Stolen unashamedly, and with permission, from my dear friend Jay Wiseman’s SM 101, pp. 41-42:
(A) SM play is always consensual (according to the definition of consent on page 8). Abuse is not.
(B) SM players plan their activities to minimize the risks to one another’s physical and emotional well being. Abusers do not.
(C) SM play is negotiated and agreed to ahead of time. Abuse is not.
(D) SM play can enhance the relationship between the players. Abuse cannot.
(E) SM play can be done in the presence of supportive others–even at parties given for this purpose. Abuse needs isolation and secrecy.
(F) SM play has responsible, agreed-upon rules. Abuse lacks such rules.
(G) SM play may be requested, and even eagerly desired, by the submissive. Nobody overtly asks for abuse–although self-destructive people may sometimes attempt to provoke it.
(H) SM is done for the consensual erotic pleasure and/or personal growth of both or all participants. Abuse is not.
(I) SM play can be stopped in an instant, at any time, and for any reason when the submissive uses a safeword. The victim cannot stop their abuser in that way.
(J) In SM play, the dominant always keeps their emotions under control. An abuser’s emotions are out of control.
(K) After SM play, the submissive often feels grateful towards the dominant. A victim never feels grateful for abuse.
(L) SM players do not feel they have the intrinsic right, by virtue of their gender, income, or other external factors, to control the behavior of their partners. Abusers often do.