Hello, and welcome to my humble little corner of the internet. I’m writing this blog to add to the chorus of voices who are talking about issues of consent, non-consent, and boundaries as they relate to dynamics of power exchange and what is loosely referred to as the BDSM “scene”.
Any discussion of abuse in any community can be uncomfortable and murky territory. It kicks up shame, fear, and anger on all sides. This goes double for kink and BDSM identified folk who play with the outside trappings of abuse. From a cursory glance, it can be nearly impossible to tell the healthy from the abusive. The most edgy boundary pushing scene can be healthy and affirming in one context. Conversely seemingly benign or “vanilla” looking action can actually be a horrific violation in another.
We want there to be a clean cut narrative, with easily identifiable villains and victims. Indeed, on the surface, the issue seems pretty cut and dried. When consent is violated, that is abuse, and the transgressor needs to be dealt with. The realities of abuse, however, are far more complicated than most people are comfortable acknowledging. For one thing, and this is true for the general population and not just kink identified folk, those who perpetrate abuse are usually close to their targets. These people are not strangers in dark alleys or anonymous chat rooms. They are friends, lovers, relatives, and people in positions of power. Therefore, it can be hard for victims and survivors to completely vilify their abusers.
In my relatively short career as a therapist and social worker, I’ve worked with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors of all ages and from all walks of life. Over and over again, I watch them struggle to make sense of their conflicting feelings about their experience.
“I feel like I love him and hate him.” A client, who had been abused by her half brother once told me, “I mean, yeah, He did all this bad stuff, but we also had a lot of fun together. And he taught me to ride a dirt bike.”
Another client couldn’t get out of the habit of calling her stepfather, who abused her for the better part of her childhood, Dad.
My role as a therapist is not to pigeonhole my clients into a predetermined position. My job is to give them information, hold space, and give them agency to define their own experiences. There are important reasons for this. The goal in helping people heal from abuse is giving them back their agency. To quote Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery
The first principle of recovery is the empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care, but not cure. Many benevolent and well-intentioned attempts to assist the survivor flounder because this fundamental principle of empowerment is not observed. No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.
What troubles me about so much of what I read from within the scene is that this mandate sometimes falls by the wayside. It can be very seductive to dictate what does and doesn’t constitute fully informed consent or abuse. We do not and should not have that power over someone else’s experience. This is not to say that we should stay silent when we see abusive power dynamics. Quite the contrary. We can educate, plant seeds, and provide an empathetic ear. We can share our experiences, both good and bad, and provide support without commentary or judgement. And this can be the most difficult thing to do.
I want this space to be the start of a different conversation, one that focuses on education, transparency, and healing through empathy. Perhaps I will challenge some core beliefs and myths about what abuse looks like in kink, BDSM, and the default world. While we will probably never be able to eliminate abuse from our ranks, we can start shining light into those dark and treacherous spaces.
Who’s with me?
-Samantha Manewitz, LICSW