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"Safe Sane and Consensual" a Proposed Definition
Feb 22, 2012
Reposted with the author's permission.
The mandate that BDSM should be "Safe Sane and Consensual" (SSC) is SM's most famous rubric, and is known and accepted in virtually every camp and corner of the SM community. At its best, SSC encourages us to monitoring safety, sanity, and consent and elevating craft and communication as desirable goals. SSC also highlights risk areas that can jeopardize the harmony of the top and bottom's shared voyage. And there are many risks: physical injury, emotional trauma, jeopardized trust, accidental breaches of privacy, etc. SSC is often the first SM concept presented to beginners, and this is a good thing. Sloppy, absent-minded play done without regard to the well being of your partner can undermine the intimacy and intensity of a scene, and poison the bonds of trust that make good SM possible. Even well intentioned tops who do the wrong things can, hurt feelings, loose play partners and suffer blackened reputations if their play is seen as running counter to SSC. But behind this apparently simple slogan lurk subtle difficulties that are often skipped over in how-to books and educational programs. This essay will examine SSC in depth, examine its shortcomings and attempt to improve it where possible.
From a Parade
The words "Safe-Sane-Consensual" made their debut on the national stage during the 1987 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington on a parade banner carried by members of the Gay Men's SM Activists (GMSMA). It had previously existed only in GMSMA's internal teaching materials. david stein (lower case lettering intentional) is generally credited with it's authorship. According to stein, it grew from the Independence Day cautionary warnings from the fire departments of his youth to have “a safe and sane” 4rth of July holiday. Its adaptation to SM was originally conceived as something of a PR move, a handy slogan to: 1) refute accusations that gay SM practitioners preyed on unconsenting victims; 2) to deny that SM encouraged unsafe sex and harmful activity, and 3) to affirm that SM folk were not drooling lunatics for liking this (interest in SM was still on the books as a medical illness at the time). In short, SSC was conceived as a guard dog to keep our political enemies at bay, and to provide a common vision for the rapidly growing SM community, and for this, SSC worked fine. In 1988 the Dallas Conference of the National Leather Association, included GMSMA's three magic words into their draft statement of purpose and SSC began its dissemination into the minds and mouths of leatherfolk everywhere.
From Slogan to Law
As personal guidelines for growth in SM and scene practice, SSC is perfectly sound advice. All other things being equal, Safer is better. Sanity is a desirable trait when evaluating a play partner, testing limits, and exploring sexual, physical and emotional extremities in an SM dungeon. And informed consent had better be on the minds of SM participants hoping to keep their conduct legal, ethical and out of the local papers.
But as SSC has grown from a political slogan aimed at outsiders to the primary bit of wisdom taught to newcomers, it has become increasingly burdened with the responsibility of keeping our play and community ship shaped. Today, SSC is widely regarded as the single core tenant of all SM practice, which is an exaggerated claim. To complicate things further, SSC has no standard definition, leaving it open to subjective interpretation. Nonetheless, SSC has become the sound bite of preference trumpeted by rookies to impress the even less experienced. And it has become a tool to evaluate the play and conduct of others, who may play very differently from ourselves. And here the defacto first law runs into some snags:
- Safety, sanity and consent, are not entirely independent. Breathplay is risky, but what if both participants consent anyway, fully aware of the risk? "Sanity" is generally treated not as an independent principal, but as a subset of "safety" often dealing with fantasy/reality issues, or warnings about play while inebriated or in a state of emotional uproar.
- Consent towers above the other two principals in importance, particularly from a legal perspective. With someone's consent you can embark on all sorts of risky, even stupid ventures. Without it, even the mildest play could be construed as assault, battery, molestation, or kidnapping.
- The "Sanity" tenant is weak in practicalities. "Safety" reminds us to follow conventions of sound and cautious technique. "Consent" reminds us of pre-scene negotiation and safewords. But "Sanity" as generally defined, has no attendant methodology, no recommended steps for improving your play.
- The difference between "Safe" and “unsafe” is deeply dependant on the experience and skill of the players (especially the top) in the type of play being done. Ergo, what is trivially safe for Moe, may be risky, even reckless for Joe. Furthermore Moe’s expert ability may have little carryover into a different SM activity. Expert flogging does not imply expert fisting.
