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In dictionary terms abuse is the bad use of, misuse of, perversion, or misapplication of a person or thing[1]. When it occurs during BDSM activities or in BDSM relationships it can take some obvious and not-so-obvious forms.

The affect of abuse on the victims

We know that abuse occurs between people. This can be a difficult thing to measure for us because there are quite a few BDSM activities which may look from the outside to be abusive or harmful, but for the people experiencing them they may be enlightening, liberating, empowering, exciting or cathartic.

A useful way of looking at abuse is not at what is actually done, but at what the consequences are for the person to whom these things are done. Thus, a simple definition of abuse for the BDSM world might be: one or more actions by one person which have ongoing negative consequences for another. These consequences could include:

  1. Fear,
  2. Grief,
  3. Anxiety and stress,
  4. Shame, embarrassment and humiliation,
  5. Low self-esteem and impaired self-respect (see also identity),
  6. Inability to relate to others in a healthy way,
  7. Issues with trust,
  8. Eating disorders,
  9. Drugs, smoking, alcohol, gambling, or other types of addiction (including sexual addiction),
  10. Various physical symptoms or illnesses, or other health problems,
  11. Poor, excessive, or otherwise inappropriate responses to others,
  12. Inappropriately coloured perception of circumstances,
  13. Reinforcement or creation of negative self-opinions, behaviours, and attitudes.

For a more complete discussion see [Masters2008] (pp. 212 - 216).

There are couple of ideas which merit articular attention here:

The role of intent

Note that I did not mention intent in the above definition for abuse. Intent often relates more to the experience of the perpetrator than the victim (see below for more on this), and intent may not affect the experience of the victim in any way.

In this regard we need to remember that BDSM is about doing things to our partners and some activities---such as hitting, striking or caning our partners---can be experienced in some circumstances exactly the same way by the person being hit regardless of whether the person hitting them has good or bad intentions.

Short-term damage

As I mentioned above, some legal views of abuse measure it in terms of physical or emotional harm or pain. We need to recognise that these are expected consequences of many consensual and constructive BDSM activities.

Caning, whipping, flogging, spanking, and other forms of impact play will almost always have both a pain consequence and a physical-marking consequence. These may last a day or three.

Similarly, rope bondage often leaves marks and, if removed in a hurry, can also leave rope burns. Rope marks often fade within minutes, but rope burns may also last a day or two.

The perpetrator

Just as some people will abuse the intimate experience of sex (see unhealthy motivations), there are people who will abuse the sometimes intimate nature of BDSM.

It is important to consider, though, the impact of the abusive act on the perpetrator as well as on the victim. For example, it is not uncommon for the courts to deal with someone suffering a sexually-transmittable disease (such as HIV, herpes, hepatitis, etc.) who knowingly has unprotected sexual intercourse with other people in an attempt to infect them. This may be a targeted act of retribution against one person, or against a small group of people who the perpetrator somehow blames for something. It may also be untargeted sociopathic behaviour.

BDSM can provide a related, and possibly abusive, context where impact play is involved and the perpetrator attempts to inflict pain and suffering upon his victim.

In both the cases mentioned above, namely sexual infection and impact play, there are two important considerations:

  1. The victim may not suffer any negative effects. Indeed, the victim may have an absolutely positive experience. In the case of attempted sexual infection, transferral of the infection is not guaranteed, and in the case of BDSM impact play, the victim may be in it for all he/she can get anyway.
  2. It is frequently not the fact that the victim suffers which is important to the perpetrator, but instead it's the fact that they have performed the abusive act that is their reward.

Thus, particularly in BDSM and activities like impact play, interrogation, or humiliation, we have a fertile ground for an abuser to carry out their abusive acts (and frequently get their psychological or emotional reward) without the "victim" even knowing that anything bad has happened.

Abusing dominants

It might seem that abuse is more likely from dominants who are often in a position to take advantage of a helpless a submissive or bottom. In physical terms this may be the case, but dominants are no strangers to being abused by submissives or bottoms.

When this happens it will commonly be in the form of:

  • Manipulation, or
  • Humiliation or embarrassment.

Manipulating a dominant

We must accept that not all dominants have a great deal of experience or, for that matter, have a great deal of intelligence. Some of them, therefore, are potentially vulnerable to a smart and predatory submissive or to a very experienced bottom with bad intent.

In it's simplest form it can be a submissive or bottom saying something like, "Other dominants have hit me harder than that!", to try to manipulate their dominant into doing something they feel uncomfortable doing. By making such claims (which might be entirely fictional) they attempt to play upon their dominant's lack of experience, ego, or lack of knowledge.

Other submissives may try to engender the idea that their dominant partner needs to attend to them, "give them orgasms", and that if the dominant can't fully satisfy the submissive then they "aren't really a dominant at all".

Humiliation or embarrassment

A submissive or bottom who thinks or imagines they have been unfairly treated may attempt revenge by humiliating their (possibly former) dominant by revealing the dominant's BDSM life to others---such as their family or work colleagues. This can also have legal consequences.


  1. [OED]

See also