Saturday, September 6, 2008

D/s and Abuse in SL

by San Mauvaise (with contributions, corrections and editing by others including Eloise Pasteur).

This is a piece about emotionally abusive relationships in the context of SL and BDSM. It may be that some of this is also useful in other contexts but was only written with this one in mind. Comments and suggestions of improvements please!

Short Summary

D/s (Dominance/submission) relationships can and should be free from abuse. Just because you are submissive by nature and have given control to another does not mean you don't have rights. A D/s relationship should (overall) satisfy both partner's needs and enhance them as individuals. If you are very unhappy in a D/s relationship then consider the bulleted "Indications of an abusive relationship" and "Indications of a healthy relationship below". Talk to other people in the same situation as you are, and see what they think of your relationship -- consider especially if when you do this you tell the truth or feel obliged to cover up facts. If it is abusive, it is not your fault and you have every right to leave, regardless of whether you screwed up or what assurances/commitments you gave.

Personal Prolog

I was in a relationship in SL, which I now (finally) recognise as abusive. I was lucky in that I was saved from it and myself by the love of people I knew. Even after it had finished I continued to make excuses for her behaviour for months afterwards. Compared to some relationships this was not grand abuse but nonetheless it was real -- it made me unhappy for a sustained period of time, caused me to significantly hurt some of my SL friends and wasted months of my life. There were times when I left SL crying or hid in my bed. This is despite the fact that there were wonderful times, that I loved her and she loved me. Although I endlessly forgave her for what she did to me (I still do) I later discovered that she had seriously hurt others as the result of deliberate deception. Although at times she did recognise what she had done, the habits of reconstructing memories and justifications reasserted themselves after a period and she has hurt at least one other person since. I have been so lucky in the steadfast love I have received since then which has enabled me to rebuild myself. If this notecard goes anyway to prevent this from happening again or reducing the impact of such people, it will have been worthwhile.


BDSM and D/s can be neatly characterised as *playing* at abuse for the mutual gratification of the participants. However BDSM and D/s are *not* in themselves abuse. The point of BDSM and D/s is to enjoy playing without it being abuse. In other words, to give an arena for the playing out and experiencing of otherwise taboo sensations and emotions but in a safe way that enhances rather than diminishes the participants. Yes they often involve aspects of interaction that are also used in abusive relationships, but although some of the forms are similar, the content and context are different. BDSM or D/s is no more to do with abuse than paint-balling is to do with killing people. However, as in every other walk of life, there are abusive people in BDSM and D/s. Moreover the techniques and technologies used in BDSM are well suited to exploitation by an abuser, and a D/s context can be used to mask an abusive relationship.

Of course, in a way the problem of abusive relationships in SL is much less of a problem than in RL, because of the relative ease of walking away. In RL walking away can be a complex, difficult and personally costly business. In SL is often sufficient to simply making it clear you dont want anything to do with an abuser anymore, removing them from your friends list and moving to different locations is (if they stalk you it is a different matter -- for this see the appendix below). However doing this can come at *some* cost - the cost of the relationship itself, the loss of friends and locations one likes, the loss of items and (not least) the feeling of failure. These potential losses can make it difficult for someone to leave an abusive relationship -- hence the need for this notecard. Just becuase one can consent to an abusive relationship does not stop it being abusive!

What is an abusive relationship?

What is an abusive relationship? Basically it is a relationship where person exploits another in a relationship for their own goals or due to their own nature. Thus there is a basic asymmetry of satisfaction between the partners -- one person is basically miserable and oppressed whilst the other satisfies their own needs at the expense of their partner's happiness and sense of self. Outside of a D/s relationship this may be externally indicated by physical abuse, emotional abuse, humiliation etc. to maintain that asymmetry of satisfaction, but the thing that makes it abusive is the same in both D/s and vanilla relationships.

Within a D/s relationship there will usually, probably often, be elements that appear to mimic physical abuse (bondage, spanking and so on), emotional abuse ("We're going shopping, no, stay naked and crawl after me.") and the like. There is an inherent asymmetry of D/s in which there is a controlling partner and a controlled partner, but the controller acts in a way that brings significant satisfaction, joy, self-worth and rewards to the controlled. The asymmetry of D/s is of control not of satisfaction and joy.

