‘Safe, Sane and Consensual’ is a mantra that has developed such gravitas that it rarely gets questioned but, contrary to what you may have read online, Safe, Sane and Consensual isn’t accepted by everyone who practices BDSM, including me.
When Safe, Sane and Consensual really isn’t
When I took my first steps into the world of kinky sex I held onto the phrase Safe, Sane and Consensual. It was as though merely knowing it could protect me. I trusted that partners would adhere to it and if, I’m honest, I placed the responsibility on them. I assumed that Safe, Sane and Consensual was so obvious that it didn’t require any thought. The result was that I was oblivious to the risks.
I was lucky that nothing bad happened to me but things could have turned out very differently. I met someone online and didn’t tell anyone where I was beyond “his house”. On our first meeting I allowed him to tie me up without a second thought. I engaged in kinky sex with several people without any sort of communication beyond saying I was submissive. I don’t think even I knew what I really meant by that. My learning about BDSM consisted solely of reading a few posts on a forum and the book ‘Screw the Roses, Send me the Thorns’. I was young and lacked the confidence and experience to negotiate what I wanted and what I definitely didn’t want. I was easily persuaded and, had I met different people, I could have really regretted some of my experiences.
Safe, Sane and Consensual lulled me into a false sense of security. Safe, Sane and Consensual led to situations that were unsafe.
Can BDSM ever be safe?
Nothing we do, and particularly nothing in BDSM, is ever 100% safe. Ropes can cause nerve damage, a cane can land somewhere unintended, psychological play can press a button you didn’t even realise existed… If we pretend play can ever be truly safe than we might not give activities the consideration they deserve. Low risk does not equal no risk.
Leading on from this is the acronym RACK which stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink. It’s one I prefer because it acknowledges that there are risks and encourages awareness. Awareness on its own isn’t particularly useful but I’d hope most people move beyond awareness to harm minimisation and preparation for if things go wrong.
What if you want to do high risk things?
If you’ve read my blog or followed me on Twitter for a while you probably already know some of the things I do are not what most people would consider safe. I drink more than the recommended government guidelines for alcohol, I smoke and I engage in rough body play. We all take risks in our lives yet when the risk taking is applied to kink it can get blown out of proportion.
In medicine there is a concept called capacity. If a person is able to understand and weigh up their options then they are deemed to have capacity. Having capacity means medical professionals accept their decisions, even if they have extreme risks. People can choose not to have life saving treatment, to remain living in their own home even if they are at risks of falls and to leave hospital against medical advice. People make unwise decisions all the time and we accept people have the right to make those decisions Why should this not be true when thinking about BDSM?
Some of the things I choose to engage in are high risk. Breath play is inherently risky. Punch play can result (and has) in unwanted injuries. I am fully aware of the risks. I have weighed up the pros and cons and I choose to do these things because, for me, my enjoyment outweighs the risks. There are some risks I personally would never take (self-bondage alone, for example) but who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t take those risks?
What does sane even mean?
The sane part of Safe, Sane and Consensual is the part I have the most problem with. Sane means of sound mind or reasonable and sensible but sanity isn’t objective. One person’s idea of reasonable may not be the same as another person’s and different cultures will have different perceptions of behaviours.
Sanity in relation to BDSM is also contentious. Until very recently even engaging in BDSM could leave you diagnosed with a mental disorder. The DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders used in the US and for research) only recently removed consensual sexual sadism and sexual masochism as paraphilic disorders and the ICD (International Classification of Diseases used in Europe) still has sadomasochism listed, although guidance states it should not be used unless the sadistic behaviour involves nonconsensual acts.
As someone with a long history of mental illness and who works in mental health I find the sane part of the phrase problematic. If a person is doing extreme things it does not mean they aren’t sane. As I mentioned before in relation to capacity, people have the right to make unwise decisions. If they are doing extreme things because they are not sane, that’s because of a mental illness not BDSM. If I take extreme risks in BDSM because I am manic, reciting the Safe, Sane and Consensual mantra isn’t going to be any use.
If people do things that other people consider to be insane because they haven’t thought it through they are behaving recklessly. Stupidity is not insanity.
I think my main issue with Sane is that it’s redundant. If a person is knowingly taking risks others believe to be unwise they are risk aware and completely sane. If a person hasn’t thought things through they are reckless. If a person is acting without consideration or putting themselves at risk due to a mental illness they are not sane, but that has nothing to do with kink. They are just as likely to do risky things in any other area of their life.
I think consent is one of the few things most people believe is necessary in all sex. On the face of it consent can seem like a black and white issue but BDSM can include some factors that can make the distinction between consent and non consent a little more blurry.
Pre-play negotiations allow people to discuss their limits before playing. Discussing boundaries helps create an environment where consent is given due consideration. These pre-defined limits can change during play, however, and this is where a safeword can be particularly useful.
Consent in sub space
During intense scenes I can find myself in a trance-like state where I am considerably more likely to consent to things I usually wouldn’t and my awareness of risks and injury is reduced. This is one of the reasons it is often said you shouldn’t throw in things which have not previously been discussed. Consent may be verbally given, but capacity to make informed choices could be reduced. If your partner says ‘no way’ to something, sneaking it in when they are in an altered state is douche-y at best, and nonconsensual at worst. There are exceptions to this though. Some people (including me) are happy to be pushed further than they would usually agree to in subspace and if this has been discussed beforehand, there is no issue.
Power dynamics and consent
Power dynamics are important to consider. In a D/s relationship the submissive can feel they have to consent to things because they are submissive, even if the dominant is fully supporting their autonomy to make decisions. Many submissives feel an intense desire to please and this can lead to them agreeing to things they do not want to do. This is a delicate line to tread. On the one hand, the desire to please and do what your dominant wishes is part of submission but when this leads to feeling you lack the power to truly refuse to do things, this can be an issue…unless…
Consensual non consent
…you are into consensual non consent. I’m a big fan of consensual non consent. It can be a little hard for some people to get their head around but essentially it means giving a person blanket consent so they are able to override your non consent. I’d argue that consensual non consent is 100% consensual, even when I’m not consenting in the moment, but it does mean the Consensual part of Safe, Sane and Consensual is a little more flexible than it first appears.
What alternatives are there to Safe, Sane and Consensual?
I personally find RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) covers the things I consider most important. I can’t get rid of every risk and I’m not sure I would want to. The risks add to the thrill.
PRICK (Personal Responsibility In Consensual Kink) has a fantastic name but hasn’t become as widely recognised as Safe, Sane and Consensual or Risk Aware Consensual Kink. I really love the personal responsibility aspect because it highlights how all parties need to be responsible for their actions and health, not just dominants and tops.
Whether you choose to use Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC), Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK), Personal Responsibility in Consensual Kink (PRICK) or none of these acronyms to inform your play, the important thing is to consciously consider the choices you make. An acronym won’t save you from injury or regret.