Safety comes in many forms and at any level of risk awareness. One of the very first things you learn when you encounter BDSM is the use of safewords. Even this site has numerous articles covering the basics of safewords. But now, I feel it’s time to gather everything together and really dig deep into safewords; from their use, the safety implied and some of the problems safewords cause.
A safeword, if you are new to BDSM, is a word used during play that stops play completely. It’s a word that isn’t common during play, so saying, “no” or “stop” can be used as a part of resistance play and still have a way to stop play if you reach a limit and can’t go further. A safe signal is a safeword item or gesture you can use when your voice won’t be heard, for example when you wear a gag or in a loud space. Safewords can be used at any time, by either partner in a scene.
Read More: What You Should Know About Safewords
Problems with Safewords
There are problems with safewords. You’ll still hear me tell you that you need to know what they are and to use them in your play, but don’t treat them as protective blanket where you don’t have the responsibility to be aware of risks before you play. (I’ve seen this, it’s not pretty.) I don’t think there is a single safety mechanism that is safe 100% of the time and, trust me, safewords can keep you safe most of the time, but here are a few situations where issues arise.
Safewords are not what keeps you safe. People have to open up a level of trust that the safeword will be respected. Only then can a safeword potentially keep you safe.
Read More: The Safety Disguise of Safewords
Pre-scene negotiation needs to include what will happen if the safe word is used. Playspaces and dungeon parties often have a global safeword. Make sure you talk to your play partner what is to happen if the word is said and how you want the end of the play to happen. I know personally, I want out of bondage from my limbs as fast as possible to be the first thing addressed. You can always talk me down as you do it, but that fight or flight response needs to be handled first, and that means my arms and legs need to feel free to move.
Read More: The Basics of Negotiating a BDSM Scene
Safewords are a problem if they are used when more negotiation needs to be done instead. Often, partners who are new to playing with each other will fail to negotiate thoroughly and rely on safewords to govern the play. You really need to take the time to negotiate so that you can prevent moments where you are using a safeword simply because something was unclear before you started.
BDSM communities can develop a culture that glorifies being “hardcore” or “intense” which creates a fear of being thought of as weak, boring or being stigmatized for safewording. You should never be afraid to safeword! If the community you are in gives you this impression, bring it up to the leaders or seek out another group. Your safety is more important than the social pyramid.
In a negative environment, the perception of blame being attached to someone for creating a scene that resulted in the use of a safeword can deter a person from using it. All play has risks, both physically and mentally. Having to safeword should never apply blame to either party over how the scene played out.
If a phobia is triggered, it can prevent the clarity of thought to use a safeword. Trusting your partner to halt play and help in whatever manner necessary is just as important.
Personal Responsibility and the Rule of Thumb
Often falsely conveyed in online forums, Dominants don’t automatically know when to stop play. They are not all-knowing. You are responsible for telling the Dominant that they’ve reached a limit and play needs to stop. So, using your safeword when it’s needed is definitely on you.
When do you need to use your safeword? Let this be your rule of thumb, “if you are thinking that maybe you will need to safeword, the answer is already yes.” As you gain experience you’ll learn how far you can really go before a safeword is needed, but keep it handy as you learn and explore. It is very likely to be needed a lot more at the beginning of relationships than further along. Much of that is because the Dominant has started learning your responses and body language for when you are feeling good and when you aren’t. It’s also more likely, just as with everything else in a relationship, that you both learn what can and can’t be done and play within those boundaries happily.
Don’t Avoid Using Your Safeword
I know a lot of submissives, including myself who have felt guilty for using their safeword. It would make me feel like I had failed my Dominant and I would break down in tears thinking that I was to blame for not being able to go further and for “ruining” play.
Read More: Using Your Safeword Is Not a Sign of Failure
If you feel a sense of blame or guilt for using your safeword or feel discouraged for using your safeword, then you could injure yourself physically or emotionally. Not only that, you would then have less confidence to test your limits and push your boundaries. I know there’s a lot of pressure to make that decision to decide to stop play because you just can’t take one more second of what’s going on, but wouldn’t you feel better about knowing you can pick it up later rather than harming yourself, insulting your partner or pushing yourself into a trigger that you can’t get out without panic.
Listen. You aren’t ruining play by needing to use your safeword. In fact, you are protecting yourself and your ability to play again. So please, don’t avoid using your safeword. It’s a lifeline that your partner has given you to use.
Not using your safeword is not a medal to wear.
Submissives have just as much, if not more, responsibility in a scene than Dominants. A dominant, especially one for pick up play is NOT going to know when to stop or that your “no stop” is actually you wanting to safeword. A Dominant has given you a safeword because they are saying, “hey, I trust you to know when you need to stop and this way I can really focus on giving us a wonderful scene because you’ll tell me when it’s too much.” The Dominants that I’ve played with appreciate knowing that they don’t have to constantly check in, learn your body language when they don’t even really know you, or that you are just going to hope they stop before you need them to. Value the trust they’ve given you. Use your safeword when you need to.
The Post Safeword Checklist
Make sure to stop play. Communicate with each other that the scene is ending now.
Make the situation safe. This is the time to remove all bondage, check limbs and clear the play space. Initiate any aftercare.
Congratulations. Immediate praise is a good way to encourage the use of safe words in the future. This makes it clear the player was right to safeword; doing so shows all involved are playing with material personally strong for them, and doing so responsibly.
The crucial point to take away is that stating what safe words are in a negotiation session just before playing is not itself sufficient. Some points to reflect on:
Consider how best to present safe word techniques. Spend more than just a few seconds in negotiation explaining how important they are and your role in their use.
Consider what variants can be used to better support their use. Variations include ways to safeword when gagged, when your partner should assume a safeword if you become non-vocal, and other ways you express distress.
Define the normal ways you respond during play, how you react in subspace, if it’s a goal at all, and absolute limits.
Avoid in general discourse both glorifying “hardcore” play and assigning blame or guilt to scenes that involve safe words.
Have a post-safeword plan.