No relationship is perfect

Of course, no relationship is perfect and will have aspects or times when one or other partners are either miserable or feel oppressed but this is a mile away from an abusive relationship where this is the norm and the abuser acts to stop the oppressed partner rectifying or changing the situation. In normal relationships it is usual for there to be down periods, but firstly the other partner is usually concerned to rectify this, secondly this period results in communication about and/or adjustment of the relationship to rectify the situation (or else the relationship ends) and finally these periods are the exception rather than the norm. In D/s relationships there may be elements of play which temporarily cause feelings of misery and oppression -- most subs will choose to endure these (and then ask later never to do that again please!) - safe words exist to give you an out if it gets too much. Occasionally getting it wrong (so the sub feels oppressed and miserable by the play) will probably happen if you experiment regularly in play (and the Dominant doesn't get it quite right) but can also happen because D/s play is often deeply affecting so that subtle changes in other parts of your life can make things you liked last week intolerable this week. The same can be true in vanilla relationships where trying something new, or a disturbance in other parts of your life affects your mood at home even if you are not directly aware of the cause.

Abuse affects Dominants too

Although a submissive is obviously much more vulnerable to abuse, Dominants are not immune to it. I have known D/s relationships where the demands of the "submissive", accompanied by emotional blackmail and tantrums have made their life a misery. However, this way around is much rarer as a Dominant will often simply reject such submissives when they try to take over control of the interaction. One thing you should be aware of if you are new to being a Dominant: submissives will, usually quite passively, take up as much of your time as they can. They will want to be with you and this will almost certainly strengthen over time. This is in contrast to many vanilla relationships where an initial, infatuated phase often moves into a phase where you love each other deeply but do your own things too. Controlling this demand for time in a D/s relationship can be very difficult particularly if, as is quite often the case, denial of contact is one of the few genuine punishments you have available.

Indications of an abusive relationship

How might you know you are in an abusive relationship? There is no single infallible criterion that will identify an abusive relationship, however there are a series of indicators that, taken together, give a pretty good indication. However a common feature of abusive relationships is the self deception practiced by the victim. Thus the unfortunate truth is that if you are in an abusive relationship then you are probably making all sorts of excuses to yourself and others to justify the actions of your abuser. Facing the personal failure and loss implied by an abusive relationship is often harder than enduring the next bit with the hope that it will all be better in the future. If more than one of the below is true of your relationship then it may well be abusive - if several are true then it is almost certainly abusive.

  • Do you normally have a feeling of dread when about to meet this person?
  • Is there a huge *release* feeling of relief if that person seems to be kind to you this time.
  • Do you often leave that person feeling dreadful with feelings of depression, failure, self-reproach and hurt?
  • Do you often leave SL in RL tears?
  • Do you often seek to run-away from that person, hide from them, or avoid going into SL when you know they are around?
  • Do you feel better at times when you know they will not be around?
  • Is there a cycle of leaving them and then returning to them?
  • Does the person never seem to understand or appreciate your point of view, so that you spend a lot of time trying to justify your actions in terms of their view of things?
  • Do recriminations and blame seem to go on for ages, with old faults of yours continually brought up and gone over?
  • Does the relationship *only* act to satisfy the needs of that person and not yours (except your need to please them, make them happy, care for them)?
  • Is that person jealous of any friends you may have, however innocent those friendships are?
  • Do you find that you avoid seeing friends because you are afraid that this will always be misinterpreted by this person?
  • Is it effectively impossible to talk *about* your relationship with them at all? (for example if you do the discussion quickly becomes unpleasant).
  • Are guilt, fear and their needs the primary drivers of you staying with them?
  • Do you find that you are often defending the actions of this person to yourself and others?
  • Does the relationship tend to cycle around the same patterns again and again, where each crisis occurs but then nothing changes until the next one?
  • Do you lie about aspects of the relationship to friends in order that they might not think bad of this person?

Two D/s context specific indicators:

  • Does the Dominant regularly play in ways that make you feel miserable or oppressed? (this might not indicate abuse: you could be a badly matched couple, but it could be abuse)
  • Does the Dominant ignore use of the safeword by you?

