ArticlePDF AvailableLiterature Review

The Role of Consent in the Context of BDSM

  • Vancouver CBT Centre; West Coast Centre for Sex Thearpy


Consent represents a central focus in the controversial realm of BDSM—an overlapping acronym referring to the practices of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. Many authors have argued that the hallmark feature that distinguishes BDSM activity from abuse and psychopathology is the presence of mutual informed consent of all those involved. This review examines the relevant literature on consent in BDSM, including discussions on safety precautions, consent violations, North American laws pertaining to BDSM practice, and the role of the BDSM community with respect to education and etiquette surrounding consent. Practical information relevant to professionals who work toward the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse is provided. The explicit approach to consent practiced by those in the BDSM community is proposed as a model for discussions around consent in clinical and educational contexts. Criteria for distinguishing abuse from BDSM and identifying abuse within BDSM relationships are outlined. It is our hope to demystify the consent process and add to the growing body of literature that destigmatizes consensual BDSM practices.
Sexual Abuse
1 –22
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1079063219842847
Clinical Report
The Role of Consent in the
Context of BDSM
Cara R. Dunkley1 and Lori A. Brotto1
Consent represents a central focus in the controversial realm of BDSM—an overlapping
acronym referring to the practices of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and
Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. Many authors have argued that the hallmark
feature that distinguishes BDSM activity from abuse and psychopathology is the
presence of mutual informed consent of all those involved. This review examines the
relevant literature on consent in BDSM, including discussions on safety precautions,
consent violations, North American laws pertaining to BDSM practice, and the role of
the BDSM community with respect to education and etiquette surrounding consent.
Practical information relevant to professionals who work toward the prevention of
sexual exploitation and abuse is provided. The explicit approach to consent practiced
by those in the BDSM community is proposed as a model for discussions around
consent in clinical and educational contexts. Criteria for distinguishing abuse from
BDSM and identifying abuse within BDSM relationships are outlined. It is our hope
to demystify the consent process and add to the growing body of literature that
destigmatizes consensual BDSM practices.
BDSM, consent, sexual safety, sexual coercion, sexual sadism
BDSM—an overlapping acronym referring to the practices of Bondage and Discipline,
Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism—has garnered increased
attention in recent years. Consent represents a central focus in the controversial realm
of BDSM. Authors have argued that the hallmark feature distinguishing BDSM from
1The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Cara R. Dunkley, Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, British
Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4.
842847SAXXXX10.1177/1079063219842847Sexual AbuseDunkley and Brotto
2 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
abuse and psychopathology is consent (Connolly, 2006; Newmahr, 2011; Ortmann &
Sprott, 2012; Taylor & Ussher, 2001). The practice of mutually defined and agreed-
upon behaviors is said to be primary qualities that delineate BDSM from coercive sex
(Cross & Matheson, 2006; Martin, Smith, & Quirk, 2016; M. S. Weinberg, Williams,
& Moser, 1984; Yost, 2010). With this in mind, consent violations happen within the
context of BDSM. This article aims to review the literature and laws concerning con-
sent in the practice of consensual sadomasochism (SM). The parameters of consent
with respect to BDSM are discussed. Safety precautions outlining how informed con-
sent is obtained and maintained before, during, and after a scene are considered. The
gray area of consent and potential for confusion are explored, drawing from North
American laws and relevant research.
Most of the studies discussed in this article recruit from local BDSM communities
and are thus limited to people who identify as BDSM community members. The fol-
lowing review must be interpreted with the knowledge that BDSM practitioners who
volunteer for research may be more psychologically well adjusted than those who do
not, and thus may not be representative of BDSM practitioners as a whole. It is also
possible that people who practice BDSM behaviors without full consent or in harmful
ways may provide untruthful responses, or not self-select to participate in research.
The limitations of self-report, such as questionable honesty of responses and the prob-
lems associated with face-valid measures, must be kept in mind for many of the stud-
ies discussed. Social desirability of responses represents a problem for most
self-report-based psychological research, but may be especially pertinent to BDSM
practitioners, who often face stigma. The researchers who study BDSM tend to be
advocates of BDSM, which may influence the nature of research questions pursued,
the choice of whether or not to publish results, as well as introduce potential biases,
such as experimenter effects. It is also possible that studies with unfavorable findings
on BDSM are more prone to “the filedrawer effect” due to the sex-positive political
climate adopted by most human sexuality journals.
History of Pathologizing Paraphilia
Despite increased awareness, there are many misconceptions surrounding consensual
BDSM practice. These misconceptions can be traced back to early theorists’ concep-
tualization of sadomasochistic behavior as perverse and pathological (see Freud, 1938;
Krafft-Ebing, 1886), a viewpoint that may have stemmed from the fact that most sado-
masochistic individuals examined in early literature were drawn from clinical or
forensic populations. Such writings perpetuated the assumption that involvement in
BDSM reflects symptoms of underlying psychopathology, regardless of the concerns
for safety and consent (Connolly, 2006), and heavily influenced diagnostic classifica-
tion systems. In recent decades, however, the growing body of literature on contempo-
rary SM suggests that the early theories and diagnostic systems failed to accurately
capture the lived experience of modern BDSM practitioners.
Krueger (2010, 2011) reviewed the empirical literature from 1900-2008 on the
paraphilias of sexual masochism and sexual sadism in preparation for changes
Dunkley and Brotto 3
planned for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (5th ed.; DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013).
Numerous studies demonstrate that BDSM practitioners are largely indistinguishable
from nonpractitioners in terms of psychopathology (e.g., Connolly, 2006; Cross &
Matheson, 2006; Richters, De Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008; T. S. Weinberg,
2006). Krueger concluded that Sexual Masochism and Sexual Sadism should be
retained in the DSM-5, noting that while sadomasochistic behavior is relatively com-
mon and is associated with good psychological and social functioning, there is a
minority of sadomasochists who present with serious injuries or death during activi-
ties, and that such cases are pathological. Nonetheless, a large population of BDSM
practitioners do not meet the DSM-5 criteria (R. B. Krueger, 2010, 2011) and, as such,
should be clearly differentiated.
The DSM-5 introduced a distinction between nonpathological paraphilic interests
and paraphilic disorders. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; APA, 2000), there was no term to indicate nonpathologi-
cal, atypical sexual interests. The DSM-5 redefined the term paraphilia so that it
describes a persistent, intense, atypical sexual arousal pattern, independent of whether
it is the source of impairment or distress, which would not be considered disordered.
The DSM-5 uses the term paraphilic disorder to describe a paraphilia that is accompa-
nied by clinically significant distress or impairment. The classifications of Sexual
Sadism and Sexual Masochism were meaningfully changed to Sexual Sadism Disorder
and Sexual Masochism Disorder, respectively, to reflect this differentiation. This dis-
tinction specifies that a paraphilia is a “non-normative sexual preference” but not inher-
ently a mental disorder, and that a diagnosis of a paraphilic disorder requires that one’s
sadism or masochism must either involve a nonconsenting person or cause “clinically
significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of
functioning” (APA, 2013, p. 695). To qualify for a diagnosis, an individual must experi-
ence personal distress about their paraphilia, not merely distress resulting from soci-
ety’s disapproval. This represents an important caveat, as it is not uncommon for BDSM
practitioners to experience distress resulting from their interests conflicting with soci-
etal standards (Wright, 2006, 2010). Unfortunately, the decades long interpretation of
the term paraphilia, which typically implied the presence of psychopathology, may
continue to create confusion. This distinction, we argue, is paramount to identifying the
practice of consensual BDSM, and to how BDSM clients are met in a therapeutic set-
ting. A new iteration of the International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Revision
(ICD-11, World Health Organization, 2018), deleted the diagnostic categories that con-
sist of consensual or solitary sexual behavior entirely, including consensual SM. Sexual
Sadism has been replaced with coercive sexual sadism disorder.
Research indicates that a substantial minority of people in the general population
engage in or fantasize about BDSM activities. A national study of sexual practices
conducted in the United States on 2,800 respondents revealed that approximately 14%
4 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
of men and 11% women had participated in some form of BDSM behavior (Janus &
Janus, 1993). Moser and Kleinplatz (2006) reviewed multiple studies that surveyed
BDSM and estimated that 10% of adults in the general population have engaged in
some form of BDSM activity. In a sample of 1,040 adults, Joyal and Carpentier (2017)
found 19.2% of men and 27.8% of women to endorse desire to experience some form
of masochism, while 9.5% of men and 5.1% of women endorsed a desire to experience
some form of sadism. In the same study, 13.9% of men and 23.7% of women reported
experiencing at least one lifetime act of masochism, and 7.4% of men and 3.9% of
women reported experiencing sadism. Holvoet and colleagues (2017) surveyed 1,027
Flemish adults from a market research and polling agency, and found that 12.5% indi-
cated regularly performing at least one BDSM-related activity. Of the participants in
this study, 26% endorsed seeing themselves as being interested in BDSM, and 7.6%
self-identified as BDSM practitioners.
