Sunday, October 17, 2004


All around BDSM these days, we keep hearing the motto "Safe, Sane and Consensual," but what does it really mean? Well, on the surface, it means our actions are, of course, safe sane and consensual, but who the heck defines that? Well, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder, I'd daresay, and therefore subject to variances in interpretation. SSC could carry with it a broad range of definitions depending on who is practicing its tenets and how. Most of us in this lifestyle would contend that our actions are safe, sane and consensual, but what's safe to me might not be safe to you, and vice versa. Ditto for sane and consensual. I guess what I'm saying is that SSC sounds all nice and heartwarming and jazzy, but in truth, its definitions can be so myriad that it really means almost nothing. Let's take a look.

What is safe? Is it defined as a condition of being out of the way of any and all harm or pain? Is it defined as simply being free from conditions that are harmful? Is safe defined merely as being in non-lethal conditions? Yes? No? Maybe? What about a non-kinky interlude where one partner suffers a heart attack or a stroke? Was that safe or unsafe? Going back to my introduction, the definition of safety resides in the eye of the beholder. Many people really get into breath control and choking, which I think is about as unsafe as play can get. Are they unsafe? I think so, but my argument weakens in the face of the fact that few of its practitioners are harmed or killed despite my feelings. I was in one discussion not long ago in which one dom present said that none of what we do in play is safe, but we each define what he called "acceptable risk," and proceed on those grounds. His assertion was interesting, and one that I cannot necessarily refute with the greatest of ease.

Stephen King's novel "Gerald's Game" comes immediately to mind, in which a bondage interlude at an isolated lake cabin turns disastrous when a handcuffed lady's husband keels over dead of a heart attack, leaving her in a hell of a mess, cuffed to the bed as she was. Under circumstances other than Gerald's untimely demise, what they were doing was perfectly safe, but the circumstances King presented us were disastrous for our heroine Jessie. We could state that the kinky interlude shown us was an acceptable risk taken that proved to have been unacceptable indeed. The novel, strictly speaking, isn't about a BDSM scene gone wrong so much as Jessie's reluctant self-appraisal and self-rescue that were the results of Gerald's inconsideration in keeling over so unexpectedly. But Gerald was a lawyer, and we've come to expect the worst from them anyway, right?

I tend to think of sane along the same lines that I think of safe, at least with regard to a BDSM scene. Again, I don't think choking someone, for instance, is any more sane than it is safe, but who am I to pronounce judgement? I will say that's something you won't find me doing in the name of kink, but to each his own so long as nobody is killed or turned into a turnip or somesuch. But what about the sanity of the participants, generally speaking? Can someone diagnosed as a schizophrenic be trusted to put his schizoid tendencies up on a shelf and play nicely (or deliciously naughtily) with others? What about a person suffering from depression, or a manic-depressive, or someone with borderline personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder? Are such people by definition still sane or not? My feelings on these questions and yours may or may not agree, so again, sanity is in the eye of the beholder.

Ah, but "consensual" should be easily defined, right? Wrong. On the surface, it would look simple enough. An adult gives his or her permission to another adult to engage in certain conduct, and that's that. So it's time again that I muddy up the waters here. What if the person is easily influenced, or in a suggestive state of mind like subspace? What if the person is your legal spouse, but is not a legal adult? In many cases, people can marry with their parents' consent as young as fourteen. Does this mean the parents consented for that person? God, I hope not, but can that child bride, legally an emancipated minor, give that consent for herself (I'm going on the presumption that most married minors are female, but that's just to simplify things) and should she? What about an adult who might be mentally retarded to one degree or another? Keep in mind that I'm not even talking about legal standards regarding retardation, but ethical ones, which are often far more sticky. For that matter, what if both partners are under the legal age of consent? While we're on the topic, exactly how do we define an adult? Legally, age alone is the compelling factor most of the time, except in cases of the aforementioned retardation, if it's severe enough. We've all seen and heard of the situations where you see a very mature 16-year-old and a very immature 40-year-old and wonder exactly who is the more adult of the two. I'm not advocating by any means engaging a legal minor in play, but pointing out that being a legal adult doesn't necessarily make one an emotional adult, and then I'm asking you if you think an emotionally immature 40-year-old, for instance, is capable of offering his or her consent? Yes? No? Maybe? That's for you to decide on your own.

Coercion can be a factor in consent as well, of course, no matter how gently done. "If you really loved me, you'd ... " has started more than one set of problems for someone, and there's also the factor of pride and being dared, which also has the potential of leading down a slippery slope to disaster. How many of us were talked into doing something, abandoned all logic, did whatever it was, and then regretted it? I don't just mean in BDSM but in any facet of our lives, child or adult. Having been thusly coerced, did we truly consent or not? On one side, we can all say we act of our own free will and accord, but the other side asks does a coercive influence negate true consent?

Obviously, there are many tales of the blatant disregard of consent, and some things are so obviously non-consensual that nobody could argue in their favor. Other things, like the influence of drugs or alcohol, can become a bit more difficult to define in absolutes with regard to whether or not the chemically impaired person was capable of consenting. Most of us in the lifestyle don't engage in that kind of conduct anterior to or during BDSM play, and assiduously avoid those that do, but it still happens sometimes. Disregarding an established safeword would violate consent. Engaging in conduct outside prior negotiations would likewise violate consent. But what if the "violated" person didn't mind? What if the "violated" person comes away from the scene quite delighted with it all? Under these circumstances, was the conduct ultimately non-consensual due to after-the-fact consent, or even the implied consent that the partner didn't object? Once more, my feelings and your feelings about these situations might completely agree or completely disagree or take any tone of grey that rests between the absolute black and the absolute white.

So what does SSC mean, really? In truth, I'd contend it means very little and should mean very little. SSC is for its practitioners to decide on their own, without a particular set of hard-and-fast rules. Ethics are what we make of them. Again, I don't by any means advocate engaging in illegal conduct that will see you in a mess of trouble while giving the BDSM lifestyle yet another black eye before the world at large. What I do advocate is that we examine our ethics and ask ourselves hard questions about what conduct we would expect from ourselves in certain situations, and then sticking to our ethics in the heat of the moment. I'm afraid too many wrongs are done in the heat of passion that wind up being too regrettable in the cold light of day, and none of us can travel back in time and undo those things we regret. Forewarned is forearmed in all things, and BDSM is no different. Sometimes we have to arm ourselves against ourselves, circumscribing our actions as we keep our passions within due bounds. Your mind is the strongest tool you have, as well as your most powerful sexual organ. I'd recommend you exercise it regularly and use it wisely.

---Patrick H.---
---20th March, 2003, A.D.---