Sunday, January 06, 2013

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:
No. Wait. Help. Stop. Hold on. Let me go. Cut it out. I can't take this.
Even an unusual or unexpected response to pain can be a signal, e.g. crying out "Ow!" after a period of moaning.

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.

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36 Comments:

At August 12, 2013 1:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my first kink experience, my partner refused to honor my safe word. I was thusly beaten and was not released for a long while. He did not use after care and left immediately after he ended the scene.. Safe words are indeed unsafe until a strong trust is established.
I am looking for a new Dom, but the first left me with several triggers and I fear I will fall prey again. That ordeal left me much more, if not overly, cautious. Thank you for understanding the issues of safewords as a Dominant. It is much appreciated.
-Rain

 
At August 12, 2013 8:55 AM, Blogger Will said...

Rain, thanks for sharing your experience. There is indeed little you can do to remain safe with an abusive partner. Avoiding bondage initially might help you get to know a person of interest before placing your well-being in their hands, but it's no acid test.

The issue of being abused by a new partner is one every caring kinky person must be aware of. Fortunately it's not all that common, at least among the folks I've spoken with.

I've written about ways to vet kink candidates in How to Interview a Dom/Master Prospect.

 
At December 10, 2013 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am new to BDSM but am a natural submissive. When my recently aquired Dom and I started playing he didn't feel the need for a safe word because what we were doing was considerably light bondage. However I didn't feel secure until I discussed safe words with him and asked him to check in on me once in a while so that I had the mental space to say if I had hit my limit. This made me more confident and allowed us to progress to more intense play where I could finally let go. And I felt hot and amazing instead of scared and unsure. Personally, it is hard for me to tell him I have hit my limit, but just having the words and testing them out when I was unsure of the situation and seeing his response gave me the security blanket I needed to then become confident in the amount of pain and bondage I could handle that turned me on. I think submissives should understand that testing out safe words is not the same as crying wolf and doms should understand that too. Sometimes you just need proof that the safe word will work and your Dom is attentive to your needs.

 
At December 10, 2013 12:29 PM, Blogger Will said...

Thanks for sharing your experience! Was it easier for you to "tell him I have hit my limit" using safewords than with normal language? I can see how some subs would feel more comfortable with safeword signalling than ordinary words. Your request that he check in on you during a scene and your testing/practice with the safewords were very astute!

 
At December 10, 2013 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes it was easier because then I didn't have to feel like I was letting him down, since he gave me permission to use those and they don't sound as bad as "stop it" "get off me" "I'm scared." Instead I could just say "yellow" or "red." One time when he was giving me light smacks in the face, I didn't know what to do because I didn't like it and there was no pain involved and it was just annoying. I was kinda buzzed because we had been playing for awhile already so I ended up yelling "Stop fucking hitting my face!" I didn't use the red or yellow words because I didn't necessarily want him to back off I wanted him to move down and keep spanking me lol. So anyways I was lucky I didn't get in trouble for that because it wasn't very polite. Anyways, I think the safety words have their place especially at the beginning when either a new sub is building confidence or when people are learning each other. And at least for me my pain tolerance greatly (wonderfully) increases as my confidence increases and the same with the bondage so I know the safe words helped me psychologically, maybe not actually functionally speaking in terms of when I'm gagged.

 
At January 12, 2014 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could never imagine being a dom. There is so much responsibility in it! I am in awe of those who can hold that much power and use it wisely. I am so thankful that I can trust my dom with safety. He is so careful and can read me so well that I've never even had a thought of using our safe word. You dons have a tough job and reading this makes me appreciate it even more

 
At February 19, 2014 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the top works in the same way as myself there is no need for a stop word and how can you use a stop word if you have been tied and gagged the top should be reading body language and respond accordingly.If meeting a new top I would suggest you insist on putting your phone on silent but insisting the top checks your phone at regular intervals ( we all take breaks during extended scenes have fun stay safe Vick

 
At March 12, 2014 4:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but notice some lines, such as 'the bottom doesn't know she's In trouble', 'the bottom doesn't want to displease her top', assume the bottom is female. I recently read your article "Two Kinds of Subspace" and also got the feeling that that article also addressed these types of situations as if the top is always male and the bottom female.
I have been in situations in which this is not the case, and it rubs me the wrong way seeing it written as if it is. These articles are very helpful and I appreciate the detail and care you put into them. But I would appreciate seeing them written in a more gender neutral tone.

