Submission versus abuse
Submission versus abuse avatar

This is a little earlier than I’d planned on publishing a second post, but a friend e-mailed me a pretty excellent question.

“Where the line is drawn between submission and abuse, from the perspective of the dom? For example, how does the dom know, when he says “you filthy whore”, that he is meeting the requirements of his sub and not emotionally abusing her, unless they have carefully laid out a blow-by-blow playbook in advance? It reminds me of what the old oval track racers used to say, “There’s no such thing as going too fast, until you crash. Then its too late.”

First, that’s what initial negotiations and discussions about limits are for. For some people, name-calling is a major turn-on. For some other people, it’s never, never okay under any circumstances. There’s no way to know in advance, unless you ask. Any responsible dom will ask a potential sub “What are your hard limits?” Any responsible sub will be very direct and honest about stating what those limits are.

*disclaimer here: Since I’m in a male dom-female sub relationship, those are the pronouns I’m using. Absolutely substitute “his” for “her” for “hir” as needed or applicable. This post is about people, not gender or pronouns, and it applies to all power exchange dynamics, regardless of the gender roles or number of people involved.

Wait, let me back up. BDSM, at it’s core, is a relationship dynamic. It’s about how two (or more) people interact with each other, usually sexually, in a way that is generally more exaggerated or more intense than mainstream relationships. There are many, many, many different ways people do this. There are also degrees of intensity. Everyone has limits – things they do not like or will not tolerate. Usually, people know their own limits, and sometimes they try something new and discover a new limit.

“Soft” limits are things that one might not like except under very specific circumstances, or things one is willing to tolerate for the pleasure of one’s partner, but not really be into themselves.

“Hard” limits are line-in-the-sand levels of no. It’s fairly common for abuse victims to have hard limits of name-calling and face slapping. It’s common for rape victims to have hard limits about fake rape scenes or kidnap scenes.

Violating someone’s hard limit should be treated exactly the same way as if a non-kinky partner said “no”.

The other way to tell the difference between submission and abuse is the context in which the interaction takes place. For some subs, getting smacked around, bounced off of a few walls, and called names is extremely arousing. These types of activities are usually called “scenes” or “scening”. It’s sort of like being on a date. It’s a special circumstance that’s separate from day-to-day life. That same person may love getting smacked and being called a slut in a scene, but it doesn’t make it okay to do the same thing to her out of the scene. Like, say, if dinner was late and the dom smacked her. That’s abusive – unless they have specifically, explicitly, negotiated that. And even then, those negotiations can be revoked.

Another aspect to scening that is very common (almost required) is aftercare. After the scene, both the dom and the sub need some kind of aftercare and reassurance. The dom often needs feedback that he DID read the sub correctly, that the scene DID meet the subs needs, and that things went well. The sub often needs aftercare that reassures them that they did well in meeting a new challenge, or physical aftercare that can be anything from a warm blanket and a cup of coffee or juice, to physical treatment of any minor wounds.

Yes, I did just say “minor wounds”. Some people are into needle play, some people are okay with scrapes or bruises. A responsible dom will make sure that the wounds are, indeed, minor, and make sure that any broken skin is properly treated to avoid infection. Subs don’t always notice injuries when they’re in sub-space, which is a type of trance.

It can be very difficult to walk that line between healthy BDSM play (especially for ‘consensual non-consent’ scenes, which I’ll get into on another post), and domestic abuse. It’s the dom’s obligation to ask the right questions, to know his sub’s emotional condition, and to call a stop to any play if he sees the sub reacting in an unhealthy or unexpected way. It’s the sub’s job to be very clear about what her limits are, and to give honest feedback. If one partner agrees to a particular scene, and it doesn’t work or they find it unexpectedly triggering or painful or unpleasant, they have the right and even the obligation to stop the scene, and re-negotiate. And the other partner actually does have to accept that.

That includes doms, by the way. If a dom is perfectly okay with flogging a sub, but not slapping her in the face, he has the right to refuse. If he’s willing to try it out, and then finds he has problems with it, he has the right to refuse.

There’s a tool most people use to help clear communication in a scene; it’s called a safe word. There’s a number of ways people do this. The most common you will hear of is the “red, yellow, green” set of safe words. Red means “stop”. As in, “stop, right now”. Yellow usually means “slow down” or “tone it back”. Green isn’t used all that often – primarily it seems to be used as a response to a safety check by the dom. Some people can get very non-verbal in sub-space, so when the dom asks if the sub is okay, they can’t really come all the way out to say “yes, I’m fine, please continue”. In this case, green is often used.

A point here: Safe words will not keep you safe. YOU keep you safe. Safe words are a tool. They’re code words, or verbal short cuts. I’ve used “red” to mean anything from “the scene has to stop” to “time out, I have to go take care of a medical condition, and then we can continue”. What words you use – or gestures, if the scene involves a gag – are entirely up to you and your partner.

Everyone occasionally makes a mistake and goes past a line. Forgiving your partner for making that mistake is a healthy part of any relationship. When it becomes a pattern of violating a limit, apologizing, violating another limit… that’s abuse.

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