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8 Ways to Know the Difference Between BDSM & Abuse

SDC Dr Jaime M Grant BDSM Sexual Therapy Health Relationships Abuse Power Exchange
SDC Dr Jaime M Grant BDSM Sexual Therapy Health Relationships Abuse Power Exchange
If you can’t be yourself, if it’s impossible to raise and resolve serious issues in the relationship, if you are losing your friendships, have lost your way, and are reading those ‘signs of abuse’ lists obsessively, this article is not just for you, it’s about you. And you deserve so much better. Honestly. You do.

I came of age during a moment when lesbian feminist culture was booming — music festivals, women’s bookstores, and lesbian feminist political projects were cropping up everywhere. And one of the most damaging and fallacious assumptions of that era was that women were inherently non-violent, that lesbian relationships offered a haven from abuse, that simply because our partnerships and projects were founded by women, we were creating revolutionary spaces.

My illusions were crushed when I ran a domestic violence program in the late ’80s in rural central Pennsylvania. As one of the few out lesbian shelter workers for a hundred miles, I was a magnet for lesbians suffering emotional, physical, and sexual violence in their relationships. And they were many. Surviving this era — and supporting these devastated women through a system that deemed them worthless — shattered any fantasy I had about the ‘superiority’ of any gender, and for that matter, any relationship configuration, any political project, any person.

Enter my life in the BDSM communities. In the ’90s, I discovered my inner masochist and a world of Doms and Daddies. For the past two decades, I have been fortunate to find skilled Doms who could attend to my deepest longings by creating transformative, cathartic sexual exchanges. Sometimes for years. So, much like my work in the ’80s as an out lesbian in a virulently homophobic culture, I spent much of the ’90s publicly decrying the stigma and targeting of BDSM communities. As a survivor of violence, I wrote and spoke as often as I could about the healing paradoxes embedded in BDSM practices.

So, I frame this having experienced tremendous love and healing in BDSM relationships and with great love and respect: BDSM communities are as violent as any of our communities. We are as violent as political lesbian feminists. As violent as vanilla, monogamous married heterosexuals. We are as violent as evangelical Christians (which some of us are). Despite all of the fantastic innovations that BDSM culture offers to any participant — values of honesty and openness, a lack of judgment about anyone’s desires, a history of building conversation and practice on negotiation, consent, and respect — there are those within BDSM communities who will take all of these magnificent values and practices and warp them for their own destructive ends.  

For some of us, our experience with openness and healthy negotiation will flag these deceptive posers early in the connecting process. For others, these charmers will pass all of our testing and limit-setting hurdles, and hook into some of our most defining vulnerabilities before we recognize the dangerous terrain we are in.

I once said that dealing with lesbians who were violent to other lesbians broke my heart like nothing else. But finding myself on abusive ground with a queer Dom to whom I had offered the very keys to the tenderest chambers of my spirit — this took me much longer to recover from. Perhaps it was because the abuse happened later in life, when I was fully formed, an anti-violence movement veteran, a respected professional. But I actually think that the deep crevices of our wounding that BDSM engages — these are sacred territories. Being abused by someone we’ve invited there is extraordinarily harmful.

Abuse can happen anywhere. Anyone can draw upon the language and rituals of beautiful, revolutionary projects and twist them for their basest, most degrading purposes. How can we protect ourselves? How can we tell? Unfortunately, there is no singular formula for violence prevention, but I will present my own insights, having emerged from the abyss. I offer these caveats for myself as much as anyone else.


1. How do they talk about past BDSM relationships?


Good signs: They are self-reflective and self-critical about their prior experiences and relationships. They remain curious, open, and thoughtful.

Bad signs: They’re of the belief that their exes are all ‘crazy.’ They don’t take accountability for anything they may have done and instead describe themself as victimized. They have no self-analysis or critique of themself in difficult situations.


2. Is it REALLY okay for you to set limits?


Good signs: They are excited when you use a safeword, never disappointed.  They recognize that you invoking a safeword is not about them, their abilities, or their desires. It’s about your needs and your wants, and it is greeted as a positive development.

Bad signs: The opposite. You are subtly or not so subtly pushed to perform acts that you don’t really like and are discouraged from declining or using a safeword as part of your BDSM ‘growth’ or training. Abusive bottoms may suggest you are not a good ‘top’ if you don’t like certain practices or don’t feel comfortable taking specific activities to a certain level. Abusive tops may do the same.


3. Are your limits REALLY respected?


Good signs: A great BDSM partner will listen to where your edges are and what you want to explore and find ways to carry you into that territory from whatever position they are in, whether top, bottom, or switch. They will have heard all the ways you’ve talked about why this edge is interesting and possibly scary or difficult. They will play with that edge and really, really take you in.

On the other side of the action, whether it has gone well or whether you’ve decided this is not an edge you want to play with ever again, you will feel respected, loved, and cared for.

