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BDSM Acronyms: A Look at SSC, RACK, PRICK and CCCC

Published: JANUARY 11, 2024
BDSM acronyms have emerged and been debated over a time as away to protect BDSM practitioners - and the community as a whole.

In any BDSM exchange, participants should be guided by consent. Not only does a thorough understanding of boundaries make for a healthier play environment and a stronger partnership, but when you and your dominant or submissive have a framework in place to inform consent, you’ll both feel more open to sexual expression.

This is why models like SSC, RACK, PRICK and CCCC came to life. These BDSM acronyms can help you determine where you stand in regards to other play partners, as well as how the responsibility for what you are engaging in is shared.

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Curious about how to implement one of these guidelines into your BDSM relationship? Or maybe you're wondering which one you should use? Here’s an overview of the four key models and their best use cases.

SSC, RACK, PRICK, and CCCC: How These Terms Appeared in the BDSM World

In "Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely," authors Henkin and Holiday assert that BDSM practitioners coined “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” (abbreviated SSC) in the 1980s. This framework states that everything under the kink umbrella should be handled with safety at the forefront, with all consenting participants of sound mind.

A group based out of New York called the Gay Male SM Activists (GMSMA) may have been the first adopters of SSC as a rule-of-thumb practice. In response to problems with consent cropping up throughout the city’s gay BDSM-centric clubs, the organization published a memo in 1983 which read:

“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.”

As BDSM evolved and the world became arguably more kink-friendly, further BDSM models emerged to challenge the validity of SSC. RACK and PRICK became popularized due to a growing belief that BDSM activities are not inherently “safe,” and that enjoying them in a healthy way shouldn’t hinge on them being so. Additionally, practitioners began to wonder whether the use of “sane” in SSC came from an ableist point of view. However, SSC as well as other common acronyms that succeeded it, each have a place in the BDSM sphere, as well as a practical use that anyone engaged in a kink-focused relationship should know about.

If you've only begun wading into the BDSM world, you might wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to the subtleties of these different acronyms. So, we'll spell it out for you: Safety and consent are of the utmost importance when partners are exchanging power during sexual play. Not only do they ensure no one is harmed, physically or emotionally, but they also make everyone feel comfortable in exploring a wide range of kinks. These frameworks are also an attempt by the BDSM community as a whole to ensure people's safety and, as a result, the safety of the community as a whole. In other words, if we all learn to play in ways that respect other people, we are more likely to continue to keep playing - and maybe even earn a little more respect from the world at large.

According to a study by UBC Sexual Health Research, consent is what separates BDSM from abuse, and represents an ongoing process to maintain safety.


“Consensual BDSM is predicated on explicit negotiation, which could be used as a model for discussing consent in other contexts,” asserts the researchers. BDSM acronyms from SSC to CCCC can be helpful tools in negotiating what would make you feel safest throughout a scene.

Now let's break down each BDSM acronym to help you understand it better.

Read: Consent in BDSM: Navigating Heightened Emotion

Breaking Down SSC

Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) is seen as a cornerstone of BDSM guidelines. Its primary ethos is that all activities when power is exchanged should be safe, harmless and agreed upon by all parties. The mutual consent implied in SSC empowers the BDSM community to explore their kinks in a way that still puts compassion and respect at the center.

But what does this acronym really mean in practice? Let's break it down.

Safe

Even in the case of humiliation or impact play, practitioners should prioritize the wellbeing and security of everyone involved.

According to Dr. Tara, sexologist and host of The LuvBites Podcast, “safe” can look different to everyone.

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“I recommend that practitioners talk about the act in advance so that all participants can rate what is safe and what is not,” she said. “For example, if the participants are going to try flogging, one can say, ‘for me, it’s safe to do it on my butt, but for me, it’s not safe to do it on my pussy, neck, or near my face.’”

Sane

Although this term has been labeled as ableist because it's often used in the context of mental health, what it means in BDSM is that anyone practicing BDSM should be of sound mind, clear-headed and capable of making thoughtful decisions on behalf of all parties.

