No safeword, really?

First, a definition: by a no-safeword scene or playing without a safeword I mean a scene or situation where the participants have agreed that the bottom will not have a safeword to stop the scene and will have to rely on the top knowing when they have really and truly had enough. This is very different from another kind of technically safewordless scene where the participants agree to use plain English, making special code words that really mean no unnecessary.

Lots of people, myself included, are really attracted to the idea of doing a no-safeword scene. I would never want to physically or emotionally damage someone, but having it be my choice when to stop would make me feel more powerful. My understanding of the s-type’s end (please comment and correct me if I’m wrong) is that giving up their safeword makes them feel even less in control in a way they enjoy, and that masochists who want to push their limits sometimes give up their safewords to see if they can go past their self-imposed boundaries.

Playing without a safeword certainly isn’t for everyone, but it can be awesome for the people it does work for. What I’m curious about, though, is whether it’s even possible to really play without a safeword. Using myself as an example, I’m not sure there is any amount of prior negotiation that would make me feel comfortable keeping a scene going while my bottom yelled ‘RED RED I NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW’, or ‘STOP OR I’LL CALL THE POLICE’, or ‘THIS RELATIONSHIP IS OVER.’ It’s certainly possible that I might slowly and carefully work my way up to understanding that ‘RED OH FUCK IT HURTS’ doesn’t mean ‘stop right now or you’ll be paying for a lot of therapy’, but I can’t see that happening for ‘THIS RELATIONSHIP IS OVER.’ This may mean I’d be an extremely frustrating person to try to do a no-safeword scene with.

However, I don’t think it’s an unusual problem that a top would be more concerned about their ongoing relationship with their bottom than with continuing a scene the bottom might not want anymore. If that’s true, then I think it’s worth talking about how a no-safeword scene can make safewords harder to access but acting as if there really is no safeword is just an act. The same way I think it’s important to remember that a partner can leave you at any time no matter what kind of slave contract they’ve signed, I think it’s important to be realistic about the potential for even the most carefully negotiated no-safeword scene to be ended early by the equivalent of a safeword. Kidding yourself about that is just going to make you unhappy.

Readers, have any of you done no-safeword scenes? If you haven’t, would you? If you have, how did they work out?

19 thoughts on “No safeword, really?

  1. I have, and honestly, it looks like any other play.

    A ‘no safeword’ scene doesn’t mean ‘I’m going to push you past what I think you can take AND JUST KEEP GOING BECAUSE YOU CAN’T STOP ME BWUHAHAHAHAHA!’. It just means that the option for him to call it is off the table.

    I’ve never had a submissive call ‘red’ out of play. I HAVE had my submissive say ‘I was *just* about to safeword out when you stopped’ <= I call this a grand success if my intent was to take him to the edge of what he could take: Him saying that means I judged it just right.

    If we agree on 'no safeword', I use the exact same judgement that I've used *every other time we've played*.

    I think with a lot of these things it sounds like 'crazy mad mental wanky badassery', but it's often really not. I wouldn't do it with someone I don't know because I need to know that I am capable of judging it just right consistently before *I* feel safe taking it off the table.

    So in my case, it's more like crossing a mental and emotional barrier than physical: that is we both *feel* it as an abyss we're looking into. But practically, not so much.


    • So in my case, it’s more like crossing a mental and emotional barrier than physical: that is we both *feel* it as an abyss we’re looking into. But practically, not so much.

      Oh, that totally makes sense.

      If we agree on ‘no safeword’, I use the exact same judgement that I’ve used *every other time we’ve played*.

      I wasn’t sure how to work it into the post without making it look like two posts that got smushed together, but I’ve also been thinking that since it’s not unusual for people to get into a headspace where they really can’t safeword, and sometimes that must happen when they aren’t expecting it, so does that make all play potentially no safeword play?

      Now I feel like I’m contradicting myself, saying that in some ways there’s always a safeword and in some ways you can never count on there being a safeword. If anyone can sort that one out, have at it 🙂

      • I think it works if we look at what the function of a safeword is.

        Its function is an emergency brake. Any way of communicating, informal plain speaking, or verbally in formal code (safeword), or nonverbally informal (body language), or nonverbally formal (safe signal), can fulfil this emergency function. (In practice it’s usually not necessary to call it safewording, but a top can pull this emergency brake too, if something occurs which makes a top feel they need to end an activity or interaction right now.) There’s always a safeword in the sense that this emergency function is always there, if the people can communicate, and are willing to react accordingly, regardless whether they have agreed on codes or not.

        At the same time, because communication can become difficult in altered states of consciousness and for other reasons, one can never assume that absence of explicit safewording means everything is fine. There’s never a safeword in the sense that having agreed on a safeword, in itself, guarantees nothing. A top still has the responsibility for what they’re doing, a responsibility to pay attention, and regardless whether a bottom says a peep in an emergency or not, if they realise what is going on, react.

        Maybe someone else can sort out explicitly how this function relates to consenting and withdrawing consent.