- Though only a small fraction of our time is spent actually engaged in SM, the scope of SSC is usually restricted to dungeon activity alone. For the 95% of our time we spend outside the dungeon, SSC is silent.
- Contrary to popular belief Consent can never be assured by safewords alone. There are shrewd and exploitive tops taking their partners deep enough that they won't use their safeword, and then slipping something into the scene their partners wouldn’t have agreed to beforehand.
- For some, confidentiality may be even more important than safety, sanity, or consent, in terms of legal, social, marital, custodial damage potential.
- SSC is easy to fake verbally. Net baboons who have never swung a whip can write beautifully about how safe sane and consensual they are (often by cribbing language and parroting it back to trusting newbies).
- While Safe Sane and Consensual are good attributes to persue individually, they are surprisingly difficult to judge in others. Applying SSC to others, can also collide with equally central principals of: 1) the rights of others to play as they wish; 2) respect for the confidentiality of fellow SM folk; And 3) not polluting our community with unduly judgmental gossip.
- Merely treating the three words as holy liturgy does nothing to improve the quality of SM
- Lacking a standard rigorous definition, SSC offers shaky help in telling us when the principals of safety, sanity and consent are being compromised. This leaves our most celebrated maxim open to totally subjective interpretation.
Some people have attempted to improve the situation by replacing the SSC slogan with another: RACK, or Risk Aware Consensual Kink. In some ways this is an improvement since RACK emphasizes on the key tenant of Consent, swaps "Risk Awareness" for Safety, and omits the troublesome sanity issue altogether. But a slogan is just a slogan, and without concrete definition to say Im a RACK player has no more intrinsic meaning that to trumpet: "I am SSC."
So neither RACK or SSC are perfect. But both are well intended. And like an inattentive Dungeon Monitor daydreaming on the job, having a safety slogan does some good by simply being there to remind us that quality and care exist in SM play and should be regarded as desirable. But to be genuinely useful we need specificity. So the remainder of this section will take a stab at providing robust definitions for each of the three principals in SSC with the following intent:
- To improve SSC by providing some practical rigor and definition to the concepts of safety, sanity, and consent.
- To make SSC easier to follow, evaluate, and teach by listing concrete actions to improve our SM work as bottom, top or switch.
- To Expand the scope of SSC to promote ethical conduct both in and outside the dungeon.
- To demonstrate that much of our conventional scene wisdom are in fact subrules of these three high level principals.
- To underscore the extra importance of consent over and above the other two.
- To focus the issue of “sanity”on the clinical definitions of paraphilias in DSM IV, while providing guidance on how to keep SM from becoming a medical, legal, fiscal, or custodial liability.
- To acknowledge that SSC is intrinsically subjective and will result in different practices, thresholds, limits, and avenues for growth and exploration for different people depending on their individual skills, tolerances, risk aversion, and desires.
A similar analysis could be performed to put some meat on the bones of RACK but at the time I first drafted this (over a decade ago) I hadn't even heard of it. And since SSC has a longer heritage, and a wider range of exposure than RACk I am comfortable letting SSC serve as the organizing principal for this piece.
A Proposed Definition
SM practitioners must strive to make their SM Safer while acknowledging that risk can never be eradicated completely.
- "Safety" means practicing with your tools and techniques to attain and maintain proficiency. It means making a passionate effort to leave your partners in a physical and emotional condition that is acceptable to them. It means knowing the difference between hurt and harm, and striving mightily to avoid letting harm come to your partner. It means bringing up safety concerns on your own if you feel you ought to, whether you are in the dominant or submissive role.
- "Safety” means having thought through what you are going to do before you do it, and exercising common sense during a scene, no matter how exciting the scene may become. It means proceeding with extra vigilance and caution when embarking on an activity that is new to you or your partner.
- "Safety” means developing a firm sense of the difference between fantasy and reality, and keeping realistic concerns in focus, even as you explore fantasy scenarios.
