Safe, Sane, and Consensual: The Bedrock Ethics of BDSM

Elegant gray tie on a blackWhether you read, saw, loved, or hated Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s no denying that its release started a larger conversation about BDSM in popular culture. It’s important for us to acknowledge that—even if we’re embarrassed by it; even if we think it’s better left a dark, sexy mystery—because according to the research, anywhere between 2% and 62% of the population is interested in BDSM (Sagarin, 2015).

BDSM is my favorite acronym because it’s so multifaceted: its letter pairings stand for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. It could be said that the underlying element across all these terminologies is power, and in fact, some kinksters call what they’re doing “power play.”

Any time we’re playing with power, however, we need to be aware of the potential misuse or abuse of that power. Fortunately, many in the adult BDSM community employ an ethics mantra to help those new to the scene, or even more seasoned practitioners, feel comfortable testing limits. Their guiding principles are “safe, sane, and consensual.”

What do we mean when we’re talking about safety, sanity, and consent? This guide will define those concepts and give examples of responsible power play between adult partners. While it’s not necessary to label them as such, I may reference two types of play partner throughout this article: “Doms,” or dominant partners, and “subs,” or submissive partners. Play partners who occupy either or both roles are known as “switches.”

1. Safety

Some people who enjoy kink aren’t into gadgetry or fancy equipment, but others are. Some obvious equipment with the potential for damage are sensory deprivation masks, urethral sounds, genital clamps, and suspension devices, but even simpler tools such as rope, belts, or paddles could leave lasting damage or even prove fatal if play partners aren’t adequately prepared. Study up—not just on use of your equipment, but on basic human anatomy, too. Some parts of the body, like on the back near the kidneys, are riskier places to be struck. Consider the risk of losing circulation if you’re playing with rope or handcuffs, and have a backup plan for freeing your partner if you’re tying up or cuffing him or her. Make sure your partner can breathe if you’re using a ball gag or mask. Practice whipping pillows before using human partners; practice tying basic knots before attempting more intricate bondage. Minimize burn risks if you’re playing with hot wax.

These might sound like a lot of rules, but if your partner trusts you with his or her body, you need to be able to trust yourself, too. Emotional safety is as important as physical safety when it comes to sex and power play, which brings us to the second item of the BDSM ethics code.

2. Sanity

Whether I’m doing trauma work with people in individual therapy or facilitating classroom discussions about healthy relationships, I want to make sure that I’m maintaining an atmosphere of emotional safety. The rationale and context may be different, but the concept of emotional safety is absolutely critical for responsible BDSM exploration. Emotional safety exists in environments where you’re sharing only what feels safe and will be respected. In BDSM practice, this requires considerable introspection on the part of both dominant and submissive partners. Ask yourself: are the activities we’re engaging in going to open emotional wounds, and do I trust my partner to take care of me in a state of vulnerability? Do I have a handle on my sadism, and am I capable of balancing it with loving kindness? Am I doing this because I enjoy it, or out of a sense of guilt or obligation? Check in with yourself and your partner, and don’t be afraid to set limits based on what feels emotionally safe for you. Play only with partners with whom you know your limits will be respected. Do not equate genuine cruelty with kink.

If establishing limits ahead of time is tricky because you don’t know what your limits are, another way to ensure sanity and safety is to agree on a “safeword” for moments when things no longer feel safe or OK. In many cases, this word is never used, but there’s no shame in having one handy. The use of a safeword connects to the third and final descriptor in the BDSM ethics code.

Check in with yourself and your partner, and don’t be afraid to set limits based on what feels emotionally safe for you. Play only with partners with whom you know your limits will be respected. Do not equate genuine cruelty with kink.

3. Consent

Most forms of BDSM involve the creative surrender or takeover of control; however, this works harmoniously only between two or more consenting partners. Establishing consent may seem murky when people are playing out fantasies that involve force or domination, but there are many ways to ensure your partner is enjoying his or her experience. Agreeing on a safeword is important, as is respect between partners.

