The difference between controlling behavior and domination

People shy away from talking about abuse in the BDSM scene for good reason—it wasn’t too long ago that the mainstream world thought all Dominants were abusive, and all submissives were victims, and that both sides were crazy to boot. I promised myself when I really got into the blogging that I wasn’t going to avoid the unpleasant topics, and I wasn’t going to censor myself to please everyone so we’re going to talk about abuse, how to know if it’s happening, and how to deal with vanilla people who can’t tell the difference.

This is nothing anyone wants to hear or think about, but I think the percentage of abusers in the BDSM world is probably a little bit higher or at least more concentrated because we are a small community, but this isn’t because people who are into BDSM are abusive—far from it.

Dedicated Dominants have no desire to abuse anyone. Most of them are caring and nurturing of the people they play with and causing harm is the opposite of their intention. No, it’s because some people have certain ideas about BDSM that are inaccurate, and some, who aren’t real Doms, are drawn to this world because they think they can get away with toxic behavior here.

They’ve gotten the idea that there are submissives who will let them do anything. They can turn them into a sex doll to please their fantasies without having to do any of the work of maintaining a relationship. For some people this sounds like heaven and fictional works, especially ones that feature helpless slaves, seem to draw them in. They aren’t looking for a submissive partner, they are looking for a toy they can use.

I absolutely do not blame the fiction, if I did, I wouldn’t write what I do. Adults know the difference between fiction and reality, and they are choosing to try to make their fantasies real, which is fine unless those fantasies consist of abusing another person. Then we have a problem. That’s not a royal we either, that’s we as in everyone who maintains a Power Exchange relationship or participates in D/s activities.

In the long run they usually can’t get away with the behavior, not if they are an actual part of the scene instead of just lurking in a dark corner of the web. People talk and if a submissive has a scary experience with someone claiming to be a Dom, they will tell people about it. It’s not a bad thing to ask an interesting new Dominant if they are involved in any groups or forums because if they are, you’ll be able to find out about their reputation.

If they aren’t, you may want to find out how much they know about the scene and how things work. Have they taken the time to learn and educate themselves before trying to snare a submissive of their own? Because that will tell you a lot about them right there.

They tend to give themselves away with their actions eventually and then they find themselves blackballed and banned from clubs, parties, functions, forums, groups–whatever. An experienced submissive will catch them out pretty fast too. You can’t fake real dominance for long. This community polices and protects their submissives as much as any community can protect an adult with the right to make their own choices. But we’ve all heard the horror stories about people pretending to be Dominants and luring submissives into abusive relationships. It’s lurid and flashy so it makes good news headlines when things go catastrophically bad.

Now picture a vanilla person who doesn’t understand BDSM to begin with. Who certainly can’t ever picture allowing someone to hurt them or imagine why someone would enjoy pain. Add in a few horror stories they saw on the news and suddenly you have a well-meaning friend who is desperately concerned about your life choices to the point of being pushy about it.

Normally I address these posts to the kinky people, but this time I’m addressing it to everyone, because abuse can happen anywhere and some of this applies to people outside the scene too. Maybe if you run into a situation, what I’m saying here could help you explain to a vanilla friend or family member that there is a difference between consensual domination and controlling abuse—because it’s not always clear from the outside.

This still comes up in my life every so often and I am a lifestyle submissive and always have been. I’ve known that I needed discipline and rules since I was a teenager (and not from anyone parental). I was constantly seeking it from the people I was dating, who were mostly just as confused about it as I was. I knew I needed something before I even understood what it meant or why and that’s never easy for anyone.

BDSM has become much less of a dirty secret as time moves on, and certain mainstream books and movies have helped with that quite a bit—despite their unrealistic portrayals and the misinformation in them, they have still helped people come out into the light about relationships like this.  Representation matters, and they seem less freaky or wrong when people see them on television, so I’ve had to deal with this less than I used to, but still sometimes people will misunderstand my relationships and get ‘concerned’ for me.

To make things even more difficult, some submissives, usually ones who are new or inexperienced, do fall under the sway of abusive people, in their search for dominance. Because in some ways controlling behavior can feel like being dominated. Dominants do control their submissives after all, and sometimes that control can be very strict. This can make it hard to explain to people that their concerns are unfounded and unwarranted.

It’s not that you don’t appreciate people worrying about you and caring, it’s just that when they don’t understand the dynamics involved it can feel judgmental and bring back the early feelings of being some kind of weirdo that a lot of us still carry around as baggage. Once you figure out that your need to be involved in some level of BDSM—from the mild, like spanking for sexual gratification, all the way to the more extreme end where a lot of lifestylers fall—isn’t so strange, you pack those worries and fears away, but they’re never really gone for most people. They just linger under the thin veneer of confidence you try to cover yourself with, and a few wrong words can bring them right to the surface.

