Reducing Abuse in The S/M World

Things To Do To Reduce Abusive Behaviour In The S/M World

By Sex Geek (reposted by permission)

Before moving on to my list of suggestions on what we can do about abuse in the SM community, I do think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve never seen anything that indicates a higher rate of abuse among kinksters than in the general population. I don’t have any statistics on this, but I’ve been around for a number of years now and if anecdotal evidence is worth anything, I’d say people in the SM world are either just as likely (or unlikely) as anyone else to be abusive, or perhaps less so – given that participation in the SM community makes us even more sensitized to power dynamics than the average joe, and given the community’s near-obsessive focus on the ideas of consent, SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual), RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink), safewords, good play technique and so forth. I did think this warranted saying, given how a lot of people seem to think that SM is by its nature abusive and by extension assume the SM community is chock full of leering wife-batterers.

That being said, a couple of other points are also worth bringing up.

One: Just because someone has a pair of leather restraints and a flogger in their bedroom doesn’t mean they’ve been exposed to SM community mores. There’s a ton of kinky behaviour taking place in people’s bedrooms all over the world between folks who’ve never set foot in a dungeon. So I don’t think it’s accurate to presume the safety-obsessed standards of the public SM scene are adhered to by every person who likes to spank their honey before sex. In other words, there is simply no substitute for common sense and self-protection. Just because someone can pepper the conversation with “blah blah safeword” and “yada yada consent” does not mean they’re a safe player with good morals and pleasantly unwholesome intentions. Watch your back. Don’t go home with a stranger and let them tie you up, or if you do, arrange for a friend to check in on you by phone (a safecall). Look before you leap. And if you don’t do any of these things and someone ends up raping or assaulting you, don’t waste your time getting mad at yourself; they’re still a fucking rapist, and it’s not your fault.

Two: I actually disagree with the community’s massive focus on safewords and consent. I personally don’t play with safewords; they have always felt like an awkward and artificial way of going into a scene, and my only experience with them has been negative (someone used their safeword inappropriately once and it really jarred me). If a person doesn’t trust me enough to stop when I read their body language, or at worst, if they say “ouch that hurts too much, can you tone it down,” they shouldn’t be playing with me at all – and the existence of a word like “red” or “mercy” should make no difference to that willingness one way or the other. I also don’t like the SM world’s obsession with the idea of consent. Sure, consent in the legal sense – i.e. no use of force or coercion – is a necessary prerequisite, in my mind, to any kind of satisfying interpersonal exchange, SM or otherwise. But if I’m going to strip someone down and torture them, I want way more than their consent. I want their active desire at every step of the process. The mere fact of someone saying “OK” is simply not enough for me to enjoy myself or feel like I’m doing something that’s right and positive. I mention these things in particular because I’m linking to an article, below, that does a fantastic job of explaining the differences between SM and abuse, but it focuses a little overmuch on the safeword thing without explaining there are other ways to communicate within a scene.

En tout cas. Here is my list of…

10 Things to DO to Reduce Abusive Behaviour in the S/M World

1. My big #1 suggestion is to go read the information provided here. It’s a full page entitled “Is It S/M or Abuse?” and it is the most well-written, accessible and complete short resource I’ve ever seen on the topic. Then – and here’s the key part – send the link to every SM-oriented website you can find and encourage them to post a link on their home page. If you have your own SM site, post a link there. Make a quest of it in your local community. Hell, develop a reputation for being “that guy who wants everyone to post a link to an anti-abuse page.”

The page – which can also be ordered in brochure format – was developed by the New England Leather Association (NELA) in conjunction with The Network/La Red, an organization in Boston which is committed to “ending abuse in lesbian, bisexual women’s and transgender communities.”

2. Order “Is It S/M or Abuse?” in brochure format, or simply copy and paste the info into a Word document and print out a few copies. Bring copies to every SM event you attend and ask organizers to post it or have it available at the door. Bring it to munches and give it to the newbies (thanks for that suggestion, Pepper). In short – let’s make this information so ubiquitous in the SM world that it’s nearly impossible for someone to stumble across our community (especially online) without also coming across information that will help them differentiate WIITWD (What It Is That We Do, another common acronym in public-scene kink) from abuse.

3. If you see someone in a situation that you feel might be abusive, go talk to them. Aahh! Scary thought, isn’t it? Much easier to talk behind their back or post a nasty comment about the bad guy on a website, isn’t it? First, take off your shining armour and put your badass attitude in your pocket. Then go see the person you think might be on the receiving end of the abuse, and ask them how they’re doing. This might actually involve making friends with them first, and gaining their trust in at least some marginal way. Or it might not. Then ask them in a really non-preachy, non-challenging way how they feel about their relationship. Do not accuse their partner of being an abuser; say very clearly that you are not trying to make a judgment about their partner – and mean it! – but that you just wanted to put some information out there because something you saw made you feel it might be wise, just in case. If you have to, make something up about how your cousin was once abused and now you’re really sensitive to anything that might look like abuse. Find a way, however clumsy, to tell them there are resources for them, and then hand ‘em a copy of the sheet and tell them they can come and talk to you anytime, or never talk to you again but talk to someone else if they need to.