  2. I haven’t, and my first instinctive response as both a top and bottom is “Oh fuck no,” but then I think I prefer to have my total-control fantasies play out in fiction rather than in real life. I don’t at this point think that’s something I want. On the other hand, the way you and Ferns are describing it…well, it does seem like it might not be solely the domain of asshole maledoms, which is my previous association with the concept. So hmmm. I’ll lurk for other people’s comments. 🙂

    • “it does seem like it might not be solely the domain of asshole maledoms, which is my previous association with the concept.”

      I think that association is strong and I understand it.

      There are plenty of things in BDSM that lose all nuance due to the flailing about in a panic that the mere mention of them causes, and the first go-to is always a worst case scenario (“You’ll be subject to ABUSE! You might die! DIE I TELL YOU!”).

      It sends all rational discussion straight out the window, so we actually never see or hear sensible people talking about some of these outlying things and how it works for them. For me, it’s just not worth wading into the fray and being shouted down for being an abuser, unsafe, whatever.

      Case in point: I don’t think I’ve EVER said that I’ve played without a safeword anywhere before ever because I’m really not interested in dealing with the inevitable fallout.

      I liked Stabbity’s curiosity and non-judgemental approach to the question, otherwise I’d not have said a word here either :).


  3. If I remember correctly and am not jumbling things, Richard Evans Lee once mentioned how he practically discovered his need for a safeword which he had theoretically believed he didn’t need. He didn’t have an agreed safeword, so finally just said ‘safeword’. Which worked fine, because his top de facto respected it, despite their having agreed to play without. He needed a way to stop a scene not because it was more than he could take, but because the top had something in mind which she didn’t know the danger of.

    She had the idea during a scene to lock him into a closet in his home, but he knew there was a protruding rusty nail in there which she hadn’t seen.

    Whether it’s a safeword or plain speaking doesn’t matter. A bottom needs some way to stop an activity within a scene, or a scene, because they may know something, physical or mental, which even a top of best intentions, skills and judgement may be unaware of.

  4. My own unspectacular answer to your questions: We have an agreed slow word (I need a moment) and safeword (let’s stop everything for now), but in practice we have never needed them. Using plain speaking has always worked for us.

    My partner is not very vocal in play and we have never even played with a gag – if we did, we would arrange hand signals.

    Reason: I don’t want to cut myself off from my partner’s input, including his ability to stop something if he knows better than me. I would not want to put us in a situation where I inadvertently cause something I don’t want to, which being able to listen to him could have easily prevented.

  5. Playing without a safeword doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d be ignoring statements like ‘RED RED I NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW’, or ‘STOP OR I’LL CALL THE POLICE’, or ‘THIS RELATIONSHIP IS OVER.’ – it just means that it’s your judgement call as to whether or not the bottom *actually* needs you to stop if/when they say something like that.

    When I play with my husband, we don’t use safewords, but that doesn’t mean I force him past his boundaries or ignore serious statements he makes about his well-being; it just means that he trusts me to be able to read him.

    • Didn’t have a safeword with my Wife, but if She put me under another’s care I not only always did but the Lady would insist that I remember that i did have it. With that exception, very-long-time married who have every reason to fully trust and care completely, every scene everywhere everytime must have some sort of safeword. You can, as stabbity puts it, pretend you don’t have one as part of the scene, but it must be there in some fashion. While I don’t play a lawyer on the internet, I can suggest that literally no-safeword is literally it’s-not-BDSM-it’s-battery.

  6. I think it may depend what one uses a safeword for. I’ve never tried to play without a safeword (both stoplight and “no means no asshole” always apply for me), but I’ve also only ever called time out over actual risk, not pain. I have chronic illness without visible symptoms. A top can’t possibly know blood pressure’s about to dangerously crash or if there’s localized neuropathy such that I can’t feel pain or assess damage. When safeword is literally being used as a word to convey safety information, ignoring it is irresponsible.

    That said, I know plenty of bottoms don’t use it that way. I’ve played with one who would squeak “yellow!” just out of fear of pain…and then get upset when I paused to check on it. Personally, I’m not comfortable with that kind of play, but I can see an agreement to leave that sort of thing up to a top’s discretion as a trust exercise a way to find and learn boundaries or limits.

    • When safeword is literally being used as a word to convey safety information, ignoring it is irresponsible.

      Yup, well said.

      one who would squeak “yellow!” just out of fear of pain

      Haha! Constant stop and go must be very tiresome, and doesn’t exactly help getting in the mood. If someone has never tried anything, I’d find this disruptive but sort of understandable. I see it as a personal preference, and up to a top for how long/whether at all they’d be willing to put up with it. If it’s casual play, patience may likely run out quickly for many tops, if looking for fun without complications. While others may like the experience of helping a newbie find the trust to relax and have positive first experiences. A compatibility question.

