when abuse is the only kink someone knows

I wanted my next piece to be something fun and light.

Then I woke up to this.

I saw a writing once where someone wanted to deny that abuse is kink. I am not opposed to that, but I imagine an ideal society where kink would be such an everyday part of society that the confusion of kink and abuse wouldn’t even be possible. Where it was just another thing that someone would say, Cool, you got suspended this weekend? Like they’d respond if you went hiking in Alaska. Got any good pictures?

I don’t think that’ll happen for a long time. But I believe we can counter that by helping, in any little way possible, to make BDSM more open. How is someone supposed to know “bad” kink when they have never seen “good”? I don’t believe we can end abuse, but we can help shed a bit of light on healthy BDSM, so that when people do encounter sketchy situations, they can see it in a better perspective.

Which, in part, means understanding what people are saying about BDSM, outside of the community. Away from our echo chambers. Because every once in a while, I see kink or non monogamy mentioned in some article— and it’s usually horrible and makes me want to pull out my hair.

Which brings me to the article I read in the morning.

First, the title—

Dear Therapist: A Professor Is Abusing My Friend

Besides being clickbait, the premise is already that the friend is being abused. When, if you read the entire article, there is no proof of abuse. Which is the first thing that really bothered me.

Then the follow up blurb—

Her relationship shows all the typical signs of emotional manipulation and physical harm, but she refuses to admit that there’s a problem.

This assumes there is a problem. Are these red flags? Yes. But red flags are just that. Flags. It doesn’t mean that something is wrong, but that it MIGHT be a sign of something wrong. When I see someone posting daily pictures of their happy relationship with new boyfriend, it’s a red flag that they are secretly unhappy and trying to convince themselves otherwise. But, hey, they might be actually happy. I don’t know, I’m not them.

I’m not saying there IS NO problem. There is plenty of suspicious behavior, but BDSM often involves suspicious behavior. We trust there is consent in the photos, but we don’t usually get verification. The same signs of abuse ARE the signs of a BDSM relationship. Some of us even joke, “Oh, I don’t know where that bruise came from,” or “I think I fell down the stairs,” the same as an abuse victim often claims. It’s tough when even people in community tell you that you’re being abused, when it’s what you want. It IS hard to tell the difference, unless, you know, you talk to the person.

And say it IS abusive, after all? No victim will be helped by making her feel judged regarding her dirty, unethical desires. If someone’s first words are, “Your relationship shows every sign of emotional manipulation and physical harm. Can I help you with your problem?” No. Just no.

Then it finally gets to the concern letter itself, from the supposed victim’s friend—

My best friend is currently in a romantic and sexual relationship with a 50-year-old professor at our university.

If there were anything about how he is older and should have more experience in BDSM and perhaps not send his girlfriend to hospital QUITE so often, I would understand this inclusion of age. But it’s pretty obvious she’s just disgusted at the thought of having sex with someone so old and ugly. Yay, ageism on top of everything else. I suppose she thinks that she has an expiration date on when she’s too old to be attractive, too.

Over the summer, my friend starting working as a nanny for the professor and his wife. After three days on the job, he told her that he “fell in love with her at first sight” and suggested that she was his soulmate. Since this confession, they’ve been dating and having sex. I was disgusted by this, I figured the relationship would be short-lived given the age difference.

Confirmation of age bias AND a prejudice against non monogamy. While I agree that this is not a stable set up for a polyamorous relationship, which the friend claims to be in, I am skeptical that the person— given their ignorance about BDSM— has any idea of healthy alternative polyamorous situations. Like, she never tells the friend, hey, maybe you shouldn’t work for the guy AND date him. No, she just hopes the relationship will die. Cause, you know, that’s healthy.

She has been hospitalized twice due to BDSM activities like choking, cutting, and flogging. The professor has also started posting nude pictures of her on his pornographic website. In all of the pictures, she has deep-purple bruises and lacerations.

This is her proof of abuse. I understand it’s difficult to see, but that’s not the friend’s problem. Don’t look at them, if they disturb you. I don’t. No judgment, it’s just hard for me to see. That doesn’t mean this is abuse.  Because, as much as some people hate to admit it, some people want the bruises.  Crave the marks on their skin.  Yes, they can take it to a dangerous level, but that is a completely different issue to address (which I may at some point, but not here.)

It should be noted that my friend suffers from depression, has a strained relationship with her own father, and was sexually abused by her uncle when she was 13. She’s precisely the type of girl that a predator would prey on.

Because stereotyping BDSM as the inevitable result of an abusive childhood isn’t done all the time. Okay, just keep reading, Kitten. Maybe it’ll get better? Maybe it’s a kink friendly therapist?

I don’t know what I can do to get her to leave this relationship. I love her with all my heart and want to help her, but I honestly have no idea what course of action I should take. I’m praying that you’ll answer this question, because I have no one I can talk to about this issue.

