When I was inducted into the BDSM world, one of the very first lessons I learned was on the use of a safeword. For this reason, it surprised me to learn how infrequently these are actually used. In some ways, this isn’t so bad. Some groups/pairs have other negotiated ways to stop activities or scenes if they need to, and that is all well and good, but there is one important difference between some of those things and what I was taught a safeword was supposed to represent…
I don’t know if it was the 50 Shades books that made this popular, or if it was popular before they were released, but I hear a lot about the use of the words ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ as ‘safewords’. While on its own, this is not a bad innovation, it seems to have come at the cost of damaging the protocol for how to treat safewords – at least, insofar as my understanding of them has gone.
The protocol I was taught is very simple:
* There is ONE and only one safeword. It should be a word that you would not normally use in play and it should be deliberate – something that you wouldn’t utter on accident or that might be misinterpreted as another word, and not a single syllable – something you have to mean it when saying. Anything else is intended as part of the scene.
Sometimes this can be difficult for me to accept, I’ll admit, especially in things like rape fantasy scenes… I sometimes react to ‘No’ even when I should not. It is a limitation that I’ve been unable to completely overcome even after 15 years, but this protocol helps and without it, I would likely be unable to take part in such scenes at all.
* If your play restricts the ability to speak, another gesture/movement will be used to convey the same meaning – this gesture/movement should fall into the same category as the word above – something deliberate, something that can’t be mistaken for something else.
* Either person (or any person in scene) can use the safeword to stop the scene/play/activity at any time for any or no reason.
* Use of the safeword stops everything for everyone. Action will be taken to immediately stop all activities, pull participants out of bondage, cutting bonds if necessary, and begin aftercare to establish a sphere of safety and comfort for all participants.
And that’s really all there is to it.
I cannot stress the importance of the concept of immediate stop here enough. What we do can be dangerous. Permanent nerve damage is possible, as is asphyxiation, severe physical trauma, even death. However, much more difficult to quantify, but possibly much more lasting in terms of long term damage and the need for repair are the possible psychological trauma that can occur from what we do. The physical nature of things requires obvious action when the safeword is called, unless you don’t know what you’re doing – in which case you should not be doing it! – you will be able to easily spot where the tension is wrong or where there is too much torque, or where the beating is in danger of causing nerve damage or things like that, but it is nearly impossible to spot the signs of psychological trauma, and the only reasonable thing to do is to always assume that is present.
I keep a set of EMT shears with me at every scene. I would recommend that every Dom do the same, whether you are intending to enact a bondage scene or not – just have them with you. They’re second only to condoms in importance of having nearby, in my opinion, and with a fluid bonded partner, much more important. This is a good example of what you should have : link – I’m not recommending these specifically, and there is no affiliate link in there, so I don’t get any kickback if you order them from that link – do your research, find a pair that you like, get those.
I actually have a full trauma kit in my home, as much for use in possible civil emergencies as for things that might go wrong in a scene (which, thank the gods, I have never needed for either case) but I don’t usually take the whole thing with me when I’m going somewhere else. The EMT shears are non-negotiable though, even if it means I have to check a bag on a flight for which I could have otherwise avoided doing so.
I have never needed the trauma kit, but I HAVE needed the shears. I did a bondage scene with rope once where my submissive called out the safeword that I had set for her, and I cut her out of some complicated knots as fast as I possibly could have and it still felt like too long. I’ve used leather restraints with carabiners and hooks before, and while those do obviate some of the need to cut someone out (since releasing a carabiner is much faster than untying a knot) I would not have hesitated to cut right through the leather if I had to, and I’ve tested the shears to be certain that they can do just that.
Pulling my submissive out of that bondage scene and then holding her and telling her that she was safe and that I was there to take care of her now and that the scene was ended was an intensely emotional thing for me as well as her. She claims that she has no lasting psychological trauma from the scene, but it could easily have gone that way.
And this brings me to the reasons why I am not fond of ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ as safeword/codes…
One – having two words adds confusion to something that can not really stand to be confusing.
That is more colloquial English than I am used to using, but I want to make this point very clear: confusion is your enemy in a BDSM scene. This is why I push on open communication and negotiation hard. Confusion will get people hurt. If not physically, people will get hurt emotionally or psychologically.
Two – having an ‘almost safe’ word detracts from the power of the ‘safe’ word.
I am not a fan of this ‘new’ development at all. I call it ‘new’ because there was no such concept when I first started in BDSM.
It is my duty as Dom to understand what is happening in the scene and to control it, and that includes making sure that my submissive is okay no matter whether she uses the safeword(s) or not. I should understand that if my submissive is not comfortable that I am encroaching upon her limits and be careful. I am more than happy to make her uncomfortable, but I never wish to injure her. Walking that line is usually pretty clear to me, because I make an effort to understand my submissive and what her body language is like before I begin any physical or even psychological contact, but everyone makes mistakes.. and that is what the safeword is there to resolve.
Hearing ‘yellow’ and then transitioning to ‘red’ leaves the feeling that there may be yet another level above that, or invite the question, “did you really mean ‘red’ or are we still at ‘yellow’?” In my opinion both of those scenarios are dangerous and uncalled for.
The responses that I’ve seen advocated for with ‘red’ even are to back off and reassess, which in my not-so-very-humble-opinion is not nearly enough. When I’ve been called upon to play by those rules, I’ve tried to do so to the best of my ability, but I would really rather have heard ‘hurricane’ and dropped out of scene entirely and gone straight to aftercare.
This is where this instructional message turns into a rant.
If I am your Dominant, I do not want to injure you.
I will hurt you.
I will bring you right up to the breaking point and show you how deep your own well goes.
I will push myself every bit as hard as I push you to achieve these goals.
I crave nothing more than the trust and worship and catharsis that comes from knowing that I can push you as hard as I think you can take, as hard as I myself can take, because that safety net is there – the safeword.
I have known couples that claim a safeword is not useful, or, even worse, say that use of a safeword is somehow not “real BDSM”. That a slave who uses a safeword is not really a slave and that they have no place in these things.
That is an ignorant and dangerous position to take, and frankly those people scare the shit out of me, and I’m honestly not scared by much.
I need to be able to trust you to know your own limits, and I need to be able to know that I can push those in a safe, sane, and consensual manner.
If you take away my safeword, I cannot do that.
And yes, I have used a safeword as a Dominant. I find that it provides a more complete catharsis and begins aftercare in a more distinct manner than simply pulling away and saying something like, “you’ve had enough.” That is a condescending and unnecessarily brutal way to end a scene.
I care too much to not care about safewords.
This is my opinion. This is not a call to action.
This is a rant…