"You know kids, I wish every mother and father in this theater would go home tonight and make a speech to their teenagers and say kids, be free, no guilt, be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do, just so long as you don't hurt anybody." —"My Conviction", in Hair
It's okay for people to do pretty much anything to each other, as long as they are all into it, know what they are getting into, and the risk of permanent harm isn't unreasonably high. Right?
But how do we really know what's going on? A mutual game, or abuse? Sometimes it can be hard to see the difference between the two.
The difference between actual abuse and BDSM/similar activities (sexual and otherwise) is often described in the terms of BDSM being SSC — Safe, Sane, And Consensual:
Safe means that the risks are known and minimized: That people know what they are getting into and handle it responsibly.
Sane means that the individuals involved have self-control and will not betray their partners' trust.
This pattern can also be used to describe, for example, the difference between a honest boxing match and simply beating someone up. There are many variations of the pattern: Consenting Adults, Informed Consent, Risk Aware Consensual Kink, and so on. But while nuances may differ and may be important in specific contexts, the basic concept is the same: Everyone involved does not merely give lip-service consent, they know what they are getting into and are capable of deciding for themselves what they want and don't want. For more on the fine nuances of the difference between these phrases, see the Useful Notes entry on Consent.
This trope is about discussing and defining the limits of proper behavior, or simply waving a Consent Flag. People simply doing BDSM in a SSC way is not this trope: It is either Casual Kink or Brains and Bondage, while people doing BDSM in an anti-SSC way falls under Bondage Is Bad unless this trope comes into play in some form; for example, the victim or another character pointing out that it's not the proper way to do BDSM.
One notable subversion of this trope is pretending that abuse or exploitation is BDSM (and thus implied to be SSC). One notable aversion/way of darkly playing it for laughs is to highlight the need for Safe and Sane by sarcastically pretending that consent is all that's needed - and use an example where someone naively or stupidly agrees to something that they obviously can't handle.
See also Safe Word and Abuse Mistake. Compare Ethical Slut. Contrast Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny and Bondage Is Bad.
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Indirect in City of Dreams: Much is done without formal consent, but dreamers can always wake up. Subverted in two different ways towards the end.
Birthday Girl zig-zags this trope. The main character is into bondage, but he's a fairly normal guy. However, he purchases a Russian bride sight-unseen, which is hardly typical of someone with a normal romantic life. His Russian bride discovers his fetish and indulges him without any fuss. It turns out that she's a con artist trying to get his money, but by the end of the film they've formed something of a legitimate romance.
In Slave World, this trope is sometimes played straight, but usually overtly Defied with a lot of Lampshade Hanging that the plot is not SSC and thus not BDSM even thought it makes great BDSM Fetish Fuel.
In Slave Jade, the female lead is a sexually submissive woman who starts dating a "dominant" psycho who kidnaps her and executes a miserable attempt at inducing Stockholm Syndrome. Before they actually met, he seemed to have a very good understanding of consent and safety - what she didn't know is that the bulk of his mails to her were reasonable ideas that he never thought in his own head, but merely copy/pasted from various sites. In the end, she shoots him and escapes. He survives the bullet and ends up in jail for all he did to her, while her shooting him is ruled as self-defence. In the epilogue she decides to find a new man to dominate her - a man who isn't psycho, but really understand SSC.
In the Kushiel's Legacy universe, things can get plenty kinky, but there are rules in place and violating them isn't just illegal, it's heresy. Both law and custom ensures that even indentured sex servants only participate if they enjoy that kind of thing, and sometimes with a bodyguard waiting, just in case things go too far.
Paladin of Shadows: With an exception in the very first book involving an underage hooker, Mike goes out of his way to discuss the technical details of BDSM as far as consent and safety goes, including discussions about Safe Words and limits for the other participant(s).
The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth has previously been tied up and raped. Despite this, she finds it quiet pleasing when her lover Miriam ties her up during their various sexual encounters.