Definitions of Consensual BDSM
Several authors have offered definitions for consensual BDSM. Wiseman (1996)
defined SM as “the knowing use of psychological dominance and submission and/or
physical bondage, and/or pain, and/or related practices in a safe, legal, consensual
manner for the participants to experience erotic arousal” (p. 10). Townsend (1983)
described six characteristics that embody a BDSM scene,1 namely, power exchange in
the form of dominance and submission, the infliction and reception of painful stimuli
that is experienced as pleasurable by those involved, the use of role play or fantasy,
some form of humiliation or degradation of the submissive partner, the incorporation
of fetishistic elements, and ritualistic activities. Weinberg et al. (1984) identified five
common features of sadomasochistic activities: the appearance that one partner con-
trols the other, role play, consensuality, shared beliefs about what constitutes SM, and
a sexual context. A qualitative study attempting to define SM found four main “defini-
tional discourses” that reflect the way self-identified BDSM practitioners define SM,
including consensuality, an unequal balance of power, sexual arousal, and compatibil-
ity of definition (Taylor & Ussher, 2001). Moser and Kleinplatz (2007) added to these
lists of commonalities, noting that sadomasochistic interactions and relationships
begin with negotiation and discussion of limits. Although BDSM comprises vast and
varied activities, the explicit informed consent of all those involved represents the
most prevalent characteristic of BDSM (Connolly, 2006; Pitagora, 2013; Taylor &
Ussher, 2001; Yost, 2010).
BDSM and Consent
Practitioners consider consent to be a fundamental tenet of BDSM (Taylor & Ussher,
2001; Weinberg, 2006; Yost, 2010). The desire to engage in consensual SM rather than
coercive SM distinguishes BDSM practitioners from psychiatric populations
(Sandnabba, Santtila, Alison, & Nordling, 2002). Likewise, consent distinguishes a
shared enjoyment of sadomasochistic acts from violence and assault (Connolly, 2006;
Dunkley and Brotto 5
Moser & Kleinplatz, 2007). In the context of BDSM, participants ideally interact vol-
untarily with preestablished consent based on a mutual understanding of what activi-
ties are to take place (Pitagora, 2013). Consent represents an ongoing interactive and
dynamic process that entails several precautionary measures, including negotiations of
play, open communication of desires and boundaries, mutually defining terms, the
notion of responsibility and transparency, and ensuring protection from harm through
competence and skill (Holt, 2016).
The importance of consent is exemplified by mottos the BDSM community has
adopted, such as “Safe, Sane, and Consensual (SSC)” and “Risk-Aware Consensual
Kink (RACK).” These mottos serve as frameworks for BDSM participation and are
useful for educating new practitioners in what is acceptable behavior (Williams,
Thomas, Prior, & Christensen, 2014). More recently, Williams and colleagues (2014)
introduced an alternative framework for BDSM negotiation and education that
addresses some of the practical and conceptual limitations of SSC and RACK: “Caring,
Communication, Consent, and Caution (4Cs).” The 4Cs were said to retain the general
concepts of SSC and RACK, while incorporating the interrelated dimensions of caring
and communication. These authors further suggest that consent can be broken down
into three distinct levels: (a) surface consent, which is described as a basic “yes” or
“no”; (b) scene consent, which involves the Top and Bottom negotiating the parame-
ters of the scene; and (c) deep consent, which involves the Top being cognizant of the
Bottom’s ability or mental capacity to use a safeword during a scene.
Qualitative interviews with BDSM practitioners (n = 15) on the subject of consent
have found that they define consent as an “informed agreement between persons to act
in an activity which is mutually beneficial for everybody involved” (Fulkerson, 2010,
p. 32). Additional elements of consent were the necessity of a sound mind, that the
agreement is made voluntarily without coercion or pressure from others and without
the influence of mind-altering substances, and that both the Top and Bottom partners
must give consent (Fulkerson, 2010). Furthermore, consent was said to include an
understanding by all participants of what activities were allowed versus not allowed to
take place during the scene. BDSM practitioners in another qualitative study voiced
similar sentiments and unanimously stressed the importance of freely given consent in
the absence of coercion (Holt, 2016). In both studies, participants discussed an under-
standing that any party involved can rescind consent at any point, and that the with-
drawal of consent necessitates the immediate cessation of play.
Safety Measures
Safety precautions, such as negotiation and safewords, are of paramount importance in
the practice of healthy BDSM. Acceptable BDSM is predicated on thorough negotiation
(Williams et al., 2014): the process of establishing consent and communicating boundar-
ies. Negotiation represents an integral precursor to any BDSM scene or power-exchange
relationship (Langdridge, 2007; Moser & Kleinplatz, 2007). Agreements of consent
6 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
should be explicit, rather than tacit, and based on a mutual definition of what activities
are permissible (Pitagora, 2013). Communication about the structures and processes
involved in a BDSM scene is essential to ensure that a BDSM experience is pleasurable
and safe for all people involved (Moser & Kleinplatz, 2006). During negotiation, practi-
tioners are able to communicate what they are interested in, voice any health issues or
activities that are off limits, and come to an agreement on the parameters of what activi-
ties a scene will involve (Holt, 2016). Negotiation typically involves the Bottom warn-
ing the Top of any emotional triggers, as well as outlining “hard limits”—activities that
they do not wish to engage in and will not consent to under any circumstances, and “soft
limits”—activities that are currently off limits at that particular point in time, but may
one day be renegotiated (Holt, 2016; Moser & Kleinplatz, 2007). This process varies
greatly in terms of complexity, ranging from a simple pre-scene discussion of what
activities will take place, to lengthy in-person and email correspondence that takes place
over the course of several weeks and involves extensive checklists of personal limits
(Fulkerson, 2010).
The complexity of negotiation varies often according to the level of relational
familiarity between players and the nature of activities in terms of risk. A strong foun-
dation of emotional closeness and trust, built on a history of positive BDSM experi-
ences with the partner in question, often lessens the need for extensive negotiation.
Likewise, light play involving minimal risk tends to warrant less negotiation than
heavy play (Holt, 2016). The extent of negotiation also fluctuates depending on the
context and can be influenced by the mood, temperament, and reputation of those
involved (Pitagora, 2013).
Prescene negotiation may involve discussion of what is to take place following the
scene in the form of aftercare, which refers to the procedures needed to bring an indi-
vidual back to a pre-play cognitive and emotional state (Holt, 2016; Pitagora, 2013).
Aftercare is generally viewed as an important aspect of play by both the Top and
Bottom and provides an opportunity to discuss any misunderstandings or problems
that may have arisen during the scene (Holt, 2016). Although more formal negotiation
takes place prior to a scene, ongoing communication is important during and after a
scene (Holt, 2016; Williams et al., 2014). Prior research has found that good commu-
nication is a key ingredient to a positive BDSM relationship (Cutler, 2003; Harrington
& Williams, 2012). Communication is viewed as a personal responsibility and as a
tool that enables players to protect themselves while engaging in mutually enjoyable
play (Holt, 2016). Transgressing an individual’s negotiated limits represents a serious
faux pas in the BDSM community, with considerable social repercussions (Moser &
Kleinplatz, 2007). People who practice BDSM outside of an organized community
may not face the social consequences of consent violations that are present within the
BDSM community, and, as a result, may not be held as accountable for transgressions
and boundary violations. It should be noted that even with negotiation, misunderstand-
ings happen. It is important that each participant not only be on the same page in terms
of what activities are allowed, but also that each participant share mutual definitions
of those activities.
Dunkley and Brotto 7
The practice of negotiation concerning consent and BDSM activities has important
applications outside of this context. In mainstream society, consent for sexual activity
is often implicitly assumed rather than discussed openly. The explicit negotiation of
consent could be a model for discussions around consent in more conventional sexual
relationships. Ideally, such negotiation requires verbal communication about the limits
and boundaries of consent before engaging in any sexual activities. In addition, all
participants should have a shared understanding of what agreed-upon sexual activities
are to take place—a mutual definition of activities is important, as different people
ascribe different meanings to the same words (e.g., does the term sex refer concretely
to penetration or does it encompass other activities such as oral sex?). All participants
of a sexual encounter should have a fully informed and shared understanding of what
they are consenting to do. Using this strategy in consensual sexual situations between
two or more individuals could help prevent accidental boundary violations. This prac-
tice normalizes a dialogue around how and when to talk about what is on and off limits
with a potential sexual partner. In addition, it provides an opportunity for a broader
discussion about what an individual likes versus does not like sexually, before, during,
and after a sexual encounter.
The psychoeducation of undergraduate students surrounding how to negotiate sex-
ual consent could have great preventive utility with respect to on-campus sexual
assault—a significant problem faced by universities, with approximately 11.2% of all
students experiencing rape or sexual assault through physical coercion, violence, or
incapacitation (Cantor et al., 2015). Undergraduate psychoeducation of this nature
would emphasize the right to withdraw consent at any time, as well as make a distinc-
tion between implied consent (i.e., the assumption that a person has given permission
for an action, based on signs or behaviors, or by inaction or silence) and explicit con-
sent (i.e., an express agreement to do something or allow something to happen, made
with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as the risks involved). In addition,
it would emphasize the importance of being capable of giving consent (i.e., not cogni-
tively impaired by alcohol or drug intoxication) and the importance of understanding
what sexual behaviors are being consented to (i.e., participants have a mutual under-
standing of what activities will take place). Such a model could have a positive impact
on preventing perpetrator violence, lowering the incidence of rape on college cam-
puses. A movement to normalize explicit discussions around consent in university
settings may also help empower potential victims.