- "Safety” means knowing that limits are not weaknesses, but realities that may change and expand if you take things at a pace that's right for you and your partner.
- "Safety" means observing safe sex practices, and taking steps to avoid pregnancy, STDs, and emotional harm. It means dominants would do well to have experienced the receiving end of the scenes they practice so they are not ignorant of how they feel to their partners.
- "Safety” means careful consideration of your choice of play partners, particularly people not known to you or your friends. It means becoming comfortable using silent alarms, or requesting that play take place in the familiar presence of friends, at play parties, SM socials, etc, until mutual trust has been established. It means developing and trusting your instincts about people.
- "Safety” means developing, maintaining and communicating a clear and realistic image of what you can handle and what you can't. It means exercising judgment about the use of intoxicants like drugs or alcohol. It means not getting so carried away in a scene that you let harm come to your partner or yourself.
- "Safety” means taking active precautions to maintain the confidentiality of your partner and yourself to whatever extent is necessary. It means attention paid to phone messages, emails and verbal comments that could jeopardize the secrecy of your scene activities. It means being careful about where you keep literature and erotica, and thinking long and hard before making tape recordings, photographs, or videos with you, your partner, or your legal names in them. It means taking precautions, negotiated or otherwise, to not allow marks to appear on you or your partners body if they cannot afford to show them.
- In group situations, "Safety” means having one or more designated dungeon monitors whose purpose it is to assure a conducive environment to play. It means acquiring or developing rules for conduct within the play space and enforcing them fairly..
- "Safety" means exercising compassion and care in your conduct with others to avoid injuring the feelings, spirit, enthusiasm and confidentiality of others. It means having the brains not to provide a potential friend with the reason to regard you as an enemy. It means striving to reduce the gossip, slander, and petty hatreds that sometimes plague our community.
SM practitioners must strive to integrate SM into their lives in a sane and healthy manner.
The purpose of making our SM "Sane", in this context, is to keep our activities and lifestyles from being gored by the horns of the American Psychiatric Association's definitions of "sadism" and "masochism" in their Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). According to the DSM, orientations like sadism, masochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and transvestic fetishism run the risk of diagnosis as mental illness if they cause "clinically significant distress or impairment in social occupational or other important areas of function" or if they are visited upon unconsenting peoples. In short, if your kink activities do harm to your well-being and peace of mind (or to someone else's) your sanity could be challenged medically. This is hardly fair - vanillas don't have their sanity questioned by the APA when their sex lives get complex - but it's how things are for now. And the threat of DSM being used against us underscores the importance of making sure that SM contributes to - and does not detract from - our ability to lead a sane, moral and functional life.
- "Sanity" in this context, means maintaining perspective and outside interests, and not allowing the scene overshadow and overwhelm other important aspects our lives.
- "Sanity" means taking steps to insure that our involvement in SM does not disrupt our peace of mind, our self esteem, our sleep, our livelihood, our financial well being, the custody of our children, or our relationships with friends, the law, employment or our families.
- "Sanity” means not allowing our involvement in SM to become a narcotic, or an escapist dodge distracting us from life's other responsibilities.
- "Sanity" means taking similar care that our SM involvements not jeopardize the functional sanity or well being of others. It means not letting our SM activities, however intense; stray into abuse or tolerance of abuse.
If SM is having a consistently deleterious effect on your life, then some soul searching and adjustments are probably in order. Perhaps now just isn't the time, perhaps you aren't playing with the right people or at the right level of intensity. That is for you to determine. But good SM, like surfing, dancing, meditation or prayer, should be a restorative process, that should leave you, at least when its over, feeling better than you did when you started.
SM Practitioners must obtain informed consent and respect the limits of others.
Consent towers above the other two principals in importance, particularly from a legal perspective. With someone's consent you can embark on all sorts of risky, even stupid ventures. Without it, even the mildest play could be construed as assault, battery, molestation, or kidnapping. Even as we explore new terrains and push old limits we have to make sure that both partners want to be there together. And "informed consent" means that consent was not coerced against one's will, in a state of inebriation or from someone under legal age.
- “Consent” means that all participants must have acknowledged their wish to engage in SM play, before it begins.