4. Even scarier: Go talk to the person you feel might be on the giving end of the abuse. First, take off your shining armour and put your badass attitude in your pocket. Muster all the open-mindedness and diplomacy you can, and approach this person from a place of humility. Keep in mind you really don’t know what’s going on, unless you’ve watched absolutely undebatably clear situation of concrete non-consensual physical or extreme emotional harm being done, in which case emergency measures might be more appropriate than conversation. Keep in mind that leveraging an accusation of abuse is a really fucking serious thing. Keep in mind that if you were on the receiving end of such an approach, and you weren’t being an abuser, you would probably be very upset unless the person was extremely tactful and empathetic and left lots of room for errors in their own judgment. Feel free to say something like “I’m sure you’re not a bad guy, but sometimes the way you speak to/play with Person X makes people wonder if everything you do is really consensual. I just figured you might not know that, and maybe if I told you, you’d be able to do things a bit differently so people don’t get the wrong impression of you.”

5. Wear a t-shirt to S/M events that says “ask me what the difference is between S/M and abuse.” Have an answer ready, and make it better than just “consent” (which in my opinion is an over-used cop-out answer that we rely on way too heavily, see paragraph above).

6. Find out where the women’s shelters are in your area. Then find out what shelters accept trans women, trans men and/or bio-men. If none of them do, find out what you can do about that. Start volunteering there, and tell people in the S/M world about what you learn.

7. Find out if there are any resources in your area for anger management, abuser recovery, etc. Then find out which ones accept trans women, trans men and/or bio-men. If none of them do, find out what you can do about that. Start volunteering there, and tell people in the S/M world about what you learn.

8. Find out if the shelters and anger management groups in your area know anything about S/M. If they don’t, figure out how to educate them. Then actually do it – perhaps with the help of a community group, a committee, a kink-positive therapist, etc.

9. Find out who the kink-positive therapists are in your area. If there are none, figure out how to get a bunch of them together and educate them. Then actually do it – perhaps with the help of a community group, a committee, a guest speaker, etc.

10. If you are an abuser, go get help. If you are being abused, go get help.


P.S. Just in case anyone reading this is considering #1 on the list of 10 things to do, I figured I’d post this little addition if you’re feeling twitchy about the safeword question. (Note that I have updated this from its original posting, with slightly different document links.)


I checked through the works cited at the bottom of the Network/La Red document I linked to, and found a couple from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), a US-based legal support group for kinksters and other alternative-sexuality folks.

Interestingly, and happily, the NCSF documents do not always insist on safewords… and they were adopted in 1998 (after that year’s Leather Leadership Conference), so clearly even then some people must have seen the problem with an excessive focus on safewords.

In the document “Consensual SM Activities: A Field Guide for Law Enforcement,” there is a general explanation about the distinctions that discusses safewords without much nuance. But in the document “S/M vs Abuse Policy Statement,” the only time the word “safeword” is mentioned is in the following paragraph about SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual): “Consensual is respecting the limits imposed by each participant at all times. One of the recognized ways to maintain limits is through a “safeword” which ensures that each participant can end his/her participation with a word or gesture.” (The “one of” part of course being key.)

However, it must be said that while both of these documents do a great job of explaining the difference between SM and abuse, they are for the most part not intended for potential abuse victims. In their wording it seems pretty clear to me that they’re intended for the general public, lawyers, other people in law enforcement, etc. – i.e. not people who do WIITWD, but people outside it who misunderstand its nature. The exception would be the two series of questions in the “Guidelines” section of the “S/M vs Abuse” document – but even those are a lot more theoretical and heady than practical and concrete, compared to the explanations of abuse situations given by The Network/La Red.

Of course, for all you curious people looking into this for more academic reasons, these links are excellent. But with all that in mind, I still think the Network/La Red document is more appropriate to link to withthe aim of giving newbies a tool to help them assess whether what’s going on in their relationship is OK. It’s way more concrete in its SM-specific examples of actual abuse situations.

Of course, if you’re thinking of putting an anti-abuse link on your SM- or sexuality-oriented website and the safeword thing in the Network/La Red document bugs you a whole lot, I still certainly think it’s better to post the NCSF link(s) than nothing at all.

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 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.

2 Responses to Reducing Abuse in The S/M World

  1. Libellule says:

    I just wanted to say thank you. This is an amazing site and well needed.

  2. Lane says:


    Thank you for writing this! It’s a wonderful resource!

    I would like to request that the author rewrite “bio-men” to be “cisgender men.” Using “bio” or “genetic” when referring to cisgender folks implies that transgender folks are biologically something other than themselves, which undermines their identities and is othering.


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