What is SM?
SM is the generally accepted umbrella term for a broad group of behaviors that include the consensual giving and receiving of intense erotic sensation. The behaviors used in consensual SM are negotiated and involve the communication of limits and the use of a safeword that can stop all action at any time. SM is often referred to as BDSM, which stands for Bondage & Discipline (B&D), Dominance and Submission (D&S), and Sadomasochism (SM). SM can also be called Kink, Leather Sex,Fetish, Leather, and SM/Leather/Fetish. The way that someone identifies is very individual and not everyone chooses the same term to self-identify their interests.
SM can include but is not limited to: tying a persons hands during sex, erotic spanking, role-playing, wearing a blindfold during sex, being flogged, cross-dressing, wearing leather or latex, or exploring painful stimuli and the resulting endorphins. SM can be sensual, erotic, sexual or completely non-sexual. No one person enjoys every behavior.
For many, SM is a type of erotic theater where fantasies can be acted out in safety. Some SM folk enjoy enacting fantasies in which one person is powerful (perhaps a Master, Top, or abductor) and one is “powerless” (perhaps a slave, bottom, or captive). Although outwardly it may look as though the Bottom gives up control to the Top and is “powerless”, the Bottom actually maintains control by setting limits, negotiating, and by using a safeword that stops all action.
According to the Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex conducted in 1990,
“Researchers estimate that 5-10% of the U.S. population engages in sadomasochism for sexual pleasure on at least an occasional basis, with most incidents being either mild or stage activities involving no real pain or violence.”
Interest in SM crosses race, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status, educational level, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Some Important Definitions
Describes the negotiated interaction that takes place between two or more consenting individuals. This is very much like a scripted role-play.
The specific action that occurs during a negotiated scene.
A word or phrase that is agreed upon prior to the beginning of the scene. In instances where a person is temporarily unable to speak, a hand signal may be used. When this word is uttered or this signal is given, all play is stopped immediately. It is very much like saying “time-out”.
Communication between SM participants that occurs prior to a scene in which participants discuss their interests, set limits, and communicate the safeword to be used.
The boundaries that are discussed and set during the negotiation. These limits are set in order to make sure that the scene is pleasurable for all involved.
The person responsible for orchestrating the interaction. This is the person who administers the negotiated stimuli and sets the mood of the scene.
The person who receives the stimuli that is administered by the Top. Although outwardly it may look as though the Bottom gives up control to the Top they actually maintain control by setting limits and by using a safeword that can stop all play.
SM is Safe, Sane, and Consensual
Over 20 years ago, the SM/Leather/Fetish Community established a community-wide ethic known as “Safe, Sane and Consensual”.
1. “Safe” is being knowledgeable about the techniques and safety concerns involved in what you are doing.
2. “Sane” is knowing the difference between fantasy and reality.
3. “Consensual” is respecting the limits imposed by each participant. One of the most easily recognized ways to maintain limits is through use of a “safeword” — whereby participants can withdraw consent at any time with a single word or gesture.
What is Abuse?
Abuse is not just an individual issue but a community issue. It effects all types of families and communities including SM, vanilla, traditional, straight, polyamorous, monogamous, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. Abuse crosses all social, ethnic, racial, and economic lines.
Abuse is a systematic pattern of behaviors where one person non-consensually uses power to try to control the thoughts, beliefs, actions, body, and/or spirit of a partner. Abuse is sometimes also referred to as domestic violence, battering, and intimate partner abuse.
Abusers may use a number of ways to control their partner, none of which are acceptable in the context of a consensual, negotiated SM relationship. These actions are not negotiated and cannot be stopped with a safeword and can include:
Physical Abuse- hitting, punching, choking, kicking, slapping, shoving, beating, leaving marks, or using weapons outside contract/scene limits and not respecting safewords. Defending these nonconsensual physical actions as the way “real” SM works.
Emotional Abuse- criticizing constantly, using ridicule, verbal abuse, lying, undermining self-esteem, criticizing an interest in S/M in a demeaning or degrading manner, humiliating or degrading in public or private outside of contract/scene limits and not respecting safewords.
Sexual Abuse- forcing sex, forcing specific sex acts or sex with others, refusing to practice safer sex, refusing to negotiate or not respecting contract/scene limits, forcing use of SM during sex. Defending these nonconsensual physical actions as the way “real” SM works.
Economic Abuse- controlling economic resources, stealing money, credit cards, or checks, running up debt, forcing you to live above your means, fostering total economic dependence, using economic status to determine relationship roles/norms, including purchase of food, clothes, etc.
