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by Sunny Megatron
In a recent interview actor Hugh Grant revealed he’s into S&M adding, “I think so long as you have safewords it’s fun.”
A decade ago this would have been a scandalous admission but in 2022 it barely made headlines. BDSM and sexual consent have reached casual conversation status – they’re no longer a big deal. We have pop culture phenomena like Fifty Shades of Grey, Kevin Hart’s Pineapple’s comedy routine, and TV shows about BDSM to thank for that.
We tend to associate safewords with BDSM exclusively, however, they can be helpful in many contexts from vanilla sex to platonic exchanges. I’ll explain how but to start off I want you to remember two key safeword truths:
In the context of kink and sex, a safeword is a word, phrase, or nonverbal gesture that stops the action immediately.
Safe words should be agreed upon and their details discussed before play begins. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to pick a word that you wouldn’t normally say during sex. Fruits and colors are top choices with some of the most popular safewords being “red,” “banana,” or “pineapple.” Others choose words with personal meaning or use ridiculous phrases like “Richard Nixon” or “Hippocampus.”
Typically, safewords are most useful during play that has a higher than average degree of physical and/or emotional risk. Intimate encounters in which boundaries are pushed, vulnerability is high, ongoing communication is required, or that involve edgier play fall into this category. Resistance scenes, otherwise known as CNC or consensual nonconsent, require safewords because ignoring “no” is part of the consensually negotiated role play.
Safe words have a place in vanilla sex too. As our culture becomes increasingly consent savvy, more people recognize that tools for communicating desires and limits are needed in low-risk situations too. Of course, if a safeword isn’t established, plain language like “no” or “don’t” should always be taken seriously and treated like traditional safewords.
Safe signals come in handy when someone’s wearing a gag or unable to speak. They’re also a must in environments where partners may not hear you. Even if you’re not playing in a way that warrants using a safe signal, it’s a good idea to establish one anyway as a backup. Some safe signal ideas:
Rather than establishing just one code word to mean stop, many folks in the kink community use a series of words to communicate how they feel at any given time. The traffic light system is a graduated safeword framework in which “red” means stop, “yellow” is caution, and “green” means proceed. This kind of consent check is an amazing communication tool for giving both positive and negative feedback during a scene. You can also seek it out by asking “what color are you?”
Note that the exact meaning of each color isn’t set in stone. Although yellow signals caution, that could mean “stop briefly and check in,” “keep going but decrease the intensity a little,” or “decrease the intensity right now or I’ll have to call ‘red.’” Similarly, green might be interpreted as “that’s perfect, keep doing that” or “that’s ‘easy mode’ kick it up a notch!” Safe words aren’t universal so it’s important to get on the same page with your partner before you play, but more on that later.
It’s a common misconception that safewords are only for s-types. Not true! Safe words can be used by anyone regardless of power orientation. Dominants can get injured or emotionally triggered during scenes too. They may also choose to safeword if they suspect their submissive has reached their limit but their ability to advocate for themselves is impaired by subspace or disassociation related to emotional overwhelm. Bottom line, dominants can safeword for any reason at any time just like submissives can.
Get the notion that safewords should only be used for dire emergencies out of your head. Remember, safewords are a customizable communication tool. They provide an opportunity to interrupt the action to care for yourself or a partner. Think of safewording as an elaborate way to call “time-out.”
Just like you might safeword due to a medical emergency or unpleasant mental state, you can also safeword because you have to go to the bathroom. Or maybe you’re thirsty but can’t get a drink because your hands are tied. Perhaps you just need a minute to catch your breath. You’re allowed to safeword even when you can’t verbalize exactly what you’re feeling but just know you need to stop.
Sometimes our ego gets the best of us making us think we’re “wimps” if we safeword. Additionally, sometimes those with ill intent cite made-up “BDSM safeword rules” to manipulate others and legitimize non-consensual acts. Remember,
You might be thinking, “Why would I end an enjoyable scene for something silly like ‘my nose itches?’” No need to worry, when you call a safeword it doesn’t necessarily mean that play stops for good.
What happens after you call a safeword is entirely up to you and your play partners. How does this work? During pre-scene kink negotiation, you and your partner(s) agree on your safeword, how it should be used, and what should happen after it’s called.
Most people use safewords like a “time-out.” Think about how time-out worked on the playground as a kid – you immediately stopped the action and checked in with each other. Sometimes someone just needed to stop to tie their shoe before resuming play. Sometimes the time-out caller wanted to keep playing but modify the rules because the game felt too intense. Other times that person wasn’t enjoying any part of it and wanted to stop playing.
Safe words in kink work similarly. You stop, break character if you were in a role play, and check-in. Then you decide if you need to rest, recalibrate, or stop altogether.
If the scene is over you can transition into the post-scene protocol you decided before play. This is usually aftercare which may involve changing into comfortable clothes, eating a snack, cuddling together under a blanket, having sex, or whatever come-down activity you agree on (aftercare is completely customizable too).
In your pre-scene negotiation, you should also establish a protocol for extreme circumstances. Pre-arrange grounding activities that your partner can help you transition to if you’re triggered during a BDSM scene. Plan for worst-case scenarios too like medical emergencies. Let your partner know what nearby hospitals are in your insurance network or how to respond if a known health issue pops up (i.e. if you’re diabetic, where your insulin is or what sugary snack they can give you for low blood sugar).
Why establish protocols for hypothetical worst-case scenarios? Because if and when those situations pop up you may not be able to think clearly or make informed decisions about next steps.
Kinky couples bring safewords into their day-to-day, non-sexual interactions often. Usually, it’s lighthearted – one partner yelling “RED!” when the other suggests they put pineapple on their pizza.
Let’s revisit what safewords are – a communication tool that initiates a time-out during which you can readjust or stop activities that compromise your comfort and/or safety. Safe words can even be used to de-escalate tense confrontations. In fact, some therapists recommend using emotional safewords when arguments with partners or loved ones get heated. Family safewords can be used as a safety measure giving kids a way to signal to parents that they’re uncomfortable. Plenty of couples use safewords at parties in the form of an agreed-upon code word or gesture that means, “I’m tired, let’s go home.”
One reason safewords work well for many people is they’re a quick, coded way to convey something that may be difficult to verbalize. Those of us who struggle with confrontation may relate. Whether in the bedroom or ordering a pizza, sometimes blurting out “Snuffleupagus!” is a lot easier than saying “no.”
"Safe words are simple communication tools. They’re an unambiguous, predetermined, quick way to advocate for your physical and/or emotional comfort or safety."
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Sunny Megatron is an award-winning BDSM & Certified Sexuality Educator, Certified Relationship Coach, and media personality. She’s the host and executive producer of the Showtime original television series, SEX with Sunny Megatron, plus co-hosts AASECT Award-winning American Sex Podcast and Open Deeply Podcast. Sunny was also named XBIZ Sexpert of the Year 2021 and is Editor-in-Chief of Zipper Magazine.
Known for her one-of-a-kind build-your-own-adventure approach to sex, kink & relationships, Sunny coined the BDSM community catch-phrase, Kink is Customizable™. In her sell-out workshops, her unique brand of “edutainment” seamlessly combines her humorous lecturing style, interactive exercises, and the latest sexuality research. Sunny’s passion is helping others overcome shame and find power through play and pleasure. Currently, she’s working on her first book, “Customizable Kink: A Strategic Guide to Adult Play.”