Review of The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual

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A Review of The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual

edited by Pat Califia

Denver: Lace Publications; Boston: Alyson

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



This is one of the best safe-sex books I'e ever come across. I think SM lesbians ought to memorize it, or at least pack it in their kits, and I would encourage men, or bi or straight women, or people who are not involved in erotic power play, not to be put off by the title. Though words and concepts such as "man" and "penis" hardly ever crop up in its pages, the lessons contained in The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual are applicable to everyone. Even an Onanist – even a celibate – can learn something here, about sexual safety, about sexual pleasure, and about enjoying a humane and robust social life in general.

For example, fundamental to all thirteen rules in Dana Rosenfeld's "Emotional Safety As a Bottom" are concerns about communication, negotiation, and maintaining or enhancing a healthy sense of self:


Nobody has the right to make you feel bad about what you do, assuming what you do is safe.... Nobody can make you feel bad about what you do unless you cooperate.... Never do something you don't want to do.... If you're confused or scared during a scene, say so.... Insist on your right to stop a scene if and when you feel it's necessary.... Don't feel guilty about what you want....


When read in full her rules sound like so much common sense. But if you observe yourself and the people around you in your daily love, work, and social lives you are likely to see them violated repeatedly. Common sense, as Voltaire said, is not so common.



In a parallel piece, "Channels of Cum-munication," Karen Johanns discusses emotional safety from a top's point of view. Negotiate the scene, she says: communicate your needs, agree upon a way to stop the action honorably and without guilt or shame if necessary, be considerate of your partners' emotional wounds. This is more uncommon sense, no matter what your sexual predilections are. It seems to me that if all people followed Johanns's precepts before hopping into bed with each other, more erotic relationships would last longer and be far more fun than they are.

Rosenfeld's piece on "Vaginal and Anal Penetration," Johanns's on "S/M First Aid," and "Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Lesbians," by Beth Brown, M.D. are as pertinent to straight women as they are to gay, and pertinent to men as well because the information they provide is explicit, exact, and useful, as well as clearly and directly presented.

Similarly, Diane Vera's articles, "Nine Degrees of Submission" and "Kinds of Masochism and/or Submission" are exemplary models for understanding the power exchanges that underlie all human – indeed, all mammalian – relationships. When partners recognize and talk together about their relative needs and tastes for power, enormous amounts of squabbling, bickering, backstabbing, and behind-the-scenes manipulation disappear. The lack of pretense that results opens the doors to trust, intimacy, and love.

Interspersed among the didactic articles are three vignettes by Dorothy Allison which may or may not be fiction, but which are in either case erotic literature in the very best tradition. They don't talk about Lesbian S/M safe sex, they dramatize its practice, all the while making for hot one-handed reading.

Finally, editor Pat Califia teams up once again with Cynthia Astuto in, "So You Wanna Be a Sadist? How to Make it Hurt So Good in One Easy Lesson." This article is a revision of "Being Weird is Not Enough: How to Stay Healthy and Play Safe" – one of the high points in the classic Samois anthology, Coming to Power.

If a person reads only one S/M article in her life, Astuto and Califia's – either version – is the one to choose. Like the other authors in The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual, these two place negotiation and communication at the head of their list for safe, consensual, and thrilling erotics. They distinguish among submission, masochism, and fetishism; discuss ways to enact scenes in public; reiterate important points about emotional safety; and examine various kinds of fantasies and games including bondage, humiliation, corporal punishment, sensory deprivation, infantilism, erotic torture, watersports, and gender play. Their section on blood sports may make strong reading for novices and people unfamiliar with S/M, but it covers material other writers usually shy away from, and does so without apology or embarrassment. "Never assume anything," as they say in italics; and elsewhere, "nobody else can tell you what a good time looks like for you."

In a section of their article subtitled "Sex and the Single-Minded Sadomasochist," Astuto and Califia make what seems to me to be one of the most important points in this book, apart from issues of health and safety.


There is a shortage of role-models for powerful women in our culture. Since sex is perceived as degrading to women, it can be difficult for a top to construct a modus operandi that includes orgasms. [This] is not a problem that tops alone can solve. The entire community needs to stop viewing female pleasure as something that lowers or diminishes a woman's individual power.


The very existence of this book raises the question of why it is the lesbian/gay and S/M communities that seem to be at the cutting edge of safe, hot, open, consensual sex these days. The answer seems to begin with the willingness of community members such as the seven authors included here to tackle these sorts of difficult issues – to communicate and negotiate, in other words, for the health of their entire community. This may be a slim volume, but don't be misled by size. The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual is a short book, not because it has little to say, but because it is so free of bullshit.


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