BDSM Responsibilities

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In This Page:
One Upmanship and Keeping Up With Master Jones
Legal Risks


SM play requires a high degree of trust for the Top (giver of the play) by the bottom (receiver of the play). The bottom will be made helpless in bondage, and/or be on the receiving end of sensations ranging from sensuousness to extreme pain. For a bottom to voluntarily put oneself in that position the bottom must be confident the Top is skilled enough in what is being done to do it safely, is sane enough not to want to do real harm, and will not exceed the bounds of the bottom's consent on what is done.

There are no national or world certifying bodies that certify Tops. A Top's ability to find play partners depends much on a Top's reputation which always spreads out much farther than a Top will realize. Bottoms do talk to each other.


The risk of SM play varies according the kind of play being done. But in general any significant amount of play involves greater risk than most everyday activity. It is the responsibility of the Top to be aware of these risks, take them seriously, and do all that can be done to reduce or eliminate them.

In every training seminar or reading of how to play there will be safety warnings given. On rare occasion the information given is not accurate or over cautious. But the vast majority of the time this information is coming from kinky medical professionals who know of what they speak. The are also lessons learned from disasters suffered by BDSM players who have gone before you and you do want to avoid learning these lessons the same way they did. To do so is to make mistakes that many times cannot be reversed. Mistakes causing injuries that result in permanent changes to lives or even death. You can only exist in time before such damage only once. If such disasters happen there is no "I will get it right next time" or going back in time to do it differently. You want to avoid a lifetime of flashbacks and thinking "if only I had known" or "I had done it differently." Before the play is the time to be educated in what can happen and to think proactively beforehand rather than reactively after the fact. By far the vast majority of the disasters that can happen are easily avoided once the dangers are known and the knowledge acted upon.

Most BDSM play requires training to do it in a safe manner.

There is also SM play that risks severe injury and death in spite of how carefully and skillfully done. These are to be avoided. Examples of such plays are Breath Control and Flat Lining.

The Use Of Drugs:
Drugs and SM play do not mix. It greatly increases risk just as it does for risks associated with driving. This includes the drug alcohol. A bottom must be totally aware of what is being received. Any drug that has an anesthetic effect, such as alcohol, or any drug that induces an altered state of consciousness, reduces such an awareness. This reduces the quality of experience for the bottom, and can cause the bottom not to give proper feedback to the Top regarding the intensity of play, increasing the risk of injury. A drug will also increase the probability of passing out or throwing up.

A Top must be at his or her peak level of awareness when playing. Subtle cues of trouble from the submissive could be missed. Feedback from the submissive could be misunderstand. Reduced coordination with striking implements can lead to injury due to missed targets and poorly regulated intensity of strikes.

As a Top you have a duty to your bottom to be at your peak performance while at play for the safety of and enjoyment by your bottom. Play and alcohol do not mix. Do not drink anything before play. Save this for afterwards. Same goes for any drug. There have been serious life threatening accidents caused by the Top being under the influence of alcohol.

Breath Play:
Breath play alters the state of consciousness by reducing the amount of oxygen to the brain to levels below that necessary to sustain it. It is done by restricting the breathing of the bottom. The altered state cannot be achieved without causing some degree of damage to the brain. The altered state is itself a symptom of the damage occurring. Usually the damage from any given instance of a play is not noticeable but the damage is permanent and cumulative. The damage manifests itself in loss of intelligence. It is the equivalent of inducing a small stroke.

There is also, no matter how carefully done, a small risk of death. Like Russian Roulette this risk cannot be eliminated and still produce the desired altered state. Jay Wiseman has written excellent articles on the subject.
The medical terminology for breath play is asphyxiophilia.
"There are many risks associated with asphyxiophilia. One of these risks is actual heart failure. The decrease in oxygen triggers the ventricles of the heart to pump more times to increase oxygenated blood flow to the body. These extra beats are called premature ventricular contractions, or PVCs. At anytime, one of the PVCs can cause the heart to go into ventricular fibrillation, which is heart failure. There is no way of determining when this will happen in any single person; therefore, it presents a huge risk of death to the participant of asphyxiophilia." (Wiseman, 1997)
Dont Hold Your Breath!
My girlfriend died by cheating on me?

Flat Lining:
This is the practice of bringing the bottom to the edge of death by temporarily stopping the heart. No matter what precautions are taken there is a very high probability a heart cannot be restarted once stopped. This is true even in a hospital operating room setting.

Keeping Up With Master Jones
There is in the scene a "Keeping up with Master Jones" mentality. Most any Top, most especially male Tops, want to be the hot Master the hot female bodies want to play with. To differentiate themselves they are looking to outdo the others. While there is nothing like competition to drive excellence there is also the temptation to imitate an observed play without training or push the limits of skill beyond ability. In many cases, especially in edge play, the result of this is not excellent. Unknown to the observer there frequently are easily avoidable dangers that can in ignorance easily cause injury, permanent injury, and in some cases death. Get training in any technique you wish to acquire. In some cases, such has single tails, a lot of practice in addition to training is required before you are prepared to do the play on a person. If, in regard to play you are about to do, you have a bad premonition about something, or a bad feeling about it, or it scares you, your unconscious mind is aware of something you are not aware of or are denying. Avoid it.


