March/April 2001
Hurt vs. Harm
Author Unknown

Jay Wiseman recently published a definition of hurt vs. harm that has been kicking around local BDSM circles for many years. I agree with it wholeheartedly. It has been shared with medical doctors and mental health professionals, who recognize and have helped refine the definitions and distinctions between healthy, consensual BDSM play and abuse.

To hurt someone means to cause them temporary pain which goes away after a reasonably short duration without any outside intervention. In other words, the bruise or redness fades, the bleeding stops, the tears dry up, the marks and effects of the hurt go away and the person returns to their former state of physical and emotional health, whatever that state might be, with the help of no more than perhaps a Band-Aid.

To harm someone means to cause them damage that seriously needs the intervention of an outside professional to heal, i.e., you need more than a Band-Aid to fix it. A doctor needs to tend your injury, or an outside counselor is needed to put your head back together. Psychological "damage" can be harder to quantify, but it can certainly be inflicted in the boundaries of a relationship - whether that relationship is SM or not.

Some borderline activities between hurt and harm include permanent marks, scars, tattoos, brands, etc, which are of long term duration and which do not go away. Generally, if the person who has been permanently marked actively
consented to the mark, it isn't considered harm. If the person wasn't expecting to be permanently marked or scarred and it's done to them anyways, it's generally considered to be harm.

IE, it's rude to carve your initials in people's butt cheeks at play parties without a bit more negotiation and consent first - that would be causing harm. On the other hand, you are free to visit a piercing studio or a tattoo parlor and seek out modifications to your own body if you wish; nobody should accuse the professional piercer or tattoo artist of doing you "harm".

Many more sports injuries (i.e., real harm) happen on the football field than have ever occurred in anybody's dungeon, even if you adjust statistically for the greater number of football players to BDSM players.

While BDSM play, like any other enjoyable but strenuous physical activity, might result in bruises, scrapes or welts needing a Band-Aid, it does not directly result in sprains, dislocations or broken bones. There are always a few instances where someone might have fallen down the stairs and tripped over a flogger, or injured their arm because they whipped someone too vigorously, or slipped and taken a fall during a scene, but this sort of mishap is equally likely to happen to the top or the bottom. Experienced BDSM players take very careful precautions to avoid any such accidents during their scenes, and as a consequence, such accidents are relatively rare.

The safety factor in BDSM as a sport is considerably higher than football. If you followed through with the logic that no one should play BDSM because sometimes people get bruised or hurt, the much more dangerous sport of football should logically be targeted long before BDSM.

People can enjoy playing football, even though it is a physically strenuous sport in which you are very likely to get at least somewhat bruised or scraped up when you participate. An attempt at legislating against football because "people get hurt" would result in howls across the nation about how we damn well have the right to take those risks if we want to. Unfortunately, legislation against consensual BDSM play, because it involves the taboo subject of sex and sensual enjoyment, is quite another story, and fewer people are likely to protest even though the issues are very similar.

In consensual BDSM play, "hurt" and "pain" is often simply defined as "strong sensation" by the players involved. While stubbing your toe outside the bedroom or dungeon is cause for yelping and cursing, a similarly hard, swift smack in a safe place by your lover during lovemaking is simply a strong sensation which can be interpreted as pleasurable.

Part of the attraction of BDSM play for many is the ability to explore the outer limits of your body and your sensations in a safe way with your partner. You know that while you may choose to experience strong sensations, i.e., what would normally be pain in a nonerotic context, there will be no real harm done. IE you won't need a doctor when you're done, or have any long lasting effects beyond a sense of "gee, that sure was intense and exciting!"

Others seek out BDSM play for reasons which are almost more spiritual or exploratory than sexual, and cite an ecstatic, altered state of consciousness as their primary motivation for seeking strong sensations in the context of SM play.

Historically, almost every culture has provided to its members some acceptable outlet for these apparently universal desires to seek an altered or "shamanic" state of consciousness. Our culture, which is based on a monotheistic religion which anthropologists classify as Apollonian, i.e., non-ecstatic, has no such outlet for ecstatic ritual practices and the
resultant achievement of the SSC (shamanic state of consciousness). Thus, BDSM may possibly be seen in this context by knowledgeable anthropologists as the current and inevitable outlet for ecstatic ritual practices in this culture. See the works of Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and more recently Michael Harner for some solid historical documentation and further explanations in this field.

Still others liken playing BDSM to the "safe thrill" of visiting the Haunted House at Disneyland, riding a roller coaster or watching a scary or exciting movie. You get all the vicarious enjoyment of living out the fantasy scenario - perhaps you are a kidnap victim, or a slave, or conversely a rapist or a kidnapper - but you also know that it's only a fantasy, and that it's being played out safely and consensually so that nobody will really suffer any harm or damage.

For some players, BDSM is not really that much unlike a visit to an amusement park or enjoying an exciting movie or play, except that you're much more directly involved and in control of the action, and of course you can stop it at any time. You have the thrill of excitement and "danger", much as you do on a roller coaster ride, but you also know that the danger is mostly illusory, and you can feel safe enough to enjoy yourself.

Part of the definition of consensual BDSM play is that to the best of the ability of the players involved, nobody gets harmed. Experience strong sensations of their own free will, yes. Go beyond their stated limits of exploration, or have real harm or damage done to their minds and bodies, no.

The argument that "BDSM is bad for you and nobody should do it" is rather similar in my mind to the argument that tattoo parlors or scary movies or sexy books are bad - it attempts to limit what people have the power to do with their own bodies and minds for their own exploration and enjoyment. I don't think that this kind of censorship is a good idea.

If I choose to explore, safely and consensually, the outer limits of strong sensation and fantasy play with my partner, who gives anybody else the right to say we mustn't? Alternatively, if my spirituality is such that I choose to use pain or abnegation to alter my level of consciousness to achieve a religious or spiritual end, I have the weight of considerable historical affirmation behind me.

