The history of SSC (Safe Sane Consensual) vs RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) February 08 2018

Last year in 2017, I wrote about the passing of slave david stein (spelt in lowercase, as he liked to be known), who co-developed the ethical framework acronym of SSC or Safe Sane Consensual, in 1983 in New York.

David was the last living member of the three member New York Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA) committee; Martin Berkenwald, Bob Gillespie and david stein - who published a committee report with the phrasing of Safe, Sane, Consensual. The members would have little idea at how influential those words would be come. As Stein would later reflect:

"Tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of kinky men and women all over North America and around the world, many of whom have no idea what “GMSMA” stands for, know “Safe Sane Consensual” (SSC)." 

Given the significance of the SSC (Safe Sane Consensual) code to BDSM, and the later challenge of RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink), I thought I would devote a blog post to discussing these. 

I'm writing more on this in my new book (Mistressery) in progress, but the need for this material seems required in the very "NOW", so I'm putting some of the resources online straight away. 

I hope this may prove helpful...

Best,

Anne O Nomis

Author of 'The History & Arts of the Dominatrix'

 

 

SSC (Safe, Sane & Consensual)

Challenging pathology and abuse; 

A Framework of Fireworks !

Safe, Sane and Consensual grew out of small gay S/M groups involved in education and activism, in 1980s Chicago and New York. 

Gay S/M clubs experienced a small number of predatory so-called "Dominants", who might prey on the younger and/or new-to-the-scene attendees and push them into activities without the individual's full awareness of or agreeement to the activity or risks; without in other words informed consent. There were also people who had good ethics and concern for others, but their level of technical know-how in activities such as bondage and whipping may not match their level enthusiasm. At the same time, S/M play would often throw up emotionally complex responses which were aided by good communication and discussion. 

The S/M community met these concerns with education, advocacy and discussion of ethics. Their members were also concerned with the image of gay S/M to the wider public, and the perception of S/M as being as psycho-pathological destructive or neurotically self-abusive behaviour.

In today's arguably more kink-friendly world, we may also forget that the term S/M had its roots in the German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis" in 1890. For much of 20th Century history, people who were into BDSM and kink activities were at risk of being viewed as pathological, psychologically damaged or as sexually deviant. 

Psychopathia Sexualis   

Above: Psychopathia Sexualis by Kraft-Ebing with portrait of author.

The legacy of psychiatric pathology tradition prevented S/M being seen for its erotic lifestyle potential - as activities and interaction towards pleasure, experimentation, excitement, fun and fulfilment between consenting adults. 

The response of the gay S/M groups was to seek to build a community which would help advocate for education, communication between people, consent, and safe and sane play.

For the historical record, and because my blog seems to get found by a lot of scholars and journalists, I'm reproducing the original 1983 GMSMA newsletter wording as a historical resource:

"GMSMA is a not-for-profit organization of gay males in the New York City area who are seriously interested in safe, sane, and consensual S/M. Our purpose is to help create a more supportive S/M community for gay males, whether they desire a total lifestyle or an occasional adventure, whether they are just coming out into S/M or are long experienced.

Our regular meetings and other activities attempt to build a sense of community by exploring common feelings and concerns. We aim to raise awareness about issues of safety and responsibility, to recover elements of our tradition, and to disseminate the best available medical and technical information about S/M practices. We seek to establish a recognized political presence in the wider gay community in order to combat the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about S/M while working with others for the common goals of gay liberation."

Source: Emphasis my own. August 1983 report of that Gay Male S/M Activists committee; reproduced in david stein Safe, Sane and Consensual: The Making of a Shibboleth

A decade of SM pride   

Above: Gay Male S/M Activisits publication and logo on T-shirt 

The original wording of the New York Gay S/M Committee newsletter is telling of the spirit in which the Safe, Sane, Consensual code came about.

The committee's chosen wording is very likely influenced by the familiar American exhortation around Independence Day fireworks; “Have a safe and sane Fourth of July.” Indeed david stein acknowledged this relationship in his own writing on how Safe, Sane and Consensual came about:

"Every year while i was growing up, i heard that phrase ("Have a safe and sane Fourth of July") on TV, or saw it in the newspapers and on billboards, and it stuck."

A Safe and Sane Fourth pin Safe and Sane

Left: Vintage Pin 'A Safe and Sane Fourth"; Right: Seal of State of California State Fire Marshall for Fireworks with "Safe and Sane" at its top.

Over in Chicago, the infamous Hellfire Club produced its statement of purpose for their club using "safe and sane" in 1980, predating New York's GMSMA committee newsletter.

