I was given an opportunity a few months ago to attend a week-long set of online seminars on domestic violence and abuse in the Leather/BDSM/Kinky/Fetish (I'm just going to use BDSM from now on, for short) community. What I heard there persuaded me to change somewhat the focus of this article. Most people attending were able to describe different types of abuse, and how they might manifest in a relationship. But a surprising number seemed to think that there was a very fine line between consensual power exchange and abuse, and many were unsure and/or unwilling to say even generally where that line was. I heard things like “something that would be seen as heavy abuse in a vanilla relationship could be just mild abuse in a BDSM one” and “but if someone has already agreed to submit to a dom, then it's not really abuse at all, is it?” Seriously? Mild abuse? Is that like “mostly dead” or “a little bit pregnant?”
Abuse can be present in any relationship, and the BDSM community is not magically immune to it. Men can be abused by their girlfriends and wives, tops can be abused by their bottoms, and vanilla folks can abuse their partners, too. Originally, that was going to be my focus, a slightly-tongue-in-cheek look at whether it might be better after all to pull a “Mysteriously Vanishing Mad” (named after me and my tendency to fall off the edge of the cyber-Earth from time to time.)
Instead, I want to take a bit of a look at some specific types of abuse and how consensual power exchange can resemble it, and then a look at how they're really not the same thing at all! I will call this section “Good Top / Bad Top” and will do my very best not to go too Dr. Seuss on you while doing it.
Abuse can take many forms, including physically striking, threats, namecalling, isolating and controlling. Oh, but wait a minute, I've done all of those things, and had them done to me, and wow- that was just a damn good kinky time! And lemme tell you something else, those damn good kinky times that I was talking about? Not abuse. So does that mean that as long as the people involved have already consented to power exchange in their relationship, nothing that they do to each other can actually be considered abuse? Don't be silly, if that were the case, I wouldn't need my “Bad Top” section, now would I?
Good Top/ Bad TopLet's take a look at the different types of abuse,(Physical, Verbal/Emotional, Sexual, Neglect/Isolation, Financial and Spiritual) and then I'll try and give an example of how a healthy BDSM relationship can sometimes look like this on the outside but still be abuse free, and what a truly abusive similar situation might look like.
Physical Abuse:Good Top, or GT, as I like to call him, is aware of his bottom's reactions and tolerances to pain, or is working slowly to discover them. He might push toward those limits but if so, is mindful of his bottom's reactions to that pushing, and is willing to stop if those start to become negative. He trusts his bottom to let him know, via safeword or some other means of communication, if she needs to stop play. He provides after care in a mutually decided upon manner, from water and cuddles and talk time, to a more formal chat later on, whichever style suits both people involved.
Bad Top, forevermore known as BT, might hurt to harm or to punish. He might hurt because he thrives off seeing his bottom in pain, or it might be just that he doesn't give any care or credence to his bottom's limits or feelings. BT has been known to dismiss his bottom as being a whiny baby or a just plain bad slave if she tells him that she is not enjoying or doesn't consent to his style of pain “play.” It's not uncommon for him to convince her that if she decided to complain to anyone in the BDSM community, she would never be able to get another top because she'd be labelled a “bad submissive.”
Verbal/Emotional Abuse:GT is keyed in to how a bit of embarrassment can turn into huge amounts of hawtness for both her and her lucky bottom. (No kidding! Do you remember that night with the doggie collar and “bad dog” written on his side in grease pencil, dayum sexy! But I digress). She also knows that name-calling and humiliation play are tricky business, and she treats them with care. Because she and her bottom have open lines of communication, she is careful to try and pick scenarios that cause both embarrassment and arousal to her bottom, not ones that belittle his sense of self. The goal of the play (besides getting them both all sweaty and horny) is to build, not tear down, the bottom's self-esteem. Now, GT isn't psychic, and occasionally she might go too far, or get it wrong, but she trusts her bottom enough to ask him often for feedback when in a neutral and non-judgemental position, and to continue to keep his best interests in mind.
