You do not have to be afraid of people who engage in SM. SM players are doctors, lawyers, teachers, construction workers, fire fighters, secretaries and everything else you can imagine.
In her 1983 book Erotic Power, sociologist Gini Scott examined the dynamics of the heterosexual SM subculture.
She stated: "Unlike the psychiatrists and psychologists who deal primarily with psychologically troubled individuals who are also interested in D&S [Dominance and Submission], I did not find them to be psychologically troubled or socially inept; rather, a spirit of good humor and fun prevailed, and the participants appeared to be mostly attractive, quite ordinary-looking people who had ordinary relationships outside the D&S scene... A vast variety of people with a diverse range of erotic interests participate in sadomasochiSM. Their backgrounds, activities and attitudes are quite unlike the social stereotype that depicts sadomasochiSM as a form of violence, mischief, or mayhem perpetrated by the psychologically unstable who seek to hurt others or to be hurt themselves... At the core of the community are mostly sensible, rational respectable, otherwise quite ordinary people. Thus, quite unlike its public image, the community is a warm, close and supportive one."
Gini Scott (1983). Erotic Power, Citadel Press: pg. x.
In recent years as more research has been published, the mental health and medical communities have begun to accept that SM is a safe, legitimate pursuit.
According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) which defines currently recognized mental disorders, SM per se is NOT a mental disorder. In their diagnostic criteria for both sexual masochism and sexual sadism, the DSM-IV states that SM only becomes a diagnosable dysfunction when:
"the fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning."
In addition, the DSM-IV clearly allows for non-pathological sexual behavior:
"a paraphilia must be distinguished from the non-pathological use of sexual fantasies, behavior or objects as a stimulus for sexual excitement."
[The entire diagnostic criteria for sexual masochism and sexual sadism are reproduced Appendix A.]
Domestic violence is a pattern of intentional intimidation of one partner to coerce or isolate the other partner without consent. Abuse tends to be cyclical in nature, escalates over time, and characterized by apologies between the episodes that it will never happen again.
SM is not abuse or domestic violence because:
SM is voluntary. The partners agree to erotic power exchange of their own free will and choice. Either partner is free to leave at any time. The fact that SM relationships do split (amiably or not) without retaliation or violence supports the importance of this distinction.
SM is consensual. All partners involved agree to what is going to happen. Discussion of limits is usual and customary. Violation of those limits is a serious offense within the SM community.
SM partners are informed. Participants involved in erotic power exchange have an understanding of the possible consequences.
SM partners ask for and enjoy the behavior; they are often disappointed if the behavior does not happen. There is no apology for the behavior after it is over, rather both partners are happy and satisfied that it occurred.
SM partners take great care to make sure that their activities are as safe as possible. To truly damage their partner would deny themselves of being able to participate in the behavior. Individuals that violate their partners limits soon find that they are lacking partners in which to engage in the behavior. To emphasize the point, SM groups frequent hold educational meetings on how to safely engage in the behavior.
Nonetheless, as with any group of people, you will find cases of domestic violence among SM practitioners. The organized SM-Leather-Fetish community does not condone domestic violence and actively encourages victims and abusers to seek help.
Sociologist Thomas S. Weinberg is the author of numerous professional articles on human sexuality in various scholarly journals. In Studies in Dominance & Submission, Dr. Weinberg says:
"While the individuals we have discussed are different in many ways there are, nevertheless, some common themes running through them. These similarities are all related to S&M as a form of social interaction. For example, the importance of learning both attitudes and techniques through a socialization process is evident in all of these [sigma] In order for an S&M scene to be successful, from the viewpoint of both partners, it must be collaboratively worked out. Unless there is satisfaction on the part of both master (or mistress) and slave, the relationship will terminate. Thus, there must be agreement on the scene and consent given by both parties. Adjustments must be made by participants so that they are both stimulated."
Thomas S. Weinberg (1995). Studies in Dominance & Submission, Prometheus Books: pg. 89.
SM-Leather-Fetish educational and social organizations consider the cornerstone of SM activity to be the guidelines: "safe, sane, and consensual." While it is possible to do any activity in a reckless and dangerous manner, SM is no more dangerous than skiing or other thrilling activities.
