When we talk about abusive relationships, we often talk about rape and sexual coercion. While these are certainly important topics, I think it’s equally important to discuss how consensual and seemingly mutually pleasurable sex can be used to manipulate one’s partner. That is a dynamic I am personally familiar with, and one that does not generate enough discussion in forums like Tumblr.
A typical pattern can be described like this:
1. The abusive partner and the victim initiate a consensual sexual relationship. At this point, the abuser is extremely attentive to their partner’s desires; they focus lavish attention on their partner, work hard to find what their partners enjoy most, and are quick to check themselves if they get a negative reaction. They will spend a lot of time discussing sex with their partners, obtaining and memorizing intimate information and (initially) putting it to use to pleasure their partner. At this point, the victim may find the abuser overly attentive or surprisingly interested in pleasuring them, but, as this all results in positive experiences, any misgivings are easily dismissed.
2. The abuser gradually becomes less attentive to their partner’s desires. At this point, the partner may feel as if they have been “greedy”, and has no problem with reciprocation, perhaps suspecting that they have selfishly ignored the abuser’s needs in favor of their own. The victim may be more open than usual in trying new things, both because the abuser has up to now treated them very well and because of the aforementioned need to reciprocate. The abuser is still attentive to the victim’s needs, and will continue to balance that against the gradual introduction of sexual acts that prioritize their own desires.
3. The abuser begins to withdraw affection outside sexual contexts. They will reduce the amount of attention they pay to their partners; casual conversation will diminish, and nonsexual acts of affection will dwindle. They may become cold and even hostile. During and after sex, however, they readily offer physical affection and conversation. As a result, the victim becomes increasingly concerned with being sexually desirable and pleasing to the abuser, and will prioritize the abuser’s pleasure at the expense of their own. They may attribute the abuser’s behavior to stress or anxiety. Society does, after all, romanticize such “brooding” behavior, especially in men. The victim may feel as though they have a responsibility to restore the abuser to good spirits, even if that means increasingly surrendering control of their sex life. Their self-concept may become hypersexualized, while they simultaneously lose a sense of their other, non-sexual qualities.
4. Full withdrawal. The abuser abruptly stops having sex with the victim, and rebuffs any attempt by the victim to initiate physical contact. The victim will become increasingly anxious and depressed. They may feel unattractive, or worry that they appear desperate or sexually voracious. The abuser may begin actively chastising the victim for being overly dependent on sex. At no point do they attempt to explain their behavior or reassure the victim that it has nothing to do with them. If they do permit sexual contact at this time, they will remain very cold, offer no affection and make no attempt to reciprocate. At this point, the victim may begin to wonder if they have anything to offer their partner besides sex; the abrupt and unexplained cessation of sexual activity can be emotionally devastating, especially in combination with emotional, verbal or physical abuse.
5. Reconciliation. Just as abruptly as they cut the victim off, the abuser will reinitiate sexual activity. The victim may feel excessively grateful, and is extraordinarily vulnerable to being manipulated into acts they may not truly be in the mood for. The victim is at this point so desperate for positive feedback from the abuser that they will endure sex that brings them minimal pleasure; they are focused on appeasing the abuser and alleviating the stress imposed by the dynamic. Gratification comes from the abuser’s positive reactions, not their own physical satisfation. The abuser is therefore free to ignore the victim’s needs and only reciprocate as much as necessary to keep the cycle alive.
Within kink communities, it’s really not hard to find dynamics that mimic this cycle exactly. The abusive partner will exploit BDSM rhetoric that normalizes abrupt withdrawal of affection, pushing “limits”, and creating a dependent submissive partner whose primary interest is not fully realized physical pleasure, but mental and/or emotional gratification that will only be offered to them if they obey the abuser’s ostensibly consensual rules. The fact remains that, in any relationship where sex is the primary if not sole vehicle for demonstrating affection towards and validating one’s partner, the potential for abuse to occur is extremely high, and very few observers will notice anything is amiss, since the victim appears so very invested in sexual contact (in some cases even more invested than the abuser). BDSM makes this worse by reifying that as an ideal and natural behavior of the submissive partner; pleasure at physical sensation becomes confounded with basic desires for affection and recognition as a worthwhile human being. It is an astonishingly common phenomenon that unfortunately is often silenced, because questioning it would require questioning common assertions that consent (enthusiastic consent, at that!) is all that is necessary in order to characterize a sexual relationship as healthy.