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BDSM 101: SSC, RACK, PRICK, and the 4Cs

What do SSC and RACK mean??

– Anonymous

VRF Answers:

SSC and RACK – as well as some other popular acronyms – describe basic foundational principles for BDSM and kink play.  Let’s take a broad look at some of the more common and established frameworks.

SSC: Safe, Sane, and Consensual

SSC, which stands for safe, sane, and consensual, is largely attributed to David Stein, who coined the phrase in the 1980s for the Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA) of New York (Stein, n.d.; “Safe, sane, and consensual”, 2021).

Safe must mean “without serious threats to participants’ health” (“to hurt, not to harm,” as it is sometimes conveyed); sane must indicate “within the limits of reason”; and consensual, of course, must mean “with the consent of all implicated parties.” Practices and activities within these limits are morally permissible; if an activity falls short on any of these three scores, it is morally wrong. (Nielsen, 2010)

SSC was – and still is – a popular term for describing the safeguards required to participate in ethical kink.  However, many criticize its semantic ambiguities and subjectivity; for example, what is safe or sane to one person may not be for another (Nielson, 2010).  Regardless, it still serves as a good starting point as an introduction to some foundational principles of ethical kink and raises awareness of the importance of consent.  Broadly speaking, adherents to SSC believe that people should not engage in activities that are not safe or cannot be made safe.

RACK: Risk-Aware Consensual Kink

RACK, or risk-aware consensual kink, was coined in 1999 by David Switch as an intentional move away from the value-laden semantics of SSC (Miller & Switch, n.d.; “Risk-aware consensual kink”, 2021).

Despite the popularity of SSC, some BDSM practitioners eventually began to realize that SSC may exclude edgier forms of play that involve higher physical and/or psychological risk, which may be part of the motivation for participation. Risk, of course, is relative and can vary tremendously across individuals. (Williams, Thomas, Prior, & Christensen, 2014)

In RACK, we see a shift from the “safe and sane” semantics of SSC to “risk-aware” while maintaining the through-line of consent.  Many see “risk-aware” as being less nebulous than “safe and sane”, although they have a large overlap (i.e., you must be aware of the risks in order to play safely).  In contrast to SSC – again, broadly speaking – adherents to RACK believe that people should engage in activities being fully informed and aware of the potential risks, regardless of whether or not the activity is safe, since some activities are inherently unsafe.

PRICK: Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink

PRICK, personal responsibility informed consensual kink (originally, “personal responsibility in consensual kink”), is another evolution of this discourse which appears to have been coined in 2002 at BDSM Overdrive (”Consent (BDSM)”, n.d.).

PRICK builds on RACK, but increases the emphasis on the role each person plays in the consent process. PRICK makes it very clear that a passive role in understanding what is going on is not acceptable. (Hamer, 2016)

PRICK can be seen as an amplification of RACK, where the passivity of “risk-aware” is transformed into a charge of personal responsibility.  It puts a greater emphasis on the obligation of kink practitioners to do their due diligence in proactively accepting personal responsibility, regardless of role or position, and keeping informed of the risks and implications of their kinks.

The 4Cs: Caring, Communication, Consent, and Caution

The 4Cs framework, encompassing caring, communication, consent, and caution, was introduced by Williams, Thomas, Prior, & Christensen in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality in 2014.

While SSC and RACK focus on two shared, essential, concepts (consent and safety/risk awareness), the 4Cs approach retains these general concepts and adds the interrelated dimensions of caring and communication…  

The inclusion of caring in a BDSM negotiation motto reflects an ethical stance while acknowledging individuals as unique human beings. The form of caring (i.e., level of trust and intimacy of relationships among participants in a scene) also shapes the qualitative experiences of BDSM. Communication, while often rightly discussed by BDSM authors under consent, is also strongly connected to caring and caution. Although presented separately, these concepts in BDSM are all tightly interwoven. Emphasizing communication should lead to a better understanding among participants regarding individuals’ unique identities, needs, and motivations, and thus more fulfilling BDSM experiences. In short, communication as its own entity allows for participants to better understand the subjective realities of those with whom they play. (Williams, Thomas, Prior, & Christensen, 2014)

The 4Cs introduce a more human element to kink considerations and places empathy and interpersonal connection as coequal to the activity itself.  There are a few things that stand out about the 4Cs to me – it is a published, intentional, and discursive framework which gives it legitimacy and longevity, and it gives focus to active and actionable items and not passive states.  I highly recommend reading the original paper for a deeper look.


SSC, RACK, PRICK, the 4Cs, and other frameworks which encompass ideologies or values around ethical kink are great ways to start a conversation about your personal involvement, interest, and insights into kink philosophy and practice.  As fairly established and well-understood schools of thought within BDSM communities, they also provide a great foundation for establishing common ground and understanding.  Ethical kink is, after all, what separates consensual BDSM from violence (and, in the context of this blog, consensual non-consent from sexual assault), and creates a safe and healthy atmosphere for its participants.

The markers distinguishing BDSM sex from violence include 1) voluntariness 2) communication 3) a safeword (the ability to stop the activity) 4) safe sex and 5) access to information about BDSM. The “healthy” BDSM partnership is characterized by 1) the absence of fear from the partner, 2) no feelings of guilt or worthlessness, 3) respect to the partner 4) the sexual meaning of the “scene”: distinguishing the “sex scene” from real life, no psychical violence (no manipulation, no psychological pressure, no destructive criticism) 5) the absence of the failure and compensation cycle but stable behavior 6) no isolation from family, friends, colleagues; access to money; no aggression 7) only mild hierarchy disparity between the partners in everyday life. (Jozifkova, 2013)

If you are just starting to learn about these terms and concepts, I encourage you to conduct some additional research and introspection to see what parts of them speak to you, resonate with experiences you’ve had, and lead you to deepen your connection to kink.  These frameworks are not meant to be a comprehensive checklist; there is plenty of latitude within them for nuance, so it is more important to gain an understanding of the underlying principles and moral considerations to find your grounding.  If you’re not sure of where to begin, I have included both scholarly and casual references that I think are good starting points for exploration. ▪


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