Organized BDSM as we know it today has been around for at least sixty years. With subculture we get terminology, phrases, and language to describe what we do! I’m always coming across common misconceptions, misuse of phrases, or stuff that just makes me itchy. I thought it would be fun to share my thoughts about some of these terms. All opinions and hot takes are my own and please continue to do whatever makes you happy.
If you’ve had any kink education at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of the framework “Safe, Sane, Consensual” (SSC). This is an old term that I’ve seen pop up in books I’ve read from the 80s and 90s that is said to have first been used by the Chicago Hellfire Club, a gay men’s SM organization. It basically means that kink is great as long as everything you do is safe, sane, and consensual. It has a deep undertone of respectability and judgment that never sat right with me. Thankfully, SSC is now considered antiquated and has been replaced largely by the newer and sexier Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). I am unsure why people still use SSC when RACK exists, especially if they’re educating about BDSM. Maybe they didn’t get the memo? So, let’s talk about why people have shifted to using RACK.
Safe. The first S is said to mean that we should reasonably expect to be free from harm. I don’t know about you, but most of the BDSM I participate in would not be considered safe. SM doesn’t even need to be someone’s edgeplay for it to be dangerous. So many of the activities we do are at least somewhat dangerous and can cause harm, and I argue that’s what makes them fun. We develop our own personal risk profiles to figure out what is safe enough to engage in. Safe as a concept is an unrealistic ideal in almost every aspect of life, and the word safer is used a lot in harm reduction and social justice communities for exactly this reason.
Sane. The second S means that we are capable of “knowing the difference between fantasy and reality.” This is the most problematic letter of the acronym because it is essentially very ableist. The idea of kink needing to be sane, or only practiced by people who are not mentally ill, is extremely not cool. Most of the people I know who practice BDSM struggle with mental illness to varying degrees. Many of them would even list BDSM as one of the ways they manage their mental health. If we promote that BDSM must be “sane” or that the people who are participating in BDSM must be “sane,” then we are gate-keeping and alienating a large portion of the community. It’s also ironic that this word was chosen when sadomasochism, or sexual masochism disorder, is actually listed as a psychiatric disorder in the official DSM. According to the psychiatry gods, none of this is sane.
Risk-Aware has replaced Safe and Sane and I’m so glad it did! Practicing risk-aware kink means that you’ve laid all the cards out on the table, have discussed things like state of mind, various dangers, partner’s experience, as well as the potential to be harmed. Having assessed the risks from all angles, adults are able to make consensual decisions about what feels right for them within their risk profile.
photo by @kissmedeadlydoll
I found this Brat Attack article called “We're Not Knitting Doilies: Safe, Sane, Consensual and Beyond” from Issue 1 published in 1991. This zine is a huge inspo for FIST and has a leather praxis that I deeply subscribe to. The title of this, we’re not knitting doilies, feels like a subtweet to the tenders of their time.
Fish: Had the whole concept of "Safe, Sane and Consensual" already been put in place when you came into the community?
Alix: The words were there, and I think the first t-shirts had just come out.
Fish: I bought one of those.
Alix: It was all very nice, but the woman I was playing with at the time got one that said "Unsafe, Insane and Nonconsensual", and I thought that was just fine too!
Fish: Why do you think they want to make these rules?
Alix: To keep us from getting crap from straight society. It's the same argument used by so-called Uncle Toms and by gays who thought we should all stay in the closet. I don't think it's productive. The straight world isn't going to all of a sudden decide we're wonderful people if we all announce to them that, "yes, we're safe, sane and consensual". They don't give a shit.
Fish: Do you think it's a useful tool for some people?
Alix: I think it's all PR. Vanilla sex should be safe, sane and consensual. I don't want to feel totally safe. Sometimes when I am doing SM I am not "safe" by any standard societal definition of the word. It is not a "sane" thing to want to hurt somebody and get sexually turned on to it -- I think it's a little crazy. The problem is that "crazy" and "not sane" have all these value judgments on them -- if you do something crazy, it's a bad, horrible thing. When I'm doing SM, I'm good crazy. When I ride motorcycles, I get good crazy. As far as "consensual", if my tops were always consensual with me I'd be bored out of my mind.