Live Action TV
The episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that introduced Lady Heather also featured her schooling both Gil and Catherine on the difference between BDSM and abuse, with heavy emphasis on Safe Sane and Consensual, although she didn't use that phrase.
In Jack of All Trades, the episode located on De Sade's island has much of the BDSM exaggerated for comedy, so it's easy to forget that all the guests (except the protagonists, who are there under false pretenses) came there by their own free will. (Sanity may be questioned, since the austrian guy's wife ends up taking "acting like a dog" a bit far when she savages him. Again, comedy.)
In Torchwood: Miracle Day season 4, Captain Jack Harkness finally gets a sex scene. He hooks up with a random bartender. Despite being in a foul mood and smashed drunk and the world is ending, he still absolutely insists on using condoms (since he's not immortal that day — long story), and he doesn't get dominant until his partner tells him he can be in charge.
In Rome, Octavius is shown to have a lot of weird hang-ups over sex. During the consummation of his arranged marriage, his new wife reveals an interest in S&M, which he discovers he's really into. Their marriage is a happy one.
In one Dilbert strip (28 August 2010), the Pointy-Haired Boss is trying to make people believe that slave labor is ok by pretending that "slave" really refers to the BDSM kind of slavery rather then economical exploitation of poor people.
Aversion played for laughs in one strip in the comics magazine Larsson, with a therapist encouraging a couple to play with live hand-grenades in bed as part of their sex-life... as long as they both consented to it.
Sunstone is in many ways an Author Tract on the subject of SSC BDSM relationships — covering both the way these relationships can be normal and healthy and the importance of being safe, sane, and consensual within them.
Is used as therapy in Forest Tales, after an overdose of mating pheromones Garrek becomes very aggressive during sex and he becomes afraid of accidentally hurting his mates. He hooks up with a female submissive and finds he can vent it in a controlled manner through BDSM.
In the German Internet Cannibal case, the defense argued that the victim/"victim" had consented to being eaten. The court ruled that no one who is willing to consent to being cannibalized is mentally fit to give consent in the first place. In other words, not Safe enough to be considered Sane.
This is the core philosophy of Mistress Matisse's and Dan Savage's sex columns for The Seattle Stranger. Savage has specifically said in articles that the only things he considers completely unacceptable are rape, pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia and coprophilia. He also tends to caution against cheating except in very extreme cases (for example, an abusive partner), though he is an advocate for consensual non-monogamy.
In theory completely averted in the law of the UK, in which no consent can ever be legally given for anything that goes so far as to leave a mark or bruise, and charges can be made by the police regardless of the consent levels of the participants. However, this law is rarely used against heterosexual sadomasochists (or heterosexual vanilla sex that also leave marks). Homosexuals, on the other hand...
Of course, given that gay marriage is now legal in Britain as of June 2013, it is unlikely that something like Operation Spanner would happen again anytime soon.
In the UK it was the House of Lords case of R. v. Brown. This was followed in Ontario by its Court of Appeal in R. v. Welch. In the latter case the court stated that S&M is "inherently degrading and dehumanizing" and does not allow someone to consent to harm as they would in an activity with "a generally approved social purpose" such as a contact sport like hockey.
Just to demonstrate the unfairness in R v Brown, a UK case - R v Wilson - involving a heterosexual couple showed that there were some circumstances when consent could be a defence for assault in the case of S&M. The man was convicted for assault when he branded his initials on his wife's buttocks on her request, although he was later cleared at the court of appeal - apparently, as the branding was meant to be a personal adornment "like a tattoo", her consent was seen as good enough to have his conviction quashed. You have to wonder whether they would have come to that conclusion if the participants were gay.
The same is true in Massachusetts, and there have been prosecutions of consensual BDSM couples who don't choose their doctors or cover their bruises carefully enough.
Some real-life BDSM practitioners distinguish between SSC play and RACK play (Risk Aware Consensual Kink). The latter is defined as forms of play that can never be completely safe (a good example of this is fireplay, which always carries risks).
Another perspective holds that nothing is completely safe (and BDSM certainly isn't), and "sane" is subjective and hard to delineate.