In order to maintain a healthy relationship, especially within the BDSM community, we need to be aware of signs of unhealthy behavior. Of course, these red flags can appear in any kind of relationship–but it’s extra important when you’re in a relationship with a power-dynamic or a heightened risk of injury. Submissives, especially, often find themselves in unhealthy dynamics with no idea how to spot the problems. Dominants, too, are able to experience this. For this reason, I’ve developed an outline of some of the most common red flags I hear from followers and some resources to help you deal with them. (Images are products of the Red Flag Campaign).
The following are common things a partner might be doing if you’re in an unhealthy relationship:
Insists you do not need a safeword.
While some people prefer to play without a safeword, I will always speak against this practice. Safewords are crucial to a healthy D/s because without them, there is no way to revoke consent and that means you or your partner may not want to continue, but has no way of communicating this.
If your partner insists that you not use a safeword, you need to be firm in saying that will not be the case. I would take extreme caution with playing with someone who has suggested this, as it shows a lack of responsibility for you or your partner’s safety and mental health. Safewords should always be required of everyone in order to play safely. If you don’t want to use them, don’t use them–but always have them in place.
Claims to have no hard or soft limits.
This one is more common with submissives, but Dominants do it, as well. Claiming one has no limits shows a) a lack of experience and/or b) dishonesty. Though some people have more limits than others, everyone has limits. If your partner is insisting they have no limits, ask about something you consider extreme and see if they would agree to it. Communicate the importance of having limits so that everyone is aware of boundaries. No one should go into a scene blind of where the boundaries are.
Pressures you into playing in ways that violate your personal limits.
If you have established limits and your partner wants you to push them, there are two ways to go about this.
1) You express a desire to want to get past a certain limit and your partner discusses ways they can help you with this in a safe and controlled manner as to help you explore your sexuality.
2) Your partner hounds you to do something outside your limits and you feel really uncomfortable about this.
If your situation sounds like #2, you need to either have a strict conversation with your partner about limits or you need to leave the relationship.
A healthy dynamic does not involve true force of any kind. Remember that everything within a D/s is consensual and if your partner is pushing you to do something you don’t consent to, this is unhealthy. Technically, it is abuse or sexual assault. Don’t tolerate this behavior, and seek help if you need it.
Plays when they are angry or upset.
This is another sign of an abusive relationship. A good partner will not play when they are angry or upset. This can lead to safety concerns, emotional problems, and abuse.
Dominants who are angry and wish to punish their submissives need to take time to think about an appropriate punishment instead of lashing out. Physical violence is never a way to solve underlying problems. The submissive should know why they are being punished, agree that it is fair, and feel forgiven after the punishment.
Submissives who play when they are upset are often covering up mental health problems. While healthy people can play after a bad day and feel much better–unhealthy folks will play to “hurt themselves,” so to speak, and will still feel badly after a scene. If this is the case, the submissive should seek counseling to work out their mental health problems instead of using D/s as a means to self-harm. Playing the sadist to an unstable masochist can end very, very badly. It is dangerous and shouldn’t ever be considered. Put your partner’s mental health above play at all times.
Insists that you address them as a specific title (Sir, Master, slut, fuck-toy) upon first meeting them.
This is a problem a lot of people face with potential partners. Fact of the matter is, you are no one’s slut or Master until you have formed a relationship of some kind with that person and you both agree to these titles. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to address them in a way you don’t like or be addressed in a disrespectful manner.
Does not provide aftercare.
Aftercare is crucial to a healthy D/s relationship for most people, especially ones involving sadism and masochism. In fact, aftercare is often a defining difference between kink and abuse. If you are in need of aftercare and your partner doesn’t realize it–speak up! Both Dominants and submissive who need aftercare are entitled to it after a scene.
If your partner ignores your needs and does not provide aftercare even when requested, you need to leave the relationship. This is an abuse of power and shows a lack of responsibility. You should never leave a scene feeling badly. It may not be required of everyone after every scene but for many people, aftercare is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.
Does not respect your safeword.
Safewords are required. If your partner ignores or refuses to respect your safeword, this is assault. The scene needs to end with your safeword, always. Anything past that is no different than continuing after a “no” for relationships without a specific safeword. This is a revoke of consent and anything further without explicit consent is assault.
Never, ever play with someone who doesn’t respect your needs to stop or pause the scene. This is dangerous and highly abusive.
Insists you stop using birth control or barriers during sex.
Some people like birth control restriction with their partner, and that’s fine for stable relationships with intent to care for any child resulting from that pregnancy. However, if you are not intending on getting pregnant and your partner insists you stop using birth control, this is a major red flag. This is abusive and highly dangerous.
Same goes for couples who cannot get pregnant and use barriers like condoms to prevent the spread of STDs. Never be forced into not using these methods. If one person in a relationship wants to use them, they will be used. No further questions.
Initiates play when you or your partner is intoxicated.
Couples can and will make their own decisions on this, and I am not here to tell you anything but the facts. Playing with an intoxicated person is assault. Even if you’re in a committed relationship. A person who is drunk or high cannot consent to sex legally in the US and you or your partner may end up with rape charges, even if the person says “yes.” Contracts and consent prior to intoxication do not hold up in court, either.
To be safe, always wait to play until the person is sober. For your safety and theirs, do not play with an intoxicated person.
Makes you feel guilty for using your safeword.
Never, ever feel guilty for needed to stop. It doesn’t matter if you need to stop because you were triggered or because your leg cramped–never let your partner tell you it’s not okay.
Any partner that makes you feel badly for safewording is a horrible person and doesn’t deserve your trust. It’s emotionally abusive to make someone feel bad for needing to stop play/sex. Don’t tolerate it–you have every right to decide if you need to stop.
Refuses to have conversations about consent/limits/desires.
Communication is so important. If your partner can’t communicate important things like limits, safewords, consent, or their desires, it’s going to be tricky. This is a red flag because it can lead to problems down the road. Relationships are difficult without proper communication–there simply isn’t a way around it. Insist on communicating these important topics or find a new partner who will.
Does not treat you as an equal or disrespects you out of scenes.
Unless you’ve discussed and agreed upon a 24/7 relationship, the scene ends with a safeword or natural progression. This means humiliation and painful physical contact stops there. Submissives who find themselves being put down by their partners out of scenes or at inappropriate times need to evaluate their relationship. Your self-worth will never depend on your partner and no one deserves to be with someone who makes them feel badly without their consent.
If any of the previous red flags apply to you or someone you love, please urge them to seek help. The following resources can be used in cases of sexual or physical violence:
National Sexual Assault Hotline (US): 1.800.656.HOPE
Domestic Violence Hotline (US): 1-800-799-SAFE
Rape Crisis Network (UK): 44 (0)141 331 4180
Sexual Assault Resources (International)