This week I received an excellent question from a university student that I would like to answer on the blog. All of their identifying information has been removed/changed, which means that some of the wording in their question has also been removed/changed. If you have any further resources or information about this question, I encourage you to share it in the comments section.
“…My interests are in the field of sexuality and I would like to discuss BDSM in relation to intimate partner violence from the perspective that BDSM is NOT the same thing as abuse. I am just curious if you have noticed in any of your research that women who have been sexually victimized are drawn to BDSM or may use it as an agency to help ‘deal’ with their sexual history – or if you think there is a relationship there at all.”
Thank you for your excellent and extremely important question. I’m glad you’ve asked it, and I’m grateful that you’ve given me the opportunity to answer it. This is a very common question to which folks often bring strong opinions, many of which may be based in fear and misunderstanding around both the topics of (1) violence and (2) BDSM.
It’s important to ask an expert’s background when it comes to loaded topics like these, so you can judge for yourself how to receive their answer. If you’re not interested in this info then skip on down to the next paragraph, please. In a very tiny nutshell: I have studied both of these areas for years and have publications and presentations in both (I can provide a CV to anyone who is sincerely interested). In fact, this upcoming February I will be presenting at the Family Therapy World Congress about the topic of kinky and open relationships to an audience of mental health professionals. My Ph.D. is in Family Development with a doctoral certificate in Family Therapy (and another in Qualitative Research). On top of that, I have worked with (as clients, as well as alongside of), researched with, and socialized with a large number of intimate partner violence and sexual violence survivors as well as a large number of kinky folks, many of which enjoy BDSM. I’ve been spending time with both types of folks (and folks who identify as both), professionally and socially, since at least the mid/late 1990s. So… that’s a quick summary of my background in these areas for you to make of as you like.
Now let’s dive in by sharing some definitions and facts that address your question:
– Sexual violence includes more acts than sexual assault and battering; it’s not actually about hitting at all: I define “violence” using Maturana’s concept of acts of imposing one person’s will over another’s. (See the footnotes of this paper http://www.familytherapy.org/documents/LoveDares.PDF for citation of this concept back to Maturana) This is a very broad definition and does not require physical force to commit violence, though it can certainly be included. Using this definition, all kinds of violence, including sexual violence, are extremely common. Sexual violence is based around at least one person deciding to inflict their will on another who does not want it, using means that have sexual connotations. This can include hitting and other physical acts, but it can also include things like verbal violence, financial violence, social violence, political violence, and more. That’s because it’s not about a single act that equals violence, it’s about one person (or more) inflicting themselves on another sexually in any of the many, many ways that can happen.
–Sexual violence against women is extremely common at every age and in every culture on which I’ve seen reliable data: While it may be more common in some cultures, or if certain other risk factors (usually related to the perpetrator/s) are present, it is not an exaggeration to say that it happens to the majority of women at least once during the lifespan. By some definitions and research, it can truthfully be said that sexual violence happens to all or nearly all women and can be expected to happen repeatedly. You have asked specifically about women in this question, but I will add that it is also common against men and gender-queer people, although we have even worse data about exact numbers for them than we do for women. Most of our big studies have major limitations, and focus only on one aspect of sexual violence: sexual battering. Even this is very common (cited US data). Sexual violence is so common that some feminist academics and writers refer to it bitingly as a terrible rite of passage for women in Western cultures (also in other cultures, but that is beyond my area of expertise so I’ll leave that to others who can better address it). This means that every community and every population is full of sexual violence survivors, sad to say. In other words, the fact that a community has a lot of sexual violence survivors could mean more about our world than about that specific group of people.
–BDSM (kinky erotic acts that may include bondage, taking/giving directives, and negotiated activities involving pain) is not the same thing as violence, in that all participants actively seek and desire to be involved in the scenario and/or relationship/s. BDSM can look very scary from the outside, and unrealistic media images of BDSM have helped to encourage a mistaken idea of what it BDSM can look like. A healthy, caring BDSM relationship, scenario, or hook-up is composed of things like open communication, mutual desire to have fun/sexy feelings about the activities/relationship, mutual happiness and excitement, and certainly mutual respect for each other’s well-being and satisfaction. Sometimes the people involved in BDSM will act out scenarios in which they pretend to have no respect for each other, but that scenario is still based on careful communication between people who both/all really want to be there doing exactly that stuff in that moment with each other. In the case of sexual violence, at least one person does not want to be there doing that right then with the other person/people involved, or they feel they have no free choice about it, or they feel that not being there could result in something even worse. There is a big difference there!
