What is a safe word and why are they so important?
Safe words and safe signals allow you and your partner or partners to clearly communicate boundaries and consent during a BDSM scene or other sexual activity. Using the safe word indicates you need to stop everything and reassess whether you want to continue. Today we’ll cover how and when to use safe words, as well as some safe word ideas to help you choose the perfect one!
Whether you are breaking out your new BDSM tools or using your favorite restraint kit, BDSM involves walking a fine line between pushing your limits and taking it too far, so it’s important to establish clear communication. Not being able to stop an activity in time can lead to psychological or physical harm.
Using a safe word is just one aspect of safety. Whoever is in the dominant role should also check in with the partner in the submissive role often to see if they are doing ok, enjoying the activity, or if they should adjust the intensity. This can involve asking directly, using the traffic light system, and learning to read their body language or a combination of all three.
Safe words and consent
Consent can change during an activity as we can never really know how we will feel in the moment. In the FRIES model of consent (left), the R stands for reversible, meaning true consent can be taken back at any time.
Essentially, this is what a safe word does. It tells whoever you are playing with you do not give consent for them to continue and they should stop immediately.
Are safe words only for BDSM?
While safe words are primarily used in BDSM due to the riskier play involved, they can actually be a great addition to all kinds of sex. Sex of all kinds can be emotionally and physically vulnerable, so having a clear and easy way to tell your partner you have reached or are reaching a limit can help you both feel safe. For example, if you are trying anal sex for the first time, it can be good to have a safe word to let you partner know they are going too fast and need to stop. Establishing this safety and trust can help you to feel more confident exploring new sexual activities together.
Some people also use safe words during arguments or emotionally heavy conversations to signal they have reached a limit and need to take a break or deescalate the situation.
How to choose a good safe word
A safe word can be absolutely anything you like, but there are some criteria it should fulfil to be fit for purpose. As with anything, what you choose will be unique to you, but before you choose a real mouthful like antidisestablishmentarianism, consider the following guidelines for narrowing down your safe word ideas and finding one that works!
- Choose a distinctive word that can’t be mistaken for anything else.
- Avoid words that you might say during the scene (e.g. no and stop are bad choices)
- Your safe word should be easy to say. Don’t pick anything overly difficult to shout out clearly.
- It must be easy to remember. Safe words with personal meanings can be easier to remember it in the moment.
Take the time to discuss your safe word with your partner to make it something personal to you and your needs. Some people choose a very unsexy word that will kill the passion to bring things to an immediate stop. Although this might not be a great option if you want to get back in the mood after. Of all the examples I came across researching this article, I think Donald Trump has to be the biggest mood killer, although it might run the risk of putting you off sex completely forever!
Common safe words ideas
Most sources list red (from the traffic light system explained below) and pineapple as the most common safe words. Both of these are great options as they are unlikely to get mixed up in the play or mistaken for something else. Here are some more common themes for safe words and a few examples for inspiration:
- Food — Broccoli, banana, cabbage, chicken, coconut
- Characters — Batman, SpongeBob, Dobby, Scooby-Doo
- Places — Tokyo, Florida, Paris.
- It could be a place with personal meaning, such as the place you met or a favorite holiday destination.
The traffic light system
Another popular safe word idea is the the traffic light system, which gives you more nuance when communicating your limits and provides an easy way for your partner or Dom to check in on how you are doing. It’s extremely popular in the BDSM community because it ticks all the boxes — it’s easy to say, easy to remember, and unlikely to get confused with anything else.
As well as the Sub using the colors as they wish, the Dom or partner in the active role can ask what color you are on in that moment to get an idea of how to continue.
- Red means you have reached your limit and stops the play immediately. You might need to take a break, reduce the intensity, or stop for the day.
- Yellow means you are nearing your limit and you need your partner or Dom to proceed carefully and slowly.
- Green means keep going — you are enjoying whatever it is you are doing and you are happy to continue.
What is a safe signal and when to use one
Some types of play restrict the mouth and therefore your ability to say your chosen safe word. For example, if you are using a gag, such as a ball gag, O-ring gag, or any other type of gag or you are wearing a BDSM muzzle, you won’t be able to say your safe word clearly. In that case, you need to establish a signal using another part of your body.
What you choose will depend on personal preference and what other sexual activities you will have planned. However, the same criteria applies as with safe words — the signal must be distinctive enough that your partner recognises it. Repetitive signals are great as they aren’t likely to happen by mistake. Here are some safe signal ideas.
- Hold something in your hand that you can drop on the floor. Keys are a popular option
- Tap your partner or knock on something, such as the chair
- Stamp your foot
- Have something that makes a sound when you shake it, like a bell or small percussion instrument
- Repetitive blinking — this is good if you are completely bound and gagged but it might take a second for your Dom to notice it as there is no sound cue to catch their attention.
When to use your safe word
Once you selected your favorite safe word idea, you should use your safe word whenever you feel you are about to take things too far or when a boundary has been crossed. This could be a physical or emotional boundary or anything that makes you feel unsafe. While safe words can and should be used during any kind of sexual activity, here are some examples of how and when you might use them.
Safe words during impact play & sensation play
Using spanking tools, floggers, canes, pinwheel or other BDSM tools can be exciting and arousing. However, it can be difficult for a Dom or partner to gauge how hard to go, as they don’t get any biofeedback and everyone’s pain tolerance is different. You can use your safe word if the hits become too intense physically or you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Safe words during restraint play
Bondage play using restraints, bondage rope, or bondage tape is a fairly common and exciting king. However, restrained puts you in a very vulnerable position, where you are relying on whoever you are playing with to release you. You can use your safe word to tell your partner that they need to stop what they are doing and possibly release the restraints. This could be for any reason, but some common ones could include the restraints are causing you pain or restricting your blood flow, you feel claustrophobic and panicky, or the stimulation is too intense.
Some safe words I don’t recommend and why
- Stop or no — You might say these without actually meaning them during BDSM play, especially if you are exploring consensual non-consent.
- Anything that sounds similar to sexual word or a sound made during sex. Words with lots of soft sounds and vowels can be more difficult to distinguish, so go for something with harder sounding consonants.
- “Smell the milk” — a suggestion made in the office that got the appropriate reaction ‘that’s just a bit disgusting.’