I have enjoyed thinking about the first reading group topic, “Safe, Sane and Consensual – ethical principles for risk tolerance.” The suggested readings provided much food for thought and prompted a rousing debate in my own relationship and among my friends about this controversial topic. At Yingtai’s invitation, I have included a few of my own thoughts about the subject.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that so much is available from the man who apparently coined the phrase Safe, Sane and Consensual, David Stein. According to Stein, the formula was originally offered as a “minimum standard for ethically defensible S/M.” David Stein, “Safe, Sane Consensual: The Making of a Shibbloeth.” But he intended the phrase merely to describe ethically defensible BSDM, what it looked like, not as a protocol or guide for how to get there. As Joseph Bean pointed out, the “problem comes in mistaking a description for a prescription.” Joseph Bean, “The SSC Mistake.”
Today, our community defines consent in ever more complex terms and applies it to ever more diverse topics. No longer confined to BDSM play or sexual activity, consent is routinely applied as a test for ethical D/s relationships – oh no, you can’t make your submissive take out the trash unless he consents to first – or to public play – take off that collar buddy, its not ok to non-consensually subject onlookers to your kinky relationships. I have never been comfortable with use of the consent ethic in these circumstances and I wonder if David Stein ever thought SSC might be applied to the internal politics of domestic rubbish removal.
As Joseph Bean points out, consent with all its attendant definitions, conditions and qualifiers is sometimes used today as a checkpoint for safe or ethical play. In less tasteful moments, it’s used as a bat with which to bludgeon the non-believers into submission to the common good. Having defined consent as requiring this or prohibiting that, the non-conforming practice is pronounced non-consensual and the participants are denounced by the righteous majority. It’s interesting that a community formed from non-conformists finds it so easy to judge its own members for conformity.
I was heartened to find that the originators of our famous credo, who Yingtai graciously refers to as elders (they don’t seem that old to me, but that’s another gripe altogether) don’t necessarily agree with what the youngsters have done with their work. For some, the newly expanded and ever more legalistic prescriptions of consent threaten to drain all of the passion out of something they once revered. “If we are content to do SM scenes that are SSC by prescription, we doom ourselves to imitative play and to never know what those older SMers were so all-fired excited about.” Joseph Bean, “The SSC Mistake.”
In what I thought was the most provocative of the readings, Laura Antoniou, made an impassioned plea on behalf of those who play on the edge:
“The fact is, I’m tired of being told what’s ok for me. I’m tired of all the safe words. Sometimes I’m tired of the safe words altogether. I don’t want to negotiate everything to death. I want to be surprised or surprise someone. I want to be afraid, and I want to cause someone to piss in terror… My fantasies have never been safe ones. Don’t fuck with me unless you understand hat. Having trouble publishing that. Gee, wonder why?” Laura Antoniou, “Unsafe at Any Speed, or Safe, Sane, and Consensual, My Fanny.”
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in safe, sane and consensual as a standard for ethically defensible BDSM play. I’m just not so sure that there is only one true way to get there. If safe, sane and consensual describes ethical BDSM play, then it seems to me that there must be many, equally ethical, routes to that destination. And that we as a community might do better to honestly debate the merits of the competing models rather than denounce those who dare to follow a path different from our own.
It seems to me that the relative merits of any “model of consent” depend in large part on who you are, how much experience you have, how well you know your partner, and what your personal tolerance for risk is. Like so many things, it’s a balance, a trade-off between risk and safety, vulnerability and security, surprise and expectation. Each individual’s objectives will affect this balance differently. In answer to the question of what model works “best”, participants in this forum suggested models that leave the submissive “least traumatized” or “lead to the most intense experience.” I would submit that these are both valid answers, but that they will probably lead to very different models of consent.
Though it did not appear in the readings, I was intrigued that Yingtai quoted what is probably Joseph Bean’s most famous line, “The number one job of the dominant is the continually seduce consent from the bottom.” Although the word “seduction” seems dated and probably carries some undesirable connotations today, I have always been intrigued by the ideal of “continual consent,” and it is something I strive for in my own relationship.
For me, the idea of continually seducing consent emphasizes the mutual nature of the consent negotiation. It’s more than a stop sign or a traffic signal. Continual consent is a dialog between the top and bottom, a dance in which one party leads and the other follows. The submissive is not a passive partner in this dance, but instead expressly communicates consent, both physically and verbally, with each step.
I sometimes wonder if submissives take enough responsibility for their own consent. We want to be here after all, we weren’t dragged against our will. What responsibility does the submissive owe to communicate, continually and clearly, consent to the dominant? How can the dominant have trust in a submissive who can’t express that consent in a continual manner? The dominant should not be left to wonder if consent is present.
In the consent debate, safety will always be at odds with vulnerability in my mind. And for me, vulnerability and trust will always be at the heart of what I do. And while I do not follow an elaborate model of consent, and find little use for the protocols now in vogue, neither will I leave my dominant wondering whether I want to be here. My consent, trust and faith is expressed continually.