Advertisement
Health

How to Tell if Your BDSM Relationship Is Abusive

A psychologist explains the line between a healthy exchange of power and potentially fatal abuse.

by Matthew Terrell
Apr 4 2019, 4:03pm

David McNew / Getty Images

For the average person, BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism—a type of sexual behavior) may mean the occasional light spanking in the bedroom. Maybe there are handcuffs, ropes, or other toys obtained from the local erotic store. But for many people who identify as being part of the “leather community” or, more generally, the “kink community,” BDSM is a lifestyle. These folks don't dabble in BDSM play. They live it.

If you ever see someone wearing a chain and padlock as a necklace, they are very likely a submissive in a master/sub BDSM relationship. The lock is much like a wedding band, and signifies that the sub belongs to a master (who has the key to the padlock), and cannot be approached by other dom masters, unless granted the key to the collar. Other symbols of BDSM lifestyles include tattoos/branding of the submissive with an image that symbolizes their master. These relationships are common in both gay and straight communities across the globe.

To outsiders, all of this might sound extreme, and reflective of some underlying mental illness. After all, why would someone willingly cause themselves pain, or ask someone else to inflict pain upon them? Some of the more exotic rituals of BDSM play are especially mind boggling to outsiders—like penis chastity cages that won't let the wearer have a full erection (but lets them urinate), and that only the master has the keys to unlock it.

The reasons people have for pursuing a life devoted to BDSM are myriad, but most of it centers on being able to forge deeper connections with other human beings and with themselves, says Ryan Witherspoon, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist specializing in alternative lifestyles. For many, it's an accepting community to belong to, when they perhaps didn't fit in in other communities. Some practitioners say BDSM play feels natural to them, like they are inherently drawn to being dominant or submissive, and it's a true expression of their selves.

There are numerous psychological benefits to BDSM play that seem to alleviate the fears and worries of modern life, Witherspoon says. He says BDSM play can lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as increase feelings of relationship closeness with a partner. It can also, for some, reduce negative emotions and increase sexual arousal. “BDSM can allow participants to transcend traditional levels of intimacy, through a desire to explore intense erotic connections along with using sophisticated communication of one’s boundaries and desires,” Witherspoon says. "For people who grew up in sex-negative cultures, BDSM could help them have a more positive, free experience of their sexual selves, he adds.

In BDSM, participants set their boundaries, create a framework for safety, and then explore scenarios (such as Japanese rope bondage and prison fantasies) with each other. However, because of the nature of the sexual behavior that may include actions that are deemed violent, sophisticated communication is at the center of understanding the difference between BDSM and abuse.


Watch More from VICE:


There is an aura of danger to BDSM relationships, even if both parties are acting in loving, mutually consensual ways. Last year, a figure in the Los Angeles leather community named Master Skip (who is also a top executive at a talent agency), allegedly inadvertently caused the death of one his submissive playmates during a “mummification ritual.” His submissive, Doran George, died from suffocation. A few years ago in Tennessee, a suburban mom left her family to live as a sex slave to a female master, and she ended up being beaten to death. The high-profile death of Jack Chapman (also known as Tank Hafertepen) last year rocked the BDSM and leather communities, and spurred many conversations about the ethics of these types of relationships.

In addition to the padlock collar and tattoo, Jack's master, Dylan Haftertepen, encouraged him to pursue extreme body modification to appear as big and bulky as possible. This included injections of liquid silicone into his body, which ultimately caused a fatal embolism. “In a dream Jack came to me, hugged me and told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him, too,” says Linda Chapman, about her son, who passed away in October 2018. “It was the best dream I have ever had, because I never had the chance to say goodbye.”

Chapman believes that the BDSM relationship her son was cult-like, as Jack was one of several “pups” who seemed to “belong to” Hafertepen. She never had a problem with her son being gay—she even recalls happy memories of Jack when he would go-go dance. But she struggled when she saw her son get sucked deeper and deeper into a dark BDSM lifestyle, where he was increasingly separated from the outside world, and she couldn't do anything about it. (Dylan Hafertepen could not be contacted for this article and he appears to have shut down all means of communication with the press.)

Witherspoon identifies one litmus test to differentiate between BDSM and abuse: Can you still function as a citizen in everyday life while leading a BDSM lifestyle? When someone loses their financial independence, their ability to communicate with outsiders, or if their BDSM play harms their body as to make them sick or unable to leave the house—these are all cases of abuse.

According to Witherspoon, BDSM and dominant/submissive relationships should have safeguards built in to create boundaries and prevent abuse from occurring. Common to master/sub relationships are “contracts” that both parties sign, which stipulates how the relationship will be run. Witherspoon advises that couples should allow for constant communication to create clear consent. Most people know about the use of a safe word as an emergency brake to stop roleplay, but Witherspoon also advises for a regular check-in time with both parties, when they’re not in roleplay, to discuss what's been going well and what hasn't. “The contract should allow the submissive to exercise control of everyday life. They should be able to control what safe sex practices they use, decline illegal or harmful practices, and have boundaries for what they'll do,” he says.

Another sign of abusive relationships is isolation from friends and family. Chapman says contact with her son slowly tapered off when he moved in with Master Dylan. Witherspoon says there’s a problem when all the people you know in the BDSM community are people you know through your master. “A sub should have a diverse set of perspectives from friends. If you are uncomfortable being around family or people who are not in the BDSM community, you should still have friends who are not connected to your master. Even in a non-kink abusive relationship, one of the hallmarks is isolation.”

For Chapman, uncovering these dark details of her son’s relationship have made mourning him even more painful. She is a survivor of an abusive relationship, and knows how hard it is to find the strength to leave someone you are deeply committed to. “If someone is in a BDSM relationship and they feel they can't escape, they should look up domestic violence resources in their area. It is harder to find services for men; however some of them can help you to get out of an abusive relationship,” Witherspoon says.

Still, for most people in the BDSM community, these sorts of shocking stories of abuse and death go against the experience they live. The average BDSM practitioner isn't living locked up in a cage in a master's basement (at least not for an excessive amount of time) or acting as a human footstool. They are everyday people—attorneys, waiters, writers, soccer moms—looking for a way to find their own purpose and make deeper connections with someone they care about.

“I enjoy taking care of a sir's needs, and this goes beyond the sexual side,” says Minnesota-based “boy” (a sort of low-pressure submissive role) Matthew Theis. “Whether it’s packing and unpacking his luggage, keeping his drink full when out at a bar, or giving him a massage after a long workday, anything that makes the sir's life easier. All of these things are just as important and often clouded by the blowjobs, the sex, and general kinkiness most outsiders often think of.”

If you think you may be in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website, thehotline.org.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.