SSC and RACK for Polytheists

Risk-aware and consenting.

Full disclosure: I’m a kinky person. I have been since forever, I don’t care about figuring out why that is, and I relate to my gods through the lens of kink. And no, not for sexual reasons. And to be honest? I suspect a lot of devotional polytheists do to, but don’t realize it.

There’s been lots of hubub going on in the polytheistosphere lately concerning the role of consent, autonomy, et al in the realm of devotion and servitude. The one camp says that, if the Gods are real, intelligent, atomized individuals, then why can’t we hold them accountable for their actions when they do things to/with us that we don’t like? And the other, more or less, says yes, maybe aim for that – but meanwhile, don’t forget that the Gods aren’t human fucking beings. 

And if that sounds like a biased summary, then I plead guilty, because I am inclined to side with the latter for a myriad of reasons. One of which involves the understanding that my Gods are not, in fact, atomized individuals (none of us are), and a good chunk of who They are is raw nature. Another of which involves the belief that democratic relationships aren’t always the best.

I think, too, that the two opposing camps in this theological tussle can be very neatly phrased in terms of the kink community acronyms ‘SSC’ and ‘RACK’.

SSC stands for ‘Safe, Sane, and Consensual’, while RACK stands for ‘Risk-Aware Consensual Kink’. One of these represents an idealized fantasy image of kink and desire, a sanitized, “respectable” way of having a knife held to your throat during sex; the other acknowledges the messy, the unsavory, and the inherently dangerous reality of kinky encounters.


SSC originated with the gay S&M scene of the 80’s, at a time when consensual kink was really, really struggling to be seen as anything other than dangerous criminal activity. According to this article on the history of the two terms, the identity of the original coiner is still up for debate, though it came into very wide use:

So first, a little background. According to some sources, SSC was inspired by public service announcements around July 4th each year, urging people to have a “Safe and Sane Fourth of July celebration” . Others credit Tony Deblase after an unsigned essay that was submitted to Chicago’s “Inferno 10″ (1981) in which he said, “Responsible S&M has become more popular and less feared in the gay community and Chicago Hellfire Club continues to serve its community — striving always to educate and promote safe and sane enjoyment of men by men.”

Regardless of the origen, the term “Safe, Sane S/M” was becoming widely used by the mid-80′s at clubs all over the country.  In 1987, the Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA) organized a Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. The event was coordinated by the Community Involvement Committee, the political arm of that organization. David Stein, who was part of a committee of GMSMA (Gay Male S/M Activists) charged with drafting a new “statement of identity and purpose” recalls discussion about the catch phrase.

GMSMA’s Community Involvement Committee chose “safe sane consensual” as the slogan for the contingent and the conference because we felt these words were the best sound bite to distinguish the kind of sexual expression we were marching in support of from the typical association of S/M with harmful, antisocial, predatory behavior. While no one at our meetings felt that “safe sane consensual” was the last word on the subject, or that it “defined” S/M, we felt it did the job that needed done: to say to anyone coming to us with a stereotypically negative view based on lurid headlines and exploitative movies (we all remembered Cruising), “That’s not what we’re about.”

We had no idea the slogan would have the success it did, or that so many people would take it as more than a starting point. But if it hadn’t been spontaneously embraced by so many people, because they felt it fit what they were doing, or wanted to do, it wouldn’t have had such “legs.”There was no way that GMSMA, or anyone else, could have imposed the slogan on the community if most people hadn’t liked it.

SSC served a very pointed purpose, and it is a historically important slogan to have come about. But it’s just not useful anymore, and many kinksters feel the same way.

Basically, the jist is this:

Safe is ambiguous, relative, and denies the reality that most everything in life is risky, from getting in a car to going on a date. It encourages complete abstinence rather than practicing risk-reduction for things that people are going to do anyway.

Sane is ableist, and rejects that mentally ill or disabled people generally have the ability to consent to anything that a neurotypical person can. It denies people the freedom to make decisions regardless of their perceived state of mind. And more importantly, it denies people the freedom to make mistakes.

