Communication and Consent

Not long ago, I was asked to present a class on negotiation and consent. I’ve used that title for classes in the past, but this time I insisted that the class be called communication and consent. It’s a relevant distinction.

Negotiation has a legalistic connotation, as if one were agreeing to a binding contract. Unless your kink experience is limited to 50 Shades of Grey, you know that’s not how BDSM actually works. While the term can be useful to refer a situation where people have agreed on a mutual interest in play and are determining how to go about it, it’s only one part of the much broader set of communication skills we should be teaching both tops and bottoms.

In my classes, I cover a wide range of material designed to help people improve their communication before, during, and after play, as well as in ongoing relationships. One topic that I always address is the pros and cons of the various models of BDSM, including SCC, RACK, PRICK, and CCCC. Of these, the model that I feel is the most useful also happens to be the least known, and I often get questions on it when I mention it outside of my classes. In this writing, I’m going to briefly introduce CCCC, compare it to the other more well-known models, and suggest additional resources to learn more about it.

Most people have heard of SSC, which stands for Safe, Sane, and Consensual. This was the first well-known framework for BDSM, but it has a couple of problems. The first is that sane is a term with specific technical meanings in the legal and mental health fields. Even in the more colloquial sense of the word, it’s an arbitrary judgement that is not consistent with the principle of respecting the kinks of others who might not share your own interests. The second problem is the same reason why educators now talk about safer sex rather than safe sex – no inherently risky behavior can ever be 100% safe.

RACK, or Risk-Aware Consensual Kink, addressed these issues and suggested that players should be aware of the risks involved. However, it’s often difficult to know all of the risks, especially when it comes to a type of play that one is not experienced with. So then you have PRICK, or Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink, which reflects the idea that it is each player’s responsibility to inform themselves, to whatever extent possible, about what they are doing, and the risks involved. Both RACK and PRICK can implicitly suggest that if something goes wrong, then every party is equally to blame, since they all should have taken responsibility to be aware of or informed about the risks beforehand. In reality, things are not always that simple.

CCCC is a newer framework that takes a somewhat different approach. The four Cs stand for Communication, Consent, Caring, and Caution. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only model that mentions communication. Maybe the other approaches simply took that for granted, but every model explicitly states that what we do should be consensual. I think we should also clearly point out the importance of communication as the foundation not only for consent, but also for the trust, connection, and understanding that is essential to powerful, mutually fulfilling kink experiences.

The other two Cs are also worth talking about. Caution is well-advised when dealing with kink, since it’s always possible to do more in the future but much harder to undo something if you went too far. And an explicit emphasis on caring reflects the idea that consent alone is not enough when dealing with ethical interpersonal interactions. Both in kink and in life in general, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where someone can be convinced to consent to something that is clearly not in their best interest.

A much more powerful concept, called ecology, can be found within certain therapeutic and personal change modalities. Ecology provides a framework to evaluate situations where every party believes that a course of action will be beneficial, but it turns out not to be. This can become particularly relevant when dealing with more risky or experimental forms of play. Caring and caution capture most of what ecology does without invoking an explicitly therapeutic context.

While no model is a complete or final representation of ethical BDSM play, CCCC is a valuable addition to any discussion of consent and communication. You can read more about it in this somewhat academic but still accessible paper. There’s also a podcast with one of the authors of that paper that is well worth listening to. Or you can come to my class Let’s Talk: Communication and Consent, where I discuss this and other related topics in more detail.