“Why do you let him control you like that?” coming from a concerned friend can sound a lot like “You’re such a freak for wanting someone to give you rules and spank you for breaking them.” and it can throw off your equilibrium and make you doubt yourself and the choices you’ve made.

But if you see a friend in a relationship that you think is abusive, would you be able to keep from saying something? Probably not, so how can you tell, from the outside, if someone is being dominated in a healthy way or controlled in an abusive way? That’s a really tough question and might be something you can’t tell from the outside, unless they come to you, and say they think they are being abused, which people rarely are able to do.

  • There are signs that you can look for, of course, and here is a standard warning list:

That is not specifically designed with a power-exchange relationship in mind, so not everything fits, but most are warning signs in any relationship. Here are a few that were written while considering a D/s relationship:

  • Bruises on the face—It is very rare that a Dom and Sub both agree to do a scene where there is facial bruising. It’s dangerous and hard to hide the marks, but there are people that do play hard and I suppose they might decide to do it for some reason, but generally speaking it’s a big signal of abuse especially if it happens more than once.
  • An obvious diminishment of self-esteem—Doms usually work to improve this, not tear it down. If a previously fairly confident person suddenly has no self-esteem and there’s nothing else going on in their life than there might be a problem with the relationship.
  • A submissive seems miserable all the time since entering the relationship, nothing terrible seems to be going on in their life to cause it, and they won’t talk about what has them upset.
  • The Dominant interferes with many of the submissives established relationships and seems to be trying to isolate them from all of their friends and family.
  • You see the Dom interact with the submissive and the Dominant does things that hurt the submissive emotionally like insulting them, putting them down. Yes, in scenes some submissives enjoy being humiliated and called names, but few of them enjoy it in front of family and friends, and you can generally tell by their reactions how they feel about it.

If you see things like that happening then you might want to say something, but try not to come off aggressive or judgmental. Be gentle, if they are being abused then they will be fragile. “Hey, I’ve noticed a few things lately with you and I just want to make sure you’re okay.” Is a good first step. If you need to press further just go slow and try to lead them to talk about it. Here are some tips I found that aren’t specific to D/s but are still mostly useful:

These next things, however, are not warning signs of abuse. Even if you personally wouldn’t enjoy them, they can be found in many healthy D/s relationships:

  • The submissive is punished by having to do chores, or having certain activities restricted for a short period of time.
  • The submissive is given rules that they are expected to follow, like having to be in bed at a certain time.
  • The Dominant is protective of the submissive and tries to steer them away from unhealthy behaviors like not sleeping enough, spending too much time playing online and not working.
  • The Dominant interferes with a select few relationships that seem unhealthy or toxic, encouraging the submissive to back away from them, but has no problem with most of the submissive’s friends or family.
  • The submissive occasionally gets upset or sad for a short time because they broke rules or disappointed the Dominant with their behavior.

None of this is unusual for a D/s relationship that includes discipline, but it can set off vanilla people who don’t understand. So, what do you do if someone thinks you’re being abused when you’re sure you aren’t? Well, you’ll probably feel embarrassed that you’re being questioned, but do your best to push that aside because nervousness from embarrassment can come off as an abused person hiding the abuse, or being scared to tell anyone.

Try to be patient if it seems to be coming from a place of concern but be clear and firm that this is not abuse. Do the best you can to sound confident in your answer so that there is no misunderstanding about how you feel. If they have any doubt they will just keep going back to it and that can be frustrating and feel intrusive. If you’re clear with them and they still keep harping on it then the next step is to point them to some articles about how D/s works in the real world; suggest they educate themselves.

If they don’t follow your advice, or even if they do but still keep after you then you’re going to have to get tough because at this point, they aren’t confused, they aren’t concerned, they are just determined to fit you into their mold of what they believe to be healthy. And that, my friends, is abuse.

The kind of relationship you involve yourself in is your choice, and only your choice. No one but the people in the relationship have the right to dictate how things work between you. Because that’s what it actually all comes down to in the end—choice.

Here it is, all summed up in one line: The main difference between domination and abuse is choice and consent.

  • Is everyone in the relationship content with how they are being treated?
  • Does anyone feel that they are being pushed in directions that they don’t want to go?
  • Do they feel afraid of their partner?
  • Do they feel unsafe because of something their partner does?

In a healthy D/s relationship the answers to these questions should be: yes, no, no, no.  If those are your answers then abuse is likely not a problem in your relationship and the opinions of outsiders don’t matter, even if they care about you, and you are allowed to tell them that. It’s that simple.

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