Safety in Words
One of keys to successful human interaction is effective communication. This is especially true during a BDSM scene. BDSM scenes often involve activities people usually avoid, such as spankings, getting pierced with needles, or cleaning a bathroom while wearing a maid's costume. These activities can be enjoyable within a framework where they are consensual (the participants have agreed to the activities beforehand) and safe (the likelihood that someone will be injured has been reduced to an acceptable level for the participants).
One of the tools that can help make a BDSM scene safe is the use of safewords.
A safeword can be any signal the participants agree upon. Typically it is a word that is unlikely to be used during a scene, such as popcorn or Australopithecus. The most common safewords are red or, simply put, safeword. Whatever the actual word, it is used by the participants to communicate something very clearly and usually pauses or ends a scene.
History of Safewords
Safewords have probably been around for as long as people have used language and most likely developed independently among various cultures. If you have ever wrestled with a friend and yelled uncle or mercy to get them to stop, you were using a safeword.
Safewords are used in many martial arts such as Judo, where saying maita or give or repeatedly slapping the map signals surrender. In fact, most sports include ways for players, coaches, or officials to call a time-out or stop play altogether. For example, in football players are allowed to take themselves out of the game at any time, often when they are tired from a big play. Or in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) competition, an athlete can win a bout by submission, when the opponent taps out to end the contest.
Stopping play helps ensure physical and emotional safety. This is why the officials of most sports can call a time-out when a player appears to be hurt, thus helping prevent further injury. And in baseball, time-outs are often used by a manager to check in with a pitcher or talk him through a difficult inning.
Good Ouches and Bad Ouches: Reasons for Safewords
During a scene the top and bottom should be in constant communication. For example, when Tom flogs Beth, he is constantly observing Beth's reactions and using that information to determine how hard to hit and how long to continue. However, no top is telepathic and Tom does not know exactly what Beth is feeling or precisely how she is reacting emotionally.
And sometimes things go wrong. Once when Tom was flogging Beth, one of the flogger's tails hit Beth in the eye. Eye flogging is not recommended and is understandably quite dangerous. Beth began crying and needed to stop the scene so she used her safeword. Tom immediately stopped the flogging and asked what had happened. Beth told him that he'd hit her eye. Tom apologized and untied her from the cross so she could sit down. Tom asked a friend to get some ice for Beth's eye while he comforted her.
Another reason for a safeword is that many people are prone to shout things when they get hit, such as 'no!', 'stop!', or 'ouch!'. The top may have a hard time distinguishing between a good 'ouch!' and a bad 'ouch!'. Safewords make it clear what someone means.
People safeword when the scene is causing a reaction that was not intended by the top, the bottom, or both, such as:
• Too painful
• Too demanding
• Too intense
• The top or bottom can't focus
• The task is too mentally challenging (such as a top tying knots she is unfamiliar with or a bottom trying to solve algebra problems while being tickled)
• Too intense emotionally
• Triggers past, traumatic experiences
• Causes many different emotions that are difficult to handle at one time
Houston, We Have a Problem
Safewords aren't just for bottoms; tops use them as well. For example, during a roleplaying scene, Bill was playing as a bottom who was very bratty. He was calling Sally names and used a name that triggered memories of when Sally had been verbally abused by her father. Sally was now in a completely different headspace and needed to end the scene. Because it was a roleplay, Sally needed a way to clearly communicate that the scene needed to end. Just saying 'no more' would not have communicated to Bill that he needed to stop so Sally used a safeword.
Another reason a top might safeword is because the bottom is begging for more and the top feels it is unsafe to continue, or beyond the top's skills. During a knife-play scene, Alice was drawing shapes on Max's back. Max's skin was very sensitive and each line would swell up slightly. Max loved the feeling and kept begging for more. Eventually Alice had used up all the free space on Max's back. Any more knife-play would have cut Max's skin, which Alice was not comfortable doing. In order to communicate that the scene needed to end but that Max had done nothing wrong, Alice used her safeword.
Types of Safewords
Whatever you use for a safeword, it should be short and easy to remember. It can be hard to think in the heat of the moment. One of the more common styles of safewords follows the stoplight method: Red, yellow, and green. Red means stop immediately. When someone calls red, it means there is no discussion or negotiation; everything ends now.