Cultural/Identity Abuse- using awareness of fear and hatred of certain marginalized groups in our society. Threatening to out someone as being into SM, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, polyamorous, or being undocumented . Using society’s prejudices as a way to control a person who is part of a marginalized group.
Just because you consent to play does not mean you consent to everything. You have the right to set limits.
The Difference Between SM and Abuse
The most basic difference between SM and abuse is Consent.
It is not consent if…
- You did not expressly give consent.
- You are afraid to say no.
- You say yes to avoid conflict.
- You say yes to avoid consequences (i.e. a fight, losing a job, losing your home, being outed).
- Always consensual.
- Done with respect for limits.
- Enjoyed by all partners.
- Fun, erotic, and loving.
- Done with an understanding of trust.
- Never done with the intent to harm or damage.
You might be abused if…
- You cannot withdraw consent and stop what’s happening at any time.
- You cannot express limits and needs without being ridiculed, criticized, or being coerced into changing them.
- Your partner threatens to out you for being into SM or being polyamorous, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
- You do not feel as though SM play enhances your relationship.
- You cannot refuse to do illegal activities.
- You cannot express feelings of guilt, jealousy, or unhappiness.
- You do not feel free to talk to family and friends whenever you choose.
- Your partner has threatened to harm your children, family, and/or pets.
- You are confused about when a scene begins or ends.
- You are afraid of your partner outside negotiated scenes.
- Your partner tells you that they have the right to control your behavior by virtue of gender, income, or other external factors.
- Your partner has threatened to hurt you or themselves if you leave the relationship.
- Your partner prevents you from interacting in the SM community or learning more about SM.
- You feel trapped in your relationship.
- You feel trapped in a specific role (i.e. submissive or dominant).
- Your partner has destroyed or broken your personal belongings.
- Your partner ignores your safewords or tries to convince you not to use them.
- Your partner does not respect your safer sex practices.
- You do not feel free to express your personal beliefs, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, or interest in SM without fear of ridicule.
What can I do to help?
Abusers maintain control over their victims by isolating them and convincing them that no one cares about them. Fear and shame may prevent a survivor from asking for help or confiding in another person. If someone comes to you and tells you that they think they are being abused, listen. Don’t tell the person to just leave. Let the survivor know that you are there for them and that if and when they are ready to leave you will still be there. Don’t assume that you know what is best for that person. There are many reasons that a person may not be ready or able to leave the relationship. Statistics have shown that when a survivor tries to leave there is often an escalation in violence by the abuser. By leaving, the survivor may risk: losing their children; violence against their family, friends, or pets; loss of a job; loss of their home; loss of their community; and much more.
No matter how angry you are do not confront the abuser or try to reason with them. Not only can this be dangerous for you but you could increase the risk to the survivor. It is the survivor who will take the brunt of the abuser’s anger and blame. While you may have the best of intentions, confronting the abuser could make things much worse for the survivor and may increase their isolation
While it may be difficult to just offer your support, doing so may mean everything to the survivor. Your nonjudgmental support may be the reason they feel safe to come to you if they are ready to take the steps they need to leave.
If you or someone you know is being abused contact us.
For more information about SM, contact:
The New England Leather Alliance
PO Box 35728,
Brighton MA 02135-0078
Same-Sex Domestic Violence: Strategies for Change
Beth Leventhal & Sandra Lundy, Sage Publications, 1999
When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Violence
K.J. Wilson, Hunter House Publishers, 1997
The New Bottoming Book
Janet Hardy & Dossie Easton, Greenery Press, 2000
When Someone You Love is Kinky
Dossie Easton & Catherine Liszt, Greenery Press, 2000
Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission
Gloria G. Brame, Jon Jacobs, & Will Brame, Villard Book, 1996.
This webpage was written by Sabrina Santiago, MSW and was developed through a collaboration between The Network/La Red and The New England Leather Alliance
Portions of this webpage were adapted from:
1. The “SM vs. Abuse Policy Statemen”t created at the Leather Leadership Conference in 1998.
2. When Someone You Love is Kinky by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, Greenery Press 2000.
3. “S/M is Not Abuse”– Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO).
4. “What is S/M?” by Susan Wright and Charles Moser,www.ncsfreedom.org.
1. A guide for people who practice SM
Is it SM or Abuse?
2. A guide for professionals:
SM is not abuse: Understanding consensual SM and how it differs from abuse