Safe Sane Consensual

by slave david stein
under the Guardianship of Master Steve of Butchmann’s

taken from the Leather History Group

The following essay is the core of a larger work that is still in progress. Comments may be sent to the author via e-mail, Copyright 2000 by david stein; all rights reserved. ***

History is what happens while you’re doing something else– and it may not be until years later that you discover what you did was “historic.” When i agreed in mid-1983 to be part of a committee of GMSMA (Gay Male S/M Activists) charged with drafting a new “statement of identity and purpose” for the two-year-old organization, i had no idea that the lasting significance of our work would be reduced to a single phrase: “safe, sane, and consensual S/M.”  Today GMSMA is the world’s largest S/M organization for men and one of the oldest and most respected S/M organizations of any sort. Yet there are thousands — perhaps tens of thousands? — of kink-lovers all over North America and around the world who have no idea what the letters “GMSMA” stand for. But they do know “safe sane consensual.” Those words appear on T-shirts, on Web sites, in personal ads, in the bylaws and foundation statements of hundreds of organizations, on porn videos, in virtually every kink magazine, in every book or pamphlet or instructional video produced for kink-curious audiences.  It’s become a cliché, and some people are heartily sick of it — but no one has yet proposed an alternative that rolls off the tongue as easily, covers so many bases, or boasts nearly the same degree of acceptance.  Blame me for it, if you like. The August 1983 report of that GMSMA committee represents the earliest use of the phrase anyone has found, and it seems very likely that i was its author. The statement of purpose we drafted began, “GMSMA is a not-for-profit organization of gay males in the New York City area who are seriously interested in safe, sane, and consensual S/M.” This wording was adopted without change by the Board of Directors on August 17, 1983, and since that fall the sentence has appeared in every GMSMA brochure and membership application as well as in most program schedules, newsletters, and other literature. The only changes made over the years have been to drop the reference to New York City and to replace “males” with “men.” Both of the other members of the committee, Martin Berkenwald and Bob Gillespie, are now dead, but a few months before his death last year, Bob said he thought it was me who came up with the formulation. It does seem likely: i produced most of GMSMA’s key early documents, and i’m sure i was the only one of the three of us to come to our meeting with a complete draft ready for comment. Martin and Bob critiqued what i’d written, and we made revisions on the spot until we came up with something we all liked. Frankly, i don’t remember who contributed what, but “safe, sane, and consensual S/M” certainly sounds like my style. Other pieces i wrote in the years just before refer to “consensual vs. involuntary S/M,” and i was always keenly interested in drawing a line between the kind of sadomasochistic sexuality that ethical people can support (at least if they are also broad-minded and unprejudiced) and the kind of abusive, exploitative, coercive activity they rightly condemn.

It seems obvious to me now that “safe” and “sane” derived from the good old American practice of urging people to have a “safe and sane” 4th of July celebration. i heard that exhortation every year while growing up, and it stuck. It stuck with Tony DeBlase, too, and appears in an unsigned essay he wrote for the Chicago Hellfire Club’s Inferno 10 (1981) run book: “In 1980 the following was adopted as the club’s statement of purpose: ‘. . . to provide education and opportunities for participation in S&M sex among consenting adult men and to foster communication among such individuals.’ Responsible S&M has become more popular and less feared in the gay community and Chicago Hellfire Club continues to serve its community — striving always to educate and promote safe and sane enjoyment of men by men.” Since Inferno 10 was the first Inferno i attended, and it made a big impression on me, Tony’s words may have reminded me of “safe and sane,” and even suggested the association with “consensual.” But the GMSMA statement was the first place the three terms were actually conjoined. As a kid, what i took “Have a safe and sane 4th” to mean was something like, “Have a good time, but don’t be stupid and burn down the house or blow your hand off.” A couple of decades later, that seemed to fit S/M just fine. What we meant by “safe and sane S/M” in 1983, and what i believe GMSMA and most other organizations still mean by it today, is something like, “Have a good time, but keep your head and understand what you’re doing so you don’t end up dead or in the hospital — or send someone else there.” Possibly the echo of a familiar phrase explains why so many other kinky Americans have also felt immediately comfortable with “safe, sane, and consensual S/M,” which still isn’t nearly as popular in Europe or elsewhere as it is in the U.S. even aside from the issue of language.

