Does the BDSM Community Enable Abuse?

In a post entitled Evidence that the BDSM community does not enable abuse, Clarisse Thorn posits that the existence of several different initiatives outlining the differences between BDSM and abuse indicates that we do not enable abuse.

While many such initiatives and lists demonstrating the difference between wiitwd and abuse certainly do exist within our “community” (and there are a number of others listed in the Links section on this blog), I have to conclude from my own experiences, observations, and the experiences and comments of many others that we may not actively condone abuse, but the very nature of BDSM relationships encourage it.

This is not a conclusion I have come easily to, but has become inescapable the more I talk to others about their experiences, the more I read on various social networks like Fetlife, and so on.

Unfortunately, the very nature of wiitwd, in this day and age, encourages and provides a haven for abusers.

No, it’s not officially sanctioned.  No, properly done, BDSM by itself is *not* abusive.

However, the very structure of a power exchange-based relationship and SM play sets up a situation in which abusers do indeed thrive, hiding much of what they do behind that cloak of D/s or SM, TPE slavery, etc.  It’s a perfect cover, for those who are inclined in an abusive direction.

Sadly, all too many subs in particular fall for this – until they get whacked over the head a couple of times and wake up to smell the coffee that what they are experiencing is not consensual BDSM but outright abuse.

In the old days, when people had to be vetted and vouched for before being allowed through the very private and underground doors, it is possible that less of this happened.  However, nowadays, with the ease of finding the scene through the Internet, the resources of the community to be able to police itself the way it used to do have been overwhelmed.  Just as protocol has gone out the window, so too has the network that would have closed ranks against someone who was shown to be abusive.

According to a number of people I’ve spoken with, estimates of as high as 80-90% of all dominants (at least the male, available ones) may be abusive nowadays, hiding it behind a D/s mask.  A number of people have said the same thing to me, from different parts of the country.  The number of online threads about predators and the like make it clear that everyone has encountered these people, that they are out there in force in our midst, whether the rest of us face up to the reality or not.

Whether that percentage estimate is accurate or somewhat inflated is also rather beside the point.  Even if it’s only half of that, that’s still too much.

No, we do not officially condone abuse, and we do certainly put out some information to help people distinguish between abuse and healthy BDSM, but the truth is that it’s still a major problem, and pretending it’s not there because we print up pretty brochures isn’t going to solve the problem.  If it weren’t a problem, we wouldn’t need those lists and brochures and “initiatives”.  They are evidence that we try to combat the problem, at least at some level, but until the actual practices catch up with the ideals, and the community standard becomes to simply not tolerate this kind of behavior, then it will remain with us.

As others said in the comments on Clarisse’s blog post, the community is now very quick to shun any victim who is outspoken about it and defends herself while still embracing the abuser.  Knowing that alone is a deterrent to many who might otherwise report the abuse – and I know, because I’m one of them.

It’s one of the reasons I didn’t even seek medical help myself when I really should have had it, because I knew the hospital would have had my then-dom arrested – and not only would that end the relationship I wasn’t ready to end yet, but it would have nuked me in the scene.  It’s the same reason I’m not more overtly outspoken now about what was done and who did it.

No one should have to put up with this kind of shit, and no one should have to be silent because the community will side with the abuser, especially if, as is typical, they are the sort who present a really nice guy kind of front to the public, and even at the start of new relationships, just as mine did with me, the same way he swept his new sub off of her feet and bamboozled her friends as well.

It is important that people both inside and outside the scene know that abuse is not condoned, and that it is not part of what we do, ideally, but to say that we do not enable it as a community would be a grave mistake.  Only by facing up to this reality will we ever have a chance to really fight the problem and dig it out at its roots.  By putting our collective heads in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it’s rare, serves only to perpetuate the problem.

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6 thoughts on “Does the BDSM Community Enable Abuse?

  1. Hmm. I certainly wouldn’t argue that abuse doesn’t exist in the community, obviously, but I don’t think that the cause of rooting out abuse in the community is well-served by overestimating the problem or making generalized accusations against the scene as a whole. For example, the “80-90% of dominants are abusers” figure strikes me as incredibly overblown (and a little bit scary and accusatory, given that I sometimes identify as a domme myself). I wouldn’t buy that even half that number of dominants are abusive. But you seem to find these figures compelling. I’m simply not going to buy that the rate is anywhere near that high until there’s some research demonstrating it, or at least until a lot of people whose opinion I respect agree that it’s remotely close to that level. And I also think that getting bogged down in debates about that is really unproductive.

    Unfortunately, the very nature of wiitwd, in this day and age, encourages and provides a haven for abusers.

    I don’t think it does — certainly not more so than the mainstream. Another thing that was (I think) mentioned in the comments on my post, but which you seem to have ignored, is the point that abuse is silenced and ignored everywhere, that it is a problem everywhere, and that the community is certainly not worse about this than the mainstream, and is (I think) in many ways better.

