Consent and Safewords

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

This blog entry is part of the series on BDSM and philosophy

Recently a lovely friend of mine and I disagreed on the use of safewords. When pondering on the cause of our difference in view, I consulted others, both tops and bottoms. What I found out is that some ideas have an edge to them, particularly the concepts of RACK, SSS and Total Power Exchange (TPE).

Consenting partners will always be an issue; but the idea of the continuity of consent in kink is in a way a pain in the ass, particularly in situations of altered mind states. For BDSM consent nevertheless forms one of the criteria by which we regard ourselves as sane or as sick.

(As always: This blog is about exploration, not doctrine …)

What the heck is RACK?
Wikipedia describes this as follows:

“Risk-aware consensual kink … is an acronym used by some of the BDSM community to describe a philosophical view that is generally permissive of certain risky sexual behaviors, as long as the participants are fully aware of the risks. This is often viewed in contrast to safe, sane, and consensual which generally holds that only activities that are considered safe, sane, and consensual are permitted.”

Are questions about safety wrong?
Basically, I do not think so. For the factual consequence of what RACK tell us is that we cannot ever exclude all risks, mistakes or bad scenes, in other words there is not such a thing as a safe place. Even when RACK and SSS (safe, sane & sound) are often presented as contrary, it depends on how you use and interpret the different stances; either position can be regarded as  a conversation, an intellectual interchange, which neither leads to truth nor sets one on a course to find it. But on the way we can learn and get smarter.

Why is consent such an issue?
In a previous blog I stated that; “generally speaking we can regard kink as sick when we lose control over our urges and get other people involved without their consent. So we can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy BDSM depending on the presence of mutual consent and the span of control. Not consenting BDSM is dangerous and can lead to the kind of situations that are used by non-kinks to label that what we do as ‘sick’.

For those who love BDSM and are not ‘sick’ - but simply have a healthy curiosity for the somewhat out of the ordinary sexual praxis - the rationality of what we do by consenting – even when some of the acts involved can be irrational – gives us an argument over against the views of BDSM as sick, mental or abusive.

The problem is, however, that the regular non-BDSM concepts of slavery, total power exchange and submission precisely challenge the notion of consent. The origin of BDSM play is often found in fantasy. As in our dreams, we have consenting partners by definition, otherwise they would not be there and doing those things we crave for. In a way, we make them up on the large screen of our minds projections. And for doing this, for this imagination we take the necessary images out of our head, our memory, our experience.

In your dream, capturing, seducing and raping that adorable person you work with is perfectly fine and sexy. In reality however, you probably not have them answering to your unbelievable hot urges, but rather have them sewing you, resulting in losing your job and land behind those kind of bars we explicitly do not want to see in front of us.

Simply stated, the difference between fantasy and reality play is consent. In the SSS credo this is captured in the notion of ‘sane’. Doing nasty and pervert things between consenting adults is fine, as long as safety is an issue too.

Where imo RACK and SSS differ is the amount of risk that can be accepted and safety that is needed. I will exemplify that with the notion of ‘safewords’.

Wikipedia describes a ‘safeword’ as:

“… a code word or series of code words that are sometimes used in BDSM for a submissive or bottom to unambiguously communicate their physical or emotional state to a dominant or top, typically when approaching, or crossing, a physical, emotional, or moral boundary.

Some safewords are used to stop the scene outright, while others can communicate a willingness to continue, but at a reduced level of intensity. Safewords are usually agreed upon before playing a scene by all participants …

Safewords of BDSM fall under the guiding philosophy of safe, sane and consensual. Those who practice the more permissive philosophy of risk-aware consensual kink may abandon the use of safewords, especially those that practice forms of edgeplay or extreme forms of dominance and submission. In such cases, the choice to give up the use of safewords is a consensual act on the part of the bottom or submissive.”

There we have it. Giving up safewords is not safe (according to SSS), but might be regarded as consensual (in RACK), particularly in edgeplay or TPE.

So with my friend, she likes to be in total control, but what does this mean? Does such a thing as total control or total power exchange exist?

With the help of the notion of consciousness I will try to shed some light on things as control, consent and identity.

Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. So whatever control might be, it must be conscious and consciously applied in BDSM-play.

But like most things labelled with adjectives like ‘true’, ‘real’, ‘total’, ‘complete’ the question is what the scope of meaning of such words is in the practical context of BDSM-play.

Total control is a in a way a futile concept, as we are not even in control of our own thoughts, most of our actions are steered by our unconsciousness and nervous system, not by our thoughts. Also total power exchange is immediately limited by consenting persons that exchange power.

