic abuse.

For the bad cases–for women like my friend–we all need to step in and protect them from the schmucky boyfriends. Even when they claim it was consensual. We need to remind people that “submissive” doesn’t mean “doormat.” Even in the most extreme power exchange, abuse is a crime. Yes, I know life isn’t that black-and-white. I know my friend struggled to see what she had consented to and what she hadn’t.

That’s just like a lot of domestic abuse–the victims often think they agreed to the abuse.

They didn’t. But sadly, the responsibility for getting out of the relationship still rests with them. They need to be strong even as they believed they could trust their partner.

And that’s like BDSM.


Comments

How BDSM Is–and Isn’t–Like Domestic Abuse — 4 Comments

  1. The BDSM community *does* self-police, however many people who practice BDSM are not involved with the community. Rather than debate whether BDSM is abusive or not, it may be more constructive to suggest finding and getting involved with the local community.

    In addition, there are excellent resources for both BDSM and polyamory practitioners at the website of the National Coallition for Sexual Freedom: https://www.ncsfreedom.org/

    • Kelly — You make an excellent point, and I appreciate your taking the time to share that website.

      In fiction, the community is critical. In real life, some of us are extroverts and some are introverts. I imagine that’s true in the BDSM world as well. For those introverts, it’s doubly important to have a friend or safety buddy who’s aware of what’s going on. There’s safety in numbers, even if that number is only two.

  2. To start, it should be noted that BDSM is a huge field of interest and not everyone involved in a BDSM relationship has a submissive relationship to a dominate.

    MANY people who have BDSM relationships are ONLY doing bdsm during a specific period of time called a ‘scene’, while in the bedroom, or at a BDSM community function. During the scene, the submissive has a ‘safeword’ and whenever s/he wants the bdsm to stop she uses that word. This way ‘consensual’ and ‘non-consensual’ are very clear.

    Outside of these specific play times, the couple are often no more Dom/sub than anyone else. Which means all the normal rules apply and any bad behavior is no more a question of consent or not consent than any vanilla persons’ relationship.

    There ARE people (such as me and my wife) who are in what are called ’24/7′ D/s relationships. As might be inferred from the name, these people have an agreed upon D/s dynamic 24/7.

    Typically, in these relationships their is a period of time and discussion before they enter into it where the rules about what the dom can do and can’t do, as well as what is expected from the sub are discussed and agreed upon. Also, I always recommend a submissive make sure that there is an agreed upon ‘safeword’ for more general use so that they have a way to say ‘stop – if you keep that up its no longer consensual’ without being disrespectful.

    This is not only for the submissive, but also for the dominate. As a dominate, its not my interest to honestly cause any harm to my submissives. The whole point is that they ENJOY and WANT what is being done to them, even if it looks like its not fun to a vanilla person. If my submissive doesn’t want me to do what I’m doing, then I need them to let me know. Having a safeword in place and knowing that my submissive will use it lets ME feel safe in the knowledge that what I’m doing IS consensual.

    If a submissive is getting involved with a dominate and they don’t want a mechanism for their submissive to be able to inform them when its becoming non-consensual or doesn’t care if its non-consensual then thats a big red flag and the submissive should NOT pursue a D/s relationship with that person.

    If the submissive continues to pursue a D/s relationship with someone who clearly doesn’t care about the consensual nature of their actions or not and/or doesn’t care about the interests and well being of their submissive, then the submissive needs to be personally responsible for that choice. Just like in a vanilla relationship … if you meet a guy, and he treats you like crap on the first date, and you keep going back then you can’t cry fowl if he keeps treating you like crap.

    Of course, BDSM … just like the vanilla world … has many bad people who know how to say all the right things to real someone in and then take advantage of them. They make safewords, they make rules to help the submissive feel comfortable and feel like they have an out, etc. And then they let the submissive get invested and/or slowly break down the submissive’s will in non-obvious ways until finally the dominate is no longer following the rules and is abusing their submissive and no one saw it coming. This, of course, is where things get sticky because part of the mechanism of these kinds of relationships is (again, just like the vanilla world) is the illusion projected by the abusive partner that the abuse victim somehow deserved or consented to this treatment. Unfortunately, in these cases, it can be even harder to identify abuse than it is in vanilla relationships … even by other members of the BDSM community who don’t necessarily KNOW what the protocols and dynamic of said BDSM relationship are. (for instance, SOME submissives WANT to be treated like a doormat, so just because a dominate treats his submissive like a doormat doesn’t mean its abuse.)

    So unfortunately, abuse happens in BDSM relationships, and it can be hard to identify. However, in a healthy D/s relationship, the dominate typically sees their job as being responsible for their sub’s well being and see the submissive as always having the ability to say ‘stop’. Submission is a gift and the dominate should be continually demonstrating to their submissive that they are worthy of that submission, earning that gift every day. In this way, a healthy D/s relationship has even less in common with an abusive relationship than the typical vanilla relationship.

    • Righan — Thanks so much for your perspective. As you can tell, I am not in the life, so my opinions, while valid, are uninformed by personal experience. Human nature, though, is human nature in BDSM, vanilla, etc.

      The only way I can write about BDSM is by avoiding any sweeping statements. I have zero authority to make a blanket assessment of anything. My characters, though, are entitled to their opinions. I imagine what their lives have been like, in and out of the bedroom. I imagine what the community setting is in which they can participate in a scene. (You make an excellent point about that, clearly.) I imagine how they feel, emotionally and physically, about their partners–the temporary ones and the long-term ones.

      Imagination about something I’ve not experienced is not without its pitfalls. I greatly value having someone like you, someone who’s actually walked the walk as it were, come to my site and comment on my imaginings. You’re very generous, which is not surprising given who you are within BDSM.

      I am a lawyer, though, and I need to disagree with one thing you write, “[...] if you meet a guy, and he treats you like crap on the first date, and you keep going back…” If a woman, submissive or not, is being abused, she can (and should) object no matter how long she’s been putting up with the abuse. A lot of people think as you do, namely that if the abuse has been going on for a while without objection, then the victim has more or less consented. That may be true–he or she may have passively accepted the abuse without wanting it–but it’s still abuse, and it really does need to stop. It’s far too easy for the abuser (male or female) to justify or excuse the behavior by saying, “Well, there’s the door…” Not leaving is not the same as giving up one’s rights to be spared abuse.

      Many thanks–

      Christina

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