Risk vs Regret

I recently had occasion to explain my views on Risk vs Regret awareness in a discussion, one that I thought was worth sharing with my broader reader base.  As per usual this is not meant to be definitive or absolute, but rather insight gained from personal experience and discussions with others which I offer for your consideration.

There are several mnemonic acronyms that are supposed to help those of us that engage in BDSM to remember about matters of risk, safety, etc.  These often focus on the idea of risk awareness and responsibility. Meaning that there are certain risks inherent in various activities, and while we can prepare and attempt to mitigate these risks, they cannot be completely eliminated. As such, all consensual participants must accept some responsibility for understanding that risk and deciding to go forward regardless.

These lifestyle oriented mnemonic acronyms include, but are certainly not limited to:


The origins of Safe, Sane & Consensual (SSC) was to be the “minimum standard” of ethical S/M play within the NY gay male S&M scene (GMSMA). However the expansion of BDSM gave rise to a key concern – nothing about those activities are completely safe.  Certain activities cannot obviate risk (i.e. can never truly be safe), and other activities such as edge play are inherently high-risk oriented.  As a result, Gary Switch of TES proposed the term “RACK” in 1999 (Prometheus #37) as a means to draw the attention back to Risk and away from the notion of being Safe.

There are other alternatives which have also tried to clarify some of the cherished values from within the lifestyle.  Of course this is also assuming there can be one set of key values or principles. This challenge exists because “the lifestyle” is not one unified thing but rather an amalgamation of life choices around sexuality, sensuality, relationships and social activities resulting from the collision of the gay leather scene, swingers, and the free love movement.  How one incorporates elements from these various cultures and their related activities is highly individual and personal.  Ergo, it is extremely rare that any two people have exactly the same ideas or definitions about relationships and the risk or relative safety of various activities.  This is why forgoing labels and having meaningful discussions about needs, wants, and limits is so important.

There are some shared values (relatively speaking) regarding the importance of communication, fully informed risk, consent, and mutual personal responsibility.


The problem I observe from the perspective of the human condition is that the idea of Risk is subject to debate.  Risk is commonly viewed with the notion that it “might” happen, but is not necessarily likely.  The focus on SSC eventually saw people rationalizing and mitigating the factors behind what is “safe” and what isn’t. Eventually there was equating the “safe” in SSC as meaning without risk.

Regrets: Those were the droids you were looking for

This is a human behavior which is fairly universal.  When one establishes a firm enough desire or belief, the detractors or “risks” are whittled away through rationalization in order to support the pre-existing desire or belief.  The mechanism involved here is the individual resolving the cognitive dissonance between conflicting beliefs, desires, behaviors, and objective reality.  So the sense of risk is being mitigated down to an unlikely possibility (and thus not worth really thinking about) or nullified as a result of another experience or skill.

The very word Risk infers a measure of probability in the outcome, an event that may or may not occur.  Using the word risk provides the room of probability where we can argue against that probability.  Rationalization is a powerful and often dangerous tool when it comes to decision-making, especially when it’s up against something we desire or believe. Risk provides the space for rationalization, to explain away dangers and sooth ourselves by invalidating or minimizing otherwise valid fears or risks.

So here’s a basic example using a hypothetical situation with Risk Awareness and subject it to Rationalization:

  • Question: do I leave my laptop in the car when I go out for dinner?
  • Desire/Belief: I don’t want to carry it & look like a total geek
  • Risk Awareness: the possibility it can be stolen
  • Rationalization:
    • It’s a safe neighborhood
    • there are plenty of people around
    • I have a car alarm
    • It’s hidden or can barely be seen
  • Resolution: sure, it’s probably going to be fine; it will be fine…
  • Decision: leaving it in the car

With such a process we wipe away the possible cost or pain of a negative outcome. We never think about the downside’s Impact because we’ve eliminated the potential downside before its even been weighed.  This is, I strongly believe, a major challenge in the lifestyle today.  We want what we want, we feel we somehow deserve to get what we want, and to be protected from “bad things” happening. We work to rationalize away the probability of risk and entertain the fantasy without ever calculating the potential cost.

Ultimately, Rationalization is how we talk ourselves into something which supports our wants and desires while downplaying the possible costs or negative outcomes.

Translation & Relevancy

Let’s take a six-sided die (1d6) where “6” is a potential for a scene mishap. The rudimentary Bernoulli trial would say that if you take your chance once, then chances are fairly slim, but keep taking those chances and the odds increase.  This is because there are only two real outcomes, a good event and the possibility of a bad event.