A model of consent based on that which is common to BDSM practice may also
prove useful for professionals working with sexual offenders. Establishing a concrete
way of establishing and maintaining consent through negotiation and ongoing com-
munication could reduce the risk of reoffending among individuals with a history of
committing sexual assault.
Safewords are verbal codes to end or alter activities taking place in a BDSM scene,
and generally represent an important tool used to assure ongoing consent through a
8 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
scene (Pitagora, 2013). The use of a safeword overrides any power dynamics and typi-
cally signals the wish to terminate activity and a withdrawal of consent (Fulkerson,
2010; Sagarin, Cutler, Cutler, Lawler-Sagarin, & Matuszewich, 2009). Safewords are
established prior to engaging in BDSM activity, such that all parties are aware of what
its use signals: the end of consent. Consent can be withdrawn through the use of a
safeword at any time during a BDSM scene, regardless of the scene intensity or dura-
tion (Beres, 2007; Pitagora, 2013). A safeword can reflect a desire to stop the scene for
numerous reasons, ranging from the identification of boundaries being crossed to a
simple desire to not continue (Taylor & Ussher, 2001). Safewords can be an agreed-
upon word that would not typically be spoken during the course of a scene (Sagarin
et al., 2009). There is also a universal safeword system, called the traffic light system,
wherein “red” means stop everything, “yellow” means slow down and do not go fur-
ther, and “green” communicates the desire for greater intensity. A benefit of having a
standardized safeword system is that it can function as a “house safeword” in most
community settings across North America. In scenes where the use of a verbal safe-
word is not possible, specific gestures can be used to communicate the desire to stop
the activity instead. “Silent safewords,” such as clapping of hands or snapping fingers,
function as a way of resolving communication issues when one of the participants is
gagged. The ability to use a safeword and the act of respecting the use of a safeword
go hand in hand with consent (Jozifkova, 2013). Safewords can be used to signal
physical or emotional discomfort. The use of safewords is encouraged for both Tops
and Bottoms (Jozifkova, 2013).
Safewords and negotiation are especially important in scenes involving rape-
play. Rape-play is the enactment or role play of nonconsensual sex within an invis-
ible structure of pre-negotiated consent (Joyal et al., 2015; Pitagora, 2013; Sandnabba
et al., 2002). Scenes involving rape-play, or “consensual non-consent,” require
extensive negotiation and planning so that behaviors that would otherwise be indica-
tive of a lack of consent can be performed with the mutual understanding that such
behaviors do not, in that instance, signal a desire to stop (Pitagora, 2013). The indi-
viduals involved are thus able to act out a nonconsensual fantasy in real life, with
safety precautions in place, while freely engaging in outwardly resistant and coer-
cive behaviors. Safewords enable practitioners to safely engage in scenes while act-
ing in ways that would otherwise seem nonconsenting. Participants who endorsed an
interest in rape fantasies in a prevalence study by Joyal and colleagues (2015) speci-
fied that they would never want to actually have such experiences. Thus, rape fanta-
sies do not necessarily translate to corresponding desire for rape (Masters, Johnson,
& Kolodny, 1988). The simulated activity of coercive sex with pre-established con-
sent may be enjoyed, whereas real-life sexual assault would likely be traumatic and
unwanted (Critelli & Bivona, 2008).
Although safewords represent a useful tool for helping to ensure safety in BDSM
exchanges, they are not failsafe. There are instances in which a Top may miss, or fail
to heed, the use of a safeword. Similarly, there are instances in which a Bottom may
resist using a safeword, or be in a state that may hinder their ability to use a safe word
(e.g., subspace2). The use of safewords could be suggested to individuals who want to
Dunkley and Brotto 9
explore the edgier aspects of their sexuality and prescribed as a cautionary measure for
sexual offenders to adopt in the prevention of future sexual misconduct.
Consent and the BDSM Community
A lack of communication, or the violation of boundaries set during negotiation, sig-
nals the presence of abuse (Jozifkova, 2013). BDSM communities have a code of
conduct concerning the boundaries of safe, consensual BDSM (Holt, 2016). Among
BDSM community members, pushing non-negotiated activities or sexual boundaries
during a scene that were not established during pre-scene negotiation is considered a
serious offense (Jozifkova, 2013; Taylor & Ussher, 2001). If a BDSM scene endures
after a participant has used a safeword and withdrawn consent, it becomes a noncon-
sensual act of violence (Pitagora, 2013; Taylor & Ussher, 2001). BDSM communities
have been reported by members to strictly police dangerous practitioners and consent
violators (Fulkerson, 2010; Holt, 2016).
Graham and colleagues (2016) examined the role, meaning, and function of BDSM
communities from the perspective of self-identified BDSM practitioners and found
that one of the several functions those communities served was to provide functional
resources, such as education, safety, and information about consent. In this way, the
community serves to create an atmosphere that encourages playing within one’s abili-
ties, with the role of consent and negotiation being central to safety discussions. The
ubiquity of participant responses in identifying consent as a key aspect of the com-
munity’s role indicates that consent and safety are key social norms within the com-
munity. Community members strongly endorsed the importance of educating new
members on consent and safety procedures. In accordance with social learning theory,
it is possible that the modeling of proper consent and negotiation etiquette by estab-
lished BDSM community members may lead less-experienced members to imitate
those practices and adopt corresponding values about consent and safety (Graham
et al., 2016).
Over the course of 150 hours of ethnographic observation and 22 in-person inter-
views, Holt (2016) investigated how BDSM practitioners negotiate and maintain
boundaries, and how boundary violations are handled by a community without access
to formal agents of social control. It was found that public BDSM events were super-
vised by Dungeon Monitors—trusted and experienced community volunteers who
look out for play infractions or signs of distress. Event organizers or hosts were
reported to serve a similar role in private play party settings, and event attendees were
said to share in the responsibility of protecting one another. People with repeated con-
sent violations are labeled as “predatory” and blacklisted so that they are excluded
from the BDSM community (e.g., being banned from play parties, clubs, and organi-
zations) as well as being shunned on an individual interpersonal level (Fulkerson,
2010; Holt, 2016). This study should be interpreted with the limitations of ethno-
graphic research in mind.
Newmahr (2011) also discussed the means by which the BDSM community pro-
motes safety within the context of recreational leisure. Like other serious recreational
10 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
leisure activities, the BDSM community enforces community-defined boundaries and
serves to regulate community norms of safety and consent (Bezreh, Weinberg, &
Edgar, 2012; Newmahr, 2010). As with most forms of serious leisure, the BDSM com-
munity stresses the importance of education and skill. The community acknowledges
that physical and psychological risks are inherent in many forms of BDSM, and, as
such, great emphasis is placed on practitioners’ acquisition of both technical and com-
munication skills (Newmahr, 2010). The community also provides a social framework
for vetting potential play partners, allowing for the verification of potential partners
through community reputation (Graham et al., 2016).
Coercion and Sexual Assault: When Consent Is Not Met
Abuse in BDSM
Sexual abuse and consent violations in BDSM practice occur both within and outside
of the BDSM community. Such breaches can occur in the form of conscious violations
of consent, accidental violations of consent, or through misunderstandings resulting
from the lack of mutual definitions of agreed-upon activities. Individuals who are
interested in committing sexual assaults may hide within the BDSM community or
may use an alleged interest in “consensual” BDSM to legitimize acts of nonconsensual
activities. Although advocates of the BDSM community draw a concrete line between
consensual activity and nonconsensual abuse, this line can be blurred in reality. Power
differentials, for example, may result in the submissive partner consenting to activities
they would not otherwise agree to in an effort to please their dominant. Power differ-
entials could also influence a Bottom’s decision to use a safeword, and, conversely,
affect decisions about whether or not to come forward about crossed boundaries and
consent violations. Furthermore, community members who come forward with experi-
ences of sexual exploitation or abuse are not always treated with respect. Conversely,
if a Top and Bottom have discrepant definitions for a mutually approved activity, mis-
understandings can ensue.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) surveyed 4,598 individuals
involved in BDSM and reported on several aspects of consent violation in a tech report
available on the NCSF website. Of these participants, 1,307 (28.4%) endorsed being
touched without permission. Examples from this subsample were varied, ranging from
receiving an unwanted hug (6%; 1.7% of the entire sample) to unwanted sexual touch
(38%; 11% of the entire sample). The prevalence of adult sexual assault has been
found to represent approximately 22% of women and 3.8% of men in the general
population (Elliot, Mok, & Briere, 2004). Twenty-four percent of the total NCSF sam-
ple reported that their pre-negotiated limits had been violated during a BDSM scene,
and 13% reported an occasion in which their safeword was not respected. Among this
subsample, 40% endorsed having a single experience of consent violation, while 27%
reported two, and 33% reported three or more. One in four respondents of this sub-
sample endorsed that the consent violation happened prior to being involved with the
BDSM community. Women (31%), non-heterosexual individuals (31% pansexual,
Dunkley and Brotto 11
26% gay/lesbian, 28% bisexual, 20% asexual, 38% other than those sexual orienta-
tions specified), and people of non-cisgender3 identities (36% gender queer, 34%
transgender, 27% other than those gender identities specified) reported a higher fre-
quency of such instances than men (13%) and heterosexually identifying individuals
(18%). Among those individuals whose pre-negotiated limits or safeword was ignored,
men (78%) and heterosexuals (65%) were most commonly reported to be the consent
violators. When individuals from this subsample were asked the reason behind their
consent violation, participants endorsed several reasons, including the following: 2%
due to alcohol, 6% accidental, 7% reporting it was part of their partner dynamic, 11%
due to a lack of skills or knowledge, and 15% miscommunication, while 26% endorsed
being attacked by a predator, and 33% said they were manipulated or coerced. When
asked what they thought about the violation when it happened, 81% reported that they
wanted it to stop, while close to one in three endorsed that they were not sure if it
counted as a consent violation. This latter finding illustrates how ambiguous the
boundaries of consent can be.
