BDSM and Abuse: 7 Signs Your Kinky Relationship Is Abusive

Published: NOVEMBER 14, 2023
Kink is about consent, but abuse still happens.
At their surface, power exchange relationships can look abusive. After all, control over your partner is one of the biggest warning signs of abuse out there. Power exchange relationships are entirely based on one person having control over the other.

How could they possibly be anything other than abusive?

Is BDSM abusive?

It can be, but what sets abusive relationships apart from healthy ones is consent. "Consent" is the cornerstone that kink relationships are based on. Without consent, the exact same activities are (or can become!) abuse. An agreement that you both like spanking changes it from an abusive activity to one of foreplay where you both are partaking in something that turns you on.

As with everything sexual, context is important. Falling on your ass in the middle of an ice storm probably pisses you off, but getting that same sensation with a paddle in the bedroom might be a turn-on instead. Calling your partner "Master" in the privacy of your own home might be foreplay for you, but that same activity at a family dinner might be a literal nightmare.

Since consent is the cornerstone of healthy BDSM relationships, kink communities have made quite a few acronyms to make it easier to discuss kink. You might see RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink), SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual), the 4 C's (Caution, Caring, Communication, Consent), and more. These acronyms exist to open up the discussion about consent and what it really means to consent to an activity that may actively hurt you.

We're big proponents of consent here on Kinkly, too, and these articles are great resources for diving deeper into what consent means within kinky and non-kinky relationships:


This is where the lines get murky, legally speaking.

In many areas, you can't consent to "illegal" or "abusive" activities. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the law and in the average, non-kinky person, a lot of activities in BDSM look like abuse - even if they're different from the inside of the relationship.

This is why it's really important to understand the risks when you share parts of your kink life (like bruises, photo evidence, or video evidence) with others.

While your relationship may be entirely consensual for the two of you, the "outside world" may still view it as abuse, and this can lead to job loss, child custody loss, and more.

Signs Your Kinky Relationship Is Abusive

Even if the legal system hasn't caught up to the expansive way we express ourselves inside our bedrooms and our relationships, your relationship can still be safe, risk-aware, and consensual within the privacy of your own spaces.

However, it can also be abusive - legal definition of abuse notwithstanding. Just like non-kinky relationships, there are bad actors in kink.

The difference is: especially for newbies to the world of kink, it can be easy for these "bad actors" to explain their poor behavior as something the victim "simply doesn't understand." While most of us have spent our lives seeing examples of non-kinky partnerships in movies and within our friend groups, the same can't be said for kinky relationships: most of us are usually learning as we go!

This can make them particularly fertile ground for abuse tactics that might otherwise set off your warning bells in a non-kinky relationship. When we finally find ourselves in those kinky relationships we've been craving for years and that partner tells us "That's just how BDSM works", it can be hard to recognize signs of abuse for what they are: abuse.

So what are the signs that a kinky relationship in abusive? You'll see things like:


They Don't Respect Your Limits or Boundaries

You and your play partner agreed to a specific set of activities. If your partner goes beyond those activities, that's not good.

Whether this is a sign of abuse depends on the severity of what happened. Sometimes, genuine mistakes happen, and when it's a minor "oopsie", it's different than a clearly intentional push past your boundaries.

The response to the transgression matters too.

If you both agree your arm is off-limits to play because of a recent tattoo, and an errant flogger tail hits your arm, it may not be abuse; just a mistake. You'd want to see your partner cease play, apologize, check-in to ensure you're OK, and check in to make sure you still want to continue. If you don't want to continue, they'll accept that answer graciously, ready to talk about the experience when (or if!) you're ready.

Alternatively, your partner might strike that arm with an errant flogger tail - and keep going. When you use your safeword, they tell you that you're overreacting and ruining the fun. They tell you that it's "no big deal", and it "clearly didn't bother the tattoo" anyway. When you tell them that you're uncomfortable continuing the scene and just need some time to yourself for awhile, they might start a fight or threaten to break up the dynamic because "you're not ready to submit".

Your Emotional States are Taken Advantage Of

There are a lot of altered emotional states in kink scenes and in intimate relationships.

In the midst of a scene, you might be unbelievably horny or simply flying high on endorphins.

In the same week, you might feel overwhelmingly honored that your partner would trust you or on the verge of crying because of an argument.

It can be abusive if your partner takes advantage of these altered emotional headspaces to try to change your behavior, your limits and the relationship.

An abusive partner may wait until you're already bound to the bed and turned on to try to pressure you into doing an activity you previously said "no" to when clear-minded.

An abusive partner may use the chaos and emotional turmoil of a mid-week argument to claim that "you don't love them unless you do this for them." In some cases, they may be counting on you being so exhausted and guilty about the fight that you agree just to end the conflict.

This can happen with both dominants and submissives. Emotional manipulation isn't limited just to dominants; partners on the lower side of the slash can use some of these same tactics to pressure their partner into doing activities they may not agree with a clear mind.

Don't get me wrong: we all occasionally ask a partner to make a decision when we aren't clear-minded and mentally seated at the "negotiation table." However, if you see this happening often - with push-back when you realize you're uncomfortable with what happened later on - it may be a sign of abuse.

Details Are Intentionally Hidden

You can't consent to things when you don't understand the breadth of the situation and risks.

If you were offered $1 million today, would you take it? At face value, I think most of us would.

What if, after you accepted that $1 million, you were told that it came with a very important stipulation: you'd only be given five years to live. Sure, some of us would still be OK with our decision, but a lot of us wouldn't.

That's exactly how informed consent works. In order to consent to a rope suspension, you need to understand what risks there are (death is one of them!), what proficiency your partner has, how secure the equipment is, and more.

