One of my friends is moving in with her boyfriend this month. (I’m secretly bummed because we go to a lot of shows together, and now she’s going to live all the way out in the burbs. She says we’ll still go out, but I don’t know. Anyway…) I went over to her house to help her pack some stuff, and I noticed that there were like straps or something on her headboard. Like handcuffs or something, but not the regular kind like cops use. And there was a box of stuff that she had already packed, but it wasn’t taped up yet or anything. It had like whips and stuff in it. They looked scary, but she just kind of laughed when I asked her about it. I know I was being nosey, but I was nervous for her. I’ve noticed bruises on the backs of her legs before. She always said they were from rock climbing or something. Now I just don’t know. I can’t stop wondering if her boyfriend is hitting her or something. Tying her to the bed with those strap things, maybe? They seem really happy, but is this some Christian Grey shit going on? Cause I thought those books were hot, but I guess they’re actually abusive.

50 Shades of Confused

Dear Confused,

You sound like you’re pretty concerned for your friend here, and that’s valid. More than ever before, we’re living in a moment in time where we’re suddenly quite aware of the dangers of uneven power dynamics. The stories coming through the media illustrate how relationships can look one way on the outside and be completely different behind closed doors.

Let’s break down what you’ve seen and try to make a guess about what’s going on with your friend. There are some pretty good ways to differentiate between abuse and consensual kink.

You said that you and your friend go to shows a lot. Does her boyfriend go with you? If it’s just the two of you going out, does her boyfriend ever get mad about it? Does he call or text a lot when you’re out together? Does he show up uninvited frequently? Most abusers want to isolate their victims and tend to be very jealous of any time spent with other people. If you and your friend go out without him, and he doesn’t interrupt your evenings very often, that bodes very well for the health of their relationship. If he frequently insists on coming with you, gives her a hard time for going out, or harasses her while you’re out, that could be an indicator of problems.

Now, think about the bruises you saw on the back of her legs. Bruises can be indicative of abuse for sure. But they can also be the result of consensual kink play. The back of the legs is a common place to strike during kinky activity, as are the buttocks, back, breasts, and/or genitals. Also, there is usually an even pattern of marks if it is kink, indicating the recipient held quite still during the stimulation, and they are often quite well-defined when inflicted by a toy like a paddle or cane. With abuse there are usually blotches of redness and soft-tissue bruising, randomly distributed, and you’re more likely to see facial bruising or bruises on the forearms (which commonly result from making defensive moves). Injuries that result from blows to the abdomen (like bruised kidneys, broken ribs, etc.) are more likely to be the result of abuse, as most people participating in kink know to stay away from these areas.

All of this came up because you noticed some equipment in your friend’s bedroom, which is another thing for us to consider. Frequently, signs of preparation for an event are indicative of kink rather than abuse. When you see things like adult toys, special furniture or restraints, lubricants, and safety supplies, it’s usually pretty reassuring that you’re observing people who have decided to play this way together. While some abusers use restraints, they more frequently rely on fear and intimidation, not safety clips and quick releases.

Of course, none of this is absolutely conclusive. Even if you’ve reflected on everything you’ve seen and feel reassured that your friend is just plain old kinky and not being abused, it’s hard to know for sure. The kink community as a whole feels very strongly that all participants must knowingly and enthusiastically consent to every part of a scene, but there are still occasional folks who will take advantage of other people (just as there are in every community). If you’re still having any concerns for your friend, you can just ask her directly: “I saw those handcuffs in your bedroom and want to make sure you’re okay. Are you kinky, or is something else going on?” Often kinky people will answer a direct question with a direct answer. People who are being abused are more likely to have a difficult time answering because of the fear and stigma that accompany abuse.

Just a note about 50 Shades Of Grey. Yes, for a lot of people, the book was hot. Things that are taboo often arouse erotic feelings in us. And yes, the relationship between Christian and Ana was abusive. (Just reading through the points in this article should give you a better understanding of where they cross the line in the books.) But almost all kink erotica books depict abuse. From The Story Of O to The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, consent is non-existent and autonomy is unheard of. The difference is that the setting of 50 Shades is our current time, and this makes the characters more immediately accessible. Thus, we hold them to a higher standard than we do the princes, slaves, masters, and submissive of the books written more like fairy tales. To be sure, if anyone finds themselves in a kinky relationship that looks or feels just like any of those stories, they should pack their bags and get out quick. Erotica is meant to titillate, not educate. Read and enjoy it all you want, but don’t get caught in the belief that it represents real experiences.

Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her a question at [email protected] and she’ll get back to you with an answer.

About The Author

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Lucky Tomaszek, LM, CPM, is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee's only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Most mornings you can find her balancing her cat and her keyboard in her lap, working to make the world a smarter, safer place for people of all genders and orientations.