The idea of respect may seem confusing or even comical if humiliation or shame is integral to your fantasy. Rather than focusing on respectful words or behaviors, we can think of respect as an overall commitment to mutual safety and pleasure. Submissive partners are responsible for communicating their own limits, and Dom(me)s should be committed to the quality of their subs’ experiences. Look at your partner’s face; look at his or her body language. Notice any tension that exists for you alone or between you and your partner. Trust your gut.

Ethical Sex and Kink

I was surprised that I enjoyed much of the Fifty Shades movie, despite being a die-hard feminist and despite critiques I had read about the book it’s based on. The lead submissive character was empowered—I enjoyed her business meeting-style negotiations about what conditions she would and would not tolerate, and I often found the Dom/sub banter witty and endearing. There are definitely conversations to be had about their struggle for power, but it’s hard to arrive at any agreement about power, inside or outside the bedroom. The questions I used to critique the film’s responsible portrayal of BDSM include: “Were the sex acts safe? Were they sane? Were they consensual?”

It’s worth asking those questions about your own sex acts, whether you’re exploring kink with a new partner or you’ve been practicing BDSM for many years. With proper introspection comes the responsible use of power. Even when perceived danger is part of the sex appeal, it’s important not to blur the line between fantasy and reality. I hope these guidelines can aid you in your quest for ethical fun and pleasure!

References:

  1. The Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS). https://carasresearch.org/
  2. Copulsky, D. (2015). Consent and safety basics for kink & BDSM [comic]. Sex Positive Education. Retrieved from http://www.sexedplus.com/consent-safety-basics-for-kink-bdsm/
  3. Sagarin, B. (2015). The surprising psychology of BDSM. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201502/the-surprising-psychology-bdsm

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  • Colin

    Colin

    March 16th, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    I think that if this is what two consenting adults wish to incorporate into their sex life, then fine, so be it. Not for me, but hey, to each his own. My problem is that books and films like 50 shades make you think that it is actually ok to do this without consent, and to me, even as a man, no consent equals rape, pure and simple.

  • Camille

    Camille

    March 16th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    You did like the movie?! I am so shocked because there was a certain type that I thought that this would appeal to and I have to say that I didn’t think that it would be someone who posted articles on here. I guess that if you see it from a point of view that it is about a young woman liking her new found sex life then okay, but she is also lorded over and basically stalked right? Not too healthy I would imagine in real life.

  • Nora

    Nora

    March 17th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    It’s not up to me to decide if this is right for someone else.
    I know that for me it would make me very uncomfortable but for others this might be the way that they enjoy their sex lives.
    I am not opposed to it especially if everyone involved is a willing player and everyone keeps it safe.

  • annie

    annie

    March 17th, 2015 at 12:01 PM

    I just wouldn’t have that ability to give it all over to someone else like this would imply

  • Kayla

    Kayla

    March 18th, 2015 at 8:28 AM

    The bedrock of ethics makes it sound like you would have to sign a contract or something hahaha.

  • Been there, still there

    Been there, still there

    February 17th, 2019 at 1:27 PM

    Signing an actual contract is, quite often, a part of a Dom.sub relationship. In it, you lay out what constitutes hard limits (those things you will NEVER consent to), soft limits (those things which you MIGHT consent to at a later time), and what the overall parameters of the relationship are. Is it a 24/7 D/s relationship? (Don’t ever start there, by the way.) What is the trigger for moving from “normal” space into BDSM space – the putting on of a collar? the giving of a certain command? etc. What are the safewords? (You should have words for “stop everything this instant”, “slow down, too intense”, “this is too emotionally difficult” and “things are fine, keep going.” Simplest is RED (stop), YELLOW (slow down), GREEN (keep going) and BLUE (emotional need to stop.) This should all be part of the Dom/sub contract.

  • melanie c

    melanie c

    March 19th, 2015 at 4:23 PM

    So maybe I have led a sheltered life but not only have I never been interested in any of this in the bedroom, but I have never been with another guy who has been interested in it either- or at least if they have been I haven’t been with any who have ever shared that desire with me.
    Do you think that I have been with people who naturally feel the same way about sex that I do, or if there are more people who want to do this and they have just been holding back?

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