The unsigned essay by Tony DeBlase for Chicago Hellfire Club’s Inferno 10 (1981) run book sets out Hellfire Club's stated purpose: 

“. . . to provide education and opportunities for participation in S&M sex among consenting adult men and to foster communication among such individuals. Responsible S&M has become more popular and less feared in the gay community and Chicago Hellfire Club continues to serve its community — striving always to educate and promote safe and sane enjoyment of men by men." [Emphasis my own] 

Hellfire Club

Above: Chicago's Hellfire Club in 1970s with John Preston in centre, and Tony DeBlase on right. Source: Leather Archives & Museum

From a historical point of view, did the New York Gay S/M activitists in fact emulate / copy / borrow or appropriate Chicago Hell Fire Club's wording of "safe and sane", to which the third term "consensual" was added? Or were the two groups independently borrowing from the 4th of July fireworks slogan?

Although slave david stein narrates a version in which they both happened to come to the same wording independently, I believe they (the GMSMA committee members) may have borrowed or taken up Hellfire Club's wording - whether it having been sewn into their subconscious from reading the Chicago material or interacting with its members mentioning "safe and sane", or whether more consciously referring to Hellfire's statement when developing their own.

Certainly david stein attended Hellfire Club, and wrote about his experience there. He posed as a model for bondage there. He viewed any and all writings and reports from the SM scene with a keen interest in ideals of S/M relationships.

In his own writing he acknowledges this possibility:

"Inferno 10 was the first i attended, and it made a big impression on me, so Tony’s [Tony deBlase's] words may have suggested the application of “safe and sane” to S/M, and even the association with “consensual.” But the GMSMA statement of purpose was the first place all three terms were jointly applied to S/M."

Like a lot of inventions, the origin is not as clear-cut and traceable to one individual as one might like. Both the Chicago and New York Gay SM scene in the early 1980s can claim a role in the use of the terms, and they evoked in people's minds the association with 4th of July phrase around fireworks.  

Fireworks - exciting, special, exhilarating, fun, bright and colourful, powerful, explosive, magnificent but also potentially dangerous if not supervised with some caution - was an apt metaphor for S/M.

It made the motivations of S/M players more immediately understandable also: people who sought excitement, exhilaration and enjoyment in their sexual interactions. 

As stein recounted, 

As a kid, what i took “Have a safe and sane Fourth” to mean was, “Have a good time, but don’t be stupid and burn the house down or blow your hand off.” More than two decades later, that seemed to fit S/M just fine. What we meant by “safe and sane S/M” in 1983 was, “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.”

How SSC came into popular usage

The Safe, Sane and Consensual slogan was solidified into BDSM history when it was used as the slogan for marches on Washington by the Lesbian and Gay Rights and the S/M-Leather-Fetish Contingent in March 1987 and March 1993.

The pre-march planning sessions had debated various options, as well as weighing up the pros and cons of Safe, Sane and Consensual, before deciding on it as the most effective slogan. Once agreed upon, it went out on the top of all newsletters and press releases, and gradually onto T-shirts and stickers. For the 1993 march, the effect was magnified. Safe, Sane and Consensual was emblazoned onto the S/M-Leather-Fetish Contingent's 20 foot banner, which hung the day previous across the grand entrance of the government building on Constitution Avenue, that hosted our huge S/M-Leather- Fetish Conference.

"Thousands of men and women from all over the U.S. and many foreign countries saw those three words, identified with them, and took them back to their local communities." (david stein)

Above: Example of a modern day "safe sane consensual" T-shirt.

 

Safe Sane Consensual came to define the S/M community as its code, its ethos. With benefit of hindsight, we can now see how significant this 1980s gay S/M movement was - and is - the to the BDSM scene today.

It was these activists and educators who were helping form ethical codes for BDSM players, to look after their members. They were writing and marching against prejudice and ignorance of towards their community and practices. Their legacy to the SM-leather-kink communities was considerable. 

 

 At your own risk

RACK - Risk-Aware Consensual Kink

Challenging absolutism; 

A Framework of Risk Acknowledgment

Close to the turn of the millennium, a critique of Safe, Sane and Consensual was simmering amongst BDSM writers such as Laura Antoniou, Joseph W. Bean and Phil Julian. Whilst amongst community web messaging and forum boards, alternatives were being debated.

One of the challengers was Gary Switch, who would later develop the term RACK as Risk-Aware Consensual Kink - which would become the chief alternative slogan of the BDSM community.