Consensual

Consent should be clearly and freely communicated before play begins so that all participants understand and respect the boundaries involved.


Read: The Basics of BDSM Negotiation

Breaking Down RACK

Building on the principles of SSC, RACK stands for Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. RACK relies on the belief that BDSM practices are not always “safe” by conventional definition, and that it is up to each individual to take responsibility for their wellbeing.

Gary Switch, a contributing editor for Prometheus Magazine, a publication of The Eulenspiegel Society, the first BDSM organization founded in the United States, is credited with coining RACK in a post on the organization's USENET list. He rationalized it by saying, “Nothing's perfectly safe. Crossing the street isn't perfectly safe. Remember if we want to limit BDSM to what's safe, we can't do anything more extreme than flogging somebody with a wet noodle.”


In other words, RACK built on the idea of SSC and expanded it by acknowledging that many types of play that people enjoy do carry risk. RACK aimed to reconcile that risk by continuing to ensure participants' consent, and mitigating the potential for harm with knowledge, skill and individual judgment.

Let's break this BDSM acronym down into its key parts.

Risk-Aware

“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,” asserts Switch. In RACK, “risk-aware” refers to the notion that every practitioner takes note of any and all potential consequences to which they agree.

“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,” Switch explains.

Consensual Kink

Although RACK places an emphasis on every individual’s preferences guiding the way, consent between partners is still of the utmost importance to limit harm.

Breaking Down PRICK

PRICK, or Personal Responsibility, Informed, Consensual Kink, takes the guidelines of RACK a step further. You can consider it a further evolution in the BDSM community. When individuals in the community started to wonder whether consent is truly possible if you don’t have all the information about what you’re submitting to, PRICK entered the popular rhetoric. It takes into account that BDSM practitioners should use the resources available to understand any risks involved prior to giving consent.

Let's break it down.

Personal Responsibility

PRICK makes it known that if you’re engaging in kinky behaviors, you should take personal responsibility for what is about to happen - this includes the risks. This is important if you’re a dominant and will be setting the tone throughout the scene. However, as a submissive, you’re not immune to taking responsibility while you’re engaging in BDSM.

“As a sub, it is your responsibility to educate yourself on what’s going to happen in the scene and what will be done to you,” explains Dr. Tara. “Understand that you can communicate honestly with your dom if certain things push your limits out of your red line. Communicating with honesty is the responsibility of everyone involved.”

Informed

When you’re dabbling in a new kink under the guidelines of PRICK, you can’t truly consent unless you’ve studied up on all of the possibilities. Do your homework. Are you new to impact play? Visit your local sex store and ask questions about how varying implements are meant to feel. Make sure you’re aware of the body parts to avoid. Create an aftercare plan, and stock your cabinets if this involves a soothing balm or lotion for post-play coddling.

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PRICK followers try not to leave any stones unturned when learning about a new fetish, so they can go into the scene thoroughly prepared.

Consensual Kink

Here's that concept once again: consent. When accountability meets knowledge, you can safely consent to any number of kinky activities under PRICK.

Breaking Down CCCC

Diverging from the building blocks of SSC, RACK and PRICK, CCCC takes a totally different and holistic approach to BDSM. Caring, Communication, Consent and Caution focuses on the need for kindness and attentiveness when creating a healthy, trust-focused environment for kinky expression.

This model was proposed in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality in 2014. It aims to address some of the shortcomings of RACK and SSC and create a model that more heavily emphasizes caring and communication in an effort to help counter misconceptions about the kink community.


Let's break down the four C's of CCCC.

Caring

The introduction of “caring” is the first way that the 4Cs is distinctly different from RACK and PRICK. According to the authors of paper in which CCCC was first proposed, there are varying intensities of caring that vary from relationship to relationship (even in a BDSM-first relationship, you’re likely to care differently for a TPE spouse than you are for a casual play partner, right?). However, CCCC acknowledges “a basic and inherent caring simply for being fellow human beings.” It also acknowledges that while people outside of the BDSM community may still perceive BDSM participation as "inherently abusive, violent or rooted in psychopathology," the foundation of caring is meant to communicate that BDSM can, and should, be just the opposite.

