Safewording 101

When you first started exploring BDSM, someone probably told you you need a safeword–a word you can use to stop your play partner from doing something you don’t want to do. During a BDSM scene, the bottom consents for the top to do pre-negotiated acts to the bottom. A safeword is a way for the bottom to temporarily or permanently withdraw their consent and pause or end the scene.

Why have a safeword? When should I choose one?

While the top is in charge of the scene, within pre-negotiated limits, the bottom always has the right to ask the top to stop doing something or to end the scene. Many bottoms enjoy begging, pleading, and saying no when they don’t really want play to stop, and many tops enjoy listening to their bottom beg, plead, and say no and don’t want to stop playing when they hear it. So most kinksters pick a safeword to use as a special code that means really stop. While a majority of kinksters use the safeword “red,” some kinksters like to get creative—as the joke goes, “if someone’s screaming ‘Philadelphia Elephant Banana Fettucini,’ they probably forgot the safeword.”

Both tops and bottoms should always discuss safewords as part of pre-scene negotiations. It’s important that both partners not only agree on what the safeword is, but also on what it means.

What does a safeword mean? When do I use it?

While kinksters usually talk about having a safeword, in fact, most kinksters have more than one safeword. Most commonly, kinksters use the colors of a traffic light as safewords: yellow means slow down and red means stop. Many bottoms will also say green to tell their partner that they’re enjoying the scene and want to keep going.

However, even kinksters who use the green/yellow/red system don’t always agree on what each term means. Some bottoms may use yellow to tell their top to stop what they’re doing and check in, while others might use yellow to tell their top they’re close to their limit but the top doesn’t need to stop just yet. Some bottoms may use red to ask their top to stop what they’re doing and check in, while other bottoms may only use red to end the scene. Some tops might see safewording as a goal, and not stop until they hear your safeword. You should think about what you want your safewords to mean and what you want the top to do when you say them, and discuss this with the top before the scene begins.

A note for tops: It’s advisable that you let your bottom choose the safewords and define what they mean, rather than choosing them yourself and telling your bottom how to use them. Generally bottoms only use safewords when they’re in distress, and if the bottom has chosen and defined the safewords, they are less likely to forget them or become confused.

Do I really need a safeword?

Nope! What you need is a way to communicate clearly and effectively to your partner that they should stop what they’re doing and check in with you, and a way to communicate clearly and effectively that you want to end the scene. Most kinksters use safewords for communication because they don’t want play to pause when they say no or stop. But some kinksters prefer to communicate in plain English, and for them no means no and stop means stop. If that’s your preference, just make sure you tell your play partner that you’ll say no when you mean no and stop when you mean stop, and they shouldn’t wait to hear a safeword before stopping.

Tops, you shouldn’t necessarily wait to hear a safeword before you stop. If you think something is wrong, it’s much better to check in with your bottom than it is to assume everything’s okay just because you haven’t heard the safeword or seen the safe signal.

What if I can’t use my safeword? Safe signals and checking in

There are many reasons a bottom might not be able to safeword: they might be unable to speak due to use of a gag, the club might be so noisy the top can’t hear the bottom, or the bottom might be in a deep emotional or mental state and forget to safeword. Most kinksters agree on a safe signal and a check-in system for scenes where the bottom might not be able to safeword.

A safe signal is generally a hand gesture or bodily movement that the bottom uses in lieu of a safeword: a thumbs down sign, a Vulcan salute, or raising one arm in the air are common examples. Safe signals are only effective when the bottom has the physical mobility to make the signal and when the top is able to see the signal. If the bottom is in bondage or otherwise restricted, or if the dungeon is dark, you might want to reconsider whether you should proceed with a scene where the bottom may not be able to safeword. If you decide to proceed, the top should absolutely have a system for checking in with the bottom.

Even in scenes where there are no restrictions on the bottom’s ability to safeword or safe signal, most tops will check in with the bottom during the scene. This can be as simple as asking the bottom how they are doing, or the top can ask the bottom “green, yellow, red?” and continue only when the bottom says green. If the bottom can’t speak, the top might hold their hand and ask them to squeeze twice if they’re okay, or to give a thumbs up sign. Since nearly every top will have a different system for checking in, this should be discussed during pre-scene negotiation.

Most kinksters would not advise bottoms to agree to be both bound and gagged when playing with a new top, because the bottom might not be able to safeword or safe signal, and the top may not read the bottom’s body language well enough to know when to check in.

Do tops need safewords too?

Yes and no. Since the top is essentially in charge of the scene, the top doesn’t need a special way of communicating that they want to pause or end the scene. However, tops absolutely have the right to withdraw consent to pre-negotiated activities or to end the entire scene. Some tops will use a safeword to communicate that the scene is not working for them and they no longer want to do the pre-negotiated activities, while other tops will communicate this using plain English. If there are multiple tops in a scene, the tops may want to agree upon a safeword so they can clearly communicate if one of them wants to stop.

If, as a top, you choose to stop doing pre-negotiated activities, you shouldn’t assume that it’s okay to start negotiating new activities. If you didn’t discuss prior to the scene whether it would be okay to re-negotiate mid-scene, you should just end the scene. Most kinksters consider it coercive for the top to negotiate for new activities during the scene, unless the bottom had previously agreed that the top could do so. Bottoms, if you didn’t agree prior to the scene that you would re-negotiate mid-scene, don’t try to talk the top into negotiating for new activities.

What if I forget my safeword, or if my partner doesn’t stop when I say it?

One reason it’s a good idea to choose a common safeword is that you’re unlikely to forget that your safeword is “red” or “safeword.” However, if you do forget, saying “I forgot my safeword” or “I withdraw my consent” should also cause your partner to stop immediately and check in with you. If you do tend to forget things, you might consider using plain English to communicate when to end a scene rather than choosing a safeword. You should also ask the top to be sure to check in with you during the scene if you think you might not be able to safeword.

If your partner doesn’t stop when you safeword when you’re playing at a BDSM club, if you shout “red” or “safeword” loud enough to be heard, club staff will intervene. If you’re playing in private, know that safewording means you’ve withdrawn your consent, and your partner is likely committing a crime by continuing with the scene. You always have a right to withdraw your consent, and anything that happens to you without your consent is not your fault. There are many resources available to support victims of consent violations in the scene, regardless of whether you decide to report it to law enforcement.

If you are a top and you find yourself considering whether you should continue after your bottom safewords, the answer is no. No amount of enjoyment you get from a scene is worth the trauma you could cause the bottom, or the legal trouble you could get into yourself.

I heard some people play without safewords or any way for the bottom to end the scene. Should I do that?

While it’s true that some kinksters play without safewords or any way for the bottom to end the scene, this is almost always in the context of a long-term play partnership where the top has deep knowledge of the bottom’s reactions and limits, and the bottom has profound trust in the top. It is not a good idea to play without a safeword with a new partner, and if a potential play partner asks you to play without a safeword, you should consider that a major red flag. Many kinksters believe that it is never okay to play without a safeword, but if you do decide to forego your safeword, make sure you only do so when playing with someone you trust absolutely and know extremely well.

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About

Juliet is a 30-something kinkster, feminist, ​skeptic, masochist, ​liberal, ​queer, ​traveler, cat person, ​singer, reader, occasional submissive, ​and ​lover of poetry and laughter ​living in Washington, DC.

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