The Difference Between Kink and Abuse

Are there no decent men in the world? NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was supposed to be one of the good ones, a champion of the #MeToo Movement who was going after alleged serial sexual assaulter and rapist, Harvey Weinstein. But then The New Yorker (which might seriously need to consider changing its name to “To Catch a Predator Weekly”) revealed that four women have accused him of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, which involved things like non-consensual choking, verbal humiliation, and hitting to the point of causing unintentional long-term damage. (If you haven’t read the details, please do — they’re bone-chilling.)

Assuming these allegations are true — and considering the overlapping details of some of the women who didn’t even know each other, combined with the well-established journalistic vigor of The New Yorker, why wouldn’t you? — some clarifications should be made for the sake of sexual education and understanding.

Eric Schneiderman is not a monster because he liked to roleplay, or because he liked rough sex, or because his dirty talk included phrases like “you’re a dirty little slut,” or even because he might be a sexual sadist who gets off on inflicting pain. Eric Schneiderman is a monster because he never got enthusiastic consent from his partners to engage in those activities.

When you find a partner who enjoys all the above (and there are plenty of submissives, bottoms and/or masochists who do) and said partner engages in them willingly, thoughtfully and happily with jointly negotiated boundaries and a predetermined safeword, then you are just a responsible member of the kink community. When you force these kinds of things on an unwitting and unwilling partner with zero communication or negotiation, then you are a domestic abuser and a sexual assaulter.

I’m currently enrolled in the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment (in order to become a certified sex educator) and was recently invited by two fellow classmates — both in the Portland, Oregon kink community — to attend a “munch” (a social gathering of kinksters in a public space with no sexual playing).  I went and was delighted to hear an astute lecture given to the packed house by a particularly eloquent, sadistic edge-player (look it up) who addressed all the following with charm and wit:

  • The importance of deliberate negotiation between any set of partners
  • How a lack of communication contributes to rape culture
  • The necessary willingness one must posses to face rejection when your sexual proclivities don’t align with someone else’s
  • The feminist instinct to trust individual women’s professed desires, no matter how tame or extreme
  • And the paramountcy of consent in kink and vanilla sex

He was so intellectually spot on, that he made his desire to find a partner willing to let him kidnap her and bury her alive in a box with an air-tube and a camera so he could watch from the comfort of his home sound (almost) reasonable!

The point is, there’s a right way to do kink and a wrong way. When you’re a straight guy like Schneiderman, the wrong way means what you’re doing is actually not kink (or “roleplaying” as he claimed in a statement); it’s criminal abuse stemming either from a misogynistic belief that you’re entitled to control and dominate women’s minds and bodies without their permission, or from severe mental illness. There’s probably some overlap between those two.

A lot of people — mostly straight, “vanilla” men — have rued the “excesses” of the #MeToo movement, wondering how they’re supposed to be expected to operate romantically in a world where the concept of giving and getting enthusiastic consent is becoming the ideal. “What am I supposed to do, ask permission every time I want to go in for a kiss? That’s not sexy!” To those people, I would say: if you ever get the chance, watch a top and a bottom negotiate a scene.

I got that opportunity in one of my certification courses: my two classmates from the kink community agreed, upon our teacher’s request, to conduct a sample negotiation in front of the class. They sat side by side, fully clothed. The dominant got out his phone and pulled up a long list of questions. In a soothing voice, he began to slowly and methodically pose each one to her: Can I kiss you? How do you feel about nudity? What about pain play? Genital touching? Above or below the clothes? What body parts may I tie up, if any? . . . 

The list went on and on. She answered each one honestly and clearly with complete agency.  It was a symbiotic, egalitarian exchange of mutual respect and responsibility. The class was absolutely rapt. And the process was undeniably, extraordinarily sexy.

No matter what kind of sex we happen to enjoy — whether our idea of a fun Saturday night is doing it missionary style with the lights off OR going to a sex club to suck the strap-on of a stranger in a corset while our partner watches — we could learn a lot from the BDSM community’s dedication to responsible communication and consent. The case of Eric Schneiderman is a lesson in what not to do.

More kink done wrong:
10 Things We Won’t Miss from the Fifty Shades Franchise


  1. Common sense and decency dictate that whenever the terms “kinky” or “abuse” enter into a relationship that both parties are in total agreement as to what is acceptable and what will not be acceptable.

    Yet another example of why open and honest communication is so important in any relationship.

  2. While the behavior described is assault, plain and simple, its remarkable resemblance to many BDSM scenarios is interesting. Now it’s pretty obvious that he KNEW what he was doing was assault–he did it with four separate women and resigned immediately upon being accused–but why did each of these women stay with him after the first time he busted out one of his moves? Is it possible that a combination of BDSM porn and the mainstreaming of simplistic BDSM literature has confused a lot of people as to what is or is not appropriate? After all, porn has mainstreamed an awful lot of activities that once were seen as degrading (e.g., facials) or inconceivable for “normal” people (e.g., double penetration, asphyxiation, and more). To what extent has the (perfectly sensible) reluctance of the kink community to come out caused civilians to try to do things (and allow others to do things to them) they don’t really understand?

    Without blaming the victim or apologizing for criminal behavior, I think the kink community now has some obligation to step up and educate the vanilla community as to what is and is not appropriate and for the more sexually forward parts of the media to report this information accurately. Twenty years ago, 250-1000 people died each year from erotic autoasphyxiation; the numbers must be markedly higher today. Inadequately understood kink kills people. How many are being injured or killed because of this ignorance? Those who know most about kink need to be part of the solution.

    1. Interesting point about misunderstandings about kink maybe being at least part of the reason these women put up with Schneiderman for a while (there’s also gaslighting, manipulation, power imbalances, threats, shock, patriarchy, etc). But it bears repeating that based on the descriptions of his behavior, HE wasn’t *misunderstanding kink* at all: he was being a domestic abuse and sexual assaulter.

  3. The concluding point – about how we can learn from the BDSM community’s teachings of consent – is very important. So I would imagine the next step is – how do we extend these teachings outside of this community? Or is it a question of removing the remaining taboo so that the teachings of this community can come into the forefront?

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