Safewords: are you sure you know all about them?

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Some time ago Radaaria (the webmistress of the Italian BDSM website Legami) and I talked about the confusion reigning over even basic subjects like safewords. In the end, in the commendable spirit of  «if you don’t like something, instead of complaining you should make it better yourself», I was invited to summarize everything I know about safety signals for BDSM play in one article.

What is a safeword?

Let’s start with the basics: while ‘safeword’ has a really nice ring to it, words are just a part of a number of safety signals. Like those red handles in a train car, they are used to stop as quickly as possible what started out as a pleasant journey, but for some reason is turning into a wreck. They are not nice nor elegant, they are rather uncomfortable for the passengers… yet they prevent derailments and ending up in worse accidents. Also, just like those handles they must be judiciously used: without abusing them, but also without forgetting to take advantage of them when you really need them.
More concretely, a safeword is a signal agreed upon by the participants to a BDSM session to immediately halt the games in case something goes wrong. I’m talking about a ‘signal’ and not a ‘word’ for a very simple reason: the issue may well arise when you are gagged, experiencing breathing difficulties or you have “something” shoved down your throat. In these cases talking would be somehow complicated, so it is more convenient to agree upon both an actual word and another “backup” kind of signal (say, finger snapping). Of course the opposite also stands true: since certain gestures don’t come easily when you are tied up – and possibly with your hands numb due to a bondage mistake – you are better off having an emergency word set up too. And talking about this…

Choosing the right safeword

If you are asking yourself why should you invent a code other than a simple «no!», maybe you should reconsider your idea of passion. In fact, carried by the enthusiasm of an erotic encounter it is very common to say out ‘no’s having the very opposite meaning, and the same goes for ‘stop’, ‘hold it’, ‘I can’t take it anymore’ and a thousand other expressions which in those moments can only heighten the intensity. Thinking about it, I actually know a few subs who really enjoy screaming as loud as they can: blood-curdling cries that would suggest calling for an ambulance… while their pleasure is in feeling overpowered by a merciless torturer who ignores their pleas – and gets insulted if he actually stops.
The best solution is then to agree on a completely unrelated word you surely won’t call out by mistake. Since the agitation during an emergency may well up confuse your ideas and your memory, it is better to avoid difficult words like ‘superprotosynchrotron’. Stuff like ‘potato’ or ‘emergency’ is just fine; if you really want to be safe, the ideal is your own birth name, which you are bound to remember.
An viable alternative could also be to adopt the aberrant American system known as ‘semaphore code’.

The frustration of being held by a traffic light

Our cousins in the oversea colonies are simple, practical folks. A perfect example comes from the safety code which has been almost universally adopted in their country. Inspired by the colors of a traffic light, it works like this:

  • If the submissive partner doesn’t have any problem and the dominant one asks him (or her. Real writing uses the male form, deal with it) how things are going, he answers «green»;
  • When he is getting close to his limit, he spontaneously calls «yellow!»;
  • If the session becomes excessively hard or in case of other serious problem, the sub cries «red!!!», and this is considered his safeword.

Those who seriously love destroying the mood even use a number system: from 1 to 10 to indicate how uncomfortable they are – the effect reminds closely of ice skating judges.

But seriously: semaphores and numbers hold the unquestionable advantage of giving the dominant a precise feedback, but excepting very unusual situations (i.e. the first test of a new whip, when you need to learn together how much pain it gives) they are real mood-killers.

Self-professed tough guys and gals also object that using such codes puts the sub explicitly in control of the session, making the dom just a puppet in his service. We’ll get back to this aspect of safewords later, but there are in fact two different and much more serious problems.
First: to dominate doesn’t mean to simply act cruelly towards your partner, but above all to be in control of whatever is happening. To keep the control you need to be very aware to everything around you, and especially to your sub’s reactions. Trusting his “semaphore” tends to lessen your sense of responsibility and your concentration instead, which is very undesirable also because…
Second: if you are playing well, it is very likely that your sub is the less reliable person to judge the intensity of his very own sensations. In fact, factors such as his arousal, challenging spirit, desire to please, endorphin rush and more will prevent him to be aware of his own real conditions.

How to use a safeword

Getting back to our main subject, it is worth to spend a few words about how to actually use the safeword. A good rule is, in example, to use it three times instead of just one. Meaning: not «potato!» but «potatopotatopotato!».
This way you won’t only avoid any misunderstanding, but the bottom has the time to fully think if he really wants to stop the action or not. Sometimes one stimulation more intense than the others or a moment of weakness makes you feel like you need to stop – but you regret that immediately thereafter. Naturally those in the top role are supposed to be intelligent enough to understand that even a half-formed safeword is an indication to slow down a little – so much for American traffic lights!

