“safeword games”

[cw: consent talk, framed within kinky contexts but probably generally applicable; impact play (hitting); creepy doms]

So I tried googling “safeword games” as a keyword (in quotes), and one of the first things I found was this old post [cn: sanity-as-ideal language] on the Pervocracy.

It’s definitely not what I had in mind.

A little ways back, a guy at a BDSM party (not Benny) wanted to play with me. Specifically, he said “I’m going to hit you until you safeword.”

Uh, yikes?

And also, you know what?

If I were the kind of person to even consider accepting receiving-end impact play in the first place, and if I were willing to play with creepy doms at all, and if I felt safe enough in the space, and if I could be reasonably certain I wouldn’t face danger if I made this guy mad (that’s a lot of “if”s), then, hypothetically, you know what I’d be inclined to do?

Start the scene.  Let him hit me once.  Safeword immediately.

He hems and haws about that not being the result he wanted (but, hypothetically, doesn’t fly into a rage and instead ends the scene with me as preemptively arranged) and after a brief talk we agree to a do-over.

Start a new scene.  Let him hit me twice.  Safeword.

Now he’s thinking it’ll just escalate one by one like that.  Once more, we agree to play again.

Start a new scene.  He hits me once and then I safeword again.

Technically, we’d be following his stated plan for the scene to the letter.  Just like he said, right?

What do you want to bet that that plan would actually be safe?  What do you want to bet I wouldn’t endanger my relationships with everyone else at the party?  What do you want to bet I wouldn’t be treated as if I were acting unfair and transgressing some unspoken rule?

Actual safeword games aren’t all that socially acceptable, I figure.

But that’s actually what I think would be a really fun and useful idea (for me, anyway) (well, minus the creepy dom bit).  I like the idea of practicing using a safeword liberally and getting that ideal result — immediate termination.  That’s what a safeword is supposed to be “for” but it’s often treated as some distant hypothetical, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency.  I’d rather my safewords be mundane.  Because too often I’m in situations (in Life in general) where I don’t get to have a safeword.  And if someone is going to hand me that option, I want to use it!  I want to wave it around and trivialize it and draw comfort from seeing in respected again and again and naturalize it through repeated usage.  I’d find that really, really satisfying.

Like being the controller in one of those games of Red Light/Green Light.

And arranging to play a “safeword game” with someone who’s on board with that?  Sounds perfect.

I figure this has got to have occurred to someone before.  It’s not all that creative of an idea.

But here’s the impression I’ve gotten from how the kink community (or its readily-accessible online writings, anyway) talks about safewords: they’re not meant to be used.

Or rather, they’re to be used as sparingly as possible, which has the same practical impact in my view.

The idea behind “I’m going to hit you until you safeword,” presumably, is “I’m going to hit you until you accept that you can’t take it anymore after resisting the conclusion as long as you can.  I’m going to hit you until you verbally give up in a competition that taxes you more than it taxes me.  I’m going to hit you until the pain conflicts with your internalized sense of ‘safewording is to be avoided’ and then hit you even more so that you will do what-is-to-be-avoided and feel like you’ve failed.  I’m going to hit you until it psychologically damages you and you have to grapple with the social and internal condemnation of being ‘unable to take it’ so I can savor having brought you to that point.  I’m going to hit you until it takes you further away from your ideal image of yourself.”

Because safewords aren’t meant to be used.

The original post expresses something in the vicinity of this view, as well, and while the author may have since changed their mind, I’m going to quote it as an example of what I’ve seen in several iterations:

I don’t ever want to safeword. I shouldn’t ever have to safeword; in a perfect world, tops would be perceptive enough to know when I was getting close to my limit and stop while I was still having fun. This isn’t a perfect world and I don’t hold it against anyone for having occasional lapses in their psychic abilities, so I’ll safeword when I have to, but it’s not part of the fun. In my view, safewording should be a big serious deal.

With all due respect, that’s terrible.

In my view, safewording should not be a big serious deal.

You know what it does to people, to tell them that withdrawing their consent is a big deal?  You know what it does to people, to treat safewording as catastrophic?  You know what it does to people, to teach them that safewords are something to be stingy with?

Nothing good, I can tell you that.