Bad signs: A dangerous BDSM player is more likely to take you to this edge prematurely, to prove something about themself. And once there, they may play out a set of acts or rituals that have worked for them before, resulting in not being fully present to you or your experience. You will have a feeling that something’s off but perhaps be unable to put your finger on it because there’s been lots of negotiation. You end up thinking the problem is you.


4. Are they undermining your self-confidence?


My Great Dom did this by first being obsessively hot for my body and then finding everything ‘wrong’ with it and withdrawing sexually. He later found lots ‘wrong’ with how I socialized, shut me out of his social life, disrespected me in public more than once, and caused me to make myself small, smaller, smallest.


5. Do they privilege Doms and think of bottoms as less than or weak?


Good signs: They have reverence for your service. They perform appreciative and thoughtful actions in the wake of your spectacular submission.

Bad signs:  There is a lack of acknowledgment of your submissive gifts. The person moves on from elaborate displays or events you’ve arranged as their bottom without comment or appreciation. You find commentary about bottoms within a circle of tops that is degrading, and not in the consensual, lovely ways of degradation that have been carefully negotiated.


6. Do they withdraw or stonewall when things don’t go their way and say they just ‘need space’?


Are you basically being trained never to raise hard issues because you are rewarded with closeness when you don’t raise anything and abandoned to your confusion and pain when you do? Do you never get back around to the hard issues — is there not enough ‘space’ in the world?


7. Are there constant ‘loyalty’ tests?


Abusers count on your isolation. If you are ‘loyal,’ all of your disagreements are ‘private’ — you don’t talk to your friends about them. Loyalty means you will never call them on their abusiveness because they are a (choose any that apply) survivor, genderqueer person, target of police violence, target of fatphobia, living with a disability, feminist activist, ‘target’ because of their wealth, person living in poverty, white ‘ally’ for racial justice, communist, radical, religious person, (write your person’s thing here) __________.

Loyalty means that you will not question their parenting, their expenditures of family resources, or how they spend their time. Loyalty means you will not express fear of their driving. Loyalty means silence.


8. Do they lie?


To themselves? To others? Then you can count on it that they are lying to you.  

When caught in a lie, do they turn it into an indictment of you — your neediness, your ‘snooping’ into their business, your lack of boundaries, your low self-esteem? Do they stonewall and punish you for catching them in lies? As Adrienne Rich said so clearly in the ’70s, being lied to by someone we love makes us a little crazy.  Over time, it causes us to question and lose faith in ourselves.


You Deserve Better!


My good friend, Shannon Perez-Darby (see her essay “The Secret Joy of Accountability” in The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities) says that if she could offer up only one tip as a fifteen-year veteran of the movement to end domestic violence, it would be this: sustain your friendships.  

Any partner, in any community, who finds your friends problematic, not political enough, not BDSM savvy, no fun to hang with — is a danger to you. Period.  

Shannon notes that even casual friendships are better than none, and close friendships can be life-saving. The point is to stay connected.

I am incredibly fortunate to have amazing friends who all worried about me when I was with the Great Dom. They worried about how little they saw of me and that some of my key values seemed to be ebbing away. I appeared frazzled and in pain much of the time, despite reporting Great Happiness. My health suffered, my career suffered. My friends mirrored these truths to me patiently, prayed to their various gods and goddesses, and hung in there through a lot of circular and eventually desperate conversations.

Finally, I got out. I hope you will, too, if you need to. No matter that you have the Greatest Dom, the Sauciest Bottom, the Most Skilled Switch in your community. No matter that you are in a ‘power couple’ that everyone admires. If you can’t be yourself, if it’s impossible to raise and resolve serious issues in the relationship, if you are losing your friendships, have lost your way (when was the last time you really laughed?), and are reading those ‘signs of abuse’ lists obsessively, this article is not just for you, it’s about you. And you deserve so much better. Honestly. You do.


Dr. Jaime M. Grant

"Dr. Jaime M. Grant is a lesbian feminist social justice researcher and educator who has been active in LGBTQ, women’s and racial justice movements since the early 90s. Her sexual liberation workshop, Desire Mapping, has been produced on college campuses and at LGBTQ and human rights leadership conferences around the world. Her podcast based on the workshop, Just Sex: Mapping Your Desire, captures everyday sex stories told by Desire Mappers from Beijing to Capetown, from Dallas to Denver to DC. Grant’s academic research has appeared in: The Harvard LGBTQ Policy Journal; The Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History and in SIGNS, the Journal of Culture and Society; and the National Women’s Studies Association Journal. Her autobiographical writing has appeared in popular anthologies including Leslea Newman’s The Femme Mystique and Rachel Epstein’s collection on queer parenting, Who’s Your Daddy? In 2011, she was the principal investigator for the National Transgender Discrimination Study, Injustice at Every Turn. Currently, her articles on race, gender, and sexuality appear in The Body is Not an Apology, Medium, The LA Blade, Everyday Feminism, and The Huffington Post. To listen to and support Dr. Grant’s podcast, go to justsexpodcast.com."
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