No Safeword is Not an Excuse


There are many many good posts out there about safewords. What they are, types of safewords, how to use them, when to use them. 

This is not one of those posts. 

Because for all of the beauty of safewords, the concept has a flaw. It’s not because safewords don’t work, or they aren’t useful. They absolutely 100% are. I would never recommend playing without one, especially for people with not much experience in BDSM activities. 

It’s that some people use a lack of a safeword as an excuse when they harm someone. And we aren’t talking about that enough.

A safeword when properly used in typical BDSM play is a safety valve. It’s an emergency stop feature that communicates unambiguously the intent to end a scene. Or at least, that something really big needs to change or things are going to go south. And fast. But unless you have explicitly negotiated ahead of time that a safeword is going to be your only form of communication it should never, ever, be the only method to stop a scene. 

It’s like a fire alarm. 

If you’re in a burning building and you see flames and you smell smoke you don’t go “Oh, well, the fire alarm didn’t go off, guess there must not be a fire!” Right? Because that would be pretty stupid, and you’d probably end up dead. Instead, you should be checking for other signs of a fire and preferably getting the hell out of that situation. A fire alarm is simply a tool to make it easier to tell something is wrong and you need to evacuate. Same thing with a safeword. 

If a scene is going wrong and a bottom is flinching, avoiding eye contact, or stops reacting to stimulus at all, you should never go “Oh, well, they never used their safeword, so I guess this must be okay.” WRONG. Unless you are doing some prenegotiated no-limits, CNC type shit, ANY significant and unusual or distressing change should warrant a check-in. You don’t need to stop the scene. But you should be looking for other signs of a fire, and if you need to get out of this situation. And maybe everything is okay. But the point is you should still check in. Because at best, you’re risking loss of valuable feedback as a Dom. At worst, you’ve crossed someone’s boundaries (communicated prior or not) and are now actively harming them. 

A safeword should not be an excuse for lazy, passive Dominance. Scenes should be negotiated under the hope of creating a mutually beneficial experience. Not merely just letting the Dominant do whatever the heck they want up until the submissive or bottom finally eeks out their safeword as a last resort to stop the agony. Dominants should always be attentive, mindful and focused during scenes. After all, they are literally putting that bottom at risk in both life and limb. Shouldn’t we expect more?

I think there are many factors in the community that contribute to this mindset that makes it extremely difficult to actually rely on safewords as the sole form of communication. Let’s discuss those:

1. We Put Safewords on a Pedestal: We treat safewords like the “in case of emergencies only” hatchet behind a thick pane of glass. As a culture in general, we don’t encourage liberal use of safewords. Needing to resort to a safeword is seen as shameful, and damning for both bottom and top in that scene. And so, many bottoms believe they are only allowed to use safewords when things are really really bad. Low blood sugar? Tingly toes? Allergies? Tolerance getting low? Suck it up. And by the time things get to that really really bad place, many are no longer in a mental state to even communicate at all.

2. Competitiveness: We love having submissives compete with each other. Who can take the most canes, who can do the hardest suspension, and who can stand to kneel on the rice for the longest amount of time. A submissive who is competitive and has a desire to please will often put beating “the competition” above their own physical safety so they can feel like a good sub. To do anything less is failure. 

3. Fear of Disappointment and Abandonment: This is certainly not true of all subs, but many have a fear of being a disappointment or being a abandoned. This leads to a submissive not using  a safeword, because having an abrupt end to the scene can leave the sub feeling like they have let their partner down. Or worse, it activates the fear that the Dominant will abandon them. This is particularly true in power exchange relationships with a high level of authority transfer but a low level of existing trust. To use a safeword is to put the existing relationship itself on the line, and risks changing the relationship to the core. Rational? Maybe not. But we certainly don’t do enough to absolve this fear or address why it exists. And fear is often powerful enough to keep people silent.

4. Altered States of Consciousness: New submissives are particularly vulnerable to this. Whether it be getting lost in a primal, little or animal headspace, sinking into subspace, or being so overcome by fear your body freezes, BDSM can bring out many unique and complicated states of mind. If a submissive is not operating a fully functional brain, let alone potentially not having access to verbal function at all, how are they going to communicate a safeword? Even when they really need to? It’s entirely possible someone in a deep in an altered state of consciousness may forget who or where they are, let alone remember they have a specific fancy word to use to get out!

5. We Don’t Practice Safewords: Let’s say you have been doing BDSM for 10 years. In all that time, you have had the fortune to never need a safeword before. Then, one night with a new partner, something goes wrong. How likely are you going to be able to evaluate correctly that you need it, or when, or even know how to say it? It’s like a fire drill. You can talk all you want about where the evacuation spot is, and what route to use, but unless you have regularly practiced using the route before, you are liable to forget it in a panic situation. 

6. Daddy Knows Best: This one is the most insidious of the bunch. For new submissives especially, they can be cowed into believing that the Dominant should have the final say and to trust them completely. Negotiated or not. This leads to unscrupulous (or just inexperienced) Dominants functionally using their relationship authority to dictate a submissive’s limits for them. It removes the submissive’s ability to fairly judge for themselves if and when they need to safeword. Or if they are allowed to. Imagine a situation where a submissive is new, and has a hard limit around canes. Then Daddy brings out the cane. By quieting the protests with a “Daddy Knows Best” and or a “Why Don’t You Trust Me?”, a Dominant can cut off a submissive from feeling safe from using their safewords. A Dominant should always be aware of the power and influence they have over a submissive’s psyche. It is very hard to say no to someone who you respect, who is older or more experienced, or who pays your bills – and a safeword is often subconsciously viewed as a “no” to that activity. Add power exchange to that on top, and you’ve got quite a mountain to climb. 

…. and I am sure many many other factors too. There are so many to list. 

Point being, a safeword is a tool. But a complicated one – and only as good as the people using it. Human emotions, fears, and desires all intertwine to make “simple” communication very complicated. And until we can unpack some of the baggage we have lying around about using them, safewords will never be the only way to effectively communicate in a scene. And unless you have negotiated otherwise, plain English communication and body language should always be monitored for other signs things are going wrong. 

To try and hide behind “but they didn’t safeword!” as a defense when someone is harmed by a scene is weak, and shows a lack of understanding of how hard communication can be when endorphins are flying. Responsible partners look at actions and reactions, not just words. 

Stay Safe, 


PS) While I stick to talking about submissives having their consent violated or safeword use complicated in this post, this is only for the sake of making the text easier to follow. Dominants, tops, bottoms, slaves, Masters, switches, littles,  anyone, can have their consent violated or have difficulty using safewords in scenes.