Playing It Safe: The Ins and Outs of Safewords

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From vanilla women’s magazines to online forums about kink, the first piece of advice that newbies to BDSM often get is to use a safeword. But the discussion about safewords often stops there. Let’s take a closer look at this often cited but poorly explained mainstay of BDSM.

What is a safeword and why is it necessary?

A safeword is an agreed-upon word that, when spoken by either the bottom or the top, will immediately stop a scene. The most common explanation for why they’re necessary is because people frequently say “no” or “stop” during scenes, so a safeword is essential to know when to really stop. While this is true sometimes (more on that below), it’s not the whole story. Often, the clearest demarcation between BDSM and abuse is consent, which makes it imperative to have a very clear mechanism—such as a safeword—to indicate when that consent is violated. If a bottom safewords, and the top ignores it, continuing the scene crosses into the realm of abuse.  

How do I choose a safeword?

A safeword should be chosen before a scene and should be a word that the participants can easily remember and would be unlikely to be said for any other reason. For example, you’re probably not going to shout “giraffe!” during a scene, so this could work as a safeword.

Many people use what’s known as the stoplight system: red means “stop everything immediately,” yellow means “slow down or change what you’re doing,” and green means “this is great; keep going.” Some people use a word like “mercy” instead of “yellow” so as not to  disrupt the mood as much. The point is to pick words that will work for you and stick with them.

In cases where the bottom is gagged or otherwise unable to speak, safewords must be nonverbal. In these instances, a gesture or sound (a series of taps or grunts, for example) should be established to serve as a safeword.

Can I use “no” or “stop” as a safeword?

This is a bit of a trick question. Most books and how-to articles on BDSM advise against using “no” or “stop” as safewords because people often like to say these words while struggling or resisting in a scene and don’t mean them literally. However, we believe this issue is more nuanced. Unless you’ve specifically negotiated that “no” and “stop” should be ignored during a scene, they should absolutely be taken at face value. No one should ever assume that “no” means “yes” unless told otherwise. If you know you’ll be throwing “no,” “stop,” and other similar words around during a scene, then they cannot function as safewords and you’ll need to select different words for that purpose. Be sure to discuss your approach to these words before playing.

“After she had cried, ‘You can’t do this to me,’ I replied, ‘Of course I can, unless, that is, you use your safeword.’ She paused only a moment and then moaned, instead, ‘I’ll do anything you want; just don’t do this to me.’”


—from The Loving Dominant by John Warren

When should I use my safeword?

Some people see safewords as a goal; they like to play up to the point that it’s necessary to call red. Others, including us, view them as a marker of a scene gone wrong. In either case, a safeword can and should be used anytime the bottom—or less often the top—needs to stop the scene. Common reasons people use safewords include bad pain, nausea, dizziness, feeling psychologically triggered, and so on. Regardless of the rationale, if a bottom says the safeword, the top must stop immediately. Not doing so crosses the line into abuse and is a serious violation of trust. Likewise, if a top insists on not having a safeword or indicates that they won’t honor one, this is an enormous red flag. On the flip side, tops must be able to trust that a bottom will not be too shy or afraid to use a safeword when necessary. Safewords should be taken seriously by all participants.    

Does having a safeword eliminate the need for check-ins?

In a word: no! Safewords are not always failsafe and do not absolve the top’s responsibility to check on the bottom. If a bottom goes into subspace (the extreme endorphin rush some scenes can cause), they may not be aware of how much pain they’re experiencing and may lose the ability to make decisions. In fact, they may forget their safeword altogether. It’s the top’s responsibility to be aware of these factors and check in to determine the bottom’s well being.

In sum, always have a safeword at the ready even though you may never need to use it. Establishing one is a basic tenet of BDSM and is an indication that you and your partner are on the up and up and intend to play as safely as possible.    

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