Safewords- What they are and Why they work

We all have limits, we all have good days, we all have bad days.  Basic communication is a valuable skill and we all need to use it. Sometimes, though, we need to have a word that goes beyond basic communication and clearly states “I need to pause”, “I’ve reached my peak”, “something is not right”, or even “no, don’t stop, everything is good”.  Safewords can do that.

Safewords should be easy to remember, easy to negotiate, and reliable. Contrary to popular belief, words like Aardvark or Purple People Eater are none of these things.   I would expect words like Aardvark, Humanitarianism, or Pineapple to be forgotten- either as a top or a bottom ( TOPS CAN SAFEWORD TOO!!). Scenes can also happen in public- if there are speech restrictions at a restaurant and the safeword is pineapple, does that mean the person who just ordered the poached mahi mahi with pineapple mango chutney just safeworded?  When I am playing or in a place where other people are playing, hearing the words “No”, “Please stop”, “Ouch, that hurts” can all be really sexy words to hear in the middle of a scene.  There are some people that when they play, clearly state that “no” does not mean NO and “stop” does not mean STOP.  I assume that is the way it is with EVERYONE I play with, either as a top or as a bottom.

Most BDSM clubs and parties ( all that I have been to) recognize three words as ” safewords”.  These are RED, YELLOW and GREEN. I strongly believe that it is safest to play consistently with these three words.  Whether or not you have multiple play partners, these words are easy to negotiate. Every kid that I know played some variant of red light/ green light. They also have strong cultural conditioning.  We live in technological society and the vast majority of us know how to look both ways, read a traffic light, and/or cross a street fairly safely. I want to make sure that when topping, a bottom is capable of using their words. Red is as good as it gets, when it comes to a reliable word that people are capable of remembering and articulating it.  I strongly recommend practicing it in play.

RED means stop. Red means something is wrong- equipment failure, medical issue, limits are being violated, one of the players has had enough- any reason to call a halt, and maybe end the scene completely. it may even be that one of the players has to pee or has an unexpected need to run to the bathroom. All of those reasons are great reasons to safeword and call red!  Just because a safeword was used (either by a top or bottom) doesn’t necessarily mean that the play needs to stop there, that is up to the players to decide once the issue is resolved.

YELLOW means to proceed with caution.  It may mean the activity needs to change or that a player is reaching their limit. It may mean that a player needs to reposition or catch their breath. Yellow is pretty open ended, it should almost always lead to immediate discussion about changes that need to be made.

GREEN means everything is good to go.  Sometimes when play is really intense, it can be a concern to those around you. Sometimes reassurance is needed after a player says yellow or red that they are ready to keep going. Sometimes a high heel gets stuck and then releases, something like that can break rhythm and a little reassurance may be needed or useful. Saying green is a great tool to have in the play vocabulary.

In the event that a player is gagged, I’ve heard of signals like stomping feet, snapping fingers, using sign language to sign the letter “R” – I strongly prefer to let go of an object (even letting go with force is acceptable).  I can’t guarantee that a sign language letter is going to be seen, I stomp my feet as a pain response regularly, and one cannot always snap their fingers, and guarantee it will be heard. Holding an object is easy. It can be a ping pong ball, a wiffle ball, a wine cork,  the empty toilet paper tube, a piece of wrapping paper tube, an empty spool of thread…  just an object that falls and can’t get  stuck between fingers or in rope (I’m not a fan of holding onto a scarf, tissue, napkin or something of that ilk). I am also a proponent of making it an object that is pretty harmless should it be let go of with force- or chucked firmly across a room for emphasis. I don’t want to break a lamp or window when playing- it really puts a damper on the evening.

I’ve stated this once, but when playing, practice your words. I’ve known tops that did something really painful to their play partners, just to make sure that they could get a safeword reaction. You may even start out when negotiating scenes not only talk about safewords, but also talk about when the last time each person safeworded and what the circumstances were.  Make sure that you praise the use of a safeword!  It is not about machismo, or bravery, or competition; it is about safety, comfort, and communication. Tops, as I have said can use safewords too- as a bottom, talk to your top about using safewords, and encouraging their use- again it is not about machismo, bravery, or competition. A frequent saying in my family is “diarrhea happens”, if that doesn’t require a safeword, I don’t know what does.

Hi,  I'm Lucy! I tend to love the essay- a lot. I also love story telling and just sharing my experiences as I see them- usually with a bit of snark and humor in the mix.  I've been active in the VA, MD, DC BDSM scene for about 15 years, as a bottom, a top, a switch, a submissive and a lot of weird stuff in between, I am also a masochist as well as a sadist.  I am a graysexual and can relate to the ACE perspective as well. You can find me on Fetlife as LucyMarshall, feel free to drop me a line!