SM and Abuse

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January 1996

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996 by William A. Henkin

<Q> My friend is a submissive woman whose top has begun to punish her outside their play scenes: for instance, at dinner the other night he slapped her without notice, explaining to me later, when I asked, that he had been punishing her for being disobedient about something I did not understand. Is this still SM?

<A> Probably not in my book. I say "probably" because I don't know the couple and I don't know what they've negotiated. If they've negotiated a lifestyle or a scene of consensual nonconsent, for example, and you're seeing the results without knowing the background, what they're doing may still be what I would call SM. In some ways my answer might depend on how your friend responded to being slapped: did she like it, appreciate it, or feel humbly chastised? Or did she dislike it, resent it, or feel unhappily humiliated?

SM as I know it is consensual, negotiated, erotic play that takes place within agreed-upon limits. If it is not consensual, if it is not negotiated, if it is not erotic, and/or if the agreed-upon limits are violated, chances are good that people have crossed a line from intense sex play to what I would call abuse.

Another point that may sound like mere PR for the world's leather communities really goes much deeper: if you or I could interpret what your friend and her play partner are doing as abuse, it also probably looks like abuse to other people who have less knowledge about SM than we do. Even if this couple's scenes do concern consensual nonconsent, the people around them when they play in public, such as you, have not agreed to participate as voyeurs or bystanders, and it's never polite, in Sybil Holiday's felicitous phrase, to bring your bedroom into other people's living rooms.

None of what I've written so far answers your question if your friend's definition of SM is different from mine. I don't know your definition and I don't know that of your friend and her top. I support the "safe, sane, and consensual" slogan of the organized SM communities, and I can justify it if need be. But just as there are people who say that what they do is not SM even though the bondage, spanking, and other variants of their sex play look like SM to me, so also there are people who say that what they do is SM even though it doesn't look like SM to me.

In any case, if you believe your friend is being abused – which I know you never said, but which I find implicit in your question – why not ask her how she feels about what she and her play partner are doing? If she says something like, "Wowie zowie, Chad, this is the best time I've had since the frost line descended," you probably can rest your worries. On the other hand, if she doesn't know or if she feels as if she is being abused, just having someone notice enough to ask might start her on the road to improve or leave a relationship that is not in her own best interests. And whatever answer your friend gives you, at least you'll have enough information to settle your own mind about what's going on with her.

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