Safewords: they’re just words

Safewords get held up as this magical talisman that will protect you from all harm, which is ridiculous and actually less safe than not having one at all.

A safeword is only as safe as the person you’re using it with. If they don’t stop when you say “Hey, my hand is going numb”, why would saying “rutabega” make a difference? There are people in the scene who will do whatever they think they can get away with, and these people do not give a shit about your safeword. There are also people who aren’t outright malicious but are kind of clueless. They’ll probably stop when you say stop, but five minutes later they’ll go back to doing what you just told them wasn’t working for you. There are also people who will tell you stupid bullshit like “A safeword is only for serious call-a-doctor medical distress”, which is complete and utter idiocy. Unless you have psychic powers, you simply cannot know whether someone really needed to use their safeword. And there are people who will pay lip-service to the idea of a safeword, but they’ll make it clear that if you’ll regret it if you ever try to use yours.

A safeword will not protect you from any of those people, but believing that it will can get you into trouble. If you believe that your safeword will save you, that everyone everywhere at every time will absolutely always listen to a safeword, you might end up taking much bigger risks than you meant to. BDSM is never risk free; the idea is to mitigate the risk or take calculated risks.  That doesn’t work so well if you’re kidding yourself about how risky a given scene is.

Safewords can be risky from the top’s side, too. Assuming that a bottom is willing and able to use their safeword may make the top feel more comfortable, but it’s just not true that everyone will call “red” when they need to. It’s not uncommon for subs to try to prove they’re tough enough to take it (I believe this is more common with male subs, but feel free to correct me in the comments), or to refuse to ask to end the scene because they don’t want to disappoint their dom. It’s also quite possible for a bottom to be flying high on endorphins and simply not know how hard that whipping really is. Ending a scene while the bottom still wants more may disappoint them, but it’s a lot better than getting a call the next morning from someone who is freaking out about how bruised they are. Finally, some people get nonverbal when they get into subspace, and may not be capable of any kind of safeword or signal. To be clear, that’s neither better nor worse than being able to safeword no matter what’s going on, but it’s a good thing to tell your top ahead of time.

As a top, I firmly believe that if my bottom needs to use their safeword (outside of a scene that’s specifically negotiated to find out how much they can take), I’ve failed to read them as well as I should. Sometimes you do hit an emotional or physical landmine with no warning, but in general if you’re surprised when someone uses their safeword you either don’t know them well enough to push them that hard, or you just aren’t paying enough attention.

The reason the concept of a safeword exists in the first place was to allow people who enjoy resistance play or consensual non-consent to yell “Stop!” without worrying that their top would actually stop. Unless you’re doing a scene where “stop” means “I’m really into the role I’m playing” and “no” means “Keep going!”, then plain English will probably do you more good than a special safeword. “I think I’m losing circulation in my foot” gives the top a lot more information than “yellow” does. I’m not knocking “red” as a convenient shorthand for “something is badly wrong and I need the scene to end right now this instant”, but in general saying what you mean is clearer than using a code word.

Safewords can be useful, but they are absolutely not any sort of guarantee of safety.

12 thoughts on “Safewords: they’re just words

  1. Recognizing your partner’s condition is much more important than relying on a safeword, especially if they are prevented from speaking. Sometimes a guy will withhold using the safeword because he thinks he should be brave. He may not realize that he may be near passing out from something like simple dehydration.

  2. A few thoughts on safewords:

    1) Yes, the safeword concept originated with consensual non-con and similar play in which “stop” or other objection might not actually mean stop. In a broader sense, those of us who regularly play to the point at which we or our partners might be showing signs of serious emotional or physical distress (it’s not uncommon for me to play to the point of tears), or to the point at which someone may be nearly senseless and babbling, a clear, defined, pre-negotiated safeword is useful.

    2) It has to be clear what a safeword means. In my local community, and in my own practice, we typically use “yellow” and “red,” with “yellow” being “don’t like that, stop and consult” and “red’ meaning “end scene.” As any safeword, checklist, or other safety practice goes though, what a safeword means has to be pre-negotiated.

    3) Tops can safeword too. It’s always important to remember that. I treat a safeword as less the specific word than the condition it specifies (as a personal note, I’m a veteran US Marine Corps artilleryman, and am used to the practice of designating specific conditions by codewords, e.g., being in a “check firing” status (which is the equivalent of a safeword for artillery, meaning don’t touch anything), which can persist in some cases for hours or days). Something can be “yellow” or “red” without anyone actually saying “yellow” or “red.” (One thing I’ve seen done is designating soft or hard limits as “yellow” or “red.”) There’s also the non-verbal safeword that’s important to have in the event that anything might prevent a bottom from speaking. (I do breathplay at times, and “tapping out,” as is done in martial arts, is a de facto safeword I use.)

    4) Bottoms vary A LOT in terms of whether they’ll safeword or how they’ll use one. I’ve played with some people who will safeword at the drop of a hat, and I know that I can use their “yellow” to easily suss out their likes and dislikes, and see where their boundaries are. Some bottoms want to be made to safeword, and will be dissatisfied if they aren’t taken to that point. Some bottoms won’t safeword until the crack of doom. There’s never any substitute for getting to know your play partner, and being appropriately cautious the first several times you play with them until you do know them well. Tops vary a lot too in how they respond to safewords. Some I’m sure get all butthurted and will try to shame their use. I’m of the opinion that safewords exist to be used. Dan Savage answered a letter from one dominant who was complaining about a sub using a safeword to top from the bottom, to whom his advice was “make it clear that if a safeword is called, that means the scene is over for the night.”