BT wants her bottom to feel emotionally dependent on her. To do this, she attacks the things he feels are most important to him, belittling and dismissing him. He is most definitely not turned on by this, but she might be too keyed in to her own arousal to notice. She doesn't care to get his feedback on the scene, or if she does, she doesn't think that it should affect the way she “plays.” Her bottom's sense of self and self-esteem continue to free-fall throughout the relationship, and she might even like that, since it gives her even more control over him.
Sexual AbuseThis one's a tough one. A lot of TPE (Total Power Exchange) relationships include some type of idea that the top can initiate sex with the bottom even if the bottom “isn't in the mood.” A lot of times, both partners find this thought very sexy (very VERY sexy!), but does that mean that sexual assault can't happen in a TPE relationship? This is another case where we can't just look at the act itself, but we have to look at the reasons behind it. In this case, what is the reason for the bottom to submit to the sexual advances if she's not in the mood? GT's bottom freely submits, and chooses to, knowing that she has the power to end the play at any time but chooses not to. BT can't get that type of submission because it's never freely given. He might impose himself on her through physical force, or simply through fear that if she doesn't comply something horrible (and nonconsensual) will happen to her, ranging from him leaving her forever, to killing her or someone she cares about. Kind of lacks the finesse of power exchange, doesn't it? More like power I'll take what you won't give me by force thankyouverymuch.
Neglect/IsolationThere's a huge difference between telling your bottom that he can't go to the movies with his buddies tonight because he still hadn't finished his list of chores you gave him, and telling him he can't answer his sister's panicked phone message that she thinks she's having a miscarriage. Top and bottom can negotiate how much control the top has in the bottom's life, but GT's bottom trusts that his top will keep his best interests and priorities in mind.
GT wants a relationship with a happy, healthy, sane and well-adjusted bottom, and knows how important a support structure of family and friends are to maintain that. She would never demand that he abandon them completely, (though she might curb his tendency to be at Cousin Bertie's beck and call, who makes her bottom so mad he pukes for hours after talking to him.)
BT knows that the more isolated and alone her bottom is, the more he will be completely dependent on her. She will be continually trying to find ways to keep family and friends away from him.
Financial AbuseBT has complete control over the finances in the relationship. He makes her hand over all her paycheques and not a cent gets spent without his approval. If his bottom can't even get bus fare without his approval, how can she ever leave him, right?
GT might have a (consented-to) agreement that says the exact same thing: the Top controls all the finances in the relationship. In reality, though, the money remains accessible by both members of the relationship, and it is up to the bottom to choose to only do with it what her top decides. It then becomes up to GT to make sure that the money gets used in a responsible manner, that bills get paid and the bottom's well-being is being looked after, and any remaining funds (originating from the bottom) are put into a savings for the bottom or some other agreed-upon fund, not the top's pocket to spend on a shiny new leather jacket.
Spiritual AbuseBT might attack or belittle her bottom's spiritual beliefs, or insist that he follow her own church or even a cult. This is way not cool.
GT doesn't even go near that shit. A person's spirituality is part of their core system of beliefs and is not open to negotiation. Nope, never. (Did I remember to say that is way not cool?)
I hope this helps clear a little of the mystery away between what is abuse and what is just us kinky folk being kinky. To me, there really isn't any type of fine line, the difference is there, and it's huge. Like, pink elephant in the room huge. You might have noticed a common theme present in all the “Good Top” examples that was markedly lacking in the Bad Top's. It's all about three things: respect, trust, and communication, and if those babies aren't there, then your BDSM relationship is in the toilet anyway. Sorry to have had to be the one to break it to ya.
If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship, (and keep in mind that you are the only one who can tell this, no one else can tell you for you) then there are people who are there for you and who can help. In Canada, shelternet.ca is a great place to start, and if you're in the states, the National Leather Association's Domestic Violence Program has a fantastic amount of resources available to help you. Remember, abuse is against the law.