SM or Abuse?

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July 1997

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1997 by William A. Henkin

Several years ago I moderated a round-table discussion at a Janus meeting that concerned abuse survivors in the SM community. Much of the discussion centered on adults who had survived sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse in their childhoods, and how that abuse might or might not have affected their later erotic interests; but in the course of the evening our conversation also touched on abuse in adulthood, abuse in the SM communities themselves, and abuse that masquerades as SM – a particularly touchy and somewhat insidious topic, considering the extent to which denial on the parts of both tops and bottoms can often accompany and help perpetuate such abuse, no matter which party – top or bottom – may be doing and which receiving the abuse.

Abuse in all its manifestations seems to me to be an important topic. It's one I hear about periodically in my practice, of course, but even there it is not a subject people always talk about easily. Recently I received a reader's question on the subject, and while I don't ordinarily print lengthy questions in their entirety, this one seems to me to cover so much important ground for so many people both within and outside the world of SM that I'm largely suspending my blue pencil to present it more or less verbatim. I'm also answering the letter at somewhat greater length than I have done of late, and consequently this column – both the question and my response – runs rather longer than most of mine do these days. – WAH

<Q> I am a submissive, heterosexual woman. Recently, I met a dominant man through the personal ads, and over the course of three weeks we got together a couple of times and talked on the phone a lot.

Right from the start I noticed that strange things would happen in our conversations: he'd suddenly be very angry at me in the middle of seemingly benign conversations. He interrupted me frequently. When he got angry he'd accuse me of starting an argument, then he'd refuse to discuss it, and hang up. The way we "resolved" these incidents, as we did several times, was that he told me his interpretation of what had happened and I worked hard to honor and understand it. But when I expressed what I felt, thought, or believed about something, he regularly told me that I was mistaken. And he frequently accused me of behavior that seemed to me to be utterly typical of him, such as telling me that I always had to be right.

His interpretations of our discussions revolved around a series of philosophies he had about the innate dominant nature of men, and the ways in which society is trying to thwart it. He told me I suffer from a "conflict" because on the one hand I "claimed" to be submissive, yet on the other hand I was "judgmental" of his "testosterone-based behavior."

Because he could also be kind, attentive, interesting, and funny, I kept trying to understand what was causing our startling conflicts: in other words, I kept trying to understand what I was doing wrong. Finally, though, during one telephone conversation, his anger, accusations, and name-calling became so clearly irrational that I knew our dispute had its origins with him and not with me. I told him he was being abusive before we both hung up for the last time.

I have no experience being involved with abusive men, so I didn't know where the word had come from. I found a book about verbally abusive relationships and was enormously reassured and validated by it. It described in detail many of the tactics this man used with me, as well as many of the feelings I had in response.

Even though the book was helpful, however, I still feel confused. The book's premise is that no relationship in which one partner wants dominance can be healthy or non-abusive, and I don't know how to reconcile that view with my DS sexuality. I feel clear that I am submissive, yet this man left me feeling battered and belittled.

Have you ever seen people who behave abusively but claim it's merely dominance? What implications does this have about the possibility of physical abuse during play? Can a person be a true submissive and still assert her individuality and defend herself when she feels unjustly attacked or accused?

<A> You certainly describe a textbook example of an abusive relationship, and the man you describe is certainly a textbook example of an abusive person. Repeated outbursts of unprovoked anger, like accusations and interruptions that demean or belittle your equality as a human being, might not always foretell relationship trouble, but I have never yet seen that pattern be benign.

It's easier to see in hindsight and not always easy to see when you're in the midst of it, but once you notice that things have seemed strange with another person for awhile, or even "right from the start" – especially if those strange things are as one-sided as you describe – it's always possible that things really are strange, and that they require enough discussion to achieve a satisfactory resolution. Admittedly, a satisfactory resolution is not always easy to come by. If you always have to work hard to honor and understand my version of our arguments, and I never have to work hard to honor and understand your version of our arguments, you are never going to feel that any resolution is satisfactory and, as a consequence, no resolution ever will be satisfactory, even if I like the outcome: we can only have a satisfactory resolution if both of us are satisfied. It is not necessary to be right or to be acknowledged as being right to feel satisfied, but it is necessary to feel that your communication has been received: that what you said is what I heard. If it is not possible for both of us to be satisfied we may have a relationship in which real resolution is not possible. This is how nations go to war, and how relationships end acrimoniously.

Any of us may believe things that are false. For example, millions of people have believed at one time or another than the world is flat, and millions of others have believed that the world is more or less round. Assuming we have all been living on the same planet, we cannot all have believed correctly. Any of us may think things that are false, too, particularly if our thinking is based on false beliefs. For instance, if I can find no one with hairy palms and I believe masturbation gives people hairy palms, I may think that no one masturbates.

But my feelings can't be wrong: I may feel angry in a situation that looks joyful to everybody else, but that does not mean I don't feel angry; I may feel happy when everyone else is grieving, but however odd it might seem to others, that doesn't make my happiness wrong. I feel what I feel whether or not my feelings reflect other peoples' experiences, and whether or not they reflect what other people feel or think. In a relationship I wish to maintain, whether its nature is romantic, erotic, business, or social, it's important to honor even those of another's beliefs and thoughts I think or believe are false, rather than dismiss them out of hand, both because they are clues about how that other person functions, and because it may be my thoughts and beliefs, not hers, that are incorrect. If the man you were involved with repeatedly said that you were mistaken in your feelings without considering the alternatives, he left you no psychic room within the relationship in which to operate. This kind of disrespect is a hallmark of emotional abuse.

