I am on vacation for all of July. But I've invited Mistress Matisse to handle the Savage Love letters of the day. Mistress Matisse is a writer, a dominatrix and a sex worker’s rights activist. She has a blog here and twitter here. The archive of her Stranger column, Control Tower, is here. Mistress Matisse will be answering your questions all week.

Here's the deal: My niece turned 18 and started getting involved in "master/slave" and BDSM relationships through a website, on which she posted a very disturbing profile including identifiable photos and a screen name that is very similar to her regular email.

Before this, she struggled with some typical adolescent issues for the past 4 or 5 years, depression, lack of motivation in school, body image issues, some drug use, flaky/user friends, social isolation - essentially, all sorts of low self esteem issues. So clearly, this has taken a very scary turn for the worse. So scary I offered to have her live with my family for the summer and possibly longer, hoping a change of scenery could help her find a new path for herself. It's not the kinky sex part that bothers me, I kinda get that, even though my kinks are pretty vanilla in comparison. It's the complete subjugation of her will — this idea that she can't talk, think, earn money, make decisions independent of her "master." Like she's in a cult, except she has to wear leather and dog collars instead of orange robes. She told her mom about this "lifestyle choice" after her mom discovered all sorts of bondage gear in her room, although my niece doesn't know her mom has been able to discover the website she is on and her profile, through which my sister is able to track her daughter's "friends" (mostly creepy older guys) and her current status ("owned" by some 22-year-old master in a state that is quite far from the one she lives in, but much closer to the one I live in.)

I desperately want to help her—I'm terrified she's going to end up physically and psychologically damaged, or even killed by some sociopath. But I'm not supposed to know what I know—because for some crazy reason my sister is worried about confronting her on this slave relationship she's in (albeit long-distance), although she confronts her about countless other issues from verbal disrespect to stealing stuff from her room to smoking cigarettes. I don't know—it just feels like this scary slave stuff trumps every other transgression, and I don't understand why my sister is handling this with kid gloves.

What do I do here? She's 18, she could run away if she wanted, but I don't think she's willing to ditch everything for this "lifestyle." But I would need to keep a close eye on things and she would have rules and expectations if she's living with my family, which includes my teenage girl (who is a really strong, confident young woman...I'm hoping she could be a positive influence on her cousin). I know it's not my issue to fix, but I love this girl and I love my sister, and she's a mental wreck because of all this stuff.

Thank you for your help, Dan.

A Worried Aunt

Mistress Matisse's response after the jump...

So, BAWA, you’re concerned that your kinky niece will fall prey to unhealthily domineering individuals who will pressure her into living by their rules, tell her what to think, what to say, and who to be? A person who might even want “complete subjugation of her will?” Yeah, that seems worrisome to me as well. But the main person who I see trying to do that is you.

Here’s my advice: you need to take a giant step back from this obsession you have with your niece’s kinky activities. The personal-boundary-crossing that you and her mother are subjecting her to is creepy. You’re basically cyber-stalking her sex life, and that is not okay.

“She could run away”? No, your niece is 18. What she is doing is called “growing up and becoming her own person.” She’s an adult, and she can have whatever kind of sex she wants, even if it gives you and her mother the vapors. And yes, it is clearly the kinky sex part of this that’s bothering you. BDSM is both a negotiated sex game and a way of relating to people, and sex and relationships can indeed be fraught with perils. Nothing in your letter indicates your niece is in any more danger of being harmed by someone from a BDSM site than she would be from someone she met off OKCupid or Tinder. Were you planning on keeping her in an ivory tower? Because a nice vanilla boy that she met at a church social could just as easily be a violent sociopath, too.

I will grant you this: perhaps this young woman is flaunting her new-found kinkiness to the world when it might be smarter to keep it more private. But frankly, given how controlling her family is, I can hardly blame her for open rebellion. Have you considered that all this shocked disapproval might even be fueling her kinky enthusiasm?

But I’m a dominatrix, right? So just in case you think I’m biased, I showed it to awesome sex-positive Seattle therapist Kristen Knapick and asked for her professional take. Here’s what she said:
“Your goal right now has to be to create a loving and honest relationship with your niece, based in equality. This way, she comes to believe you are a safe place for her, and safety is what she needs. I get to spend my days sitting with people who practice all manner of BDSM, and I assure you that there is nothing inherently harmful about it. Problems arise only when the people involved act out of dysfunction, just like in any relationship dynamic.¬†You'll be more likely to get the result you're seeking if you model the behavior you want to see: an honest, direct, and open approach to communicating about what's really going on. Before you protest that you promised your sister to keep the info to yourself, let me point out that if your niece's safety is truly your concern (as opposed to judging then controlling her choices), then that trumps keeping secrets.”

So that’s a professional opinion. Mine? Calm down, stop snooping in her private life, and treat her like a rational adult. Next time you have the urge to control someone’s sex life, get some leather and a dog collar of your own.