Often people approach SM with nothing but negative stereotypes in their mind. The will-less slave dominated by the overbearing thoughtless master. The pervert who enjoys being hit because he thinks he deserves no better. These images, negatively charged with connotations of abuse, do not reflect the reality of consensual SM.
First, were SM people abused as children? This is a common stereotype. Straw polls of people on s.s.b-b seem to indicate no particular pattern of abuse, and there have been very few, if any, scientific studies of the question. Some people see an increased correlation, but there is little actual evidence.
This stereotype is usually just _assumed_ to be true, as an expression of SM-negativity–“Oh, anyone who likes that must have been really damaged as a kid.” Similar claims were once widely made about homosexuals and homosexuality. (As one data point, I personally wasn’t abused as a child, for which I’m grateful. And I’m very into various aspects of SM, for which I’m also grateful.) In general, in fact, no one seems to have any idea of why some people enjoy SM behaviors or fantasies, and others don’t. Rather like no one really knows what determines sexual orientation, or preferred body type, or much of anything else where human sexuality is concerned. The notion of a “normal” sexuality is widely overrated… the range of variations is incredible.
Once you actually look at people who are involved in SM, and at what they do, you realize that what is actually happening is a powerful expression of love, which expands into sensual realms outside the ordinary. True SM is consensual, strengthening, and sustaining; true degradation is _not_. Therein lies the difference, and it is truly an all-important difference.
Occasional debates on s.s.b-b revolve around the (relatively few) people who practice full-time dominant/submissive relationships. Such relationships require lots of self-inquiry and self-examination to see that both partners are benefiting and growing. Sometimes the claim is made that such BDSM relationships are just ways for the dominant to break down their submissive’s will, and to accept abuse because the submissive (according to the dominant, and perhaps also in the submissive’s own opinion) deserves no better. (This is essentially what a wife-battering husband does: he takes control of his wife’s self-perception, and convinces her that the abuse is the necessary price to be paid for her to remain with him; it is no more than her due. And moreover, she is not to complain.)
This kind of relationship is _not_ a consensual BDSM relationship; the dominant in a consensual relationship listens to and respects the limits of their bottom, and does not seek to break down the bottom’s personality, but rather to build it up through the kind of relationship that both enjoy and desire. Such relationships almost always contain an “escape clause,” such that if the bottom is truly feeling deprived or abused, the bottom can ask to set the roles aside and talk with the top as equals. (In other words, a relationship safeword.) Such concern for clear communication when things don’t go well (as well as when they do) is the hallmark of a healthy BDSM relationship. And every text I have read about long-term BDSM relationships stresses the importance of emotional safety issues. (As I mentioned previously, people who have issues around their sense of self should be aware that SM is potentially risky in that area. Of course, _any_ relationship is potentially risky for such people….)
Doing SM as part of a mutual, consensual relationship can be enormously affirming. SM can be a way to give yourself to your lover more deeply than you ever thought you could, and can give outlet to fantasies you never imagined could come true. This kind of active, dynamic self-expression can give a tremendous boost to the self-esteem and the psychological well-being of both partners. Getting what you want out of your sex life may not be a cure-all, but it can sure help a lot. I recommend the book _Ties that Bind_, listed at the end of the FAQ, to people exploring these issues.
(Some call all this doubletalk, denying that _anyone_ could ever _really_ benefit from submitting to a lover whom they trust. All I can say to that is, my personal experience is far otherwise, as is that of many of my friends, and many professional therapists acknowledge that it’s quite possible for a submissive in a consensual relationship to be very psychologically healthy. Decide for yourselves whether we are to be believed.)
Another root of the negative stereotypes is simple aversion to sexuality in general. The concepts of “limits” and “negotiation” are inherently revolutionary, in a world where many people can’t bring themselves to talk about _anything_ related to sex. Yet without understanding these concepts, it’s hard to understand SM. Everyone who first looks at SM needs to do some amount of pushing past their prejudices; for some it’s harder than for others.
Some people wonder how women into SM can consider themselves feminists. Isn’t feminism about controlling your sexuality, about not submitting to anyone else, ever? Personally, I believe (and _many_ women on s.s.b-b agree) that feminism is about empowering women to make their _own_ choices, to live life their own way, without being limited by ideas about what women “should” do or how they “ought” to behave. And in that light, it makes little difference whether the limiting ideas are those of the patriarchal CEO or the “radical feminist” criticizing SM in _Ms._ magazine; both the CEO and the writer are attacking womens’ right to do as _they_ choose.