Power and Control: Understanding Abuse, and How BDSM is Different

Recently I was cleaning up my email accounts and went in to my oldest account, from when I was in high school. There are very few things still attached to that account, but one or two things of interest still show up once in a while. That’s why I log in occasionally. What I wasn’t expecting was to see was an email from E, only a couple days old. I’ve always known E had that email address, but he hasn’t tried to email me in years, so I’d kind of assumed I didn’t need to worry about it. E has tried to contact me occasionally in the past, but not in a long time. After I cut off contact and blocked him on FB, he text me once. I responded politely asking who it was, then asked if I knew him. Convinced him a new person had my cell #. He never called or texted again. It wasn’t easy though. I very likely had a panic attack in fact. I don’t know that I’ve ever had one otherwise, but thinking back on it I was terrified.

In many ways, I was a classic domestic violence victim. Even after E was out of my life and had moved out of the state, I was still always looking over my shoulder. I was afraid he would come after me, try to hunt me down. Hurt me more, again. Thoughts of E and my fear of him consumed my life. I tried to leave him three or four times at least, but he had systematically destroyed what little self esteem I had when we met and layered guilt on top of the ruins of my former confidence. E threatened to commit suicide if I left him. I was also afraid he would hurt people I love if I angered him. E knew where I lived, where my Mom lived, where my sister lived. He knew where I worked. I believed he was an alcoholic, and that he had anger management and depression issues. But that’s not true at all.

As a victim I wasn’t able to identify the patterns of behavior of my batterer. In fact, E was very controlled. E had high self-esteem. E was charming, like most batterers. He was a skilled manipulator. E never lost his temper with his boss, his coworkers, his friends or family. The only time E was ever anything other than a perfect gentleman was in private, alone with me. E only got drunk a hand full of times in the year that he abused me. While those nights were never easy, in truth they weren’t any worse than when E was sober either. As I was only 18 at the time, I had no real concept of what the normal consumption of alcohol was like. I assumed E’s drinking was a problem, something he couldn’t control. I thought he was an angry drunk. I now realize that E had fun when he drank; he was always smiling and laughing, until we were alone. He only drank when it was appropriate, such as when he had a couple days off from work. E didn’t drink to cope with stress, or drink until he was blackout drunk. E didn’t need to drink, as an alcoholic would. Part of why I was first attracted to E was his easygoing, friendly, upbeat personality. No pun intended. So, now I’ve ruled out depression (and low self esteem) as reasons for his behavior.

E’s control over himself seems obvious now, but at the time I was unable to comprehend the fact that someone in control of themselves would be capable of inflicting upon another person the things he did to me. It’s a coping mechanism, assuming E’s out of control, that there were reasons for him to abuse me. I fabricated excuses for him as discussed, convincing myself none of it was his fault. It was mine. Batterers are masters of avoiding accountability and victim blaming. I fell for all of it. I vividly remember confiding to my best friend after he’d left the state about the abuse. Her response was, “What did you do, burn the roast!?” Which, if you don’t recognize it, is a family guy quote. Point is, even if I had burned dinner, it still wouldn’t have been my fault. No victim, in any way, causes their batterer to abuse them. Violence is a choice. It is not acceptable for any reason. Everyone has the right to live a life free of violence.

For me, understanding how batterers think and work has been extremely important in helping me begin to let go of these experiences. The shame, guilt, disgust, pessimism and fear never left, even after E did. There is a seven stage cycle of abuse which shrinks over time as a batterer asserts more and more control over their victim. When I realized that E fit in to this cycle, it was another step in the right direction for me of realizing E was a batterer, which is not something I had control over at any time. The cycle is:

  1. Incidence of Abuse (this follows #7)
  2. Expression Guilt (the batterer does not actually feel guilty, but is attempting to ensure the victim remains available in the future and/or that the batterer will not be caught or face consequences for their actions.)
  3. Rationalization/Minimization (the batterer gives reasons why it isn’t their fault, and blames the victim. Ex. I wouldn’t have reacted that way if you hadn’t _____.)
  4. “Normal (or Honeymoon) Phase” (interactions with the batterer are superficially ‘better’, allowing the victim to fall in to a false sense of safety/security.)
  5. Fantasizing (the batterer imagines in their head how they would react in situations involving the victim. Ex. If ____ forgets to _____ again, I’m going to _____.)
  6. Planning (the batterer begins to think about how to turn their fantasies into reality. This may include deciding what the victim has done wrong and how the abuser will make the victim pay for these wrongs.)
  7. Set Up (the batterer puts their plan in to action, with built in justification for the next incidence of abuse.)

As the batterer becomes more confident in their control over their victim, stages of this cycle begin to disappear. Often, #2 and 4 go right out the window. The batterer becomes so confident in their control of the situation and the victim they feel no need to express false guilt or allow for a “normal” phase to ensure the victim’s compliance.

At this point, I’ve gained the greatest tool in recovering from my past abuse that I’ve ever encountered. No amount of individual or group therapy, nor time or changes in lifestyle had any impact on my feelings of responsibility for being a victimized. But, learning how batterers think, work, plan, their personality traits, and understanding for myself how clearly E fit in to that category, that finally made the difference for me. Prior to learning all of this, I truly believed I was different from every other victim out there. Of course it wasn’t their fault they were abused, but I was different. The truth is, we are all individuals, in unique situations. That doesn’t mean that the abuse was my fault, or within my ability to stop. This leads me in to my next topic: Why do victims stay? Why don’t they leave?

