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Learning the Difference Between Consent and Abuse in BDSM

The great news about the 2010s is that popular media franchises have made it possible for mainstream culture to accept BDSM. Hundreds of people are exploring their sexuality and finding out new ways of thinking about intimacy, where before they would have been frustrated.

It has also brought a dark side. The people who plunge into BDSM and get it wrong, because all they know about it is what they saw in a movie or read on a message board. Some of these people become victims; some others – whether by malice or ignorance – become abusers. Worse, many people just starting out simply do not understand the difference.

Consent Starts with You

In true BDSM, the origin of the dynamic must always, ALWAYS start with the bottom. You, as the initiator, come to your partner and say, “Here’s this sexy thing! If you did this thing to me, it would really turn me on. Will you do this thing for me?” That’s the whole dynamic in a nutshell. The bottom, not the Top, sets the limits for what is done (note that the Top can also refuse to do certain things, based on preference, beliefs, etc.).

The key word here is “consent”: You can grant consent, you can deepen your consent, you can extend your consent for a permanent commitment and surrender all your free will to your Top once and for all. But it’s your decision, and it’s a decision you make without being under pressure, coercion, or duress.

This is not to say that it always has to be the bottom’s idea first. If the Top wants to initiate a new rule, dynamic, activity, etc., they bring it up with the bottom first. This is simply the act of seeking consent. Once again, we do this using communication, approach the partner with the idea, and then only act it out if both of them agree to it.

Consent for BDSM play and dynamics are no different than consent for sex and relationships.

Is Your Partner a Dominant or an Abuser?

The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence has a dandy little chart called the Power and Control Wheel, which shows the array of abusive behaviors.

Use this as your guide. Check these descriptions against your partner’s actions. If these things are being done to you, they’re all clear warning signs of abuse.

True Dominant control in a BDSM relationship is done through consent. For example, if you have consented to a rule and agreed that if that rule is broken, you’re to receive a punishment, and then the rule is broken, your Top is obligated to discipline you as you have requested. If you have an area where you want to submit power, your Top then takes the initiative in that regard. If you want your partner to be more aggressive with you in bed, then he turns on the Dominant routine in the bedroom – always respecting your safeword.

Going a bit deeper, true Dominance arises from love, compassion, and a desire to make your partner happy. A Dominant gives their submissive loving attention, going a step further than most because it takes some real empathy to understand that your partner’s happiness depends upon being tied up and spanked.

By contrast, abuse is motivated by fear and insecurity. The abuser feels threatened by you and your liberty, so they work to bully you into a corner. Or they fear facing the world without you, so they keep you in check in order to use you for what they want. Abusers, at their core, simply do not understand how love works, let alone a BDSM relationship.

Can You Consent to Activities on the Power and Control Wheel?

Yes, you certainly can, and many people do. If you want your partner to be more controlling in bed and make you feel “little,” you might invite them to call you names like “slut,” wrestle you into bed, be forceful in taking you, etc. Some submissives have a desire to serve their partner and treat them like a superior, so they want to wait on their Master/Mistress hand and foot and act as if “male/female privilege” were a justified reality. There are even submissives who actually desire to turn over control of finances to their Dominant partner – because they recognize that they don’t handle money as well.

Nothing has changed in any of these scenarios, however. The consent still starts with the bottom. It’s always the bottom.

Learning to Tell the Difference…

Here are a few scenarios:

* Your Top comes to you and says, “I’ve decided we’re going to have an open relationship. I can find other sex partners and so can you.” You back away and say, “Sorry, I don’t do open relationships, I’m a one-on-one partner.” Your Top says, “Well, I’m in charge, and we’re doing this.” This is NOT a consent situation.

* Your Top catches you smoking a cigarette when you were trying to quit. He says, “Put that out and go fetch the paddle, that’s a spanking.” You say, “But it’s just one puff, honest, I’ve been good all week.” Your Top says, “I remember you wanted me to help you quit by enforcing it with a spanking punishment. Has that changed?” You grumble, “No, but I hate it anyway. Thank you for being strong for me,” and march off to fetch the paddle. This IS a consent situation. You have specifically asked for a rule or activity to be enforced, even though you might be reluctant at times.

* You discover your Top has shared photos of you in bondage on an internet message board. You tell him, “I didn’t want these posted here!” He says, “But I thought you liked humiliation play. You wanted me to take the photos.” You say, “I don’t want them on the internet! I have a job to think of, what if my boss sees those? Those pictures were supposed to be just for us.” Even if he takes them down, this was NOT a consent situation, but it’s also more a gross error in judgment on the Top’s part. Even if consent is implied for an activity, it should be confirmed before doing radical and risky things.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has helped clear up some confusion in the Lifestyle out there. Going by the number of relationship mishaps we all hear about, it seems the work of teaching the Lifestyle will never end. Blame it on media: Without naming a certain popular novel series turned movie, a lot of people read and see a misrepresentation of BDSM in the media.

Be safe, sane, and consensual, and have fun out there!

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