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"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."
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.
Although SSC is the staple for much of the BDSM scene, requiring consent, able means to understand and "safe" circumstances, it is important to recognize that BDSM is also very complex and that these boundaries can be pushed in certain ways, for different kinks and relationships, and even for intense role-plays. Dominance and Submission is about one person exerting their dominance over another and the other person submitting willfully, allowing the dominance of the other. It is this willful submission that underlies all healthy D/s relationships, and in return for this giving up of control to another person, that person, the Dominant, takes responsibility for the restriction, freedom, pain and pleasure of the submissive.
The more hardcore the kink, the more the lines can be blurred:
In more hardcore Dominance and Submission, the kink can be about very deep submission and the giving up of nearly all freedom, the submissive wishing to please their Dominant to levels that risk personal harm. In complete contrast, the submission can even be about a fight for control - where the Dominant takes control of the submissive and the submissive only allows that control after a struggle or the Dominant needing to earn it in some way (e.g. the Dominant needs to force complete restriction on the submissive before they will submit to their will, or there might even be a real physical struggle where the sub will only submit if overcome). In this instance the Dominant and the Submissive consent to the scenario, but the fight for control has an element of risk, sometimes even foregoing safe words (which is generally a really stupid idea unless you have absolute trust in your partner that they won't push you past your hard-line boundaries, or you have a Dungeon Master standing by to intervene if things go too far).
In hardcore Sadomasochism - Sadism and Masochism - the situation becomes even more involved, where the submissive as the masochist has boundaries that they can't go past - things they like, things they hate, things they tolerate and things they can't stand - and the Dominant as the sadist can choose to ride those boundaries for punishment and pleasure, sometimes inflicting very high levels of pain or discomfort as severe as the sub can tolerate it (and the idea of "toleration" for pain and discomfort can be pushed to the absolute scary limit, and the greater the trust and understanding between Dominant and Submissive the more the boundaries for consent, risk, control, submission and sadomasochism can be pushed (on both sides)).
But no matter the situation or combination of Bondage and Dominance, Dominance and Submission, or Sadism and Masochism, the key point is that the Dominant becomes responsible for what happens to the submissive and should never break the submissive or push them past boundaries that they can't tolerate. The roles are complementary and depend upon willingness to enter into a given scene or relationship under certain conditions. When the control is forced upon the submissive unwillingly and they are treated in ways that they are unwilling to tolerate or don't want to submit to, or even if they do like it, if the Dominant pushes them to breaking point or causes permanent harm, that is when the entire nature of the relationship changes and it becomes abuser and abused, or more like the relationship found in torture. Also, if the Dominant neglects the aftercare and needs of the sub outside of the scene or sex, or forces too strict rules or punishment onto the sub, this can also be abuse, although the risk there is that both Dominant and submissive can be completely unaware that it is happening if they become too immersed.
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.
R100: The main character is a masochist who signs a contract with a firm of high-class dominatrixes to surprise him with bizarre sessions wherever he is. However, he eventually decides that they're intruding too much into his personal life and tries to break the contract. They refuse and go to war with him. The film never treats the main character as a pervert, though it's implied that his masochism comes from grief over his comatose wife. The writer/director is open about his masochism.
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 Kushiels 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 quite pleasing when her lover Miriam ties her up during their various sexual encounters.
Live Action TV
The episode of CSI 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.
Magical Diary: After a running gag for a while that Professor Potsdam was going to teach sex ed, the eventual lecture pretty much boils down to: Enthusiastic consent, don't get too distracted from schoolwork, and don't get pregnant, beyond that anything goes. Takes a dark turn in Damien's path where the lack of the 'safe and sane' part becomes painfully obvious, but still magical-world legal because you consented to what he did to you.
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.
Collar6 started off (seemingly) as little more than a comic set in a world where BDSM relationships (especially lesbian ones) were publicly expressed and accepted. Some aspects were Played for Laughs, others just raw titillation, until the strip entered a particular storyline that crossed a variety of lines no couple should. After a combination of a firestorm of fan responses and his own rethinking of the situation, the author spent the majority of the next chunk of story having the characters coming to terms with the facts that secrets like the ones Mistress Sixx had kept, and some of the "play" she involved Laura in without first getting consent, were absolutely wrong. Since then, anyone who intentionally continues to violate the norm of SSC guidelines are explicitly evil, or at least deluded. Although it should be said that this is also a world where "dominant" and "submissive" spiritual-sexual energies are explicit MAGIC tends to make some of the definitions of "sane" get a bit wobbly.
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.