Ignoring a safeword should be a big serious deal.  Safewording should not.

I say let everyone safeword to their heart’s content.

Dare I say — maybe even make safewording and respecting the safeword part of the fun?

At the very least, it shouldn’t be something to be dreaded.  And I think playing deliberate “safeword games” could help to make it feel easier.  And the only kinky people I’d want to play with are those who think the same way.

15 responses to ““safeword games”

  • dave94015

    Reblogged this on dave94015 and commented:
    some thoughts on what a #safeword should mean in #bdsmPlay

  • dave94015

    Safewords are useful in public play sessions with strangers. Generally a top should seek consent constantly during play. A sensitive top should read body language. A safeword is invoked when this doesn’t happen.

    • Coyote

      Safewords are useful in all kinds of situations, including private play sessions with people you know well. Consent isn’t something that should be sought “generally” — it’s necessary, or else the play becomes a consent violation. Body language isn’t always available to read (think mummification) or reliable as an indicator. A safeword is invoked whenever someone wants to end the scene.

  • Calum P Cameron

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read that in at least some rolequeer communities, one of the involved parties terminating the scene with a safeword just because they can is viewed as the ideal scene climax. If so, I imagine that’s probably largely because of the kind of stuff highlighted here.

  • epochryphal

    i’ve definitely heard of folks playing with safewords in the way you mean, and using multiple words for different feedback (yellow for less-of-that-but-not-end-scene, beige for boring, etc). and some folks doing scenes that were all about practicing safewords. and some partners wanting to know that their play partner WILL safeword, so they practice.

    as for creepy dom guy… well, there’s definitely this idea of the best subs being the ones who can take anything, and the best doms being the ones who can push them past it. which uh. awful hierarchy.

    it’s complicated for me bc i am rarely trusted by my partners to safeword? they stop before i want them to. and sure it’s far better than the alternative, but it feels like they don’t trust me, and mehhhh arghhh.

    i do think what’s worked best has been like a round of warmup safewording, heh, to reaffirm to everyone involved that we got this.

    • Sennkestra

      While I haven’t heard much talk about “safeword games” exactly as you describe them, I will say that a lot of the in-person BDSM workshops and talks that I’ve been to do emphasize that it’s good to practice safewording liberally so you won’t be afraid of using them and will be able to respond to them automatically. (It also helps make sure that you both remember remember/recognize your safeword easily, especially if it’s an unusual one).

      That said, the kind of people who run workshops tend to be a lot more safety-conscious than the average kinkster, and many other people I’ve met at kink stuff do tend to be much more cavalier about good safeword practices….and I suspect a lot of more casual kinksters are even worse about it. I feel like good safeword practices are treated sort of like wearing a helmet on a bicycle – a lot of people pay lip service to how it’s what you are supposed to do, but then don’t bother with it themselves and view people who do as no-fun worrywarts.

      I do really like the use of stoplight-color style safewords, though, where there’s different safewords for different purposes – like the common “yellow” for “hey, I’m getting uncomfortable, let’s go back a bit/slow down/etc.”, and then “red” for “ok it’s getting really bad we need to stop everything immediately”. When you just have one “stop everything” safeword, I know a lot of people try to avoid using it even without outside pressure because they often don’t want all the play to stop, just one part of it…so they figure they can just deal with the 10% that’s making them uncomfortable so they can access the 90% they enjoy. But on the other hand, sometimes there are situations where you do need to take it really seriously and drop everything immediately, so it’s good to have different options.

      That said, I sometimes wish that there was less emphasis on safewords as a universal method, and more discussion about using like…straight up regular communication? Like, safewords specifically originate from roleplay scenes where people might be acting and saying “no, stop” as part of a roleplay, even when its not what they actually mean – so you need a different phrase to indicate “no, stop”. And they are great for that. But like, if you’re not roleplaying as part of your scene, I feel like single-word-safewords are worse communication than just speaking regularly to say “actually, that was a little to stingy, maybe not as hard?” or “I think we need to slow down” or “do you want the next one harder or softer? etc.” So I’d like to see that more. (though safewords in public spaces do serve as a useful way of tipping off safety monitor volunteers, etc. who don’t know if you are roleplaying or not). It seems sometimes like safewords are treated as a magical solution instead of just a nifty communication code for specific situations. I guess what I’d like to see more emphasis on more nuanced and caried ways of communicating how the scene is going that don’t rely on single word codes.