Regarding the alleged "innate dominant nature of men," whether men, women, both, or neither are innately dominant does not relieve each of us of the responsibility to exercise our perceptions and judgments responsibly, with as much honesty, honor, and integrity as we can. Being submissive does not mean relinquishing responsibility for who you are: it means bringing the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and judgments you do have to the attention of your top so that s/he can command that knowledge in directing the scene or relationship. You may elect, in negotiation, to subsume your behavior to the will of another, and you may work to train your thoughts and beliefs in the same direction if you choose, but no one can give what s/he does not possess, and no one can subsume whatever in him- or herself s/he cannot reliably govern. Being infused with testosterone is no more justification to behave indecently than being infused with estrogen, heroin, or alcohol: saying otherwise is either a fancy way to avoid responsibility for the complexities of being human, or it's a matter for the drug-beleaguered person to come to terms with.

When you speak about this man's abilities to be kind, attentive, interesting, and funny on the one hand, and clearly irrational in his wrath on the other, you raise the possibility that he may have been extremely distressed in ways neither you nor he alone could really resolve. Even if you had felt he was the man of your dreams, you may have had no choice but to do as you did: to tell him you felt abused by his behavior, and to end the relationship before you came to harm.

I'm glad you felt reassured and validated by the book you found, because, as I said earlier, the relationship you describe is one of textbook abuse. I have some concern when you write about "the tactics this man used" with you, though, because it sounds as if you or the authors of the book think that he was deliberately abusing you. Perhaps he was, but it is also possible that he was simply reacting our of his own fears and anxieties to provocations he perceived that you did not intend. This somewhat paranoid pattern would not excuse his behavior in the slightest, but it might help you to understand his responses to you, as the book has helped you to understand your reactions to him.

Now, for the more evident purposes of GP readers, we come to the questions with which you end your letter. If the authors of your book claim that "no relationship in which one partner wants dominance can be healthy or non-abusive," I have to assume that either they mean no such non-consensual relationship, or that they don't understand the basis of erotic power exchange, or perhaps that they haven't really examined the nature of power in relationships between living things in general.

To deny that people can acknowledge inequity or consent to its simulation in a relationship seems to me to disrespect those people and to deny them the rights to choose their own lives. Moreover, while it may be a politically correct position it doesn't reflect most real relationships I have seen. In relationships, different parties hold different forms of power, each of which is differently valued at different times. The power balance may shift now and then or it may not; and, recognizing that we are equal as human beings whatever our differing strengths and attributes might be, the people involved may work to keep the consequences of their imbalances equitable. But that is neither to say that the imbalance doesn't exist, nor that it isn't desirable in the eyes of the people involved.

All mammals I've watched, except human beings, have a very easy time with the value of power dynamics. When two dogs meet the first thing they do is to establish a power hierarchy – not because Alpha dog is better than Beta dog, but because both dogs have to know who's in charge in order for them to proceed with doggedly healthy, unconfused interactions. Even the Beta dog, who has freely acknowledged his subservience to the Alpha dog and will, when push comes to shove, roll over and bare his throat or soft underbelly to the Alpha dog, will snap, snarl, and otherwise communicate his feelings as long as it's appropriate to do so, and may fight sometimes even though he risks his life. The Alpha dog's authority does not eliminate the Beta dog's will – and if it did, there are many team or group situations – hunts, pack dog fights – in which the Alpha dog would lose his partner, and pay by virtue of having to stand alone.

The fact that you may be erotically submissive does not make you less of a person than anyone else, or less important than someone who may be erotically dominant, nor does it make you less worthy of respect: it only dictates a roll you play, however seriously and deeply. A top needs a bottom as much as a bottom needs a top, because the roles are relative. There is no top without a bottom, and vice-versa. You felt battered and belittled, not because you were in a top-bottom relationship, but because you were being treated in a non-consensual fashion – because you were being abused; but that need have nothing to do with your sexuality.

So: yes, I have seen people who behave abusively and claim it's dominance. The implications about the possibility of physical abuse during play seem clear to me: someone who behaves non-consensually in one way is more likely than he otherwise would be to behave non-consensually in another. If he doesn't respect your feelings, what makes you think he'll respect your safeword? If you can't trust him to respect your emotional pain, why would you trust him to respect your physical pain?

And yes, absolutely, a person can be a true submissive and still assert her individuality and defend herself when she feels unjustly attacked or accused. Otherwise, she's not taking care of her Master's property. She might even be seen to be conspiring in her own abuse.

Here are a few guidelines for avoiding abuse in the SM world: (1) negotiate as equals, whatever your preferred role; (2) build in some form of straight time to clear the air periodically; (3) use mediation if and when necessary: if either party does not feel s/he is getting a fair hearing, find an open-minded, neutral third party to listen and mirror back to both of you what you say and do; (4) if you, your partner, or your relationship is not ready for mediation, take some classes in SM relationships through Janus, QSM, Differences, or other venues, and read about the subject in books by experienced players, such as The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book, both by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt (San Francisco: Greenery Press); (5) re-examine your written, oral, or unspoken contracts frequently, and reassess your relationship in light of those re-examinations; (6) if, as a general rule, all parties to the relationship are not having fun, some one or more of the first four suggestions is out of whack.

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