Most people are familiar with the basic concept of safewords. One person says “cherry” or “elephant” or “pineapple peanut butter cream” or whatever, and the other person stops what they’re doing. Seems simple enough, right? The truth is there's a bit more to the safeword concept than that.  


If you’re engaging in kink, BDSM or fetish activity with a partner, it’s essential that you give at least some thought to a few vital questions:

  • Does every relationship need a safeword?
  • How can we choose what our safeword is?
  • When is it appropriate to use a safeword?
  • Are there times when a safeword isn’t enough?
  • Is there an intermediary stage before using a safeword?
  • What if a safeword is underused, misused or abused?

We're going to take you through these questions one by one. This one might get a bit long, so do fetch yourself a cup of tea or something before you settle in to read!
 

Do all BDSM relationships need safewords?

The Official Party Line of the BDSM community is that any kinky sex - no matter how gentle - should only be undertaken with a pre-agreed safeword.

In practice, however, it’s a bit more complicated than that. You’ll find some couples who take the view: if you communicate well and trust each other, safewords shouldn’t be necessary. This is most relevant to people who concentrate more on impact play and bondage than on very psychological and 'headspacey' BDSM. Of course, it doesn’t hold up in a situation where someone might say “no” or “stop” without actually wanting play to end.

Then some people practice what is sometimes known as edge play (a term that seems to have at least three different accepted meanings in the BDSM community). Kinky sex where you’ve explicitly agreed in advance, for that session, there is no safeword - this can be fascinating from a psychological perspective as it adds a particular frisson for a lot of people who are into consensual non-consent. This should only happen between two people who trust each other and have discussed it a great deal beforehand.

The thing that distinguishes both of these exceptions, though, is that the people involved have talked it over amongst themselves openly and consciously. In kinky sex, having a safeword should be the default and playing without one the exception.
 

How can we choose what our safeword is?

The stereotype is that you pick something slightly silly. Something that you’d never say in the usual course of sex. There are benefits to this approach: it will certainly stand out to the person hearing it as unusual. It also has a few drawbacks. I, for one, would feel awkward and self-conscious about using such a safeword. They’re also much easier to forget in the heat of the moment, as they’re yet another thing to discuss during negotiations with a new partner, you run the risk of not thinking of one till it’s too late. This is especially a problem in a busy fetish club or play party environment.
 

The solution?

Have a couple of safewords. Ones that are widely accepted throughout the community that people can default to and always be understood. We’ve got those: they’re safeword and red. Pretty much anyone involved in BDSM will know what you mean if you use them.

If you’re playing with someone and they say either ‘safeword’ or ‘red’  STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You should do this regardless of any discussion you’ve had about safewords before - unless you were both very explicit, beforehand, not to use a safeword in a scene. Even then, it’s still a good idea to check in. They might have explained in negotiations that they wanted to use those words: as part of the psychological kink and are enjoying you not responding to them.
 

When is it appropriate to use a safeword?

The trite answer to this is “whenever you feel the need to” - and that’s true, of course. In practice, though we all struggle with this from time to time. My article Five Bad Reasons Not To Safeword looks at some of the problems people might have in this regard. Some people don’t safeword particularly often. Over the course of ten years and numerous Dominants, I believe I’ve used a safeword exactly four times:

  • Once during forced fellatio when I realized I was in serious danger of throwing up
  • Another because I’d absolutely reached my maximum pain threshold
  • One time because I discovered in the middle of being told to do it for the first time that rimming is a hard limit for me
  • Once because I find anal sex extremely difficult and I just couldn’t handle any more of it.

I’ve done a lot of consensual non-consent play. One of my favourite things about kink is knowing I’ve weathered through something that wasn’t easy for me. Not everyone wants to play that way, and that’s okay.  Other people use safewords quite frequently.

  • When you’re only just starting out, it can be a good way of exploring what you do and don’t want, safely.
  • The dominant partner can experiment safely. Knowing that you’ll tell them if you want them to stop or slow down.
  • There are also people who love to be taken right to the very edge of their boundaries - this can only work if they’re able to communicate when those boundaries have been crossed.

Then, of course, there’s the question of variable pain thresholds. Everyone’s ability to process pain fluctuates.  People who are very into impact play need to be able to let their dominant know where they’re at.

