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The Annotated Safeword

July 7, 2010

Clarisse Thorn’s post about safewords is so good I’m just going to repost the whole thing and annotate it.

Everyone knows about BDSM safewords … or at least, everyone thinks they know about safewords. But one of the initial moments that really impressed me about my current boyfriend was when I asked him, many moons ago, if he knew what a safeword is. He paused, then answered, “I think I’m familiar with the idea, but I probably don’t know much more than a stereotype, so I’d like to hear you define it.” Humility and open-minded curiosity are so incredibly hot!

Righto. Hot boyfriend aside, I’m here to explain safewords and check-ins, and how those concepts can exemplify excellent sexual communication for everyone — not just S&Mers — in a world that doesn’t do a good job teaching anyone how to communicate sexually.

When two (or more) people have a BDSM encounter together, generally they set a safeword — a word that anyone can say at any time to stop the action. (Sometimes people don’t use safewords. This is their choice and I totally respect it. I would not recommend going without safewords for anyone who doesn’t know their partner extremely well, and I would be seriously sketched out by anyone who pressured a partner to go without safewords.)

[Emphasis throughout is Clarisse’s.]

A word on origin: safewords are only strictly necessary in one circumstance — where the participants want words like “no” and “stop” not to have their ordinary meaning. One can do BDSM for a lifetime without a safeword, if words have their ordinary meanings. As former porn star and kinkster Ona Zee once put it (I’m quoting an interview from memory here), “our safeword is ‘that hurts'”. Folks can even do heavy play depending on how they react to things, without a safeword, simply saying “stop” or “too much” or “fuck, I can’t handle any more of that!” when the play gets too intense. Any BDSMer who would tell you URDOINITRONG if you use ordinary words to communicate in scene is not someone you need to listen to.

Safewords are essential for roleplay where “no, please don’t, I’ll do anything!” should not stop the action. It’s also essential for any bottom who will involuntarily shout “No! Stop!” while actually wanting more. Other than that, it’s an optional tool — a very, very useful one, for many reasons.

Clarisse mentioned that some people “don’t use safewords.” From the context, she’s talking not about people for whom no means no in scene, but people for whom there is no definitive way for the bottom to stop the scene. And perhaps readers can tell from Clarisse’s tone that that’s … the advanced class. You’ll find the safety police in any BDSM space or community that finger-wag about it, and the swaggering more-kinky-than-thous that brag about it. But what does it mean?

I can only tell you what it means for me. There are times I give up my safeword: only to my spouse. We’ve been playing together for about a decade and a half. If I give up my safeword, and that’s something we do rarely, it doesn’t mean I don’t have limits. I have limits! Yes I do! There are things I can’t handle, mentally or physically, and things I never want to handle! There are “hard limits”, things I’ve said I’m just not willing to do. And there are soft limits, things I don’t think I’m ready for but I’m willing to bump up against them and see what happens. If I give up my safeword, it means I have limits, but instead of telling her when I’ve reached them, I’m going to trust her to listen to me and watch me and make that decision. I may say, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” and she may decide I really can’t. Or she may decide I’ve got more in my that I believe I do. There’s a lot of risk associated with that. But there’s a trust in those moments and a closeness that does not go away when the scene is over. Or ever, really. Risk and reward: we set our own tolerances.

Some folks may have come across the term “consensual nonconsent.” It’s one of those terms with multiple meanings. Some people use it to describe any situation where the bottom is saying “no, don’t” but has not yet safeworded — a usage I find less than useful. Others use it to describe roleplays of nonconsensual situations. The last common usage, though, is that which I like to describe using Hunter S. Thompson’s phrase, “buy the ticket, take the ride.” It means that the bottom consents to be in a situation I’ve just described, where the top decides if the bottom needs to stop, often but not always around specific activities, and usually (wisely) heavily negotiated.