Please note: I do not endorse all language in the above interview.
Enthusiastic Consent. When I was a wee baby in my early ‘20s, I read an extremely formative book for me (Yes Means Yes) that changed how I think about sexual consent. The book essentially taught me that if it’s not a “hell yes” it should be a “no.” I used the term enthusiastic consent like it was a gospel up until I became a heavy SM player. I turned my back on preaching enthusiastic consent because I realized that it didn’t hold room for the nuance that I think is really important. Informed consent is really similar to the concept of “risk-aware.” You, an autonomous adult, make a decision to do an activity after you’ve been provided with all of the necessary information to make that decision. In other words—after you become risk-aware, you can give informed consent.
In BDSM we are allowed to try scary new things that are dangerous, or, not so dangerous things that are personal fears that other people might regard as trivial. The reality of many activities is that sometimes consent isn’t enthusiastic. Sometimes it’s not “Hell yes,” but “I’m really nervous, but I want to try,” or “Never in my life did I think I’d be doing this but here I am,” etc. A great point is that Yes means nothing without a No, and that is even more relevant here. I can’t trust someone’s informed consent Yes if they never tell me No!
Informed consent means you talk about what you want to do and how you feel about it and what the risks are and then you trust that your partner is giving consent to a yes (or no) even if there are caveats that are less than enthusiastic. The point of informed consent is that it begs for the sharing of those caveats! This goes for both top and bottom! A great personal example I have for this is sounding. Sounding is when you penetrate the urethra with metal dilator rods. When I first heard about this kink I said “Helllllll no, never!” A few years passed and I wanted to learn how to do it, therefore I wanted to understand what it felt like. I unenthusiastically consented to bottom for sounding with many hesitations. It was a fine experience, and way less scary than I thought, but it did nothing for me. Then, I had a similar experience with every partner I’ve done it to—they start out with a jarring hell no, and then warm up to the idea and eventually ask to try it with a lot of hesitations. Unlike me, they’ve all loved it! So many kinks would go undiscovered if we only did scenes where we gave enthusiastic consent.
I want to be very clear that in pointing out that consent doesn’t always have to be enthusiastic, I am in no way advocating for coercion. If someone says no, or isn’t interested, you should never try to pressure them. Being new to BDSM, especially a bottom who is new to BDSM, it’s probably best and safest to stick to things you’re very sure you want to try! Get some experience under your belt at negotiating and advocating for yourself, take your time to meet some trustworthy tops, and learn vital skills needed to bottom, and then you can start playing in the realm of “It scares the shit out of me, but I still want to try it.”
Safe Words. A safe word is a negotiated word, that when used by anyone involved, ends the scene. Some people use several different words to denote “slow down,” or “I need a break,” etc. Safe word is a cultural term that even vanilla people have heard of. So what’s my issue with safe words? I don’t really get why everyone thinks they need to use them! Unless you’re engaged in consensual non-consent where the bottom is giving up agency and “no” is negotiated to be ignored—safe words are pointless. The majority of BDSM scenes are not even close to CNC, so why do you need to yell a silly word like “banana!” when you could easily just say “I’m done!” My personal preference is for direct and plain communication in scenes. If I’m doing a regular old impact scene, a bottom simply saying “Too hard” is preferred to a code word that means the same, like “yellow” (commonly used to denote slow down like a traffic light). My brain having to translate the code word takes me out of the scene, while a direct expression does not. When I say that I don’t use safe words, this is what I mean.
If you already knew all these things, great! If not, I hopefully have given you some new ideas to think about. My sexual politics are essentially to do whatever the fuck you want as long as it’s consensual and you’re not intentionally hurting anyone. With that being said, go forth with the autonomy to unenthusiastically consent and get rid of your safe word unless you’re doing CNC, but only if you want to and have talked about it with your partner and understand all the risks!