Updated: Aug 22
Safe words are one of the most referenced kink ideas. The concept of a simple word which stops all action and indicates someone is not okay has moved from the kink world into the wider world. This is a good thing, in general. But do you always need one? What purpose do they really serve? How do you need to use one?
What Are Safe Word
A safe word is a word people establish before kink play which, when used, will stop all action. Safe words are a standard feature of BDSM play because some of our types of play would make a word like “don’t” or “stop” unclear. For example, if you are playing out a consensual nonconsent scene (rape play) using “stop” and “no” could be part of a scene but not used to really stop the action.
Additionally, many western cultures portray women saying “no” to sex or sexual play as being coy or flirtatious. Movies and other media show women saying “no” repeatedly to a man but he eventually wins her over. The idea that saying “no” or “don’t” to sexual play is part of rape culture. Therefore, having an unambiguous way of indicating that something is unwanted can be useful.
Beyond a simple safe word, kinky folks have an established “stop light” system. It is common to use “green” to indicate that everything happening is welcome and desired. “Yellow” indicates that something needs to slow down or change direction. “Red” indicates a need to stop immediately. It encourages simple and clear communication during sex.
Do You Always Need a Safe Word
No. While safe words are very commonly talked about as a key part of BDSM play, they are not always necessary. Indeed, I think they are overly relied upon and can actually negatively impact kink play for newer players.
Clear communication and consent must be at the center of kinky play. Consent is the cornerstone of kink play. In consent negotiation, you can (and I argue you should) consider negotiating that instead of a safe word, you simply check in with each other and use “I’m good” and “stop” and “not so good” and other forms of clear communication as part of a scene.
Why would you decide not to use a formal safe word? Safe words tend to have a weight to them for many players (especially newer players) which can make a person reticent to use it. The finality of calling “red” or safe wording may not be what the person wants, but they do need the current action to stop. A simple “stop” or “don’t” may be more effective and more likely to be used in some situations than a safe word.
Second, some players develop a sense that refusing to safe word even when they really want something to stop signifies a deep level of submission. The concept that enduring something they really don’t want to do makes them a “better” or “superior” submissive can stop them from using a safe word when they are not okay to continue. For folks like this, more direct communication during a scene can provide both players with more feedback. If the submissive/bottom is very unhappy with that is happening, checking in with “are you okay?” or “how does that feel?” or “loving this?” may provide a better gauge of where the s-type is at than waiting on a safe word.
With my own play, I will generally agree upon a safe word but check in throughout a scene to see how the bottom is doing. If they indicate that something is not working without using a safe word, I will change direction or stop without them having to safe word. Until I know a person well enough to trust them to use safe words when they need it and to provide information before we reach that point, I try to avoid actually using safe words as my guide to play.
Safe Words Do Too Much Work
Too many people rely on using a safe word as the only indication that something might be amiss. There is no reason that this needs to be the case. When something happens that is not okay with you, it is completely appropriate to say so. Rather than safe wording, saying, “I can’t do this,” or “No,” or “Not now,” is an appropriate reaction. These statements should also be honored as a safe word would be.
The longer you play the more likely it is you will encounter a boundary you did not know was there (or your partners will). Crossing a boundary is often a reason to stop a specific type of play, either for the rest of the night or at least redirect the scene. Developing a practice where you communicate with partners beyond a safe word during a scene is important.
This communication does not have to feel clinical (although in some interrogation or medical scenes, clinical language could be hot). As a d-type, standing behind your s-type and whispering, “Do you like that you little slut,” can be both a check-in and really hot. Likewise, “How is Daddy’s boi doing?” can be a way to stay in scene during an age play scene. There is no need to use a stoplight or safe word system in this case. The check in can provide adequate feedback and keep the play hot.
Don’t Forget About You D-Type
D-types have limits and boundaries too! We concentrate on submissives and their limits and boundaries in safe word conversations. D-types need to be able to safe word. They also need to be able to redirect play, slow things down, and stop play when necessary.
It is not common for s-types to check in with D-types during a scene. When a D-type indicates they need to stop, that should be met with respect, not chastising or belittlement. If a D-type indicates they need to change direction in a scene, it is important to respect that as well. If this redirection is unexpected, debriefing after the scene can be useful in discovering what did not work for them.
Clear communication and respect are keys to having good scenes and developing as a player. Safe words are not the only words which should stop a scene. Listen to your partners and understand that they may need to stop or change directions without safe wording.