I’m on the earliest slides of my “Tied Up and Feminist” workshop at a university when a student raises their hand.
As I call on them, they say “One thing me and my friends talk about a lot is that sometimes, you’re hooking up with someone, and they just start choking you. Even if you are into that, it’s just…off.”
I settle in for a conversation about consent, boundaries, performance, and communication — one we were going to have no matter what, but that is now happening a few slides ahead of schedule.
At one point in my sex ed career, I would get a few kink-related questions in each workshop. Mostly, though, students wanted to ask about things like communication. In recent years, my students have asked more kink-specific questions — whether or not that’s the topic I’m teaching that day.
Over the past decade, basic BDSM and kink practices have fully entered the mainstream.
In 2015, a University of Indiana study found that 30% of respondents had engaged in sexual spanking and 22% had engaged in Dominance/submission roleplay – numbers that exceed the previous assumption that kink practices were relatively uncommon.
As more and more people explore kink and BDSM, there is an even greater need for comprehensive and pleasure-focused sex education. How we talk about what we’re into matters, and we all benefit from frameworks that help us create pleasurable sexual experiences for ourselves and our partners.
Luckily, the kink community has a handy acronym to help you get started!
Kink, Culture, Medicine, and the Law
While many people may immediately think of the slogan “safe, sane, and consensual” (SSC) when it comes to kinky practices, that framework has been put back on the shelf. Why? First, safety looks different to everyone based on health needs, information, experience level, and context.
Beyond that, we need to take a look at the bigger cultural context around the word “sane”, especially in regard to kinky sexual practices.
For many years, kink practices weren’t just seen as fringe — they were seen as deviant, psychologically unwell, and potentially criminal. In the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Disease 10 (ICD-10), sadomasochism and fetishism were considered disorders.
This meant that if someone practiced BDSM and disclosed it to a therapist or other medical professional, it could be considered a “sexual disorder” and annotated in their medical record as such.
Luckily, in 2016 the ICD got a major overhaul. An article detailing the changes described the rationale this way:
“From WHO's perspective, there is an important distinction between conditions that are relevant to public health and indicate the need for health services versus those that are simply descriptions of private behaviour without appreciable public health impact and for which treatment is neither indicated nor sought.”
Basically, most kinky practices don’t require clinical intervention or treatment and do not affect public health — they’re private behaviors. The changes ICD-11 clinically formalized what kinky people already knew: Consensual kink and BDSM practices aren’t a disorder or abnormal and shouldn’t be treated as such.
So, a new acronym replaced “safe, sane, and consensual.” The newer framework is RACK, and it stands for Risk-Aware Consensual Kink.
Practicing Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK)
Let’s be clear — risk-aware and consensual practices are beneficial for everyone, not just kinksters. In fact, I’d argue that being risk-aware is foundational to truly informed consent.
Risk-aware replaced “safety” as a measure of suitability because fundamentally, it requires us to take a closer look at all of the risks involved with a practice — physical, emotional, psychological, and practical — and evaluate our own levels of risk tolerance.
Let’s take impact play as an example.
Impact play refers to a broad spectrum of touches (impacts) and includes things like spanking and flogging. If you were curious about being spanked, some risks you might think about and discuss with your partners would include:
- What parts of the body do I want spanked?
- What parts of the body are too delicate to be spanked?
- In what contexts do I want to be spanked?
- How will I know, and communicate, when I’ve reached my physical threshold or need a break?
- How can I check in with myself and my partners emotionally throughout and afterward?
- If I want to be spanked to the point of bruising, how will that affect me? (Clothing, caretaking, movement limitations, etc)
- Given all of the above, what are the potential risks (physical, emotional, and otherwise) that I might encounter here?
These are just some of the questions you might use to assess the risk of a certain behavior. You’re thinking about the physical (body parts and physical threshold), psychological (context), emotional (how can I stay tuned-in), and more. As part of that process, you might read educational articles or watch some how-to videos so that you can learn how to spank more safely and pleasurably.
Once you and your partners have considered those things and discussed them together, you’re more aware of the risks, which means you can make a fully informed decision about how to proceed.
Risk assessment is an essential part of informed and ongoing consent. With that assessment, we’re able to truly decide if (and how) we want to do something.
Remember my college student who asked me about choking? That’s a great example of someone not practicing RACK.
It wasn’t consensual — their partner just “surprised” them with choking (which, to be clear, isn’t sexy — it’s just scary). And based on the hand gestures that they demonstrated while asking their question, I’d bet that there wasn’t much risk assessment or risk education going on either.
Choking, otherwise known as breathplay, is considered an “edge practice.” That means it’s an advanced kink practice and requires specific education in order to be more safely done — but no matter what, it carries a relatively high physical risk, such as damage to the windpipe.
Consent is absolutely essential for every type of sexual interaction, and we don’t get a “free pass” just because we may have done something with a partner in the past. That student shared that they actually were into breath play, but because their partner did it without asking, it became scary instead of sexy.
Some kink practices and BDSM scenes might involve cultivating a sense of fear or being out of control – but the key word there is “a sense of.” Scenes and specific types of play are pre-negotiated, meaning that everyone involved knows what they are getting into, what the boundaries are, what the safewords and gestures are and what they mean, and that there are aftercare plans set up.
In order for a sexual experience to be enjoyable (even if pain is involved), everyone has to know what they’re getting into. Everyone has to know where the boundaries lie. And everyone has to have a plan for if things don’t go as expected — because sometimes, we have emotional or physical reactions that we may not have taken into account.
RACK asks all of us — kinky and vanilla alike — to take a holistic approach to our sexual experiences. While many of us were taught to prioritize and uplift spontaneity, RACK compels us to prioritize intentionality and education.
That mindset can help us all make more informed decisions about the types of sex we have, how we pursue pleasure, and simply how we move through the world as people.