BDSM or abuse

What is the most important question in the world of BDSM?

I think the answer is probably, “Is it BDSM, or abuse?”.

Why? Because the whole notion of psychologically safe and appropriate BDSM practise rides on it.

And what does it come down to?

Consent.

Consent is what allows power to be exchanged or manipulated in a scene, relationship, or lifestyle – and for that to be OK! Consent is what frees us to explore ourselves and each other in ways which would be downright harmful and abusive in the everyday world. 

In her latest article, Miss Pixie explores this important topic in a little more detail..

 

Is it BDSM or abuse?

 

Consent is the key marker of difference between BDSM and abuse. However, it is too simplistic to say “this person didn’t say no, therefore everything is fine”. Our culture has a long and complicated history with the word “no”, and most of us have a complicated personal relationship as well.

If you think back to the very first time you said no, it was likely to someone much bigger and stronger than you (your parents or another adult). When you were little, you were dependent on your parents for everything – food, shelter, clothing, warmth. So if you didn’t like what they were asking you to do, you couldn’t just get up and leave.

Even within a non-abusive household, a child’s “no” is rarely respected at all times. I am not saying this to question the ethics of parenting – if we let children do whatever they wanted, we wouldn’t have a lot of children left! Rather, I want you to imagine what it feels like to be surrounded by people who are bigger and stronger than you, trying to make you do something you absolutely do not want to do.

What this means is that many of us, from a young age, have had at least 18 years of learning that saying the word no can result in anything from being ignored to being physically punished. Where does that leave us when we start talking about consent and abuse?

It means that when we look at whether a person is saying yes or no, to truly establish consent we need to look for two things – the person’s active consent and a relationship context that continually encourages the ability to say no.

Abuse is often largely dependent on context – it is an ongoing pattern of coercion that means that one party in the relationship fears negative consequences if they say no. If we look at it in this light, one litmus test for the difference between BDSM and abuse is not just whether the person is saying yes right now, but also what the consequences have been in the past, and what possible negative consequences could arise in the future if they were to say no.

For a great example of this, we need look no further than our old favourite 50 Shades of Grey. The movie contains endless examples of abuse disguised as BDSM. Christian, a rich older man and Ana, a female university student, have a relationship where he asks her to be his submissive. Ana has no prior knowledge of BDSM and no real prior knowledge of relationships or sexuality. Christian is extremely economically privileged, experientially advantaged and holds a further position of privilege because of his gender.

Over the course of the movie he makes it clear to Ana that he is more than happy to use his financial privilege to track her movements and control her behaviour. He replaces her computer and her car without her consent, making her financially dependent on him. He makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement, removing her ability to “reality check” with her friends or family or discuss her experiences with any outside parties who might alert her to the presence of abuse.

There is no way in which Ana saying yes, even in the most active way, can possibly be considered consent within this context. But if we were to look at the bare facts of a single situation (Ana and Christian having sex one time in her room where she says yes and does not resist) it would very much seem like consent.

Thanks for reading!

Miss Pixie.

We hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of ‘BDSM or Abuse?’. In Part 2, we revisit these examples and explore what appropriate consent would have looked like in each. 

Want more information in the meantime? Check out the excellent wheel of violence and control: www.abuseandrelationships.org

While you’re here, you should totally join our mailing list as we are currently giving away one prize per month to our subscribers! We only send out one email per month, we don’t share your details, and of course you can opt out at any time:

 

What is the most important question in the world of BDSM?

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About Stuniverse

Stuniverse is a very lucky person. He has been exploring kink and polyamoury for about 8 years, and both have dramatically changed his life for the better. A long time vegetarian, he made the happy leap to veganism at the beginning of 2014 and won't look back. Stuniverse is currently the driving force behind Ethical Kink, and brings a bunch of technical and business skills to the team. His interests and values include: feminism, ethics, personal development, meditation, veganism, activism, games, being a massive geek and writing about himself in the third person.
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