Is BDsM abuse?

The question about whether BDsM is synonymous with abuse pops up from time to time. It’s usually raised by someone who has never explored power exchange, bondage or pain play, and probably doesn’t have a good understanding of what these types of activities involve. From the outside, I can see why someone who isn’t familiar with the BDsM community could look at kinky play and assume that it’s abusive. BDsM has a lot of things in common with behaviour that we know to be abusive. However, when it boils down to it, BDsM has a very important factor that sets it apart from abuse- consent.

Image by Alex Iby

I vividly remember the first time I met someone who was in a 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationship. This person was a collared and owned submissive who was absolutely devoted to her Dominant. The Dominant made every decision for her: what she wore, how she spent her day, what meals she ate, where she slept and her exercise regime. She spent every waking minute in service to him, and would do exactly as he said without hesitation. The first time I learned about this relationship, I was instantly concerned. To me, an outsider, I worried that this person had been stripped of their freedoms, that they had no agency of their own and that they were blindly following someone who could easily mistreat them. But the more I got to know them, the more I realised that this wasn’t the case at all.

Rather than being stripped of her freedom, this submissive had willingly handed those freedoms over to her dominant. This wasn’t a snap decision, but rather one that was made after months of consideration on both their parts. They had been a couple for years before they added D/s to their relationship, and they had built up trust and mutual respect. Before they made any changes to their relationship, they were carefully negotiated and tested. This submissive wasn’t forced into giving up certain aspects of her personal power, she wanted to hand them over to someone she trusted, to someone she knew would take care of her. And in turn, he understood the significance of her decision and would never do anything that would put her in harms way.

That knowledge, trust and consent is what sets BDsM apart from an abusive relationship. This couple had willingly chosen to go into this type of relationship, and had done so with care. Nobody was forced into doing anything against their will, each party had their individual needs met by the arrangement. The submissive wasn’t bullied by her partner. He didn’t restrict her ability to see her friends or family, he didn’t belittle her or chip away at her confidence. He didn’t take her power from her, she gave it to him willingly. And that is the difference between BDsM and abuse. In an abusive relationship, one partner strips the other of their dignity and power. In a D/s relationship, both parties work together to craft a relationship that meets their needs.

It can be difficult to look at some types of BDsM play and not worry about the welfare of the people partaking. So many of the things that are done in the name of kinky play; physical violence, causing bruises or marks, humiliation, punishment; can also be the tools of someone who is inflicting abuse on a partner. From the outside, these activities can be alarming, and one could wonder how the receptive partner could possibly enjoy or ask for this type of treatment. And if you don’t personally enjoy this type of play, then it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who does. But the important thing that sets BDsM apart is the fact that both parties are enjoying themselves. Even if there are tears, even if there are bruises or blood, everyone involved has agreed to what’s happening, and has the power to stop the scene at any time. BDsM is done for the enjoyment and excitement of everyone who is partaking. Abuse only serves the abuser.

Of course, there can be times when the lines between BDsM and abuse can become blurred. For example, if either party feels coerced into doing something that they don’t want to do. Or if clear signals that one party is reaching their limits are ignored. Or if one partner manipulates and gaslights the other. BDsM can be a smokescreen for abuse, and there are definitely people who get into the scene because they see it as a way to gain access to people that can be manipulated or controlled. This type of behaviour is not in spirit of what BDsM is about, and usually if someone in the community is found to be acting in such a way they will be excluded. I’ve definitely been warned away from particular players because they have a reputation for manipulating their partners. While BDsM isn’t inherently abusive, there are certainly instances of abuse within the community.

At it’s core, BDsM is about informed consent, clear boundaries and respect for one another. It’s a setting in which people can feel encouraged to explore intense sensations or emotions in a controlled way. It’s kind of like strapping into a rollercoaster, or eating a spicy meal, or watching a horror film. Most of the time, you’re not in danger, and you can stop the action any time you want to. You can access the rush that comes with fear, pain or sensory deprivation while being monitored and cared for. While it might have some of the same basic concepts as abuse- physical violence, control, limitations and punishment, it’s very very different.

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