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The Difference Between BDSM and Abuse is Not Just Consent

December 18, 2009

My partner mentioning this book, triggered the fuck out of me.

And the reason I was triggered by it was because for half my childhood, and most of my life as a young adult, I associated my desires and fantasies with abuse. Only abusers want to hit other people, only abusers want to control people, only abusers want to make people cry and scream. I had ample examples around me, from my own genocidal and colonialist ancestors, to those who had scarred the people I loved. Making someone do what you want sexually, overriding what they want is always bad. Beating someone so they are covered with blue and black and green is always bad. Everyone knows this.

I never said a word. I was the one my friends would come to to tell what had been done to them. And I never said a word about the scenes playing in my head. And I thought, I am a monster. I am betraying the people I love by my very existence.

I have struggled with that shame constantly, even after I came out to myself, even as I chanted in my mind, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine, other people are like me too, it doesn’t have to be bad, it’s fine.’ A month has not gone by, sometimes not a week, or a day, that I have not doubted myself, wondered if I was just making it all up, rationalizing it so I did not have to feel the wretchedness of this shame.

When I was triggered by the mere mention of that book, suddenly I had been shot back to age fourteen (ten, fifteen, eighteen, eleven). I was disgusting, evil, sick, and I would hold my friends, listen to them, support them, but oh god I could never. Say. Anything. It consumed me.

The other week I realized I needed to read that book, that I needed to let go of this imagined connection. It has no place in my life.

I did read it, and I was filled with relief, as I often have been when hearing similar stories, that I did not identify with the horrors perpetrated. The relief was not as immense as it has been in the past. I have managed to let go of some of that shame. Other times what filled me was fear, loathing when I would have sexual reaction to an act in an abusive context.

I’m remembering the radical feminist/BDSM kerfuffles that were going on a few months ago. The radfems screamed that BDSM is abuse, and the battle cry of the pro-BDSM camp was “Consent, consent, consent! What we do is not abuse because there is consent!”

Somehow that never felt solid for me, and I never really understood why until I after I set that book down and thought.

Consent is a factor, not to be trivialized, but is not the defining factor.

The declare consent the defining factor between abuse and BDSM relationships is to say that abuse is the exact same thing as dominance, submission, bondage and sadomasochism, only without consent. And it is to say the reverse: That BDSM is the exact same thing as abuse, only with consent.

And it’s not.

There is a fundamental difference between doing something out of pyschological torment, rage, terror, desolation, hate, and doing something out of joy, connection, fun, affection, love. That the logistics of giving and obeying an order, of binding and being bound, of an object hitting flesh might superficially resemble each other, is irrelevant.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2009 8:00 am

    Speaking as someone who was plagued by shame for years: you have my sympathy. I’m glad to hear it’s getting better for you. For what it’s worth, I did recover from it completely.

    I know you know this, so I hope you’ll forgive my saying it: You are not a monster. Not even in a hypothetical world without any masochists. It isn’t wrong to want things that are wrong to actually do. You’re only accountable for your actions, because only actions can actually affect other people.

    My thoughts on consent got a bit out of hand, so they have their own post, over here

  2. Ireen permalink
    January 7, 2010 1:39 am

    “There is a fundamental difference between doing something out of pyschological torment, rage, terror, desolation, hate, and doing something out of joy, connection, fun, affection, love.”

    This. Absolutely!

  3. subversive_sub permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:45 am

    “There is a fundamental difference between doing something out of pyschological torment, rage, terror, desolation, hate, and doing something out of joy, connection, fun, affection, love. That the logistics of giving and obeying an order, of binding and being bound, of an object hitting flesh might superficially resemble each other, is irrelevant.”

    Perfect.

    I’ve made this same argument; the anti-BDSM response I’ve generally heard is “the fact that you enjoy doing something doesn’t make it right.” In their eyes, enjoyment of a “violent” act no more legitimizes it as does consent to it. I think there’s still this fundamental belief that actions in and of themselves are imbued with particular meanings; that context doesn’t matter. Hitting someone, even if is consented to, even if both parties get joy and satisfaction out of it, is still “hitting someone,” and thus is still violent and patriarchal and whatever. When I understood this aspect of the anti-BDSM mindset, I realized that there’s really no point in arguing with those folks any more; there’s no way to win.