Safe is being knowledgeable about the techniques and safety concerns involved in what you are doing, and acting in accordance with that knowledge. Safety includes the responsibility of protecting yourself and your partner from STD (sexually tranSMitted disease) infection including the HIV virus.
While the media often portrays the more extreme SM behaviors, the reality is that a lot of SM play never goes beyond a playful spanking. Just as there are ways to reduce the risk in activities such as scuba diving or driving a car, there are ways to reduce the risk and engage in SM behavior safely.
The organized SM community is active in promoting safety seminars and teaching the practitioners how to engage in these behaviors safely. The fact that SM practitioners are not clogging the emergency rooms every weekend, is an indication that these programs are working. If SM injuries were occurring, it seems obvious that the press would be highlighting this for the entertainment of its readers/viewers.
Sane is knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. Fictional accounts of SM are often distorted for fantasy sake, and are not representative of real situations and relationships.
Sane also distinguishes between mental illness and health. A real distinction between mental illness and health is when a behavior pattern causes problems in a person[base ']s life. Washing your hands until the skin is peeling off, or so frequently that you can not otherwise function is a sign mental illness. SM, like any other behavior, can be a sign of psychiatric problems. However the vast majority of its practitioners find that SM enriches and promotes functionality in the other areas of their life.
Consensual is respecting the limits imposed by each participant at all times.
Consent is the prime ingredient of SM. One difference between rape and heterosexual intercourse is consent. One difference between violence and SM is consent. The same behaviors that might be crimes without consent are life-enhancing with consent.
The type and parameters of control are agreed upon by the people involved, and the ongoing consent of all participants is required. Some practitioners use a safeword, which is a designated word that signals the scene must slow down or stop.
Rick Houlberg writes in "The Magazine of a Sadomasochism Club: The Tie That Binds":
"The only 'cardinal' rules which the Club's membership insists each member must uphold are that all SM activities must be consensual, nonexploitative, and safe. As children are not considered to be able to consent, all activities must be between adults. The consensual and safety rules of the Club are constantly being reinforced. Safety and etiquette issues, including restrictions on overt and heavy drug use, are strongly stressed at new-member orientations and in all written materials produced by the Club."
Rick Houlberg (1993). "The Magazine of a Sadomasochism Club: The Tie That Binds." Journal of Homosexuality 21 (1/2), Haworth Press: pg. 167-83.
SM is a sexual orientation or behavior among two or more adult partners. The behavior may include, but is not limited to, the use of physical and/or psychological stimulation to produce sexual arousal and satisfaction. Usually one partner will take an active role (top or dominant) and the other will take a passive role (bottom or submissive). SM practitioners can be heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, transgendered or intersex individuals.
SM is not easily defined; the range of behaviors are quite broad and most participants do not enjoy all of the activities or roles. The problems with the definition are discussed at length in an article by Weinberg, Williams and Moser. They found five features present in most SM interactions they studied:
Dominance and submission - the appearance of rule and obedience of one partner over the other
Consensuality - a voluntary agreement to enter into SM "play" (interaction) and to honor certain "limits" (ground rules of how involved and in which direction the play can proceed);
Sexual content - the presumption that the activities have a sexual or erotic meaning;
Mutual definition - the assumption of a shared understanding by the participants that their activities are SM or a similar concept;
Role playing - the participants assume roles either for the interaction or for the relationship that they recognize are not reality.
Weinberg, M.S., Williams, C.J., & Moser, C.A. (1984). "The social constituents of sadomasochism." Social Problems, 31, pg. 379-389.
By Susan Wright with contributions from Charles Moser, Ph.D., M.D.
In the last decade, SM awareness has exploded into popular culture. SM is commonly depicted in advertising, books, movies, music, and is becoming commonplace on television. SM has been positively covered by Newsweek, Time, Ms. Magazine, the New York Times and many other national publications. SM fashion accessories have become commonplace, as have jokes about SM play.
Yet separating the truth about SM from the stereotypes can be difficult.
This article is an attempt to educate the public about sadomasochism (SM). The following are some answers about consensual SM that are supported by scientific research.
Guidelines intended to help law enforcement and social services professionals understand the difference between abusive relationships vs. SM. Drafted in 1998 at the second Leather Leadership Conference.
