Safewords are so often casually tossed at newcomers to BDSM as the be all and end all of safety, yet so rarely actually discussed in great detail. What exactly makes a scene safer for having a safeword? Can slaves who have given up all rights to make their own decisions still have a safeword? What is a safeword? What do you do when it is used? How do you use it? How do you safeword in cyber? So many questions, so many possibilities and all revolving on some of the most important foundations of BDSM... trust and safety.
Being such a large topic and having so many important consequences, this essay is almost as big as a book! (My poor fingers!) To make it a bit easier to get thru to the information you actually want it has subsections that are preceded with an underlined topic, based on the questions listed previously. Some information is repeated in more than one section to ensure those skimming to the bits they are interested in receive all the info they need.
What is a safeword or safe signal anyway?
Basically put, it is anything that passes along the message from one person to another that there is something not going according to plan and it needs attending to. It can be a verbal word, a gesture, an action, a typed phrase, a series of grunts or movements, anything we use to communicate can be used. They are to relate only to safety issues, not simply that someone would rather be using the red blindfold not the black one cause it doesn't match the rest of the outfit. When there is a risk of physical harm to one of the participants, someone is having major personal issues not intended to be happening, or perhaps a personal limit previously not discussed has been reached.
They are there for the times when a knot slips and is not noticed, a subbie is plunged into a panic attack as something triggers off a bad memory, a Dominant gets a splash of wax in the eye, an asthmatic feels unexpectedly wheezy, or an over enthusiastic bottom suddenly discovers that the fantasy of being caned 101 times is not quite matching up to the reality n needs it to stop now thank you very much. They are not there as some kind of a target for Dominants to see if they can push their subbie to them and past them all the time, nor are they there for subbies to use as a ‘get out of spanking free' card.
Many long term couples or scene players develop what is almost a second language of gestures and key words. Often they develop naturally without even discussing it as repeated scenes with the same partner/s leads to better understanding. A shaken hand meaning this cuff needs loosened, a shake of the head letting the Dominant know that gag knot just caught in your hair, the cheeky drawn out ‘Yesssss Ssssirrrr' saying i fancy a good spanking. These are not safewords, they are merely a build up of personal understanding and development of relationships. Partners attempting to invent a load of gestures and words with all sorts of meanings will only confuse themselves and risk missing or misunderstanding the important safety safewords.
How do you get one?
Safewords and gestures can be any word, sound or movement that people feel happy they can remember easily and recognise in the most heated of moments. Safewords should always be discussed and agreed beforehand, many subbies or Dominants have their own personal safewords they have been using for years. Discuss exactly what your safeword means to you and what you expect from your partner/s. If your safeword to you means ‘STOP......everything....now' and your partner thinks it means ‘hang on a sec while i adjust my position' n stands there waiting things could get ugly.
It is often a good idea to have more than one safeword for different situations. One of the more popular set of safewords is ‘green' ‘yellow' and ‘red', a graduation of levels of distress giving the Dominant a more detailed idea of exactly what the appropriate response should be. With ‘green' meaning things are really generally OK but...this lil bit here is digging in. A Dominant may well decide they want that added discomfort n leave it. With ‘Red' meaning everything stops now i can't take it anymore, you can see that having a set available means less chance of a misinterpretation of single multi use safeword. Always ensure that the word chosen is attention grabbing and not easily mistaken for something else. Famous and favourite examples of all time bad safewords are often sent round in joke emails, i think using the word ‘no' has got to be my favourite tho. Avoid things you may well shout out without meaning to use it like a safeword, for example ‘harder' (insert fit of the giggles here).
Safewords do not necessarily need to be an actual word, often people use a particular noise instead. As well as safewords we also have at our disposal safe gestures. These are most useful for moments when you are using gags, hoods, anything that might interfere with effective verbal communication, silence commands, or have a subbie who may have difficulty verbalising (this can be cause for example they are asthmatic or maybe your subbie just can't get past the arrgh stage sometimes) Examples include something like, a fully bound and gaged subbie tapping their hand cuffs against the bed post three times...pause...three times again. Bang crash as metal impacts metal may sound really noticeable, but when in the throes of passion/pain a Dominant best make sure they are watching carefully for that specific repetition. Giving a gaged subbie something to hold in their hand, like a jangly set of keys, for them to drop noisily on the floor is also popular.
Who can use it?