Consensual obviously isn’t something to argue against – but within the framework of SSC, I’ve seen it weaponized by respectability police more times than I care to count (and I’ve been there too, unfortunately; I’m not proud of that time I repeated jumped down a forum poster’s throat for playing with a loaded gun). It presupposes the idea that there are certain acts that cannot, by their very nature, be consented to, and therefore people who engage in those acts are oppressing themselves, are harming others/the community, or are not ‘sane’ as per above and need to be protected from themselves.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Because I see a lot of parallels in between the way the pro-human, pro-policing arm of the polytheist movement works and the way that SSC-ers work. The rhetoric is almost identical as well. Not to mention, what the hell do we do with gods and spirits who have perpetuated abuse in lore? Conventional tactics would have us shun them – but that would mean shutting out just about every named deity that has ever existed. So are they, or are they not beholden to our rules? Aren’t you just enabling abusers by worshiping Odin or Zeus or Papa Legba, et al? By not actively warding your home and your person against them? By making sure they’re not welcome in your community? What about Gods of death who take people prematurely? Gods of medicine don’t answer prayers of health? Isn’t that perpetuating a form of violence? Withholding a form of well-being that we, Their worshipers, have a right to receive by virtue of nothing more than being human? Goodness, I wish I could go back to thinking so simplistically.

SSC, and the anti-piety, pro-policing crowd are both two manifestations of the same idea; an idea that Devo has so concisely summarized through “humans > gods”. And as you might have guessed, “humans > anything/anyone else” really makes zero sense to me as a blanket moral law. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is why I sometimes get accused of being a fake anarchist.)

We Ought to Be Using RACK Instead

RACK, in my opinion, is a much more sophisticated and functional method of engaging with risky people and participating in risky activities. From the first article I linked to:

Our community does not need more budding kinksters doing risky things without hesitation or education because some “expert” told them it was safe. We need individuals who take a personal responsibility to research and hone their craft, who know the risks of what they are doing and can explain them clearly to the people they play with. We need teachers who explain the many different ways to do something and their associated risks, not just “the right way”. We need independent thinkers and players willing to challenge the ones who want to tell us what is ok or not to do with our partners. We need people who argue with facts, instead of fear; with insight instead of insults; with thoughts, instead of threats.

But with polytheism, it isn’t just what you do with/for your Gods and spirits. It’s who your Gods and spirits are. And let’s face it, if you worship a “male” Deity, He’s probably raped, murdered, or assaulted someone, and chances are He probably doesn’t “feel bad” about it. Once again, the PC-anthropocentric approach is to humanize the Gods to such a degree as to hold them accountable for these actions as we would any of our own. Need I list all the ways that that isn’t even feasible?

Now, I’m not going to go into how simplistic I believe it is to assume that “force of nature” and “sentience” are diametric opposites, and that a god is either one or the other. (Also, such a humanist perspective – our ancestors had few, if any, qualms about acknowledging the simultaneous personhood of a specific god and their nature as a thunderstorm, as death, as fire, and so on. It is silly to conceive of this as  zero-sum game.) Suffice to say, it is not conducive towards building polytheism up as a radical theology without being able to acknowledge that the Gods are many-faced, many-natured, and that they are not human. There is nothing for Santa Muerte to reconcile, for instance, for answering the prayers of both the narcos and the victims of their violence. See Are the Gods On Our Side? by Heathen Chinese as a good exploration of this.

So instead of talking shit about certain Gods, bashing their followers, saying so-in-so’s pantheon is “better” because they have more of a sense of retribution, let’s practice – and I mean really practice – risk-awareness and mitigation instead of attempting to declaw the entire God-devotee relationship for all of pagandom. And if you can’t handle that a God you work with wants to push your boundaries? Can’t handle knowing that most of the Gods aren’t like us? Find someone else to worship. Stick to the Powers that were human once. If you were a bottom that wanted nothing more than a little flogging or OTK spanking, you wouldn’t go chasing after a sadist who was looking for a TPE dynamic, now would you? Same rules apply. Don’t expect a sadist to not want to hurt you; likewise, don’t expect a non-human god to act like a human all the time. If you do, don’t be surprised if they eventually get fed up and you’re left talking to yourself.