We could identify only one academic article that specifically described the experi-
ence of sexual assault in the context of BDSM (Haviv, 2016). Individuals who practice
BDSM may face additional difficulties in terms of reporting abuse. Haviv (2016)
explored what factors members of the Israel BDSM community (n = 20) consider in
deciding whether to report sexual offenses to the police. Some members of the Israel
BDSM community reported experiencing sexual assault in the context of BDSM.
Beyond the difficulty of reporting a “typical” sexual assault, BDSM practitioners are
faced with the additional barriers of belonging to a stigmatized community and the
circumstances of assault within that community. Reasons for not reporting to the
police included fear of victim-blaming, a desire to not “out” themselves or others, fear
of being stigmatized, difficulty explaining BDSM, and difficulty proving assault.
Participants also reported that the BDSM community attempts to address and prevent
sexual assault. Given the barriers for disclosing abuse within BDSM relationships,
professionals working with this population should familiarize themselves on how to
recognize and discuss real sexual assault.
Differentiating Abuse From BDSM Within BDSM Relationships
Although professionals must be careful not to conflate BDSM activities with intimate
partner violence or abuse, it is important to recognize that BDSM relationships are not
immune to real, nonconsensual abuse. Even with a basic working understanding of
consent in the context of BDSM, it can be difficult for clinicians to differentiate
healthy BDSM from abuse within a BDSM relationship. It is thus important for pro-
fessionals to educate themselves on how boundaries concerning BDSM activities are
negotiated and maintained, as well as how to identify problematic actions within such
relationships. In addition to transgressing sexual and physical boundaries, abuse in
BDSM can involve both psychological and financial manipulation. Markers for delin-
eating BDSM from abuse include voluntariness, communication, a safeword or ability
to withdraw consent, safer sex, and access to education and information about BDSM.
12 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
Moser (2006) provided a list of physical indicators that help professionals discrimi-
nate between consensual BDSM and abuse. He specified that facial bruising and
defensive marks on the forearms rarely result from BDSM. Common parts of the body
marked by BDSM activity tend to be fleshy areas that can withstand intense stimula-
tion, such as the thighs, upper back, breasts, genitals, and buttocks. Furthermore,
marks from physical abuse tend to be random and not focused in a singular area,
whereas marks originating from a BDSM scene often have a pattern, are well defined,
and suggest that the individual remained still.
Jozifkova (2013) outlined guidelines that differentiate BDSM from violence, and
how healthy BDSM relationships compare with abusive relationships. Healthy BDSM
relationships can be distinguished from abusive relationships based on the following
criteria: (a) whether the Bottom partner experiences legitimate fear, indicative of
abuse, versus feelings of safety, indicative of consensual BDSM; (b) all parties should
feel comfortable using a safeword to rescind consent; (c) withdrawals of consent are
respected by the cessation of BDSM activities; (d) in healthy BDSM relationships,
partners are able to discriminate between BDSM activity and common everyday life;
(e) in abusive relationships, it is not uncommon for the victim to be intentionally iso-
lated from friends and family; this is not the case in healthy BDSM relationships; (f)
emotional volatility marked by periods of violence and reconciliation are common in
abusive relationships, while healthy BDSM relationships do not exhibit such drastic
emotional highs and lows; (g) a clear disparity in social hierarchy between partners
exists not only in abusive BDSM relationships, but also in some healthy BDSM rela-
tionships—the level of hierarchical disparity in day-to-day life is the distinguishing
factor, such that everyday hierarchy disparity is mild in healthy BDSM relationships;
(h) mutual respect for one another, irrespective of power dynamics, is present in
healthy BDSM relationships; and (i) the ongoing negotiation and communication
characteristic of healthy BDSM relationships are absent or disrespected in abusive
These distinguishing criteria also represent a useful tool that can be shared with
clients who express interest or involvement in BDSM activities. For example, take a
client who expressed being open to exploring a romantic partner’s interest in consen-
sual bondage, but fears that such behaviors could be considered abusive. Helping cli-
ents consider each of these criteria with respect to their personal situations could help
clients to safely engage in and navigate consensual BDSM activities, minimizing the
possibility of unintentional harm. This information could also prove useful in educat-
ing sexual offenders to reduce their risk of reoffending.
The NCSF website provides useful resources for professionals and BDSM practi-
tioners alike, including community assistance guides for handling consent violations.
The NCSF Resource Library contains helpful legal information concerning consent,
including a guide for law enforcement professionals, a guide for determining whether
a consent violation can legally be considered assault, and a document outlining an
individual’s rights and options with respect to consent violations. It also includes sum-
maries of assault laws and past legal cases. Additional documents of note include a
pamphlet entitled, “What Professionals Need to Know About BDSM,” an aid for
Dunkley and Brotto 13
professionals concerning ethical standards and cultural competence in working with
BDSM practitioners, as well as the “BDSM Versus Abuse Policy Statement,” which
provides guidelines for law enforcement and social services professionals regarding
the difference between abuse and BDSM. Tables 1 and 2 outline questions profession-
als can ask to determine whether informed consent was obtained and whether a BDSM
practitioner could be suffering abuse. If working with this population is outside of
one’s scope of practice, professionals can also refer clients to health and legal service
providers listed on the NCSF’s Kink Aware Professionals Directory: a service that
provides a list of psychotherapeutic, medical, legal, and other professionals who have
declared competency in this area. The NCSF recommends considerations for evaluat-
ing a consent violator’s actions, including the seriousness of the offense in terms of
harm, intent, the presence or absence of multiple accusations, the presence or absence
of police reports or restraining orders, and confession. Several resources are provided
for individuals on the receiving end of consent violations, such as phone support lines
and a compilation of advice for victims of assault. The NCSF also works with the
police and the BDSM community to report consent violations when lines are crossed.
For professionals looking to gain competence in working with BDSM practitioners,
there is the Kink Knowledgeable Program, a professional training program that
Table 1. NCSF Guidelines for Determining the Presence or Absence of Informed Consent.
Informed consent must be judged by balancing the following criteria for each encounter at
the time the acts occurred:
Was informed consent expressly denied or withdrawn?
Were there factors that negated the informed consent?
What is the relationship of the participants?
What was the nature of the activity?
What was the intent of the accused abuser?
Table 2. NCSF Guidelines for Determining Whether a BDSM Practitioner Could Be
Suffering Abuse.
Whether an individual’s role is Top/Dominant or Bottom/submissive, they could be suffering
abuse if they answer no to any of the following questions:
Are your needs and limits respected?
Is your relationship built on honesty, trust, and respect?
Are you able to express feelings of guilt, jealousy or unhappiness?
Can you function in everyday life?
Can you refuse to do illegal activities?
Can you insist on safe sex practices?
Can you choose to interact freely with others outside of your relationship?
Can you leave the situation without fearing that you will be harmed, or fearing the other
participant(s) will harm themselves?
Can you choose to exercise self-determination with money, employment, and life decisions?
Do you feel free to discuss your practices and feelings with anyone you choose?
14 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
provides continued education for professional communities. This program published a
book entitled, Becoming a Kink Aware Therapist (Shahbaz & Chirinos, 2018). The
Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS)
is similarly dedicated to providing education for mental health professionals. A
recently published review on clinical considerations and recommendations in treating
BDSM practitioners summarizes training resources for mental health care profession-
als (Dunkley & Brotto, 2018).
Paraphilias and Sexual Coercion
The DSM-5 now distinguishes between paraphilic interests and paraphilic disorders,
but can the BDSM community attract individuals with paraphilic disorders?
Individuals with Fetishism or Sexual Masochism Disorder may gravitate toward the
BDSM community, but neither of these conditions involves non-consenting others,
and the diagnostic criteria warrant a diagnosis only if the individual experiences clin-
ically significant distress in relation to their interest and associated behaviors.
Individuals with Sexual Sadism Disorder are perhaps the most likely to conceal them-
selves within the BDSM community. Research has found considerable overlap
between sadism and other paraphilias (Abel et al., 1988; Långström & Seto, 2006). A
clinical study on men voluntarily seeking treatment for paraphilic sexual behavior
found that of the men who were diagnosed with Exhibitionism, 46% also met criteria
for involvement in sexual abuse of unrelated girls, and 20% to 30% met criteria for
involvement in sexual abuse of unrelated boys, related girls, or adults (Abel et al.,
1988). In addition, 63% of the men who were diagnosed with Voyeurism also endorsed
engaging in exhibitionistic behavior. With respect to the co-occurrence of paraphilias
within the general population, a national population survey found that respondents
who endorsed engaging in voyeuristic or exhibitionistic behaviors were more likely
to report having fantasies about exhibitionistic or voyeuristic activity, respectively,
and we also significantly more likely to engage in sadomasochistic behavior
(Långström & Seto, 2006).
