safeword is a codeword or series of codewords that are sometimes used in BDSM to mean that a bottom or submissive is reaching a limit or for the Top/Dom to stop the sceneplay. Safewords are agreed on by all participants before playing a scene. Many organised BDSM groups have standard safewords that all members agree to use to avoid confusion at organised play events.

A safeword is generally used so that the bottom can scream “no, stop”, etc. as much as s/he wants without really meaning it, and yet still have a way of indicating a serious desire that the scene stops. Accordingly, a safeword is usually a word that the person would not ordinarily say during a scene, such as red, treeanomaly, or even safeword.

Another convention is the reversal of the safeword principle. For example, a signal can be agreed on where the Top might put a finger in the bottom’s hand if the bottom has become non-verbal (which may happen as they reach subspace or may happen if they become distressed). In this scenario the bottom squeezes a pre-determined number of times to indicate that they are OK and happy to procede. If the signal is not received, the scene must stop.

A common request from the top to the bottom, to check on their status, is to ask “What is your colour?” In addition to red and yellow, green is a common safe word used to indicate, “I’m fine” or perhaps “more please!”

In the case of role-playing, some simply drop out of character to safeword, such as having the submissive address the dominant by his/her first name. It is not enough just to drop out of roleplay because this can be a lapse on the part of the roleplayer and might otherwise be a matter for discipline.

While many in the BDSM community consider safewords an essential part of safe play, there is a significant contingent that does not have any such term in their relationships or their play. Some of these people simply use the word Stop. Others rely on the top to monitor the condition of the bottom and stop if necessary, at their discretion. In such circumstances the bottom or submissive must have consented not to have control over the duration of the scene in advance. (Note that in future UK law, it is not enough to have consented never to have a safeword: such consent must be given before every scene to have any legal applicability.)

Interestingly, some of those who recommend safewords do not, themselves, use them though this is not often discussed in public. There is an undercurrent assumption that play without safewords is an “advanced” technique and should not be advocated in the hearing of novices. BDSM activity without a safeword is regarded by many as inadvisable and dangerous. Another group within BDSM who tend not to use safewords are those in a total power exchange relationship; in this case, and after a time of building trust where safewords might be used, the ability for the slave to direct any action of the Master is against the principles of the relationship the two desire.

If used, the “stop” safeword should be respected unconditionally. After the bottom uses the safeword, the activity or entire scene is over, inflicting pain or any physical forcing should be stopped and all restraints should be removed immediately. Ignoring safewords is considered dishonorable and a deeply immoral practice in the BDSM community and can lead to criminal charges. (The “yellow safeword” mentioned above is however not obligatory.) The precise safeword(s) should be discussed clearly; if one is used to one word and the other used to another word, there is little harm in agreeing that either word will act as a safeword.

The fact that a safeword might have been agreed on does not lessen the top’s responsibility for the well-being of the sub under the top’s control. It is quite possible that the sub may not be in an alert enough metal state or be too distressed to issue the safe word when in fact the scene has gone beyond what they can endure. The top should always take active steps to check on the mental and physical state of their sub and not just assume the sub will “call time” when they have had enough.

Forms of Safewords

A safeword makes it possible for a submissive to say “No” or “Stop” and pretend as much as he or she wants without really meaning it while still having a safe way of indicating they seriously need the scene to stop. In theory a safeword is usually a word that the person would not ordinarily say during sex, such as zigguratArnie, or pinech. With the range of safewords in common use it is important that the safeword be negotiated beforehand.[5]

Since a scene may become too intense for a submissive partner to remember what the safeword is, in practice commonly the words safeword or red are also used as safewords. They are often the default at many play parties, or respected as a safeword in addition to any negotiated safeword. A dungeon monitor would likely expect either of those words to be respected.

Some partners may also have different gradations of safewords, such as green to mean “Okay” or even “harder” or “more”, yellow to mean “slow down” or “stop doing that” without stopping the scene, and red to mean “stop the scene”. In this fashion, a dominant partner may ask the submissive partner “What is your color?” to check with a submissive partner without having to stop the scene.

In other circumstances the safeword may not be a “word” at all, which is very useful when the submissive is bound and gagged. In these instances a signal such as dropping a bell or a ball, the snapping of fingers, or opening and closing both hands repeatedly or making three clear and rhythmic grunts as a pre-defined signal to stop or otherwise slow down the scene. There is also a convention of tops to put a finger in the “submissive’s” hand as a sort of “check in” when the “submissive” has become non-verbal, such as may happen as they reach subspace. In this scenario the “submissive” squeezes the “top’s” finger to indicate OK.

Effects of Use

red safeword is only used when one of the partners needs it to end a scene. Many submissive partners may see the use of a safeword as being weak, and will push themselves past their “comfort” zone to please their partner. This may allow a submissive partner to expand their boundaries and learn what they are capable of but may also expose them to risk if they are pushed too far. Additionally, many dominant partners may interpret the use of a safeword as a failure on their part, i.e., failing to understand body language, to know their partner, or loss of control. This is also why gradations of safewords and/or actions that signify a scene may be becoming too much are commonly used (i.e.,Yellow) so that the partners can safely adjust the scene before crossing boundaries.

It is considered important in many parts of the BDSM community that the use of safewords should remain “no-fault” so that participants feel encouraged to use it if necessary. Discouraging the use of safewords runs the risk of scenes becoming non-consensual, harming trust between partners and potentially damaging to their mental and emotional state.

A top will often sensibly make clear beforehand that they will not agree to a scene if they do not believe the submissive will use the safeword as soon as they need to, and the submissive will not delay using the safeword and endure more than they really want to, simply to avoid disappointing the top, since the top will be far more upset if they unwittingly inflict psychological trauma. In addition, intentionally disregarding the activation of a safeword is considered a serious ethical violation.

While many in the BDSM community consider safewords to be an essential part of safe play, there is a contingent that chooses to occasionally play without using safewords. They rely on the dominant partner to monitor the condition of the submissive partner and stop if necessary, at their discretion. In such circumstances the “submissive” or submissive must have consented not to have control over the duration of the scene in advance; this is often referred to asconsensual nonconsent. Also, some people who routinely play with each other may agree to stop using safe words because they know each other’s boundaries and are able to read each other’s body language well. In any case “consensual nonconsent” is risky and advanced activity.

“Consensual nonconsent” may also occur if the top and the submissive are reenacting a punishment scene (e.g. a shipboard flogging) in which the offender, played by the submissive, is sentenced to receive a certain number of lashes as punishment. Since the offender would not be able to use a safeword in such circumstances, the parties reenacting the scene agree that it would be “out of character” for them to do so.

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