The Consent Debate: Then and Now

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I started a BDSM classics reading group! People actually signed up and everything! Squee!


For our first meeting on 3rd September, we’re going to read seminal essays from the Safe Sane Consensual debate.

  1. Unsafe at Any Speed, or Safe, Sane, and Consensual, My Fanny by Laura Antoniou (1995)
  2. The SSC Mistake by Joseph W. Bean (1998)
  3. The Future of Leather by Joseph W. Bean (2000)
  4. The Origin of RACK / RACK vs. SSC by Gary Switch (2001)
  5. Safe Sane Consensual: The Making of a Shibboleth by david stein (2002)
  6. Consent Alone Is Not Enough by david stein (2013)
  7. How to Do the Right Kinky Thing by david stein (2005-2014)
  8. Short story: Spontaneous by Dusk Peterson (2006)

For a cheat sheet and more, please see the official webpage.

I am so grateful to david stein and Joseph Bean for their warm and material support in getting this list together. I regret that this ungrateful child of another age will now tell you where she departs from her revered elders.

(But we do agree that the discussion needs to happen. That’s why I revere them.)

My first surprise was that we know who originated the phrase Safe Sane Consensual: david stein. If you want to think about BDSM ethics, he’s your man. We’re reading three essays by him.

My second surprise was that he is appalled at how his words have been interpreted. Let me quote his responses in “Safe Sane Consensual: The Making of a Shibboleth”.

[S]ome people use simplistic conceptions of SSC as sticks to beat anyone whose limits go beyond theirs, while others apparently think mere lip service to the SSC idol absolves them of any responsibility to behave with decency or compassion. [source]

Agreed! Ethics is more than Safe Sane Consensual.

Just because an S/M interaction is safe, sane, and consensual doesn’t mean that it’s well done, mutually satisfying, or worth emulating! … On the other hand, an extremely risky, “lunatic,” or dubiously consensual scene might provide peak experiences that neither party — assuming they survive it – would want to have missed. [source]

Did you just say dubious consent?

Joseph W. Bean has suggested “seducing consent” as an alternative to the negotiation paradigm for leathersex encounters. [source] [ultimate source] [more]

Wait. Seduction?

That’s some generation gap.

Is there an ethical divide as well? Well, that depends on whether you accept Joseph Bean’s argument in “The Future of Leather”.

Was this safe? I survived it. Was it sane? I’m still permitted to walk the streets. Was it consensual? Well, yes. The only thing we feared more than being singled out by one of the men was NOT being noticed by them. Week after week, whenever I was invited, I was at the apartment where the whips and chains and the MEN would be. If you sit by the telephone for hours waiting for the invitation phone call, whatever you waiting for, if you get it, is consensual. [source]

He’s not wrong. That is consensual.

But do I want to go back to those days? God no.

If you’re ever in doubt about the ethical acceptability of a scenario, there’s something very simple you can try: flip the genders. So I imagined a 1950s girl waiting by the phone for a date. And my heart tore and bled. It became blindingly clear that that is consensual only because her other options are all bad.

Consent is choice. Choice is always limited. The Old Guard weren’t trying to limit anyone’s choices – quite the opposite. In my book, they did nothing wrong.

But I like my options. And my doms like knowing that I’ve got them. Imagine the burden of responsibility otherwise.

And maybe that means I will never have what they had, even in Laura Antoniou’s Middle-Aged Guard days.

I want to tell them about the pleas of the damned, the cries when someone doesn’t know when it’s going to stop or how, when they want their mommy, or they want their master, or when they want to surrender and fall to the ground and feel a boot at the back of their neck and grind away until they come and it’s terrible.

But I smile, and I nod, and I pass on, and I don’t even say a fucking thing. [source]

It’s true. Nobody fantasises about laying down limits and safewording. We dream of the razor edge of real fear, the hypnotic thrill of real compulsion, the clank and WHAP! of real consequences. It’s kink on turbo drive.

And if that was once your sole reality, I can see why it would be unthinkable to give it up. After all, I’ve written just as nostalgically about devastating gender inequality.

I’ve heard there were more train wrecks back in the day. I can believe it. But I can also see why that’s an acceptable cost to some people who grew up with it.

The thing that helped me to see that, oddly, was a Broadway song called “I Miss the Mountains”. It’s really about how pills can be worse than mental illness, but she certainly sounds like one of us.

Ironically, in these times of choice, my elders don’t even have the option of reliving the old days with modern consenting partners. As david stein says, consent rests on expectations. And is this how you expect to play?

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. [source]

Joseph Bean, that’s, um, wow. You certainly know how to seduce. I love the moment when the door closes and a man knows I’m in his power.

But I had no idea there used to be kinksters who thought of the door as consent. If that’s a shared assumption, well and good. Otherwise, it’s not consent.

And that’s why Joseph Bean and our other ethical elders have compromised with the times. Those assumptions must be spoken now. I cannot regret that.

But then, I never knew the mountains. I think I’ve only given seduced/dubious consent twice in my D/s life. The first turned out badly. The other was amazing. Both doms were doing their best, so I don’t blame either of them. But someone else might. And I don’t understand why any dom today would knowingly take that risk.

So I don’t want to ask, “Was it consensual?” and get stuck there. I have different questions now. Was it ethical? Is it worth it?

The world has changed, and our assumptions with it. And I am damn grateful for my options.

Especially if I get to supply some of my own pleas of the damned!

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