 
At March 12, 2014 5:23 PM, Blogger Will said...

Anonymous, I do regret the apparently sexist language. I've considered a genderless tone, but when describing a pair, using "they" to indicate one party simply doesn't read. Spelling out "the dom" or "the sub" for every reference is clumsy verbiage. I could switch the meaning of she across the blog to refer to sub here and dom there, but that will also rankle people. Feeling stuck, I resorted to my own frame of reference as a male dom. So I must make apologies to those readers outside that frame!

 
At September 14, 2014 6:39 AM, Anonymous genieve said...

i think safewords are an intregral part of any safe sain bdsm scene , but also in any bdsm relationship, it is not a matter of disspointing ones Dom or Domme when you do not use them but a matter of concern that you feel pressured not to , any good Dominant will be proud and happy you have reached your limit for that particular scene anf should reward you accordingly

 
At September 21, 2014 5:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found an even greater problem is the case of the submissive who is unwilling to use a safeword. I've encountered at least one (and heard discussion of others of the same nature) who felt that it would invalidate their headspace if they were actually aware that they had control and could halt the scene. In their mind it needed to be completely out of their control. Definitely neither safe nor entirely sane.

The worst part is that there are people out there who will not only play with them, but who will seek them out and end up abusing them to the point that they finally do reach their limit and it stops being consensual.

 
At October 02, 2014 3:56 PM, Blogger Will said...

I would not brand as "not sane" a bottom or sub who may not be "aware that they ... could halt the scene." Entering an altered state and/or feeling out of control is part of the thrill of BDSM. Altered states don't lend themselves to the full awareness you'd expect of someone in an ordinary frame of mind. For a top to rely on such awareness can be a mistake.

 
At November 20, 2014 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im a new sub, and ive met this dom online. Hes really experiened, and we talked everyday for almost 2 months. We havent yet met up, due to family issues, and he respects that. However, yesterday he told me to walk away from him, as I asked one wrong question, I apologied for it, but he still remained with his decision, but he said it makes him upset. Im really lost atm, cause I just dont know whatto do, cause he still replied to a message I sent him, but it doesnt seem with the care he used to. What do I do? *sorry I think this isnt the right article, but if someone can give me advice, much appreciated* xx

 
At November 30, 2014 7:00 PM, Blogger Will said...

I suspect you should follow his suggestion and walk away. You probably don't want a partner who would fly off the handle in response to an honest question. For future reference, see How to Interview a Dom/Master Prospect.

 
At December 05, 2014 12:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. My dom and I have spoken about safe words before, but I honestly do not remember what we suggested. Personally I find that he responds well when I say stop, slow down, that type of thing.

 
At December 29, 2014 11:40 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Genieve, im a new dom and one who prefers to have a love relationship with his sub.... and your comment released so much tension from my mind ...this is how I want my sub to feel :)... if she is really liking it and feels connected to me she should not feel any pressure not to say the safe word when it starts to get non-pleasant, rather she should say it without a thought when she feels its enuf!...... really the most traumatizing feeling for me is that I abused my sub ...it was one of the things that kept me off the scene bcoz I couldn't see myself abusing someone ...specially someone I love.

 
At December 29, 2014 1:14 PM, Blogger Will said...

On the topic of unintentional abuse, see Crossing the Line: Where Kink Becomes Abuse.

 
At January 18, 2015 6:38 AM, Anonymous Frisk said...

Great blog Will. im in my first dom/sub relationship and learning about taking control, and that my partner really does get a huge amount of pleasure in the total submission and exhilaration of sexualized pain and discomfort.

