Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Shortly after it was recognized that AIDS was embedded in the Gay community, sex educators and health activists started talking about “Safe Sex”.  Of course, with a deadly virus in the population, homosexual practices in which blood to blood or blood to semen contact might occur could not be rendered as 'safe' even as similar heterosexual practices.  As the epidemic spread, the pressure to use protected means never let up, but we gradually realized that ‘Safe Sex’ was a wish.  It reflected an unattainable ideal and a wish to return to an age innocent of the risk of infection that was now lost.  Not long after, heterosexual transmission was recognized as a serious risk, too.  Sex was a great deal less safe, and everyone became less innocent about the grim reality that sex sometimes leads to loss.  Our discourse changed.  Now we talk of 'safer sex' or 'protected sex.'

This symbol is a triskelion, representing BDSM.

BDSM faced much the same difficulty in the early days of its social organizing efforts.  By their very nature many BDSM activities are both scary and potentially exciting.  In building a larger community for sexual adventurism, the natural ambivalence of people who are interested, but have yet to join, must be addressed.  To precisely that end, david stein, a submissive member of New York’s Gay Male S/M Activists, devised copy using the phrase ‘safe, sane and consensual’ in August of 1983 to promote his nascent community.  (Incidentally, the omitted capitalization is not an oversight, but idyomatic etiquette for many members of the BDSM community.  submissives and slaves names are written in lower case, and personal pronouns capitalized for dominants and lower case for subs.)  Efforts to characterize S/M practices as ‘responsible’ ‘caring’, and safe had been tried by many different groups before.  But this SSC language slowly went viral because it addressed often unarticulated fears that activists thought served as barriers to joining.  They were aware of these because Gay sadomasochists were facing considerable pushback from non-kinky Gay liberation organizations which saw kink as a risky, frightening fringe activity that only made their efforts at gaining social and political acceptance more difficult.  And they knew from friends and acquaintances who showed reluctance to join, and from the barriers they had to overcome themselves.

S/M necessarily involved putting yourself in a situation where others would question your motives and sanity.  If you were planning to inflict pain on others, why would they want that?  Wasn’t hurting others hostile and degrading to them?  To the general public it seemed dangerous and crazy to comply with such demands. What good reason could explain placing yourself in the power of someone intent on hurting you? And sexual sadism and sexual masochism were both diagnosable mental disorders.  With the full weight of psychiatry labeling this behavior sick and dangerous, anyone who wanted to do it was suspect.  Thousands of historical and contemporary media examples used the terms sadism and masochism to describe criminal, deadly and anti-social conduct.  So the slogan went to the heart of the fears that deterred the curious, and to the mindset of the general public.

Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea.  How'd they get in here?

The only problem being that it wasn’t absolutely true.  The initial set of bleeding-edge early adopters who formed the BDSM community of the 70’s and 80’s were even more adventurous, driven, and tolerant of the inevitable misfortunes than the average kink community members are today.  They learned much through experimentation that can now easily be learned through community.  They joined much smaller groups of elite partners in setting up the early organizations and did the necessary experimentation, and endured the adverse results when edgy behavior didn’t work out.  The analogy comes to mind to traveling west in the nineteenth century.  The pioneers of kink performed feats like Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea, where later settlers had the significant but lesser challenge of following the Oregon Trail.   BDSM has a much broader knowledge base of safe practices than they did 30 years ago, and the epistemology of learning the ropes has changed somewhat.  You can learn safe practices in books, on-line, or from educational sessions at BDSM events, assuming you aren’t affiliated with a local organization where more experienced members provide direct instruction and answer your questions. S/M practices weren't always all that safe, and participants were hardly actively certified as 'sane.'    The language actually implied something more like "You can mostly expect to have a rational conversation with us."  No one was offering free psychological evaluations as evidence.  

The rapid and widespread adoption of 'Safe, Sane and Consensual' was not a panacea.  david and his collaborators had never intended to launch a sloganeering campaign, or to suggest that S/M practices were particularly safe.  They were advocating SSC as a minimal standard of ethical conduct, and to promoting thoughtful play.  Although the wider SSC campaign has through the years successfully changed the zeitgeist in which BDSM is conducted, it has also become somewhat of a mantra.  No one ever intended it to be applied unthinkingly, or accepted as a money-back guarantee of satisfaction! 

Laura Antonieu, kink activist and author.  She wrote a famous objection to SSC.

When the emergent PR campaign started to gain real traction, many experienced players in the kink community became  contemptuous, suggesting the overzealous effort to make kink safe threatened the exciting and edgy purposes of playing in the first place. Dominants likened negotiating a scene with submissives under the SSC ethos to the PC efforts of anti-date-rape activists on campuses who demanded that every move towards sexual intimacy be made explicit like a game of ‘Mother, May I?’  The last thing they wanted to feel during play was ‘safe’ and they didn't want their subs to stop feeling the frisson of risk.    But the most serious criticism was the same as has been leveled against ‘safe sex;’  it is bad policy to indulge idealized expectations about risk-free BDSM.  It recruits unsophisticated participants and damages the community for noob and experienced members alike.

In 1999 Gary Switch proposed an alternative to SSC, Risk-Aware Consensual Kink or RACK.  This elided discussion of sanity altogether, and attempted to frame the risk issue without over-simplification.  The goal is not ‘safe’ practice, but aware practice, and this is probably closer to the goals of the original GMSMA boilerplate than the original writers actually constructed.  The kink community being a fractious place, no one is signing away their rights to object to the limits of any guiding principle.  But many responsible participants, and most groups, adhere to and promote SSC, RACK, or both, now.

Nonetheless, it is important that the one concept common to both slogans is consent.  Consent is so crucial and problematical; it will be the focus of the very next post.  For those in the therapist community who have read this far, however, I would hope you would take away a few key insights:

Kink is not made safe by slogans, or even by intention, but by awareness.  Individual responsibility is the order of the day.

Kink isn’t usually dangerous, but can become so, and it is important to see how your clients represent the dangers when they arise.

Our clients, not ourselves, decide what risks they take in kink, just as they decide what risks to take in non-kinky life.

Responsible community greatly mitigates risk.

All-in-all, much kinky activity is quite safe relative to many other recreational activities.  Reading quietly at home is safer.  Make sure the doors are locked.

Often, intense feelings make it hard for clients to manage their ambivalence when they do confront risks.  Intense desire coupled with lack of hands-on experience amplifies risk considerably.


This essay owes a great deal to david stein’s excellent essay on the 'Safe Sane and Consensual, the Making of a Shibboleth.'

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 2013. All rights reserved.

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