When I give advice about setting safewords, I usually offer the following:

A) Some people like to say that it’s good to use a safeword that’s jolting, and is likely to make your partner feel totally unsexy. Isn’t there a “Family Guy” episode in which Lois & Peter’s safeword is “banana” or something?

Not a fan. The more obscure a safeword, the harder it is for a bottom who is spacey or flying on endorphins to access it. It’s easy to remember “banana” in the calm before the storm. At the moment when it’s most needed, that can easily become a muddle of “yellow? was it a fruit? Shit, what do I do?” That’s not a place bottoms want to find themselves and a top never, never, never wants to have a bottom who is at a limit but can’t communicate about it.

B) In my experience, the generally accepted safewords in the S&M community are “safeword” and, more commonly, “red”. I consider it useful to go with the “public standard” because that means that in the future, you’re likely to be attuned to the correct word if you practice BDSM with other partners as well. (It also means that if you ever do S&M in a public space such as a dungeon, everyone in the place will recognize your safeword if you scream it.)

C) At first wasn’t that excited about this, but I’ve grown to love the fact that the safeword “red” also sometimes encompasses “green” — and “yellow”. That means that if I’m in the middle of an S&M encounter, I can say “red” and my partner will stop; I can then catch my breath and say “green”, which means “by God keep going!” Or, if I’m a little uncertain about the territory but don’t actually want my partner to stop — if I just want my partner to be a little bit cautious — then I can say “yellow” (and, of course, I can move to “green” if I become really psyched, or shift to “red” if I really want my partner to stop).

My spouse and I use the “stoplight system.” It’s simple, it works, and “yellow” option is really useful for things that are getting hard to handle. Also, a lot of bottoms are either submissives or masochists with more pride and stubbornness than in good for them — the former out of an overdeveloped desire to please, the latter sometimes out of a desire to impress or even just a pitbull-stubborn urge to push themselves as hard as they can go. Take the personalities that finish an Ironman and collapse and need IV fluids, and put them on a spanking bench with big welts from a prison strap, and you’ve got someone who won’t safeword when ze probably should. In those and other circumstances, giving the bottom an easy option to say, “I’m struggling here” without feeling like they’re quitting is a very useful thing.

I know that this probably doesn’t sound sexy at all, but it totally can be! Consider the following example: during my last vacation to America, I had an S&M encounter with a dude I’ll refer to as Klark. (It’s not my fault. He requested the pseudonym.) At one point, Klark was experimenting with hurting me, and I had my eyes closed and was whimpering / crying out in a totally glorious way. (The poor overnight desk clerk. He was only one short flight of stairs away from us.) I think Klark was legitimately having trouble detecting whether I was enjoying myself, though — understandably, because we had only just met, and I enjoy sinking myself into dramatic masochistic misery — so he leaned over me and said, in a low dark voice, “Red, yellow, green.” Immediately, I gasped back “Green”. Because he spoke in a gritty and dominant voice, and the check-in was quick, we were able to maintain the mood — and it was actually kind of hot in itself.

Which brings me to the other thing: check-ins. Sometimes, you want to check in with your partner. Which can be easy: you can just say, “Hey, how does this feel?” or, as a more precise example, “Give me a rating of 1-10 on how good this feels (or how much this hurts).” But if you want to do it quickly and without shifting the mood, you can do it as I outline above in the Klark example. Or even quicker, as for example with the hand-squeeze system, where the participants agree ahead of time that you can squeeze another person’s hand twice and expect two squeezes back — and if there aren’t two return squeezes, it’s time to stop and figure out what’s going wrong. (Squeeze system: also very helpful when gags are involved.)

There are all kinds of safesigns when nonverbal communication is necessary; one being to give the bottom an object to hold and to drop when at a limit. It has the disadvantage of being binary, so it loses the middle step that the stoplight system provides.

Sometimes submissives will have a hard time safewording — whether out of pride, inexperience, or eagerness to please — and that’s another reason check-ins can be good even when there’s a set safeword. If you aren’t sure how to read your partner’s reactions and you suspect ze may be uncomfortable with what you are doing, then you might consider checking in even if ze hasn’t safeworded, because your suspicion may be right.