Well anyone actually. There are some couples that for example will say no safewords allowed to slaves, because they have given up the right to that (that is their choice, personally though, i'd want a way to inform my Master that i was about to go into an asthma attack when i needed to, slave or not) With any couple there may also be times when they say no safewords, for example if it is a corporal punishment (though again, hey i can't breathe seems like a darned good reason to keep a safeword at all times). What really makes the difference is the level of trust, understanding and maturity of the people involved. A submissive that safewords inappropriately and regularly, uses it to top from the bottom for example, is on a fast track to getting it ignored the one time she truly needs it. If you trust your subbie to only use their personal safeword in a true time of emergency, then someone please explain to me why there could ever be a time for it to not be allowed huh huh? If you do not trust your subbie to use it appropriately, then you need to sit down talk and develop understanding and trust between you, not toss your safety net system out the window.
Some Dominants like to have their own safeword for instances when they need to take a step back from the situation during a scene. Sometimes we all get so hung up on the safety of the subbie we forget that Dominants are human too! Maybe they got something in their eye, maybe they need to talk, they are just as deserving of a safety release as the subbie. Also, sometimes people involved in a scene will give a safeword to someone they have invited to watch. This could for example be a relative newcomer who may be suddenly overwhelmed by what they are seeing, or someone trying to face a personal demon by watching a scene they have been unable to previously face being involved in. Mostly though, safewords are used by subbies during scenes to ensure that they are able to inform their Dom of any problem they truly believe is worthy of interrupting a scene for.
What do ya do if it is used real time?
When a subbie calls out safeword or uses a safety signal in scene, always call to mind exactly what you have both previously agreed that particular safeword means. Have they simply shaken a hand to signify a bond is a bit too tight, or have they shouted out the absolutely stop everything i am about to die on you safeword? If you have only the one safeword, now is a good time to consider changing it so that you have degrees.
Safewords like 'green' saying simply sumfink is not quite right, 'yellow' signifying sumfink needs attended to urgently but i ain't dying and finally 'red' i am about to either fall over dead and/or end up in the insane asylum for the remainder of my days. Your response to the safeword depends entirely on the type being used. To overreact to a simple warning of a tight bond by suddenly stopping everything may well cause a great deal of upset. A feeling of rejection and remorse may well overwhelm your poor lil subbie type creature as they feel responsible for 'ruining' things.
On the other hand to leave a subbie strangling on a badly placed rope or going thru seven shades of hell as a scene sets off a bad memory trigger is even worse. Always err on the side of caution, a scene can be done another time and place after all, a subbie's well being and health must come first.
First and foremost find out what is wrong. If your safeword hasn't already given you enuff information to discover what is wrong, remove any impediment to communication (now is not a good time to test out exactly how good that gag really works). Once you know what is wrong you can judge your reaction accordingly. Do they need any bondage removed or adjusted, have they reached a personal physical barrier in pain or position, has their mind balked at a request, have you hit a personal fear, trauma, or sexual limitation.
Often when things are minor, you will receive a coherent and informative answer (hey do you really think my knee was made to bend that direction? or purple really is not my colour you know) Having it explained, you can easily deal with whatever adjustment or change needs made and then happily carry on tormenting your delighted lil subbie. In this way, you avoid having to completely end a scene neither participant actually wishes to end, but you also continue on safely.
When things are of a more serious nature either physically or most especially mentally, you may well not get a whole lot of sense and/or helpful information ( it HUUUURTS or ~the dead silent haunted staring eyes thing~) When it is something of the it hurts variety, cut it, remove it, stop doing it, apply whatever fits the situation (now is not the time to suddenly remember you spent 100 on that brand new bondage harness) ((even more so, now is not the time to decide to really test someone's pain barrier n give them just ONE more)) After having dealt with the immediate problem causing the physical difficulties, you need to hit the first aid training. If necessary bundle them up n get to hospital, stitches, burns, sprains, broken bones, hey with edge play, we take risks, no matter how good the planning, things can and do go wrong. Alternatively, all you may need to do, is give a numb limb a bit of a rub n continue back on with the scene once things have been taken care of appropriately.
With emotional issues, personal limits, memories, anything of that nature a slightly different tact is required. You may know your subbie finds bondage comforting and decide to leave them in it while you simply hold them quietly whispering it is going to be ok until they get to a point where they can talk. You may want to immediately remove whatever they found pushed their limits. Maybe that golden shower was just a little bit too humiliating for them, wipe them off, wrap a towel round em, tell em how very proud of them you are and hold them tight while you talk it thru. The main thing is STOP, whatever you were doing, it ends here and now, until you know your subbie is OK. We all have our limits, edge play is exactly that edge play, sometimes we slip over that edge. It can take a lot of talking, soul searching, sharing and learning to climb back up to the right side of that edge afterwards. Be prepared to give a lot of emotional support and cuddles.
