"HARNESS" column for Beefyboyz.com - October 2004

Safe Words

"I've been taught that you should always agree a safe word with a Top before starting an SM scene. However, I recently met a hot Top in a bar who said that he would only play with me if we didn't use safe words. What should I do?"

'Safe words' are words or phrases which signify that the bottom genuinely wishes to tell the Top to stop or amend what he is doing. Often in SM or role play bottoms say things like "ouch", "please stop", "get off me" or worse without meaning them, so safe words are a useful distinction between what is play and what is real.

They can be used in a variety of ways. Some players agree to use an abstract word that is unlikely to be used at any other time during the scene, for example "magnolia". Other people use the traffic light system of "red" for stop, "yellow" for caution or slow down, and "green" for all is well. If someone is hooded, gagged or otherwise unable to speak they might be asked to click their fingers or drop a hanky they are holding to signify that something is wrong.

There are a number of potential problems with the safe word system:

  1. The bottom may forget the correct word in the heat of the moment. Could you honestly remember an abstract word during six hours of extreme sensory stimulation?
  2. The bottom may be too scared to use the word, not wanting to appear weak or be branded a novice player.
  3. Sometimes a bottom uses a safe word too early and regrets it afterwards.
  4. Some bottoms find that they can't get into a submissive headspace if they are concentrating on words that will end the scene. They need to surrender to the Top completely to have a good time.
  5. The bottom may be high on endorphins and be incapable of rational speech.
  6. The Top may assume that if a safe word hasn't been used he can continue to increase intensity without checking the bottom's wellbeing.
  7. If a safe word is used because of an emergency it doesn't actually tell the Top what is going on. The Top then has to ask for more information, wasting valuable time.
  8. Some advanced scenes based on fear, such as interrogations or edge play, would not be able to work if the bottom had a safe word. They would use it as soon as they got scared and the scene would end.
  9. Some Tops agree to safe words in advance and then ignore them when they are used later on.

It's a good idea to differentiate between "good pain", such as a heavy flogging, and "bad pain", such as a restraint being too tight and pinching a nerve. I try to encourage bottoms to speak up honestly and clearly as soon as they have a "bad pain" to let me know what is going on so that I can fix it. Most of the time bottoms don't want the scene to end, they just want you to take away an annoying distraction so that you can both have a better time.

One way of allowing clear communication is to tell the bottom: "If you start a sentence with the word SIR then I know we are still in the role play. If you start a sentence using my first name then I will assume you have something real to tell me." Using names is a good idea because your brain is always listening for any mention of your name, which is why you can suddenly tune in to a conversation about you in a crowded room.

There are times when safe words are useful, especially when you are playing with new partners. They can also help prevent allegations of abuse, if safe words are agreed and adhered to.

If you meet someone who wishes to play without safe words ask them how you could let them know if something is seriously wrong. Also consider how well do they know you? Could they tell the difference between your gasp of pleasure and your gasp of pain? Have they asked for your medical history? Do they know your fears, phobias, limits and previous experience? Would you trust them with the keys to your apartment? If the answers to these questions are "no" then perhaps you shouldn't engage in a heavy SM scene with them, whether or not you agree a safe word.

(Thanks to Scott Smith for his help with this answer.)

Have fun, and look after yourselves and the people you play with.

John Pendal
International Mr Leather 2003

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