"Yo m'lady, you good?"
"Oh hell yeah."
I imagine you already have an idea of what a safeword is and why we need them in BDSM. What you may NOT be as familiar with is how to set up an effective safeword system that keeps play consensual at all times, or the challenges that can come with using safewords.
After all, it seems straightforward, doesn't it? Say the magic word and *POOF*! Bad juju evaporates.
Unfortunately, it can feel more complicated than that, especially for new practitioners. It took me a long-ass time to understand the importance of safewords and become completely comfortable using them. When it comes to indulging our darkest fantasies by playing them out with a real person, things aren't always black and white.
There are ... dare I say it ... SHADES OF GRAY?!?
Anyway, this post is about safewords and how you can use them to protect yourself and your kinky partner(s) like a GOD. DAMN. SEX PATRIOT.
Table of Contents:
1. What are safewords?
2. Why do we use safewords in BDSM?
3. Are safewords just for bottoms?
4. How important are safewords?
5. Do all BDSM practitioners use safewords?
6. How can you choose a good safeword?
7. What about systems that include multiple safewords?
8. For many people, especially beginners, using safewords is HARD.
9. Use your safewords often and without shame.
10. THANK YOUR PARTNER when they use their safeword(s).
Let's get crackin'!
What are safewords?
Safewords are code words kinksters use to express their true feelings during BDSM scenes. They help us subtly break the 4th wall and communicate clearly to ensure that play stays consensual at all times.
Safewords can be used by both tops and bottoms for a variety of reasons, including:
To check in with their partner(s) about their physical, mental, or emotional state
To slow down, ease up intensity, or take a scene in a different direction
To stop a scene altogether
("Bottoms? Tops? A scene? Whatchu talkin' about, Molly?" Check out my BDSM glossary for the low-down.)
Why do we use safewords in BDSM?
Some bottoms smile, moan, and enthusiastically ask for more during kinky play. More often, however, we don't explicitly appear to be enjoying ourselves. We can groan, scream, struggle, cry, or appear impassive while inwardly loving what's happening to us.
From the outside, it can be impossible for our partners or spectators to distinguish whether or not we're having fun. Obviously, tops need to feel confident that they're not crossing the line into unwanted territory, but it's impossible for them to read minds.
Some bottoms eschew safewords and stick to regular language in BDSM. They say things like "no / stop / ow / that hurts / please don't" to communicate their boundaries.
But most bottoms I know prefer to use safewords instead, for any of the following reasons:
Some of us are masochists who derive pleasure from pain. We want to be able to say "ow" and "that hurts" (because it fucking does) without signaling to our partners that we've hit our limit and want them to stop what they're doing.
Many submissives aren't masochists, but want to endure pain or degrading treatment as an act of devotion and sacrifice to their dominants. While they may say "ow" or "no" during a scene, they can still love the overall experience and want to continue.
A lot of practitioners get off on what's known as 'consensual non-consent'. This can look like rape or assault, but in fact be consensual and pre-negotiated. In scenes involving such elements, saying "stop" or "please don't hurt me" comes with the territory of the submissive role. We don't want our dominants actually stopping and walking away in those cases. ("Wait, come back! I didn't mean it!!")
No matter how immersive we'd like our kinky experience to be, every bottom has limits, and we need to be able to let our partners know when we're approaching or hitting them. Hearing a safeword enables our tops to think "Ah, okay. That's a genuine 'no'. Time to reel it in."
What a fabulous tool!
Additionally, some tops like to gag their partners during scenes. Bottoms who are gagged can't speak to convey their feelings, so they need to pre-negotiate non-verbal signals in lieu of safewords. More on that in a bit.
(You may also like: An In-Depth Guide to Negotiation in BDSM Relationships)
Are safewords just for bottoms?
No. Safewords are mostly used by bottoms, but are also used by tops to express their own limits.
Take, for instance, a couple that's into the type of rape play where the bottom struggles and fights back. In this instance, the bottom might hit or try to hurt their top as a show of defiance. Tops in these cases may use safewords as a way to say, "That's too much," or "Fuck! Okay seriously, don't do that!"
In more subtle instances, tops might begin to feel a sense of moral disillusionment during scenes. They may be beating their partner, hearing their screams and start thinking, "Holy fuck, I'm a monster. Is this okay?" In these cases too, tops can use safewords to quickly say in a way that's unequivocally clear, "I genuinely don't want to keep doing this."
How important are safewords?
They're extremely important, which is why it's common practice to use them. They're one of our main tools for ensuring consent, which is one of the only things that separates BDSM from abuse.
If consent isn't clearly present, we put each other at risk of injury, psychological trauma, public defamation, and legal disputes. (Remember: Your partner doesn't have to call the police for you to run into BDSM-related problems with the cops. Anyone who doesn't understand the hidden details of your dynamic can call the cops or initiate a smear campaign designed to derail your reputation.)
