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Guest Blog: Four Reasons Why it is so Difficult to Identify & Address Abuse in Kink & AltSex Communities

by Elisabeth Sheff

Recently I wrote a couple of blogs on Psychology Today about factors that can either discourage ( ) or encourage ( ) abuse in polyamorous relationships. Before I published them I considered mentioning the link between polyamory and kink, and including a caveat about consensual power exchange possibly involving behaviors that might look like abuse but could be OK if the people had negotiated consensual power exchange. Eventually I decided that it was too complex for a caveat, and wrote the blogs with no reference to BDSM.

  1. Fear of Stigma

Like many sex and gender minorities, kinksters are afraid of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is especially true of the potential to mistake intimate partner violence (IPV) with consensual kinky sex – and they are not the same thing at all. IPV is not negotiated, there is no way for the person on the receiving end to stop it if they do not like it, and its intent is to terrorize and control. BDSM, in contrast, is (generally) negotiated, consensual, includes safety mechanisms for stopping a scene gone wrong, and intended to titillate and please. If the line between kink and abuse gets blurred, the person feeling abused may not feel safe to bring it to the attention of authorities or even friends if they fear being accused of complicity in their own abuse. People may also be reluctant to draw negative attention to a sensitive group that is already under attack from law enforcement and bigots.

  1. Abuse is Complex

Identifying abuse and distinguishing it from less egregious mistreatment or even callousness can be difficult. Abuse – especially psychological and emotional abuse – can be hidden, hard to spot, and delivered in such a manipulative way that the person on the receiving end sometimes does not recognize or label it as abuse. Because isolation is a hallmark of abuse, people who are being subjected to abuse often do not have emotional and/or practical resources to leave the situation, and community members might not notice an abusive situation that is kept hidden and isolated from community interactions. This difficulty in identifying and recognizing abuse makes it challenging for communities to address.

  1. Power Exchange is Complex

Each person’s kinky relationship is unique, and what would be horrible and abusive in one relationship is sexy and fun in another. Because there is no one size fits all for what is acceptable within a kinky context, it can be incredibly difficult to tell when it has crossed the line from consensual power exchange to become abusive. This can be especially challenging to untangle when people initially negotiated consent and then interactions devolve over time into abuse. Throw in dominance and submission, and what is erotic versus abusive can become extremely muddy.

  1. Lack of Centralized Community Authority

Even if someone is identified as an abuser, getting everyone to agree on that definition and take action within the decentralized and amorphous AltSex communities is much like herding cats. Who is authorized to label others as abusers, create, and enforce community sanctions? What if members of a community disagree about whether or not the relationship or incident in question was abusive? The notably individualistic and freedom loving AltSex communities do not lend themselves to developing a centralized authority structure with recognized officials, making it difficult to make and enforce rules community wide.

In my next blog in this series I examine what AltSex communities and organizations are doing to address abuse in their midst.