That’s not to say don’t do whatever you want – that, too, would be antiethical to an anti-humanist approach to polytheism. But be prepared for consequences should things not work the way you so desperately want them to.

Unfortunately, I expect to be preaching to the choir here – Devo, Satsekhem, and the other anthropocentric polytheists out there will not change their mind unless they want to. Besides – policing is damn fun, right?

One last thing: I think it might be good for all of us who are part of this awkward discussion to familiarize ourselves with the Consent-As-Felt-Sense theory. Now, I personally do not get along with Maymay, who has a very ironic history of being mortally allergic to criticism, and who harasses, doxxes, and encourages the suicide of people who firmly disagree with them, but I believe that CAFS is a really important addition to consent work, and it ought to inform further discussions that we have pertaining to the concept of consent and what it actually is.

Now, that is not to say that I believe it would be a welcome addition to my life as a social, interdependent meat-creature to start labeling everyone who has ever made me feel gross ‘rapists’. But my personal takeaway from the piece, as someone with dubious personal boundaries who enjoys having those boundaries manipulated, who enjoys and consents to mind games that are designed to constantly border on genuinely damaging, and as someone who uses RACK in their day-to-day kink, consent-as-felt-sense does me much more good than consent-as-contract. These are encounters and dynamics that cannot be reduced to legalese on paper, or, in my experience, a simple, “enthusiastic yes”. (This goes back to the problems with SSC – if I cannot say “yes” for whatever reason, but I’m still mostly sure that I want to consent, am I not allowed to engage?  Am I not allowed to willingly place myself in that risky situation, even if  I’m with a partner who is willing to accept my incomplete consent, willing to accept the risk and the potential damage that a bad turn could result in? According to SSC, the answer is a resounding no.) These are places where goalposts are constantly shifting, being coaxed backward and forward; where emotional and consciousness states are a medium of expression and exploration.

The average devotional polytheist would probably still function in a contractual manner with their Gods, so this may not be all that useful. However, perhaps godspouses, godslaves, and others in “kinkier” relationships might benefit from this more specifically. (Though, IMO, everyone should be familiar with this, polytheism aside.)

Anyways, so there’s that.. I’ll probably regret posting this eventually; but for right now, wow, glad I got that off my chest. Hopefully it was coherent.


6 thoughts on “SSC and RACK for Polytheists

  1. The link to Consent-As-Felt-Sense theory really helped me unpick some gross stuff in my brain from my history. I think that I too would not get on so well with Maymay, for reasons that include those of yours that you listed above. That said, useful post was useful. RACK makes worlds more sense both in kink circles, and in Polytheist circles, than the idealised-but-unworkable-IRL SSC. And if human-to-human interactions are so fraught with peril, as indeed they often are, how much more is that magnified when one party involved is a God?! In short, this is an excellent post you’ve written here, and I’ve found it incredibly helpful and healing, personally speaking. I also have hopes that I can internalise some of the lessons within and try to be less of a shitty being, going forwards. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting analogy between polytheism and kink practices, never thought of it that way before but what you say make sense (I’m not involved in kink, just know of some things from friends who are into it). As you say this wouldn’t change things a whole lot in terms of actual action for a “mundane” polytheist like myself, but it does provide food for thought on how to recognize deities. Like you, mine are almost all non-human and are primarily “forces of nature” types despite being depicted in human forms in art, so it seems reasonable to me to expect problems sometimes if you go after some of them (and get recognized in return).


  3. Reblogged this on Ironwood Witch and commented:

    So apparently this has been in my reading queue for ages, but I’m glad I finally read it. (There’s a part of me going through a list of check boxes going, dude, do I KNOW you already?) As a kinky polyamorus polytheist/pagan (lots of p’s) I’ve spent quite a bit of time seeing how both the poly’s overlapped – particularly in balancing the multiple relationships, be they human or Non-human. However I’d never thought to apply the concepts of SCC and RACK to these particular debates, and I’m amused to see that as always, I wind up on the side of RACK.

    Liked by 1 person

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