Your other article is spot on that Ds need training. To say the least, Its been an interesting journey of communication about wants/desires, roles and even the practical side of restraints.

Part of the journey has been exploring limits. Yes, we Ds have a responsibility to read the situation at all times. And we have a responsibility to learn about our partners and their unique signals. We have a safe word, but my sub has yet to use it and has told me that she would feel she is really letting me down if she did. It's me, so far, that has lagged in pushing things further. But I'm learning, and have been ratcheting up the heat.

One of the things that has come out of talking about things when we are not playing is that we've come up with a Push word. This is the opposite of the safe word. When my Sub utters this word it means give me more, turn up the heat. I don't love the idea of giving her much, if any, control, while we are playing, so i'm toying with the idea of limiting the number of times she is allowed to use it. She can be sneaky about control, and I don't want her corrupting the power dynamic. And even when she uses the Push word, I don't always give her what she wants. But so far, its a part of the rules, and its been useful helping me to understand that her limits are a lot higher than I would have thought.

Anyone else do that?

 
At January 19, 2015 3:12 PM, Blogger Will said...

Frisk, firstly please tell your sub that using her safeword would in no way let you down; in fact, it would be a service to you. It's hard to feel safe pushing someone if she is reluctant to communicate that she's reached the edge of OK. And it's fine for you to ratchet up the heat slowly; doing what feels good to you and going at your own pace are not lagging!

Re "push" words, subs commonly ask for more, or say things like "Ow... yes!" during SM play. Or one could add "green" to the yellow/red safewords. Communication is not control, so a push word needn't undermine your authority. One choice you have when she wants more is to give her a little of something she doesn't really like, instead of increasing the intensity of something she does like.

 
At February 21, 2015 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We gradually worked our way up to safewords. At first whenever I said 'stop' he would straight away. Then he would ignore it the first time but if I continued then he would stop. Now he continues no matter how hard I beg/cry, but stops immediately if I safeword! Recently there was a time where things got very intense, and he actually reminded me 'say the magic word and it will all stop'.
At the end of the day things need to be eased into gradually, trust takes a long time to build and can't be earned immediately.

 
At March 09, 2015 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been through this kind of scenes as a kid, but no erotic nor naked involved, yet severe domination.
I was the one provoking him to beat me, and he beated me untill i fainted, several times, and after a while he liked suffocating me, nearly killed me couple of times.
Strangely , i must admit i liked that play back then, and i shall explain why.
After fishiing beating me, his sadism was satisfied and then he realized that i could tell my parents and he would get punished in return, so he begged me not to reveal the secret.At that moment i was feeling stronger than him ,which felt like a sweet victory, so all the pain i endured was compared with that feeling of being stronger then him.
Later on i realized that im very picky with guys, and that i find guys rather anoste,borring.
I think i am submissive, but i like to raise the rage in my dominat, that's what turns me on.
I didn't have sex in 7 years because i don't know where am standing. I tried to have sex with vanilla guys but it didn't work, we kept the foreplay for too long and never had penetration or other besides kissing.
I met a dom 6 years ago, and we are friends, he's found of me and wants to try bdsm , now the fact is that he calls me nasty , but that's what i am.
I am masochistic but not very submissive, what should i do?

 
At March 25, 2015 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am new to this bdsm like very new and my 2nd isn't he is a dom and has a few other fetishs but we are going to try bdsm this weekend and as I said I'm very new and I can not grasp the concept of a safe word... He will not tell me the answer to the question I have asked which is," when I say my sage word are you going to stop spanking me or ate you going to stop and untie me?" I'm very scared and he likes that. But I need to know what I'm getting myself into....

 
At March 29, 2015 2:11 PM, Blogger Will said...

"When I safeword, will you stop?" is a question you deserve to have an answer to. Although fear is often part of the appeal of BDSM, feeling more fear than trust will undermine whatever connection you have with your partner.

Note that as you're new, your top should stop and check in with you at any sign of difficulty on your part, whether or not you spoke a safeword. If you're fine, he can resume. Learning how a bottom expresses her state of mind during kink is a big part of the early stages of a kinky relationship.