This can’t be emphasized enough. Tops Can Never Be On Cruise Control! A safeword gives the bottom a tool to communicate, but it does not ensure safety. The top has at least as much information that the bottom doesn’t have, as the bottom has information the top doesn’t have. Therefore, the top has to be a full participant in making sure the scene is working and the risks are under control at all times. Anyone who thinks ze can ignore safety as long as the bottom has a safeword is dangerous.

[Edited To Add:] In comments, Dw3t-Hthr made a powerful point that for some people, the issue of safewords being unavailable in scene. She said, in part:

[I]f I am in a place where a safeword might be necessary, a safeword is not possible. Not just because I am someone who is regularly nonverbal, but because the altered consciousness state that I achieve makes processing those sorts of questions at best difficult and at worst unachievable …

But I’m not a bottom, I’m a submissive, and this isn’t about “wanting to please”, it’s about a psychological incapacity to recognise when I might be doing myself damage in certan situations. If I’m not in that state, I can say “Oh stop doing that it’s wrenching my shoulder” or whatever is appropriate. If I am in that state, I cannot indicate and have to place complete trust in the judgement of my partner.

I happen to know that I’m not the only person like this. I think it’s important to recognise that safewords are not always possible. It’s important, I think, to communicate to the person who resembles me in this that while their brainwiring is not morally incorrect, that they probably ought to think of themselves as Advanced Subjects and try to do their thing in a context where the trust and competence required to do it safely is demonstrated.

Also, a note on terminology: Clarisse used “submissive” there in a way where it’s not clear from the context whether it’s meant as an umbrella term like “bottom” or as a specific term. The use of “dominant” and “submissive” as the default terms seems to me to have started in the mid 90’s, and I’ve never liked it because of its imprecision. Not all bottoms are subs; some people like to bottom but don’t have a submissive bone in them. Some bottoms are wisecracking smartassed masochists only in it to play the pain game and ride the endorphins; some bottoms don’t see themselves as giving up power in any way to the top. And I top my fair share, but I certainly don’t think of myself as a dominant. I think the change in terminology arose with a small but vocal minority of kinksters who believe that everyone who does BDSM is really looking for a deep power exchange, ultimately even a 24/7 relationship. I still see people make this argument. They’re still wrong, and they’re still few in number. Using “submissive” and “dominant” when one means to include folks who are just topping and bottoming may be misunderstood; saying “top” and “bottom” is almost always correctly understood as the inclusive term. (“Sadist” and “masochist” are specific terms that shouldn’t be pressed into general service either; there are submissives that really, really don’t like pain at all and dominants that would prefer never to inflict it.)

What I love about safewords and check-ins:

1) Hypothetically, mainstream society acknowledges that anyone could say no at any point during sex, but in practice, this is really hard. A variety of forces — girls socially pressured not to be so-called “cock-teases”, boys socially pressured to supposedly “prove their manliness”, and everyone anxious to please their partners — work against people’s capacity to say no; and while there is a vague understanding that “no means no”, that vagueness is as far as it gets. There’s no explicit framework in place for how to say “no”, and no understanding of how to continue an encounter (or relationship) after one’s partner says no. Even worse, there’s an assumed linear progression of sexual activity — the best example is the “base system”, which places sexual interaction on a metaphorical baseball diamond where “first base” = groping and “home base” = penis-in-vagina sex. Have I mentioned that I hate the base system?

How much do I have the base system? I have a whole post about it, based on an XKCD cartoon.

So anyway, the biggest moral of the story with safewords and check-ins is that consent does not only happen once. Consent is always happening, and can always be renegotiated or withdrawn. Adapting my understanding of sexuality to reflect this — even in my non-BDSM sex — might have been the best thing that ever happened to my sex life.

