In the modern day BDSM scene it is almost impossible to attend an event, munch or other gathering of like minded individuals without hearing some statement regarding how something is or, in most cases, is not S.S.C.. It has become the ubiquitous catch-phrase of BDSM. It has become almost a password to let others know that they understand the game and how it is to be played; by the rules of S.S.C., of course. What I would like to do here is examine this phrase a bit more closely.
Let us begin, logically enough, at the beginning; with the first ‘S’, Safe.
Safety is a familiar concept to most of us on some level or another, generally conjuring images of a comfortable controlled environment and feelings of calm or at least a lack of fear. Webster uses the definition “free from harm or risk” which succinctly encapsulates most peoples understanding of the word. So by that definition, is what we do in BDSM safe?
In the vast majority of cases the answer to the question would be a resounding ‘no’. There is risk to almost every technique that we apply to our play-lives. Harm, both intentional and unintentional is commonplace. In most cases, it is the point of why we do it in the first place; because one or both of the participants in the scene derive some enjoyment or pleasure from the action if not specifically from the harm it causes. The excitement is often in fairly direct proportion to the risk and this should come as a surprise to no one. Bungee jumping, sky diving, scuba, mountain climbing all have a level of risk associated with them and are also freely indulged in my thousands of people a year all of whom know and enjoy the risk involved. In other words, they are ‘Risk Aware’ and have achieved a level of training and preparation that mitigates the amount of that risk to an acceptable degree for their level of risk tolerance. This, obviously, is an important point to which we will later return.
Safety, since it is more of a feeling than a quantifiable state, tends to be very subjective and generally gets defined by the observer in the BDSM community. Something that is beyond the skill level of the observer is often labeled by them as ‘unsafe’ simply because they do not understand how it can be done safely. This is especially true in the modern environment were there are more new players milling about than at any previous point in history with the influx of those that have discovered leather via the internet. As this trend is likely to continue it would be wise to take it into consideration in this discussion. A new player seeing an advanced interrogation scene, for example, could see the violence, torture, verbal assault and deliberate levels of stress being applied as ‘unsafe’ because they are not aware of the levels of preparation, negotiation and previous mutual experience between the players involved in the scene. In this example, the point of the scene is to make one of the players ‘feel’ as if they are in an unsafe situation, so it could be expected that the scene would look a bit unsafe to the outside observer.
In summary, it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge safety from the outside perspective and the temptation to do so should be avoided. By labeling someone as an ‘unsafe top’ simply because you are not aware of all of the factors that go into something you could be destroying the reputation of a very safe, very responsible, very skilled top that you could have learned from in the future. If you have a concern about the safety of something in a public space, mention it to the Dungeon Monitor if one is available, else keep an eye on it yourself until the end of the scene. Once the scene has ended, ask the top how he did the thing that concerned you. You will learn one of two things; either you will learn how to do something that you previously did not know or you will know that he really did not have a plan to address the risk and there might actually be a reason to label them an unsafe top. Either way, you learn.
Now, on to the second ‘S’, which would be for ‘Sane’. This one will not require quite so much verbiage as the last. Again we refer to Webster for our definition of “proceeding from a sound mind; mentally sound; especially : able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one’s actions” all of which sounds pretty accurate to me. So now all that remains is to apply this definition to what we do. Well, according the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders v.3 ‘Sadomasochism’ (which most will recognize as the SM in BDSM) was defined as a full-blown disorder. Even in the more enlightened v.4 of the manual, released in 1994, it was still there but given the qualification “A Paraphilia must be distinguished from the non-pathological use of sexual fantasies, behaviors, or objects as a stimulus for sexual excitement in individuals without a paraphilia. Fantasies, behaviors, or objects are paraphiliac only when they lead to clinically significant distress or impairment (e.g., are obligatory, result in sexual dysfunction, require participation of non-consenting individuals, lead to legal complications, interfere with social relationships).”. So basically the difference between someone with a dangerous paraphilia or sexually related mental disorder is a willing partner or lacking that, an irrepressible compulsion to act on your desire. As someone that has worked as a therapist I would be unable to determine the sanity of someone by watching them in a scene so I am fairly certain most laymen would be even more challenged to try to do this.