Your typical commute to work has the same type of mechanism – the more you drive the more likely an accident will occur.  There are influencing factors that can increase the chance of a mishap (icy weather, blinding rain, dense fog, etc.), as well as the factors for a greater or lesser magnitude of mishap (snow tires, texting/distracted driving, seat belts & airbag, etc.).  This can be applied to anything: say… the risk inherent in trying that new sushi restaurant, and the potential regret when your number comes up.

The same is for BDSM tops & bottoms when doing a scene.  You gain experience & skill through repetition and practice, but each execution in a scene actually increases the chance of a mishap. The more you play, the more you roll the proverbial dice.  Eventually something will happen – it’s then a matter of how bad the mishap will be.  Even then, any mishap’s magnitude exists on a scale of probability from minor to tragic. Given the above, it should not be any wonder how some of the most experienced folks in the scene have had serious problems as of late.  It’s pretty much inevitable.

What makes a difference is all those involved have prepared for the negative outcome, the eventual mistake or mishap.  Is there really solid trust and demonstration of personal responsibility and accountability to mitigate the damage when something goes wrong?

If you just met the person then its not trust and experience speaking, its faith and hope as enabled through rationalization.

Solution: Regret Awareness

This is why I tend to dislike risk awareness and instead strongly advocate for Regret Awareness.  By looking at regret, we eliminate the phase that asks about the likeliness or probability of an outcome.  We in the USA like to down-play the value of regret because there is the popular view that rumination holds us back from going forward.  While excessive rumination may hold us back, some rumination is invaluable as it affords us the opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve our decisions or skills.  Regret is essentially the emotional signal telling us we made an error and to take that as a “learning moment” to improve ourselves.

1 stupid mistake can change everything

By removing the opportunity to rationalize away the If, the emotional impact behind regret becomes clearer because they are about When something goes wrong.  This is something most folks misunderstand about probability – that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.  Therefore, using regret awareness forces us to face one very simple question: When this goes wrong, do you accept the cost of that outcome?   So here’s the same example as before, now subjected to Regret Awareness:

  • Question: do I leave my laptop in the car when I go out for dinner?
  • Desire/Belief: I don’t want to carry it & look like a total geek
  • Regret Awareness: When my laptop is stolen, how much will it impact me?
  • Potential Impacts:
    • Cost of a new laptop
    • Replacing the car window if broken
    • Hours filing a police report & insurance claims
    • Losing valuable data/records
    • Privacy, identity theft, hacking accounts
    • Embarrassment of notifying folks of possible email breach
  • Resolution: nah, that will cost too much, and the loss of info is invaluable…
  • Decision: taking it with you

This is the challenge – use of certain words carry ideas, experiences, and emotions.  When we say “risk” we have the option to explain away the possible event and its impact. However, when we say “regret” we have to face that this event will happen and are we really prepared to handle it.   Regret Awareness removes the opportunity to rationalize away risk and face the choice whether we are prepared to accept the cost, pain, aggravation, complications, and the total picture of what will be involved WHEN said event occurs.  That is what the Personal Responsibility means – accepting the risk for what it truly is and owning that choice.

Regret Awareness is the means to owning the potential consequences for your decisions and actions.


So, with this in mind, let’s rethink RACK and all the other acronyms with the idea of being “Regret Aware”.  Are you fully aware of the potential complications and costs, and are you prepared to accept them?  If not, then maybe what you need more instruction and expectation discussions, talk about the real unvarnished risk as if it were to happen to prepare accordingly.  Maybe you need to build more basic experiences and personal trust over time.  Maybe you need the foundations built first before allowing frenzy and excitement to control your leap into the abyss.  If you say you are prepared, then you also have to own your own error in judgment and deal with the consequences without blame shifting (assuming there wasn’t intentional or malicious misrepresentation, deceit, or manipulation involved).  Will YOU take ownership and action regarding your own decisions and outcomes?  Will you engage in the self care necessary as a responsible consenting adult, or expect to be pitied, sheltered and hand-held as a child?

When a scene does go wrong (and it will), you will need the maturity and experience to mitigate any damage. That includes enlisting the support needed so you can recover as quickly as possible – so you can continue to live, love, and experience again.  Or maybe you need more facts and experience, and less faith, to decide if you wish to accept the costs when something goes wrong.

Because it will, it always does.



Copyright 2017 Limits Unleashed




Risk and rationalization— The role of affect and cognitive dissonance for sexual risk taking;  A.Mannberg;   https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroecorev.2012.06.005

Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger), in Learning Theories; David L;  December 28, 2015;  https://www.learning-theories.com/cognitive-dissonance-festinger.html.

Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception; Dr. N.Burton,