Why Safewords Are Not Safe
In intense or stressful situations, humans don't think clearly, and often don't act rationally. People who regularly face high-stress events train to handle them correctly, so they don't need to think, they simply execute the conditioned responses. An S&M scene where the bottom has reached the point of needing to stop usually qualifies as a stressful situation!
Among S&M practitioners, the conventional wisdom for this scenario is the "safeword" — a single word (or a pair like yellow/red) that the top and bottom agree will be the signal to stop the scene immediately. Either partner can use the safeword, but generally it falls on the bottom. When given, the top frees her from any bondage, finds out (or describes) what's wrong, and provides any necessary care. In general, the top's intention in a scene is not to push her all the way to needing a safeword.
Unfortunately, this method is prone to failure in many cases. Unless the top and bottom are both experienced in the sort of activity they're attempting, and have actually used that safeword before, they're facing a stressful situation without training.
Here are some reasons why safewords fail:
The bottom can't form words. Many bottoms are rendered non-verbal by S&M experiences, even mild bondage or light spanking. This is part of the appeal of being a bottom; your mind shifts out of its normal patterns. And most bottoms are non-verbal in physiological subspace, which is an altered state. (See Two Kinds of Subspace.)
The bottom can't remember the safeword. If she's never had to use it in distress, it probably won't come naturally to her.
The bottom doesn't want to displease her top. If the bottom is submissive towards her top in a more general way, she may be more focused on "being good" than her own safety, even if the latter is his highest priority. Calling out the special word that short-circuits her lover's authority may be anathema to her.
The bottom doesn't know she's in trouble. Her judgment is clouded, and her sensations are all different. She might realize that something's not right, but think it's really not all that bad.
The top doesn't recognize the safeword. If he hasn't heard the bottom yell or whisper or groan the word before, it might not register with him when uttered that way during a scene. He might even mistake it for an expression of ecstasy!
The top is in a groove at that moment. Maybe she's screaming in just the way he wants to hear. Maybe what he's doing feels really good to him. Maybe he's in topspace. (Tops get into altered states, too! More in a future article.) He needs to hear something that will jar him out of his groove.
So what to do? Don't specify a safeword. Agree that any request to help or halt is the signal to stop:
Note that a designated safeword is essential if you play verbal games during a scene, where the bottom gets to say, "No! Stop!" and the top gets to keep right on going. This deepens the sense of taboo, without crossing the line. If you wish to play such games, I suggest doing so only with an S&M partner you're very familiar with, and selecting an obvious word like "safeword" or just "safe", and finding ways to practice it together before turning up the heat.
As the top, it's my responsibility to be aware of my partner's state, regardless of what she says or doesn't say. If it's not clear to me, I've got to find out immediately. Even if I think I know, I'll pause from time to time and check in with her.