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Jay Wiseman on Safety

This is a copy of Jay Wiseman's essay on safety. You can find several other informative articles by Mr. Wiseman at http://jaywiseman.com. He is also the author of SM 101: A Realistic Introduction, an excellent book for those interested in BDSM. It is published by Greenery Press.

"Safety" is (a variant of) the first word of the "Safe, Sane, Consensual" motto, but what, exactly, are we talking about? Who is being made safe from what, and when, where, why, and how is this happening? Furthermore, how do we know that what we regard as safety precautions actually make us safer? How "reality tested" are these precautions?

OK, a couple of things: As long as there is something in your life that you don't want to lose or see come to harm, you face at least some degree of risk. (Indeed, this is why someone who has "nothing left to lose" can be so dangerous to those of us who still do have something we care about losing.) This risk can be to your life, your job, your health, your kids, your money, whatever. So the questions emerge: How are those things at risk? What can be done to mitigate that risk?

There are obvious risks associated with doing BDSM. Most of these are to one of three general entities: Your physical well-being, your emotional well-being, and the well-being of your relationship with your play partner (and relevant others). That something _could_ go wrong is obvious. People who hang out in the community hear of incidents in which things _did_ go wrong, with results ranging from ruffled feelings to multiple fatalities. (There was the incident in Canada -- I can dig out the reference if you force me to -- about the two people who died after they put both of themselves into bondage and their house caught fire.)

There seem to be two general approaches to "risk management" in BDSM. One could think of them as the "proactive" and the "reactive" approach. Both have their merits.

In the "proactive" approach, one considers what Bad Things _might_ happen and takes appropriate precautions to reduce their chances of happening. To a certain extent, this is always based on speculation, and thus may not lead us to prepare for events that are of high probability and/or high severity. On the other hand, it may entirely prevent a Bad Thing from happening (at least to you) in the first place.

In the "reactive" approach, one considers what Bad Things _have_ happened to oneself or to others, and takes appropriate precautions to reduce their chances of happening again. (One of the great benefits of communication opportunities such as this forum is that people can widely report their "incidents" and enable others to learn from them.)

Again, as I've said before, safety is perhaps best understood as a statistical concept. If 500 people do "X" daily for a year using Technique A and their injury rate is 100, and another 500 people do "X" daily for a year using Technique B and their injury rate is 23, then we just might be able to conclude that Technique B is a safer Technique than Technique A. (Obviously, we need to look a bit more carefully at the details of what was involved before we made this conclusion, but data like the above is, at the very least, a Big Hint.)

Looking at the "reactive" approach, it's useful to play a game I call "follow the pathology." What kinds of Bad Things are actually happening, and to whom, and under what circumstances, and how often?

Well, let's see. What do we have reported?

First, the overwhelming percentage of BDSM-related fatalities I've heard of have involved someone playing alone. Most of these deaths have involved some form of autoerotic asphyxiation (and one could quite legitimately wonder if auto-erotic asphyx is, strictly speaking, BDSM at all) or involved a self-bondage situation that went awry (in which cases, the poor wretches often suffered and screamed for hours or even days before finally dying; brrrrr).

Second, the overwhelming percentage of assaultive/abusive/rape situations I've heard of have involved playing in private with a relative stranger in a low-accountability situation. Psychopaths and other Bad People aren't into delayed gratification, and usually want to get their victims alone quickly --thus they don't like things like having a few non-play meetings first, meeting to play at a party, etc, and they _really_ don't like accountability mechanisms like Silent Alarms.

(I've talked with many people -- mostly submissive women -- who have survived such assaults, and I make it a point to ask them "if your partner had been certain that a third party knew where you were, what you were doing, who you were doing it with, and that you would be checking in with them later, would this assault have taken place?" In every single case so far, the reply has been "no." Some have also reported that the prospective partner called off the play date entirely when they insisted that such a mechanism be in place.)

Third, intoxication of one sort of another, or from mixed causes, is clearly an "essential co-factor" in many BDSM disaster stories. I've heard any number of stories that have led me to conclude that had intoxicants not been involved, the disaster would almost undoubtedly never have happened. (Don't get me started on my rant about how, but for alcohol abuse, the number of ambulances in service could safely be reduced by half; suffice it to say that I learned _very_ early on in my EMS career that drunk drivers do indeed cause a huge percentage of crashes.)

