Safe, Sane, and Consensual: My Definitions
by Tammad Ramillia


Date: Sun, 21 Jan 96 16:27:01 EST

Definition of terms is crucial for effective communication. A number of people have objected to the slogan "Safe, Sane, & Consensual" (SSC) on the basis that it does not encompass their personal styles of play; my own definition of SSC does not preclude anything that I've heard so far. Read on, and let me know if you disagree.

I assert that SSC is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for having a good time.

*** DEFINITIONS

SAFE. That all parties to the activity have considered the potential risks involved, and have decided that the risk is ACCEPTABLE TO THEM.

SANE. That all parties are engaging in this activity by direct intention and can judge the effects of their actions.

CONSENSUAL. That all parties have consented to being involved in the activity. Consent might be given for every scene, or in more long-running relationships this consent might be given just once, at the beginning of the relationship, to cover all subsequent activity.

*** DISCUSSION

On CONSENT.

A lot of SM fantasy stories begin by the Dom capturing a total stranger, outside the context of a relationship, entirely without their consent and against their will. Such actions are not consensual play, they are criminal kidnapping. I doubt that anyone in our community really behaves in this way.

However, it can be fun to play that way, as "make believe". Rape fantasies are common, as are kidnapping fantasies, prison fantasies, and slavery fantasies.

A number of people have mentioned liking to dominate people who don't start out wanting to be dominated. As described in earlier postings, I define this as SEDUCTION, not non-consensual play. Seduction is enticing someone to consent to something that they don't necessarily start out wanting to do. As long as consent is given, all is well.

Long-standing consent for "non-consensual play" fits nicely within my definition of consensual play. 24x7 relationships and "Lifestyle" master/slave relationships also fit within my definition of consensual, because at the outset consent was freely given.

On SAFE.

Nothing in this universe is 100% predictable, so therefore nothing is 100% risk-free. Thus nothing is 100% safe, but this does not stop us from continuing with our lives. There is no absolute definition of "safe". It's entirely a personal matter, where the specifics of the circumstances are paramount.

For everything we do, there is a risk of something going wrong. As living beings, we are constantly engaging in RISK MANAGEMENT -- trying to make an honest assessment of the potential risk represented by various courses of action, assessing the consequences of things going wrong, evaluating the expected benefits of those courses of action, and then picking a course of action within the "comfort zone" of all the parties involved. Even deciding to do nothing is selecting a course of action.

Risk management is, by it's very nature, a relative process. What is an acceptable risk for one group of people may be an entirely unacceptable risk for another group of people. Some people will assign more importance to the probability of something going wrong, with little concern for how bad the consequences of that (unlikely) event will be, while other people will be more concerned about how bad the consequences could be, however unlikely. And fundamentally, some people are willing to tolerate more risk in their lives, while other people wish to minimize risk in the interest of security and stability.

For example, some people consider the risks of personal injury and death associated with skiing, hang-gliding, mountain climbing, etc. to be acceptable to them, in light of the high perceived value of the benefits: excitement, fitness, adventure, relaxation, etc. Other people consider the risks of personal injury in such activities to be too high for the potential benefits.

Personal tolerance of risk tends to decrease with increasing age. Also, context is of critical importance. Behavior which might be "worth the risk" in wartime might not be "worth the risk" in peacetime.

There are no absolutes to "safety". Each person must decide for themselves whether an action or activity is "safe enough", i.e. whether the expected payoff is worth the expected risk, TO THEM.

By contrast, an "UN-SAFE" person is one who does not consider the potential risks of their actions, does not consider the consequences of things going wrong. While anyone can be taken by surprise by an un-foreseen outcome or event, the UN-SAFE person experiences frequent un-foreseen outcomes and is thus is regularly taken by surprise -- because they did not stop to consider the possible consequences of their actions.

There can be a variety of causes for UN-SAFE behavior. The person could simply not bother to think ahead and perform risk assessment. Or, that person through ignorance of potential outcomes could perform a grossly incomplete risk assessment. Both are errors of omission, but of substantially different character.

When a person's judgement is impaired by chemicals or exhaustion this can make it more difficult to judge risks and play "safe". When playing with an impaired partner this needs to be taken into account.

... Where personal freedom and societal interests conflict.

In my opinion, society has the right to intervene in the personal risk-taking choices of individuals ONLY in such activities where there is a non-trivial chance for causing bodily harm to non-participating bystanders. Thus governmental regulation of airplane pilots seems reasonable, given the great potential damage an airplane crash could cause. Similarly for governmental regulation of the manufacturers and users of high explosives. A similar but much weaker case can be made regarding personal use of automobiles and firearms and powerboats, where operator error could harm a "few" other people. On the far end of the spectrum, for activities where the risk is primarily to the risk-taker and not to the general populace, I feel that the government has no business being involved.

On SANE.

Webster's defines this as "mentally sound; esp.: able to anticipate and judge of the effect of one's actions. RATIONAL". This nicely matches my own definition of the term "sane": that all parties are engaging in this activity by direct intention and can judge the effects of their actions.

Hopefully everyone among us is "sane" by this limited definition; certainly I would hope that BDSM scenes are not being initiated unintentionally. I would hope that hurt and suffering are not being given unintentionally. Similarly, I would hope that everyone is rational enough to be able to judge at least the first-order effects of their actions, else accurate risk-assessment is not possible.

DISCUSSION

While my definitions encompass a huge range of behaviors, I realize that they also exclude certain behaviors. I would argue that no "reasonable" forms of play are excluded, only unreasonable forms of play. I know that I bring my own personal values to this exercise, and that colors my definitions. "Robbing" someone of their freedom without their consent, outside the context of any prior arrangement or relationship, is repugnant to me. Forcing someone to take risks that they have not accepted is robbing them of their opportunity to consent. And taking actions when unable to judge even the first-order consequences of those actions is wildly irresponsible if not "insane". In my mind, all these things are bad and have no place in any social relationship, and they certainly don't belong in a BDSM scene.

If people want to play outside the boundaries of my definitions of "Safe, Sane, and Consensual", that's fine by me. But I would hope that such play would happen only in private (not at play parties or in public), and away from newcomers and the media (and me).

People outside the scene have a difficult time understanding why we do what we do. After learning that most of us play "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" the more open-minded of them can usually appreciate that we aren't "criminals", just "weird". Take away any one of those three elements, and the outsider is likely to call the cops.

When newcomers first encounter the real-life BDSM scene, typically their only previous encounter with BDSM has been through literature and videos, most of which portray non-consensual "fantasy" scenes. What happens in the real-life BDSM scene is very very different -- at least in how it is framed and the context that the actions take place is different, even if the specific actions are the same. Because in real life the scene is not composed of psychopaths and criminals, it is composed of normal human beings who wish to mutually enjoy a set of sensations and relationships revolving around bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, pain, power, and/or control.

I don't tend to wave the banner of "Safe, Sane, & Consensual" in precisely those words. But an understanding of the underlying concepts is crucial. Explaining "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" to a newcomer using my definitions helps them understand the difference between the fantasy and the reality of BDSM, without precluding anything reasonable. It helps the newcomer feel confident enough of their own safety to continue contact with the scene, and it also helps them understand the expectations that others will have of them.

In closing, I would argue that "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" is the most apt slogan I've encountered to date, and that when using my definitions SSC is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for having a good time.

Play Safe, Play Hard! -Tammad

Safe, Sane and Consensual



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