As practitioners of BDSM, we'll always run into judgment from outsiders who don't understand how we can do what we do and still be good, sane people. Demonstrating that our interactions are consensual becomes paramount here. Educating non-practitioners about consent-related tools like safewords can be helpful in these instances.
Responsible members of the BDSM community regard safewords as sacrosanct. People who ignore safewords or give their partners shit about using them are, by definition, violating consent and rightfully exiled from the scene.
"NO RAPISTS ALLOWED! Now kindly fuck off."
But even aside from all that, having safewords enables us to do MORE with our partners during scenes than we could without them.
Sexy story time:
I occasionally play with an awe-inspiring, panty-drenching top who melts my fucking butter every time. He's creative, fit, fashionable, dominant, and sadistic in all the best ways. He's also incredibly respectful, dedicated to safety, and focused on maintaining consent at all times.
One of the first few times we met up for kinky fun, we went through round one of playtime and I floated off into subspace, losing the ability to form complete sentences. We'd pre-negotiated limits and safewords in advance, but he was still getting to know me and my reactions unnerved him a bit.
"Hey, how you doing? Talk to me..."
"I ... yeah, I ... oh FUCK." (Cue universe-shattering orgasm of black-hole proportions.)
After I'd returned to earth, we sat and debriefed with a quick chat, and he relayed that he hadn't been able to tell where I was at, emotionally speaking. I assured him that he could trust me to use my safewords if he was approaching my limits.
After having a drink and watching a casual bit of porn, we launched into round two and he put my assurances to the test. He held me down, pried my legs open, and started slapping my pussy hard, pausing between blows to see whether I'd tap out.
I fought him with every ounce of my physical strength, writhing and groaning "no" through clenched teeth. He had me completely overpowered. (Oh, it was awesome! Such an exhilarating experience. Just typing this shit out is turning me on.)
At some point, I reached my limit and called it. "Yellow." He stopped hitting me and smiled thoughtfully.
"Ah ... I see."
This experience gave him a clearer idea of how far he could take things, and allowed us to wade into deeper levels of intensity in the future. If he hadn't been able to trust me to use safewords when necessary, our dynamic would be much more limited today.
As you can tell, using safewords isn't just good sense. It can also be empowering and FUN.
Do all BDSM practitioners use safewords?
Some people choose not to, for whatever reason. Apparently they like the idea of affording blanket consent to the top in the partnership. "Do whatever you want. You decide when to stop."
I'm not going to sit here and insist that other people should handle their sex lives in any particular way. However, not using safewords in BDSM isn't a choice I would personally make. As I said before, tops aren't mind readers, and putting the entire onus on them to keep the vibe fun seems incredibly unfair and unrealistic.
It's also dangerous and lays a breeding ground for consent violations. Like anything else in life, sadomasochism is great fun until the moment it isn't. It's hard to get upset with tops who cross limits if there's no structure in place to prevent them from doing so. Tops need guidance too.
I empathize with submissives who desire a safeword-free dynamic. The idea of playing with a partner who can dominate us completely and keep the experience pleasurable is a lovely fantasy. But in my opinion, it needs to stay over in fantasyland. Masturbate to it! Write erotica! Go nuts! Just think twice before going for it in real life.
If you choose to wade into the BDSM community, you may see couples who appear to rarely, if ever, use safewords during scenes. Partners with tons of experience playing together can indeed get to this point after a fuckload of practice. They know and can read each other so well that safewords become unnecessary. This is an awesome goal to strive for. Regardless, the option to use safewords should always be on the table.
How can you choose a good safeword?
An effective safeword will have all of the following characteristics:
It's easy to remember.
In some cases, we can get so high off the energy of a scene or caught up in the moment that we draw a blank when we have to think about anything serious. You don't want to be struggling to think of your safeword right when you need it most. Pick something that will spring to mind easily.
It can't be confused with playful resistance.
Clearly, words like "no" and "stop" are poor choices for this reason.
It can't be confused with anything else.
Your partner might get confused if your safeword is a term that could legitimately apply within a scene, like "Paddle me right the fuck now" or "Please sir, I need your sacred cum all over my slutty face."
You feel comfortable saying it.
You'll be less likely to use your safeword if saying it makes you feel awkward or goofy in the context of the moment. For example, a popular safeword choice among practitioners is "mercy." If you like it, by all means use it. Personally, it doesn't work for me and saying it makes me feel weird. I prefer words that are neutral rather than emotionally charged.
Bottoms who are gagged or otherwise unable to speak during play need to pre-negotiate non-verbal signals in lieu of safewords. Good non-verbal safeword signals share these features:
They're easy to do.
Don't set yourself up with some crazy routine like spinning in three circles while balancing on one foot to stop a scene. Pick something simple that you'll be able to accomplish in a distressed or elevated state of mind.
