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21. Is SM degrading or abusive? Were most SM people abused?

Headaches Begone! A Systemic Approach To Healing Your Headaches Book

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This article is from the Bondage FAQ, by numerous contributors.

21. Is SM degrading or abusive? Were most SM people abused?

Often people approach SM with nothing but negative stereotypes in their
mind. The will-less slave dominated by the overbearing thoughtless
master. The pervert who enjoys being hit because he thinks he deserves
no better. These images, negatively charged with connotations of abuse,
do not reflect the reality of consensual SM.

First, were SM people abused as children? This is a common stereotype.
Straw polls of people on s.s.b-b seem to indicate no particular pattern
of abuse, and there have been very few, if any, scientific studies of
the question. Some people see an increased correlation, but there is
little actual evidence.

This stereotype is usually just _assumed_ to be true, as an expression
of SM-negativity--"Oh, anyone who likes that must have been really
damaged as a kid." Similar claims were once widely made about
homosexuals and homosexuality. (As one data point, I personally wasn't
abused as a child, for which I'm grateful. And I'm very into various
aspects of SM, for which I'm also grateful.) In general, in fact, no
one seems to have any idea of why some people enjoy SM behaviors or
fantasies, and others don't. Rather like no one really knows what
determines sexual orientation, or preferred body type, or much of
anything else where human sexuality is concerned. The notion of a
"normal" sexuality is widely overrated... the range of variations is
incredible.

Once you actually look at people who are involved in SM, and at what
they do, you realize that what is actually happening is a powerful
expression of love, which expands into sensual realms outside the
ordinary. True SM is consensual, strengthening, and sustaining; true
degradation is _not_. Therein lies the difference, and it is truly an
all-important difference.

Occasional debates on s.s.b-b revolve around the (relatively few) people
who practice full-time dominant/submissive relationships. Such
relationships require lots of self-inquiry and self-examination to see
that both partners are benefiting and growing. Sometimes the claim is
made that such BDSM relationships are just ways for the dominant to
break down their submissive's will, and to accept abuse because the
submissive (according to the dominant, and perhaps also in the
submissive's own opinion) deserves no better. (This is essentially what
a wife-battering husband does: he takes control of his wife's
self-perception, and convinces her that the abuse is the necessary price
to be paid for her to remain with him; it is no more than her due. And
moreover, she is not to complain.)

This kind of relationship is _not_ a consensual BDSM relationship; the
dominant in a consensual relationship listens to and respects the limits
of their bottom, and does not seek to break down the bottom's
personality, but rather to build it up through the kind of relationship
that both enjoy and desire. Such relationships almost always contain an
"escape clause," such that if the bottom is truly feeling deprived or
abused, the bottom can ask to set the roles aside and talk with the top
as equals. (In other words, a relationship safeword.) Such concern for
clear communication when things don't go well (as well as when they do)
is the hallmark of a healthy BDSM relationship. And every text I have
read about long-term BDSM relationships stresses the importance of
emotional safety issues. (As I mentioned previously, people who have
issues around their sense of self should be aware that SM is potentially
risky in that area. Of course, _any_ relationship is potentially risky
for such people....)

Doing SM as part of a mutual, consensual relationship can be enormously
affirming. SM can be a way to give yourself to your lover more deeply
than you ever thought you could, and can give outlet to fantasies you
never imagined could come true. This kind of active, dynamic
self-expression can give a tremendous boost to the self-esteem and the
psychological well-being of both partners. Getting what you want out of
your sex life may not be a cure-all, but it can sure help a lot. I
recommend the book _Ties that Bind_, listed at the end of the FAQ, to
people exploring these issues.

(Some call all this doubletalk, denying that _anyone_ could ever
_really_ benefit from submitting to a lover whom they trust. All I can
say to that is, my personal experience is far otherwise, as is that of
many of my friends, and many professional therapists acknowledge that
it's quite possible for a submissive in a consensual relationship to be
very psychologically healthy. Decide for yourselves whether we are to
be believed.)

Another root of the negative stereotypes is simple aversion to sexuality
in general. The concepts of "limits" and "negotiation" are inherently
revolutionary, in a world where many people can't bring themselves to
talk about _anything_ related to sex. Yet without understanding these
concepts, it's hard to understand SM. Everyone who first looks at SM
needs to do some amount of pushing past their prejudices; for some it's
harder than for others.

Some people wonder how women into SM can consider themselves feminists.
Isn't feminism about controlling your sexuality, about not submitting to
anyone else, ever? Personally, I believe (and _many_ women on s.s.b-b
agree) that feminism is about empowering women to make their _own_
choices, to live life their own way, without being limited by ideas
about what women "should" do or how they "ought" to behave. And in that
light, it makes little difference whether the limiting ideas are those
of the patriarchal CEO or the "radical feminist" criticizing
SM in _Ms._ magazine; both the CEO and the writer are attacking womens'
right to do as _they_ choose.