    5) I’ve met some “iron butt” female bottoms who try to prove that they can “take it” as well. Others have issues with safewording because they have general issues with being in touch with their physical or emotional responses, because they don’t want to disappoint their play partner, or sometimes because they feel that their play partner ought to know when to stop, and they don’t want to take responsibility for their part in the scene (this last type is particularly dangerous, and probably accounts for a fair number of abuse complaints against incautious dominants).

    6) Safewords have a particular use, and offer particular protections, for public players. Most public dungeons I’ve been too have a “house safeword.” (“Red” is the current default safeword, to which DMs and the rest of the members will respond if they hear it and a top doesn’t stop. “Safeword” was at one point, and probably still is, a house safeword used at San Francisco’s Citadel dungeon to call for help from outside your scene if it was called.) Violating a safeword is clear, prima facie evidence of abuse, and a top who’s observed to do so is known to and can be identified by community members. It works the other way too, for a top, to have witnesses to a scene in case there’s a later abuse allegation that may be unfounded, though a safeword is less helpful here in that abuse can still occur even if a safeword isn’t called.

    7) There are no guarantees of safety in BDSM. That’s why RACK and PRICK were developed as consent and negotiation protocols beyond SSC.

  3. I tend to think that safewords as well as safe calls are fine, but certainly not a guarantee of safety. Use them or not, but don’t think they will keep you free from harm. I think the best way (still certainly not a 100% guarantee) to keep yourself relatively safe is to know the person you are going to be playing with very well. As for hearing safewords, well I admit that I don’t follow the general thinking on that one. If I hear a safeword indicative that the scene needs to end, I don’t feel like a failure or that I’ve done something wrong. I view it as a sign that they need to stop. It may or may not have anything to do with what I have been doing. Even if it does turn out that I’ve pushed them as far as they can go, I still don’t feel like a failure as a Sadist/Top. Sometimes the entire point is to push them as far as they can go. I recognize that this isn’t a very popular stance, but it is the one I have!

    • If I hear a safeword indicative that the scene needs to end, I don’t feel like a failure or that I’ve done something wrong.

      I could’ve been clearer on that one. What I was trying to get at was that, aside from surprise “land-mines”, the top should be aware of how the bottom is doing and how close they are to their limits. If you think you’re giving someone a moderate intensity scene and they safeword because they can’t take any more pain, there’s likely a communication failure happening somewhere. When I wrote that part of the post, I was thinking specifically of a story I heard from a friend about a bottom having to call yellow multiple times during a scene because the top didn’t seem to realize they were giving the bottom more pain than they could take. I like to think that kind of situation is extremely rare, but it’s also a pretty clear cut case of the top not paying enough attention.

      • I still think I might have a pretty different view on hearing safewords than the majority. Sometimes I will actually push through several yellows on purpose. I also sometimes push all the way to red. Sometimes that’s part of the goal of the scene. But I am also still paying attention! I also tend to only do that sort of thing at home. I found pretty early on that it freaks other people out to watch it. And I’ve heard a few negative comments in the background. (Which is rude and can also mess with the bottom/sub’s headspace.)

  4. I agree with the general point that you make, especially if you are playing with people you don’t know that well, but I also think a safeword is a good idea because it removes all ambiguity (holy cow, did I just spell ambiguity right off the top of my head…. nice). Good communication is important, but having a panic button can’t hurt when you are doing something that might be dangerous.

  5. … less safe than not having one at all.

    Shiver. But yes.

    A safeword is only as safe as the person you’re using it with.

    Actually, I think there probably are tops out there who will do whatever they can get away with, including ignoring “no”, but not including ignoring safewords. So it would help with them. But you undoubtedly have more experience in the scene, and certainly this is a better rule of thumb.

    • Actually, I think there probably are tops out there who will do whatever they can get away with, including ignoring “no”, but not including ignoring safewords

      It makes me sad, but you’re probably right about that. I can absolutely see some jerk being able to kid themselves that they’re just pushing their bottom’s limits a little if they ignore a “no” but not being able to do that if the bottom starts yelling “RED.” That reminds me disturbingly of a post I’ve seen a few times on tumblr about how abusive men convince themselves that what they’re doing is justified. The parallels between “sure, I pushed her down but I would never kick her in the head” and “sure, I kept going when she said no but I would never ignore a safeword” are creepy as fuck.

      I do have a few years of experience in the scene, but I have practically no experience as a bottom (I’ve experimentally bottomed to a couple of things so I’d know what they feel like, but that was more of a five minute demo than a scene), so it’s not as if I’m any sort of authority on what unethical tops are like.

  6. Amen to this. I realise it may not be a popular stance but I think safewords are a modern novelty that’s way overrated. If a person won’t stop when you are in distress and calling stop they won’t stop when you use another word for it. Safewords may be useful when you get to know somebody but otherwise they shouldn’t be needed. Only a complete numbnut would not be able to recognise when someone is clearly in distress vs them just complaining as the usual. And let’s be honest with ourselves here, even if you go a little over the limit that has never emotionally or physically harmed anyone such that they are harmed for life.

    Then there are situations where it is agreed that a person would not be able to safe out. SSC isn’t the only culture and there are others where it is entirely left up to the dominant to decide when to quit. As I said I know this may not be a popular stance but there are nonetheless others who feel like this as well and when it comes down to it this isn’t a science and we are all making up the rules as we go along.

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