First, Do No Harm: Guest Post by david stein

Leather Pride flag
Image by torbakhopper (CC BY‑ND 2.0)
Today’s guest blogger is david stein, the gay slave who originated the phrase “Safe, Sane and Consensual” way back in the 1980s.(Brief recess to retrieve our jaws from the floor.)More recently, he authored the incredibly valuable non-fiction resource Ask the Man Who Owns Him: The real lives of gay Masters and slaves and the embarrassingly hot novel Carried Away.

None of this is why it was so hard for me to stop calling him mr. stein.

What gets me is that he didn’t stop there. he has responded to criticisms of Safe, Sane and Consensual by acknowledging its inadequacy. Last month he revised his essay How to Do the Right Kinky Thing: Ethical Principles for BDSM for the Leather Leadership Conference in Philadelphia. We have permission to repost that PDF freely as long as his byline is included. I’m honoured to be the first to post this revision.

I am particularly in awe of david stein’s patient work answering our questions on FetLife forums. He says things you don’t hear elsewhere. And he tackles the hard stuff. It’s easy to forget that universal ethical standards are a sore spot for some in our community. It’s rare to hear about alternatives to consent as the “master principle”. That’s why I’m so grateful to have permission to post this.

The following exchange is from the FetLife Masters and slaves forum (note: all FetLife links require login). It started with a question posted by SimplyMichael:

Based on some recent threads this seems like a good time to bring this up. On some level, this group preaches acceptance of others kinks and practices, “we” also reject that there is one right way to do this…


Is the corollary of that that there is NO wrong way to do this? Clearly we all value some concept of consent, even if it is CnC. I don’t think anyone here supports genuine abuse or actual rape but is there a point at which the cultural norm should go from “yeah, that isn’t for me but I can see how that is working for you” and moves toward “WTF? Whatever that shit you are doing is some fucked up dysfunctional/abusive/self destructive shit” ?


How do you feel it is best to communicate that, or do you feel that people should remain silent? Do you feel they should be told they should stop and grow up, or what? Or do you believe no matter what people do, nobody should ever point out that what they are doing is fucked up shit?

Photograph of david stein@SimplyMichael is asking some very good, if difficult, questions that should be of interest to everyone involved in “whatever it is that we do,” but especially to those who engage in M/s or BDSM education, community organizing, or activism. However, it’s unfortunate that he framed the issue in terms of individuals judging other individuals. The most immediate and persistent issue of judgment we all face is that of judging (that is, evaluating an option in order to make a choice of action) our own desires and those of prospective partners. What makes us feel that it is okay, say, to want to own another person? Or to be owned by someone? What makes us feel that a prospective Master or slave can be trusted to do the right thing in a dicey situation?

This is an area i’ve been concerned with for decades, even before i coined the phrase “safe, sane, and consensual s/m” in 1983. Unlike many others, i don’t think it works to define what it is we do as ethical, as when folks say (i’m paraphrasing, not quoting anyone specific), “If it isn’t safe, sane, and consensual, it isn’t BDSM” or “If the Master doesn’t protect the slave’s interests, it isn’t M/s.” There really are some nasty, fucked-up folks who do bad things to others under the guise of BDSM or M/s, and we can’t brush that away by claiming “that has nothing to do with us” or “that’s not what we do.”

Why not? For two reasons. First, it’s damned hard, or even impossible, to come up with a definition for either BDSM or M/s that includes only behavior and relationships that “we” (however “we” is defined) approve of and excludes all those we don’t; the process will always be more or less arbitrary and subjective. And second, simply trying to draw such a charmed circle will outrage many folks who value precisely the unconventionality and “outsider” quality that kinky sex and relationships have had for decades.

Only if these points are accepted, i think, can we face the genuine challenge of articulating ethical principles that can apply to M/s and BDSM as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. In other words, the corollary of “There is no one right way to do M/s (or BDSM)” is NOT that “Any way you do it is equally valid and good; no one has a right to draw any distinctions or to criticize anyone else for anything at all.” No, the correct corollary is that “Some ways are better/safer/more satisfying/more praiseworthy than others.”

Of course, as i suggested above, our first responsibility is to learn to make such judgments for ourselves before we presume to judge anyone else. But as a community — or, more accurately, a whole series of interrelated communities defined by different interests, backgrounds, etc. — we do need to engage in more serious discussion about what factors make some ways better/safer/more satisfying/more praiseworthy than others.

My own experience and thinking have led me to the view that the “master principle” of ethics for BDSM as well as M/s is “First, do no harm.” We are all, i think, much more accustomed to assessing risk (in advance) or damage (after the fact) than we are in evaluating the positive results of anyone’s “pursuit of happiness,” even our own. What “feels good” or “makes me happy” is very idiosyncratic, while harm and damage are usually much clearer to the eye. Any particular case may still be a difficult one involving “gray areas” where arguments can be easily made on either side, but on the whole i think we can be less skeptical of someone’s intention to “do no harm” than to “do good” to someone else, especially in a context where the primary motivation is self-serving, as it is for nearly all Masters and Dom(mes).

Last month i presented on these issues at the Leather Leadership Conference in Philadelphia, and i’ll be doing so again at the Master/slave Conference in the DC area over Labor Day. If anyone wants a PDF of my handout in Philly, just ask; if there are too many requests to handle easily, i’ll find a way to post it on my profile or elsewhere. By no means do i feel that “First, do no harm” is the last word on the subject, but i believe it has to be the first one if we’re to generate more light than heat.

with respect and best wishes,

Sir Brian’s slave david

That’s just one of david stein’s forum replies. You see why I find it ridiculously educational to stalk his FetLife profile.Thank you so much to both david stein and SimplyMichael for permission to post this content (the link, strikeout and two paragraph breaks were added). If you have a FetLife account, you may also wish to check out the rest of the thread.But if you want my advice, the PDF of david stein’s Philly presentation is more bang for your buck. Four pages, no login, and so much more than you’ve seen in this guest post.


What do you think?