Communication

Emphasizing communication as a core tenet of a BDSM dynamic will lead to a better understanding among participants. CCCC posits that you’re likely to achieve better, more satisfying sex if you really get your partner’s needs and motivations. This is true both when practicing BDSM and having vanilla sex!

Consent

While consent is at the heart of SSC, RACK and PRICK, the sex researchers who proposed CCCC challenge those who are sticking with CCCC to “strive for a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of consent.”

As CCCC takes care, compassion and communication so seriously, practitioners may think more deeply about what constitutes consent. Sometimes, this means reading between the lines even if the submissive has said “yes.”

"We are talking about something beyond just a bottom’s ability to use a safeword or gesture,” the journal explains. “When a bottom is crying and sobbing and in obvious distress and perhaps full into some kind of subspace - but hasn’t yet called ‘red’ - we might wonder to what extent the scene is affecting the thinking of the bottom and affecting the bottom’s mental capacity to yell out ‘red’ or to engage in cognitive consent at all?”

Read: A Step-by-Step Guide to Negotiating Consent

Caution

The subtle shift from safety and risk-awareness to caution may not seem major, but the undertone is enough to paint your BDSM activities in a different light if you’re abiding by CCCC. While “risk” and “safety” are often restricted to medical health, “caution” may be more inclusive of people who embrace a broader range of social concerns when they determine what kinks feel safe and healthy for them.

Which BDSM framework is right for you?

SSC is the oldest BDSM acronym and, as such, has been subject to much historical interpretation. If you prefer a more open-ended approach to BDSM and aspire to color within the lines of an existing framework, SSC might be for you. However, there’s plenty of criticism, as the core tenet of “safe” is incredibly subjective. As such, SSC might be best used by experienced partners who are well-versed in each other’s boundaries.

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“RACK acknowledges that some play is not necessarily safe. People are more comfortable using the RACK guideline when danger is part of their kink,” explains Dr. Tara. “PRICK could be a good guideline if you’re someone who feels like, ‘I’m a Dom and it’s my responsibility to educate myself as a Dom, and you’re a sub and it’s your responsibility to educate yourself as a sub.’ This means that you truly believe that to engage in healthy BDSM means that each person is completely responsible for being educated and being honest about their feelings.”


Dr. Tara sees CCCC as the most comprehensive guideline and one of the easiest to follow.

"If you care for someone, consent is always important. Even though certain BDSM play involves ‘non consensual’ roleplay, it’s still consensual,” she asserts. “Communication is fundamental. That’s there with CCCC, and so is caution. I think being aware of the risk and the possible danger is your responsibility.”

Dr. Tara finds that she recommends CCCC to many BDSM practitioners, particularly those who are still finding their way.

Do BDSM protocols make BDSM risk-free?

In short, no one BDSM guideline will make play completely risk-free. There will always be at least a small element of risk when it comes to exchanging autonomy with someone else.

“Some people are turned on by and stimulated through the thought of danger,” Dr. Tara says. “BDSM does not have to be risk-free to be pleasurable and safe to one’s own subjective interpretation.”

The Bottom Line of BDSM Acronyms

The exploration of BDSM protocol through acronyms like SSC, RACK, PRICK and CCCC is helpful in grasping the importance of consent, safety, and responsibility in kink-oriented relationships. Each framework offers a unique perspective on navigating the complexities of BDSM.

Ultimately, while these guidelines offer guidance, they cannot be counted on to eliminate all risks associated with BDSM. Remember: The importance of negotiation, communication and respect can’t be understated when it comes to practicing BDSM with your partner.

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Photo for Elizabeth Kirkhorn
Elizabeth Kirkhorn

Elizabeth Kirkhorn is a writer and essayist living in Manhattan. She is a graduate of The New School's MFA in Writing and currently lends her voice to a Creative Strategy Role at Dotdash Meredith, where she focuses on health & wellness brands. Elizabeth's writing spans a wide range of kinks and curiosities, and can be found on O.school, MysteryVibe, Byrdie, and beyond.

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