Kinky Sex: The Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

1
What Is BDSM?

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BDSM, an acronym for “bondage, discipline/dominance, submission, and sadomasochism” is often misunderstood by the general public. One of the most common misconceptions is that BDSM is dangerous, reckless, and abusive. However, when practiced properly, BDSM is very different than intimate partner abuse.

For decades, BDSM practitioners have maintained that kink is safe, satisfying, and can positively affect both a participant’s sexual desires and their well-being. Over the last few years, science has confirmed these claims. Recent studies have uncovered the many health benefits of BDSM. Researchers have found that those who engage in BDSM activities have better mental health, more satisfaction in their relationships, and less stress than their vanilla-sex counterparts.

Those unfamiliar with BDSM were surprised by a new study from Northern Illinois University, which revealed that those involved in BDSM are more consent-minded when it comes to sex acts and less likely to conform to behaviors associated with rape culture. Practitioners of BDSM displayed “significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim-blaming.” In other words, they respect the boundaries of their partner and are less likely to cross the boundaries of personal safety.

Even though studies show that BDSM clearly has positive benefits, many who look at these extreme behaviors from the outside perceive this type of sexual behavior as abusive, chaotic, and out of control. Abusive behavior should never be part of the BDSM dynamic, but how can we tell the difference?   

2
Consent Differentiates BDSM From Abuse

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Consent is the cornerstone of all BDSM activity, and it’s one of the major factors that differentiates it from abuse. Put simply, BDSM is consensual. Abuse is not.

Before each BDSM “scene," participants express and negotiate their likes, desires, and limits. This means that all involved in the agreed-upon sex act set specific goals determining what they want to get out of the session—both emotionally and physically. They also discuss what are referred to as “hard and soft limits.” Hard limits are the things you would never engage in, while soft limits are things you might experiment with if and when the time feels right. Playing with the boundaries of soft limits requires deeper negotiation prior to beginning a session. 

Pre-scene negotiation can take many forms. Sometimes participants write out a contract detailing what is specifically allowed and forbidden. Others use a simple checklist of activities. They then discuss each item individually, indicating which is a desire or a limit. Others simply have an in-depth conversation about their boundaries.

3
BDSM Is Safe, Sane, and Consensual

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Those involved in BDSM often use the phrase “safe, sane, and consensual” to describe their type of sex play. Any play that is defined as “kink” but doesn’t incorporate the agreed-upon safe, sane and consensual elements may very well be abusive.

Safe means participants have taken precautions to minimize risks. It also means that participants are knowledgeable about the techniques and tools being used, which can eliminate both unwanted fear and dangerous behavior.

Sane indicates that those involved are in a state that allows them to separate fantasy from reality. This also means sobriety; senses and behaviors are not being impaired by the influence of intoxicants. Lastly, it implies refraining from imposing unrealistic expectations on your partner.

Consent means all parties have discussed and agree on boundaries. Equally as important, consent must be on-going. In other words, if an individual wishes to change their mind about any activity during play they can renegotiate at any time.

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Communication Is Key

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Clear communication is imperative to practicing healthy BDSM. Safewords are standard fare in this type of play and a major element that differentiates BDSM from abuse. A safeword is a word or phrase that signals that one of the players either wishes to take a break or stop completely. An example of a safeword might be “red,” “banana”—or any other thing you wouldn't normally say during sex or in the context of a scene. Additionally, if a Submissive is gagged or a Dominant’s hearing is impaired, safe signals can be used instead. This could be a gesture or something the Submissive holds in their hand and drops signaling their wish to pause the scene.

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Important Differences Between Abuse and BDSM

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Kinky play can involve things like punishment, humiliation, and even tears. This may seem like abuse to an outsider, making it understandably difficult to tell the difference between the two. However, when compared side by side with BDSM, we can see the stark differences.

  • Abusive episodes are out of control situations. In healthy BDSM, a Dominant never acts spontaneously out of anger. Scenes are pre-planned with care, thought, and with the best interest of the Submissive in mind.
  • Abusive situations usually end with negative emotions. A BDSM scene is designed to leave the participants feeling good and satisfied when it’s over. It’s a Dominant’s responsibility to give after-care when the session is over to make sure the Submissive feels happy, safe, and secure. In contrast, both the target and the abuser feel sad, angry, or ashamed following an abusive episode.

Abusive situations are often accompanied by substance abuse or emotional impairment. In healthy BDSM, players try to minimize anything that may affect their judgement during play—including the use of drugs or alcohol.

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Abuse in BDSM

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Although recent studies have found those involved in BDSM are less likely to tolerate certain types of abuse, it can still happen. Abusive red flags in a BDSM relationship or scene are very similar to those found in other types of relationships. Some warning behaviors include:

  • ignoring sexual boundaries
  • non-consensual/non-negotiated verbal or physical abuse
  • controlling behavior, including excessive jealousy
  • unpredictable extreme mood swings
  • substance abuse
  • use of ultimatums and fear to control the victim
  • isolating the victim from family and friends
  • a history of abusive behavior with close contacts

If you recognize these or other signs of abuse in your own BDSM encounters, get outside help. If abuse occurs at a public BDSM event, seek out a Designated or Dungeon Monitor (DM). For private play with a new partner, always establish a safe call with a friend. Also, it isn’t unusual for those actively involved in the BDSM community to ask for references from previous partners.

If abuse is occurring in your ongoing BDSM relationship, you can solicit the services of a kink-friendly therapist, abuse support hotline, or service. If you find yourself in immediate danger, contact police.

Sunny Megatron is the host and executive producer of Sex with Sunny Megatron on Showtime. She is also a lifestyle BDSM practitioner, internationally recognized sexuality and kink educator, and sex/relationship writer.

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