What can safewords do for non-kinky people? Permission communication. In a culture that delegitimizes communication — especially women’s communication of limits or needs — this is huge. Safewords permission “no.” That which permissions the free exercise of “no” also, necessarily, creates space for the free exercise of “yes.”

2) On a related note: Good sex is not about entitlement. If we acknowledge that anyone can safeword out of any sexual act at any time, then we acknowledge that no one is entitled to any kind of sex from a partner — ever. If your partner loves you but doesn’t want to have sex with you? That’s a respectable choice. If you’re really turned on, but your partner can’t stand the idea of having sex right now? That’s a respectable choice. Those two are easy, I think, but how about these?

+ If your partner used to do something with you a lot, but doesn’t want to do it anymore? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you are married to your partner, but ze doesn’t want to have sex? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If your partner performed a sexual act with another partner but would prefer not to do it with you? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you know your partner likes a certain kind of sex, but they don’t want to do it right now? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you think a certain act is “mild” and “taken for granted”, like kissing or tickling, but your partner doesn’t want to do it? That’s a respectable choice.

By the way, if you (like I once did) feel as though your partner is entitled to sex of any kind, I encourage you to re-examine that feeling. Ditto if you’ve got a little voice in your head telling you that you “ought to” be up for sex all the time just because you don’t get it very often … or that you “ought to” be up for sex if you’ve done it with your partner before … or whatever. The other best thing that ever happened to my sex life was when I finally, finally, finally internalized the idea that my partners don’t ever “deserve” sex for any reason — that there’s no reason I ever “should” be having sex — and that the only reason I should ever, ever, ever do anything sexual is because I legitimately want to.

Of course, if you truly believe that you need a certain kind of sexuality in your life, then you’re absolutely entitled to ask your partner to consider it — and you’re entitled to leave the relationship if ze isn’t up for it. But this doesn’t mean that you “deserve” to do that act with that person, or that your partner “owes” you a certain act.

And hey, if your partner isn’t down with one specific sexual act, then that means you’ve got the chance to explore all kinds of other sexuality. Another other best thing that ever happened to my sexuality? Quite possibly, it’s my current boyfriend — whose religious adherence has drastically limited our physical sexual options.

We’re each entitled to our own identity, but not to our own partner. Our partners are people, with thoughts and desires and limits of their own, and they don’t have to do what we want them to do. This goes for tops, too! Tops have limits! Because of my blogging covenant with my spouse (what I do as a bottom is personal to me and I decide how much I reveal; what she does as a bottom is personal to her and she prefers that those stories not be blogfodder) I don’t have any really good stories to share about hitting my limits as a top. But they exist. Tops are not required to be into everything a bottom is into, and they damned sure are under no obligation to do things that make them uncomfortable just because the bottom wants it — whether the reason for the discomfort is risk tolerance, ideology, squeamishness or anything else. Tops can say, “no, I won’t suspend you from that eyebolt because I don’t trust it”, “no, I’m not interested in doing that roleplay because I wouldn’t be comfortable with it”, or “I don’t do play piercing because blood is a hard limit for me.” We all have a right to say no to sexual acts we don’t want; even if we’re topping.

[Clarisse and the redoubtable Halo P. Jones gave me much-appreciated input on a draft.]

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58 Comments leave one →
  1. Clarisse permalink
    July 7, 2010 7:20 am

    Also, a note on terminology: Clarisse used “submissive” there in a way where it’s not clear from the context whether it’s meant as an umbrella term like “bottom” or as a specific term.

    Yeah, this is a tough one. I’m not thrilled with the generalized “submissive” either, but my goal is to be accessible to the mainstream, and that word seems to work best. I used to introduce the words “top” and “bottom” with every BDSM-jargony post I wrote, and then define them, but then I learned that some people are bothered by those terms as “general usage” (e.g. the ex who told me, “I don’t know what ‘tops and bottoms’ means unless you’re talking about the gay leather subculture”).