Yellow can mean either 'lighten up', 'what you are doing?' (such as a spanking that is too hard), or 'don't stop the scene, but stop that particular activity' (you can keep spanking me but stop calling me a fluffy little bunny). Green means 'keep going', or 'go harder'. This can be helpful when a bottom is reacting like they can't take anymore when, in fact, they want a lot more. The top could stop the scene and have a discussion about whether it is intense enough, or the bottom could just yell green.
Sometimes No Means Yes
In addition to clear communication, safewords allow you to play with the concept of consensual non-consent. You can create roleplaying scenarios where no means yes; this allows a top to pretend to force the sub to do things. For example, Stephen and Mary enjoy roleplaying scenes where Stephen overpowers Mary and ravishes her. Stephen gets turned on ignoring Mary's pleas to stop and Mary gets excited knowing that her begging is being ignored. One of the reasons Mary can become immersed in the scene is because she knows she can stop it at any time. For Stephen, one of the reasons he gets turned on is because he knows it's only a game; he has no desire to cause actual harm.
While overpowering someone is probably the roleplay that comes to mind first, there are other consensual non-consent scenarios that involve pushing boundaries. Most submissives have limits or boundaries, either activities they don't like or levels of pain that are too great. Some tops and bottoms enjoy pushing those boundaries; it adds to the emotional intensity for both players. Having a safeword allows them to go to the edge of what is acceptable, or even over the edge, and know it can be stopped quickly if it goes too far.
Other times, even outside a roleplay, some submissives may not want to admit they are enjoying the activity even when they want more. Joan loves to be pissed on; it makes her feel dirty and humiliated and those feelings really turn her on. But on a certain level, Joan does not want to admit to herself that she enjoys being pissed on. So when Esmeralda pisses on her they use a safeword. This allows Joan to beg Esmeralda to stop and know Esmeralda won't.
Other Styles of Play
Not every one uses safewords. For some people, safewords feel too artificial. When Julia tops, she is constantly checking in with her bottom. She asks how it her partner is doing and gets direct verbal feedback. If something is not going right, Julia's submissives tell her.
Conversely, some people don't want the submissive to be able to stop a scene, such as in a Master/slave relationship. But even without safewords, the top is still gathering information from the bottom and the bottom still has a way to communicate how he or she is feeling and what the experience is like, thus giving the top the information he or she needs to keep the scene safe for the bottom.
Others are reluctant to use safewords because they feel it will make the scene feel too safe. However, things can be safe and still be exciting. Most of us would not get on a roller coaster without seat belts and other restraints; however, roller coasters with appropriate safety precautions can be extremely thrilling.
Sometimes a safeword is not a word at all. For example, if a bottom is gagged, then calling out a safeword is not possible. In these situations a signal is used, such as slapping the furniture, squeezing a hand, or making a series of grunts.
Hank loves to be tickled but he starts to hyperventilate when tickled too much, so he can't use a safeword. If the tickling goes on too long he will pass out from lack of oxygen, so he drops a handkerchief from his hand when he needs to catch his breath.
Safewords Do Not Remove All Risk or Control
Some people feel safewords give the bottom too much control. However, while a safeword allows a bottom to stop a scene, it does not mean the bottom has control over that scene. For example, when you take a driving test you must do everything the instructor tells you. At any moment you are free to stop the test (and not get your license), but that does not change the fact that while taking the test you are not in control of the activities you engage in.
And while safewords can help with communication, they do remove all risk or control; bad things can still happen. Just because your car has a brake doesn't mean it can't go over a cliff. Even when using safewords, the top is still responsible for the bottom's safety and still needs to monitor what is happening with the submissive. Some tops do this by simply asking the bottom, "What is your color?". Others take periodic breaks to check on the sub.
When Tom flogs Beth, he stops every couple of minutes to check how she is doing. He gently rubs her back, kisses her cheek, and asks how she is feeling. Tom pays attention not just to what she says but also her tone of voice and how easily she can form thoughts. This gives him the information he needs to continue, increase the intensity, lighten up, or end the scene.
Safe is Not a Four-Letter Word
Oh, wait, safe is a four-letter word. But that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with using a safeword. Using a safeword is not a failure on the part of the bottom or the top. It is simply a communication tool. Some tops have their bottoms practice using safewords so they don't feel any stigma when they need to use one for real.
BDSM is all about the experience. Safewords are another tool you can use to help make it a safe yet exciting one. Try one today!