of the craft of working responsibly:
- SM practitioners
must strive to make their SM Safe
- SM practitioners
must strive to make their living sane.
consent, and respect the limits and of others.
Sane and Consensual"(SSC), SM's most famous rubric, 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.
The words "Safe, Sane, and 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.
(Barry Douglas and david stein are generally credited with it's authorship)
and 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). 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
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 tenent 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:
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.
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
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.
"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.
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 Moes expert
ability may have little carryover into a different SM activity. Expert
flogging does not imply expert fisting.
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.
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 wouldnt have agreed to beforehand.
some, confidentiality may be even more important than safety, sanity,
or consent, in terms of legal, social, marital, or custodial damage
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).
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
treating the three words as holy liturgy does nothing to improve the
quality of SM
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.
is far from perfect. But it is well intended. And like an inattentive
Dungeon Monitor daydreaming on the job, it does some good by simply being
there. And with or without rigorous definitions, those three words are
already ingrained into scene culture. But to be genuinely useful we need
more. So the remainder of this section will take a stab at it. The remainder
of this essay will provide robust definitions for each of the three principals
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
- 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 sanityon 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,
SAFETY: SM practitioners must strive to make their SM Safer while acknowledging
that risk can never be eradicated completely.
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.
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.
means developing a firm sense of the difference between fantasy and
reality, and keeping realistic concerns in focus, even as you explore
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
in this context, means maintaining perspective and outside interests,
and not allowing the scene to overshadow and overwhelm other important
aspects our lives.
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.
means not allowing our involvement in SM to become a narcotic, or an
escapist dodge distracting us from life's other responsibilities.
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
SM Practitioners must obtain informed consent and respect the limits of
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.
means that all participants must have acknowledged their wish to engage
in SM play, before it begins.
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.
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
partners 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.
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.
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.
means gracefully and immediately acknowledging any of the inevitable
screw-ups and mistakes that routinely take place in even the best run
dominants, Consent means not assuming that you have the
right to dominate ANYONE who hasn't first consented to your domination.
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.
means making a constant and diligent effort to be courteous and fair
with others. No one willingly consents to being treated with disrespect.
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 make SM a practical system
of reality checks. 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 was never the goal of SM. The
goal for anyone should be your responsible, healthy pursuit of shared
ecstasy, contentment, and illumination. The goal is for your SM practices
to take you and your partner to wherever you want to be taken. The principals
of "Safe Sane and Consensual"merely serve as facilitators, three
road signs that identify pitfalls along the voyage.
Chris M's Web