Paraphilic disorders are commonly seen in sex offenders (Dunsieth et al., 2004),
and paraphilic sex offenders have a greater likelihood of reoffending (Hanson &
Morton-Bourgon, 2004). One study found behavioral indicators of sexual sadism,
such as physical arousal in response to violent imagery, predicted sexual and violent
recidivism, whereas DSM-IV diagnosis of Sexual Sadism did not emerge as a strong
predictor (Kingston, Seto, Firestone, & Bradford, 2010). Behavioral indicators of
sexual sadism may thus be a more reliable estimator in considering risk to reoffend.
Due to its association with sexual and violent recidivism, sexual sadism represents
an important construct for evaluators to assess in sexual offenders. If an evaluator
were to discover that a sexually offending client has engaged in BDSM, it would be
prudent to assess for Sexual Sadism Disorder in estimating the client’s risk to
The available research points to notable differences between BDSM-identified
sadists and men who have engaged in coercive sexual practices. One study examined
Dunkley and Brotto 15
whether individuals within a subculture with long-standing norms of affirmative con-
sent (i.e., the BDSM community; n = 57) reported lower rape-supportive attitudes
than individuals not within this subculture (MTurk sample,4 n = 68; College Student
sample, n = 60; Klement, Sagarin, & Lee, 2017). Endorsements of rape-culture related
constructs were compared groups. BDSM practitioners reported significantly lower
levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim-blaming compared to
both groups. The lower endorsement of rape myth acceptance and victim-blaming
among BDSM practitioners was thought to reflect the practice of explicitly negotiated
consent characteristic of the BDSM community. Likewise, lower levels of benevolent
sexism—a type of sexism that denies women agency—found among practitioners may
reflect the BDSM community’s attempts to support all practitioners’ agency and
autonomy. These findings challenge the perspective that BDSM represents an accept-
able outlet for acting out sexual aggression against women (Dworkin, 1974; Griffin,
Another study examined a range of sexual fantasies and behaviors and applied
cluster analyses to ascertain whether individuals who endorse elevated SM interests
also endorsed coercive fantasies (Martin et al., 2016). Four clusters of participants
emerged: a group reporting elevated interest in SM without coercion (n = 117), a
group reporting elevated SM activity without coercion (n = 138), a group endorsing
high levels of coercive fantasy and behavior (n = 57), and a group endorsing no inter-
est in coercive fantasy or SM (n = 238). The coercive group exhibited a distinct pro-
file marked by elevated boredom proneness, high sensation seeking and antisocial
behaviors, externalization of blame (including a tendency to blame female victims of
sexual assault), and low empathetic concern. Conversely, the groups endorsing the
highest levels of SM interest and activity endorsed intact empathetic capacity and
showed no elevations in victim-blaming. However, the active SM group did show
increased sensation seeking and antisocial behavior. These findings suggest a shared
component between the active SM group and the coercive group in terms of disinhibi-
tion and sensation seeking, with marked differences in empathetic concern and victim-
blaming attitudes distinguishing these groups. The results of this study provide
evidence for the meaningful distinction of intent regarding pleasure versus coercion
separating SM activity from coercive sexual interests. These findings indicate that an
interest in BDSM should not be conflated with an interest in or higher risk of engaging
in sexual coercion.
There is some evidence from psychophysiological sexual arousal research that dif-
ferentiates between people endorsing SM practices from those endorsing coercive sex.
Harris, Lalumière, Seto, Rice, and Chaplin (2012) and Seto, Lalumière, Harris, and
Chivers (2012) aimed to determine sources of arousal for people who have engaged in
coercive sex (i.e., sexual offenders against adults), and BDSM-identified sadists.
Using penile tumescence, Harris and colleagues (2012) attempted to determine the
cues that elicit sexual offenders’ erectile responses to rape stories in the laboratory.
Sexual offenders (n = 12) and non-sexually offending incarcerated controls (n = 14)
were exposed to audio-recorded scenarios that varied with respect to sexual activity
and nudity, violence and injury, and expression of nonconsent. Sexual offenders were
16 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
best distinguished from non-offenders by the presence or absence of nonconsenting
cues, such as victim resistance and active refusal, rather than the presence or absence
of violence and injury cues. As sexual offenders gave little evidence of sexual sadism,
these findings suggest that differences in responding to the presence or absence of
consent may be a greater contributor than violence and injury to the unique pattern of
sexual offenders’ erectile responses. Note that as the sample of sexual offenders may
have been extreme cases having been referred to a psychiatric institution, these find-
ings may not generalize to men who commit “acquaintance rape.”
Seto and colleagues (2012) investigated the critical cues producing self-identified
sadists’ sexual responses to test sexual sadism as an explanation of sexual offenders’
arousal patterns. The genital and subjective arousal responses of BDSM-identified
sadists (n = 18), men with some sadistic interests (n = 22), and non-sadists (n = 23)
were compared on a series of stories that distinguished violence and injury cues from
resistance and nonconsent cues. Sadists responded with significantly higher subjective
and physiological arousal to stories with cues of violence and injury relative to stories
not involving violence and injury than non-sadists and men with some sadistic inter-
ests. In response to stories with cues for nonconsent, no group differences emerged.
Visual examination of sadists’ subjective and genital response profiles showed that
sadists responded the most to descriptions of mutually consenting sexual interactions
involving violence, followed by mutually consenting, non-violent sex. These findings
indicate that sexual sadism (as endorsed by BDSM practitioners) primarily involves
arousal to violence and injury in a sexual context rather than resistance and noncon-
sent. That the study’s group assignment was based on self-report impacts the general-
izability and validity of results. Together, these studies illustrate that those who have
been convicted of rape appear to have sexual arousal linked to nonconsent, while
sadists recruited from the BDSM community show increased arousal to stories con-
taining violence but not nonconsent. Of course, there is overlap between these groups,
and there may be men with both sexual preferences.
BDSM and the Law
BDSM sits on the margins of legality in Canada and the United States. Even when
consensual, BDSM activities can be prosecuted under criminal law concerning assault-
related provisions and obscenity provisions. The Supreme Courts of both nations spec-
ify that a person cannot consent to an assault that causes significant bodily harm. This
stance is problematic for BDSM practitioners, as BDSM activities that leave visible
marks can be criminalized, and the concept of carefully negotiated consent is rendered
irrelevant. These laws separate BDSM cases from rape cases, given that sexual assault
is not deemed to be criminal unless a lack of consent is shown, whereas the causing of
significant bodily harm in BDSM cases is inherently criminal, regardless of consent.
Although consent as a defense may be considered in criminal cases, there are signifi-
cant limits, such as the degree of harm, the way in which consent was obtained, and
the types of people who cannot legally provide consent. The laws of Canada and many
American States require persons to be in a state of consciousness capable of
Dunkley and Brotto 17
continuous, ongoing consent, wherein consent can be withdrawn at any time. As
BDSM can produce altered states of consciousness (e.g., subspace; Pitagora, 2017)
that may influence a Bottom’s ability to withdraw consent, the relationship between
BDSM and the law is further complicated. It should also be noted that many people
enact nonconsensual sadomasochistic scenarios in “normal” or conventional relation-
ships in ways that are sanctioned by society. Indeed, North Carolina has a law specify-
ing that women cannot revoke consent once she agrees to sex; her partner can legally
ignore an expressly stated retraction of consent as long as she initially consented (June
The available literature on BDSM supports the notion that explicitly stated and agreed-
upon consent is a fundamental tenet of BDSM. The key practitioner messages con-
cerning BDSM and consent discussed in this article are summarized in Table 3. Among
the wide range of activities that constitute BDSM, consent is perhaps, in theory, the
single unifying and universal characteristic. While mainstream sexual encounters also
stress the importance of consent, consent often takes the form of an unstated, implicit
assumption based on percieved behavioral displays of interest or willingness. The
BDSM community takes consent further, demanding explicit rather than tacit consent.
In its ideal form, it requires verbal communication and negotiation about the limits and
boundaries of consent before engaging in BDSM, as well as the mutual definition of
any consented-upon activities (Taylor & Ussher, 2001). This emphasis on consent can
be viewed as the hallmark that distinguishes BDSM from coercive sexual abuse
(Connolly, 2006) and BDSM from pathological forms of ostensibly similar behaviors
(Langdridge, 2007).
The step of having a straightforward conversation of agreed-upon activities with
mutually understood definitions defines the parameters of BDSM activity in a way
Table 3. Key Practitioner Messages Concerning BDSM and Consent.
The DSM-5 and ICD-11 have made changes to distinguish consensual sadomasochism from
pathological manifestations of such behaviors.
Consent distinguishes BDSM from abuse and psychopathology and represents an ongoing
interactive and dynamic process involving safety precautions.
Consensual BDSM is predicated on explicit negotiation, which could be used as a model for
discussing consent in other contexts.
Physical and relational indicators can be used to distinguish healthy versus abusive BDSM
Although research shows notable differences between BDSM-identified sadists and men who
have engaged in coercive sexual practices, it is prudent to assess for sexual sadism disorder
in sexual offenders due to its association with violent recidivism.