As much as I hate everything about this letter, she is making a sincere plea, she should be respected with a fitting response.  But she is met with more ignorance and prejudice instead.

It gets worse…

Because the part that really got me going wasn’t the letter, but the response.  Anyone might be ignorant in their concerns and their voicing of said concerns. But at least the girl is seeking help for her friend, yes? She might not know anything about polyamory or BDSM, but how else is she supposed to learn?  The therapist is trained. The therapist should know better. But she just assumes it is abuse in a situation she really knows nothing about. She doesn’t correct Zooey on any of her ignorant statements, letting the ageism and ignorance towards BDSM and non monogamy slide. Fine, I can deal with that.

She goes on to encourage Zooey’s paranoia, yes, paranoia.

One hallmark of an abusive relationship is a kind of secrecy that goes something like this: We’re not doing anything wrong here, but don’t tell anyone. It’s just between us.

I’m sorry? Yeah, that’s a sign of an abusive relationship. It’s also a sign of a kinky relationship. Because people aren’t judgmental at all about a married man having a sadomasochist relationship with their nanny, with or without approval of the wife? Because nobody ever mocks or vilifies perfectly consensual relationships, just because they don’t approve of that “lifestyle”?

It’s okay to be critical of our lifestyle (BDSM, non monogamy, etc). It’s okay to be concerned. I don’t take it personally when someone asks me if I’m okay about something (assuming they aren’t a jerk about it). If they are very new and don’t know a lot, I WANT them to ask me questions. I’d rather they ask, than assume.

If you can’t even get that maybe I’m hiding my kinky nature, because there might be a legitimate reason for it? I automatically shut down. I’m hardly alone in this.

Next, the therapist manipulates the words the friend uses about her relationship with her “partner,” whatever he is to her.

What we have between us is special, but outside people won’t understand.

Now, we’re supposed to feel like this is her partner manipulating HER into keeping their relationship secret, so he is free to abuse her.  Which he probably is.  But the truth is, I would say the same thing about my master, although I’d confide that in my trusted friends.  Rather than letting my master tell me that, as a way from keeping me from talking to anyone else.

What I have— with my master, in particular, but also with my other partners— IS special and outside people DON’T understand. I can see that perfectly well in comments on Facebook alone. If it weren’t true, BDSM would be mainstream. We’d have tons of great resources, not just 50 Shades and Secretary (I do like Secretary, but there’s so much wrong with it, too). We might not even HAVE this situation, because the friend would know what a healthy kink relationship looks like. Zooey and the therapist might even make statements about kink that aren’t incredibly ignorant.

What Zooey’s friend claims to have with the professor IS special and most people won’t understand. Anyone who has been kinky for any length of time knows that.  That doesn’t mean this is a great or healthy relationship. But this is NOT evidence— but rather signs and red flags— that this is abuse.

Then the therapist proceeds to give the OP terrible advice to share with her friend.

[Tell her] I know you believe that you’re in love with him, but because of the intensity of your feelings, I don’t think you can see the situation clearly.

Tell her that you’ve been trying to understand her thinking about this, not being bothered by the fact that she’s engaging in actions that have hospitalized her; caring for a child who trusts her but having sex with the child’s father behind the child’s back; believing the professor is telling her the truth that his wife is fine with him having sex with their child’s caregiver, something that seems unlikely even in an open marriage.

Yes, telling a friend in NRE that YOU know her feelings better than her is a great way to get the friend to open up. Being obviously disbelieving that her relationship could possibly be any good is a great way to break thru and get her friend to listen. Who ARE these therapists? Not only can they not tell the difference between abuse and kink, but it’s poor advice altogether. Do they know anything about how people work, let alone kink?

Explain that you’ve been trying to understand how she envisions a future with this man who calls her his soulmate—that it doesn’t seem as if he’s going to leave his wife and child to be with her exclusively, and so you wonder what being his soulmate means to her. Tell her that you don’t consider posting photos of a bruised and lacerated young college student on a pornographic website to be the way a person treats his soulmate.

I love how not only is nothing said by the friend about the professor wanting to leave his wife for her, but the therapist actually presents that like a GOOD thing for the friend. That if he DID want to do that, maybe he COULD be a soulmate. Only by doing the shitty thing could he be “good” for her. Instead of having a healthy, polyamorous situation where the friend is not in conflict with the wife, but living harmoniously. But that isn’t good enough for a soulmate, right?

And I so want to step up to her and politely respond, “Actually posting photos of your bruised and lacerated girlfriend IS how a good master treats his soulmate (assuming she’s into that). In fact, most of those photos I’ve seen have proudly been posted by the girlfriend, showing off her Master’s work.”

Also, she never bothers to correct things like, “Really, he’s in love with her after three days?” Because in her mind that kind of thing is probably romantic.

Ultimately, I agree that Zooey needs to talk to her friend. I just think there is a non crappy way to do so that actually helps her friend, rather than drives her into an early grave.

