BDSM gets into some pretty dodgy areas in terms of the sub’s well-being. Pain play, if done badly, can result in serious injuries, and some forms of bondage can be physically risky as well. Humiliation and verbal abuse can inflict emotional wounds, validate a destructive self-image, or otherwise encourage poor mental health. Findom when done unethically can put the sub in a financially precarious situation.
Many forms of pain play, including flogging, caning, and bastinado, were originally employed as punishments or forms of torture. Strappado, which straddles the line between bondage and pain play, was also a form of torture. Some types of play, such as ball-busting, blood-letting, and electro, carry with them genuine risk of serious injury if they are done poorly. Breath play is extremely dangerous, particularly because most people erroneously assume that the primary risk is asphyxiation.
To complicate things further, many doms and subs like their play to come with an outer layer of harshness and cruelty. They enjoy the idea that the dom is being cruel to the sub, that there is an aura of potential violence if the sub doesn’t obey properly. And of course, porn collapses the context of kink, causing many novices to assume that kink is about inflicting actual violence and injury on the sub.
Because of all this, its important to understand that kinksters often differentiate between hurt and harm. Hurt is temporary, short-term pain or discomfort. Hurt is the sting of a riding crop or paddle smacking an ass, the bite of a tit clamp on a nipple, the discomfort of a challenging bondage position, the sting of humiliation when a sub is pissed on or called names, the sacrifice of money to a findom that means the sub will have to skip a movie he wanted to see or forego trips to Starbucks for the next two weeks. All of these are short-term pains that show the sub (and the dom) that something real has happened. Power has been exchanged and the dom has really exercised control in an aggressive way. Hurt is pain that fades soon. It may include bruises or welts that will heal without leaving a significant mark. It might be the awareness that until the next payday, the finsub will have to watch his spending closely. Hurt heals in its own, although it may require some aftercare.
In contrast, harm is an actual injury, something that causes lasting discomfort or incapacity and perhaps requires medical attention. Harm is a blow that lands where it shouldn’t have and causes a joint injury, a badly-tied rope that causes temporary or permanent nerve damage (such as loss of sensation), a cut that requires stitches, a foolish command or decision that causes the sub to feel genuinely unsafe under the Dom’s control, a violation of the sub’s hard limits that renews emotional trauma, a drain session that causes the sub to seriously overdraft or miss a car payment. Harm is the command to engage in unsafe sex, risk addiction or relapse, damage the sub’s public reputation or career, or disrupt the sub’s important relationships. Harm doesn’t heal quickly, requires a trip to the urgent care, awakens bad memories that disrupt the relationship, or has other serious repercussions. And of course, harm is play that results in hospitalization, death, or suicide.
A good dom seeks to inflict hurt but strives mightily to avoid harm. That means that a good dom learns the risks of whatever forms of play he wishes to engage in and takes steps to minimize them. A bondage dom learns where not to run the ropes (over the joints or airway) and always has an EMT shears in case the sub needs to get out of restraints fast. A sadistic dom knows where not to strike and learns first aid or whatever other strategies are necessary to treat the likely injuries that might result from an accident. A dom who enjoys verbal abuse finds out what words are likely to cause lasting upset by talking to his sub before engaging in that play (if the sub is black, are racial slurs ok or will that trigger something unpleasant? Is the sub comfortable being called a faggot or fatso?). A findom finds out what sort of budget the finsub has to play with and doesn’t exceed it.
For subs, hurt is paradoxically pleasurable, although not every sub enjoys every form of hurt. A masochist may love flogging but hate electro, and a pain pig may enjoy tit torture but bristle at humiliation. And there is good pain and bad pain. Good pain is erotic, the ‘hurts so good’ pain, while bad pain is just unpleasant. Even the most hardened pain pig hates to stub his toe or burn his finger. Harm is almost by definition always bad pain. It might start out at erotic, but at some point it because unpleasant, frightening, or provokes long-term negative feelings.
Sadly, a lot of online porn depicts activities that either have the potential to be harmful or simply are harmful. I’ve seen a lot of porn stills where it’s clear that the person doing the flogging had no idea not to strike the lower back (where it’s very easy to injure the kidneys). I’ve seen subs tied up to things that could easily tip over onto the sub. I recall one photo where the sub was tied into a weight bench; the sub’s legs were tied over his head to a weighted barbell, so that if the sub’s legs came too far forward, the barbell would pull out of the barbell rest and then probably strike the sub’s head. I’ve seen footage of a findom encouraging his finsub to smoke meth and then drain his bank account. I’ve seen footage of a ‘dom’ simply beating a ‘sub’ with his fists, kidney-punching him. These are all examples of porn where it was clear that the makers and those who circulated it either didn’t understand that BDSM isn’t about causing harm or didn’t care enough to make sure that they avoided things likely to actually injure the sub.
If you’re a dom, you have an obligation to know how to play safely with your subs and to never intentionally inflict harm. Being concerned about the health and well-being of your subs is what separates doms from abusers on the one hand and dangerous idiots on the other.