How can you tell BDSM from abuse?

People ask me this all the time.

The idea behind that question is that BDSM “looks like” abuse. BDSM can leave bruises or other marks of pain. When two people are having a BDSM encounter, then — if an outsider were to walk in in the middle — it might look like a scene of abuse. Hence, one of the biggest fears that people outside the BDSM community have about BDSM is that — although it appears to be consensual — BDSM enables abuse, or is used as a mask for abuse.

Are some BDSM relationships abusive? Unfortunately, some are. But abuse happens, sometimes, in all relationships. There are lots of non-BDSM relationships, whose participants have never even heard of BDSM, that are abusive. And the fact is that the majority of BDSM relationships — just like the majority of vanilla relationships — are completely consensual encounters between adults who have specifically sought out, opened themselves up to, their own BDSM desires.

Just as importantly, there are swaths of the BDSM community that actively work against abuse within the community.

I want to caution, before I talk about this, that the “BDSM community” is a big place. Plus, there are many BDSM communities out there — not just one. There are BDSM communities in cities around the world, and within those city-communities, there are multiple smaller communities. Here in Chicago, for instance, there are communities based around multiple BDSM clubs, multiple BDSM events, and more. And all the BDSM communities that exist are filled with many different voices, and all those voices will agree and disagree with me to varying extents.

But I can observe some commonalities from various BDSM communities I’ve participated in. And one of those commonalities is that many (if not most) kinksters are very concerned about potential abuse. Arguably, the greater BDSM community contains a far higher proportion of people who worry about abuse, than the rest of the world does.

You can tell partly because of the steps BDSM people are frequently trained to take within our relationships, to ensure that we communicate well and do not misunderstand each other. Safewords are the most common example of these kinds of anti-abusive communication tactics. I think the more convincing argument, however, comes from these examples of specific anti-abuse initiatives from the community:

Anti-Abuse Initiative #1: The Lesbian Sex Mafia, an old and respected BDSM group in New York City, has a short page on its website devoted to the difference between BDSM and abuse. The page has a list of quick, comparative maxims designed to explain the difference simply, and ends by providing the number for an abuse hotline.

Anti-Abuse Initiative #2: At one point, while sorting files up at the Leather Archives and Museum, I found a copy of an anti-abuse pamphlet created by The Network/La Red that has been distributed at various dungeons, BDSM workshops, and other BDSM community spaces in the Northeast.

Here’s one panel from the pamphlet — I think it speaks for itself:

(For the rest of the pamphlet, check out the images at my Flickr account — here’s the front, and here’s the back.)

Anti-Abuse Initiative #3: In September in San Francisco, I attended a workshop put on by Angela of EduKink, an excellent BDSM educator. The workshop was titled “Emotional Aspects of BDSM Play”, and there was a section that talked about how to look out for abuse in a BDSM relationship. Angela described:

Four General Guidelines for Recognizing the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

1) Consent. BDSM is consenting; abuse is not.
a) Assuming consent was given — was it informed consent? Did everyone know what they were consenting to?
b) Was consent coerced or seduced from the partner? Did everyone feel like they could say no if they wanted? Was anyone worried about suffering negative consequences if they said no?

2) Intent. A BDSM partner intends to have a mutually enjoyable encounter; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did everyone leave the scene feeling somewhat satisfied?

3) Damage. A BDSM partner tries to minimize the actual damage inflicted by their actions; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did the two partners learn what they were doing before they did it? Did they learn how to perform their activities safely?
b) Were the partners aware of the potential risks of their activities?

4) Secrecy. Abuse often happens in secret. This is the hardest one on this checklist, because — due to the fact that BDSM is a very marginalized, misunderstood sexuality — BDSM often happens in secret, too. But this is one of the benefits of having an entire subculture that deals with BDSM: we look out for each other.
a) Were the two partners involved in the local BDSM scene? Did they get advice from knowledgeable, understanding BDSM people during rough patches in their relationship?

* * *

The moral of the story here is … for a community that’s so frequently accused of hiding or accepting abuse, doesn’t it seem like the BDSM scene puts in an awful lot of work against abuse? Again, I can’t speak for all BDSM communities, nor can I speak for everyone who has had BDSM experiences; and I know that — as with all types of relationships — there will occasionally be abusive BDSM relationships. But the three anti-abuse initiatives I’ve listed above are hardly unique, and many of us within the BDSM community work to emphasize those ideas as much as possible.

We’re not monsters. We’re not trying to do things that our partners don’t want to do. I have never met anyone within the BDSM scene who was not exquisitely aware of how careful we must be to gain consent from our partners. I’m not saying that people who don’t care about consent don’t exist — I’m not saying that abusers don’t exist — even within our community. But the community as a whole dislikes abuse at least as much as any other community. The only difference between us and non-BDSM people is that we feel violence and dominance as a language of love; violence and dominance is not, for us, intrinsically abusive — rather, something to be considered in context and with full understanding of the involved parties’ BDSM needs.