    It seems that the debate around the word “submissive” mostly takes place in sub-sectors of the S&M community, and so I’ve become less concerned about using it generally in posts, as my usual goal is to make the community more accessible (and jargon is such a turn-off for some people). Maybe this is a mistake. Not sure.

    • Clarisse permalink
      July 7, 2010 7:32 am

      Oh, also, just noting that this post is second in a series. The first is here:
      Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists

    • July 7, 2010 8:40 am

      I’ve never heard anyone say that “top” and “bottom” is unique to gay leathermen. It’s not even accurate, as non-leather gay men use the terms generally (though that implicates the dynamics of intertion versus envelopment, a whole other topic.)

      More importantly, I put a huge premium on debunking the notion that bottoming has to be submission, or that topping has to be dominance, and I think it is the people who are just discovering BDSM that most need to hear that.

      Clarisse, thanks for doing this series. It’s important and it will make a big difference in the lives of readers, most of whom neither you nor I will ever meet.

      • Clarisse permalink
        July 7, 2010 9:11 am

        😀 Well, thank you for the commentary and extra exposure. I’m psyched to see what more feedback I get.

      • September 12, 2010 6:57 pm

        I have been combing through this blog for days now and love every sentence of it. I thought I couldn’t possibly love it more and then I read “though that implicates the dynamics of intertion versus envelopment.” ::swoon::

        Keep it up, all of it. Catch ya later.

  2. Amanda permalink
    July 7, 2010 7:33 am

    One technique I’ve learned from my boyfriend is that during BDSM scenes (though I suppose one could use it in non-kink play) is to hold up a finger if you need the action to stop for a minute and put it down when you’re ready to go again. I use it mostly for impact play, when a hit was fairly intense and I need a second to recover or if I just want to enjoy the sensation of it for a minute. I’ve been on both sides of the technique and I think it’s wonderful for communicating your needs without relying on words (good for scenes with gagging or when a bottom wants to be or gets non-verbal during scenes) or relying on the top judging whether that was a scream of delight or a scream of “ohfucktoomuchstopforaminute”. It does require the person doing the hitting to pay attention, but as you said, tops cannot be on cruise control *ever*.

  3. haunts the house permalink
    July 9, 2010 12:52 pm

    THANK YOU for the distinction between “submissive” and “masochist”. That never occurred to me. It’s like I can see a new color.

  4. July 9, 2010 1:06 pm

    This discussion of safewords seems to completely not recognise my personal situation: if I am in a place where a safeword might be necessary, a safeword is not possible. Not just because I am someone who is regularly nonverbal, but because the altered consciousness state that I achieve makes processing those sorts of questions at best difficult and at worst unachievable.

    One of the reasons my master is my master is that, in our first sexually charged time, he managed to bring me into one of those altered consciousness state, recognised that he could not get meaningful consent, and brought me back up to ask if something was okay.

    The answer was, “It would have been at the time, but I don’t know if it would have been afterwards.”

    This is hard.

    But I’m not a bottom, I’m a submissive, and this isn’t about “wanting to please”, it’s about a psychological incapacity to recognise when I might be doing myself damage in certan situations.

    If I’m not in that state, I can say “Oh stop doing that it’s wrenching my shoulder” or whatever is appropriate. If I am in that state, I cannot indicate and have to place complete trust in the judgement of my partner.

    I happen to know that I’m not the only person like this. I think it’s important to recognise that safewords are not always possible. It’s important, I think, to communicate to the person who resembles me in this that while their brainwiring is not morally incorrect, that they probably ought to think of themselves as Advanced Subjects and try to do their thing in a context where the trust and competence required to do it safely is demonstrated.

    • July 9, 2010 2:41 pm

      Dw3t-Hthr, this is so important that I’ve edited the text of the post to quote your comment at length. Thank you.

    • January 16, 2013 6:04 am

      I’m not alone! I know this is a super-old comment and post, but I came across this while searching for information about check-ins because I have this exact issue and the people that I played with didn’t care to notice something was very wrong (I was a sobbing non-verbal mess so it was pretty obvious). I’m now researching ways to go back to BDSM while avoiding this kind of situation.

