Much has been said about how graphic mainstream pornography has become in our culture. As we grow accustomed to more hardcore images, the intensity gradually ratchets up. To the many young people weaned on the stuff, sex and violence are natural bedfellows.

It seems clear that things like “breath play” and total submission are generally destructive activities. Multiple women have been killed in intimate encounters in recent years, their partner acquitted because he only accidentally strangled her to death. If we find pain to be pleasurable, shouldn't we at least take a second to ask ourselves, Why?

In her very personal article “Why Do We Like BDSM?,” self-proclaimed Submissive, Larissa Pham, explains her interest in somewhat forgiving words, “Because a generation of young people came of age in the era of accessible, content-rich internet, variations of this story are common—an initial interest provoked by some piece of pop culture, followed by intense online exploration. Some wrote that they’d never known sexuality without BDSM.”

Is this a neutral development, just a fact of life? No surprise that the BDSM community is blossoming.

We might need to consider that we have a collective crossed wire, different flavors of intensity melding into a ritualistic imitation of intimacy.

“The clear regressive themes are papered over with endless reminders that the Sub ‘consented’ to everything he inflicts upon her.”


Fifty Shades of Grey may not be very accurate, but the Dom/Sub arrangement is a common manifestation of this lifestyle. Usually, He dominates Her, and she is expected to cater to his lust for power. She is to be a “good little slave,” to consider whether “he likes the sound of your screams.” To play her role well. The clear regressive themes are papered over with endless reminders that the Sub “consented” to everything he inflicts upon her.

Criticizing any aspect of sexual behavior has become increasingly looked down upon—wouldn't want to be seen as a sex-negative kink-shamer! Still, the patterns at play in BDSM are remarkably similar to those of abuse. We are told women who engage in violent sex “consented to it,” even as we acknowledge the harms of victim-blaming survivors. Understanding why a woman might “consent” to violent sex requires an understanding of trauma bonding and how abusers convince their victim that love is pain.

Aftercare, BDSM for Your Comfort

Sado-masochism has a cuddly side. After he ties you up, whips you and gags you on his dick until you cry, your Dom is in charge of reminding you that he cares. According to BSDM Aftercare 101: “There’s a lot to aftercare that many new players might not realize – including special attention to physical and mental or emotional needs.” You know, in case any of the violence he just inflicted managed to actually hurt you. “It’s also important when dealing with physical injuries or ‘Drop.’”

‘Drop’ refers to the crash after the endorphins start to wear off. Listed among the possible symptoms are feelings of guilt and hopelessness, persistent sad or empty feelings, and even attempts at suicide.

The Dom is instructed  to “move the Sub somewhere comfortable and warm (off the floor).” He's told to offer his Sub water, chocolate, hugs, whatever she needs to feel OK again after the violence she just experienced.

Doms can have a drop, too, though. Subs must be ready to soothe their Dom after he's done bruising them, if need be.

Some pro-BDSM sites even state that many days of aftercare may be required, and suggest hiring a “babysitter” to help take care of the Sub as she recovers from the “play.” How can sex so violent and traumatic possibly be justified?

“He's told to offer his Sub water, chocolate, hugs, whatever she needs to feel OK again after the violence she just experienced.”


In Vice in 2015, B. Rowe took a breath in the rush to rationalize. After introducing us to her ex-boyfriend, B. explains her problem with the fuss over 50 Shades of Grey, “It seems to be more of a PR campaign to elevate the reputation of BDSM than to address and condemn legitimate abuse” portrayed in the story.

B. says she encountered similar treatment from her ex, who was otherwise a decent boyfriend. “When we sat beside one another against his bedroom wall on a particularly hot summer's day and he told me, regarding his big drawer of props, ‘This is all about your comfort,’ I found that a little hard to believe.”

After her experience, B. was uncomfortable with the popular framing of the book’s Dom. “The real problem shouldn't be that fictional characters like Christian Grey are making BDSM look bad,” she argued. “The problem is that people like him exist in real life. And they don't think there's anything wrong with the way they are.”

These practices make a perfect cover for abuse, but the BDSM community found a way not to talk about that.

It’s a No True Scotsman fallacy in leather straps. B. sums it up for us, “the pro-BDSM voices speaking out treat the crossing of comfort lines, muddled consent, and legitimate harm as matters of fiction. And when it does happen in the flesh, it's ‘not real BDSM,’ and therefore isn't their problem.” Meanwhile, women are being killed in “games gone wrong.” Their killers walking free, because it’s all in good fun, right?

Gail Dines connects the dots at The Guardian:

“When you click on Pornhub.com, you’ll find at the top a tab marked Categories... some of the most popular being Milf, Teen, Stepmom, and Step Sister. What you won’t see is a category called choking,because this form of sexual violence is one of the most common acts across all categories.” And the science overwhelmingly agrees, “Over 40 years of research shows a connection between viewing porn and violence against women. A recent meta-analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age.”