Your reaction in this emergency situation will have a great impact not only on the current safety situation, but on the relationship between you and your subbie forever more. Trust, it is all about trust. They have trusted you to take care of them in their most vulnerable states. Remaining calm is the key, you are in control, more so now that at any other time you are with your subbie. They have reached their personal limit and reaching out for help. It is up to you to help them through this difficulty, to take care of the injury, to be there to hear all about whatever the scene just dredged up in their memory.
One of the things i see time and time again, is a belief that these occurrences are a negative thing. When what could possibly be more positive than this sharing and learning experience? Maybe u just learned how to tie a safer knot, maybe you just shared your mutual limits on a topic you hadn't discussed before, maybe your subbie just told you all about why exactly she is petrified of men in red sweaters.
Regardless of why the safeword/safesignal was used, regardless of wether you both had a wonderful deep and meaningful discussion afterwards. You have just been given the opportunity to show your subbie that you can and will react calmly, safely and put their well being first at all times. You have been handed the opportunity to develop a deeper sense of trust. You've also been given a chance to test out your safety and emergency procedures, learn from it, build your confidence, knowing you have prepared well and reacted well. If everything fell apart and didn't work at all well, learn from it and build your confidence knowing that next time you will do it right!
Always keep in mind, when reacting to safeword situations, your subbie wants to please. Stopping everything and discontinuing the scene may be the most appropriate response, but it often isn't. By doing so, the subbie may be left feeling rejected and guilty for having stopped your enjoyment. You may want to pause for a while, you may want to change the direction of the scene, but stopping completely may not be the best answer. So that cane was too harsh for them, tell them how proud you are of how much they did take, make sure they are ok and move on to perhaps something a little gentler, reassurring, calming. So the wrist cuff was too tight, loosen it n tell the slut if she thinx that little pause means she ain't gonna get what's coming next, boy is she mistaken! You know your subbie, you be the judge, maybe the best thing for them is to stop everything and spend an hour cuddling on the couch.
OK now what do i do if it is cyber or phone n i ain't even there huh huh?
Although safe gestures such as tapping on the phone can be used, for the most part the reaction is going to be verbal on the phone or a typed word on the screen of the puter. Much of what was discussed in what to do real time still applies here. You need to find out exactly what is wrong and decide what to do. If your subbie is following commands real time to your orders, make sure they are safe physically. That wonderful idea of having them tie themselves to the chair may have sounded real great until you find out what they've actually done is tie themselves to a stool and promptly fallen over on the floor cause they got over excited n squirmed.
For the most part tho, these situations are often far more emotional than physical. Often in cyber, we do things far in excess of what we would actually do real time or have tried real time and it sometimes it freaks us out (then again sometimes it just arouses us.....he he). Unlike real time tho with phone or cyber the people involved have always got a no fail way out. The little ‘x' key at the top of the screen or the hanging up of da phone. Talk it thru, it may be that u need to stop the scene n work it out.
With the general lack of physical risk, cyber scenes have a tendency to take place with far less discussion and preparation than real time scenes. People in cyber chat rooms are also sometimes inexperienced in the possible risks and do not adequately prepare themselves beforehand. BDSM is as much about mind games as it is about the actual physicalities of the body.
Many people enjoy the heady mind trips they achieve in cyber scenes, but like anything else they can and do ...go wrong. Since u can't do that comforting hug thing and since they can just plain disappear off-screen without you being able to help them, always try and remember that pushing someone to that point is really not sumttin we are wanting to have happen. Don't set yourself up for problems by pushing limits just cause it is cyber, or trying to do edge play scenes when u have things going on real time n may have to dash out at any second.
Why use a safeword?
Well now doesn't all this seem like an awful lot of fuss and bother? Heck can't we just scream 'that HURTS' and have them stop? Or hey she promised to watch real careful you know, we don't need one. The ever popular: i am a slave i have no limits they can do what they want anyway, is a favourite of mine as well. All of these viewpoints have value and if that's your choice and your partner(s) is/are happy with it, have fun! However, for those who like to have safety backups and for those who want to ensure safety first at all times, safewords do provide another possible safety net.
They do NOT replace good old plain watching though! Be alert, be watchful, ensure you plan in advance, know your subbie, know your equipment, know your limits and theirs. Knowledge, forethought and common sense are worth far more than even the best arranged safeword. Subbies, don't push yourself too fast and too far, remember Dominants are human not omnipotent gods. Dominants do not think of safewords as a goal, a target, or just a challenge to be overcome.