      In a long term relationship where people are adding BDSM to their equation, I’d consider it just one of the many learning bumps. (My partner didn’t call yellow, but didn’t try to hide nervousness in his body language either.) He has never criticised me for checking in, not then and not later.

      and then get upset when I paused to check on it

      Yeah, that’s not okay. Criticising a top for respecting a safeword? Not okay. When it’s one’s own safeword being respected, not okay to criticise that either. Someone who bottoms needs to act in a responsible way, and support their top in their respect for communication. If the problem persisted after having a discussion about it, I’d consider this person too irresponsible to play with.

  7. I’ve never liked safewords. They are just another silly protocol the kink community obsesses over. The way people talk about safewords is like they are this magic tool that protects you from abuse. If your partner wants to abuse you, what makes you think they would be stopped by you saying “red”?

    The reason subs often give for using safewords is that when they are in the subspace they have difficulty disobeying their dom, including telling them to stop. To me this trait is a HUGE REDFLAG. I absolutely refuse to play with subs with this issue, because it puts me in the risk of becoming accidental abuser/rapist simply because the sub can’t speak up. No thank you. It’s astonishing to me how much this kind of crap is accepted in the kink world, like it’s perfectly normal and not a sign that the sub has issues they need to deal with. There needs to be more discussion about the sub’s responsibilities, the biggest one being not assuming your dom is a telepath.

    Even during a play rape scene where the sub protesting is part of the act, they can still just say something like “scene over” or “wait, I need a break”. I expect the sub to be able to do this and I would never ignore this kind of message when it’s clear it’s not part of the play anymore. Unfortunately when I started in D/s I had some partners who simply did not communicate during scenes (or outside them, really) and then got angry for me for not being able to magically tell they wanted to stop. Apparently this makes me a bad dom.

    Luckily male subs are not as delusional about the power of safewords as female subs are. I guess because the chance of being abused is so much greater for women, they cling to this kind of superstition about safewords keeping them safe. It’s horrifying. I’ve had sub women ask me how it was possible for a scene to go wrong when they had clearly stated their safeword and their boundaries.

  8. I see your point entirely, but IMHO making a judgement call on your sub’s welfare based on something they say is no different from judging when they have had enough by body language or reactions.

    I don’t use a SW with my sub anymore. To me that means that if she says ‘RED’, I remind her she doesn’t have a safeword. If she says ‘STOP’, I remind her that’s my decision.

    However, if she were to say she was calling the police or the relationship was at risk, I would make the decision that that was something we needed to discuss, and of course stop (in the same way that I might if I noticed she was panicking or getting angry) but that’s not quite the same as having a pre-arranged ‘off’ button to the scene or power exchange.

  9. We’re FLR so we don’t exactly play and what we do isn’t exactly scenes. Since Xena isn’t out to damage me, and since I am emotionally robust and tend to go into a deeply submissive space, we’ve never really felt the need of safewords. However, if I felt as if I were in some kind of danger, I could tell Xena and rely on her to stop without breaking character – because there is no character to set aside.

  10. I’ll start with, I am a Submissive or sometimes could be considered Masochist.

    Definition of Safeword to me: The power to stop what’s going on. It’s a burden, it’s something I have to decide to do (which is the exact opposite of what I want to be doing)
    Its a weight I don’t want to carry at that point. I’ve had a SW but did not like it. The struggle if have within myself just to decide should I say it or no..? I personally don’t like it. That’s just me though, my Dom is my husband of 9 years and I trust him more than I trust myself in all things. No, we don’t regularly participate in D/s or occasionally S/m outside of our sex life. To a point I believe all marriages do though, that’s a different topic though.
    Safeword or no Safeword? My personal choice.. No Safeword.

  11. I do not have a safe word with my Dom. I’m extremely new to this whole lifestyle but I’m by no means new to him. He has been living this since college (in his 50’s now) and I have dated him on and off for 10 years in what seemed like an awesome relationship sexually to me, and turned out to be very vanilla for him. I’ve also depended on him for help in stressful situations in my life over the years (not monetarily). When I found myself single from yet another vanilla relationship, I finally decided to give this whole thing with him a shot. A real shot. Go all in. I think because of all of these factors, how long I’ve known him, how I trust him more than just about anyone else in my whole life with real life situations, and his experience level in the lifestyle, I don’t want a safe word. Yes I’ve been scared shitless and things have hurt, but never to the point I would want to end what we have. I think if I’m going to be truly submissive to him, I have to trust him to know what I can handle probably even more than I do. And I believe he would never injure me. So far it’s working out beautifully for us.

  12. I think that safewords introduce a classic moral hazard situation where there can be an illusion of additional safety that simply isn’t there, that perversely incentivizes the parties involves. If you have a sub in the mix predisposed to want to please the dom, and now the dom is absolved to some degree of having to exercise judgment, it’s very plausible that you could counter-intuitively arrive at the very outcomes that the safeword was intended to prevent.

  13. This is a moot discussion. Safewords are necessary for majority of subs to even be able to enjoy the act. The subs who are turned on by no-safeword-play and the possibility of getting hurt above and beyond their known thresholds are a minority.

    • Dude I wrote an entire post about how I couldn’t keep a scene going if my partner sounded like they weren’t having fun anymore. Chill.

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