The following Principles and Guidelines are intended to help law enforcement and social services professionals understand the difference between abusive relationships vs. consensual sadomasochism (SM). SM includes a broad and complex group of behaviors between consenting adults involving the consensual exchange of power, and the giving and receiving of intense erotic sensation and/or mental discipline.
SM includes: "intimate activities within the scope of informed consent that is freely given."
Abuse is: "Physical, sexual or emotional acts inflicted on a person without their informed and freely given consent."
The SM-Leather-Fetish communities recognize the phrase "Safe, Sane, Consensual" as the best brief summary of principles guiding SM practices:
Safe is being knowledgeable about the techniques and safety concerns involved in what you are doing, and acting in accordance with that knowledge.
Sane is knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, and acting in accordance with that knowledge.
Consensual is respecting the limits imposed by each participant at all times. One of the recognized ways to maintain limits is through a "safeword" which ensures that each participant can end his/her participation with a word or gesture.
Informed consent must be judged by balancing the following criteria for each encounter at the time the acts occurred:
Was informed consent expressly denied or withdrawn?
Were there factors that negated the informed consent?
What is the relationship of the participants?
What was the nature of the activity?
What was the intent of the accused abuser?
Whether an individual's role is top/dominant or bottom/submissive, they could be suffering abuse if they answer no to any of the following questions:
Are your needs and limits respected?
Is your relationship built on honesty, trust, and respect?
Are you able to express feelings of guilt or jealousy or unhappiness?
Can you function in everyday life?
Can you refuse to do illegal activities?
Can you insist on safe sex practices?
Can you choose to interact freely with others outside of your relationship?
Can you leave the situation without fearing that you will be harmed, or fearing the other participant(s) will harm themselves?
Can you choose to exercise self-determination with money, employment, and life decisions?
Do you feel free to discuss your practices and feelings with anyone you choose?
A detailed look at this effective technique to get your point across to the media.
Usually there is no graceful way to segue into a sound bite. That's fine, reporters are used to nonsensical conversations when they give interviews. Whatever the question, respond with one of your sound bites. Repeat these sound bites over and over. Out of a 1/2 long interview, you will be on the air for about 10 seconds, which is usually one or two of your sound bites. Or you get one quote in an article. So don't ad lib. Keep repeating these sound bites below, as well as any sound bites you and your organization agree to provide to the media on local issues.
You don't have to get all these in, sometimes it's best to pick a few and keep repeating them in different ways.
Safe, Sane and Consensual
This is a must! Say it over and over and over like a mantra. "Over fifteen years ago, a community-wide ethic was established known as "safe, sane and consensual". This credo has permeated SM literature and lore far beyond the subculture of the organized community." Or "We constantly discuss issues of consent, which are the basis of safe, sane and consensual sexual education."
If They Want Specific Definitions:
"Safe" is being knowledgeable about what you are doing. Each participant must be informed about the possible risks, both mentally and physically.
"Sane" is knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. Knowledgeable consent cannot be given by a child, or if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
"Consensual" is respecting the limits imposed by each participant. One of the most easily recognized ways to maintain limits is through a "safeword" - in which the bottom/submissive can withdraw consent at any time with a single word or gesture.
The Need for Educational and Social SM Gatherings
It's important to emphasize the contributions our educational and social groups make to society. We teach people how to do SM safely and consensually, and that takes hands-on instruction and community discussion. Say, "Our group has existed for 10 years as an educational and social group, teaching people how to do SM safely and consensually." Say, "Our group is only one of over 500 educational and social organizations that exist in America for SM-Leather-Fetish practitioners." Or "Like the gay and lesbian community in the 1960's, the people in our community feel very alone and isolated. We provide a place for them where they can get the support of their peers, where they don't have to be ashamed or afraid of who they are."
Say, "Safewords are key to consensual sexual activities." "The participants can stop what's happening at any time with a pre-arranged word, or by saying safeword."
Communication and Negotiation
Say, "We negotiate before engaging in SM or fetish practices to make sure that what we do is fun for both of us." Or "People who play together must learn how to communicate exactly what we want"
Sensual, Loving Sexual Expression
Emphasize that SM is done between loving, communicative partners. It is mutually pleasurable for all involved. SM is stimulation that is often perceived in a sexual way. Stimulation is a great word to use--it is clear and non-threatening unlike "flogging" or "spanking" etc.