    As others said in the comments on Clarisse’s blog post, the community is now very quick to shun any victim who is outspoken about it and defends herself while still embracing the abuser. Knowing that alone is a deterrent to many who might otherwise report the abuse – and I know, because I’m one of them.

    This, for example, happens in many cases in mainstream America (and across the world really), not just in the community. If you’re trying to prove that the community is worse about abuse than the rest of America, I think you’re going to have a tough time — and again, I think that’s ultimately a misguided and unproductive approach.

    I think you’ll be a much more effective advocate if you approach this, not by claiming that the problem is worse in the community and thereby putting people on the defensive, but by simply describing how the problem operates in the community and supporting the initiatives that try to work against it. For example, my comment here would have been much more positive (and probably way more productive) if you’d used my post as a springboard to describe a new and better anti-abuse initiative, or to give concrete suggestions about how people within the community can create a non-abusive environment, rather than making claims (especially statistical claims) that are guaranteed to get a loyal community member to feel defensive.

    • I’m giving estimates that people whom I respect have mentioned. When it started to get repeated by more and more people, I had to sit up and take notice. Even if the incidence is only half of that, it’s still too much.

      The one thing I do know is that the incidence of abuse is much higher in both the vanilla world and the kink world than people actually admit to. For many, it’s a huge stigma to even admit that they were abused, so it goes unreported. And then there’s the whole issue of confidentiality, which is taken to what I consider to be an unworkable extreme, because that protects too many abusers even further.

      I don’t think that the community is necessarily worse than the rest of the country, but it certainly does seem like it, both from my own experience and that which others have mentioned to me. I do think it’s particularly problematic in our world, though, precisely because so much of what does exist is passed off as D/s when it’s really not that at all.

      You have good points about the way to approach the issue. I didn’t target it specifically in this direction initially, but several years ago, I started a newbies group on Tribe, called New to BDSM (Uncensored), targetted at helping newbies navigate the scene, but also to specifically dispel many of the kinds of myths that get them into trouble with these same abusers and predators. It was hugely successful. I’ve got a parallel group on Fetlife now, but haven’t put any energy int promoting it.

      I’m afraid I’m also particularly hot under the collar now since I’m just recently out of *the* most abusive relationship of my life, with someone who definitely thinks that being an asshole is what being a dom is.

      I would love to be able to say that our community does not enable abuse, but that’s just not what my observations over nearly a decade have been. It’s not officially approved of, of course, but it is rampant.

      • I would love to be able to say that our community does not enable abuse, but that’s just not what my observations over nearly a decade have been. It’s not officially approved of, of course, but it is rampant.

        “Not approved of” sounds a lot like “not enabled” to me.

        I wrote my initial post because there are people out there who do think that the community “officially” approves of abuse, that the “community does not care”. Which is dangerous nonsense. What disappointed me about your post here is that it seems to be more concerned about getting angry and throwing out dangerous, unproven arguments than with addressing the issues at hand. This is doubly disappointing because you seem to have a fair amount of BDSM knowledge, and you seem to have already started working in the right direction — like your group helping newbies navigate the scene.

        I’ve been thinking about your 90% figure, and it’s still ridiculous. I can think of maybe one or two tops that I know of in Chicago who I think might conceivably be abusive (and please note that I only know about them because I’ve heard rumors about them, which goes to show that if they are abusive, the community is effectively warning people about them — and if they aren’t abusive, they’re getting caught in the crossfire of this debate, which is scary). Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that people are not very good at estimating percentages off-the-cuff, and I would wager that this effect gets worse when people are (as you describe yourself) “particularly hot under the collar”. From what I’ve been learning about heuristics, biases, and human rationalism, I have become disinclined to trust all such dramatically stated figures especially when there’s, you know, nothing at all backing them up. (To look into rationalism I definitely recommend the site lesswrong.com, among others.)

        Anyway. I actually came back here because I was reading a paper on BDSM and abuse and I recalled a sentence that I’d written in my original comment that bothered me at the time and bothers me more now, so I just wanted to apologize for that sentence, namely the bit that ends with “that are guaranteed to get a loyal community member to feel defensive”. What I was trying to say is that such claims are very likely to get community members who are less “hot under the collar”, and who have less of a direct focus on and experience with abuse, to feel defensive. But I don’t like the phrase “loyal community member” because (a) using loyalty as a rhetorical weapon can quickly become creepy (see: the Patriot Act), and (b) I think that people who are loyal to a given community ought to be applauded for discussing and working against abuses in that community.

        So, I’m sorry I wrote that sentence in that manner. But I still greatly disagree with the way you wrote this post and chose to approach the issues in this instance.

  2. Pingback: Awareness of BDSM Related Abuse Is Growing « KinkyLittleGirl – On Abuse and BDSM

  3. Hey, I wanted to comment again and say that I’m sorry for how combative I was in those older comments. I still think that I was making some reasonable points, but I feel like I was trying to shut you down in a way that’s not really acceptable.

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