Is it Sadomasochism, Abuse or Self Harm?

One of the stigmas the BDSM community faces is the public confusion over where our lines of consent fall and at what point things are healthy versus unhealthy.

To some extent, even as kinksters we have a hard time defining these things through our own eager urges for sadomasochistic acts. When we ourselves have difficulties drawing a clear line differentiating sadomasochism from abuse and self-harm, how do we talk about it with others or, heaven forbid, defend ourselves on the stage of the courtroom?

This is a personal writing, trying to trace the differences between sadomasochism, abuse and self-harm. The reason I use the term “trace” rather than “define” or “drawing a line” is because I don’t think there is a clear line. i believe to some extent they are rooted from the same origin.


Some of us describe masochistic behaviors (simplistically) as good feelings derived from pain.

Self-harm also has the same characteristics as “good feelings derived from pain”, but delving deeper into it, it’s most often “using pain to remove bad feelings”. They seem similar on the surface, but the motivation is very different. In many instances, self harm is about “trying to feel something”, or “trying to shock the brain system out of depressive episodes, panic attacks or some other negative emotion”.

I think you can use the language of the masochist to describe self-harm, and vice versa, but I personally distinguish masochistic acts in BDSM contexts as being a kind of spiritual and interpersonal experience, with rituals that strengthen the spirit as we whip off the everyday worries.

Of course, depending on which tribes you are from — Master/slave, Daddy/son, Handler/puppy, etc — sadomasochistic acts serve a different purpose. For instance, in the context of Master and slave, sadomasochistic acts are often just a tool to continue maintaining that power exchange between the Master and His slave. Pain and disciplinary acts can act as a reminder for the slave of his place. In the context of Daddy and son, it may take place as some kind of act of love.

Self-harm, on the other hand, is much simpler. The subtext tends to be that pain will give a temporal relief of the troubled mind. It can become addictive, and if you want to read more about self-harm, check out these links – What is Self-Harm?, Self-Harm Archives .


“Abuse” is a word that often weighs down our discussions. Outsiders will often consider any sadistic act to be abusive, because they weigh the word “abuse” with anything painful or forceful, or that displays a power differential. Many people might even use the terms “sadistic acts” and “abusive acts” synonymously.

However, in the context of BDSM cultures, consent and intention are key aspects in differentiating the two.

Is the intent of the Sadist to satisfy both parties (perhaps through thrill or pleasure)? Or is it unthinking?

This is certainly more complex than it first seems. It could be that for two relationships with the same types of behaviours, one is abusive while the other is a fulfilling sadomasochistic partnership. In the BDSM relationship, there is negotiation, communication, an understanding of each others “instinctual monsters”, and a willingness to build a structure to include the needs of both parties into the dynamic. In the abusive relationship, there is none of this, and it would not and should not be tolerated.

That sounds clear enough in theory, but try explaining it in a courtroom.

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