Thinking Kink: Safewords

a sign that says THINK SAFETY"I cannot overemphasize the importance of always having a safeword system in effect" – Jay Wiseman.

"Playing without a safeword might seem like a hot scene—that's the fantasy—but the reality is that in consensual BDSM there are always safewords or safeword-equivalents" – Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

Whatever else 50 Shades of Grey may have got wrong—and I know many of you feel that it got A LOT wrong!—the book does at least acknowledge the existence of safewords. Unlike other media representations of kink that I've already discussed here, 50 Shades reminds readers that in BDSM, "the Dominant may make demands of the Submissive that cannot be met without...harm" and therefore "the Submissive may make use of a Safeword." The infamous contract that Christian Grey presents to Anastasia Steele also helpfully details the difference between "yellow" and "red" as safewords (the former tells the dominant the sub is close to their limits, the latter is a call for the dom to stop everything immediately).

Safewords are not entirely uncontroversial within the BDSM scene, and there are players who will claim not to need or use them. However, the play partners in question know one another well enough to read each other's signals—they may be married, or be in a longterm Master/slave relationship. However, I hope that outside of these situations, most kinksters would not dream of trying to persuade someone to play without a safeword. As Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy point out in their excellent New Bottoming Book, without a safeword "the bottom has to resort to shrieking 'Stop this scene you are a crud I hate you stop NOW!' ... We think safewords are a more civilized choice."

Endorsements of safewords have occurred in places even more unlikely than dubious Twilight fan-fiction. Although I'm not a massive Family Guy fan, and have to be in the right mood to endure the makers' efforts to offend just about every group on the planet, the show did actually depict Lois and Peter's preparations for a BDSM scene quite sweetly (before reverting to their usual "isn't people getting hit in the face hilarious?" formula, natch). In fact, I think Lois saying "The safety word is banana" was when I first realized that people in BDSM don't just don the gimp masks and start beating each other without negotiating first.

However, safewords aren't foolproof insurance against abuse—unfortunately, nothing is if a person has evil intentions. In the Office episode "Women's Appreciation," bumbling boss Michael Scott tells the camera that he and ice-queen partner Jan "have a safeword in case things go too far: 'foliage'." After a pause for the audience to have a snicker at Jan and Michael's leafy green safeword, Michael drops the punchline: "although last time she pretended she didn't hear me." Hilarious, right? A woman "forcing" a man to do sexual things, when we all know men never say no to anything sexual? Of course it wouldn't be funny if a man disregarded a woman's safeword, so we won't joke about that. But actually, no. It's not ever okay to joke about disregarding safewords, regardless of the gender of your partner.

As Jay Wiseman points out in S/M 101, to joke that you will override someone's wishes and consent is to "permanently destroy the trust a submissive considers necessary to play with you." And yes, some subs may like to be teased or have their dom make "suggestions" about the terrible things they will do them, but only in the safety of knowing that dom will not go too far. If a person really thinks their partner might not listen when they use the safeword during a BDSM scene, "they may quietly conclude they are in danger of being tortured to death."

Anyone in doubt as to why the media is playing a dangerous game by portraying the disregarding of safewords as humorous might want to take a look at this post [TRIGGER WARNING] where Cliff Pervocracy bravely wrote of her violation by a partner who ignored her safeword. Tracey Clark-Flory also showed how safewords are no laughing matter when she [TRIGGER WARNING]  wrote about several kinksters' experiences of being violated by play partners. While those in the BDSM scene pride themselves on promoting "safe, sane, consensual" behavior, and often justifiably so, sadly there's no guarantee that someone in the scene isn't just your run-of-the-mill abuser in kinky clothing. 

In light of the Daniel Tosh firestorm this week, I probably don't need to make the point that joking about sexual abuse is harmful, not funny. However, in the context of kink, a subculture that's already too often treated with mocking or irreverence, it's worth restating. Safewords are necessary, non-negotiable, and not a joke.

Previously: Is Vanilla Sex Boring? Who Gets to Decide?, Secretary and the Female Submissive

Top image from Flickr user Arenamontanus.

Comments

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Thank you!

As a feminist bi submissive I have REALLY enjoyed this series and today's was especially wonderful!

No, thank YOU!

for such lovely words. It's comments like this that make an already hugely fun blog series even more enjoyable to write. x

Wonderful

This piece has such a wide range of application. That scene from the office is a perfect example. I was so troubled by it and the responses it received (laughter).

Safewords are not necessary for most types of play

Jay Wiseman is a big fan of safewords. I'm not. At least, I'm not always. There are actually alternative to safewords that aren't in the "'Stop this scene you are a crud I hate you stop NOW" genre. Like "Stop." And "no." You know, the words 'nillas use. Contrary to popular belief, these work just fine in most types of BDSM play. There are two major exceptions that come to mind. One is resistance/rape play. If shouting "no" and "stop" are likely to be part of the scene, then having another word (like banana, or red) is key. The other major exception is play in which it won't be possible for the sub/bottom to say anything - say, because the scene involves a gag, or breath play. In these cases, a non-verbal signal should be negotiated ahead of time.

Yes. I flat out refuse to be

Yes. I flat out refuse to be in a any situation where "no" "stop" "don't" and other things like that are not taken at face value. It is beyond terrifying. So when I get up to kinky stuff, I just say what I mean. Saying "That's too much, please stop." has always worked just as well as a safeword.

