It’s time to stop conflating dominance and abuse

Trigger warning: BDSM, abuse, kink, consent/violation

Last week, “Fifty Shades Darker,” sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” broke the record held by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for most-viewed trailer in 24 hours. It’s clearly capturing the attention of a mainstream YouTube audience despite criticism that the relationship depicted, between Dominant Christian Grey and Submissive Anastasia Steele, is abusive. Much of that criticism stems from the historical representation of BDSM relationships as inherently abusive, when this is not in fact the case.

BDSM is an overlapping acronym for Bondage/Discipline Domination/Submission Sadism/Masochism. The aspect most principal to this essay is Domination/Submission which is sexual dynamic where one partner (the dominant) is given permission to make the majority of sexual decisions (when to have sex, how, or when). Dominance and Submission can overlap with other aspects within BDSM (such as Bondage or Sadomasochism) but such overlaps are not required.

The above mentioned is far from the only instance when heterosexual BDSM has been portrayed as the “innate” sexual fantasy of the masses, or when a dominant man’s desire to dominate a partner has been conflated with a desire to abuse that same partner.

Take this 1972 essay on gendered dynamics and desires published in the alternative “Vermont Freeman” that literally uses the word “abused” to refer to a submissive woman in the hands of a dominant man:

“A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused. A woman enjoys intercourse with her man — as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously.”

The author is Bernard Sanders, or as he’s now commonly known as, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, the progressive Vermont senator turned failed Democratic nominee and Brown’s favorite geriatric heartthrob.

Look at that lip bite

Now Sanders is right in that dominant men can absolutely abuse submissive women, and one could argue that “Fifty Shades of Grey” (as well as his Freudian one-shot) is an example of that. But he is wrong in his perpetuation of the assumption that sexual abuse stems from the position of an individual or the rope tying them up; sexual abuse is the product of sexual conduct carried out without freely given consent. As long as the submissive has the ability to revoke consent at any point (hand signals and safe words are the most common methods) and the dominant immediately obeys them, kinky sex is just as consensual as any other type of sex.

First of all, innate sexual fantasies are almost always portrayed as kinky, spank-based BDSM, and BDSM is usually protrayed as an abusive, physically damaging relationship between a dominant man and a submissive woman. These portrayals marginalize a great many people, including queer people who are ignored in the heteronormative narrative of sexuality and abuse, men who enjoy being submissive and women who enjoy being dominant.

Beyond that, the rhetoric with which modern society discusses BDSM often conflates it with abuse, much like Sanders did. This interpretation denies women the agency to consent to kinky sex, and obscures instances of abuse that take place outside of BDSM relationships, such as economic or emotional abuse, as well as violations of sexual consent between individuals who are do not identify or participate in any form of BDSM play.


But this interpretation — which perpetuates the idea that there is a positive relationship between kink and rape — is also incredibly harmful to those who enjoy BDSM, to those who have been abused, and even those who have been abused within BDSM relationships.

This is especially important to me, as I am both a very kinky person and someone who has experienced abuse at the hands of someone who believed they were simply being kinky.

Now, when my (non-abusive) partner and I role play, and the kinks (spanking, hair-pulling, rope) come out, he’s not abusing or oppressing me. I’m enjoying my sexuality in the way I prefer to with his help. There’s a safe word in place, so either one of us can end the kink-fest whenever we want.

I have a rape fantasy, sure. But I don’t actually want to be raped, and any person who does rape me is still committing a violent crime — in much the same way that a middle schooler who enjoys playing Call of Duty doesn’t actually want to be stranded in a warzone and certainly doesn’t want to be shot.


Dominance, within a consensual, safe word-guarded relationship, is not abuse.

Submission, within a consensual, safe word-guarded relationship, is not oppression.

That is all,

April Cum-she-will.

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