Indications of a healthy relationship

In the other direction signs of a healthy relationship are similarly complex and difficult to capture. Relationships differ a great deal and it is often impossible to judge from the outside of a relationship whether it is meets the needs of those in it. In particular you can not tell in a BDSM or D/s context what the relationship is like by going by common social norms. Thus just because someone is always in chains or being 'beaten' does not mean that it is abusive (whereas this would be a clear indication outside of a BDSM relationship). Thus, as above, the criteria below need to be taken as a whole and not in isolation or generalise from a single instance.

Thus in a healthy relationship you should find that many of the below are true for much of the time.

  • That you look forward to seeing that person, meeting them is something you desire.
  • The times when you are in conflict are the exception rather than the times which you are in rough harmony.
  • That the relationship routinely makes you feel happy, satisfied, peaceful
  • That you are enjoying the relationship most times in the present and not relying on the hope that it will be better in the future.
  • That you are proud of the way your partner treats you -- even when in private (does not mean you would tell anyone these, but that you are still judge them as something worthy of praise).
  • That you comminicate with fair frequency *about* your relationship without being effectively discouraged in any way from doing this.
  • That the relationship changes slowly over time, adjusting to your needs at times.
  • That your partner encourages you to grow in aspects outside your immediate relationship, to develop and maintain other friendships, projects, skills and hobbies
  • That your partner shows substantial trust in you (e.g. to behave when not with them).
  • That when things go wrong they are quickly addressed and rarely if ever repeated.

Things that do not show a relationship is free from abuse

Things that do *not* prove a relationship is free from abuse include:
  • that the person loves you,
  • that they need you,
  • that you consent to the arrangement,
  • that you are in love with them,
  • that you care about them obsessively,
  • that they have good reasons for being as they are,
  • that they cant help being as they are,
  • that at times they are aware that they act badly,
  • that they often regret what they do,
  • that you are not perfect in terms of your care for them,
  • that they sometimes make you feel wonderful,
  • that you are not a worthy person for their love,
  • that you frequently make mistakes.

ALL of these can be true and it still be an abusive relationship.

Healthy D/s relationships are possible

Clearly it is my (and many others') view that healthy D/s relationships are possible, where the participants are able to express their submissive or dominant sexualities whilst fostering the mental flourishing and joy of both partners. In fact, it is my view that, accepting that some people do have submissive or dominant sexualities is important, in exactly the same way as accepting lesbian, gay and transsexual people is important. Whatever a person's sexuality, they have a right to express this in ways that are mutually pleasurable with other consenting adults, without that having *any* effect on their rights and responsibilities as an individual. Thus, for example, people should have the right to be a sexual submissive without that stopping them being high-flying managers in their job, or to be a dominant in SL whilst being the office cleaner in RL. Our sexualities are powerful forces inside us, they can lead us to do things that otherwise we would not contemplate -- hence they need to be expressed only where this does not involve abuse of others -- i.e. where such interaction is to the mutual satisfaction of those involved. One can no more cure/reform a sexual submissive or Dominant than one can cure/reform a lesbian or transsexual -- one can only accept and even celebrate their existence. All sexualities should practice safe and consensual sex and mutually satisfactory relationships -- D/s is no exception to this.

Avoiding an abusive relationship

Trivially the best way to avoid an abusive relationship is not to get into one in the first place. From a submissive's point of view this involves looking for a good and responsible dominant, a topic which is covered in a seperate notecard (Finding a Dominant). It is impossible to avoid all chance of this occurring as abusive types will often hide their nature in the early stages, being romantic and passionate lovers or caring and attentive Dominants. However there are things one can do that can make it more difficult to be taken in and easier to escape. Most importantly is maintaining and even developing friends, interests and contacts that are seperate from the relationship. Such social networks help in many different ways, they give a perspective on what is normal and acceptable in terms of behaviour, they can lift your mood and hence make you less amenable to oppression and they provide social recourses for when you need help. Secondly is deciding and sticking to a set of personal standards which determine what one would and would not do for anyone (including the person with whom you are relating). Simply refusing to go beyond these gives you an area of your life over which you retain control and limits the damage an abusive relationship might do. Finally the simple step of not giving out any identifying RL information is the most basic safety tip, this allows you the confidence that whatever occurs will be limited to SL. If you want to get to know them in RL go *very* cautiously and gradually -- wait 2-3 months after you have got to know them in SL, use safe email addresses (such as specially created yahoo or gmail accounts) to write, exchange photos, use voice/skype to talk, meet in the RL *before* you have given them your RL name, address and phone number!