There are more answers to those questions than I could ever possibly cover, but there are several important things I can share on this topic. First of all, it takes a victim on average 7-9 attempts to leave their abuser before they are successful. I personally attempted to leave E at least 3 or 4 times, possibly more. I don’t recall exactly. One of the many reasons I always felt guilty was because I went back. Now I realize I did exactly what most domestic violence victims do, I tried and failed, and tried again. Leaving an abuser is a process, not an event. As I touched on earlier, there were many compelling reasons for me to fear E, as there are for any victim to fear their abuser. As in my case, batterers isolate their victims. The victim is cut off from contact with friends, family, coworkers and everyone else who could possibly provide a support system as much as possible. The abuser learns of the existence of all the people the victim cares about in order to implement the isolation, and therefore potentially poses a legitimate threat to all of these people. Children are also commonly used against the victim as a means of control. Although I didn’t have children, I was terrified not only for myself, but also on behalf of those I loved if I angered E.

In addition to physical abuse, victims are often subject to other types of abuse as well. This may include emotional, psychological, sexual, financial and other types of abuse. Batterers systematically destroy the self esteem of their victim, convincing them they are worthless and untrustworthy. A victim may not be able to depend on themselves enough to make even basic decisions as a result of ongoing abuse, thus erecting a powerful barrier to escaping abuse. Sexual abuse is also common. Sexuality is used as a weapon agains the victim, further eroding their self esteem and convincing them no one else would want them. Batterers are often in control of all financial resources, and may not allow the victim to work. This causes the victim to have no means of supporting themselves and their children if they leave their abuser. These are just a small number of the many reasons victims stay.

My advice to anyone who is confided in by a victim of domestic violence is, don’t ask them why they stay. This would most likely be interpreted as blaming the victim, which speaking from experience is the last thing they need. Instead, listen to them. Tell them you care about them and support them. Assure them you will help if they want it, or just give a friendly ear if that’s all they’re ready for. Ultimately, the victim is the person who can most accurately judge when it’s the best time to leave. Don’t every tell a victim they need to leave, get a restraining order, or anything else. A victim doesn’t need told what to do or questioned on their decisions, their abuser is already doing exactly that. If possible, help victims connect with local resources, professionals who are better equipped to help them, but only if that’s what they want. Otherwise, just support them unconditionally.

I hate going to my annual exam. I’m sure a lot of women dislike that particular time of year, but I absolutely hate it. Every year I seriously consider not going, risking my health rather than facing that particular appointment. I have a very specific reason for this, I find answering the questions asked at an annual exam nearly impossible. They always ask if I’ve ever been raped (or ‘the victim of a sexual assault’). How do I answer that? I was terrified E was going to kill me. He forced me to have sex on a regular basis. But I never said “no”; I never said “stop”; I never fought him. I thought if I didn’t submit completely he would kill me. I was afraid for my life, so I let E use me. But that’s been the flaw in my thinking all along; I didn’t “let” him – I survived. Cliché, yes. However, it’s also the truth. As a victim of domestic violence, my consent was not ever a consideration for E. This wasn’t because I’m submissive by nature, it’s because E made the choice to be abusive. I’ve only recently made that distinction, but it makes all the difference.

In my relationship (I’m using that word very loosely here) with E, I had no power. There was no trust involved. I didn’t have the ability to consent, as E never allowed me any option other than to surrender to his will. Even then, I wasn’t safe. Surrender was simply the safest option available to me at the time. BDSM is, when practiced correctly, the polar opposite. In any group, one can find those who are abusive; however such people are the exception, not the rule. There are a couple of very important concepts in BDSM: SSC and RACK. SSC stands for Safe, Sane, Consensual; RACK stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink. Regardless of which participants prefer, they both include the key word (at least in my case): consent. There is a wealth of reading material available on SSC and RACK, so I won’t delve into them deeply at this point, but hopefully after reading the preceding information about abuse the difference in practicing BDSM is apparent.

 

For me, BDSM is a power exchange at its core. All participants: top, bottom, dom, domme, submissive, slave or otherwise must recognize all other parties’ power to consent and withdraw that consent at any time. Thus, even when deep in a scene and appearing to be completely without control, the bottom still holds the power to stop the scene. No matter how much power the top has, it will still always be secondary to the power the bottom holds simply by consenting. How is this possible? Trust. The top has to trust that the bottom will safe word if the scene becomes too much, that the bottom won’t allow themselves to be truly harmed. In return, the bottom has to trust that the top will respect their hard limits, their safe word, and any other factors which have been negotiated. BDSM is the practice of fulfilling complementary desires on a consensual basis.

 

Sadists enjoy inflicting pain, and masochists such as myself enjoy receiving that pain. That does not in any way override the issue of consent. Everyone has their limits, and the right to have them respected. Everyone has the right to not live in fear; this is just as true in BDSM as in the vanilla world. The trust between practitioners of BDSM runs very deep, it is a vital element. It is easy to understand how, on the surface, BDSM looks no different from abuse. However, with just a little analysis, the difference becomes clear. I personally have only limited experience in BDSM, but quite a lot of experience with abuse. I hope what I’ve learned can help others understand not only the differences between abuse and BDSM, but also how to recognize abuse and gain a better understanding of batterers and the choices they make. While the bottom in a BDSM scene has chosen to accept that role, no one ever chooses to become a victim.

 

P.S.

I will likely continue my discussion of this topic, as there is so much more to say. However, I’ve been working on crafting this post for weeks now and don’t wish to wait any longer to share what I have so far. Thank you for reading!

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5 thoughts on “Power and Control: Understanding Abuse, and How BDSM is Different

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