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Up Your Alley: A Veteran Kinkster Talks BDSM vs. Abuse

, by Emily Newman

This weekend, thousands will swarm the SOMA streets near Dore Alley in San Francisco to celebrate all things leather, kink and BDSM. The “dirty little brother” to Folsom Street Fair, Up Your Alley attracts men who like bedroom-fun that involves spanking, punching, whipping and flogging, leather, bondage, domination and submission, and creative watersports. While these activities may still sound foreign to some, BDSM and kink play are increasingly becoming better known and accepted in mainstream culture: the Fifty Shades series by E. L. James, translated into 52 different languages, has sold over 125 million copies worldwide, and the first novel was made into a motion picture released earlier this year.

One danger is that—among people not well initiated to the culture of kink—BDSM will be misinterpreted as abuse. Although both involve the infliction and receipt of pain, there are distinct, and essential, differences. When sexual play involves pain, where is the line between BDSM and abuse?

Jorge Vieto (Photo: Tom Schmidt)

Jorge Vieto (Photo: Tom Schmidt)

Jorge Vieto of San Francisco AIDS Foundation and veteran kinkster and leatherman, talks to BETA about the fine line between pleasure and (unwelcome) pain, why BDSM doesn’t equate to abuse, and what any kinkster should know to care for themselves and their safety.

First, can you explain exactly what BDSM is?

The BDSM acronym stands for bondage, discipline (or dominance) and sadomasochism. These are all slightly different things that are oftentimes grouped together under the one umbrella of BDSM. But, for example, someone could be into bondage but not into sadomasochism, or vice versa. Bondage is about restraint—with anything from rope, leather, metal or even saran wrap. People who are into dominance or discipline are engaging in power play. The top, or dominant partner in a BDSM scene, takes the active or controller role over that of the bottom or submissive partner who is passive, receiving or obedient. A sadist is someone who enjoys giving pain or pleasure. A masochist is someone who enjoys receiving pain or pleasure. SM play usually refers to activities that involve giving and receiving pain.

Some people may not understand how pain can be enjoyable. Can you help explain why some people like giving or receiving pain as part of a sexual experience?

Our bodies react to intense sensation or pain by releasing brain chemicals—endorphins—that help our bodies manage the pain. Athletes that take their bodies to the limits experience this—for instance, you may have heard long-distance runners describe the “runners high” that they experience.

When someone receives intense sensation in the context of a consensual SM scene, the release of endorphins happens slowly and can provide a body high and sensations of euphoria. Context and expectations play a big role, too. It’s not like people who enjoy SM play in the bedroom just enjoy pain in general. If you walk up to me on my way to work and slap me on the face, it’s going to be painful and upsetting. But, in another context, it could be enjoyable, sexy, a turn-on. During an SM scene, both partners are generally sexually aroused which influences how a person interprets the experience.

Abuse and SM play both involve the giving and receiving of pain. What makes them different?

I’d say that consent is the main difference between SM play and abuse. SM games have rules and limits set by both partners. For instance, one partner may say, “I’d like for you to tie me up, but I have to be home by midnight.” Or, “You can flog me but I am going to the beach with my family next week, so don’t leave any marks.” And those considerations will be respected. A perpetrator of abuse decides—on his or her own—what will happen without considering the wishes or well-being of the other person.

SM tops use communication and empathy to find out what their bottoms need and want. This empathy and communication is missing during abuse because perpetrators do not care about the experience of their victims.

Also, SM bottoms feel grateful to the top and are fulfilled by intimate SM encounters. After an intense SM scene, generally there is a time for after-care where the top and bottom check-in about their feelings, thoughts and physical state. My after-care generally involves lots of cuddles, kissing, conversation and ice cream!

Can you give an example of how safety is built into SM play?

Negotiation is a big part of it. The players are equal partners in the scene. Before any play begins, the partners will decide ahead of time on limits. One thing that many people are familiar with is the use of a safe word. If a sub or slave gets uncomfortable or wants to stop the game for whatever reason, all they have to do is say the agreed-upon word. In our community, dominant partners that don’t play by the rules—that violate code words or don’t treat their subs right—are not considered safe players. Word travels fast—we look out for each other.

We use the term “Risk Aware Consensual Kink” as a way to describe circumstances where, yes, the person is doing something risky, but the person is aware of the risk and is taking steps to minimize it. This is generally adopted as a risk-reduction strategy by people who engage in riskier BDSM, or “edge play.” For example, if I’m into piercing, I would make sure to use clean needles, to pierce in a clean environment, and clean my skin beforehand.

Do you have any safety tips for people who want to engage in SM play?

Speak your mind and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Specifically when it comes to negotiating your sexual health needs. Be clear about condom preferences and STD check-ups regardless of whether you’re a top or bottom. Negotiating these before you start your play can save you needless worry later on down the road. A good top appreciates a bottom who takes care of their body, and vice versa.

If you go to hook up with someone new, maybe someone you met online, tell a friend ahead of time that you’ll call at a certain time to tell him or her you’re okay. And give that person the address of the place you’re meeting to hook up. You can even tell the person you’re meeting that your friend is going to call at a certain time, and that you have to answer the call and tell them you’re okay.

If someone doesn’t take that well, and asks, “Don’t you trust me?” that’s a warning sign. The people you play with should be open and willing to play at your comfort level. They shouldn’t try to cut you off from your social support. Ideally, they would have a few “references” of people they’ve played with before who could vouch for them.

Anything else we should know?

Most of the time, if you’ve done a good job as a top, people will come back for more. I had a friend who was afraid of bondage. He came to me because he trusted me. So I tied him up the first time, and he was really scared. I whispered in his ear, “Pick a number between one and fifty.” He picked 25—knowing that he was going to get 25 of something. You know what he got? He got 25 gentle kisses. It doesn’t have to be all pain.

Additional resources

Want to spice things up, safely? Read more about cleaning gear, hitting to minimize damage, gagging safely and other need-to-know SM safety information at www.smsafely.org. Get more information about PrEP, a once-daily medication to prevent HIV at www.prepfacts.org.

If you’re worried about abuse, or want to find out more about what constitutes abuse in the context of a BSDM relationship, check out: http://www.kinkabuse.com/ or the resources available from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, available here:  https://ncsfreedom.org/resources/resource-library.html

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