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Sexual Play v. Sexual Abuse

One day when I was still on Tumblr, I posted a rather aggressive condemnation of a captioned photo of a young woman with degrading writing across her naked body. I made a definitive statement that degrading people is never sex-positive and such actions are antithetical to the kind of sex-positive society envisioned in my blog.


In response, I got a number of vitriolic posts defending such practices. It was asserted that I just don’t understand and if I did I would not object to the photo.


Let me begin with an anecdote.


Almost a decade ago, I got to know a couple at Timberline Lodge. They were as kind and as gentle couple as any you will find. They are both well-educated professionals with highly responsible jobs; hers more so than his. As in most successful open marriages I’ve seen, there was a slight power imbalance with the woman ultimately holding the final say in their sexual activities. They were also committed parents of a pair of young children and generally nice people. They asked me to do a photo-shoot of them making love, as was my job at Timberline at the time. It went wonderfully as it always does with a loving long-term relationship. After I was done they asked if I could do a few more photos of them in the “dungeon”.


I agreed, and they pulled out their BDSM gear and proceeded for an hour in Master-Slave play, with him as the master paddling her till her bare ass was bright red. Taken out of context of their relationship, it would appear that he was abusive as the “master”; however, in context of their relationship it was very obvious to me that this was a game. Not only was this a game, but it was a game in which she was firmly in charge despite her role of “slave”.


This is one of the photos I took that day. While it isn't one of my best, it does illustrate this essay. It also abides my agreement to to post any photos where they could be easily identified.


What I witnessed was the model of positive and life affirming power based sex play. Was it something that Paula and I would ever want to do? No. But for them it was a release for her to play like she no longer had the burden of control. For her, this was an erotic and cathartic experience.


Sadly, in all our years witnessing the sex play of hundreds of couples, this was the first time I had seen the use of power imbalance in an unequivocally positive manner. What I have seen all to many times is that ritualized sexual power games are simply an erotic extension of relationships that are fundamentally one sided. Though this tends to mean the male overpowers the female in life and in sex-play; in a sizable minority, it is the other way around. The most common form of this is when the man uses power-based sex-play to validate and accentuate the control he has over “his woman”. All too many times I’ve observed sexual interactions where the woman clearly does not enjoy the ritualized abuse, but looks to see if it pleases “her man” as her motivation for continuing.

Let me use the games of children to illustrate. Most of us had at least one (likely more) bullies with whom we had to contend growing up. From my professional life I observed any number of bully’s who would corral the other kids into some game or another that was a cover or vehicle for him (her) to exert his control over the weaker kids. The game might have been “army man” or tag or one of a hundred things, but the common denominator was that the weaker kids felt compelled to participate even though they knew they would be put down and/or humiliated by the bully(s) in the process. When the adults came around, the appearance was of cooperative play, but it was far from cooperative. Sometimes I saw the victimized child’s own parent watching with a look of approval. The weak child can admit to no one, even their parent, that the game was not fun, but hurtful.


Then why do they go along? Because being left out of the game is even more painful than the abuse; so they endure and pretend they are enjoying.


Those playground bully’s eventually grow up but all too often they do not grow out of their need to exert control over others. Some express their need to control others literally everywhere, but most find selective targets and venues. Like the playground bullies that used innocuous looking games to make their behavior seem socially acceptable; so adults look to make their abuse appear to be something else. Certainly, we have nearly all seen in the workplace when deliberate efforts to harm others is guised as efficient management. But, in the context of this blog, my concern are those who use sexual “fetishes” to hide what is simply abuse.


In the vast majority of cases the abusive behavior is not ritualized with leather collars and paddles, but the core activity is the same, and it is not a game; rather, it is an exaggerated version of how the couple behaves outside the playroom. The “master”, “dom” or “top” does not see it as abusive; but rather as fun precisely because it is a highly exaggerated form of their real relationship. The “slave”, “sub” or “bottom” rationalizes that although deep down this is not what they would like to do sexually, it makes her man (or his woman) happy. They often reason that it is better to play the game than to get no attention at all. The sad truth is that the open sexual environment at swing clubs or sex parties allows what can fairly be called abuse to be passed off as consensual sex-play. And, many (if not most) people in the open sex-positive community are loathed to “judge” even when it is blindly obvious that what they are witnessing is not life affirming sex play, but ritualized abuse.


I have no problem condemning such things. I’ve worked professionally with many victims of gross domestic abuse and I know full well the expected response to an initial interview of the victim is to defend the abuser and to rationalize the abuse as loving. Only after a firm and trusting relationship is built with the victim will the feelings of shame and degradation come out. In most cases those feelings are far more debilitating than any physical abuse the victim endures.

So, let me reconsider the photos and my response. We have a young woman, likely a teenager, with extremely degrading words written on her nude body. Yes, it is entirely possible that she is a highly confident professional model just posing for a photo. But does that justify the photo being used outside of context to condemn such behavior. Would the same “let’s assume it’s a staged event” be true if it were a lynching scene? I don’t think so. Given the young age of the girl and the personally degrading words, it is hard to imagine that she is sufficiently mature and confident that such words do not burn into her soul.


Is it possible, yes.


Is it likely, no.


What is likely is that girl, to this day. dwells on why her boyfriend/girlfriend would write such things, even if he/she said it was a game. And then to take photos of it to remind her of the event later? My professional experience is that if you met her today, she would say “it’s no big deal”, but in all likelihood, deep down it is a big deal to her, a big deal she will have to cope with for years to come.


Once again, I say, in this particular case this might be a life-affirming game, but to make such an assumption given the visible evidence, is wishful thinking at best and most likely just rationalization.

The other question is this. Have those people who pass on by re-bloging that or similar images considered the message they are sending? Is a photo of a naked girl tied up with the words “Slut” or “Whore” or “Cumdump” written on her skin truly the message of sexuality that, if repeated, makes a more sex-positive society? Will actually playing a “game: where such behavior is imitated build up the self-concept of all the participants?


In this blog I know I push some boundaries, I even use “over the top” images to make points. I know I take a few risks with some of my posts, but I carefully weigh the social benefit verses the potential misunderstanding/misuse. Will I make mistakes? Yes. Will I always come down on the safe side, no. But you can be sure I think about the impact of everything I post.

I am only asking others to do the same.


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