In North America, a person is not able to consent to an assault that causes significant bodily
harm, making BDSM that leaves visible marks of a criminal offense regardless of whether
consent was obtained.
18 Sexual Abuse 00(0)
that is not obtainable through tacit or implied agreements of consent. Engaging in a
verbal discourse surrounding consent serves to minimizes misunderstandings and pro-
tect the safety and well-being of those involved. In addition to an established method
of negotiating consent, BDSM offers a mechanism that signals the termination or
withdrawal of consent through the use of safewords. The BDSM community’s
approach consent can be used as educational tools for professionals and could serve as
a model for discussions around consent geared toward the prevention for sexual
assault. A concrete model for establishing and respectfully maintaining consent could
be applied to therapy for sexual offenders or to general educational outreach on col-
lege campuses. Making explicit consent a priority, and knowledge of how to ade-
quately obtain consent, is of particular sociocultural relevance in light of the ongoing
Me-Too movement.
Future research might design and test a psychoeducational intervention based on
the BDSM model of consent. The efficacy of such an intervention could be examined
among sexual offenders, as well as applied and tested in university settings. Additional
research demonstrating how BDSM, and sadism in particular, differs from sexual
sadism disorder is also needed. Research contrasting sadists from the BDSM commu-
nity with forensic populations of violent sexual offenders would be valuable in delin-
eating these disparate groups. For example, research has shown that BDSM-identified
sexual sadists physiologically respond to sexual violence rather than sexual resistance
and nonconsent, while sexual offenders differentially respond to themes of nonconsent
(Seto et al., 2012; Lalumière et al., 2012). Further research of this nature may help
disassociate consensual sexual sadists from violent sexual offenders and, in turn,
reduce the stigma associated with consensual SM. Given the utility of biophysical
indicators of sexual sadism in predicting recidivism among sex offenders, physiologi-
cal arousal research examining responses to consensual versus nonconsensual sado-
masochistic content may shed further light on previous research findings.
Despite the explicit emphasis on consent, and the various measures put in place to
help assure it, consent violations are not uncommon within the BDSM community. As
with conventional sexual transgressions, boundaries concerning consent can be
breached both intentionally and accidentally, within and outside of a BDSM scene.
Individuals looking to commit sexual assault or individuals with Sexual Sadism
Disorder may hide within the BDSM community, and misappropriate the label of
BDSM as a cover for sexual assault. The BDSM community views violations of con-
sent as serious offenses that are typically not left unaddressed. Resources, such as
those offered by the NCSF, exist to help community members regulate issues sur-
rounding consent, and these resources may also be of use to professionals working
with victims of sexual assault. The BDSM community educates its members on the
importance of consent and maintains an ongoing dialogue of how to best achieve,
maintain, and respect consent among practitioners. When optimally practiced, BDSM
entails a high level of awareness and engagement with the discourse around consent.
Professionals working with relevant populations should take care not to conflate con-
sensual BDSM activity with abuse or an interest in sexual coercion, while also being
familiar with how to identify the presence of real abuse within BDSM relationships.
Dunkley and Brotto 19
The criteria that distinguish abuse from BDSM could provide helpful psychoeduca-
tional material for sexual offenders, with the intent of lowering the risk of
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
1. “BDSM scene” is a colloquial term that refers to a given BDSM (bondage and discipline,
dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) encounter or exchange of BDSM
2. Subspace refers to a psychophysical altered state of consciousness characterized by acti-
vation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of endogenous endorphins and
epinephrine that a Bottom may experience within a BDSM scene (Pitagora, 2017).
3. Non-cisgender refers to individuals whose gender identity does not match the sex that they
were assigned at birth.
4. MTurk is an online crowdsourcing marketplace.
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... For example, society often categorizes sexually violent encounters as having an ideal victim/survivor versus a monstrous offender (DiBennardo, 2018), and it is possible that more ambiguous consensual situations, will lead to less credible perceptions of the victim. However, although some description of consent is provided in the Sexual Offences Act (2003), there is arguably no statutory definition of consent for fatal and non-fatal offenses against the person involving rough sex because legislation states that one cannot consent to bodily harm (Dunkley and Brotto, 2019). This creates a loophole of uncertainty around rough sex because laypeople often believe that if consent to inflict bodily harm during sex is obtained, this means rough and violent sex is legal and morally acceptable. ...
... In addition, this depicts women's trauma as an overreaction, which conforms to restrictive and emotionally unstable, female gender stereotypes. Interestingly, whilst discourse surrounding opposition to requested rough sex suggests produced depictions of a flawed or "crazy" female, research by Dunkley and Brotto's (2019) found that men held the assumption that female involvement in BDSM reflected symptoms of psychopathology (opposed to their opposition to rough sex). As such, women involved in consensual rough sex leading to (unintended or non-consented) harm may be represented negatively. ...
... As such, women involved in consensual rough sex leading to (unintended or non-consented) harm may be represented negatively. Together, both present and previous work (Dunkley and Brotto, 2019) suggest online damaging victimblaming discourses may be prevalent across situations, and such discourses need deconstructing. ...
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‘Rough sex’ can be considered an act of sexual violence that is consensual or non-consensual, often resulting in bodily harm and in rare cases, fatalities. The rough sex defence is typically advanced by male perpetrators in an effort to portray a sexual encounter as consensual, to avoid criminal sanctions for causing injury or death. Public attitudes towards this defence are often reflected on social media following high profile cases and appear to echo dominant discourses that reinforce widely held sexual violence stereotypes. Therefore, this study aims to deconstruct public attitudes surrounding the rough sex defence. Namely, how female victims/survivors and male perpetrators of sexual violence are constructed online, whilst exploring the wider implications upon society. NVivo12 NCapture software was used to collect a sample of 1000 tweets mentioning the terms ‘rough sex’ or ‘rough sex defence’. Data were examined using Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis (FCDA), underpinned by a social constructionist perspective, to elicit emergent discourses. Findings indicate that Twitter allowed women to resist harmful victim-blaming discourses and constrained binary identities. Opposingly, men were constructed as sexually entitled predators, yet resisted these subject positions by advocating support for male victims/survivors. Additional analyses examine account holders’ constructions of British Parliamentarians (MP’s) and their campaigns against the rough sex defence. These constructions demonstrated a cultural, heteronormative and victim-blaming understanding of sexual violence, which calls for legislative clarity.
... Their work contributes to the understanding and destigmatization of this form of sexual expression and challenge its place in psychopathological classifications. Many authors have argued that the hallmark feature that distinguishes BDSM activity from abuse and/or psychopathology is the presence of mutual informed consent of all those involved (Bezleh et al., 2012;Dunkley & Brotto, 2020). Reviewers Dunkley and Brotto (2020) examined literature on consent in BDSM, including discussions on safety precautions, consent violations, North American laws pertaining to BDSM practice, and the role of the BDSM community with respect to education and etiquette surrounding consent. ...
... Many authors have argued that the hallmark feature that distinguishes BDSM activity from abuse and/or psychopathology is the presence of mutual informed consent of all those involved (Bezleh et al., 2012;Dunkley & Brotto, 2020). Reviewers Dunkley and Brotto (2020) examined literature on consent in BDSM, including discussions on safety precautions, consent violations, North American laws pertaining to BDSM practice, and the role of the BDSM community with respect to education and etiquette surrounding consent. Their explicit approach to consent practiced by those in the BDSM community is proposed as a model for discussions around consent in other areas of sexuality, commercial, or otherwise (Dunkley & Brotto, 2020). ...
... Reviewers Dunkley and Brotto (2020) examined literature on consent in BDSM, including discussions on safety precautions, consent violations, North American laws pertaining to BDSM practice, and the role of the BDSM community with respect to education and etiquette surrounding consent. Their explicit approach to consent practiced by those in the BDSM community is proposed as a model for discussions around consent in other areas of sexuality, commercial, or otherwise (Dunkley & Brotto, 2020). ...
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IntroductionFinancial domination involves the payment of cash or gifts from a wish list by a money slave to a money mistress, financial dominatrix, or findomme. Boundaries for findommes working through webcam and video-call services may be more fluid than via text-based modes since the domme engages in more visible displays, and modification of language, voice, and feelings to fulfil the fantasy for a client. We explore the nature of findomme work and its relationship to BDSM to understand how the interaction progresses and how the boundaries, of reasonable and permissible behaviour which affect both incoming and outgoing interactions between people, are maintained.Methods The study was in two stages. The first stage was a survey of online findommes (n = 56) in UK and the USA. For the second stage, we explored the experience of findommes (n = 195) on money-slavery websites and social media feeds using netnography as an observation method with cisgender male, female, and transgender participants.ResultsOur analysis reveals how findomme interaction progresses from text-based interaction to virtual face-to-face and voice communication. We show financial domination to be on a continuum from being a lifestyle choice in the BDSM community that reaps financial benefits to a purely economic and legitimate form of commercial labour. Although financial domination clearly elicits sexual arousal for clients, the relationship can also be exclusively psychological and focus on the relinquishing of control to a money mistress for a prescribed period.Conclusion The findings also show how personal boundaries are negotiated and enhance understanding of how the microculture of findomming interacts with other microcultures. By demystifying the process of financial domination, we clarify its relationship with other microcultures and add to the growing body of literature that destigmatizes consensual erotic labour.ImplicationsThese findings show how online support, in a decriminalised environment, enabled new and ‘instadommes’ to set and maintain healthy boundaries for enhanced physical and psychological well-being, and the research provides valuable insight into sex work that is safely carried out in online spaces by a large number of participants so adding to the growing body of work on decriminalization.
