The SSC Mistake

by Joseph W. Bean

There are reasons to applaud the broad acceptance of the credo “Safe Sane Consensual” by SM folks. I’ve sought out those reasons and pointed them out to others, perhaps as much to help myself settle into the use of the SSC terminology as anything. But, no matter how long the phrase hangs around—and it’s looking pretty permanent right now—I have problems with it.

I’m in no mood to turn the clock back, but I won’t mind if a few gung-ho SSC fans stop, look and listen up. What was getting hard to maintain with the leather population boom of the late 70s and early 80s was the excitement. Some of us treasured the sheer heart-pounding thrill of taking what we wanted from a bottom who was able to take what we were dishing out. Some thrilled to dark, but delicious, over-the-top ecstasy of being taken by a man who knew how to use us.

Too-loud cheering from the SSC fanatics could finally stamp out or drown the last surviving molecules of these ecstatic excitements that survive in SM today.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating an era of unsafe, insane or non-consensual SM. Been there. Done that. Used my return ticket for the first flight out. The problem isn’t safety, sanity or consent. We have all we need of those, and they don’t hurt anything, when they are achieved through reasonable and sufficiently erotic means. But back then—when the credo was new and before—you’d have had to go out of your way ever to find SM that wasn’t actually SSC even if a lot of it would be halted on the spot by 90s Dungeon Masters blinding by the holy light of SSC.

No, the problem isn’t safety, sanity or consent. The problem comes in mistaking a description for a prescription. Before anyone said the phrase Safe Sane Consensual SM—decades, even centuries before—bottoms were safe enough to survive and beg for more, couples were sane enough to recognize a good thing and protect their possibilities for continuing to do it, and consent was clearly and obviously known to be essential. That’s why the SM of earlier times was eventually described in the late 1980s as “Safe Sane Consensual.” No problem.

It becomes a problem with contemporary efforts to sell that description as a requirement, apply it as a prescription, and to judge one another on the basis of various understandings of what that prescriptive phrase looks or feels like in action. Granted, some of the institutions are gone that were once relied upon to make SM safe, to provide community-wide feedback on the sanity of the members and to double check that consent was being respected. Still, taking a phrase that described the SM world as it once operated and repeating that phrase endlessly will not make SM SSC. Embroidering the phrase on patches, even painting it on 30-foot-wide banners will not save a single scene from becoming unsafe, stop an insane man from doing SM or monitor the necessities of consent.

The discussion I think we should be having—and I assume this is a conversation that must at least be dominated by people much younger than myself—would start something like this: “Once upon a time, SM was safe, sane and consensual because there were tight, inter-linked chains made up of groups of SM folks who networked with each other very actively, who valued and defended their reputations and who reported with care and honesty about the reputations of others. These people turned away from anyone among themselves whose reputation was ruined, especially if the “crime” were exceeding consent. In that time and in those circles, honor was more important that demonstrations of skill, skill was more valued than a full-to-bursting little black book, and more time and energy were spent grooming reputation, friendship, fraternity, respect and network acquaintance than on decorating oneself for cruising or public scenes.

“Now, since that time, we have become a tribe too large and too diverse, perhaps also too self-absorbed to rely on networking for our safety; too scattered and too fast-moving to depend on reports of reputation to confirm the sanity of our members or their actions; and too promiscuous to count on knowing everyone we touch (even a third or fourth networked hand) to count on a Top’s respect for limits or consent.

“So, what are we going to do to live our SM lives such that Safe Sane Consensual still describes what we do without having the effort turn to bickering? More important, how will we do this without destroying the excitement brought to SM scenes and lives by the “darker side” of human nature where fear and doubt reside and from which consent must be seduced?

“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. We reduce our SM-sexuality to side-show pleasures and risk never knowing what all the older folks were talking about when they spoke of “going away” in a scene. We risk never seeing why they called SM “work” not play or understanding why they’re so sure SM is a life and a spirit not a lifestyle or a fun way to pass time.”

Yeah, I think the discussion could very well begin like that. In fact, I’ve heard it try to start like that in small ways, here and there, all over the world. But it turns to arguments over what is Old Guard and whether anything Old Guard is worthy of imitation or salvation. I don’t let myself get drawn into that fuss. But, if that conversation could go somewhere, I imagine it would go forward to discover and establish Big World ways of doing what leathermen in a simpler time did with networking, treasuring reputation and placing honor before orgasm in their table of values.

Probably, during this working-out time, there should be a moratorium on all direct discussion of SSC and its meaning. After all, we know what those words mean and we know that they do not compose an imponderable, sacred text. The energy saved by stopping all the current arguments about SSC could be sufficient to put human colonies on all known planets in the next ten years, but I’d rather see it spent on replacing the lost institutions of leatherdom new forms to serve the same purposes, but forms more acceptable to the me-first, what-do-you-know?, respect-who? tenor of these over-populated and, in my opinion, under-cohesive times.

It is only fair for me to disclose here that, because I am still alive in the 90s and still want to do SM after about 35 years in the scene, I am bending to the times somewhat. When a boy asks if I play SSC, I tell him that Rule One of SM is, for me, “The bottom should always end up recyclable.” To that extent, I promise his safety. I’ll listen to his special concerns, if any. Proof enough of my sanity. On consent, I guess I’m not so very modern. I promise, as most tops were doing 35 years ago, that even if the boy doesn’t always say yes or even get the opportunity to do so, he’ll go away after the scene glad that I took yes for an answer when he couldn’t have thought to say it. Consent, you see, in my feudal world-view, is comprehensive. If you’re in my space, your presence IS consent. In practice, of course, playing with a boy who isn’t glad to be there gets old very fast, so I follow another rule: If I can’t seduce consent, I send the boy away.

That works for me, but it is not my prescription for what ails the SM world of the 90s. It’s just my interim mode, to be continued until the discussion above takes place and bears fruit. Meantime, I can and do gladly accept Safe, Sane, Consensual as a description of what we do… a description, not a hurdle or a prescription or a sacred text.