Your top needs to be able to hear you give your signal in the case that they're not looking right at you when you give it. For this reason, a popular non-verbal signal is to have the sub hold a bell they can drop when they approach their limit.
They offer complete clarity.
Bottoms who can't speak can't communicate clearly with words, so their signals need to do the talking for them. In the past I played with a partner who asked me to snap once during check-ins if I was feeling good, or multiple times at any point if I wasn't. Having multiple ways to express such things can be advantageous.
Which brings me to my next point,
What about systems that include multiple safewords?
I'm a huge fan of this choice. If you're thinking, "That sounds pretty fucking complicated, Molly," I get you, but hear me out.
Having one safeword to guide all our kinky interactions is limiting. Though you definitely need a word or phrase that means "Stop the scene," many times you'll want to say more than that or take the scene in a different direction before it gets to that point. After all, if you suddenly want to stop the scene, chances are things have already gone too far. We want to avoid that when at all possible.
Good tops check in frequently with their partners, especially new ones they don't know well. However, saying something straightforward like "Are you okay?" or "How you doing?" can cut into the immersive aspect of play and spoil the sexy moment for some people.
Bottoms, on the other hand, might want to answer a check-in with "Yeah, this is awesome. Let's stay the course," or "This is getting to be too much and we're approaching my limit. Please slow down / don't hit so hard / switch to another activity / etc."
To cover all these bases, I use THE STOPLIGHT SYSTEM with my partners. It's one of the most widely used safeword systems in BDSM, and it goes like this.
Tops can check in:
"What color?" = Where are you at right now?
Bottoms can respond or roll one of these out at anytime:
"Green." = I'm enjoying this. Let's keep going.
"Yellow." = Something needs to change. (Then pause briefly to clarify what the problem is.)
"Red." = Stop the scene entirely.
After I started doing things this way, I never went back to anything else because it's a great way to honor nuance and keep everyone on the same page. I hardly ever get to the point of calling "red" because "yellow" takes care of most problems before they happen.
If this system appeals to you, use it! Tons of people do. If not, have a think and come up with a creative system that affords you full clarity and flexibility.
For many people, especially beginners, using safewords is HARD.
Here are some reasons practitioners may have trouble using them:
They badly want to please their partner and fear that they'll disappoint them by tapping out or interrupting the moment.
They're playing in front of an audience and don't want to ruin anyone's good time.
They pride themselves on being able to handle high levels of intensity and feel like using safewords is a form of failure.
Their feelings shift or conflict during play and they end up in a gray area between okay and not okay. "Am I still enjoying this? Maybe so, maybe not? I'm not entirely sure."
They believe the vile garbage spewed by toxic doms and other abusers. "Real submissives follow orders and don't use safewords." That right there is a steaming heap of rapey bullshit.
They've learned about BDSM by watching porn or reading erotica, which usually leaves out usage of safewords or contains elements of non-consent in order to raise the stakes of the plot.
They're simply afraid or unwilling to communicate their feelings for any other number of reasons.
No bueno, right? Regardless, these issues are exceedingly common.
I remember when I was first starting out. I had an experienced top who I was head-over-heels in love with. I wanted to impress him so badly that I didn't tap out when I should have on multiple occasions. Those experiences were traumatizing and remain with me to this day.
Seriously: Not using your safeword when you should doesn't do anyone any favors. A caring partner would never demand that you suffer and tough it out for their sake. On the contrary, if I were topping and later found out my partner was having a horrible time while I was trying to pleasure them, I would be MORTIFIED. For good people, few things could be worse than inadvertently violating someone's boundaries.
You know what I think is one of the sexiest things about great tops? Self-control. They may be domineering and sadistic. They may get off on watching me cry. However, when I say a safeword and they prioritize my well-being over all else, I feel a huge amount of respect and attraction for them because it shows that they're secure in themselves. That. Shit. Is. Hot.
Use your safewords often and without shame.
Like, wheneeeeever the fuck you feel like it, especially with new partners. Use safewords to get to know each other inside and out, and don't make too big of a deal about it. Safewords are just a tool for keeping play fun and exciting for everyone. There's no reason this has to be a bad thing.
THANK YOUR PARTNER when they use their safeword(s).
Actively encourage them to communicate, rather than responding in a way that will cause them to fear speaking up in the future. There's no need for disappointment in solid partnerships because you can always notch up the intensity or try new things next time. Just move onto aftercare, talk it out, and play again later! No harm, no foul!
I hope this post has been helpful. If so, feel free to share with anyone who you think could benefit from reading it!
As always, stay safe and thanks for reading. xx
An Intro to BDSM Ethics: Where Do We Draw the Line? (SSC, RACK, and More)
Toxic Doms: Who Are These Assholes and How Can You Avoid Them in the BDSM Scene?
9 Entirely Un-Sexy Risks of BDSM and How to Avoid Them (Part 1)