The National Institutes of Health compared several cases where women died and their lover-killers were acquitted. They concluded, “Documented presence of paraphilic tendencies in the deceased might serve as grounds for not sentencing their sex partners for prison time if they acted to satisfy someone else's kinky needs.”

If someone asks you to push them off a roof, you’re still partly responsible for whatever happens if you do. Why is death by “breath play” not still manslaughter?

Games should not kill people. The line is easily blurred by pantomimed violence, made conventional by habitual pornography consumption. It’s easy to find, often free, and strikingly popular. It forms our modern, evolved world’s shadow, where we have piled all our worst habits. Submitting is progressive—if we only do it in bed.

And Real BDSM isn’t abusive.

Trauma Bonding, an Intense Roller Coaster

A trauma bond is created when a dysfunctional person repeats a cycle of abuse with someone else, a cycle which fills a need in the victim.

A Mission For Michael, a mental health non-profit, sets the scene: “The manipulative person will alternate abuse with really positive experiences which leads to the development of a trauma bond.” If pain is followed by orgasm, this dynamic is infused into every “play” scenario.

Over time, the trauma bonding will strengthen, making it more and more difficult for a person to recognize clear signs of emotional or physical abuse. The abuser will positively reinforce certain behaviors, basically training someone to stay and continue to give their love to them.”

All the more effective on a willing trainee.

The CPTSD Foundation elaborates:

“The term trauma bond, was coined by Patrick Carnes, who developed the term to describe how the misuse of fear, excitement, and sexual feelings, can be used to trap or entangle another person. Put more simply, trauma bonds occur when we go through periods of intense love and excitement with a person followed by periods of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. The cycle of being devalued and then rewarded over and over, works overtime to create a strong chemical and hormonal bond between a victim and his or her abuser.

There is a biological craving for intensity that no normal relationship will satisfy. This provides a feeling of being totally alone, and totally empty.”

Psychologists have documented abuse's regular pattern, repeating across months and years. In his seminal work on domestic violence Why Does He Do That? Lundy Bancroft argues that periods of kindness are “critical to forming traumatic attachments.” He also points out that women are often called “masochistic” for choosing to stay with an abusive partner. The parallels for Bancroft between how abusive men treat their partner and the patterns present in BDSM continue. For abusers, he argues, sex is a way to establish power and dominance. This is often fueled by pornography use from a young age, where women are “depicted as being sexually excited by verbal abuse, roughness, violence, or even torture.”

“Periods of kindness are critical to forming traumatic attachments.”


Both men and women are culturally programmed to associate a violence against women with sexual arousal. How much consent to abuse is really freely given when it is coerced by a lifetime of grooming?

It can appear on a smaller scale in daily interactions. Some examples are more subtle than others, many people don't realize they are on a merry-go-round with a dysfunctional person. We miss the forest for the trees, swept along by the intensity of the moment. We are kept distracted and miss the larger patterns.

The cycle of abuse has four phases: In the beginning, things are calm. Slowly, the abuser's maladaptive traits build tension, like static in the relationship frequency. Eventually build-up requires discharge, sparks inevitably fly. The abuser acts out according to their habit, depending on their favorite method of expelling unwanted feelings. In the conflict, anger or sadness is transferred from one person to another, and it becomes their problem. This catharsis soothes the abuser, returning them to a state of calm. Until static builds up again.

The average “play scene” seems to follow this formula pretty well, substituting sexual tension for emotional. Sexual tension derived from the desire to dominate. To inflict pain. To degrade and humiliate.

This tension builds within the Dom until he engages in staged “conflict” and arrives at his catharsis. Afterward he may be sweet for a while, even sad about what he has done. But the urge to dominate always returns, egged on by private viewing habits of a world that whispers what he wants to hear.

The difference between Real BDSM and abuse is that magical word Consent. But how do we consent to normal? How do we consent when the alternative is that he’ll find another girl who will?

No desire or social pressure explains away these women’s deaths. That some of them volunteered for the situation doesn’t mean no fault lies anywhere else. No decision is pure, and sometimes we want what we know is bad for us.

Society’s double standards downplay the negatives of BDSM and pornography, and we are expected to play along. An eerie, toxic positivity is carefully maintained around our darkest collective corners to keep the atmosphere of fantasy. But when these fantasies are brought into the real world they have consequences—consequences the community pushing them refuses to take responsibility for.

If the difference between a loving Dom and an abusive criminal is our consent, they have given us more power than they realize. The rise of porn and BDSM have delivered pain and death along with thrills. The line between abuse and kink, aftercare and trauma bonding, and consent and victim-blaming have become blurred. If women are on our own here, we must be vigilant and come to our own conclusions.