Other reasons why a relationship may make one unhappy

If you are very unhappy with a relationship, this may or may not be because it is abusive. It is entirely possible to be very unhappy in a relationship in which there is no abuse at all. On the other hand, if the unhappiness is largely one-sided and ongoing, you might consider the above criteria as an indication of whether it might be abusive. The opinion of friends is often a better guide to this, but it is easy to dismiss the opinion of friends as having a particular viewpoint and easier to persuade friends that things are alright. However, if you do have any doubts in your mind as to whether your relationship is abusive, then do talk to someone about it. It is worth saying that any relationship which makes you very unhappy, particularly if it does this often or regularly, whether or not it's an abusive one, is a relationship you should seriously consider changing or ending.

What to do if you think you may be in an abusive relationship

If you want to leave a relationship at times but the person effectively prevents this (by stalking you, using threats, tantrums, emotional blackmail about how hurt they will be, socially embarrassing you, threats against your friends, simply not giving you time to think etc.) then you should seriously consider that this relationship is now abusive (even if it was not to begin with). You have a complete right to leave a relationship - doubly so for an SL relationship which will have little impact in the real world. You have this right even if you feel that it was you that you that screwed the relationship up or you who were at fault!

If you decide to leave such a relationship then, in this order:
  1. mute that person
  2. ban them from your land (if you have any)
  3. send them a 1-line IM saying only that the relationship is ended and you do not want to hear from them again (nothing else)
  4. remove them from your friends list (4) remove them from any personal groups
  5. remove yourself from any of their groups
  6. (if possible) move away from places you used to frequent togther.
  7. In a D/s context reset all scripts, remove all owner-permissions etc. on any attachments (collar etc.) you have used with your former partner.
  8. avoid any discussion with that person, especially those where you feel the need to justify your actions.

If the person stalks you or tries to make you SL life unpleasant then consider some of the steps listed below.

Steps to escaping an SL stalker

Stalking in Second Life, after you have muted the person, removed them from your friends list, banned them from your land and so on is still possible. It is, however, relatively hard.

That said, there are tools that you may have granted them the right to use that can do this. For example, many collars carry tracking devices. They will only report your location to a registered owner though, so clearing the owner list and resetting the scripts as discussed above should prevent this continuing. However, if you have ever given your former partner items for them to sort out for you, particularly if they are adept at scripting, they may have hidden scripts that continue to work after a reset. The first stop could be to compare the scripts in your version of your collar, cuffs etc. with the version in a friend's. Are there new scripts, or scripts with different modify dates? If you're not sure about this, it is probably safest to throw them all away and buy new.

If you find you are continuously stalked at home the chances are there's something around that's reporting your position. Return anything that belongs to your ex-partner (if you haven't already). If it continues seriously consider returning everything, even your stuff. Most houses are copyable, but you might need new furniture, or to find a friend that scripts and can check your furniture has nothing odd in it. If, after that it still continues consider moving. There are ways to check from your neighbors if you're there, but only if the neighbors will let them. This probably means your ex is friends with the neighbor so whilst you could ask if they've got anything there, simply selling up and moving is quite easy in Second Life.

You should remember the Abuse Report tool from the Help menu. Linden Lab staff are reluctant to get involved in personal disputes, but if you demonstrate that you politely ask them to leave you alone and they persist in verbally or otherwise pursuing you, or you can demonstrate that they are using scripts to stalk you, then this does constitute griefing and they will take action, up to and including banning the account permanently. Whilst your former partner may have scripted something to track you that doesn't get reset, it is unlikely they will have done so for a new alt they are forced to make if they get banned.

Some other information

Other notecards from the Cellar:

Emotional Abuse:
BDSM, Abuse and Safety:
(The below is mostly aimed at RL BDSM and online chatrooms, but contains much material relevant to SL D/s)

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