Defining SM, Dominance & Submission and Bondage
Stay away from going into an SM 101 and don't give any lessons on technique. The most effective soundbites talk about issues of discrimination and injustice against our communities. If they ask, what exactly is SM? You say, "SM is sensory stimulation, either physical or mental, that is interpreted as pleasure." Please try to get the reporter to write SM, not S&M - that evokes the old stereotypes and we are trying to get around that. S&M stands for sadism & masochism while SM stands for sadomasochism; inherent in the word is the mutual necessity for both as well as the consent involved.
Statistics of Practitioners
According to the 1990 Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex, released by St. Martin's Press:
"Researchers estimate that 5 percent to 10 percent of the U.S. population engages in diverse sexual practices for sexual pleasure on at least an occasional basis, with most incidents being either mild or staged activities involving no real pain or violence." That would bring the number of practitioners into the millions, with many, many more who do things like love bites or holding their lover's hands down. Say "Most are just like your neighbors, doctor, bus driver, even your sister or uncle. There are probably 1 in 10 people in your office who practice SM as a loving form of sexual expression."
Say, "Contrary to stereotypes, there are many women who enjoy being sexually dominant, and many more people who enjoy switching roles." Or, "People can roleplay with roles and experience things they normally wouldn't get to do in their real life."
Discrimination and Violence
This one is also extremely important because most people don't realize how much we are attacked and closeted because of our sexual expression. "Discrimination and violence happens every day to people like you and me just because they engage in diverse sexual practices such as SM or fetishes. Discrimination ranges from family pressures, to job loss, to loss of child custody." Or "The NCSF Violence & Discrimination Survey 1998 found that 1/3 of over 1000 people surveyed suffered some form of discrimination or persecution--losing their job or even their children because of the myths and stereotypes of SM. Another 36% suffered violence--were physically attacked--because of the stereotypes about SM." Or "According to the NCSF survey, 4/5ths of the people surveyed are closeted to the rest of the world out of fear of serious repercussions."
SM Practitioners Are Not Sick
In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association changed its medical definition of SM in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM 4) so that it is no longer automatically defined as a mental illness. Say "As long as a person's SM practices don't interfere with their day-to-day life, it's considered to be a healthy form of sexual expression."
If you or your organization needs help in reaching out to the media, contact Susan Wright with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom's Media Outreach Program at:
You don't have to answer the interviewer's exact question.
You rarely see the question in TV or print interviews, only the response. So feel free to pick out one word or phrase in the question and respond to that. For example, if they ask, "What do you think when people say you're eroticizing violence?" give one of your sound-bites: "Safe, sane and consensual sexual expression is not violence because at any time the participants can stop what's happening." For example, if they ask, "What does your husband think about you cheating on him?" give one of your soundbites:
Don't repeat nasty or inflammatory phrases.
See the above question - and don't repeat, "SM isn't eroticizing violence because..." or "Swinging is not cheating..." That makes their point for them.
Universalize the questions.
If the reporter says something like, "You people who beat each other up..." or "You people who have sex with other people..." then respond with, "We, like you and everyone else in America, believe we have First Amendment rights to express our sexuality in any way that is safe and consensual."
Use standard terms rather than "scene" language.
If you start saying "scene" and "munch" and "leather" and "vanilla" and "top" and "bottom" etc. then people won't understand you. Use vanilla terms as much as possible, or very rarely use terms and define them as you use them. ie "The top, that is the person giving the stimulation, must respect limits."
Keep repeating your sound bites.
It doesn't make for a stimulating conversation, but that's the way professionals get their point across. The reporter will ask their question several times, trying to get you to expand on what you're saying, to get a more sensational quote. Just be firm and keep repeating your point. They will respect you for it, and will print the sound bites you give them. Check out our recommended sound bites for the SM, swing and polyamory communities.
Flag your sound bites.
This is done by saying, "The most important thing to remember is that sadomasochists educate each other about safe, sane and consensual sexual practices." Or "A key part of having engaging in polyamory is communication prior in order to negotiate both partner's limits and desires."
Don't do anything sexual on camera.
In this case, a picture is NOT worth a thousand words. Don't let reporters take pictures of your polyamory family sitting on the bed. Don't do an SM scene in front of a camera. We need activists who will speak up for the SM-Leather-Fetish communities and explain the serious issues such as discrimination and violence against our people.
