- I mean, I came across this quote the other day clicking around the interwebs:
"Some even have "safe words," they can use to pull the plug on a "scene" if it gets too - I dunno. Intense? Demanding? Whatever? Safewords. I kid you not. Kind of like a veto power over what is happening that pretty much cancels any illusion some dumb soul has about being dominant.
I don't play at D/s. I don't use "safewords." And fuck the bdsm mantra, "Safe, sane and consensual." It's just a simpering, forelock tugging attempt to convince the vanilla folk that bdsm players are really just like them - it's just a game, see, and we aren't really serious, we're just playing dress up."
I mean, yikes. Imagine you're just clicking around, trying to learn about this stuff, you run into this. How're we supposed to distance ourselves from this CDD crap when people who identify as "one of us" write such things? Oy. I dunno. Maybe I need more coffee to make more sense or something, but I'm just horrified that some lost submissive woman will find herself in an abusive situation because the silent majority of the "community" isn't speaking up and saying "um, no."
There are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like "safeword" or "safe, sane, and consensual". And sometimes they're tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they're tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they're attempting to express.
So a little examining is in order.
I would like to start out by noting Eileen's post at A Place to Draw Blood Laughing, "Traffic Light Colors", because it means that I don't have to write, well, basically all of that about what the purpose behind a safeword is. I will then quote Trinity, saying something very similar:
- I got into some arguments with them about safewords, I remember. Inw hich I came up with an analogy I still use today: Say I'm performing in a play. Does it become the audience's "performance" rather than mine if someone yells "Fire" and I stop performing as we all make our way to the exit?
Okay, so. Now that we're all on the same page about what safewords are, positing that I agree with Eileen and Trinity, I'll go into my perspective on the concept.
I will start out by saying right out: I do not have an official safeword, in the sense of 'verbal stoplight'. This is not because I disagree with any of the previous material, but because I am not personally equipped to use one. I suspect if I ever bottomed, I would pick up the usage, because in that context my limitations would be less likely to come into play.
When I get into a subspace state, my boundaries become intensely fluid. Things which I would not have consented to in advance, and indeed would not be happy with having done, become okay, or at least not sufficiently uncomfortable for me to register them as potentially problematic. This made parts of my life very educational the first time I put d/s stuff into practice, as my partner of the time was much more wide-ranging than I, and we were young and inexperienced enough that we weren't good at negotiation.
It was probably something like in the first week of our actual relationship -- well before we did any discussion of power exchange stuff -- when my liege dropped me down deep into subspace for the first time. And he looked at the state and realised he could get consent for anything he wanted at the time there, and hauled me back out again to ask for consent. (I told him that what he wanted to do would have been okay at the time, but I'm not sure it would have been okay afterwards; he said that that was what he'd thought.)
I'm also one of those nonverbal subs. It's entirely possible for me to get into a state where I am both in a substate altered consciousness and capable of speaking, but these states are fairly fiddly and also not very deep, for the most part. Generally, I can communicate gesturally, and have done so in cases where I needed something; actual language use is not functional for me.
I get stymied on complex or precise subject communications when I'm nonverbal. (Last night, I wound up in a state of trying to figure out if it was worth it trying to express 'geckoes' nonverbally. I waited until I came up.) At this point I have a regular gesture symbolset for expressing limitations and needs -- 'could I have some of the water', or stuff about the one of my shoulder that has sharply limited range of motion and thus cannot be tied or pinned in a particular range of positions, or 'you're bruising my collarbones again'. But the first time, say, the collarbone-bruising issue came up, I just dealt with it until it was verbal (it wasn't safeword-out-level pain, but the bones were bruised for several days afterwards), explained it later, and now it's a known gestural thing. Explaining at the time was outside of my range.
The thing is, strictly speaking, that gestural library is basically a bunch of yellow-level safewords, communications about body limitations and discomforts that have been built up over time and awareness of the range of stuff we do, and as we shift around our interactions to include more and different things, we work out the library further, with a little trial and error. (I still haven't got a good gesture for 'You stopped talking to me! Waaah!' Heh.)
The thing is, knowing my limitations around verbality and communication, we tend to take things very carefully. The first time he pulled my hair during sex, I was completely unable to communicate with other than just the response to sensation; we talked about it afterwards, and I conveyed that no, he had been nowhere near a boundary with that, in fact he had been a touch frustratingly far away from it and could he go a little closer next time maybe? But the cautious approach to new thing. For things where he needs me to be able to give him verbal feedback, we make sure I'm in a state where I'm capable of giving it; I imagine as we get more experienced with those things, we will be able to start from deeper substates.
