Community Response to Abuse in D/s Relationships


I am currently writing a series of blogs on abuse in poly relationships for my Psychology Today blog, and working on a more in-depth blog on abuse in kinky relationships for the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom. Obviously, the topic of abuse in sex and gender minority relationships is really on my mind lately. So when a reader commented on one of my PT blogs and I interpreted the situation the reader described as possibly abusive, I had to stop and think if that was just because I am somewhat obsessed with the topic right now and projecting abuse where there is simply a difficult situation? Or is the situation truly abusive and it just happens that i am already thinking about this topic and the message fell in my lap? Truly, the initial message does not provide enough information to make a call either way, and it would take considerably more discussion to determine the nature of the interactions.


The bigger question is how can we tell when something is abusive? It is a complicated question in a shifting cultural landscape where ideas of what counts as abuse have changed drastically in the last 100 years. AltSex communities have developed an affirmative stance towards demanding consent and placing everything else on the other side of a bright line (except for consensual non-consent, which is a different story). Thing is, humans are complicated and their interactions a tangle of mixed viewpoints, self-delusion, good will, and unclear motivations. Not every non-consensual act is abusive — there is an enormous middle ground populated by shades of gray so vast an elephant would be jealous. At it is that middle ground that is most often where AltSex community members and leaders must make decisions about how to deal with the boundary pushers in their midst.


This is a long way to say that I am interested in your ideas about abuse in AltSex communitiesHow can we tell when something is abusive? How should we deal with it? Who gets to decide? Please comment and let me know what you think.


Even more specifically, does anyone know of resources for someone in a D/s relationship that is potentially malfunctioning? My reader described their situation as: “…a mono person married to a poly person, I only feel tremendous pain. It is most definitely not about control since I am the submissive in our M/s relationship.” So far I have recommended  the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom and Fetlife — can anyone think of an especially supportive forum for submissives in trouble on Fetlife?

Below is my response, please let me know what other resources I could offer to this reader.




It sounds like you have the worst of the mono/poly conundrum happening in your life, and I am really sorry to hear it. Just because your partner wants to be poly does not mean that you have to “put up with it” and stick around in a relationship that gives you only pain and no control. Even as the submissive in a power exchange relationship, you are allowed — even required — to think clearly about your own boundaries and enforce them. A “good” Dom takes care of “their” submissive(s) and that also means caring for their emotional wellbeing. There is a big difference between power exchange and abuse, and it might be that your relationship has crossed that line. If your Dom does not care at all that you are in tremendous pain then you might need to move along and either find your own center for a while and/or find a healthier power exchange relationship.

Please consider checking out the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s statement about the differences between SM and abuse at

Poly is not an excuse to exploit and abuse people, and if you are feeling that your boundaries have been crossed then please please please take care of yourself. You do not have to put up with tremendous pain and no good from your relationship — you can leave!!!!

Your Dom might be poly by orientation and might really need poly relationships, and that is fine. But it doesn’t mean that is has to be with you if that relationship style does not work for you. It is better to be alone and hopefully find a different partner who fits you better (if that is what you want, a lot of people find they love being single) than to put up with agony.

Also, consider reaching out to other submissives to find out how they handle their emotional interactions with their Doms. If you are not on Fetlife yet, get an account and find a forum for subs in trouble. You can definitely get some support and advice from your online community.

All the best to you,


Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, CASA, CSE

One of a handful of global experts on polyamory and the foremost international expert on children in polyamorous families, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff has studied gender and
families of sexual minorities for the last 16 years. Sheff’s television appearances include CNN, and the National Geographic, and she has given more than 20 radio, podcast, print, and television interviews with sources from Radio Slovenia to National Public Radio, the Sunday London Times to the Boston Globe and Newsweek. By emphasizing research methodology and findings in her discussions, Dr. Sheff presents the kind of public intellectualism that encourages audience members to think critically regarding gender, sexualities, and families.

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  1. I recently wrote a blog piece discussing this very difficulty. It doesn’t have many answers, but it does point out the dilemma of how an outside observer can have trouble determining who is the victim and who is the abuser.

    1. Great read, thanks Joreth! I also checked out the links — very informative.

  2. You’re right. Often abuse is difficult to identify, which is why it continues to occur. Who gets to decide? Well only YOU do… I mean the person in the relationship gets to decide. It’s not about what we’ve been taught or what we’ve learned from society or culture. If you’re unhappy or even uncomfortable, it’s time to reconsider being together. If you’re indecisive, seek help. Not acting at all will not change the situation.

    1. I completely agree Iris! Thanks for reading and responding

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