Clearly, GMSMA’s use and dissemination of the phrase through the mid-1980s laid the groundwork for its later explosive spread. And the fuse was lit when the Community Involvement Committee (GMSMA’s political arm), chaired by Barry Douglas, decided in late 1986 to use a streamlined form of it as the slogan for the S/M-Leather Contingent in the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (it didn’t become the S/M-Leather-Fetish Contingent until the 1993 March on Washington). Barry is also no longer with us, but i was a member of that committee, too, and when we commissioned a 20-foot-wide banner for the march bearing the words “Safe Sane Consensual,” the bomb was set. It didn’t hurt, either, that they also appeared on the T-shirts produced for the event or that for the entire day before the march the same banner hung across the stately portico of the government building on Constitution Avenue that hosted the contingent’s huge S/M-Leather Conference. That weekend thousands of men and women from all over the U.S. and many foreign countries read those words, identified with them, and took the memory of them back to their local communities. The rest is history — and commentary. Let me give a little of both. GMSMA’s Community Involvement Committee chose “safe sane consensual” as the slogan for the contingent and the conference because we felt these words were the best sound bite to distinguish the kind of sexual expression we were marching in support of from the typical association of S/M with harmful, antisocial, predatory behavior. While no one at our meetings felt that “safe sane consensual” was the last word on the subject, or that it “defined” S/M, we felt it did the job that needed done: to say to anyone coming to us with a stereotypically negative view based on lurid headlines and exploitative movies (we all remembered Cruising), “That’s not what we’re about.” We had no idea the slogan would have the success it did, or that so many people would take it as more than a starting point. But if it hadn’t been spontaneously embraced by so many people, because they felt it fit what they were doing, or wanted to do, it wouldn’t have had such “legs.” There was no way that GMSMA, or anyone else, could have imposed the slogan on the community if most people hadn’t liked it.

The understandable popularity of the slogan has a downside, however. Those with few or no roots in the struggle to bring S/M out of the shadows — who take for granted today’s world of BDSM clubs in every large town and kinky images all over the mass media — tend to apply the slogan in a simplistic way, even using it as a stick to beat anyone whose style of play offends them for whatever reason. The implication is that whatever is safe, sane, and consensual is good, and whatever isn’t is bad, which goes far beyond what we intended back in 1987. In 1987, we were trying to draw a line between what is clearly defensible, in terms of both social structures and personal well-being, and what is either indefensible or at least very questionable. It was a conscious, deliberate attempt to shift the debate onto grounds where we thought we could win, instead of having to keep proving we weren’t serial killers, spouse beaters, and child abusers. Of course, the morality of such a strategy depends on who is left out. The organized gay-rights movement has been accused many a time of marginalizing those who don’t fit a “respectable” or “straight-acting” image, and in some cases that’s a fair objection. But when it came to choosing a slogan for the S/M-Leather Contingent in the 1987 march, that wasn’t our intention. People who rejected “safe sane consensual” principles weren’t exactly clamoring to join our organizations or march in our parades. Such people, we thought, tended to be loners and to exclude themselves by crossing any line that anyone else draws; they thrive in the shadows, not the light. Of course, once an idea is reduced to a slogan that fits on buttons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers, no one can control its meaning. Each person who sees it interprets it with whatever prejudices and preconceptions he or she brings to it. While it’s evident that thousands of people have taken “safe sane consensual” as a welcome validation for a type of sexuality still considered “sick” or “crazy” by much of our society, others read it as devaluing their own “edgeplay” in favor of cautious, conventional, and completely scripted sex games. Sometime after the 1987 march, at least one prominent member of the S/M community was seen wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “Unsafe Insane Nonconsensual,” and i have seen that phrase used elsewhere. i have also heard and read more thoughtful criticisms of the slogan. The more popular and widespread it has become, the more common it is to see it angrily rejected as either trivially empty, too far removed from what makes BDSM exciting and meaningful, or else menacingly intrusive — representing yet another attempt to force individual styles of living and loving into a boring conformity. Which is it? Both? Neither?