Wear appropriate attire.
This means business or casual wear, such as an activist t-shirt. Don't wear revealing fetish wear or lingerie. See above--a picture is NOT worth a thousand words. If our communities want to be taken seriously, we must present an image that the average person can relate to.
Don't utter a word you aren't prepared to see in print.
Reporters will try to make you comfortable with them, to chat with them informally. Those are usually the quotes they use. You aren't there to make friends or "sell" the reporter on alternative sexuality, you are there representing the community and yourself in the best light possible. Stay friendly, but reserved, and think before you speak. If you make a misstep, then stop and start all over again. Then the reporter will have to use the completed thought.
Don't do or say anything you feel uncomfortable with.
By the time you get into an interview, then the story will be printed or produced no matter what you do. You are completely free to say NO to anything you don't like. It is highly unlikely the reporter will just walk away and end the interview, even if they try to say you MUST do something or answer something. If the reporter keeps insisting, use one of your sound bites: "We believe that consent is the basis of any good relationship. You are becoming abusive by not respecting my limits."
Use the name of organizations.
Say you're a member of NCSF or the International Lifestyle Association. Mention the name of your local group. Explain that many groups are educational and social organizations that have been in existence for many years: "Over 500 educational and social, nonprofit groups exist in America for SM-Leather-Fetish practitioners."
Be animated, confident and happy.
In TV interviews in particular, often the best thing is not what you say but how you say it. People will remember the image of your happy, confident expression much longer than the words you say.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom does media advocacy for the millions of Americans who suffer discrimination and persecution because of their normal interest in some form of alternative sexual expression, such as SM, fetishes, polyamory, and swinging. A great deal of the bigotry against sexual minorities occurs because of a lack of information and the resulting negative depiction by the media. We offer resources for both the media and the alternative sexual expression communities.
NCSF’s Coalition Partners Join Together for Consent Summit The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom held its annual Coalition Partner meeting in Phoenix, Arizona from February 8-10, 2013. The Consent Summit took place Friday evening, and Coalition Partners were able to participate via streaming video to give their input on the new Consent Statement. Go to www.ncsfreedom.org to see the Consent Statement and comment on it. “The Consent Statement…
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE National Coalition for Sexual Freedom NCSF Survey on Consent The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) wants to hear from you! Please take our Consent Counts survey and tell us what you think about consent: www.ncsfreedom.org/survey.html As part of decriminalizing BDSM in the legal codes, we need to be able to articulate a clear definition of consent that the BDSM communities believe in. The results of this…
NCSF Launches the Next Chapter for Consent Counts February 27, 2012 The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) announces two new publications as part of its nationwide campaign, Consent Counts. The Consent Counts Project was launched by the BDSM-leather-fetish communities in 2006 to decriminalize consensual BDSM in U.S. law by ensuring that consent will be recognized as a defense to criminal charges brought under assault laws and other statutes. "For…
Our BDSM communities could be adversely impacted by a well-intentioned, but overly broad, piece of proposed criminal legislation that has been introduced by Senator Christine Kehoe in the California Senate. NCSF is asking all of you to sign and send to NCSF letters (a draft is attached below) that we can introduce if necessary at a hearing likely to be held in April, 2011. The purpose of the bill, SB…
In an indictment rendered by a Grand Jury in the Western District of Missouri on September 9, 2010, five Missouri men allegedly participated in torturing a mentally disabled woman online or in person over a multi-year period when the victim was between the ages of 16 and 24. Among the charges are: Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud or Coercion, Forced Labor Trafficking, Transportation for Sexual Activity, and Conspiracy. The allegations…
Developed Educational Programs and Outreach Materials
Built Alliances With Sexual Freedom Advocacy Groups
About Consent Counts
NCSF is leading a major national campaign—Consent Counts—to change the laws and police practices that our communities now endure, and to establish that consent is available as a defense in criminal BDSM prosecutions.
BDSM is prosecuted as assault in the U.S., even when it is consensual.
No state or appellate court has allowed consent as a defense to assault in BDSM cases.
Consent Counts is a nationwide project to decriminalize consensual BDSM.
Program Goals: Consent Counts is a nationwide project to decriminalize consensual BDSM through education, advocacy, legal actions and lobbying.