A partner who withholds those details from you in the hope that you'll agree because you don't know all of the information is abusive.

This can happen on either side of the slash.

A submissive can choose not to disclose a potential mental or health issue in the hope that their partner may still choose to do a risky activity to them. A dominant may choose to not to disclose the shakiness of a hard point in the hope that it doesn't become an issue during the scene.

There's a thin line between flagrant abuse to lying as well. Most of us want to present ourselves in the best light, but doing so with many kink activities can be actively dangerous.

If a rope rigger claims to be an expert in rope bondage, a rope bottom may trust your "unconventional" tie longer than they usually would, causing potential nerve damage. If a spanking bottom claims to be a practiced, seasoned masochist who can take a lot of pain, the dominant may choose to push past their gut feeling to stop with the understanding that a seasoned kinkster would communicate their physical limitations.

It's a red flag anytime a partner withholds details from you (or actively lies about them), especially when it pertains to your willingness to do the kink activity in question.

They Often Explain Away Your Concerns

A common abuse tactic is to simply reiterate, over and over, that the victim simply doesn't have the knowledge or experience to understand BDSM.

You'll see it in phrases like:
  • "That's just how BDSM relationships are."
  • "Oh, you probably don't know anything about this."
  • "Don't worry. This is normal."
  • "A real submissive/dominant would be just fine with it."
  • "My submissive/dominant would do this for me."
  • "Don't make a big deal out of it. This is normal, and you'll embarrass me at the kink party."
  • "That's not how true BDSM is done."

Even if you've had years of experience, the abuser may claim that your previous partner was a "bad dom/sub," and that you learned incorrectly. They may put down your previous mentors, books and learning resources as written by people who are incompetent and don't understand BDSM as well as the abuser does.

If you regularly find yourself with concerns about the relationship that are brushed off due to your "inexperience", this can be a sign of abuse.

While most of us are wrong about something sometime (and that includes kink!), you want your partner to reassure your concerns and give you time to research. "True" BDSM never involves being told that your concerns aren't valid about every thing you bring up.

They Ignore - Or Refuse to Have - a Safeword

A Safeword is a word that, if spoken, instantly signifies that something is wrong and all play should stop. Safe signals can be used the same way. This offers clearer communication than a simple "no" because some kinky couples love to role play the idea of playful (or rough!) resistance to an activity they'd actually like. This is called consensual non-consent.

It's an instant red flag if your partner ignores your swafeword - or intentionally takes longer than necessary to honor it in order to finish something.

It's a potential red flag if your partner refuses to even have a safeword. Some couples do play without a safe word. Those couples are established couples who have been together for a long time, and those couples will be the first to tell you that they still have ways to end play.

For example, a couple who chooses to play without a safeword may instantly stop if their partner doesn't respond the same way they always have to a spanking. They may treat the phrase, "Hey, Jessica..." as a safe word - because their partner always calls them "Prissy cum slut" mid-scene.

That's to say: there should always be a clear, easy-to-understand way to communicate discomfort or stop a scene. If your partner doesn't accept your safeword or refuses to have a way to facilitate open communication, that's a gigantic red flag.

Your Safety Doesn't Come First

Kinky play can easily affect our mental and physical selves. Honestly, that's a bit of the point! If spanking didn't provide any sensations or feel-good feelings, we probably wouldn't do it!

However, those scenes can also be rough on you too. You can only bruise so much, and intense, high-endorphin scenes can leave you feeling exhausted too.

It can be a sign of abuse if your partner doesn't take your physical and mental health into account. Are they trying to cajole you into another spanking when your body doesn't feel ready for it? Are you exhausted from work, but they're trying to talk you into spanking them anyway?

We all have times where our wants and desires might accidentally conflict with our partner's physical or mental state. If your partner is regularly encouraging you to put your own safety and health second to their craving for play, though, this can be a sign of abuse.

Read: Why Pain Makes Us Horny: The Process That Turns Pain Into Pleasure

Discussions or Attempts to Leave Are Met with Blackmail

Remember how the law doesn't take a favorable approach to kinky relationships?

Abusers will use this to their advantage.

If discussions around changing the relationship or leaving are met with threats to expose your kinky activities to friends, family, or work, this is abuse. They may threaten to upload your photos or videos to the internet or hand your BDSM contract to your workplace.

These threats may even be in a "joking" tone, so they can easily insult you when you take them seriously. Comments like "Oh, you thought I was serious? I can't believe you can't take a joke!"

However, the fear and guilt trip is already set in place - even with a jovial tone. They will likely repeat the exact same "joke" the next time the discussion is brought up.

Even if your abuser doesn't threaten to out you to your social community or work, they may threaten to do something else. This may look like threatening to harm themselves or something else you love. It's a common abuser tactic to guilt you into staying in the relationship for fear that there will be repercussions if you don't.

Many Signs of Abuse are the Same Inside of Kink

While kinky relationships have their own quirks, a lot of the signs of abuse are the same for kinky and vanilla relationships.

Warning signs of an abusive relationship include:

  • Extreme jealousy
  • Controlling behavior
  • Love bombing
  • Humiliation in front of others
  • Gaslighting
  • Social isolation from friends, family and the community
  • Cruelty to animals or children
  • Inability to control their anger
  • Threats of violence
That being said, if anything gives you the "Huh, this is weird" feeling about a kink relationship, trust your gut. If the person tells you "This is just how BDSM is," double-check their assessment by reaching out to experienced kinky people, posting in your local BDSM forums, or even reaching out to us here at Kinkly!
Mistress Kay

Mistress Kay has a fondness for all things sexual. With a house that's quickly running out of room for all of her reading and vibrating pleasures, she spends her free time reading, writing, and learning about the sexual universe with her partners. She can be reached at Kinky World.

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