Ask Holle – If trust is so important between partners why would you need a safe word?

Covenant asked

If trust is so important between partners why would you need a safe word?

One of the first things I learned about BDSM, when I really started exploring it, was the use of the safe word.

I used to play with a Dom who I will call “John”, for the sake of privacy and all that good stuff. John was one of the first Doms that I played with, and a very considerate partner. I trusted him, knowing him outside of BDSM circles, but because I was still new to kink play, he wanted to be sure that I was comfortable with anything that we did, that he did not hurt me, and that I did not feel bad about anything that we did. We discussed what each of us wanted to explore and he had me choose a safe word, something that I would not use in our play normally, so that if I said it, he would instantly know to stop. My use of the safe word, and I did use it a few times with John, was not a signifier that I did not trust him. It was a signal to be used any time I felt, for whatever reason, that I needed to use it.

I had a very good introduction to the safe word, but I found it took a very long time to truly understand what it is. The safe word is not just a replacement for “no” or “stop” or “too much”. It does not replace trust in a BDSM dynamic; that you use it at all shows that you do very much trust your partner.

To really answer another question, I need to answer another and dispel a couple of myths.

Why do you need a safe word?

You need a safe word because BDSM play can sometimes blur lines between what you want and what you say you don’t want.

In a vanilla encounter, if you slapped my ass and I said “Don’t ever do that again” or “That hurt” you would presumably stop and never do that again. In BDSM play, however, these statements may be part of play. Let’s pretend for a moment that you are my submissive. You slap me on the ass, and I tell you never to do that again. We continue whatever we are doing, and you do it again. I look at you sternly, tell you that I warned you, and proceed to punish you by clamping some sensitive area of the body.

Now before play ever began, you and I establish some basic limits. I tell you that slapping my ass will be fine, but it will have consequences. You indicate what types of punishment you want to receive for not doing what you are told. You provide a safe word that you want use if necessary. Once these limits are set and safe words are established, you and I begin play, and the scenario above takes place.

The safe word is very nuanced, and it is meant to indicate that something outside of the realm of play needs to take place. This could be a limit that is about to be breached, which can happen even with a trusted partner. Such a thing is more common with new partners or if you are new to the scene. Even long-time partners, however, should keep and if necessary use a safe word. Maybe you are wanting to try something new in your dynamic. Maybe the two of you want to try pushing limits a little, to see what you enjoy together. This includes intensity and duration limits to punishment and masochism play.

Sometimes the safe word is used to call for an unplanned break. You and I may be playing, and have decided that we will do so for a couple of hours, then take a break to rest and maybe have a meal or a snack. During play, you realize that an urgent call of nature has struck. Because you and I are engaging in consent and humiliation play, you signal with your safe word that you really do need to step away a moment, and when you are done, you come back, and play resumes. Partners with health conditions may use a safe word to indicate that play has to pause so that health concerns can be addressed.

The safe word is also a signal that something has gone wrong or needs to be fixed. In punishment and masochism play, “that hurts” is not an indication that play should stop. Sometimes, however, shackles may slip into positions that, if not fixed, can cause real damage to wrists and ankles or just be uncomfortable and distracting to play. Whips, floggers, paddles, and crops should always be checked regularly as they may need to be repaired, oiled, sanded, etc to ensure longevity of the prop. Sometimes, however, the person on the receiving end may feel that something has happened to the toy, usually because they feel a new sensation with the pain that, once intensity increases, can result in something bad happening.

The safe word lets the Dom know something needs to be checked, fixed, or corrected.

Also remember that while you may trust your partner, they will not always know when something goes from good hurt to bad hurt. You may also not being in the mood for something that normally you are receptive to. Maybe you realize, once play begins, that your bike marathon from yesterday has left you too sore for ass-play. Or maybe you are finding your pain limits today are lower than usual. Your best, safest, and clearest signal for these thresholds is the safe word. Note in some situations, once play is paused, you may want to let you partner know about any temporary limits.

These are just a few examples of why a safe word is important.

As common as it is to know and have a safe word, some misconceptions still surface. To understand how trust and safe words work together, those need to be addressed too.

The safe word is used to establish trust.

No. Communication is the first thing that should establish trust. After that, getting to know your partner, their interests, and their philosophy on BDSM and, if sex is involved in your play, sexuality follow. If you feel that you need the safe word because you cannot trust the person you are with to obey your limits, then you should not play with that person. If you find that you constantly have to use the safe word to keep them from breaking your limits or bring them back into your agreed boundaries, then you should not play with that person any more. Using the safe word means that you trust your partner to comply with its use. It does not replace your partner following already established limits. If you cannot trust your partner to not over-step the boundaries the two of you establish, then how can you trust them to comply when you use the safe word?

Only submissives use safe words.

No. When we talk about the safe word, we tend to talk about it in terms of submissives or the “recipient” partner in a BDSM dynamic. Remember that BDSM is a spectrum label. Not everyone who is a recipient partner is a  submissive. Just because someone likes pain (masochist) does not mean they are a submissive and not all submissives like being subjected to pain. All partners engaged in switch play (where the roles are reversed either from one play session to the next or in the same play session) should have a safe word. Doms may also choose to have one, though they may call it something else, for a variety of reasons – for example being a Dominatrix who is also a masochist regularly commands a submissive or slave to harm them, having different limits than a submissive, etc.

And there you go. Safe words are not a replacement for trust in BDSM play, but are another method by which trust is expressed and reciprocated.

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