Recently the Scottish government brought in a new domestic abuse law, along with the promise to provide training and support for everyone who might be faced with identifying victims of every form abuse can take. This law, which was passed by a near-total majority, is being heralded as a gold standard that should be a model for other countries legislatures to take from as they recognize the paucity of their existing definitions of domestic abuse.
The law expands the definition of domestic abuse. It includes:
“Behavior that is violent, threatening or intimidating
Behavior whose purpose is one of the following:
Making a partner dependent or subordinate
Isolating a partner from friends, relatives or other sources of support
Controlling, regulating or monitoring a partner’s day-to-day activities
Depriving a partner of, or restricting, freedom of action
Frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing a partner. (From the BBC)”
The text of the current law essentially makes my relationship illegal by omitting one key word: consent. Consent is not mentioned even once throughout all the law or any of the supporting documents. Without the provision that even some of these behaviors—as well as the fear and distress they can cause—listed above can be consensual, the law makes criminals out of even the most considered, mindful, carefully negotiated, and loving of power exchange dynamics.
There are now two criteria for determining whether the above behaviors are abusive. The first is whether the person doing them intended to cause physical or psychological harm or was reckless about whether they would cause such harm. Psychological harm is defined in the text of the law as, “fear, alarm, or distress”—again, no mention of consent or desire. The second is whether a reasonable person would consider the actions to be likely to cause physical or psychological harm.
This is a huge step forward in creating a safer climate for victims of abuse, but without any reference to consent in the text of the law or any of the surrounding guidelines, it opens the D/s community up to real dangers. Would a “reasonable person”—almost certainly a vanilla, monogamous person—think your relationship is abusive? Do you enjoy playing with fear and distress?
It only takes one malicious individual to call the police for a “wellness check” on a D/s relationship, and lives of everyone involved in it could be ruined. There would be nothing anyone could say that could help their case, not “we love each other,” “we’re happy,” “we deliberately created this relationship and negotiated every part of it,” “we’re sadists and masochists and we enjoy fear, alarm, and distress within the context of our relationship”—none of this would matter.
So why can’t I want someone to treat me like a slave? Why is it abusive even though I’m an educated, clear-minded man? Fear, alarm, and distress can all exist within the context of my D/s dynamic, as can coercion and control. I don’t feel like I’m being harmed or abused, but I’m sure many vanilla, monogamous people would disagree. It feels a lot like gaslighting: My consent to being treated this way isn’t important because nobody should want to be treated this way. And if I do, I’m not rational enough for my consent to count, and therefore, I really am being abused.
Let me be totally clear: Domestic abuse is a truly awful thing for anyone to experience or witness. Abuse of all kinds is possible in every kind of relationship, including power exchange, and the law should absolutely extend full protection to the victims of every kind of domestic abuse. Whether a particular behavior is abusive in BDSM, however, is sensitive to context. Thriving, happy D/s relationships can involve all of the behaviors on the list of psychological abuse, just as thriving SM relationships can involve behaviors that are legally classified as assault.
Sexual minorities, like people who live in power exchange relationships, need explicit consideration whenever new laws are developed. A healthy, secure relationship for us doesn’t look like it does for most people, so any test of abuse that focuses on what a “reasonable person” might think is automatically going to put us at an unjust disadvantage. The BDSM community in the UK shouldn’t allow itself to be labeled as a group of abusers and victims. We have to do more, as a community, to make our voices heard in the vanilla world. We need to be involved in the consultation process for laws that could harm us, as individual reasonable people and through activist groups. We can’t just assume that we’ll be fine so long as we stay behind closed doors; domestic abuse legislation is designed to open those doors.