 
At June 02, 2015 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My boyfriend and I have an agreement. I always have a safe word unless its a punishment spanking. My boyfriend is always so carefully and has always stopped when he was whacking away and I yell out my safe word three times loadly. Most of the time he uses his hand for mantainence over his knee and starts off slow and builds up hard and fast and always on the bare. However when its come to discipline/puninishment spanking its a difference story. They are not less than adult equivalent to a real spanking. Or at least what he calls a real spanking. A real spanking has no safe word, no time limit, no set number of swats and of course no protection. First time I got one I was afraid but I have come to trust him. Most of the time he starts off with a very hard hand spanking g until I get right to my pain limit and lets me up and I do that spanking dance. Pushing my hips forwards, rubbing my backside and hopping up and down. Than he grabs that dam bamboo backscratcher from the dollar store turn me over one thigh scissor locks my legs and uses the flat part of the handle and goes to down hard and fast until I am a sobbing messing of hiccup crying out of control. That's what he calls a real spanking. I get a real spanking about one every other month. Last time was a few weeks ago because I tipped his motorcycle over in the grass when he told me not to touch it. He makes sure he never hits my tail bone but he doesn't stop until my entire backside is welted from the top of my bottom to my upper thighs.does anyone else experience a real spanking and if so do you do that spanking dance too?

 
At June 04, 2015 12:42 PM, Blogger Will said...

Assuming they are beneficial to your relationship, I would consider your "punishment spankings" to be another form of SM play, and as such, your dom needn't limit such intense scenes to occasions when you've been disobedient. In fact, if you secretly crave that intensity, you might tend to misbehave intentionally now and then. But see also Essential Rights for a Submissive Partner and Crossing the Line: Where Kink Becomes Abuse.

 
At June 21, 2015 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My girl is one who cannot verbally communicate when in subspace. She introduced me to an ingenious work-around. She holds a ball or piece of cloth and if she drops it, the scene stops. Thought folks might like that idea.

 
At August 30, 2015 8:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just learning about this and I've been talking to a girl who is also new to this and recently started doing scenes with another man they are pretty intense day long session with just a few breaks every 3-4 hours see telles me that there is a contract signed before each session outlining soft and hard limits, hard limits are never touched, soft limits are only to be used in punishment situations. It also outlines a safe word chosen by her. Also states safe word is not to be used during punishment sessions, however there is another word and two body language signals that can be used to immediately give up consent and he must stop.

 
At November 05, 2015 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I for one am sick of people chastising people's writing. In his relationship it is a male Dom, female sub. Get over your tone and look at the lesson being taught. If you can not get over looking past gender tags that are associated with his relationship training style that is your issue.

I for one would rather reading with what is more comfortable for the writer. Haveing to use gender neutral language is often more difficult to follow.

 
At December 14, 2015 9:06 AM, Blogger Lonely babygirl said...

So, I have always know im a sub.. From as far back as I could remember I enjoyed the feeling of submitting to a man, seeing him happy after doing something Good..made me extremely happy.. I've only found one man to actually be dom of me..But it's more of a daddy/dom..He gives me a bed time, chores throughout the day if hes not here, gives me guidance on things, Etc...But he's married..he has his own life..so I'm just part time for him. And this sucks. Because I was someone full time. I want someone who can live with me and share this emotion everyday and night. One who can stay the night and take care of me that way. It's just hard finding someone who is in this lifestyle. I tried to make a "vanilla " learn the daddy/dom/master lifestyle and he just couldn't do it right and I ended up becoming the dom one..and I HATE that. Just wish I could find the right daddy.

 
At December 30, 2015 7:16 AM, Blogger Cecilia J said...

Repost. Spelling :-/

This is a great idea. I'm going to suggest I use this - I'm non verbal from about as soon as he lays his lips on me. Or speaks!!!