      • Coyote

        That, also, is a really good point. I agree, you don’t actually need a safeword unless you’ve prearranged that “no” & its variants will mean something other than “no” (or if you find prearranged safewords/stoplight codes easier to say than “no” due to social conditioning or whathaveyou) and so need something to take up the place of actually-meaning “no”.

        Come to think of it, even though safewords are a neat idea, it makes me wonder why they’re emphasized like they are when most (?) kink scenes don’t necessarily involve roleplaying (or prearranged meaning alterations). I mean it’s a way more prevalent piece of knowledge than… like, keeping shears around when you do bondage, which is something I only encountered from researching bondage specifically. There’s bound to be some interesting history there.

        But again ^^^^ yes to what you said here.

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    This post reminds me of a consent workshop I attended when I was still in college (in 2008 or 2009 maybe?). Kink and bdsm were not discussed, but the presenters talked about practicing saying and receiving a “no” as something that would be a good strategy to learn to hear “no” without trying to argue. By participants asking each other requests generally considered reasonable, and participants saying no to the requests (like “could you help me with my homework,” “do you want to cuddle”). I agree 100% that safewording should be practiced and applied liberally. This consent workshop made me feel empowered to believe that saying “no” in sexual and physical-affection contexts should be applied liberally and received without complaint.

  • toafan


    I’m going to describe that attitude as “safeword as parachute”. Because a parachute, it’s there to make you safe, and to save you if something goes badly wrong, but there’s still the fact that if you need it something has gone badly wrong.

    And then to contrast is “safeword as cell phone”. Because a cell phone can be hugely useful if you’re in a bad situation, and can save lives, but it’s also used for just normal everyday communication.

    Which really ties back to what Sennkestra was saying, about communication and the roleplay uses of safewords and “why not just talk normally if you’re not roleplaying?”. But maybe the conceptual shorthand is useful.

    (For example, in the context of “safeword as parachute”, creepy guy’s request seems like “I want to force you to use your parachute”, which 1. Yikes and 2. Abusive power dynamics much?)

    • Coyote

      Hmmm. I think I like this comparison. Safewords as cellphones ftw.

    • toafan

      It’s probably inevitable that someone will look at “safeword as parachute” and go “skydiving!” Which… completely misses the intent of the analogy, but even so I’m pretty sure that in skydiving you have multiple parachutes in case something goes wrong with one of them and generally have people around to help keep you safe even if it does. So if they’re being honest with the expanded analogy (instead of just assholes) that’s still multiple safewords for different uses.

      And then the whole thing with skydiving is you have a parachute you’re explicitly expected to use and it’s about when you open it to optimize fun vs. safety, whereas the idea behind “safeword as parachute” is of an emergency parachute you only use if the plane gets fucked up.

      To be clear, I don’t think safeword-as-skydiving is a useful expansion of the analogy — the useful parts are covered under stoplight/cellphone; and the thrill-seeking parts can just be called thrill-seeking, with an appropriate distinct analogy to skydiving (and its various forms) if desired. But I thought of the potential misunderstanding, and having thought about it ahead of time probably can’t hurt.

  • anonymous

    I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean people in the BDSM community don’t expect safewords to actually be used? That’s the most deeply fucked up thing I’ve ever heard. What, is everyone supposed to magically get everything right in a scene on the first try every single time and never screw it up ever, and never need to slow down ever? I was thinking of checking out my local scene but I don’t think I will if that’s a common attitude. Like, seriously? The scenario described would impact your relationships in the community? What the fuck? Nope. Social anxiety says no. No way am I going to be able to safeword if I’m afraid I’m going to be judged for it. I have a fucking personality disorder centered on the fear of social rejection! Guess it’s solo play in my bedroom for the rest of my life for me.

    • Coyote

      I don’t think you need to place that much weight on this one blogpost, but I’m also not out to talk you into doing anything, so if sticking with solo play is what it takes for you to feel comfortable, then sure.

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