... One community in which explicit negotiation of affirmative consent is prioritized is the Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism (BDSM) community (Dunkley & Brotto, 2020;Fulkerson, 2010). BDSM practitioners emphasize the importance of pre-scene (i.e., pre-interaction) negotiations, hard (i.e., generalized and non-negotiable) and soft (i.e., context-specific and/or requiring further negotiation) limits of consent, and mutually agreed upon safe words that signify the end of affirmative consent (Wiseman, 1996). ...
... The importance of consent is exemplified by popular mottos of the BDSM community-"Safe, Sane, and Consensual (SSC)," "Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK)", and "Caring, Communication, Consent, and Caution (4Cs)" (Williams et al., 2014). These heuristics allow experienced practitioners to introduce curious and new practitioners to the community and affirmative sexual consent (Dunkley & Brotto, 2020). This emphasis on affirmative consent as part of the cultural values, along with a history of practicing consent negotiations, impact other aspects of sexual behavior. ...
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As efforts to improve awareness and prevention of sexual assault increase, the importance of a workable definition of sexual consent becomes apparent. Affirmative sexual consent, often summarized as “yes means yes,” has been adopted by sexual assault prevention activists and much of popular culture, whereas legal policy and scientific pursuits seem to lag behind. For example, despite its importance for not only the prevention of sexual assault but also the facilitation of satisfying and meaningful relationships, affirmative sexual consent has not been subjected to a conceptual behavioral analysis. This article offers a behavioral conceptualization of affirmative sexual consent with specific implications for how consent is defined, what behaviors compose the response class of consent, and what contexts control those behaviors. Specifically, we propose that affirmative sexual consent as a functional response class involves tact–mand combinations of appetitive contingencies under appetitive control, shifting with the changing context. Action implications are provided for defining affirmative sexual consent, identifying the target behaviors that compose it, and setting the context for training those behaviors. It is our hope that this functional approach to affirmative sexual consent might provide a preliminary foundation for empirical and applied pursuits to move beyond “yes means yes.”
... What if the perpetrator never intended to exert pressure and/or did not realize that their behavior had a pressuring effect? Or, what if the participant consented to and/or enjoyed feeling pressured, which could be the case with, for example, some BDSM encounters (Dunkley & Brotto, 2020)? The answers to these questions are perhaps contextually dependent, demonstrating the complicated role of interactive behaviors in definitions of coercion. ...
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Trying to ensure that a partner orgasms during sex is generally seen as positive, but research has yet to assess how this might involve pressuring partners to orgasm in coercive ways. In the present study, we tested whether pressuring a partner to orgasm is a coercive behavior by assessing how this behavior overlaps with sexual coercion (i.e., pressuring someone into having sex). Participants of diverse gender/sex and sexual identities (N = 912, M age = 31.31 years, SD = 9.41) completed an online survey that asked them whether they had ever felt pressured by a partner to orgasm, to describe what partners have said or done to pressure them, and to answer a series of questions about the most recent incident in which this occurred. Mixed quantitative and qualitative results showed that orgasm pressure tactics were analogous to sexual coercion tactics and that being pressured to orgasm was associated with experiencing sexual coercion, faking orgasms, and negative psychological and relationship outcomes. Together, findings challenge the assumption that trying to ensure a partner’s orgasm occurrence is necessarily positive and demonstrate that orgasm coercion exists.
... Harmful sexual behavior is considered as sexual aggression if it is inflicted onto someone who does not or cannot consent to engage in this behavior (Basile et al., 2014). Consequently, harmful sexual behavior can also consensually be put into action, for example, among individuals with accordant sexual interests, and in this case should not be interpreted as aggressive (Brown et al., 2020;Dunkley & Brotto, 2020). Harmful sexual behavior is a frequent phenomenon. ...
Aggression-related sexual fantasies (ASF) have been related to various forms of harmful sexual behavior in both sex offender and community samples. However, more research is needed to fully understand this relation, particularly whether ASF is associated with harmful sexual behavior beyond hostile sexism against women and a sexual preference for violence and sexual violence. In the present study, N = 428 participants (61.9% women) between 18 and 83 years of age (M = 28.17, SD = 9.7) reported their ASF and hostile sexism. They rated their sexual arousal by erotic, violent, and sexually violent pictures as a direct measure of sexual preference. Response latencies between stimulus presentation and arousal ratings were used as an indirect measure of sexual preference. ASF and the directly and indirectly assessed sexual preference for violent and sexually violent stimuli were positively correlated. They were unrelated to hostile sexism against women. ASF showed the strongest associations with self-reported sexually sadistic behavior and presumably non-consensual sexual sadism beyond these preferences and hostile sexism in the total group and separately among men and women. The findings indicate that ASF and sexual preference are not equivalent constructs and further underscore the potential relevance of ASF for harmful sexual behavior.
... In part due to negative media representations and a general lack of understanding, BDSM practitioners remain stigmatized (Bezreh et al., 2012;Dunkley & Brotto, 2020;Lindemann, 2013). Many non-practitioners harbor negative impressions of BDSM as an inherently unkind practice filled with violent acts, despite consent and desire for those acts being key components of BDSM (Bauer, 2014). ...
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Prior limited research on entrance into BDSM divided paths of entry into external or internal factors (Yosta & Hunter, 2012), while research on age at entry into BDSM has not considered variation by BDSM role identity, gender, sexual orientation, and other demographic differences. In this mixed-methods exploratory study, we contribute to this literature by collecting and analyzing qualitative interviews with 96 self-described practitioners of BDSM to more fully describe distinct pathways into BDSM, adding nuance to prior descriptions of entry. We also collected and analyzed surveys with 2,017 self-described practitioners of BDSM to examine patterns of age at entry into BDSM practices and fantasies, and selection into older or younger age at practice and age at fantasy by BDSM role identity, gender, sexual orientation, and other demographic characteristics. Interview respondents told “constructionist sexual stories” describing introductions to BDSM via popular culture including pornography and other media, the Internet, or a sexual partner that awaked an inherent interest, along with “essentialist sexual stories” which described self-discovery solely attributed to an inherent personality characteristic. Survey data revealed that age at fantasy and onset of behavior varied by social–environmental factors. Pathways and patterns into BDSM behavior and fantasies therefore reflect a combination of idiosyncratic interests, exposure to ideas via the media or partners, and stratified social norms and opportunities related to sexual behavior.
Background Research addressing sexualised use of GHB to date has largely focussed on gay and bisexual men's GHB use in the context of chemsex, this research has highlighted risks and experiences associated with sexual violence. No studies have included people of diverse sexualities and genders and documented reported practices to ensure mutually gratifying and consensual sex in the context of sexualised drug use (SDU). Methods Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 31 people from sexuality and gender diverse communities living in Australia who reported three or more occasions of GHB use in the previous 12 months. Participants were asked about their use of GHB for sex, their experiences of GHB sex and their approaches to negotiating sexual boundaries. Data were analysed thematically. Results Most participants valued the sexual possibilities enabled by disinhibitory components of GHB and were cognisant of respecting other's sexual boundaries in the context of GHB sex. Participants reported strategies to ensure communication prior to and throughout GHB sex. However, several participants narrated experiences of GHB sex that they felt were distressing and, in some circumstances, sexually violent. In most instances participant's resisted terminology of sexual violence or non-consent as descriptors of their experience and none reported accessing sexual violence services. Conclusion Positive strategies to facilitate sexual communication prior to and throughout GHB sex should be reflected in health promotion and service level responses to promote affirmative and continuous consent among people who use GHB for sex. Education initiatives to help people engaged in SDU to recognise and respond to sexual violence if it occurs ought to be prioritised.
Sexual choking/strangulation has become prevalent among young U.S. adults, yet little is known about media articles that teach readers about choking. We conducted a content analysis of 27 Internet articles, examining how choking is described, information related to health risks and healthcare, and article accuracy. Most articles described choking in positive terms and indicated choking can be done safely or properly, even while acknowledging potential dangers. Only two articles indicated having undergone expert/medical review. Few gave information about signs that would warrant seeking healthcare. Sexuality professionals need to be aware of choking-related information and misinformation in online media articles.
