SSC – Thirty already, yet still misunderstood

dominatrix trampling a male slave

History, they say, is what happens while you are busy doing other things – or something like that. In my case I was merrily taking a rare vacation, thus missing a rather important anniversary for BDSM. August 17th marked exactly thirty years since the first appearance of one of the most misunderstood acronyms in the erotic world: SSC.

As even non-kinksters came to know, ‘SSC’ stands for ‘Safe, Sane and Consensual’ – the commonly accepted definition of what BDSM play actually is. It is not an exaggeration to say that these three little letters have been the single most instrumental tool towards the acceptance of a sexual variation which was often mistaken for and confused with mental illness before. While a mainstream culture of erotic diversity is clearly yet to be realized, there is no doubt that ‘safe, sane and consensual’ are magic words able to immediately distinguish sensual dominance from abuse, violence and so on in everyone’s mind – enough at least to allow a rational discourse about an erotic practice enjoyed by one sexually active adult in ten.

A brief summary for the uninitiated. In this acronym:

  • Safe indicates the technical competence in performing sometimes complex and otherwise dangerous practices. This requires a serious working knowledge of the toys you are using, but also of your environment and most of all of how human bodies and minds work;
  • Sane originally referred to the mental ability to distinguish fantasies from reality, but took on a more physical (as in damage prevention and treatment) meaning. Either way it deals with the medical side of things. In other words, hurting can be ok, but harming is a no-no;
  • Consensual means that the partners specifically agree to every aspect of what they are doing, that they are able to do so, that no unwitting participant is involved and so on. It also means that they both take responsibility for whatever happens to them and that the consent can be revoked at any time thus immediately stopping their activities, no strings attached.

Sounds good, isn’t it? So much, in fact, that sex therapists have suggested to apply this code of conduct to traditional, “vanilla” relationships too. It takes a little reframing of things, but it does work – and since it involves lots of communication, it is very good for the couple (or trio, or whatever).
This notwithstanding, SSC has also been the focus of much arguing since its very first days. Which is why I’d like to celebrate its thirtieth birthday with a little bit of useful clarification.

As the actual originator of the phrase explained, ‘safe, sane and consensual’ was coined by chance, or better by assonance, with the ‘have a safe and sane Fourth of July’ traditional American exhortation. It was part of a brief presentation of one of the first BDSM associations, and its original 1983 meaning was, he wrote, «the opposite of careless, irresponsible, or uninformed S/M» – which due to ignorance was the most common form of this sort of activities in those days.
Problem was, as ‘SSC’ spread like as a meme its meaning was bent and adapted to the purposes of anybody who used it. The most disturbing instances were those in which sexual abusers leveraged the motto to attract naïve victims who sincerely believed it would guarantee their safety no matter what. This remains a serious dangerfor beginning erotic explorers: the lack of reliable sexual education in our society leads people to see anything sex-related as somehow disconnected from how life normally works, so it is not uncommon to see this otherwise inexplicable credulity.

To longtime BDSM enthusiasts, however, another annoying side effect of this involuntary campaign was that it sort of portrayed one of the most intense, demanding and risky human activity as something shallow and easily manageable by anyone who bothered to read a (usually badly-written) manual or to glance at online “information”. They pointed out that proper domination games – well, they actually called them ‘work’ and not ‘play’ – had always been “SSC”, even before the term stuck. They were however approached in a more responsible fashion, for people were literally aware they are not a walk in the park.
A solution was offered in the form of yet another acronym: RACK stood for ‘risk-aware consensual kink’, and it was supposed to stress the actual dangers of improvised BDSM, not supported by serious preparation. The cure was worse than the illness, however, as malicious individuals worldwide tried to subvert its meaning – and they still do – to  «well, you knew there were risks involved, so I won’t accept responsibility for the damages I inflicted to you». It sounds crazy, I know, but I will never cease to be amazed by the stupid, dirty tricks some sociopaths employ to “easily” get laid and/or hurt people without  having to make the effort to actually connect with another human being. If you visit online forums you can easily find frequent – and totally preposterous – “battles” between SSC and RACK, like they were different political parties or philosophies.

Seen in this light, these first thirty years of SSC look a bit like a missed opportunity. For all its good, it is probably time for this striking motto to leave the limited confines of the BDSM communities and their petty power struggles, and to enter the public discourse reaching a wider audience. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come around with a  more mature  and fully agreed-upon meaning, allowing the culture of erotic power exchange to finally make new progress – for the better of kinksters and vanilla people alike.
And who knows… maybe on the fortieth anniversary we’ll all be more prepared to properly celebrate.