Gary Switch requests his account to be reproduced in the whole:

GarySwitch
Above: Avatar of GarySwitch

 

During a discussion of SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual) on the TES-Friends list on 11/25/99, I proposed RACK (Risk-Aware, Consensual Kink) as an alternative. Here's my motivation:

Nothing's perfectly safe. Crossing the street isn't perfectly safe. Remember that it's technically called "safer sex," not "safe sex." If we want to limit BDSM to what's safe, we can't do anything more extreme than flogging somebody with a wet noodle. Mountain climbers don't call their sport safe, for the simple reason that it isn't; risk is an essential part of the thrill. They handle it by identifying and minimizing the risk through study, training, technique, and practice. I believe that this approach will work better for us leatherfolk than claiming that what we do is safe. We want to foster the notion that we develop expertise, that to do what we do properly takes skill developed through a similar process of education, training, and practice.

Negotiation cannot be valid without foreknowledge of the possible risks involved in the activity being negotiated. "Risk-aware" means that both parties to a negotiation have studied the proposed activities, are informed about the risks involved, and agree how they intend to handle them. Hence "risk-aware" instead of "safe."

The "sane" part of SSC is very subjective. Who's making the call? Person A might think fisting is insane; persons B and C might enjoy it very much. "Sane" always reminds me of Pat Paulsen's campaign slogan from the old Smothers Brothers show: "Vote for Paulsen; he's not insane!" If you go around constantly reassuring folks that you're not crazy, they'll start to wonder.

I've heard "sane" interpreted as: "able to distinguish fantasy from reality" and "not intoxicated," which are both perfectly valid, though the latter is similar to the above -- you don't go around constantly reassuring folks that you're not drunk, either.

"Consensual" is the crux, implying negotiation which implies being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, as well as dealing responsibly with risk factors. If you don't know the risk factors, if you don't know what will happen in reality, then you don't know what you're consenting to. Meaningful negotiation must always take place on the common ground of consensus reality.

The "kink" part went in to make a snappy acronym and because SSC doesn't tell you what you should be SSC about. Safe, Sane, and Consensual trout fishing? Alluding to the rack, an archetypal torture instrument, has been criticized, but to me it signifies our transformation of atrocity into ecstasy, and admits that though we may enjoy some dark fantasies, we realize them harmlessly.

RACK is admittedly more confrontational than SSC. It's defiant, the same way the GLBT community uses "queer." RACK allows us the freedom to have non-PC fantasies. Don't a lot of us enjoy non- consensual fantasies, either from the top side or the bottom side? We enjoy them in our literature; we may very well enjoy them while we play. But we act them out responsibly and consensually.

(Reference source: Gary Switch, Contributing Editor, Prometheus magazine, GarySwitch@aol.com )

Gary's account is both articulate and understandable. It promotes quite a realist attitude towards BDSM with its inherent risks, and suggests that participants focus on identifying the risks in order that they can be discussed and play their role in consent and in risk management. 

For many who enjoy more extreme forms of play, referred to as "Edgeplay", with higher elements of risk of harm, RACK provided them with a framework which emboldened their right and defence - to indulge in their preferred play.

Edgeplay is a kind of subjective term for anything that has significant risks and is regarded as more extreme activities in BDSM circles; from breathplay, to fireplay, to knives and cutting, to barebacking, and so on.

In practice, and in fetish clubs, I would often hear conversations that go something like this:

"Stop nannying us" - the Edgeplayers would say to the players admonishing them about dangerous play.

"Nothing's safe. We get that our kinks can be risky or dangerous, but so is life. It's our choice. This is how we get off. We're aware of the risks. We're educated. We know what we're doing. It's our life."

If SSC Safe, Sane and Consensual had a flavour of idealistic ethical romance about it, RACK Risk-Aware Consensual Kink was about realism of risk, individual responsibility and the right to choose to take risk for our kicks or kinks.

Both these acronyms of SSC and RACK are the most common batted around within the BDSM community and by individual players. As such, I hope this blog post will provide food for thought and a place of resources to access and refer to the original work. I've listed the most accessible and recent articles below.  

 

Bibliography / Resources

* Richard von Kraft-Ebing (1890) Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis ; translated in English as New Research in the Area of Psychopathology of Sex.

* david stein (2002) “Safe Sane Consensual”: The Making of a Shibboleth by slave david stein under the Guardianship of Master Steve of Butchmann’s. Published in 20th Anniversary issue, September/October 2002, of VASM Scene, the newsletter of Vancouver Activists in S/M of Vancouver, British Columbia. Viewable at: http://boybear.us/ssc.pdf 

NB: An early draft was also presented at Leather Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C, in April 2000: www.leatherleadership.org. Other versions published in  The Sandmutopia Guardian and later reworked for the Spring 2001 issue of NewsLink, the GMSMA newsletter.

* Gary Switch (c 2009) Rack Essay and Interview posted by author as Fetlife post: https://fetlife.com/users/53355/posts/25734 (Viewable only by Fetlife members)