Background As behaviors, alternative sexual (alt-sex) (i.e., kink, bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism , consensual non-monogamy, swinging, leather, and fetish practices) practitioners often emphasize that consent and boundaries are key elements of alt-sex activities. Despite these emphases, individuals experience consent violations and sexual assault both prior to engaging and during their involvement in alt-sex activities. Purpose This study examines alt-sex practitioners’ sexual assault and nonconsensual experiences in order to highlight potential means of intervention and prevention, as well as inform clinical and legal professionals. Methods In collaboration with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, this study uses an international survey of adults in alt-sex communities ( N = 2996) to examine sexual assault and nonconsensual experiences both within and outside of alt-sex contexts. Results We found a lower rate of consent violations in the alt-sex community (26%) compared to sexual assault as an adult outside of alt-sex contexts (34%) and sexual assault as a minor (40%). We found significant differences by groups in sexual assault as a minor (gender, sexual orientation, age, and live in the US or not), sexual assault outside of alt-sex contexts (gender, sexual orientation, and age), nonconsensual experiences in alt-sex contexts (gender, sexual orientation, age, and race), receiving nonconsensual touch in alt-sex contexts (gender, sexual orientation, and age), giving nonconsensual touch in alt-sex contexts (sexual orientation, age, living in the US or not, and race), and being falsely accused of nonconsensual touching in alt-sex contexts (gender, age, and living in the US or not). Within the most recent consent violation, the most common behaviors were non-kink related, except for lack of aftercare. Nearly 40% of participants reported the reasons for their most recent consent violation in alt-sex contexts were being selfish or caught up in the moment. Implications Focused interventions are needed to address how different populations are experiencing assault and violations in alt-sex contexts.
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BDSM is an overlapping acronym referring to the practices of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. This paper reviews the psychological literature on BDSM practitioners, and discusses issues concerning BDSM that are relevant to clinicians and sexual health care providers. The literature concerning the psychological health of BDSM practitioners and clinical issues in treating BDSM practitioners was exhaustively reviewed. BDSM practitioners differ minimally from the general population in terms of psychopathology. Six clinical considerations emerged: Ignoring vs. considering BDSM; Countertransference; Non-Disclosure; Cultural Competence; Closer Relationship Dynamics; BDSM, Abuse, & Pathology.
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Background: Bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism (BDSM) is gaining popularity through the mainstream media. Nevertheless, very little is known about the prevalence of BDSM-related fantasies and activities in the general population. Aim: To determine the prevalence of BDSM fantasies and behavioral involvement in four different age groups of the general population in Belgium. Methods: By use of a cross-sectional survey questionnaire, the level of interest in several BDSM-related activities was investigated in a sample representative of the general Belgian population (N = 1,027). The questionnaire evaluated interest in 54 BDSM activities and 14 fetishes. Self-identification as BDSM practitioner, situational context of BDSM practice, age at awareness of these interests, and transparency to others were queried. Outcomes: Individual item scores and summary scores on four BDSM categories were included in the analyses. Results: A high interest in BDSM-related activities in the general population was found because 46.8% of the total sample had ever performed at least one BDSM-related activity and an additional 22% indicated having (had) fantasies about it. Interestingly, 12.5% of the total population indicated performing at least one BDSM-related activity on a regular basis. When asked whether they saw themselves as being interested in BDSM, 26% stated this to be the case and 7.6% self-identified as BDSM practitioners. Interests in dominant and submissive activities were comparable and, remarkably, were highly intercorrelated. BDSM and fetish interests were significantly higher in men than in women. The older group (48-65 years) had significantly lower BDSM scores compared with their younger peers. Of participants with a BDSM interest, 61.4% became aware of it before 25 years of age. Clinical implications: There is a high level of interest in BDSM in the general population, which strongly argues against stigmatization and pathologic characterization of these interests. Strengths and limitations: This is the first thorough study concerning prevalence of interest in and fantasies about a wide range of BDSM-related activities in the general population worldwide. Although our findings tend to argue against it, we cannot completely rule out participation bias introduced by non-interest in the non-completers. In addition, some topics might have been subject to interpretation by the respondents. Conclusion: Interest in BDSM is present in most of the general population. Further research is needed to destigmatize it by confirming BDSM as a leisurely preference rather than a psychiatric affliction. Holvoet L, Huys W, Coppens V, et al. Fifty Shades of Belgian Gray: The Prevalence of BDSM-Related Fantasies and Activities in the General Population. J Sex Med 2017;XX:XXX-XXX.
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As a result of recent media interest, the practice of BDSM has become more mainstream yet remains marginalized. Now more than ever, greater numbers of heterosexual and LGBTQ couples are starting to explore some form of BDSM. However, profound misunderstandings continue leading to unintentional physical and psychological harm. Drawing on current research and ethnographic narratives from the kink community, this book seeks to provide psychotherapists with an introductory understanding of the culture and practice of BDSM, and presents specific therapeutic concerns related to common misconceptions. This book strives to de-pathologize BDSM practices, while also providing concrete ways to distinguish abuse from consent, harmful codependency, and more. Packed with practical suggestions and rich case studies, this book belongs on the shelf of every therapist seeing BDSM and kink clients.
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With the recent national focus on rates of sexual violence, many interventions have been proposed, including those that focus on affirmative consent (e.g., "Yes Means Yes" campaign). The goal of the present study was to test whether individuals within a subculture with long-standing norms of affirmative consent-the bondage and discipline/dominance and submission/sadism and masochism (BDSM) community-report lower rape-supportive attitudes compared to individuals not from within this subculture. BDSM practitioner participants, adult participants from Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk), and college student participants completed measures of hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, victim blaming, expectation of sexual aggression, and acceptance of sexual aggression. BDSM practitioners reported significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming than did college undergraduates and adult MTurk workers. BDSM practitioners did not differ significantly from college undergraduates or adult MTurk workers on measures of hostile sexism, expectations of sexual aggression, or acceptance of sexual aggression. Limitations and implications are discussed.
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This article explores what considerations members of the sadomasochistic community in Israel take into account in deciding whether to report sexual offenses and victimization to the police. This research is a qualitative study that included 20 interviews with members (men and women) of the BDSM community during 2012–2013 in Israel. The study found that members of the BDSM community in Israel have experienced sexual assault in the context of BDSM play. Respondents mentioned several reasons for not reporting this assault to the police. These reasons included fear of the victim’s being blamed, a desire to be discreet and not out themselves or others as having an interest in BDSM, shame about the practices that may have been part of the consensual part of the scene, difficulty explaining BDSM, and difficulty proving assault specifically when it requires explaining distinctions between play violence and assault. Respondents mentioned several ways that the Israeli BDSM community attempts to deal with assault and help victims, including a submissive women’s forum, a hotline that offered emotional support to victims, an informal list of people accused of assault, gossip as a way of sharing information, outing people who commit assault, and banning people from the community. Many of these considerations are common to victims of sexual assault and rape in non-BDSM contexts as well. What is different here is a layer of stigma specific to public perception of BDSM sexual interests as "deviant" or "perverse."
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Abstract Paraphilic sexual interests are defined as unusual or anomalous, but their actual occurrence in non-clinical samples is still unknown. This study looks at desire for and experience of paraphilic behaviors in a sample of adult men and women in the general population. A secondary goal is to compare the results of two survey modes – traditional land-line telephone versus online. A total of 1,040 persons classified according to age, gender, education, ethnic background, religious beliefs, and area of residency and corresponding to the norm for the province of Québec were interviewed. Nearly half of this sample expressed interest in at least one paraphilic category and approximately a third had had experience with such a practice at least once. Voyeurism, fetishism, frotteurism, and masochism interested both male and female respondents at levels above what is usually considered to be statistically unusual (15.9%). Interestingly, levels of interest in fetishism and masochism were not significantly different for men and women. Masochism was significantly linked with higher satisfaction with one's own sexual life. As expected, the online mode generated more acknowledgment of paraphilic interest than the telephone mode. These results call into question the current definition of normal (normophilic) vs. anomalous (paraphilic) sexual behaviors.
The prevalence and impact of adult sexual assault (ASA) were examined in a stratified random sample of the general population. Among 941 participants, ASA was reported by 22% of women and 3.8% of men. Multivariate risk factors for ASA included a younger age, being female, having been divorced, sexual abuse in childhood, and physical assault in adulthood. Childhood sexual abuse was especially common among sexually assaulted men and women (61 and 59%, respectively). ASA victims were more symptomatic than their nonassaulted cohorts on all scales of the Trauma Symptom Inventory (TSI; J. Briere, 1995), despite an average of 14 years having passed since the assault. Assaulted men reported greater symptomatology than assaulted women, whereas nonassaulted men reported less symptomatology than nonassaulted women.
This qualitative ethnographic study sought to gain insight into how participants in the Bondage/Discipline/Sadomasochism (BDSM) community negotiate and maintain boundaries in order to engage in mutually satisfying BDSM activities. Additionally, this study explored how boundary violations are handled by a community stigmatized by the larger culture. Results indicated that participants employ methods to keep BDSM play ‘safe, sane, and consensual’, although boundary violations do occur. These violations are handled internally by appointed community members and participants may engage in retaliatory behavior, with the occasional member employing violence. Implications of the research and future avenues for exploration are discussed.
Representations of consensual sadomasochism range from the dark, seedy undergrounds of crime thrillers to the fetishized pornographic images of sitcoms and erotica. In this pathbreaking book, ethnographer Staci Newmahr delves into the social space of a public, pansexual SM community to understand sadomasochism from the inside out. Based on four years of in-depth and immersive participant observation, she juxtaposes her experiences in the field with the life stories of community members, providing a richly detailed portrait of SM as a social space in which experiences of "violence" intersect with experiences of the erotic. She shows that SM is a recreational and deeply gendered risk-taking endeavor, through which participants negotiate boundaries between chaos and order. Playing on the Edge challenges our assumptions about sadomasochism, sexuality, eroticism, and emotional experience, exploring what we mean by intimacy, and how, exactly, we achieve it..