- “Consent” means identifying, before the scene starts, any health issues (might not be a good idea to gag an asthmatic!) and emotional landmines before you step on them. It means discussing likes and dislikes, past experience, fears and apprehensions, desires and requests, safewords to use, panic buttons to avoid, limits not to be exceeded.
- “Consent” means establishing and using safewords during play which if uttered by either partner, stops the scene cold ("Safeword", "Red" or "Limit" typically end a scene; "Mercy" or "Yellow" can be used to request a pause or slow down before continuing). It means honoring safewords reflexively, or risking irrevocable damage to your partner’s trust and your own reputation. At very least some form of communication must exist, verbal or nonverbal, for the bottom to express distress to the top.
- “Consent” means remembering that a submissive who has "gone deep" may not remember to use their safeword, letting the scene get heavier than was intended, and raising the possibility of "morning after resentment" if they feel you took them farther than they wanted to go.
- “Consent” means knowing you must not coerce or pressure someone into doing something they don't want you to do. It means not letting yourself be pressured into doing something you don't feel ready for. It means using your safeword if you feel you need to.
- It means cultivating communication skills, and making a habit of honest, clear communication to understand your partner and be understood by them. It means monitoring your partner for danger signs, to maintain a sense of how a scene is going. It means changing your plan if it no longer fits with the reality of the scene, as it progresses.
- “Consent” means gracefully and immediately acknowledging any of the inevitable screw-ups and mistakes that routinely take place in even the best run dungeons.
- For dominants, “Consent” means not assuming that you have the right to dominate ANYONE who hasn't first consented to your domination.
- For submissives “Consent” mean knowing that NO ONE has a right to demand your submission, by sole virtue of your orientation, your collar, your shackles or for any other reason unless you freely and willingly consent to their dominance.
- “Consent” means making a constant and diligent effort to be courteous and fair with others. No one willingly consents to being treated with disrespect.
And thats it! These are reasonable, if conservative, definitions. For edgeplayers, they are, perhaps onerous ones. But as SSC (and its countless lemmas and special sub-rules) continues to reign as the primary cautionary principal in the cannon of SM wisdom, it doesn't seem right to let it dangle in the wind without substance. These tougher definitions change SSC, hopefully for the better. The person who allows SM to devour their life and livelihood, buying toys, fetish clothing and attendance at SM events they cannot afford would receive a helpful warning flag if they took these definitions to heart. So would the acid tongued scene gossip slowly depleting their circle of friends, the callous Top who skips much needed aftercare, or the insecure sub who feels guilty about safewording and concludes many scenes feeling violated. SSC, as usually defined, would do nothing to help these people.
Again the purpose of all these words is to provide a practical system of reality checks for the contemporary kink practitioner. Much better we have a code that demands constant vigilance and effort than a meaningless platitude that demands nothing, or worse still, falsely reassures us that everything is fine when its not.
In closing, it needs to be said that SSC has never been the goal of SM. The goal is for your SM practices to take you and your partner to wherever you want to be taken. But a large part of flying is knowing how not to collide with trees and tall buildings. That's what SSC does. The principals of "Safe Sane and Consensual" merely serve as facilitators, three warning flags that identify hazards along your voyage.
Links for Chris M
Additional Articles by Chris M
- The Black Rose DM Guide
- "Safe Sane and Consensual" a Proposed Definition
- Eight Techniques for Maintaning Communication and Trust During a Scene
- The Rap on Wrapping: A discussion of Impact Play
- Mastering the Dynamics of Thud and Sting
- American Leather Goes Mainstream: Anger, Arnett and Life Magazine
- A Brief History of the Black Rose of Washington DC
- Part One: The First Fifteen Years (The Nancy Miler Years)
- Part Two: Pending
- Delta Diary 1996
- Black Roses and Pink Flamingoes: The BR10 Anniversary Event and how it changed our Club by Chris M.
- Gifts of the Circle: A Chronicle of the Hook Pull performed by Fakir Musafar and Cleo Duboise at Black Rose 2002
- A Brief History of Leatherbars (Featuring the DC Eagle)