Just think about the situation presented, between the lines. It sounds as if this is the friend’s first kink relationship (if not, it’s even worse, I’ll assume the best for now). It sounds like the best resource the friend has is Zooey, otherwise, why is she coming to someone else with no kink experience? If she had anyone else, she’d recognize Zooey’s lack of understanding and knowledge about kink and poly. So I can only assume she has nobody, really, but the professor to talk to about this.

And that’s dangerous. It’s true that you can enter a kink relationship with someone and only have them as a guide, with no community, and be fine. But let’s break it down. Chances of a college age student (it appears that she’s Zooey’s age); with a much older partner; engaging in extremely risky (yes, I will say that beatings and breaking the skin ARE risky activities, even if consensual) forms of BDSM that send her to the hospital; the friend having no one else but the dominant partner himself to talk to about her safety and well beingduring those encounters; while in a situation where she’s working in his home; where she could easily be thrown out or accused of being a home wrecker and losing her social network; chances of that being healthy and safe?

I’m going to go with slim to none. I’m also going to say I know of situations like that where the person is lucky to be alive. Not because they deserved it, but because it was a very bad situation. Is it the victim’s fault, who accidentally walks through a bad neighborhood and gets shot? Of course not. It’s still a situation any good friend would help one avoid, because they care about you.

It would be amazing if the therapist could provide actual, helpful advice. Like, maybe this?

Step 1. Prove you are a safe person in whom to confide. (note, without this, the rest is useless)

“Hey, I care about you and I know nothing about BDSM or what you are involved in, but I’d like to learn. Can you talk to me about it?” Just that, at first. I can’t stress that enough— IF YOU DON’T PROVE YOURSELF A SAFE ENVIRONMENT, NOBODY OWES YOU TOTAL HONESTY. It is on YOU to deserve their trust and loyalty. Not them.

Show you care. Show that you are not, as the therapist is encouraging, judgmental and superior. All that is going to do is drive the friend away and shut her up. Which is completely the wrong thing to accomplish, based on the above analysis of the situation. IF it’s abusive, which it does sound like, the last thing you want is the friend to have nobody but her abuser(s) as her support. It’ll probably come out that the friend doesn’t know anything, either. That’s okay. That means you can move on to the next step.

Step 2. Get her to find someone else, anyone else, who is actually familiar with BDSM and/or polyamory.

“So, I’m really trying to be supportive here, but you really aren’t telling me anything. I get that you don’t know, but you’re doing things that are putting you in the hospital and there IS a kink community that can help you be safe about this. I want you to come with me to [a munch/a class/meet someone experienced in the community] and help give you some foundation on which to build your relationship. Because I don’t want something bad to happen.”

Step 3. Address the problems in the relationship.

“I care about you. I don’t really get your relationship, but it’s obvious this is something you crave. Can I just please talk to you about a couple of red flags that are bothering me?”

And then talk about the things that do need to change. Not abandoned, just altered to ensure her friend is safe and happy, while still meeting her needs. Like, working in the home of your first and only kink partner that likes to beat you and cut your skin? Find a new job. And protect yourself. They haven’t earned your trust, not yet. Make sure that whatever happens, YOU are protected, and any accusations or fallout will make THEM look crazy or jealous. Make it look like THEY are the ones who, perhaps, want to find an excuse not to pay you. Maybe the wife/husband is looking for an excuse to leave the marriage. YOU are most important to me, not them. Also, the whole going to the hospital thing? Not cool. I know you want the thrill and the experience, but how can you do so in a way that doesn’t result in that level of injury?

Then, if the friend is really too caught up in the high of an exciting lifestyle, it’s okay to say, Look, I don’t disapprove, but it’s too much for me. I can’t be your friend if you insist on choosing this path. I don’t think Zooey SHOULD stop being her friend, but I would find it reasonable. I’d probably do it myself.

Instead, Zooey— whose handbook on kink is 50 Shades, at best— will succeed in getting the friend to never open up to her again. Or she’ll come with Zooey to a therapist that will make her feel guilty and dirty. And THEN she’ll never talk to Zooey about it again. She’ll keep throwing herself deeper into a lifestyle she knows nothing about. The wife will get antsy, either about “sharing her husband,” or, rightly, about a dead college girl ending up in her home or associated with her husband— and she’ll get kicked out, with nobody to support her but herself (even more so if her parents find out and do cut her off). Because, with nobody to give her any good advice, she’ll get more and more dangerous about it. One of those hospital visits will be permanent.

But I guess Zooey can be “proud of the friend [she] tried to be and then put [her] energy into the more reciprocal, enriching friendships that often form during one’s college years,” according to the therapist.

Atlantic is a resource that I respect. Nobody like that therapist should be given a platform like them to masquerade as professional. We need better.

Is there something we, as a community, can do to educate beyond our echo chambers?

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