When Does Rough Sex Become Abuse?

Recently, the line between B.D.S.M. and abuse has been called into question, but community members advocate for well-drawn boundaries that honor safety and consent.

While to outsiders it may seem like a dark world full of whips and chains, participation in bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) requires well-drawn boundaries that honor safety and consent.

Recent stories of assault and abuse in relationships of public figures have called into question the line between BDSM and abuse. In May 2018, four women told The New Yorker that Eric T. Schneiderman, then New York attorney general, had assaulted them. Schneiderman defended himself by claiming he was participating in BDSM and sexual role play. In April, a woman accused Missouri Governor Eric Greitens of taping her hands to exercise equipment, hitting and shoving her, and touching her without her permission.

Many who practice BDSM say these encounters bear no resemblance to the reality of their community.

"There is a difference between abuse and BDSM," a spokesperson for the The Eulenspiegel Society, the self-proclaimed "oldest and largest BDSM support and education group" in the country, told the New York Times. "That difference is consent."

BDSM requires open communication

"Safe, sane, and consensual" is a catchphrase often used to describe best practices when participating in BDSM activities.

"Safe," in this case, refers to remaining knowledgeable about correct use and proper techniques. For example, some practitioners recommend keeping a first aid kit on hand and ensuring that constraints are only used in a way in which the constrained can be quickly and easily freed if necessary. "Safe" also means taking necessary precautions around sexual and emotional health. Those with a history of abuse or sexual assault are encouraged to disclose this vital information to their partners. Some even suggest that those in the submissive role share a journal with potential partners in order to identify any triggers that might arise.

BDSM advocates define "sane" as the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. This means abstaining from drugs and alcohol that could impair judgement or hand-eye coordination before a scene.

"Consensual" means respecting the limits outlined by each participant at all times. The use of negotiated checklists, in-depth conversations, and even contracts can govern the agreed-upon limits of an encounter.

"You create a container for the things that are your worst fears, your darkest fantasies, and you create very strong boundaries around that," Margot said. "Respecting those boundaries is the most important thing."

BDSM uses a time frame

Because BDSM practitioners are not always on, time constraints are set around a scene, or sexual encounter, that carve out boundaries.

"There's no demarcation in these abuse situations," said Clarisse Thorn, author of "The S&M; Feminist," of the allegations against Schneiderman. "What these women are reporting is, 'He would hit me without warning and he would keep going until he wanted to stop'" That kind of out of control, impulsive behavior does not fall within the accepted behavior of the BDSM community, she explained.

BDSM involves safe words

Before a scene takes place, practitioners agree on a safe word in order to communicate with each other while remaining in the moment or, as the case may be, in character. When a safe word is spoken, practitioners know to stop the activity. Some even employ an additional word that signifies to partners to slow down. Others use nonverbal gestures.

"If a safe word is used, then you stop everything immediately," Cassandra Moon told the New York Times.

Physical and emotional care is important in BDSM

While it may seem counterintuitive, the rules and boundaries of any BDSM encounter are in place to protect the physical and emotional well-being of those involved. This can even extend to discussions and reassurances afterward, particularly if a scene has gotten very emotional.

"A BDSM scene is designed to leave the participants feeling good and satisfied when it's over," advises the Very Well Mind. "It's a Dominant's responsibility to give after-care when the session is over to make sure the Submissive feels happy, safe, and secure. In contrast, both the target and the abuser feel sad, angry, or ashamed following an abusive episode."

A study from Northern Illinois University found that those involved in BDSM are actually more mindful of consent in sexual acts and less likely to perform behaviors associated with rape culture. Practitioners of BDSM displayed "significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim-blaming." In other words, they respect the boundaries of their partner and are less likely to cross the boundaries of personal safety.

But not all consent is OK

Not all consent is legal. "There's an important body of law that declares it illegal to consent to certain types of physical harm, whether it's sexual or not," Wendy Murphy, a professor of sexual violence law at New England School of Law told the New York Times. "You can't consent to torture. You cannot consent to serious bodily injury." That means that strangulation, cutting, or burning a partner can be prosecuted by law enforcement as assault and battery or aggravated assault — even if the victim consented.

Is your abuse posing as BDSM?

Over 20 BDSM organizations contributed to a document to outline the difference between BDSM and abuse. BDSM practitioners, whether dominant or submissive, could be suffering abuse if they answer no to any of the following questions:

1. Are your needs and limits respected?

2. Is your relationship built on honesty, trust, and respect?

3. Are you able to express feelings of guilt or jealousy or unhappiness?

4. Can you function in everyday life?

5. Can you refuse to do illegal activities?

6. Can you insist on safe sex practices?

7. Can you choose to interact freely with others outside of your

relationship?

8. Can you leave the situation without fearing that you will be harmed, or fearing the other participant(s) will harm themselves?

9. Can you choose to exercise self-determination with money, employment, and life decisions?

10. Do you feel free to discuss your practices and feelings with anyone you choose?

Sir Bamm, a site devoted to BDSM education, outlines the difference between abuse and BDSM as follows:

"While BDSM is a controlled situation, abuse is out-of-control. Negotiation occurs before BDSM, while in abuse, one person determines what is going to happen. In abuse, consent is neither asked for nor given. While in BDSM, a safe word can stop everything, a person who is being abused cannot stop what is happening."

The takeaway

While BDSM can involve—and is most frequently associated with—physical pain and emotional humiliation, it also requires knowledge of all participants' needs and responsibly honoring their boundaries.

The key, Mollena Williams, author of "Playing Well With Others," told the New York Times, is to "make a list of things that you absolutely need to have in order to feel safe, in order to feel heard, and then make a list of things that would be great if they happened."