Fourth, every now and then one hears of BDSM being used as a cover for genuine criminal intent. I know of two cases, one of which occurred in the Bay Area, in which Person A tied up Person B and then murdered them. (In both cases, the murderer was caught -- actually, in the Bay Area case, the murderers were a man and a woman.)

So, if we're talking about two -- or more -- people who know each other "well enough" and neither is significantly intoxicated, and neither has criminal intent, the risk level drops _way_ down. Provided the people involved give each other good feedback (remember the adage that the first play date with a new partner is the one most likely to go wrong) and that they learn from experience, they may play together quite happily for many years without experiencing what NASA so-very-euphemistically calls "an anomaly" even if they never get any "formal" BDSM training from books, clubs, newsgroups, etc.

Still, accidents do occasionally happen, and poor techniques lead to poor outcomes, so it is indeed beneficial for BDSM folks to trade stories regarding what worked for them and what didn't.

Regarding what precautions BDSM people should take, I see two general categories, the general and the specific.

General precautions are those that apply to most citizens in most circumstances. For example, because there is a certain randomness regarding when and where "emergencies" emerge, it's widely recommended that virtually everybody do things like wear their seat belts, have smoke detectors in their house, learn the basics of First Aid and CPR, etc. (Again, EMS crews see first-hand how people who really were "minding their own business" sometimes nonetheless get zapped, and those incidents leave lasting impressions. It's been more than 20 years, but I still remember responding to one particular call where a drunk came over the centerline and went head-on into a car containing mom, pop, and a whole bunch of kids.)

Specific precautions have to deal with the unique risks associated with BDSM. Thus we teach things like get to know the other person before you let them put you in heavy bondage, keep a pair of EMT scissors in your toybag, etc.

There is sometimes a bit of confusion on the general vs. specific issue. For example, as many of you know, I teach the occasional FA/CPR class to the perv community, and there is indeed the occasional incident of fainting, chest pain, injury, seizure, and even cardiac arrest during BDSM (given the nature of what we do, we are at somewhat increased risk of having something along these lines occur), but my students are in fact far more likely to use what they learned outside of "scene space" than inside of it.

Why do BDSM-related safety discussions turn some people off? IMO, it's partly because such discussions "spoil the illusion." Some of us (and, please, nobody take this overly personally; it's not at all my intent to single out or disrespect any specific person) want to come across as "dangerous predators" or something like that. To talk about safety, one usually has to "remove the disguise" for a while, and -- damn it -- doing that reveals the fundamentally decent person inside the "predator" disguise.

Another reason safety discussions annoy some people is that a fair number of "us" -- particularly among what I think of as the "cyber-anarchist" folks on the net -- are just double-dog bediddley goddamn damned that nobody else is going to Tell Us What To Do regardless of how noble (and usually awfully god-damned self-righteous) their motives are. These people may occasionally -- and often somewhat grudingly -- concede that there is the odd, minor, technical point of information that they didn't already know and -- again, often somewhat grudingly -- thank us for sharing that, but don't expect to get loved for bringing that to their attention. God love them all.

So where does that leave us? Well, we learn by trial and error and (if we survive the error) we report back on what did and didn't work so well. Over time, a pretty good body of information emerges. Who ultimately decides who is right and who is wrong? IMO, that decision is made by Charles Darwin.

Warm regards to all,

Jay Wiseman

Greenery Press: Reading for the Sexually Adventurous

Copyright issues footnote

I wrote this article with the hope that it would be widely read and distributed, and without any particular expectation of financial compensation in return for writing it. Therefore, I consent to the following uses of this essay:

  1. It's fine with me if you read it.
  2. It's fine with me if you send it, in unaltered form and including this copyright issues footnote, in private e-mail to approriate others.
  3. It's fine with me if you post it, as mentioned in point # 2, to newsgroups and closed mailing lists.
  4. If you put it up on a private, no-fee-to-access, website, please put it up as mentioned in point # 2 and include a link to the Greenery Press website (http://www.greenerypress.com/).
  5. I do require that you get my specific prior permission before putting this article up on a pay-to-access website, putting it in a book or periodical offered for sale, or otherwise charge for any sort of access to it.

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