The bottom line is that I have the right to make healthy personal choices as to what I want to do with my body, what I want to read, what I want to view and what thoughts and fantasies I want to have. And nobody except me, with the possible exceptions of professionals in the health field, can really effectively judge my motivations or my degree of health.

Still, most arguments which are sweeping generalities tend to have their flaws, and the argument that BDSM play is 100% good and healthy for everybody who does it is no exception.

We, the BDSM community, are not immune to mental illness, dysfunction, neurosis, co-dependence and other emotional problems that can and do afflict people from all walks of life and all sexual orientations. There certainly do
exist dysfunctional individuals who have internalized guilt and shame and who are using BDSM play in a harmful or damaging way against themselves or their partners.

Where are they? Some of them see pro dommes as clients. Others stay more completely hidden and never "come out" to anybody. Very, very few of this type become actively involved in the BDSM community and merrily go to play
parties and socialize with other BDSM players. And if they do, they don't tend to last long - they either heal and come to accept themselves, or they cannot come to terms with the openness and focus on health and safety in the community, and they leave.

If an individual is doing things that cause himself or other individuals real harm, most BDSM community members would choose to disown him and suggest that what he is doing has nothing to do with safe-sane-consensual BDSM play at all - it's simply abuse or self destructiveness, and we don't want to watch or participate.

The question that keeps being asked is "how do you tell the difference?" That's actually a good question. Knowing the distinction between hurt and harm is a very good start. Certainly there are blatant examples of people who are doing harm as opposed to SM - rapists, muggers, kidnappers, spousal abusers, child molesters, etc. What are the differences?

For starters, there's the obvious one - consent. Negotiation also goes hand in hand with this, so that expectations of what will happen during a fantasy scene being played out between two (or more) partners are consistent, sometimes down to a virtually exact script of who will do what and to whom when and with what, where.

Informed and competent consent is also a biggie; we don't want to do BDSM with somebody who is not capable of giving meaningful consent - i.e., somebody who is drunk, drugged, too young or too mentally impaired to have a full understanding of what it is they are consenting to.

My personal yardstick for consent goes like this. Does this person strike me as a rational, functional, responsible adult? Do they fully understand what BDSM play involves, and are they actively seeking it out because the idea is fun and exciting to them? Are they old enough in their culture of origin to drink, drive, vote and have sex? (OK, that one's arbitrary, but I did say this was a personal yardstick.) If so, I consider them capable of giving meaningful and informed consent to BDSM play with their own bodies.

Consent can be withdrawn at any time via a safeword, a pre-arranged signal that stops the BDSM play for real. A player who does not honor a safeword and continues without consent is considered to have committed an act of criminal violence, and would be shunned by the BDSM community as a whole, if not outright turned in to the police. There is a very great perceived difference in the BDSM community between playing out a consensual fantasy scene and doing something to someone without their consent, i.e., after they have safeworded. The former is OK and the latter is most definitely not.

Another big difference between consensual BDSM play and abuse is openness and a concern for safety. You can do safe-sane-consensual BDSM play at a public party, and people will cheer you on. You cannot commit an act of violence or abuse at a public event, or do something unsafe (see the definition of "harm") without people blowing the whistle on you. Scenes that look unsafe or nonconsensual are stopped by dungeon monitors and the participants questioned closely. Abuse flourishes in silence; fun and mutually exciting BDSM exploration can be done and talked about freely in front of your friends, and often is.

The BDSM player generally strives to be constantly aware, moment to moment, of his or her partner's feelings and reactions. How the submissive or bottom partner is feeling is very important to the dominant or top in BDSM play.

Many tops even feel as if they are catering to the bottom's desire for specific sensations, and this is a well known issue in the BDSM community. Many players "top from the bottom" and ask that specific sensations be given to them during a play session, i.e., "Whip me a little harder on the left butt use that thuddy flogger on my back, would you? Oh, now I'd like a few more nice stingy cane cuts on my thighs....yeah, that feels nice. Wow, that got the endorphin rush going....Ok, now go harder.... faster...." Long time BDSM players will chuckle as they recognize this very common sort of dialogue from a "do-me queen" bottom.

This is not a criteria that applies to abusers, obviously. It sounds more like what it is, a person getting catered to with what is essentially a complicated back massage that involves much stronger sensations than most people enjoy.

Another element of BDSM play that most of the BDSM community strongly feels should be present is something called aftercare. This is generally where hugs are exchanged between top and bottom, and emotional reassurance is given from both sides as well as a physical assessment of the condition of both partners. Food or drink or a warm blanket might be offered if needed, and Band-Aids and Betadine put on scrapes or welts. The specifics of aftercare might vary as much as the specifics of BDSM play itself, but many people in the BDSM community feel very strongly that some sort of aftercare is very much a necessity for scenes that go beyond a certain level of intensity.

To reiterate, the factors which typically distinguish safe-sane-consensual BDSM play from abuse or self-destructive behavior are: consent and the ability to withdraw consent at any time, clear negotiation and matching expectations, openness (lack of secrecy), a deep concern for safety and health, a focus on the sensations and feelings of the bottom or submissive, and emotional reassurances exchanged after the play is over.

While experienced players might get by in long-term, established relationships without a few of these things, these factors have been 100% present in all public BDSM play which I have observed and in the private play of most BDSM community members I know.

People can choose to believe what they want to believe about how BDSM play must be "sick", even in the face of convincing testimony from medical and mental health professionals, sociologists and researchers that strongly suggests otherwise. But if you examine the objective data - and take a close look at the people who are actually doing BDSM - you will see a radically different picture than what is presented in either the popular media or by the "Moral Majority".