David Stein, Part 1: on SSC
I came across david stein last year while writing a short piece on the history of conduct acronyms in BDSM. SSC, the earliest and most well-known of these, is often attributed to stein, along with leathermen Martin Berkenwald and Bob Gillespie, with whom he formed New York’s Committee of GMSMA (Gay Male S/M Activists) in the early 1980s. stein was the last living member of GMSMA when he died in 2017.
These days, leatherpeople (or at least the leatherpeople that I associate with) dump on safe, sane, and consensual like we dump on “valid” culture, or like stein himself dumped on stand & model back in the day. But while SSC is way out of date in 2021 for a variety of very good reasons, it would be a mistake to forget the context from which it emerged, and what it can tell us about that time’s (leather) politics. To paraphrase Gayle Rubin, our rhetorical needs as leatherpeople seeking to defend ourselves and our movements differ over time and across communities.
At the time and place of its advent, was the invocation of safe, sane, and consensual play alienating for mentally ill players or counterintuitive to players for whom the (always subjective) concept of safety was nebulous or undesirable? Maybe. Probably. But you should also know that SSC was reportedly developed for a few specific purposes, with none of them having any idea of the almost catholic reach it would eventually have. A sort of big-picture axiom designed in order to 1) be inclusive of new or inexperienced players and 2) help all players avoid a small number of predatory so-called dominants1 in the New York leather scene, SSC was a stopgap measure, not a replacement for more thorough and nuanced education, the type of which it was hard to get back then. Shit, it’s still hard to get.
Still, we also can’t deny the other concern the creators of SSC had: that of S/M’s image to the wider public. Concerned with “the [common] perception of S/M as being as psycho-pathological destructive or neurotically self-abusive behaviour,” the respectability approach to leather’s bad PR meant separating it from mental illness and other kinds of criminalized “deviancy.” The pathologization of what the 20th century came to know as leather, BDSM, and/or kink was already enshrined in the DSM by the time stein hit the scene; not until 2013, with the most current edition of the DSM, were BDSM, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism (a variant of cross-dressing) formally depathologized (and we all know how inconsistently this plays out in our real-life experiences with the medical industrial complex!).
I can’t say with certainty what their relationships with still more marginal members of their gay and leather communities the members of the GMSMA were, but for all our contextualizing, or the good that SSC might have done in its heyday, we can’t dismiss the thought process and implications behind its development, either. Here’s an excerpt from the GMSMA’s newsletter on the subject: “We seek to establish a recognized political presence in the wider gay community in order to combat the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about S/M while working with others for the common goals of gay liberation.” Of course, no gay liberation is complete without liberation for crazy people, institutionalized people, and the other deviants affected by the pathologization of consensual behaviors.
Although stein, a lifestyle slave, bottom, and masochist (more on that later!), was an activist from his entry into leather, he would have been the first to insist that what always took precedence was the fuck. “Leather begins in erotic desire, not a response to social or political conditions,” he said in a 2011 interview with website Leatherati. “I would hope that any intelligent, informed person would be an activist to some degree; that’s part of being a good citizen in a democracy (or democratic republic, if you prefer). But Leather pertains to a different sphere of life. It has a political dimension only when something is wrong, as when folks are attacked or disenfranchised because of whom or how they love.” From my research, stein spoke often and at length about what he saw as the intersections of differentiated desire and politics, an understanding with which I mostly don’t agree but nevertheless find interesting. Wanting to know more about his, uh, proclivities, I ordered Boots, Bondage, and Beatings, one of his books of erotica, which I’ll be discussing in the next installment of this series.
Until then, I’ll leave you with this: While I don’t read a lot of kink erotica, I do enjoy it on occasion (Patrick Califia’s Doing It For Daddy is an all-time fave). As I began reading stein’s BBB, which is concerned with fetishes that have some intersections with mine but which I more or less don’t share, I was struck by the affective difference between reading for arousal and reading for literally any other reason. When one reads erotica for which one isn’t primed, it’s easy to lapse into embarrassment at its corniness, its earnestness, its uncoolness (what’s less cool than being really horny?). If you can fight that instinct, though, reading erotica that’s not for you can be really useful for thinking about the challenging, complicated, and “problematic” desires of others as well as of ourselves.
David tweets at @k8bushofficial.
An issue that, as a masochist and bottom, I have unfortunately had my fair share of experiences with. These days, successful predatory players in the queer and leather scenes learn the right kind of social justice, self-help, or transformative justice language to harm and then get away with it.