Originally posted on March 4, 2019; updated on May 16, 2023
As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases made via some of the links below
(at no additional cost to you).
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?
In BDSM, 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 YOU 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. You might wonder why “green” or its equivalent would be used. One reason would be if the bottom senses the top is easing up prematurely and wants them to keep going.
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 or dropping an object, for example) should be established to serve as a safeword.
Can YOU 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 a safeword 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 You use Your safeword?
In BDSM, some people see a safeword 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 consent violations, 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.
WHY MIGHT SOMEONE BE RELUCTANT TO USE A SAFEWORD?
Unfortunately, using a safeword can be easier said than done, especially for subs or bottoms. There are a variety of reasons this might be the case:
- Not wanting to ruin the scene/mood
- Feeling shame or embarrassment, especially in public play scenarios where others will see what’s happening
- Feeling inadequate
- Being afraid of disappointing the top/dom
There are a couple of ways to overcome hesitancy about using safewords. The first is to practice using them. This involves the dom telling the sub in advance that the sub should safeword during a designated activity or at a particular time. Another way to ensure that subs will safeword is for the dom to check in and tell them to pick a color during a scene (green, yellow, or red). Commanding the sub to provide feedback in this way can help normalize the act of using safewords.
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.
Subspace isn’t the only reason to check in, though. It’s the top’s responsibility to be aware of any drastic change in behavior and check in to determine the bottom’s well-being. For instance, if the sub suddenly goes silent after being very vocal, (or vice versa) or goes limp after being physically responsive (or vice versa), the top should check in. In sum, we recommend having 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.
Interested in an advanced alternative to safewords? Check out our post on risk profiles.