 
At June 25, 2016 12:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need to disagree, I like safe words. I rarely say "no" in play as that would spoil the dynamic I like to create as a sub. I might say "I can't" to invite the dom to push me. But "yellow" or "red" give ways to pause or stop play without the need to interpret confusing speech signals. Im more likely to forget if i mean to say negatives, if i really mean them. Safe words arent going to be said by mistake. If my mouth is full, then I do a double tap to signal stop. If I'm tied up, the dom leaves a hand free and holds it occasiinally so I can give them a single squeeze for okay, a double squeeze for stop.

 
At September 07, 2016 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My boyfriend really like me doing that post spanking dance, hopping up and down while frantically rubbing my ass simultaneously is embarrassing though. What is it about guys that like seeing that, I will never understand. But it turns him on so I do both instinctively and longer on purpose.

On the flip side, I like real spanking. Willing myself to endure a real spanking that is not in my control with no safe word is exhilarating. It takes be back to childhood experience of being loved and discipline at the same time. Although with no swat limit and it hard not know when the spanking is going to stop to push my jeans and panties down myself. I know this may sound weird but feeling the trepidation and anticipation about getting a blasting is also an adrenaline rush.

My boyfriend likes to see the muscular definition my ass cheeks as I clench up while he is spanking me real hard. I'm fairly petite and I'm over his leg with his foot on a stool and I'm literally tangling above the ground while he is spanking slow and hard with his hand for what seem like forever before he giving me a roaster finish hard and fast I'm right at my pain limit and he lets me jump off her leg and do that post spanking hope.

Than, like I said earlier, he tells me to retrieve that dam bamboo backstretches. He sit down on the chair puts me over his thigh and scissor locks my legs. He begins tapping me the flat part of the handle, the most stingly part of it and asks me the same dam question. "What's my favorite movie series, Lori?" he waits until I answer him, "Fast and Furious" the answer is "Fast and Fourious!" "That's right, and that's exactly how I'm going to paddle you from the very beginning to the end of this very lengthy spanking and it isn't going stop until I say, understand!" "Oooo, Yes sir!" He than begins just tapping away for like what seems like forever. This is the point of trepidation and adrenalin rush I get. Than out of no where he starts and it catches my breathe always. Especially with absolutely no pauses between whacks. Its god on and on until I'm bawling out of control with the hiccup type crying. It purely cathartic release.

 
At September 22, 2016 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Jennifer! I've been into spanking since I was in my teens but never got involved until my 20's. I always had a safe word except for discipline spanking with my. It is "Superman" three times in a row, with my boyfriend but I never used it. I'm not sure if I'm the only one but I have such a extremely high pain tolerance that when we first started he would stop because of the condition of my backside before I ever used my safe word, even when it was suppose to be a discipline style. He would never get me to cry. He calls me "supergirl buns of steel." He'd always used thick wooden implements or thick western belts. He is always afraid of going too far. He always felt bad about the bruises and welts he would leave but I expected it. He's also always gave me slower types whacks too. I finally got him to not be afraid hit hard but I'd be bruised up to bad for him and he end up stopping before it even affected. This went on for like a year and we were both frustrated because no matter how hard he whack it barely got a response from me. We talked and finally found something that worked during a discipline spanking. He switched me one time and that got me yelping a lot and even hop up and down. We discovered that it was what he was using and the way he was applying them. We learned that lighter and stingy implements were the trick. Also, my pain tolerance goes down with the brisk fast type swats and more lengthy. He was concerned at first because he felt he was wailing on me. It took a while for use to both get use to it. The implements now are switches (hate them), thin but durable ruler type paddles, curtain rods and thin leather office belts. For discipline spankings, he now knows exactly how make me cry. I have to have rapid fire swats from the beginning, lengthy and no warm up. Am I the only one who has such a high pain tolerance that need such extreme measure for it to be effective?

 
At November 16, 2016 11:09 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I concur. When you write a blog choose how you wish to communicate.

 
At November 16, 2016 11:10 AM, Blogger sprof said...

Will, no apologies are necessary. This your blog.

 
At December 19, 2016 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very sorry to hear of this experience
That is the type of person who doesn't deserve submission
It is a dom top priority for the me tab and physical well being at all times

 

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