For me - as top – sane use of power involves both control and awareness, but also letting control go and be dependent can be sane practise. Thus both TPE and sanity are rooted in consent.

Consent of whom?
The idea that a safeword would be some kind of topping from the bottom is definitely misleading, but I guess this will always be an issue between the RACK and the SSS camp.

One way of dealing with this issue is to look at different levels of identity. To our core identity belong things like gender-identity and sexual orientation. Naturally, when we consent in BDSM activity, such identities play a major role. The basic respect for the integrity of another person we play with, as a fellow human being, is paramount to consent. Before even one bit of power exchange can start flowing, it is obvious that giving consent to this process presupposes sane persons on equal footing that get involved in play, by their choice. Consent thus functions as mechanism to preserve identity and integrity of the persons that wish to get involved in BDSM play.

Consent is therefore founding for any form of BDSM according to both RACK and SSS. So when we link consent to identity, we may connect BDSM with exploration regarding our sexual preferences and urges. BDSM role play is thus in a way ‘at variance’ with both identity (which we exploring on) and with mainstream culture. Playing roles thus enables us to learn, grown and own our experiences, as a person.

The clue

We take those risks, because our psyche craves for realisation of both the conscious parts of our identity and the hidden, dark and unconscious parts. BDSM-play is thus transgressing in nature, and therefor risky. The clue is that consent can change. And even then, as seen above, a safeword will sometimes not help. I have had bottoms in my power, seeking my will and not caring about consent. That can sometimes be seductive, but that is the nature of playing with power. You can use it according to your own perception, but tops get into their BDSM-role too. So when our self-perception changes, also our limits can get fluid; including limits that define us as sound or sane - and that is very un-safe and risky.

The power we have been given, by consent, can turn into dynamics that are not steered by respect for the integrity of the other person – the factor that makes consensual play sane. The idea that the top is in ‘real’ control, might reveal itself as mistaking the darker side of our top-role for justified and allow power with to change into power over – and the herewith connected notions of abuse, violation and deprivation of self-integrity of the bottom. After all, coercive sexual interaction is part of many kinky roles that the BDSM community likes to fantasize about or tries to realize in active play; being kidnapped and kept captive by that vicious female pirate or being interrogated and searched for drugs by that mean couple of custom officers.

So playing rough and edgy roles can be tremendously rewarding, but it can also be scary and result in a change of mind. Passwords are an expression of non-consent and a change of mind of one of the players must have a way to be realized and heard. For me, besides trust and consent, also pre-scene negotiations and safewords can help to diminish the risk of our play going awry; in fact for me playing without an exit strategy would indicate we have to do with unsafe play partners. Within RACK, we have not simply “safe”’ but rather fifty shades of "safer" and "less safe”. Having a safeword that is available to both tops and bottoms, we make it safer as it forms one (last) straw that enables us – when we still can – to claim our right to conscious self-definition, a thing we all consented to in the first place.

The idea that a slave is then having power, is simply acknowledging that real power is not taken, but shared and given over freely. This is willingly and consensually done by another person, which presupposes the inherent quality of having power to share or accept in the first place. Playing a slave and being a slave are two pair of shoes.

Playing a master/mistress by seizing control once a bottom has lost it, places all the responsibility on the top and luckily most of us can handle that, as we are adult and sane persons that play with kinky urges. Like the continuity of ‘consent’ is sometimes for a while out of our control, so can we for a short while feel and experience how it is to be ‘on top’. We then perhaps accept that the consent of our bottom(s) as being exchanged to us for the duration of the scene. Again, as a friend said; “Tops should then safeword for their sanity when it is their conviction that the bottom has had too much.” Being a top is first and foremost an inner attitude and a matter of self-definition, experience, knowledge and technical skills are only the result thereof.

In this blog I argued about the importance of consent for both RACK as SSS. Not only have we seen that consent is the founding base on which BDSM-role play is resting, I also suggested to connect safewords with consent, so that the pursuance of kinky and sexual happiness always stays legitimate and humane.

In order not to do this at the cost of others, I stressed the importance of understanding that risk cannot be avoided, but that the respect for the integrity of our partners may include their basic right to self-determination and self-identification on which a given consent is based in the first place: power to choose is a given and just as founding as consent is. Finally, I emphasised that the notion of playing and being master or slave is in a way a discontinuation of both consent as power. This brings us deep into the land of archaic imagery. For my part, I opted for safewords, as total power, true domination or real control are just adjectives blurring the crucial border between facts and fiction.

As always, I wish you good luck on your journeys, in- and outside of the dungeon.

Enjoy – Sir Cameron

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