  4. subversive_sub permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:55 am

    Oh also, I would argue that there are actually three things separating BDSM from abuse: consent, enjoyment, and play (or depending on your preferred interpretation, sacred space / altered space). That is, you must on some level be aware that what you are doing is special and set apart from other, non-BDSM interactions and relationships.

  5. April 18, 2010 9:53 pm

    A hugely important point. Maybe the consent is been brought in to the discussion so hard, because it’s something that’s pretty easy to prove. Mutual enthusiasm, love and joy are a lot harder to put into legal print.

    I’d also add that the essential thing, which you might have said, but the verbs used threw me off the track, that in BDSM it’s never just something someone does to another, it’s something they share. It’s a play, and that means that they both participate in an equal way, even if the play itself is about power imbalance.

    I actually wrote about the same thing from a very personal submissive point of view, because even though I was the one consenting, I had a hard time accepting it. A feminist battle with submission here.

  6. ranat permalink*
    June 10, 2010 12:59 am

    Thanks for your input, Morgan (late as my reply is). The shame is fading, and when it emerges it’s not as debilitating. My entire perspective on my sexuality has shifted so radically, it’s amazing.

  7. ranat permalink*
    June 10, 2010 1:02 am

    It’s taken me this long to realize it, and I still have to remind myself. But slowly, subtly, it’s getting through to me.

  8. ranat permalink*
    June 10, 2010 1:08 am

    “I think there’s still this fundamental belief that actions in and of themselves are imbued with particular meanings; that context doesn’t matter.”

    I think this is the crux of it. Anything can be anything, to provide a vague axiom. The fact that patriarchy has used sexual violence as one of its primary tools, and the cultural woundedness from that, has created a reaction that rejects even healthy sexual violence. I look a lot at other animals to see this; I don’t place a value judgment on the mating habits of sharks and cats. But I do place that value judgment on myself. My struggle isn’t convincing people of a non-BDSM mindset, it’s convincing myself.

  9. ranat permalink*
    June 10, 2010 1:24 am

    I’ve been thinking about the play/sacred-altered space aspect. I’ve been wondering if everyone feels that, or feels something equivalent but different depending on their sexuality. It’s such a common thread in the BDSM subculture. The only time I’ve had a non BDSM-oriented person describe something similar to what I feel in that altered space, they were describing sex after being on meth for seven days. They said they just felt so absolutely *present,* which is one of the strong components of what I feel when I’m in a dominant and/or sadistic space.

  10. ranat permalink*
    June 10, 2010 1:27 am

    “They both participate in an equal way”

    I think this is a really important point. There’s this image of submission (and I suppose masochism) being utterly passive, something that energy goes into, but nothing comes back. For me, however, the sharing is really important. Both (or all) people involved are equally participants and agents in what they share.

  11. August 22, 2010 6:36 pm

    That seems to be the popular trope. Why are the radical feminist front worried about matters of non-consensuality? What they are doing is actually telling us that we are not able to decide for ourselves. They are actually doing what patriarchy has done to women as a class. They decide if we need to be rescued from a place and our say doesn’t change the fact.

    I take it as a declaration of war, when someone tries to tell me what to do. When someone has the audacity to think they can dictate how I will express my sexuality. So, what was the women’s liberation movement for, anyway? We can want things to some degree, that doesn’t make other women squemish? I talked about this in more detail on the post Porn dispute, so I won’t clutter your comments with the whole thing.

    And for the submissive part being somehow passive, I just don’t understand it. What kind of sex are these people having who make these accusations? The kind where the other one (the man) is only masturbationg with the other one’s (the woman) body? Because how can it be a novelty to them that sex is about caring and sharing? Ugh!

  12. August 22, 2010 6:45 pm

    I had an epiffany about the infamous altered state of late. I realized I do feel it, I do have a certain subspace I flow to when we have sex. (I’m really sexualy oriented and everything in my submission seems to be well focused, also. I know it is not so for everyone, so, please forgive me my examples.) I just never thought of it in a good way, I thought it was a disconnect that I should try to get rid off. I don’t know it’s the same thing the other’s have been talking about, and I don’t even know if I really believe in a subspace as said, but I do think it’s possible to enter a zone where it feels different. Like meditation or torture or just plain shock – at some point your body decides it’s too much and zones out. Maybe it’s just possible to harness that sort of thing if you push your body’s boundaries constantly?