  5. Kyra permalink
    July 12, 2010 1:40 pm

    This is wonderful. I don’t have anything to request clarification for or to add or anything, but just thought I’d let you know that I have it bookmarked under my “teh awesome” folder.

  6. GinnyC permalink
    July 20, 2010 5:40 pm

    Thomas and Clarisse: Thank you for this. It really made a lot of things clear to me. The distinction that Thomas makes between bottoming, being a masochist, and being a submissive is like discovering a new way to understand the world. It is so helpful!

    Unfortunately, I still have a lot of issues to work through before I can fully internalize and implement this type of advice. I’m the type of person who won’t stop in running or martial arts until my vision starts to go black, and I feel like I’m going to pass out. If I’m running and I have trouble breathing from asthma I walk it out, I don’t stop. If I’m on a trail, I won’t stop if I throw up. It’s some combination of the endorphins and sheer stubbornness.

    I’m the person who won’t safeword when she should, and it scares me. Because I’m not sure I can stop until after I’ve done lasting harm to myself, or, more likely, have actually passed out. Endurance and pain get me off and I have asthma, so it’s not a good combination. And because of this and trust issues, the things that excite me to think about are terrifying to actually contemplate doing. Or to confess… I would be afraid that my parter would look at me, a femme, young, sexually inexperienced, gay woman, who is masochistic but not submissive with disgust or would take advantage of me. So there are still a lot of things I need to work on.

    • Clarisse permalink
      July 21, 2010 1:56 am

      I feel you. I had a huge amount of trouble safewording for a long time — now it’s much easier. It might help if you sit down with your partner ahead of time and explain that you have trouble safewording. A good partner will help you feel safe doing so if you make it clear that you’ve got some anxiety around it. (A trick I implemented with my favorite submissive ever was that at the beginning of our scene, I made him sit down, close his eyes, and told him that if he needed to safeword I really wanted him to do so — that the biggest thing he could do to hurt me was not safeword if he needed to. He really appreciated that.)

      • GinnyC permalink
        July 21, 2010 5:23 pm

        Thanks Clarisse, that’s a great suggestion! I really like your trick and maybe can use something similar. This is also why safe internet communities are awesome. It turns out that something I thought was a personal problem and that I would have had a very hard time talking about face to face anyone is something that other people deal with too and have found good solutions for.

    • February 13, 2011 9:25 am

      I’m that person too – and it’s brought me to realize some wonderful things like – wow – I can orgasm from pain alone! There are real prizes for us down the roads of endurance.

      Of course, talking about the difficult side of things, I’m likely to consider safewording for quite some time before I get around to it. I’ve almost never used my safeword because most people who’ve topped me aren’t comfortable with dishing the levels of pain I can absorb.

      (Hmm. Sounds like a brag, but it wasn’t meant that way. More is better for me, but I’m not trying to say it’s “better”, ya know?)

      Anyway, you can also look for “service tops” – people who want to top you in order to give you the greatest pleasure. You might feel safer in their hands in the short term, since it’s not a deep-seated need to hurt another person that drives them. And if you find that they usually safeword before you do – you can negotiate with a sadist!

  7. Samantha permalink
    July 25, 2010 5:03 pm

    You are right – for a long time I have known about safewords and always planned to use them when becoming sexually active (though I am only very mildly inclined towards BDSM). However, I never thought about them in so much detail. These concenpts will certainly stay with me.
    However, this post also reminded me of something else I read about once on this blog – I’m not sure if it was by you or someone else. It mentioned safteycalls when on a date or first encounter. I was completly unfamiliar with the concept but again found it interesting (and useful!). I am not sure how to implement such a call though and was hoping you could blog on it as I’m sure many others would be interested as well (or just point me in the direction of more information?).
    Thanks, Samantha.

  8. January 10, 2013 4:44 pm

    love it, agree, and need to internalize it more


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