The Problem of Abuse in the BDSM Subculture

I wrote the following in response to a private message from a friend thanking me for my post on the Midori’s Lounge Fetlife group entitled “Does the BDSM Subculture Encourage Abuse?”:

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Abuse in the BDSM community is a big enough issue that Midori actually attended the class I mentioned in my last post to try to understand it better, and is working on ways to get it out on the table more.  She told me that parts of some of her existing workshops, particularly the Archetypes one, are designed to skirt along the subject without using so many words, in a way that elicits participants to bring it up.

The problem is that so much of what can be abusive can also be really hot, in the right circumstances, as she pointed out during the workshop, or, as she mentioned, it makes for great wank fodder.  Nothing wrong with wank fodder, by any means – but the problem is that far too many people take the erotica not as stories to get off to, but as “how to” manuals for how to go about all of this.

Midori actually agreed with me about my theory that this world has a tendency to attract a greater-than-normal percentage of abusers.  We also discussed the body distortion issues.  Around here and in other places I’ve been, we seem to have a particularly high percentage of people who are truly grossly and massively unhealthily overweight.  She said that in place like New York and LA, though, that reverses, and the tendency is more towards anorexia.  Either way, it is gross distortion of body perception and feelings about one’s body, on a percentage of the community greater than in the vanilla world.

While not always tied together, there does also happen to be a very high correlation between such extreme body issues and having a history of being in abusive relationships, having abusive childhoods, etc.

What I have found is that it takes a while to get past the early learning stages of this D/s culture to really get behind a lot of the surface stories, even of people one knows fairly well.  Over time, the reality that has surfaced in many, many relationships I’ve observed is that a) the absolutism of the D/s or M/s nature of the relationships that actually last is nowhere near what most of these people would have the rest of the world believe, thus the healthy relationships function on much more of a similar level to healthy, functional vanilla relationships, with a kink topping of various proportions, even if that is the underpinning, or b) there’s a lot more unhappiness underneath the surface than meets the eye in public.  It is in these latter situations where one runs into the dichotomy between abuse and D/s that can get so confusing.

My situation, and what little I’ve actually told you about it, is actually not atypical.  You’ll hear more isolated stories, but the more you talk to a wider range of folks about their experiences in D/s relationships and in dating in this realm, the more you’ll hear a range of truly astonishing stories of incredible dysfunction of all sorts, and an appalling range of ways in which that is turned into something to be honored as “D/s”.

What you don’t often hear or see is people speaking very openly about such experiences for all kinds of reasons which basically boil down to the tradition of confidentiality.  It gets hidden, swept under the rug.  People don’t talk or complain because they are afraid that they will be the ones run out of town for doing so, rather than the abuser suffering any negative fallout – and sadly, that happens often enough.  You saw some of this yourself in the fallout from your situation, and I know of other situations both past and present in which the abusers got all the kudos and the victims were run out of the community.

It’s also not spoken of much because to actually label what happens as “abuse” can have a very negative effect on people’s own perceptions of their own selves, not to mention concerns about what others will think.  We don’t want to see that this… thing… we are into could be anything other than all kinds of wonderful.  We, as a subculture, don’t want to see or know when the emperor has no clothes, or acknowledge that in fact he sometimes simply doesn’t.

Abusers don’t want to see what they do as abusive, of course, because that would mean they are bad people.  Having finally come to accept their kink urges as OK and not abusive, too well, learning to recognize the abusive elements and separate them out can be too threatening still for some.

And of course, for the victims, there’s a whole additional level of shame that comes from realizing that you’ve been duped, that you fell for something you later realized you should have run from, for staying, for not recognizing what was happening, the shame of failure, etc.

There are actually other community leaders other than Midori who see these issues and are trying in their own ways to counter them as well.  Another prominent person once described BDSM to me as “ritualized aggression”, very much in the context of discussions about whether or not people drawn to this are mentally healthy or not, and whether or not the whole way of doing relationships is healthy.

Dominants who use kink as a way to take out their aggression on others, and are motivated fundamentally by anger, are nowhere near as rare as we were led to believe when I first came out into kink.  When practiced well, and ethically, BDSM can in fact be an excellent way to express those things safely, but the sad reality is that far to many do *not* do it in a healthy manner – and then it becomes a shield to hide abuse behind.

What we’re seeing now with all the stories on Fetlife is twofold.

First, a lot of this is finally coming out from behind closed doors.  It used to be that people never spoke this openly about things, and we were all able to go around in our own little worlds thinking we were so superior in our way of having relationships.  Because of the much more stringent emphasis on confidentiality that used to prevail, virtually none of these things would see the light of day, and peer pressure created a very strong disincentive to speak of these issues as what they often are in public.  That still exists, and people are still being driven out of our playspaces and groups to this day when they speak up – or worse, someone better known and more popular trashes them.  Things are getting more open now, for better or worse – and there are both benefits and problems with that.

Second, though, we are also seeing people who have not “come up through the ranks”, so to speak, and who have come to the BDSM world without the background of the so-called “old guard” way things used to be done, or indeed much guidance of any sort about what differentiates D/s from vanilla.  They are redefining what BDSM actually is in many ways, through the lens of vanilla relationship guidelines.

I fought this for years, but have come to realize that it is what it is, and am starting to also recognize that the tenets of what makes for a healthy vanilla relationship do still very much apply, and I think this is becoming more evident to everyone.  If everyone can do D/s any way they want, then the real differences come down to examining the nature of consent in greater detail and how it is or is not applied in a given relationship.  And that leads straight in the door of differentiating between kink and abuse.

To a certain extent, you will see the question coming up more among the single rather than those already in committed relationships.  First of all, those who are still wading through the ranks of who is still available see a lot that would curl your toenails – which isn’t so different from what happens in Vanillaland, but the potential for harm is greater on average, and the “You have to take it because you’re the sub and it’s all about the dom” ethos is still so strong.  If one’s own circle is generally populated by healthy, happy people in solid relationships, the extent of what’s unhealthy beyond those borders won’t be as readily evident, either.

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