Note: Abuse can take place regardless of gender identity or relationship structure. It can take place in vanilla relationships or in kinky relationships. If you see any of the red flags discussed below in your relationship, please get out and stay out. There are resources available to help.

BDSM relationships aren't all abusive any more than vanilla relationships are free from abuse. The only difference is that when you’re in a vanilla relationship, it can be a bit easier to see the red flags associated with what is or - os has the potential to become - domestic or intimate violence. When you’re involved in BDSM, to any degree, those red flags can be more easily justified. Rest assured, they’re still there and they should not be ignored.

TL: DR – My Story

We’d be here all day if I wrote out my entire story. So, here’s the Cliff's Notes version. I was in an abusive marriage for more than 10 years. Although he only hit me a handful of times, he was mentally abusive throughout. I was diagnosed with PTSD. He left me a few years back for someone else. When I tried to move on with my life, he began to stalk me. I now have a protective order. That’s enough about me. Let’s talk about the red flags I shouldn’t have ignored.

Red Flag No.1 – You Think That Giving Them What They Want Will Make Them Act Better

My ex was extremely controlling. I couldn’t do anything right. Sex was never when I wanted it – only when he wanted it. When he left, he wanted pictures of me having sex with others (that didn’t happen, by the way). Around year five of the relationship, I had the misguided idea that if I gave him what he wanted, the name calling, the accusations and the threats would stop. So, I attempted to introduce a sex contract. Because he perceived it as something that I wanted, he dismissed the idea.

Dominance becomes abuse when you are totally disregarded. In actual BDSM, dominance and submission does involve a power exchange. The sub gives up some degree of decision-making and power to the Dom. However, that’s not just something you wake up one day and do. There’s a discussion. There’s generally a written agreement that lists what’s OK and what’s not OK. Oh, and the Dominant still cares about the submissive's well-being. A good Dominant would never totally disregard the physical or the mental health of the sub. (Get more tips in 5 Ways to Spot a Good Dominant and 5 Red Flags to Watch for In a Potential Dominant.)

Red Flag No.2 – Constant Allegations and Threats

I lived (and still live) a relatively boring life. I worked full time. I took care of my children. I finished two college degrees. During my first marriage, I was heavily involved in the church of his choice (although he refused to go). If I wasn’t at home, I was either at church or work. At least one child was almost always with me (unless it was a school day). Oh, and I took care of everything at home too. If I had to work on the weekend, I was a cheating whore, even when I took one of our children with me. Once, when I tried to leave with kids, he threatened to kill some of our pets. Another time, he locked himself out of the house while I was at church, then called the church over and over again and told the preacher it was my fault that he was locked out. Eventually, I had to change churches. When he found out that I had taken the children to a different church he drove up, stormed in, and threatened to blow up the church. We were asked not to return.

Dominance becomes abuse when you are isolated and threatened without your consent. I know some Doms and subs who enjoy isolation and other practices that involve the mind. In instances where there is consent, I have to say, “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK.” The key? Consent. It is not OK for someone to isolate you away from your family, friends, religious institutions, or other activities if it is done out of fear and due to threats.

Red Flag No.3 – They Don’t Let Go Even When They Walk Away

The day my ex told me that he was leaving me for someone else was one of the happiest days of my life. I thought it was finally over. I thought I could just go on with my life and finish raising my children. Usually, when someone leaves you (particularly for someone almost a decade younger than you), they just go on their merry way. That wasn’t the case for me. He moved out, but later broke into my home and stole my undergarments. It wasn't an isolated incident. He also began following me. When I got a protective order and moved, he blocked in my car at my apartment although he wasn’t supposed to know where I was living. He told me I should kill myself. He said he would destroy me. He threatened to make me homeless. He said he owned me and could do what he wanted.

Dominance becomes abuse when your right to move on in life is taken away from you. Note that I while I tried to introduce D/s into this relationship by way of a “sex contract," you should also note that it was totally disregarded. So, there was no negotiation and no contract as is common in healthy BDSM relationships. My ex claimed to just be a dominant person, but when someone takes away your right to move on with your life, that’s not dominance, it's abuse. When you want to move on or if they choose to move on, that's a boundary. Crossing it by hanging on is a violation of that boundary. (Learn more in 5 Tips for Walking Away from an Emotionally Abusive Relationship.)

Asking the Right Questions

If you’re in a D/s relationship, and you think that what you’re experiencing isn’t what you signed up for, then you have to ask yourself some questions.

First, did you negotiate with your partner and write it down? BDSM notwithstanding, we all have roles in our relationships. Some of those things are unspoken. The reason why we write things down is so that we have a record of what we agreed to do or not do.

Second, are your needs being met? Of course, that on its own isn’t a standard to determine if there is abuse. Sometimes, people are thoughtless (all of us are guilty from time to time) and needs just don’t get met. That requires a conversation. However, if after a conversation your needs still aren’t being met, you may need to re-examine the entire relationship.

Third, are you being isolated and controlled past anything that you consented to experiencing? Consent is the key. Isolation is not good in the context of abuse. After isolation there are other things that take place such as gaslighting. Gaslighting is where the abuser does what they can to make the victim feel like it’s all their fault and that they are going crazy.

Fourth, did you consent to everything in your relationship and the continuation of the relationship? I mean actual consent. I don’t mean the fact that you just don’t tell someone no or to stop it. I know by experience that you can tell someone no or to stop and sometimes they don’t. That’s not OK. Did you consent to name calling? If not, then that’s not OK. Did you consent to punishment or discipline, and if so, what did you agree to? Being hit simply for expressing an opinion or a thought is not OK. Being degraded without consent is not OK. (Learn more in The Basics of BDSM Negotiation.)

If You’re Being Abused

If you believe that you’re being abused, there’s a good chance that you’re right. Abuse isn’t just physical. For our purposes in abuse within dominance, the key is consent. If you notice red flags in your relationship or in someone that you’re interested in, please get out and stay away. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can contact your local YWCA (yes, they can also help if you’re not a cis-woman). Being kinky doesn’t mean being abused. Know where to draw line.