Crossing the Line: Where Kink Becomes Abuse
In my second D/s relationship, my sub and I had different agendas. And we lived in different states. Our second long visit was difficult. I felt badgered, not served. It wasn't malicious on her part; she was making known her sense of insecurity about the relationship without stating it. I withheld my frustration, until her last night with me. We were browsing bondage erotica online. Stirred, my top self suddenly leapt to the fore and offered a conduit for my anger. I pulled her down on the bed by the hair and pinned her on her back, then slapped her face hard and repeatedly, though carefully. I chose to stop before marks appeared. But I wasn't done. She would know my fury. I commenced a wicked tongue-lashing. I told her nothing untrue, but I sharpened the edges of truth before striking her with it. And it felt so satisfying—a rich mix of dominance and anger! She submitted to the torrent of barbs.
But I'd lost track of her. She was triggered, miserable. Eventually she managed to say meekly, "I need a safeword." It hadn't even occurred to me that she might not be able to take my verbal assault. I didn't think she deserved my care in that moment, but I knew to stop. In silence, I tugged her by the hair off the bed, onto the floor and to her knees. I sat on the bed and tried to locate my composure. I had given free reign to my fury, and crossed the line in the process.
There is no hard, bright boundary between consensual kink and abusive treatment. No, it's a foggy, broad gray-zone. Where the zone lies, and how wide it is, varies from day to day for each of us. Venturing out to your limits in a D/s context may lead somewhere transcendent, or terrible. And it's not only the bottom who's at risk. When a top is drawn into territory where he's conflicted, but presses on because the bottom apparently craves it, he will be hurt as well.
Simply defined, BDSM is sexualized power, sexualized punishment. Power corrupts. It's cliché, but true. Impulses like anger and greed compete with rational notions like care and fairness. Males' abuse of their power in vanilla relationships (e.g. date rape and domestic violence) is sadly common. It can't be a surprise that an intentional power imbalance within a romance, even if just during sex, leads to abuse at times. Indeed, "power exchange" carries you there, eventually. Incidents of abuse are a rarely-discussed cost of regular kink.
If straying into abuse—whether intentional or not, acknowledged or not—becomes a pattern, you have an abusive relationship; the right choice is to leave it. But what sort of relationship is it when abusive events are infrequent, and discussed afterwards, and cause the partners to adjust course, yet remain inevitable? Can this be considered healthy? Can it be considered... sexy?
A slave-identified woman whom I corresponded with for a while had been introduced to the master-slave dynamic by a much older gent who was her first serious partner. She had moved in with him in her early 20s. He had introduced kink to her gradually at first, and found her receptive. One day he announced that she had a choice: begin a 30-day training period to become his slave, or leave the relationship. If the training did not suit her, she could opt to leave after it was complete. He was a former military man, and believed in the principle of boot camp: break the civilian to reach the soldier within. Applied to his girlfriend, that became: break the independent girl to reach the slave within. She agreed to try. His kinks then became her entire experience, 24 hours a day. She described his treatment to me; none of it was terribly unusual, but it was brutal in its intensity. She was overwhelmed. She was miserable. She begged him to stop. He continued. Then in a particular moment, she told me, something awoke in her. A light came into her eyes, which he recognized. He'd found the slave within her.
She told me they later discussed the training period, and he admitted he had become too harsh too quickly. He had been, in my view, abusive. She was, I believe, damaged somewhat by that experience. But it was also her gateway into a relationship and lifestyle that she was passionately devoted to. From her recollections I gathered that abuse was not a pattern after the training days. When I met her she was seeking a new master, as her original master had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He'd directed her to seek a new partner. Clearly she still felt owned by him, but was dutifully seeking what he thought best for her.
The strange truth is that along with power and punishment, abuse, too, can be sexualized. Coping with mistreatment this way doesn't mean it's not damaging; any incident of abuse will require the attention of both partners, and time, to heal. But I suspect that sexualizing abuse committed in a kink context blunts its edge; isolated transgressions can be interpreted as moments of extreme weather, rather than crises that might precipitate a breakup.
We are interdependent creatures, yet we are selfish. We are resilient beings, yet we have long memories. When drawn to the flickering heat of D/s and S&M we have to know that we are working with psychological fire; although we manipulate it artfully on our best days, we will be burned, or burn our lovers, on our worst. Some such accidents may seem tenable, even fantastic, in the moment—until the wound appears. Given care, wounds heal, and scars fade, though not entirely.