By the way: while of course everyone has all the rights to enjoy BDSM in whatever way he likes, it is useful to understand when safewords should be used. The basic idea is that, just like the emergency brakes we discussed above, a safeword is an extreme measure to be invoked when there really is no other option available. The logic is the classic «do not cry wolf in vain» principle… Sure it is better to be safe than sorry, but using safewords needlessly renders them moot.
To make a few concrete example, safewords are to be used in case of…

–          Panic attack
–          Feeling faint
–          Breathing difficulty
–          Cramps
–          Pain caused by nerve compression
–          Post traumatic flashback
–          Wounds
–          Persisting discomfort
–          Fire hazard and other catastrophes

While I’d deem it inappropriate for things like…

–          «An air draft is slightly bothering me »
–          «I’d rather prefer you’d do this instead of that »
–          «I just  remembered I have to thaw the dinner roast »
–          «My manicure could get ruined »

… and in general for whatever can safely wait for the games to be over. Here we are talking about real emergencies, and this is why the next paragraph describes very serious procedures.

In case of emergency

Do you know that recurring movie scene in which suddenly it becomes clear that an emergency is underway? One of the characters freezes with transfixed eyes, another breaks down bawling, another one yet cries «Aaargh! We are all going to die!» and someone insults the protagonist blaming everything on him. The latter instead rolls up his sleeves and, albeit reluctantly, gets down to work and saves the day. Well, in case of a problem during a BDSM session the same thing happens. Your instinct may be to surrender to panic or to get mad, but the only sensible solution is to postpone any argument and to address the emergency immediately, without questions.
Practically speaking, this means that as soon as the safeword is invoked it is the dominant’s imperative duty to, in this order:

–          Stop doing whatever he’s doing to his sub;
–          Make safe any immediately dangerous items (i.e. ropes cutting off the blood flow, candles lit close to flammables, etc.);
–          Reassure the partner informing him he is already acting to solve the emergency and that he needs the sub’s collaboration;
–          Remove the source of the emergency, even if it doesn’t look serious to him;
–          If the sub is reasonably serene and cooperative, free him from any bondage. If he is not, reassure him while the dom goes through the following points, and free him as soon as there is no more risk of thoughtless or dangerous movements by the bottom;
–          Attend to any medical emergency (reanimation, safety position, hypoglycemic crisis, hyperoxygenation, wounds, etc.) and call an ambulance if needed;
–          Remove any further source of discomfort (clamps, blindfold, insertables, needles, etc.);
–          Comfort the partner with a blanket/fresh air, water/juice and reassure him by talking in a affectionate way; hugging him if he wishes to; making him relax

On the other hand, what you must not do is:

–          To give more importance to the games than to the partner;
–          Worry about appearances or what other will think;
–          Criticize, judge or attack the partner;
–          Panic;
–          Immediately dive back into play;
–          Show indifference toward your partner or ignore him

Did you already know this and does this sound obvious to you? Great for you and the people you do BDSM with. Otherwise, do memorize the above lists: behaving like assholes or washouts usually does much more damage than any practical accident.
It goes without saying that to act upon many of the above points you must have a basic medical aid competence and, at the least, know how what you are doing and how to use your toys and tools. The famous ‘Safe and Sane’ in the SSC motto are all about this. And, talking about acronyms…

Of slogans and responsibilities

What you have read here so far is nothing but what you can learn at any seminar about BDSM safety and which you can also find in many specialized manuals. There are however other aspects to the use and misuse of safewords: a darkish side rarely talked about, but that is in fact essential knowledge to happily enjoy your sessions, and above all to avoid potentially very serious troubles.

The first is directly related to a sentence you can unfortunately hear rather often, that goes: «I don’t use any safeword because I am a True Master™ and I know what I’m doing». Well, I believe I have enough years of experience and cases under my belt to safely state that whoever speaks such idiocies is dangerous and better avoided.
This is not a matter of personal opinions, but simply the plain realization that all the trust and competence in the world don’t imply to also be omniscient. Looking from the outside, nobody can know the health conditions of another person, and much less know what’s going on in his head. To make an example, it is absolutely plausible that what I see as an innocuous sentence gets experienced as a post-traumatic flashback trigger for another person, possibly making him lose control as he relives a forgotten childhood abuse. How are you supposed to discern such a situation from the normal agitation and cries of «Stop! Stop!» of a person under torture, o almighty master?
You need to always set a safeword, as there is no downside to it. I am very happy for you if you really know each other so deeply that you’ll never use it, but there is no reason at all to take an unnecessary risk.