Further, what is it that one means my something being sane? In most cases, when people say some action is ‘insane’ it is just a synonym for ‘unsafe’. In reality, actions can not be insane because they have no inherent sanity to begin with. So, in short the ‘Sane’ portion of S.S.C. bring no real meaning to the phrase and only serves to make it a three letter acronym, rather than just S.C. which could get confusing for residents of South Carolina.
Now, we come to the ‘C’ for ‘Consent’ or, in the R.A.C.K. paradigm, ‘Consensual Kink’. On this point both sides of the S.S.C./R.A.C.K. debate seem to agree that consent is a good thing to have and is required between partners in a kink context. Lest it be thought I was giving consent less respect than it deserves I will include the working definition of ‘Consensual’ here as well as “existing or made by mutual consent without an act of writing; involving or based on mutual consent ”.
But the disagreement regarding consent is usually a question of granularity, how detailed does the consent need to be? This is important, as it is fairly central to our structure of limits and the negotiation of even the most basic scene. Like anything, there are variations and extremes in style of negotiation; I tend to be minimalist (tell me what you do not want and I will work within the rest of the options) where I have seen negotiations by people like Jay Wiseman go for hours detailing things to a degree that I would find distracting, impossible to remember in the heat of a scene and down right boring. Some people prefer the reassurance that someone is thinking about things on that level of detail and some prefer to play now and not sweat the details. For every style there is a negotiation type and a useful level of consent. The trick is to make sure that the top is aligned with the negotiation and consent expectations of the bottom. It is this misalignment that allows questions of consent to arise. Negotiation and consent could easily be a book unto itself, with all that has already been said on the matter. I will leave it as simply “Communicate your expectations so that they stand a chance of being met”. Once that is done, everyone should be in an aligned frame of reference and ready to play within both partners limitations.
I am asked quite a bit why I choose not to use S.S.C. and prefer to represent what I do as R.A.C.K.. The answer to me is quite simple.
The spirit behind S.S.C. seems to be a leap to judgment; that you as an observer are in a position to know what is safe, to determine the sanity and assume the level of consent that was given. How else can someone label someone else’s scene ‘S.S.C.’ or not? How can you know what is safe for another persons level of training and preparation? How can you be in a position to determine the sanity of someone in that situation? How do you know the level of negotiation and consent that they may or may not have invested?
Add to that the fact that SSC was never meant to be used as a bar set to judge other people’s scenes. It was used to state that ‘we aren’t the way you think we are’ to combat accusations against the gay leather community that they were preying on straight males and forcing them into acts not of their choosing. When David Stein wrote his report for the GMSMA back in 1983, he had no idea the whole thing would be boiled down to just those 3 words totally outside the context of the report. When asked his original intent slave dave said simply “Have a good time, but keep your head and understand what you’re doing so you don’t end up dead or in the hospital — or send someone else there.”. Pretty good advice, but not quite the way people use the phrase these days.
In contrast, I see the spirit behind R.A.C.K. as more educational and promoting a sense of self-responsibility. Instead of judging the scene in front of you, you are in more of a position to look at the factors that go into it and determining how it can be done as safely as it needs to be to fall within the limits of both partners risk tolerance. Being aware that there is risk is the first step toward limiting it and calling something safe simply denies the presence of that risk. As individuals grow and experience more in the scene more and more things become acceptable and less frightening, safer. Does this mean that the acts are now actually safer, or has it simply been a change in perspective brought about by experience? This variability alone shows one of the big flaws of teaching S.S.C. as a mantra to new players as it only teaches them to judge and not to learn.
I personally believe that everyone in the scene (and outside of it for that matter) should be well-trained and responsible for the outcome of their actions. S.S.C. really does not seem, in my opinion, to promote these concepts near as directly nor as well as the concept of R.A.C.K.. I’m sure many will disagree since S.S.C. has been so canonized as to make it nearly a sacrilege to mention its failings. Yet I , ever the heretic, hope this has at least given you something to consider as you move forward in the leather life.