The Top has a responsibility to use common sense in the things he does. This includes things the bottom might want done. On rare occasion a bottom will want things that cause permanent harm in the ability to function as a person. It is the responsibility of the Top not to do them. Typically these requests are an amputation or assisted suicide. I have seen solicitations for these in the newsgroups alt.torture and soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm example 1, example 2. Most of these are hoaxes. Some of these are real.
A person may want a finger or a scrotum cut off. Example. These are surgical procedures that can be done safely only in hospital operating rooms. In addition fulfilling these requests will lead to legal trouble for practicing medicine without a license if caught, or if later the bottom changes his mind. Consent as a defense will be less than viable, be ineffective, and lead to conviction.

A person will want to be slowly tortured to death. There are cases such as the Sharon Lopatka and Robert Glass case where Tops who grant such wishes are caught, prosecuted, and convicted. Despicable people like this help give BDSM a bad reputation and strengthen movements to make laws against us and other trouble.


Anything done by the Top to the bottom is done by the consent of the Top and most especially the consent of the bottom. Before playing with anyone there must be a negotiation over what will be done and who will do it. This must be done before the players get into the roles of Top/bottom Dominant/submissive Master/slave or Mistress/slave. Play is something the Top does for the bottom. The Tops goal and responsibility is to provide a good experience for to the bottom and never do anything to cause the loss of trust.

It is not considered BDSM practice to force it on anyone. It is considered criminal. (example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4). Consent must never be assumed. It must be explicitly negotiated in advance, and safe words must be respected.

One Upmanship and Keeping Up With Master Jones

When seeing someone else with something desirable, whether it is a material thing or an ability, it is a natural thing to want the same for yourself. And so when seeing an impressive play technique that is new to yourself it is a natural desire to imitate it before being trained in it. It may be a rope tie up you are tempted to reverse engineer. It may be a spectacular fire play scene where the bottom's skin is set briefly on fire. But there is a background of knowledge necessary to do most play safely which is not evident in the displayed scene. In a bondage scene it is not possible to follow the path of every rope. An incorrectly tied knot in a suspension scene can fail with disastrous consequences. A rope routed over the wrong place, such as where the Brachial Nerve is exposed between the muscles on the upper arm, can lead to temporary or permanent paralysis of a limb or numbness of an area of skin. In fire play the wrong alcohol can burn too hot. Even the right alcohol when placed on vertical skin can cause rapid burns due to the natural upward motion of the flame. There are many easily avoided pitfalls like these that are easily fallen into without training. There are no shortcuts around it. Playing safely requires training.

Play training is easily available. In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in BDSM play in the general public and this has lead to a plethora of organizations providing it. Also skilled players are generally very generous with their knowledge. Everyone wants to be the teacher. They consider it an honor to be asked how something is done. This is very different from many years ago when BDSM was more underground, when a skill in a technique was considered and advantage in getting play partners, and so passed on to only a chosen few in a similar way that fighting techniques were kept within samurai families. Most of the time if you ask you will make a friend who will give you the necessary knowledge.

Legal Risks

Assault laws are a little bit different in every state. But what they have roughly in common is that any physical threat is considered an assault. Any physically threatening touch, whether or not the touch has enough impact to batter and injure, is assault and battery.

Consent to being assaulted cannot be used as a defense. It seems there is a double standard here because it is an adequate defense for a football player or boxer within the rules of their sports. We think of SM play similarly. But a prosecutor may not.

The laws that make consent an inadequate defense were meant to protect domestic violence victims who are too intimidated to file charges. There has been outreach to law enforcement and medical personnel as to what patterns of body markings are produced by BDSM play so the evidence can be differentiated. For example a herring bone, or rib cage pattern, of red strips down a person's back is indicative of BDSM play. When such differentiation is made a prosecutor may decline to prosecute, or a doctor or nurse may decline to make a report.

But there are no guarantees. Outreach may not have reached such personnel. Or in spite of having been reached they might proceed anyway due to disapproval of SM play. Or in spite of having the outreach education the inability to tell the difference anyway. Prosecutions for consensual SM play, where there are no complaints on the part of the bottom, are very rare. But every time a Top plays even the most careful and honorable of them take a chance as small as it is: reference 1, 2.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom keeps an eye on proposed legislation that will adversely affect BDSM practitioners. They have an Action Alert Web page where such issues are announced and a subscriptions for emailed alerts done. Recommendations on what to do are included in the alerts.

There is a list of "Bad Five" practices that are high risk physically for the bottom and legally for the top. This is a List of practices were no degree of training and precautions will eliminate the risk of severe injury, including injury leading to death. If doing these Bad Five goes wrong the Top will be in one of the following liability categories: "Gross Negligence," "Willful and Wanton Misconduct," and "Intentional Acts." There is no defense for the Top that can move the Top to the categories of "Negligence," "Strict Liability," "Pure Accident," or "Act of God" in the first four. The consequences to the Top are severe financially and criminally. This list is:

  1. Breath Play - See Jay Wiseman's Closing Argument
  2. Gun Play
  3. Chest Punching - See Commotio Cordis
  4. Ball Kicking - Sudden cardiac arrest can be caused by sudden severe pain to the testicles.
  5. Bondage - in cases where a Top leaves a bound bottom alone.

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