– For folks who have never been in or witnessed this kind of healthy BDSM interaction, it can be hard to imagine such a thing based on the wild/violent assumptions and stereotypes of BDSM that are out there. Nonfiction books by beloved BDSM experts and community members, like Playing Well With Others, can help you to learn more about healthy, happy BDSM. So can the trio of excellent sites by Kali: PassionateU, KinkAcademy, and 50 Shades of Romance. Educating yourself like this will help clear up confusion and inaccurate stereotypes. In case you aren’t ready to read a whole book yet, here is quick example of a common act of communication found in BDSM interactions/relationships: negotiation. I wish it were more common in non-BDSM sexy times, too! It’s a special conversation in which all parties explore, ask, and share what they want to happen and then work together to see if they all want to have sexy times together and (if so) how to proceed. When I teach some of my workshops (like “Sexy Spanking for Foreplay”) I offer this list of questions to use when negotiating a scene. (A “scene” is a kinky interaction, by the way.)
- Are you feeling toppish or bottomish for this scene?
- What does a toppish/bottomish person do/act like/feel/say?
- What would make this scene hot for you?
- What could happen before and after the scene to make this hot for you?
- What needs to be avoided – anything, any words, and any places at all?
- Where can I touch you on your body? Where should I not touch you, or only touch you in certain ways?
- Show me all of the fussy parts of your body, emotionally and physically. Introduce me and tell me what they need.
- How will I know if we’re wandering into troubling places, emotionally or physically? How will I tell you if I feel that happening?
- How can I best take care of you afterward? How can you best take care of yourself? How can you best take care of me? How can I best take care of myself?
- In what ways is it ok to talk/share/post about this scene later?
I learned about questions like these from people like Midori, Lee Harrington, Molina, Princess Kali, and Tristan Taormino, all of which are fantastic BDSM and sex-positive resources. You will notice that some of my questions sound similar to those recommended by these great folks – that’s because I learned from them!
-It may be hard to imagine healthy BDSM if you do not find any of the interactions of activities associated with BDSM to be desirable. That’s ok! I don’t understand why some people love to eat pickles, and the idea of eating them is quite distressing to me. Sometimes when I see someone really get into eating pickles it makes me feel a bit sick and I can’t stand to watch or listen because it grosses me out. Especially spicy pickles! At the same time, I respect that some folks honestly do enjoy pickle-eating, they have pickles they like and don’t like, and they have times when they want pickles and times when they don’t. Even spicy pickles. BDSM is the same – you don’t have to understand it or want it to stand by the rights of others to enjoy it in ways that are healthy and happy for them, even if it would not be good for you. Although I do not like pickles at all, I am happy that pickle-eating makes some of my friends (and even my mom!) happy. If someone tried to ban pickles, I would help defend others’ right to eat the pickles they want when they want to eat them, because I recognize that their love of pickles can readily co-exist with my dislike of pickles.
-Violence can happen in all types of relationships and interactions, including both BDSM and non-BDSM relationships. That does not make either type innately violent. It just means that violence can happen in any unhealthy relationship or interaction. I have written about violence in the BDSM community and how that community might consider stepping up to better address it, and I have also written about intimate forms of violence in the general public (one example of my research). We must all work together in all of our main communities and sub-communities to nurture relationships and interactions based on respect, trust, and care instead of unconsensual, unnegotiated aggressions of power and control.
– Sexuality, in its many forms, can be a wonderfully healing thing for many people. For some people, a soft kiss from a caring other provides relaxation and there is nothing wrong with that. For some people, a nice round of masturbation helps to ease stress and feel good about one’s body and there is nothing wrong with that. For some people, hot sex (whatever is hot to them) provides relief from chronic pain and/or a sense of bonding with their partner/s, and there is nothing wrong with that. Heck, for some people, soft and sensual sex with special loved ones helps them heal from trauma and there is surely nothing wrong with that. And for some folks, certain kink acts done in certain ways (all variables depend on the folks involved, same as any other example here, of course) can also provide opportunities for healing and processing of trauma. There is also nothing wrong with that. Thankfully we live in a world full of diverse people with diverse tastes, and all of us are always changing so long as we are open to the idea (and sometimes if we aren’t). It would be very boring if this were not the case.
Putting all of these points together yields my answer to your question:
Folks who have survived sexual violence are one distinct group. Folks who enjoy some form of BDSM are a different distinct group. Being in one does not cause being in the other. However, folks can also be a member of both groups. It is possible that someone may be drawn to BDSM because they feel in their gut that it might help them process or heal from a past trauma, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean the trauma made them like BDSM, it means they are proactively seeking creative and potentially enjoyable ways of healing and growing and they have identified BDSM as something that may work for them. If a BDSM interaction or relationship goes wrong and becomes abusive, it’s not because it was BDSM. It’s because it was abusive. The same rule goes for any type of relationship.
Thanks for your great question. I hope that my answer helps you have great conversations and exploration around this topic! If you feel like it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I also welcome thoughts from anyone else reading this post.