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.
- Consensual means that everyone involved agrees without coercion, and also has a sufficiently high intellectual capacity so they understand the risks and consequences of their actions. (Legally speaking, everyone who has reached a certain age is expected to have reached such capacity, outside of those with cognitive disabilities.) Those who are drugged down with high doses of alcohol or similar may not be able to give meaningful consent because of the effects of those substances on inhibitions and mental faculties.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Evangelion 303: In chapter 17, twenty-years-old Shinji and Asuka explore their relationship's sexual dynamics further. Asuka wants to try bondage games. When Shinji asks if she is REALLY, ABSOLUTELY sure that she wants to get tied up and spanked by him, she retorts that she is and he better do so now. Later, when he says he is surprised at her being a sub, she explains THAT is the point of fantasy. During the chapter, Shinji reflects that Asuka had probably fantasized about it for a long time, but before him she had never met someone she trusted enough to try it, and she wanted to be sure she could share her secret fantasies with him before their wedding.
- In For Love of Magic, Harry enters a BDSM relationship with Professor Vector and notes that he's rather proud of himself for having a good enough feel for her limits that she's never used their safe words. When he gives her to his other lovers for the night, he makes a point of everyone knowing the safe words (yellow for "ease up" and red for "stop") and reminds Vector that she can stop it at any time.
- While engaging in bondage in Slippery When Wet (NSFW fic), Max breaks character twice to remind Chloe to let her know if things get too much, and makes sure she remembers their safe word before they begin proper.
- Zig-zagged in Reaching for a Dream with Naruto's time with the sadomasochist Keiko and later his relationship with Xanna. While Keiko is responsible and will stop as soon as she hears a safe word, the matron of the brothel didn't give Naruto one due to his stated goal of "learning everything about pleasing a woman", though Keiko should have checked to make sure he had one. Naruto and Xanna are later known to engage in very rough sex and after ascending to godhood, they don't let others see them have sex as what they do is not only extremely illegal at times but would be fatal for mortals.
- After realizing that Akitsu is a sub in Anything Goes Game Changer, Ranma makes a point of asking for advice about it from Homura, the only man he knows likely to have experience in such matters. Homura's advice breaks down to 1) Don't push things too fast, 2) Don't assume that being a sub means she has a kink for exhibitionism, and 3) Never do anything that makes him uncomfortable.
- In Preaching to the Perverted, with the mistress explaining BDSM to the newcomers.
- In Exit to Eden, with the mistress explaining BDSM to the newcomers.
- Discussed in The SM Judge, as Magda is trying to explain the difference between spousal abuse and what her husband has been doing with her.
- The Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show is implied to be this for most, genuinely weird, Transylvanians. Contrast this with Frank-N-Furter's "Experiments" with easily-manipulated humans.
- 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.
- Discussed in the bondage club in Bound (2015), specifically to point out that Ryan doesn't follow the rules and is instead a cruel abuser who uses BDSM as an excuse.
- The 4:th and 8:th commandment of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
- 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 though it makes great BDSM appeal.
- 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 quite pleasing when her lover Miriam ties her up during their various sexual encounters.
- Specifically referenced in The Red Vixen at Sea when Rolas is knocked unconscious and falls overboard during an impromptu BDSM session on his sailboat.
- "Somehow we both seem to have forgotten the Safe part. Quite possibly the Sane bit as well."
- 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.
- Nip/Tuck: In one episode a dominatrix who's been hired by a guilt-ridden CEO Patient of the Week makes a brief appearance. She actually tortured him with fish hooks while he's still recuperating, but took care to use an antiseptic on the wound.
- 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.
- A core philosophy in Hair — see the page quote.
- 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. This 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.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition: If the Inquisitor pursues a relationship with The Iron Bull, the relationship takes on more than a few notes of BDSM, but all through this filter. Bull makes it clear from the start that the Inquisitor is in control, and he'll do nothing the Inquisitor doesn't want done — and if the Inquisitor says "no," then Bull just drops the arrangement with no grudges. If Cole is in the party, at some point, he may mention that, while Bull leads in the bedroom, the Inquisitor maintains the power in the proceedings.
- The short independent Visual Novel Cute Demon Crashers! is all about this. Horny Devils have worked out that it's a lot easier to get fed if they approach people while they're awake and play nice, so they've taken to helping humans safely explore their sexuality. All of the game's H-scenes have a button for the Player Character to say "stop" at any point, which ends the sex and has their parter immediately start calming them down.
- In one story event in Ikemen Sengoku titled "Surrender My Love", Masamune and the main character agreed to spend a "bondage day" together after the main character responded quite positively to Masamune's playful suggestion that he get her a collar. While there was very little actual bondage involved, there was a lot of (mostly) nonsexual dominant/submissive roleplay between Masamune and the MC with Masamune "punishing" the MC whenever she did something "naughty" like passionately kissing her after she talked to another man. It's made abundantly clear throughout this that it's a completely consensual and loving roleplay, with the MC even having established a safe word with Masamune beforehand in case he suggested doing something she didn't want to do.
- 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.
- This 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 and Georgia Straight. 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.
- 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.