Thanks for adding your perspective.

This shows that not everyone in the BDSM scene wants to participate in 'erotic resistance', and I think that is worth stating. Having 'no' ignored may be erotic for some people, but may be horrible for others, and that doesn't make them any less of a kinkster.

The purpose of this piece was to show that when people do take part in activities that might mean 'no' is overridden as part of a fantasy, those looking in from the outside need to understand that there is still respect, consent and negotiation involved, by virtue of having a safeword.

Good points

Thanks for mentioning the non-verbal signal, which is something I didn't get time to specify in the post (several people have asked me, with concerned expressions, 'what is the point of a safeword if you're GAGGED?!', hence hand signals, dropping something, two squeezes etc).

It's hard to say whether safewords are or aren't used 'in most types of BDSM play' - without surveying the entire community, I guess we can't know for sure. From my personal experience and the research I've done for this blog, I get the impression that most people do use them, and they are always displayed prominently at the play parties I've been to. Your experience is clearly different, and I appreciate you adding a different viewpoint.

Personally, even if I did just want to use 'no' and 'stop', I would always check ahead of time that the person I was playing with understood that I was not using these as part of 'erotic resistance' (which I think covers a lot of BDSM play). Therefore those words would become safewords by virtue of us having negotiated about them, if you see what I mean. The main point I'm making with this piece is that whatever signal or word you want to use to stop a scene, it needs to be clearly in place before a scene and there be no possibility that a person might misunderstand and override that 'safe signal'.

Actually, it sounds like our

Actually, it sounds like our experiences in terms of what we've seen are quite similar: most people I've encountered do seem to be a fan of safewords. I just don't happen to share that view. I completely agree that in ANY type of play - kinky or not - there needs to be some way for the players to put a halt to the action, and that way needs to be respected. But safewords strike me as unnecessary adornments for most types of play - unless we're conceptualizing "no" and "stop" as safewords. I remember reading a thread a while back on FetLife in which the poster put forth the argument that safewords are unnecessary; what is necessary is an exit strategy. Safewords may be a part of that strategy. I found myself agreeing with that part of what he wrote.

Some of the ritual in BDSM strikes me as ritual for the sake of ritual. Some of that I admit to enjoying, but most of it I don't. Safewords (in most circumstances) fall into the latter category.

It's interesting, though, that you would tend to enter interactions assuming that "no" or "stop" wouldn't be respected unless they had been explicitly negotiated as "safewords." I've typically assumed they would be in the absence of negotiations, and that has worked for me, but I'm wondering if perhaps the norms are such that this is an unwise approach? Your final paragraph suggests that perhaps it is. Then again, I imagine such things are scene-specific, to an extent.

On the Road to Recovery

Thank you for all of the information provided in this post. I am so relieved (and horrified) to now know that there are many people who have been raped and assaulted during BDSM. I felt like I was at fault for what happened to me even though I repeatedly said, "no" and "stop" because of the bondage and many other circumstances. Your information, Pervocracy's experiences, and Clark-Flory's article have affected me so deeply. To know that I am not alone, to know that I have a right to be angry, and to have my self-doubting thoughts disproved has helped me move towards healing.

Hmm.......

I always get a little bit cautious when I here talk of safewords as though they must be a hard and fast rule.

Granted, I'm in one of those longterm Master/slave relationships that are excepted from this "rule", but the part of it that bothers me is the tendency to say that only a certain kind of kink is acceptable, which this kind of thought can lead to.

Simply put, for some people "lack of consent" is their fetish.

For some of these people, having a safeword would never fully satisfy their sexual needs, if that element of control was in place.

I'll give you an example in a moment.

Also, the safeword use as a "rule" tends to mischaracterize all BDSM as being about S&M only.

There are plenty of kinky activities and fetishes that people get off on and mutually enjoy and crave that their partner do to them that are wholly of a "mental" activity or are a combination of mental/psychological and physical activity.

I have a Dom friend who told me how their partner arranged for a rape scene using a "flag". Basically there was an arranged day and time and if she put a certain color flag in her window of her apartment it was a no go.

She left her door unlocked and he entered with mask on and "raped" her.

It was hot for both of them.

This is a kind of example of an activity that we would refer to in BDSM as Consentual Non-Consent.

A seeming oxymoron in a word that here above was literally played out as an example.

You could argue that the flag system was a kindof safeword, and it was.

And yet, during the scene, it was agreed upon that she had no way to stop it for the duration of the scene.

Yes, things were heavily negotiated before, but that's the point.

The safeword, as a rule, basically implies that a person must ever be able to provide a "no" at any moment, and that having even a few minutes of consensual, mutually enjoyable play where the submissive cannot say "no" is not ok.

And yet, that is exactly what many people get off on, both in a short scene type environment, and also in a longer term Master/slave type relationship.

I respect Jay Wiseman as a person, as far as basic physical safety experts are concerned, I think he's one of the best.

But the psychological aspect of actually loosing control as a fetish, not just pretending to loose control,( or loosing most but not all of it,) is something I think he may have never really understood.

It is an entirely different mindset, and I have to admit, it is a bit disturbing to me to see more S&M type folks to suggest or imply that their kink is ok, but not other's.

To me, It's sortof like vanilla folks implying that BDSM is "abusive" simply because they don't understand it, some S&M folks imply that CNC folks are being "dangerous" simply because they don't understand it.