Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Yes, My Lady: SM or Abuse?

In this column, we face insidious abuse that attempts to pass as SM. It's my duty to teach the difference between SM and abuse and to reach out to players who have a hard time knowing the difference. However, after all the education of SM to ignorant audiences, we must begin to address why some players, particularly submissives, remain ignorant or in denial, and to question just who's responsible.

A self-identified submissive recently came to me seeking advice whether she was being abused or just in a SM relationship. She spoke of a compelling man with whom she, at the age of seventeen, ran away after only knowing for three days.

Supposedly, this man began "training" her, without her consent or knowledge within the six months that they have lived together. Her living situation with this "Master" is that she pays more rent than him, must clean the apartment daily, may not speak to any friends except when he's present, and may only eat rice and pasta on some days. Her Master abuses her if her body shows any blemishes or if he decides that she is fat.

This "Master" threatens to leave her or forcibly sodomize her for any minor discrepancy. Apparently, he claims that he has a "sodomy fetish," while scarring her inside by inserting barely lubricated carrots, deodorant cans, and other implements, which have, at times, cut her.

This submissive wants to know: "Is this behavior truly BDSM as practiced by the general community, or is she 'simply' being tortured?"

Safe, Sane, and Consensual

The credo safe, sane, and consensual was developed in SM communities to encourage standards of play for our own protection and pleasure. Each individual must determine what is safe, sane, and consensual for her/himself. If someone else is deciding that for you - then it is not safe, sane, and certainly not consensual. If an individual psychologically or physically oppresses you, then you're incapable of making informed consent. However, if you examine your own feelings, your own motivations, and most importantly, your own desires, then you're capable of making a choice of whether an activity is safe, sane, and consensual for you.

Safe -

Safe is as basic as you have to protect yourself. You should never engage in intimate activity with someone you don't trust. Before you can achieve mutual trust, you must have communication - a free exchange of opinions and beliefs as to what's desired and what's not desired.

Sane -

Sane is knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. The things you read in books and in chatrooms are fantasy, and fantasy is often extreme. The issue here is consenting adults engaging in sex play, and even if the terms "slave" and "dungeon" are used, the context is understood.

Consensual -

The type and parameters of control are agreed upon in each scene, and the people involved agree to be in that particular situation. Even in dominance and submission, equality is maintained between the partners because the person being stimulated has the ultimate say in what happens to them; s/he has veto power.

Veto power is maintained through what is known as a safeword - a designated word that signals the scene must slow down or stop immediately. You have to remember that we're talking about are sexual games, with a beginning, middle and end, guided by rules and governed by everyone involved.

The Difference Between S/M and Abuse

*There is a difference between being submissive and being subordinate.

*SM is not abuse. Therapist Guy Baldwin provides some criteria to help differentiation SM from abuse, since this is a common area of confusion:

"With abuse, only the abuser has power. In s/m fetish behavior, both participants have power. Abuse is non-consensual and coercive; s/m behavior is consensual by definition. With abuse, recipients don't invite it; in s/m behavior, the recipient of the stimuli usually invites it. With abuse, neither party feels good afterward; with s/m, both parties feel good afterward, when the experience goes smoothly. With abuse, the receiver never looks forward to more. With s/m, all parties look forward to more. With abuse, the recipient generally can't stop the action; in s/m, the receiver can almost always stop the action or influence its pace and intensity. Abuse is surrounded in secrecy and isolation. Within the s/m world, the behaviors are usually open and above-board. With abuse both the abuser and abused are usually ashamed of the activity and hide the result. With s/m, people are often proud of the results and will show them off to others who are in the know about it...with abuse, the injuries, if any, are unwanted. In s/m behavior, injuries, if any, are incidental to pleasure - just as in non-s/m sexuality. With abuse, the recipient never quite knows when it is going to happen. With s/m fetish sexual behavior, the participants almost always know. With abuse, it is not usually erotic for either. With s/m, it is often erotic for both." (Baldwin, 1998)

Clearly, this submissive isn't practicing SM. She's being abused. This "Master" has made all the decisions about what would be done to her. There's no communication or consent. The submissive has no safeword to end the acts. The submissive is made to hide the abuse by not being allowed to speak to any friends without him present. And, finally, his threats of leaving and forcible sodomy, are extremely unhealthy, dangerous acts -- not sane or safe ones.

The fact that this submissive shared this information with me demonstrates that she does know deep inside that she's being abused -- yet, she fears accepting that knowledge, and perhaps, needs validation. To accept that she's being abused would mean that if she chooses to stay in the relationship, she would have to hold herself as partially responsible for continuing the abuse. It takes both an abuser and a victim to make abuse, just as it takes both a Top and a bottom to make SM. Practicing SM always is knowing that not too far away is the potential for abuse. It takes mature, responsible people to practice SM, to not cross that line and still call it SM.

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