SM 101: A Realistic Introduction front cover

SM 101: A Realistic Introduction front cover

by Jay Wiseman
Published in
1996 by Greenery Press

I remember back in the 1980s there was a commercial for an instructional break dancing video. The break dancing fad was already on the wane by the time the video marketers decided to shamelessly capitalize on it, but that mattered little as the video’s target audience was clearly middle class parents, rarely the avant-garde of anything. The fashions and set design of the commercial clearly showed the influence of “street” culture.  But these weren’t the frightening urban streets of Harlem’s slums; these were the cul-de-sacs of suburbia. What really resonates in my consciousness was the cheery announcer allaying the fears of parents everywhere with the promise that the video offered “the safe way to break.” You know the fun is over, and mediocrity has set in, when something is safe enough to sell to the middle-aged middle class.

Naturally, you may be wondering what that has to do with an introductory book on sadomasochism.  On the surface, not much.  But after reading SM 101: A Realistic Introduction, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how something seemingly relegated to our cultural fringes could be commodified into something “safe” and not so frightening that everyone can embrace it.

Doing so was not Wiseman’s stated objective.  In the introduction, he states that his purpose in writing the book is to give readers as much education about S/M sex as one might expect from an introductory college course.  He does a very good job of this, but something is missing.  Or more to the point, there’s just too much of something.

After finishing and contemplating the work, I initially wondered if Wiseman didn’t have a safety fetish that borders on the pathological.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.  Surely we all want to avoid injuring our lovers even as we do evil, sadistic things to them.  Likewise no matter how outré someone’s fantasies are, no reasonable person wants their fantasy fulfillment to end with a maiming. It would surely be irresponsible, at best, to offer instruction on S/M and not take pains to make sure the advice didn’t includes lots of information about safety.

So while it should be hard to fault the book for including too much of an emphasis on safety, I can’t help but think there is a natural tension between that which is safe and that which is fun.  That isn’t to say that safe and fun are mutually exclusive; while every person clearly has a threshold where being endangered can only be perceived as a terrifying fear, lots of people experience some amount of fear or awareness of danger as excitement or fun.  Were that not the case there would be no lines at roller coasters or horror movies.  Likewise, S/M should be fun.  If it isn’t, what’s the point in doing it?

While debate about what exactly S/M is and is not will never reach unanimity, without doubt a large part of it involves exploring, both physically and psychologically, the darker places of our consciousness. If S/M is completely safe is it any fun? Is it still even S/M? I think the answer to both questions is clearly no.

That’s what troubles me about this book’s excessive emphasis on safety: I don’t think that its overemphasis was intended for someone interested in learning about S/M. Instead, I get the feeling that Wiseman obsessed about safety to allay the arguments of those who claim S/M is abuse. The trouble is, not only are critics of S/M unlikely to read this book in the first place, they are also unlikely to persuaded that S/M isn’t abuse no matter how safe and consensual it is.

Despite this criticism, this book is still a wonderful resource for someone interested in learning about S/M, and to be fair, much of the safety information (e.g. safe calls) is essential advice that one would be foolish to not observe.  Wiseman writes in an affable conversation style that is clear and avoids the fictionalized interludes that drag down many books of this type. While some of the information about using the internet as a resource is out of date, given the way that the internet has changed since the last revision, this was inevitable and forgivable.

If Wiseman revises this book again (this is the second edition) and focuses on the novice S/M audience – instead of the vanilla audience he’ll never convince anyway – he will have written a book that will remain essential reading for S/M novices for generations to come.  Even if Wiseman doesn’t revise the book, flaws and all, for those wanting to learn about S/M the book is worthwhile.