Let’s return to the origin and look at the full statement of purpose GMSMA adopted in 1983:

“GMSMA is a not-for-profit organization of gay males in the New York City area who are seriously interested in safe, sane, and consensual S/M. Our purpose is to help create a more supportive S/M community for gay males, whether they desire a total lifestyle or an occasional adventure, whether they are just coming out into S/M or are long

“Our regular meetings and other activities attempt to build a sense of community by exploring common feelings and concerns. We aim to raise awareness about issues of safety and responsibility, to recover elements of our tradition, and to disseminate the best available medical and technical information about S/M practices. We seek to establish a recognized political presence in the wider gay community in order to combat the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about S/M while working with others for the common goals of gay liberation.”

Note that this first use of “safe, sane, and consensual” occurred in a context that also included concepts like community, responsibility, tradition, education, and gay liberation. Moreover, the rubric “safe, sane, and consensual” itself was explicitly presented as embracing all degrees of commitment, from “a total lifestyle” to “an occasional adventure,” as well as S/M practitioners ranging from novices to veterans. In other words, the strategy was not to try to redefine “S/M” itself as inherently “safe, sane, and consensual,” something that seems all too common today. Neither those of us who drafted the statement nor GMSMA’s board were that naive. We knew that the full range of real-life S/M — briefly defined as sexual arousal or gratification through the infliction or suffering of pain, bondage, or humiliation — can embrace much that is unsafe, insane, and nonconsensual by anyone’s standards. S/M involves powerful emotions and intense vulnerability, and it can be scary stuff. This must not be forgotten or swept under the rug in the quest for social acceptance. The “dark side” of S/M — the injuries, the abuse, the exploitation, the violence — was well known to us back in the early 1980s because we were still close to it. We hadn’t already had two decades of S/M education and activism, which sometimes have the effect of making it seem like a flogging, tit piercing, or mummification are routine activities for a first date. We all knew about bottoms who’d been traumatized, or tops who’d gone berserk and sent someone to the hospital. The emerging iconography of S/M in Drummer magazine and elsewhere was very edgy, very “noncon.” In the early 1980s, as again today in certain circles, being known as “dangerous” was more of a badge of honor than a liability. Knowledge of S/M’s potential for harm was one of the chief things that led us to form GMSMA in the first place. The organization was intended to shine a light into some very dark corners. Therefore, rather than saying, “This is what S/M is, and it’s okay, nothing to be worried about,” the GMSMA statement of purpose said, in effect, “This is the kind of S/M we stand for and support. S/M can be damaging, crazy, or coercive, but it doesn’t have to be, and together we’re going to learn how to tell the difference.” If someone was deliberately careless or irresponsible, or broke agreements about limits, we didn’t say, “He’s not doing S/M” but rather, “He’s not doing the kind of S/M we can support.”

As an organization, GMSMA never tried to officially define “safe,” “sane,” or “consensual.” From the beginning, we knew that beyond the obvious applications of these terms, there are vast gray areas. Moreover, we knew that “safety,” especially, differed from one individual to another. A maneuver that’s perfectly safe for one gymnast or ice skater to perform could easily lead to a broken neck for another. A flogging that one bottom finds pleasurably exciting might leave another with serious damage. A session of rigid bondage and sensory deprivation that leads to fulfillment and ecstasy for one person might send another into a psychotic breakdown. A year as a 24/7 slave might be the peak experience of a lifetime for me, yet cause you to have an emotional collapse. Go back to the full statement, where it says, “We aim to raise awareness about issues of safety and responsibility . . . and to disseminate the best available medical and technical information about S/M practices.” That’s the context in which the “safe” in “safe, sane, and consensual” has to be understood: being responsible, being aware, doing your homework, taking precautions — that’s what we meant by “safe.” We did not mean, back in 1983 or 1987, to promote only G-rated S/M, a lowest common denominator that restricts people’s play to a risk-free sandbox where pain isn’t really painful, bondage isn’t really constraining, and dominance is being ordered to do only what you want to do anyway. We left “sane” and “consensual” much vaguer, “sane” because it’s pretty vague to begin with once you get past the obvious meaning — able to distinguish fantasy from reality — and “consensual” because we didn’t realize how tricky it is. We didn’t have the benefit of today’s more nuanced perspective, which has developed from a couple of decades of rising awareness of just how hard it can be to leave an abusive spouse. We did not discuss, back then, whether consent was something you could give once and for all, or if it had to be renewed continuously. The distinction we were trying to draw was much simpler: between, on one hand, the kind of controlled bondage, torture, and dominance that bottoms willingly seek out from cooperative partners and, on the other hand, the kind that predators and sociopaths impose on unwilling victims (it doesn’t help that coercive S/M is far more common in our own erotica as well as in sensationalistic journalism). It took another decade and a half for people to start talking openly about the puzzles of “consensual nonconsensuality” — but would these debates even occur if we didn’t agree that S/M should be consensual in the first place?

