6 Ways to Think About Abuse

By Sex Geek  (used with permission)

1. Admit that we simply cannot make it go away. It will always exist. There is no perfect solution. I’m not being a pessimist – at all in fact – just a realist. So let’s stop looking for a solution that will always work; they will all have their flaws. This should not discourage us, it should make us think more realistically and take more concrete action instead of finding hopeless plans and then abandoning them.

2. Remember that submissives are not idiots. Anytime the idea of “protecting the poor helpless submissives / newbies” comes up, it makes my skin crawl. It is condescending and inaccurate to think that someone in the submissive or bottom role is any less likely to stand up for themselves than anyone else; any less likely to take proper precautions to protect themselves in the first place; and any less likely to know their limits, know how to defend themselves, and know how to make wise choices. They may be marginally more likely to find themselves in a vulnerable position within a scene, but this doesn’t make them airheads who can’t take a moment to think about relative risk and commonsense safety precautions.

3. Remember that not everyone is fucking heterosexual already. Remember that abuse exists between gay men and between lesbians and among trans people of any orientation. (In fact the only person I can think of whom I would blacklist, if I believed in blacklisting, which I don’t, is a lesbian.) Stop talking about abuse as though it were just for top men and bottom women who necessarily play with only each other. This limits the discussion and leaves out vulnerable people.

4. Take an approach that’s about an ethics of care and empowerment rather than an ethics of protection, defense or punishment. Ask the question: how can we best care for each other within our community? NOT how can we best defend ourselves and protect our own? There is a big difference.

Protection means that we assume someone is weak and they need stronger people to defend their interests. It creates a sense of dependence (on the “weak” person’s part) and righteous strength (on the “strong” person’s part) which in fact is suspiciously similar to the conditions that create and support abusive situations in the first place.

Care and empowerment means that we assume someone is strong and capable, and we want to give them all the resources they might want to nourish that strength, and provide support for them if they need it. It creates legions of strong people who have lots of backup if ever their own strength flags.

5. Ask the question: What can I do that will help prevent abuse? NOT What can I do that will make me feel like a hero? Then stop, and ask it again. And again. And again until you get as deep inside your motivations as possible and away from anything that looks like the desire for revenge, self-important heroism, grandiose visions of saving the world and so forth. Once you get there, keep asking it until you come up with a list of at least eight or ten answers. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you start groaning and saying, “Man, that would be a lot of work / that would be personally challenging for me.” Then make it your business to pick at least two or three of them, and actually take some concrete action. (I’m posting my own starter list next.)

The effective answers, for better or for worse, rarely involve revenge, blacklisting or other dramatic means of the sort. It’s really unfortunate that we seem to have this vision of community as though it were something that could be built and made strong through punishing those who do things we don’t like.

6. Remember that abuse is a really specific kind of bad situation. It always bothers me when people use the word “abuse” to mean “any kind of behaviour I don’t like.” According to a resource I often link to on the topic: “Abuse is a pattern of behavior where one person tries to control the thoughts, beliefs, or actions of a partner, friend, or any other person close to them. Abuse is sometimes also referred to as domestic violence, battering, and intimate partner abuse. Abusers may use a number of ways to control their partner, none of which are acceptable in the context of a consensual, negotiated S/M relationship. These actions cannot be stopped with a safeword and can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, outing, and defending any of these nonconsensual actions as the way “real” S/M works.”

In other words, forgetting to check someone’s circulation while they’re in bondage might be neglectful or stupid or unsafe, but it’s not abusive. Playing past someone’s limits by genuine accident, miscommunication, or whatever else may be awful, but it’s not abusive. Getting in a fight with your honey and yelling something mean at them is not nice, but it’s not abusive. (Though it might happen within an abuse situation of course.) Assaulting someone on the street is a criminal act, but even that is not abuse. Abuse is an ongoing non-consensual / coercive power dynamic between partners that plays out in all kinds of insidious ways, not all of which even look abusive on the outside. Let’s call a spade a spade, and let’s not confuse or dilute it with related (or unrelated) issues.


Andrea Zanin, a.k.a. Sex Geek, pretty much writes and talks about sex all the time unless she’s eating, sleeping or having it. She lives in Toronto and is an organizer, educator and writer within the queer, polyamory and BDSM/leather communities, as well as being an active trans ally. She frequently speaks about alternative sexuality for universities, colleges, sex shops, community groups and conferences in Canada, the States and internationally. Andrea also writes alternative-sexuality news and commentary for the Montreal Mirror, Capital Xtra! (Ottawa) and Xtra! (Toronto), as well as blogging at http://sexgeek.wordpress.com. She has a background in women’s studies and sexuality studies from Concordia University, and is pursuing an MA in those same fields at York University with a focus on Canadian leatherdyke history. Andrea has judged a number of leather title contests, including GLLA Bootblack 2008, International Ms. Leather 2009 and Mr. Leather Toronto 2010. She co-organizes the annual Canadian leatherdyke weekend An Unholy Harvest, enjoys spending as much time as possible with her two partners, and occasionally writes erotic fiction on the side.

One Response to 6 Ways to Think About Abuse

  1. tawana says:

    Thanks for yet another fabulous article and for creating this site. It is a valuable resource for our community.

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