by Jay Wiseman
excerpted from "SM 101: A Realistic Introduction"
SM play differs from abuse in many of the same ways that a judo match differs from a mugging. Consider the differences:
- SM play is always consensual (according to the definition of consent on Page 3*). Abuse is not.
- SM players plan their activities to minimize the risks to one another’s physical and emotional well-being. Abusers do not.
- SM play is negotiated and agreed to ahead of time. Abuse is not.
- SM play can enhance the relationship between the players. Abuse cannot.
- SM play can be done in the presence of supportive others -- even at parties given for this purpose. Abuse needs isolation and secrecy.
- SM play has responsible, agreed-upon rules. Abuse lacks such rules.
- SM play may be requested, and even eagerly desired, by the submissive. Nobody overtly asks for abuse -- although self-destructive people may sometimes attempt to provoke it.
- SM is done for the consensual erotic pleasure and/or personal growth of both or all participants. Abuse is not.
- SM play can be stopped in an instant, at any time, and for any reason when the submissive uses a safeword. The victim cannot stop their abuser in that way.
- In SM play, the dominant always keeps their emotions under control. An abuser's emotions are out of control.
- After SM play, the submissive often feels grateful toward the dominant. A victim never feels grateful for abuse.
- SM players do not feel that they have the intrinsic right, by virtue of their gender, income, or other external factors, to control the behavior of their partners. Abusers often do.
The more of the following that are present in your relationship, the more likely that it will become, or is already, abusive:
- Excessive alcohol or drug usage.
- Isolation, decreased contact with friends or family members. For many years I have had a saying: "If it (the relationship) is going to go bad, it usually goes bad in isolation." Beware especially of the person who will not read books, attend workshops, or go to club meetings, and/or does not want you to do those things. (Some people may need to avoid events because of privacy concerns; this is a different matter.) They may know that such resources discuss safety, consensuality, negotiation, ethics, and limits -- and your hearing that would reveal their abusiveness.
- Unemployment and/or severe money problems.
- Strong feelings of jealousy or possessiveness. Unwarranted suspicions of flirting or arranging secret meetings.
- A history of violent confrontations with friends, family members, co-workers, or others.
- A family history of being battered or other violence. (Abuse is, to a large degree, learned behavior. They had to learn it somewhere.)
- Dealing with relationship problems by issuing threats or ultimatums about what will happen if a perceived problem arises again. (Playful "punishments" that have been negotiated as part of the relationship would be an exception.)
- Non-negotiated, hurtful verbal abuse taking place on an uncomfortably frequent basis -- especially if it's not balanced by a lot of affection and support. Examples may include sarcasm, pointed "interrogation" of motives or behavior, belittling in front of others, frequent “teasing,” or “playful” insults.
- Furniture violence. This is a major red flag. If objects are being damaged during a blow-up, people may be damaged during the next one.
The cycle of violence
A basic truth of abusive relationships is that the abuse usually escalates in what authorities call “the cycle of violence.” Emotions reach the boiling point and abuse happens.
Following the abuse, the abuser often feels genuinely sorry and asks for forgiveness. This request is often accompanied by promises to change. Unfortunately, the abuser is not usually able to change without outside help.
Abusive incidents are often followed by a "honeymoon period" of relative happiness. Unfortunately, the stresses that led to the original abuse are usually still present, and tensions again slowly build. Before too long, abuse occurs again.
A major point is that abusive incidents usually become more severe, and the time between the incidents usually becomes shorter. Eventually major destruction, even the death of the abused and/or the abuser, will take place.
The cycle of violence must be broken as early as possible. The key to breaking the cycle is simple: Get outside help! A third party must become involved, and both parties must know that.
This third party should be someone with professional training in dealing with abuse, such as a physician, psychotherapist, or religious counselor. (Note: Some professionals are better than others at dealing with abuse, so finding effective help may involve contacting more than one person.)
Involving well-meaning friends or family members may make the situation much worse. For example, threats by the victim’s friends to the abuser about what will happen “if you ever do this again” are likely to do little except raise tensions, and perhap s even provoke a fatal confrontation.
The people involved must not fool themselves into thinking that a pattern of abusive behavior is something they can solve between themselves. In particular, victims and abusers must not kid themselves that “better behavior” on the victim’s part will p revent further abuse.
If more than one abusive incident has occurred, it’s time to get outside help. If even one incident occurs involving any physical injury, it’s time to call the police.
One positive note: Abuse is learned behavior much more than most people think it is. An abuser is not necessarily evil or weak, but they need to see that their abusive behavior is harming their relationships and driving people away. It helps to view the abuser as someone who needs to learn alternative ways of effectively dealing with frustration and anger.
All communities have resources available to help both abusers and their victims. Your telephone book, particularly the front section of the white pages, lists local resources.
For additional help contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (799-7233).
* Author uses the consent definition formulated by therapist and SM educator Dossie Easton: "An active collaboration for the benefit, well-being, and pleasure of all persons concerned."