This came out of a conversation I had with a friend pretty recently. Making up themey, literary names for people is fun, and I'm going to call him Hyde because he'd like it. Mina and I have played with Hyde before, and he and I have had a lot of interesting conversations about what works and doesn't work for us in the scene here. He knows about my (gasp) abusive past, and, the other day, asked me what differentiated abuse from business as usual, when it comes to BDSM. Since we've played, and since we're both total sex geeks, he's got a good idea of what I'm into - in particular, that I like pain and lots of it. Most of what goes on in BDSM would look like abuse to an uninformed observer, and would be abusive in a non-negotiated context. Spend enough time around BDSMers, though, and you'll probably develop a different idea of what's appropriate, healthy, and okay. It makes sense, then, that my friend, a dominant sadist, has been worrying that he could wind up abusing someone and not even know it. (Also, how cute is that? I love that. I want to give him a prize. The prize of knowledge!)
Clarisse Thorn wrote a wonderful article about taking anti-abuse measures within the BDSM community, and she includes a few definitions of BDSM vs. abuse. (You should also check out her blog, with which I am deeply in love.) Here's one, from a pamphlet by The Network/La Red:
The most basic difference between S/M and abuse is Consent. It is not consent if…
You did not expressly give consent.
You are afraid to say no.
You say yes to avoid conflict.
You say yes to avoid consequences (i.e. losing a job, losing your home, being outed).
Done with respect for limits.
Enjoyed by all partners.
Fun, erotic, and loving.
Done with an understanding of trust.
Never done with the intent to harm or damage.
Just because you consent to play does not mean you consent to everything. You have the right to set limits.
Another list emphasizes intent (that both partners enjoy themselves and feel safe), risk-awareness, informed consent, and having done the research about/legwork for whatever activity you're planning on doing.
I can agree with these definitions, in general, but I thought it might be nice to talk about a few things in particular. I tend to do better with specific examples, since general rules like the ones above seem so obvious that it's easy to say, "Well, of course I knew that, and then not examine my own behavior any further. I should also add that there's a lot of debate about what's acceptable , and I've been surprised by the number of people I've met who are scornfully anti-safeword, for example. I believe that safewords are indispensable, but I know that some people enthusiastically consent to giving them up, trusting that their partner can read them well enough to stop or slow down if necessary. There's always going to be some disagreement, so I've tried to think of this as a list that I would give a potential partner, to keep it focused.
Tips for Not Abusing Susan
- If I've said no to something before a scene starts, it is off the table, even if I change my mind during the scene itself. That is, if I say no sex, and then you tie me up in painful positions and do mean things to my pressure points, and I get all hot and bothered and say, "Actually, yes, do me," do not do me. Stick to the limits I give you when I'm sober and negotiating; they are more accurate than the ones I have when I'm in the middle of a play-induced chemical rush. I wouldn't ask you to marry that chick you went home with when you were drunk, so don't ask me to live with what I think I can handle when I'm totally loopy from play. This is a good way to avoid horrible emotional fallout once the scene is over.
- And definitely don't try to seduce me into saying yes to something. This is just a more extreme version of the last one. Negotiation about limits should happen when we're clothed, sober, and have both had some time to think about it. If I say no to knife play, you don't get to try to change my mind once I'm tied up, horny, and presumably role-playing some kind of submission. I definitely get into sub space when I play, and I'm kind of a neurotic people-pleaser in general, so saying no at that point is going to be really difficult. If you wait until I'm feeling all happy and submissive to try to get me to bend or retract my limits, you're a manipulative dickbucket.
Here's the thing about this last one: some people are going to say that that's okay, in the name of training. Some folks who are into behavior modification and more extreme kinds of power exchange might argue that it's good to seduce a submissive into something that she feels trepidation about - that way she approaches it as something pleasurable, rather than as something to be dreaded. Whitewashing the fence is fun if you're wildly excited for the opportunity, basically. And yet. Limits are there for a reason. That attitude really bothers me, in that it assumes that the submissive doesn't really know what she can handle. I distrust a model that assumes that the dominant partner knows best.
- Don't hit me when you're angry. I am not your worry doll.
"But wait!" subbier_than_thou (not a real person) might cry out from Fetlife's "Sluts, Cunts and Whores" forum (a real thing). "I exist to serve my Dominant, and part of that is being there to be hit when she needs to vent some rage. She gets to take out her anger, and I get to fulfill my service kink. Where's the problem?"
"@subbier_than_thou," stockings_and_boys (not my real handle) would reply, "what happens when you make her angry? More specifically, what happens when you need to tell her something that she won't like, especially if she's at all quick to anger? What if you're feeling upset or uneasy about some activity that she's particularly fond of, or you need to cancel a date, or (if you're not monogamous) you want to plan a date with someone she dislikes, or you think that she's not behaving well and want her to behave differently? In every relationship, there are going to be conversations that need to happen, and will also make at least one of you angry. If she gets to act out every time she gets angry, you're going to start avoiding those conversations. You'll probably start hiding when things make you uncomfortable, and you may start changing your life to make it less likely to piss her off. You know: you didn't need to go on that date. It doesn't bother you that much when she makes rape jokes. Etcetera."
Which leads me to...
- I need to be able to call time-out. I need space to discuss concerns without fear of being punished, and without worrying about rules and protocols. At this point, I have no desire to do another 24/7 power exchange, so this is less relevant, but I think it's worth including. When I was in that situation before, anything I did or said was supposed to be informed by my submissive role, and it was all fair game for retribution. Part of the reason that I didn't get out of it sooner was that it was so all-or-nothing. There was no room to renegotiate once I'd agreed to be submissive. Very fucked up.
- You should reward use of safewords and communication of my comfort level. Let's be clear: it is an act of bravery to say no to something that a sex partner wants. Even in the most vanilla context, it is brave to say, "I don't like it when you touch me there," or "I don't feel comfortable with that." It is harder to do when there is any kind of power exchange, especially if you - like me - kink on service. With that in mind, you should work extra hard to make sure I'm extra comfortable telling you what I need, and what I can't handle. Let's use an example:
BAD: I use a safeword. You stop what you're doing, curl up in a ball and wail, "Why am I such a failure?!"
BETTER: I use a safeword. You stop what you're doing and find out what went wrong.
BEST: I use a safeword. You stop what you're doing, tell me what a good girl I am for letting you know, check to see if I want to be touched and give me a big hug if I do, and then deal with what went wrong. Then remind me again how good I've been.
(I'm assuming here that I'm using the "red" safeword, meaning "This is too intense and it needs to stop NOW," rather than "yellow", or "Hey, could you stop for a sec because I'm a little squicked/ that sensation is too intense/ my arm is falling asleep." I'm also assuming that you've checked for major physical damage, like a responsible person.)
These are the ones that occur to me just now. I'd love to hear what other people think of, so feel free to comment. I'll keep posting them as they occur to me. That will serve the dual purpose of helping me continue to put off writing about sexy nonconsent and how we're supposed to just wet ourselves over how sexy it all is. Tell me what advice you'd give to a dom who just wants to be ethical!