Whatever your reason for using a safeword, the important thing is that you know you can trust your partner to respect it and they won't make you feel uncomfortable for using it. This is one of the fundamental tenets of consent in BDSM relationships. It’s vital for you and everyone you play with to be on the same page about it before you begin.
 

Are there times when a safeword isn’t enough?

Of course, there are a few circumstances when a verbal safeword isn’t practical. What about when you’re gagged or engaged in breath play? What about the forced fellatio scene I mentioned earlier. Or my friend who doesn’t feel comfortable using a safeword she has to say out loud?

In situations like this, you’re going to need to agree on a non-verbal safeword. A signal to your partner that works in the same way as saying ‘safeword’ or ‘red’ or ‘too much’ or whatever else out loud. A few examples, to give you somewhere to start from:

Click your fingers three times, or repeatedly until you’re sure your Dom has got the message - a non-verbal safeword to which I default. It’s not perfect for bondage (you might not be able to get your hand in the right position) or in fetish clubs (where it might not be audible over the music). In many situations, it works well and doesn’t feel too awkward.

Get the submissive to hold something that will make a noise if dropped. Most bondage arrangements leave your hands just about free enough for this (unless you’re wearing mitts). I habitually wear a lot of jangly metal bracelets, so in my case, it’s usually those. Of course, it can be anything, from a handful of dice to a rattling dog toy! The major drawback of this method is that you might drop it by accident, which I did once.

Even when you can’t speak, you can make three short noises in the back of your throat. A sound a bit like 'nnn nnn nnn', which is much easier to do than to describe and is a good all-rounder. It’s as audible as speech, it’s not affected by bondage and you can do it no matter what’s happening to your mouth and throat at the time. Although it might still not be ideal for someone who feels uncomfortable using a verbal safeword.

These are just ideas, of course. Come up with your own that fit your specific requirements. Whatever you decide to use, it’s vital that you discuss it in advance, and that the choice you make works well for both you and your partners.
 

Is there an intermediary stage before using a safeword?

Not everything is a safeword situation. Personally, I am a huge proponent of using a safeword to mean “check in with me” rather than “this is the end of the scene”.  I find the latter to be a bit manipulative on the part of the Dom who decided it, to be honest. Communication is key no matter what’s going on. I mentioned earlier that one of my current partners sometimes asks me “too much?” when he wants to check in. That’s not the only way of doing it.

‘Red’ became a standard community safeword as a result of the traffic light metaphor. I’ve also had Doms who will periodically ask me for a colour, which reminds me to use my safeword if I need to. It also gives me a chance to say ‘yellow’ (“this is getting a bit difficult and I might need you to ease off a bit”) or ‘green’ (“I’m fine”).  One of my earliest Doms would sometimes take my hand and squeeze it in two quick pulses. If I squeezed back, he’d know I was okay. If I didn’t, he’d check in with me verbally.

 

What if safewords are underused, misused or abused?

Before I deal with this, I’d like to make one thing absolutely crystal clear: If someone uses a safeword and that safeword is ignored, anything that happens after that is a consent violation at best and, at worst, assault or rape.

If you feel that your limits, boundaries, and safewords are not being respected: you are in an abusive relationship. Something that people may not have expressed to you clearly in the past. If you're failing to respect the limits, boundaries and safewords of your partner(s) you are an abusive dickhead, and you need to deal with your shit ASAP.

The corollary to this is that if you don’t use a safeword or express your limits and boundaries, your Dom has every reason to believe that the encounter remains consensual. So for the love of God, use a safeword if you need to. I’ve made the mistake of not using a safeword when I should have done, and it was nevertheless an unpleasant experience I am not keen to repeat.

If you’re a Dominant who feels like their submissive partner uses their safeword too often, I have some advice for you: get your head out of your arse. Something isn’t right in this sexual relationship. You need to sit down together and have a careful discussion about how you both feel and what you both want. It may be that your partner(s) are worried they can’t trust you not to run roughshod over their boundaries, for example. Which is something you need to address together if you want the relationship to work; it may also only be that they fantasise about BDSM a lot but are made nervous by it in practice. Again, this is something you can approach jointly.


Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to sexual deviancy, far-left politics and wearing too much jewellery. Find her at her website or @see_abi_write.
 

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Cover Image Dr Faustus. Flickr Creative Commons.


 


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