One of the best things about BDSM is the sense of freedom it inspires. We embrace our sexuality via fetishes and activities that mainstream society might label strange or extreme.
Sorry sweeties, but I'm here to live my best life. If that means getting blindfolded, paddled, and fucked with a foxtail plug in my ass on a Saturday night, suck it up, buttercup!
Because we value this freedom, kinksters tend to espouse a relatively laissez-faire attitude about what people do in their bedrooms. I'm not your Catholic grandma, after all. Far be it from me to dictate how you should be getting your rocks off.
Eventually, however, many of us run into questions over whether our fetishes, those of our partner(s), or those of others in the community can be considered ethically sound.
I mean, things like pet play and spanking seem pretty harmless...
And huh, Jim and Jenny down the street have a 24/7 master-slave thing going on. He sure does hit her a lot. Is that abuse? She seems okay with it, but I'm not sure...
And oh fuck, what about that German guy who chopped up and ate a willing victim he met on the internet? Is eating someone to the point of homicide ok if it's consensual? Is that BDSM???
Damn, that escalated quickly!
It's important to have a moral compass to guide you through your adventures in the BDSM world. You don't want to feel shitty or unsure about the things that bring you pleasure. You also don't want to mistakenly pull abusive moves that will cause trauma or have those you interact with feeling royally pissed off.
We could philosophize forever about the line between right and wrong, but members of the mainstream BDSM community generally aim to minimize actual harm, such as problematic injuries or long-term damage to the bodies and minds of participants.
(I'd say this leaves out the more extreme cannibal types out there ... sorry y'all!)
For the purpose of defining what kind of conduct is permissible within the scene, the BDSM community has come up with various unified sets of guidelines. In this post I'll talk about the two best-known schools of thought, Safe, Sane, Consensual (SSC) and Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK).
Safe, Sane, Consensual (SSC)
SSC was one of the first unified standards regarding ethics within the BDSM community. It was coined back in 1983 by a guy in New York named David Stein, who wrote an essay entitled Safe Sane Consensual: The Evolution of a Shibboleth. David created the term to distinguish the kind of S&M he wanted to do from the "criminally abusive or neurotically self-destructive behaviour popularly associated with the term 'sadomasochism'."
The policy states that all BDSM activities should be:
SAFE - Steps should be taken before, during, and after play to prevent risks to health.
SANE - Participants should agree to and practice BDSM activities in a mentally sound state of mind.
CONSENSUAL - All participants must fully and soberly consent to all activities prior to play.
Seems simple enough, right?
For many in the BDSM community, SSC is actually too simple to accurately define and serve as a guideline for what we do. If we get down to a nitty-gritty level of analysis here, we run into some key issues that SSC doesn't address.
How, precisely, should we define what is 'safe' and 'sane'?
Is something 'safe' as long as it doesn't require a trip to the hospital or get in the way of daily life? Is it 'sane' if approved by a psychologist? Who decides the details of what these terms mean?
'Safe' and 'sane' are relative concepts.
What seems safe and sane to you might not feel that way to me. Likewise, I don't want you to feel pressured to live up to my standards if you don't feel comfortable doing so.
Can anything we do in BDSM truly be considered safe?
None of what we do in life is 100% risk free, and this goes for every aspect of kink. Therefore, is it responsible to present activities as 'safe' to those who are unaware of the risks involved?
In response to concerns like these, RACK was born.
Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK)
Over time, as edgeplay became more common within the mainstream BDSM scene, members of the community began to wonder whether SSC would suffice as an ethical guideline. Many began to prefer RACK, a term proposed in 1999 by a man named Gary Switch.
RISK-AWARE - All participants are educated and informed of the risks involved in any proposed activity.
CONSENSUAL - With those risks in mind, participants consent to that activity prior to play in a sober and sensible state of mind.
KINK - The activity in question can be classified as a form of alternative sexual expression.
RACK acknowledges that nothing we do in BDSM is inherently safe. Rather, there are degrees of "safer" or "less safe" to consider, and risk must be minimized through study, training, technique, and practice.