The critical thing to me with the concept of safeword is being able to communicate critical status information by some means, and to be able to expect that that status information will mean that one's partner will attend to the relevant needs. This can and should be built up from verbal signals, gestural signals, previously expressed boundaries, and familiarity with one's partner and their responses, in the proportions that are appropriate to the situation. I consider it to be my responsibility, as someone who goes boundary-fluid and nonverbal, to express baseline hard and soft boundaries in advance and have some ability to communicate within my limitations to warn about reaching them or actual crises. Someone in a different situation will have to do different work to establish their stuff.
"Safe, Sane, and Consensual"
This is a funny one. My understanding on the background of it is that it was originally coined by David Stein in about 1983, to distinguish BDSM from "criminally abusive or neurotically self-destructive behavior"; he notes that 'safe' and 'sane' originated in a public PR campaign that he interpreted as "Have a good time, but don't be stupid and burn the house down or blow your hand off". The phrase was not originally a slogan, but part of a preamble to a longer piece; Stein regrets the loss of nuancing from the sloganising effect. (For the source on my quotes, read the PDF Safe Sane Consensual: The Evolution of a Shibboleth. In fact, go do it now, I'll still be here when you're done.)
- The "safe, sane, and consensual" formula was originally put forward as a minimum standard for ethically defensible S/M, because that must be the basis for any defense of S/M rights. Today, however, and especially in the hetero and pansexual communities, S/M itself (or "BDSM", which some find more palatable) is frequently defined in terms of SSC, while the SSC slogan is treated with quasi-religious reverence and even explicitly referred to as a "credo" or "creed". instead of asking people to think about what it means to do S/M ethically, and to make the hard choices that are sometimes necessary (if only between what's right and what's right now), many organisations today act as if these issues have all been settled, assuring us that sadistic or masochistic behavior not deemed SSC isn't S/M at all but something else -- abuse, usually, or domestic violence or poor self-esteem.
Remind anyone else of "the personal is political"?
- As a result, some people use simplistic conceptions of SSC to beat anyone whose limits go beyond there, while others think mere lip service to the SSC idol absolves them of any responsibility to act with decency or compassion. The idea has taken root that whatever is safe, sane, and consensual is good, and whatever isn't is bad. [...] ... a well-planned scene may fizzle rather than sizzle. On the other hand, an extremely risky, "lunatic," or dubiously cosnensual scene might provide peak experiences that neither party -- assuming they survive it -- would want to have missed. Being SSC alone is not enough, because it says nothing about why we do S/M in the first place.
Or maybe it says too much? The idolisation of SSC occurred during the same period that S/M activity came to be almost universally referred to as "play", S/M practitioners as "players", and the tools we use as "toys". [...] But even while conveying that good S/M is more than SSC, the amended formula -- "safe, sane, consensual, and fun" -- reinforces not only the mistaken notion that SSC is a criterion of value at all, but also that S/M is something you do merely "for fun" and without serious intent.
Actually, a lot like reading the original "The personal is political" essay, reading this gives me a lot more sympathy for the origin of the terminology. He talks about the original concepts of why they used those words -- and brings it pretty much into line with the 'slogan' I prefer, RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink). (RACK is, so far as I can tell, more popular among edgier folks; I prefer it just because I don't feel that someone with my intense kink for altered consciousness is necessarily in a good position to evaluate 'sane'.)
So the original intent for SSC was to open up grounds for discussion, to raise the question of examining what was going on and expressing reasonable understanding of consequence. "Safe" was intended to contain discussion of boundaries and limits, reasonable levels of risk, evaluation of consequence and circumstance; "sane" to distinguish between the real world and fantasy; "consensual", which is in both phrases, to acknowledge agreement and chosen participation rather than coercion. (And he acknowledges that it was coined in the absence of knowledge about things like how difficult it is to leave an abusive spouse.) The idea was to say, "Look, we're doing this stuff within these defined, reasonable bounds; can we get you people to stop conflating us with abusers?", with perhaps a bit of sex-pos activism. To paraphrase: If we break away the conflation, will people face up to the sex-negativity of their actual opposition to S/M?
According to Stein's essay, at the time SSC was coined, pretty much all available BDSM imagery was edgy, at least bordering on non-con, and had this aura of the dangerous; the concept of the SSC question was in part intended to start a dialogue that would start developing a language that accepted the possibility of consent. Everything was edgy, or portrayed as such, and part of Stein's group's intent was to create a less fear-driven culture.
From the conceptual revolution of SSC came a strongly consent-based culture which has started to have the dialogue about these things. In the process, though, many people have forgotten that it was started as a dialogue term, something that asked the questions rather than answered them. While it's no longer reacting to non-con stuff, coercion as the absolute staple of the porn because that's the only way people know how to conceptually frame their kink, it's still seen as pushing for something more reasonable, quiet, and not edgy than the default. But the defaults have changed wildly.
So the questions still remain: What is within your sense of what is safe and reasonable, and what precautions are necessary to push those limits? Where is the boundary between fantasy and reality? And, going back to the section on safewords, what is agreed to?
These are dialogues we still need to have.