Intimate Partner Violence in Sadomasochistic Relationships

The following is an excerpt from research inspired by four individuals’ experiences of intimate partner violence in the context of what they had initially believed to be consensual sadomasochistic relationships. The individuals came forward with the common motivation of giving hope to others who have felt similarly trapped by the conspiracy of silence, and to help generate discussion in support of those who find themselves in an abusive relationship disguised as D/s.

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Contemporary society has come far in progressing towards tolerance, and perhaps even acceptance, of individuals who may not look or act the way the statistical majority does in terms of sexual and gender expression. Having said that, human consciousness remains overwhelmingly confined by rigid heteronormative definitions of sexual orientation and gender identification, which reinforce binary stereotypes and the pathologization of individuals who identify outside of the mainstream. The enduring stigma around engaging in Bondage and Domination/Dominance and Submission/Sadism and Masochism/Sadomasochism—also known as BDSM, SM, S&M, kink, and D/s1—impedes the recognition and acceptance of normative D/s relationships, disallowing a context in which intimate partner violence can be recognized. In other words, when mainstream society ignores the fact that BDSM can be a healthy form of sexual expression, and conflates it with intimate partner violence (IPV), it is difficult for someone experiencing abuse within the context of a D/s relationship to seek and receive support from health care providers, law enforcement, society at large, and among peers.

Given that the issue of IPV in heterosexual relationships has traditionally been assumed solely to affect heterosexual women, and that stereotypical gender roles promote the assumption that the submissive partner is always female, a similar assumption follows that IPV in D/s relationships would be directed toward the submissive partner. While the literature indicates that this is predominantly the case, it is important to note that it is possible for any gender to abuse any other gender2,3,4, and that there can be a discordance between traditional gender and power roles within D/s relationships5; therefore, it is no less plausible that dominant partners can be abused by submissive partners, regardless of gender. Abusive tendencies are rooted in maladaptive characteristics specific to the individual6; they are not necessarily associated with biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or BDSM-orientation. Non-consensual D/s relationships are a specific type of IPV, characterized by a lack of pleasure and the presence of enduring, permeating fear or discomfort on the part of the abused partner that is not confined to a consensual sexual encounter, and do not always occur in the direction of dominant to submissive partner7.  Unfortunately, there is no specific data to reference as there has been no research to date looking at instances of IPV in D/s relationships; this lack of research in effect reinforces and is reinforced by the conspiracy of silence around abuse.  It can be difficult for anyone who has experienced IPV to seek support, and those who are BDSM-oriented face the additional challenge of the common mainstream misconception that even consensual D/s relationships are abusive.

Institutional sexism affects all individuals who have experienced IPV, mainstream or non-mainstream, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or BDSM-orientation. There is, however, an intersectionality of discrimination that can exponentially affect BDSM-oriented individuals. To begin with, there is a reinforcing relationship between socially sanctioned gender roles and institutional sexism8. This is an issue for any gender—all individuals who are subjected to IPV suffer neglect and mistreatment at the hands of patriarchal and misogynistic institutions. Likewise, when a non-mainstream sexual orientation is added to the mix, neglect and mistreatment by the same institutions intensify.

The situation is dire but not hopeless. With continued efforts to educate society and give voice to those in marginalized communities, policy can change, and supports for every survivor of abuse can be put in place. Imagine a world in which BDSM participants felt they could freely discuss their preferences and proclivities with their medical and mental health providers without fear of judgment or stigmatization. Health care providers might then have on file certain preferences that might cause specific types of marks, and might notice a congruent pattern with consensual markings. It follows that health care providers would also have the ability to notice when marks fall outside of an individual’s patterns and preferences, and that an open line of communication could be established to determine whether the marks had been consensually obtained or were the result of IPV.

There is much work to be done towards creating an ideal support system for survivors of IPV in D/s relationships. There is a need for training among medical and mental health professionals on how to recognize their own biases, and understand the difference between normative expressions of BDSM and IPV. There is a need to educate the general population in this way as well, so that the difference between abuse and BDSM becomes clear and easier to recognize for those in both mainstream and BDSM communities. There is a need to employ and train law enforcement that is less aligned with patriarchal and overly moralistic attitudes and beliefs, and more empathetic and culturally competent. Finally, there is a need within the BDSM community to promote a clear understanding of the scaffolding of consent: 1) negotiation of common interests; 2) agreement on both a verbal and nonverbal safeword; 3) a commitment to continually attain explicit, rescindable consent; and 4) the incorporation of aftercare, not only as a means of returning to a cognitive and emotional baseline, but as a means for ensuring all parties involved enjoyed and understood the experience in roughly the same way. The key to accomplishing all of the above seems to be in transparent and explicit communication, and the raising of silenced voices.

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1 Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological functioning of bondage/domination/sadomasochism (BDSM) practitioners. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 18(1), 79–120. doi: 10.1300/J056v18n01_05

2 Ard, K. L. & Makadon, H. J. (2011). Addressing intimate partner violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender patients. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26(8), 630-633.

3 Enos, V. P. (1996). Prosecuting battered mothers: State laws’ failure to protect battered women and abused children. Harvard Women’s Law Journal, 19, 229-268.

4 Rohrbaugh, J. B. (2006). Domestic violence in same-gender relationships. Family Court Review, 44(2), 287-299.

5 McClintock, A. (1993). Maid to order: Commercial fetishism and gender power. Social Text, 37, 87-116.

6 Moore, K. J., Greenfield, W. L., Wilson, Kok, A. C. (1997). Toward a taxonomy of batterers. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 83(4), 352-360.

7 Nichols, M. (2011). Couples and kinky sexuality: The need for a new therapeutic approach. American Family Therapy Academy Monograph Series, 7, 25-33.

8 Joseph, J. A., Pitagora, D., Tworecke, A., & Roberts, K. E. (2013). Peering into gaps in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Student perspectives on gender and informing education. Society for International Education Journal: Engaging with Difference, Gender and Sexuality in Education, 7(1), 104-127.

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