Abusive BDSM Relationships Do Exist, Despite What Community Says

When Jian Ghomeshi attempted to pass off disturbing abuse allegations as just being a little "kinky," I felt nauseated. The fact is, not everyone who practices BDSM practices it responsibly.

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Feb 26 2015, 9:51pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When my old boyfriend first proposed bringing some "toys" and dominant-submissive play into the bedroom after a few months of dating, I'll admit I feigned surprise.

Several weeks before, a venture in search of more towels ended in me finding a poorly-concealed drawer housing a small collection of props, toys, books, and other paraphernalia. So when he brought up the idea of "experimenting," I had already prepared my response.

I had no judgments—I found BDSM kind of cool, and definitely something I was willing to try. I knew enough about BDSM from years of research in sex-positive feminism, and understood the differentiation between consensual kink and full-on abuse.

Unfortunately, as our physical relationship took a turn down that road, the waters became muddy to me. After nearly two years serving as an equal partner outside of the bedroom and a quivering submissive inside it, I was no longer sure what fell inside and outside the realm of "OK."

At its highest points, I did feel a thrill and some joy—wondering if pain or pleasure would come next, the resistance of physical restraint, and an element of aggression and hunger added to my previously conventional sex life.

At its worst, I found myself having to cover up bruises I had never wanted, unable to sit down from welts I never anticipated. I remember sitting in the washroom after so many of our romps and telling myself over and over that it was my fault—that consenting to him spanking me probably did imply that I was OK with him punching me with a closed fist in the chest and on the legs.

I even managed to make myself feel guilty for his failure to adhere to my one hard and fast do-not-want—I told him early on that under no circumstances did I ever wish to be choked. After a few instances of his hand creeping closer and closer to my throat, it wasn't long before I felt his hand squeezing my neck.

I always managed to tell myself that it was me who had let it get a point of discomfort. That I could have said something early on when I felt his hands going into uncharted territory. By the time they were closing in on my neck, I felt too ashamed to say anything. Just as I felt too ashamed to tell him that I wanted to pick a different safe-word, which we'd only even mentioned once, or that I didn't like the way he would just roll over afterward while I tried to hasten the fading of the rope marks on my wrists.

I didn't bother correcting those little failures on his part because on the other side of the door, he was kind. We joked, we played around, we made good food together. We took long road trips, hiked through the Rockies, and, in the way that 20-something young professionals do, we found ourselves together. Ironically, his favourite thing about me seemed to be my independence, my conviction, my utter lack of giving a damn in the face of criticism or attempted control. His desire to almost literally shape me into what he wanted started and stopped at the perimeters of his bed.

Still, though, when we sat beside one another against his bedroom wall on a particularly hot summer's day and he told me, regarding his big drawer of props, "This is all about your comfort," I found that a little hard to believe.

Recently, while I read the various 50 Shades of Grey think-pieces concerned about how the film may affect the reputation or public perceptions of the doms and subs of this world, I couldn't help but think of my own real-life BDSM experience, or those of the women who have alleged abuse against Jian Ghomeshi.

Investigations into the former Q host's sexual and romantic life revealed disturbing allegations that Ghomeshi attempted to pass off in an infamous Facebook post as just being a little "kinky," I felt increasingly nauseated. It seemed like a page out of my own relationship.

Like most feminists and literature enthusiasts, I don't have to read or watch 50 Shades of Grey to know that I have a problem with it. I have a problem with the idea that abuse is sexy. I have a problem with safe words and aftercare barely being given lip service. I have a problem with literary tropes and painfully bad writing.

But I also have a problem with the lack of truly critical thought when it comes to this movie's portrayal of BDSM.

The real problem shouldn't be that fictional characters like Christian Grey are making BDSM look bad. The problem is that people like him exist in real life. And they don't think there's anything wrong with the way they are.

In the eyes of critics, BDSM is awesome, healthy, and A-OK—but this movie isn't. And there's a danger in the public, which is arguably under-exposed to the world of BDSM, thinking that this movie is what that lifestyle is all about. To name a few of Christian's more controversial expressions of passion, he and Ana do not establish a safe word (he even laughs at the idea), and he threatens to tie her feet and gag her despite a clearly defined "no" when he attempts to coerce her into sex. Outside the bedroom, Christian's behaviour is no better. He takes control of Ana's life, restricting what and when she eats and who she interacts with. He even tracks her phone.

And that's not what it's all about. BDSM is about consent, about safe exploration, about always making sure that everyone is comfortable.

But by defending that lifestyle with the same sword we use to hack at 50 Shades, we might be idealizing kinky sex a bit too much.

There's a dichotomy presented by many critics—that Christian Grey isn't a dom, he is an abuser. But is it possible to be both? If one self-identifies as a dom but abuses that power, they can still believe that they are a dom.

Much like Ghomeshi's Facebook post, my ex-boyfriend truly didn't believe that he had done anything wrong. He simply thought that he was experimenting and a little bit edgy, and that anyone who criticized him simply didn't "get it."

The anti-50 Shades campaign run by many devoted, sex-positive, pro-BDSM kinksters has done a great job of raising awareness of the nature of BDSM in general. The problem? It seems to be more of a PR campaign to elevate the reputation of BDSM than to address and condemn legitimate abuse.

When an article like that above states that doms actually care deeply for their sub, I want to cry out—then what was my ex-boyfriend doing when he repeatedly struck me without my consent to a point of breaking skin and refused to even take a shower with me after? Are there no concerns over people like him?

The idea that "real" BDSM is special, exempt from criticism in the name of sex positivity, ignores that there are men out there who are just like Christian Grey. That "fake" BDSM exists and harms people every day.

And again, these people often don't think there is a problem with what they do. Meanwhile, the pro-BDSM voices speaking out treat the crossing of comfort lines, muddled consent, and legitimate harm as matters of fiction. And when it does happen in the flesh, it's "not real BDSM," and therefore isn't their problem.

The fact is, not everyone who practices BDSM practices it responsibly. There are ill-informed and abusive doms.

The question then becomes, who is responsible for addressing the issue of BDSM partners who use the practice to be abusive? It's not as though the BDSM community is situated within a literal, tangible clubhouse with monthly meetings that has the power to formally condemn or expel someone from their "club."

But perhaps the critics of Christian and Ana's tangled tale want to do some research or talk to abused partners before they go around claiming that BDSM is some sort of ideal, trouble-free lifestyle. BDSM and abuse aren't mutually exclusive.

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