Just as in the GMSMA statement, Tony DeBlase’s CHC article from 1981 surrounds the now-familiar terms “safe,” “sane,” and “consensual” with other concepts — education, participation, communication, responsibility, community — that provide a context for interpreting them. i am especially struck by the clause, “Responsible S&M has become more popular and less feared in the gay community . . . .” That the “safe, sane, and consensual” slogan was coined at a time when S/M was becoming “less feared” is one of the keys to this whole history. For most people in my generation and earlier, the practices and images of S/M were very scary. And taking the first steps toward realizing our fantasies of pain, bondage, dominance, or humiliation — from either side, top or bottom — was even scarier. But from the late 1970s (when the original “old guard” began dying off, though that’s another story) to now, S/M has grown progressively less scary, to the point that many teenagers today are more familiar with what goes on in our subculture than most adults were back in the 1950s. Why? Madonna and Trent Reznor can’t take all of the credit! These and other “mainstream” artists would not have been able to exploit such themes, i think, without the increasing visibility of an S/M community that promotes responsible, ethical practices, thus raising the comfort level for everyone, whether kinky or vanilla. Coming out into S/M through our community today is infinitely less scary than doing so in isolation, or with no resources except the bars, baths, backrooms, sex clubs, and porn magazines to guide you. In contrast, when i first realized back in the 1960s what made my dick hard, i was terrified. i obsessed about the horrible things that could happen to me if i ever gave in to my masochistic and submissive urges and put myself in the hands of a dominant, sadistic man. i read William Carney’s novel The Real Thing and was sure i’d end up on a slab in the morgue if i took the first step down that slippery slope. By the time i moved to New York in 1977, still a virgin in every sense of the term, i knew that leather bars existed and that some of the scenes portrayed in Drummer weren’t totally fictional, but i was still worried that i would be damaged irreparably if i allowed a man to use me and hurt me in the ways i also knew i needed. “Fear is the mind-killer,” they say in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, and mine took a long time to fade. But it probably also kept me alive by making me think early and often about risk-reduction strategies. And when i joined with others at the end of 1980 to create GMSMA, i finally made contact with enough men committed to doing S/M in a nondestructive way that i was able to overcome my fears and begin participating actively. That’s the historical and personal context in which “safe sane consensual” emerged: overcoming fear, shame, and silence to learn what we need to know to make our own choices. On the whole, i think the phrase has served us well — and it can continue to do so if we don’t try to make it do jobs it was never designed for. Chanting “safe sane consensual” like a mantra can’t save you from a bad scene or a bad relationship, and it can’t replace the years of study and practice that guide an experienced top or bottom, dominant or submissive through the maze of choices both must confront. While “safe, sane, and consensual” may suggest the outlines of an S/M ethics, actually articulating one will take a lot more work than coining a useful slogan. But it’s a start.

***The final version of the essay is available on slave david’s site as a downloadable PDF: go to <a title=” href=””> That version corrects some errors in the version here  have as well as representing some changes in my his view of SSC and its (ab)uses.  

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