Then there is an even more troubling statement. «I refuse to use a safeword because I do RACK, not SSC!» We could discuss at length about this (and if you wish to, you can find several posts on the subject on my website), but here’s the gist of it: RACK is not an alternative to SSC, but its extension. This is not from my mouth, but from those of the people who actually invented these terms – just google them to confirm this.
In any case, no acronym can be a substitute for common sense. To think that a misunderstood slogan can free you of your responsibilities in a session gone south is just stupid, and above all it is a typical strategy used by the sexual predators that infiltrate the BDSM scene from time to time. Their idea is that bullshitting about RACK, ‘tunnelspiel’ or ‘consensual nonconsensuality’ will intimidate their potential victims so much to authorize them to cause him any damage with impunity… and unfortunately they are often right. This is all due to sheer ignorance, so it’s better to be informed.

No shame, no guilt

Not calling a safeword in a real emergency is the main cause of accidents during BDSM play with a partner (and please remember that a psychological trauma is in every extent a very real and serious accident). As explained a few paragraphs above, when this happens it is almost always due to a distorted conception of the relationship between the submissive and the dominant partner.
Many bottoms feel the duty to please their tops at all costs, to be up to the challenges of their role and thus to “endure anything”, or they believe they really are inferior to the dom so they don’t have the right to complain. For these persons – sometimes swindled by the other – using a safeword is tantamount to admitting a personal failure or a grave guilt.

Well, to put it simply: this is not true. The rules of physics, psychology and jurisprudence don’t just stop to apply because you are enjoying an unusual pleasure. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you feel unwell, you aren’t having fun anymore or whether a technical or miscommunication error causes a serious issue. These are the facts of life, and to be able to signal «hold it there, let’s get back to normality and maybe play again later» is not just an useful tool, but also a fundamental right.
Your partner scolds you saying that you are not a good slave because you take the liberty to use your safeword? It’s his problem: let him find somebody else closer to his play style, because no erotic practice justifies to be harmed. Sexuality – with whips and leather or without – has the very opposite purpose.

Oh, by the way: dominants have all the right to suspend playing too, if they don’t feel good about it. Maybe in this case they won’t use a safeword, but they aren’t to be blamed either if they don’t behave exactly like the Christian Grey or the übermistress of your dreams.
In both cases the solution is the same. Talking without drama, discussing what went wrong together, understanding how to avoid it in the future… and get back in the saddle more enthusiastically than ever, maybe after a nice spell of relaxation, since nobody is rushing you.

Perfectly safe… or not?

As I thank you for your patience reading all of this, let me close on a side note about the most insidious matter of them all. After so many precautions and devices, it would be natural to think that using (well) your safeword is a foolproof trick to keep you safe from every problem… right?
Well, no. Especially when you are practicing BDSM with someone you don’t know very well, you should unfortunately consider the possibility that the safeword might just be ignored. The part about not forgetting your sense remains valid: a safeword is an excellent tool, but it does have limits. I happened to hear several times stories which included the words «But I did use my safeword!», usually told by crying persons. Denouncing dangerous play partners and isolating them is a very meager consolation.

For a few years now there has been an intense worldwide debate about the very question of the violation of agreed-upon limits in BDSM, including the observance of emergency signals. To put it briefly, it turned out that the cases of breach of the trust allowed by subs are many more than you’d imagine by reading online forums and participating to public events. Often they are just unpleasant yet harmless episodes, but there also are numerous instances which could well be defined aggravated violence – and yes, that’s the name of a serious crime. Just like with rape cases, the first exposés gave other victims the courage to make their own experiences known, sometimes after years of self-imposed shame. By now the overall number of known cases is so large that it cannot be underestimated anymore.
I realize that talking about this unpleasant side of the BDSM world is a bit of a downer, but try putting yourself in the shoes of these people. Don’t you believe they would have been better off knowing the information you know now before their troubles?
In the end, the same simple truth keeps popping up: a realistic attitude and the competence in BDSM culture (the real one, not the one described in erotic fantasies or by online porn) represent the best way to enjoy fully and without problems the many pleasures offered by extreme eroticism. Including the one of stopping whenever you wish.