In my first two posts in this series I looked at the traditional attitudes to bdsm, and how they are changing, and in part 2 at the healing narrative within kink. In this final post I shall address the “elephant in the room” – abuse.
Recently I attended the Pink Therapy Autumn conference, From the Bottom to the Top, emerging trends in BDSM. Indeed these three posts were prompted by anticipation of the conference as well as the in-depth look at kink as one of the units on my post graduate course. There were many ground breaking discussions and workshops, and it seemed most fortuitous that it coincided with my own writing and thinking around these topics.
One of the very valuable workshops was led by DK Green, and looked at the issue of the “missing stair”. That is the knowledge of abuse happening within kink communities, and what, if any, responsibilities therapists have, particularly if they also belong to kink communities. These questions of abuse are so important, but like the missing stair, which everyone simply steps over, they can be very difficult to explore.
Like many marginalised communities those who identify as kinksters or BDSM practitioners (as opposed to those who simply include BDSM practices in their sex lives who outnumber those who have a kink identity) have often felt a loyalty to the community which expresses itself in only presenting the positive aspects. When it comes to abuse this often means that informal networks are preferred to formal reporting structures. Group norms and group acceptance are used to silence survivors of abuse, and they often face accusations of “letting the side down” or “bringing the community into disrepute”. Of course this kind of behaviour is not limited to kinksters, Sara Ahmed explored how this played out in academia, and asks the question on her blog “What if staying employed by an institution means you have to agree to remain silent about what might damage its reputation?”
Individuals may feel reporting abuse will “bring the community into disrepute”(especially given the negative attitudes I explored in Part One). They may also be pressured to remain silent, by others who fear that discussions of abuse may play to the public perception of all BDSM as abusive. Telling your therapist may feel like a moment of disloyalty, or perhaps be overlaid with a worry that you will not be believed, or will be victim blamed. This makes DK’s questions of what to do with this knowledge of vital importance. If, as Rogers stated, we the therapist should be congruent and authentic, it is important to avoid being thrown into the clients confusion and distress by a disclosure. Which is not to say that every disclosure will have the same outcome, indeed in the workshop many of us concluded there must be a case by case basis here, centered on the clients best interests. Having examined how you feel about kink, your “squick” and prejudices (in either direction) is central to ensuring you remain in that congurant and aithentic space.
Given our cultural background, overlaid by misogyny and underpinned by the power structures of patriarchy it is no surprise that informal reporting networks have been preferred. Attempts to formalise reporting, such as on Fetlife have fell foul of the idea explored by Ahmed that reputation (either personal or community) matters more than protecting others from abuse. Over and over again abusers remain, or at the very most move group, club or geographical district. Informal reporting is a sticking plaster over a knife wound, and exists largely so people can claim something was done.
It is important to note here that none of these behaviours are caused by or are exclusive to BDSM, they are reflections of wider society. In the same way therefore examining whether a relationship is abusive takes care, and stepping outside of our own experiences and relationships dynamics, and into those of the person coming to therapy. It is just as dangerous to assume the no true scotsman fallacy – i.e that no true Dominant can be abusive, as it is to assume that all BDSM is abusive. When examining whether a relationship is abusive or not, we need to look at how someone experiences the relationship. Instead of being the observer looking in through the window, we have to be in the room, understanding what is being experienced. This can be particularly difficult if you have not examined your own feelings about certain sexual practices.
There are some specific areas where knowledge of BDSM can help identify abuse. Long before the bastardisation of 50 shades framed abusive behavior as kink some Dominants have used the excuse of “this is how kink works” to isolate and abuse, especially with those new to the scene. Sub frenzy (the desire to do everything experienced by a new sub) which seems to be a form of NRE (new relationship energy) can make this a dangerous dynamic. Whilst the excuses may be different, the behaviors are no different from domestic abuse without the veneer of BDSM. As this is the case, it is important to proceed as you would with any client where you suspect abuse. Psychoeducation can be helpful here, however, just as with all domestic abuse the abuser may seek to draw the therapist into a drama triangle, and it is important this is avoided. One must recognise oneself as a victim of abuse to step out of the triangle, and the therapist must walk the delicate line between knowledge and unconditional positive regard when doing this work.
In some ways this is the core message of these posts, BDSM or kink may look very different, especially if it is a new of unexplored area, but the underlying issues are the same. Missionary position sex between a monogamous married couple can be abusive, being tied to a St Andrews cross and flogged can be consensual and a wonderful experience for all involved. As therapists we have, according to the BACP, a duty to educate ourselves, that education can move us from judgement into non-judgmental stances, empathy and unconditional positive regard, things the kink community have all too rarely received.