  13. ranat permalink*
    August 22, 2010 9:46 pm

    Like you said, I think everyone’s experience of altered space is really individual. But it seems like enough people experience it for there to be something of a common language and a way to relate to each other. When I’ve talked to people who don’t share my kinds of desires about it, one person interpreted it as a kind of transcendental spiritual experience. Another described pretty much what I feel in headspace, but while they were on a ton of drugs. It seems over the top to me to self-describe my experience as a transcendental spiritual state or self induced drug trip, but to others it might seem that way. *shrug*

  14. December 19, 2010 4:31 am

    You’re right that consent by itself is not necessarily the dividing line. The notion of *informed* consent comes closer, but still, by itself, does not make the full distinction.

    >> There is a fundamental difference between doing something out of pyschological torment, rage, terror, desolation, hate, and doing something out of joy, connection, fun, affection, love. That the logistics of giving and obeying an order, of binding and being bound, of an object hitting flesh might superficially resemble each other, is irrelevant.

    You’ve hit a very good point there. In a thread I started on Fetlife at http://fetlife.com/groups/3101/group_posts/1035851 looking at whether or not the BDSM community (and paradigm) actually encourages consent or not, the question of intent was raised (an issue I intend to pursue examining further), and Midori also raised the issue of the effect of the entire pattern of relating within a relationship on whether or not the behavior is abusive or not. Again, something I intend to explore further, but you’ve hit another big piece of this puzzle here, because the reality is that where a person is coming from very much affects how they engage in wiitwd, and whether it is abusive or not. When someone is coming from a place of anger, that comes through in everything they do, and can easily create a nonconsensual situation where it might otherwise appear to be (or be thought to be) consensual. Thank you.

  15. ranat permalink*
    December 27, 2010 2:55 pm

    “[…] the reality is that where a person is coming from very much affects how they engage in wiitwd, and whether it is abusive or not. When someone is coming from a place of anger, that comes through in everything they do, and can easily create a nonconsensual situation where it might otherwise appear to be (or be thought to be) consensual.”

    That’s a really good point. Our mindset is crucial to understanding what is abusive and what isn’t, not just our actions.

    Also, that’s a cool discussion over on Fetlife! I’m glad you brought it up.

  16. April 18, 2011 11:56 am

    Thanks for your kind words, Ranat.

    I’m circling back through here again for another look, via Maymay’s post at http://malesubmissionart.com/post/293181170/a-man-bites-down-on-a-staff-while-another-pokes

    I’m understanding what you’ve written, and particularly what subversive_sub and RogueBambi have added, from a very different place from when I first read it back in December. In fact, I didn’t even fully realize I’d already been here until I ran smack into my own comment .

    Thank you all for helping me further flesh out some of the aspects of the differences between abuse and BDSM that go beyond simple “yes/no” consent, and the various elements of consent. I’m starting to get my arms around it better, and to be able to articulate more and more of it.

    I’ll cover it in more detail on my own blog as I get it further sorted out, but suffice it to say for the moment that you folks have hit the nail on the head with respect to context and at least a substantial part of what goes into defining that.

    I think there’s still more to both consent and context, though, and I’m working on getting it all out of this nebulous floating around in my head space into something coherent. Among other things, it’s clear to me (although not yet all of the specifics) that context to some extent is actually part of the definition of consent.

Trackbacks

  1. Into the Briar
  2. Fantasy Life Inside Out « Past the Hurt
  3. Mirrors « beyond the hills
  4. BDSM vs Abuse: It’s Not Just About Consent « KinkyLittleGirl – On Abuse and BDSM
  5. Rape Fantasies « a feminist sub
  6. Texte zum Thema BDSM für Bildungsveranstaltungen | Ranai
  7. Introductory Texts About BDSM for Educational Settings | Ranai
  8. Is There A Link Between Sexual Fantasies And Sexual Assault? | Whispering Girl

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