At this point I want to include some material sent out by the
Leather/Fetish Celebration committee about abuse in the SM community.
This is valuable stuff for anyone interested in distinguishing
consensual SM from abuse; while no list of questions can substitute for
personal inquiry and knowledge of the people involved, this list is at
least thought-provoking. (There is no consent-o-meter to determine
whether someone is consenting to SM behavior; the best we poor humans
can do is look at situations on a case-by-case basis.)

Thanks, Leonard.

The Celebration Wants You to Know About... Domestic Violence
in the S/M Community

Domestic violence is not the same as consensual s/m. Yet,
abusive
relationships do exist within the leather-s/m community, as with
all groups. Unfortunately, due to our sexual orientation, abused
persons who are into s/m may suffer additional isolation and may
hesitate to turn to available resources for fear of rejection
or of giving credence to stereotypes. No group is free of domestic
battering; but fear, denial, and lack of knowledge have slowed
public response to this serious social problem.

Domestic violence is not restricted to one particular
group within
the s/m community. A person's size, gender, or particular sex
role (top-bottom, butch-femme) is irrelevant; anyone can be subject
to abuse.

Abuse tends to be cyclical in nature and escalates over
time.
It is a pattern of intentional intimidation for the purpose of
dominating, coercing, or isolating another without her or his
consent. Because of the intimidation factor, where there is abuse
in any part of the relationship, there can be no consent.

Defining the Problem: The following questions can help a
person
to define the problem, which can have characteristics that are
physical, sexual, economic, and psychological.

Does your partner ever hit, choke, or otherwise physically
hurt
you outside of a scene? Has she or he ever restrained you against
your will, locked you in a room, or used a weapon of any kind?

Are you afraid of your partner?

Are you confused about when a scene begins and ends? Rape and
forced sexual acts are not part of consensual s/m. Battering is
not something that can be "agreed" upon; there is an
absence of safe words or understandings. Has she or he ever violated
your limits? Do you feel trapped in a specific role as either
the top or bottom? Does your partner constantly criticize your
performance, withhold sex as a means of control, or ridicule
you for the limits you set? Do you feel obligated to have sex?
Does your partner use sex to make up after a violent incident?
Does your partner isolate you from friends, family, or groups?
Has your partner ever destroyed objects or threatened pets? Has
your partner abused or threatened your children?

Does your partner limit access to work or material
resources?
Has he or she ever stolen from you or run up debts?

Are you or your partner emotionally dependent on one
another?

Does your relationship swing back and forth between a lot
of
emotional distance and being very close? Is your partner constantly
criticizing you, humiliating you, and generally undermining your
self-esteem? Does your partner use scenes to express/cover up
anger and frustration? Do you feel that you can't discuss with
your partner what is bothering you?

No one has the right to abuse you. You are not responsible
for
the violence. You are not alone; connect with other survivors.
There are reasons for staying in abusive relations: fear of (or
feelings for) the abuser, and lack of economic or emotional resources.
If you stay, help is still available. Find out about shelters,
support groups, counselors, anti-violence programs, and crisis
lines in your area; ask a friend to help you make these calls.
Plan a strategy if you have to leave quickly. Line up friends
and family in case of an emergency.

Battering is a crime. Find out about your legal rights and
options.
You can get the court to order the person to stop hurting you
through an Order for Protection or Harassment Restraining Order.
You do not need a lawyer.

We Can Reduce Domestic Violence: Domestic violence does
exist
in the s/m-leather-fetish community. We can make it clear that
we will listen to those who have the courage to speak out. Understand
that leaving is difficult. Let the person make his or her own
choices. Keep all information confidential. Encourage survivors
to take legal action and seek support. Help find safe housing
and legal advocacy. Hold batterers accountable and urge them to
seek treatment. Deny that drug or alcohol use can excuse battering.
Support changes in that person's behavior.

Leather groups in our community are crucial to reducing
domestic
violence. Invite knowledgeable speakers; lead discussions; print
up a list for members of what resources in your area are s/m-supportive.
Educate your local legal and social service system about our lifestyle;
encourage their appropriate intervention.

Safe Link is a clearinghouse for materials and questions
about
domestic violence, specifically for persons who are into leather,
s/m, or fetish sexuality. It offers a list of readings and is
currently compiling a roster of supportive speakers, shelters,
and therapists, and information on understanding and using the
law. Write to Safe Link c/o the Domestic Violence Education Project,
National Leather Association, 548 Castro Street #444, San Francisco,
CA 94114; or call the NLA at 415/863-2444, or email nlaintl@netcom.com

Posted by ixion@dorsai.dorsai.org, from the program of the
Int'l
S/M-Leather-Fetish Celebration; Text provided by Jan Hall. The
Celebration specifically authorizes and encourages the reproduction
and redistribution of this information.

 

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