RACK also places supreme emphasis on personal responsibility. It hammers home the message that every participant in BDSM must be accountable for themselves and the activities they agree to.
(I was particularly awful about this when I first got started, as a lot of bottoms without experience can be. "Hey, I'm here, let's do this! You're the top - it's your responsibility to make sure everything goes smoothly. My only job is to show up, right?" FOR SHAME, YOUNG AND NAIVE MOLLY.)
People who prefer SSC over RACK argue that some people are prone to making rash decisions, particularly in emotionally charged situations, and shouldn't necessarily be trusted to consent to activities they might not be prepared for.
There's merit to this concern. People (bottoms, most of the time,) appear to consent to things they don't actually want to do alllllllllllllll the time.
(As a beginner, I used to do make this mistake as well. I wanted so badly to impress the tops I was playing with. I didn't fully grasp that they needed structure in order to lead scenes in a way that was fun, and the only person who could provide that structure - via explicit limits and preferences - was me.)
So the question becomes - taking into account that we're all legal, consenting adults - do you believe we should trust every individual in the BDSM community to take full responsibility for what they agree to do during play at all times? Is this enough to mitigate the possibility of any actual, long-term harm that could result?
Your feelings about these questions can have a big influence on which activities you agree to do with your partner(s).
Let's consider an example.
Say I have a fantasy about being beaten by a partner who won't stop, even when I ask them to. I want to give up my agency entirely during the duration of the scene, and feel the extreme thrill of the panic that accompanies that level of powerlessness. I've never experienced such a thing before, but I can't get the idea out of my mind.
So I go to my sadistic play partner and say, "I want you to restrain me, take off your belt, and beat me to tears. No safewords. Don't listen to me, no matter how much I beg. You stop when you feel like you want to."
If you were my partner, would you agree to this?
Followers of SSC aren't likely to approve for a couple of reasons:
Playing without safewords is exceptionally dangerous. In an activity like this, I would definitely be pushed past my physical and emotional limits, and could possibly suffer from long-term trauma and injuries as a result.
Many might question whether such an activity could be considered sane. Genuinely giving up control creates an actual power imbalance, (not the illusion of a power imbalance,) which a lot of people would not consider to be a healthy desire.
Followers of RACK, however, might be more willing to accept the activity. "She knows the risks, she consented, she's an adult and can make decisions for herself ... why not?"
It's up to you to draw these lines in your kinky relationships.
It's entirely possible to ascribe to aspects of both SSC and RACK, rather than one or the other exclusively. The important thing is that you take responsibility by asking the hard questions sometimes required in kink, rather than saying "fuck it" and approaching BDSM with a caution-be-damned air of anarchy.
You're not likely to run into huge moral dilemmas about this unless you start getting into the riskier forms of what some classify as BDSM, such as the following:
My personal take?
I've had sadistic partners who were up for some fairly extreme shit. As the bottom, it was on me to decide what would and wouldn't go down during play, and this is quite common. I usually ask myself a number of questions.
Could this get me sick or cause serious injuries?
If the answer is yes, I don't do it. Hence no blood drinking, scat play, punching, etc.
Can my partner and I do this without threatening the status of our relationship or emotional stability?
This is why degradation is on my "no" list. I have trouble not taking degrading comments or activities seriously.
Can I do this and still accomplish all my everyday life shit?
Getting beaten to the point where I can't get out of bed? No thanks. I'm fucking busy!
Is this a sustainable activity?
Like, could I do it regularly without experiencing significant consequences? Sex that's rough to the point of causing abrasions to my hoo-ha, for example, can't happen regularly and is therefore on the "nope" list.
Is my partner physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to do this?
For instance, it would not be fair to jump into a scene involving simulated rape with a top who might end up feeling awful about it.
Can I do this activity and still respect myself?
Self-respect is essential for healthy BDSM play, for tops and bottoms alike. I'm not up for anything that might violate my sense of dignity.
These are just my personal considerations. You'll likely have concerns and questions that are completely unique to you.
That's it for this post! Hopefully this info can help you define your personal approach to BDSM and ethics.
Thoughts? Conundrums? Leave a comment or shoot me a message.
And thanks for reading!