Everyone knows about BDSM safewords … or at least, everyone thinks they know about safewords. But one of the initial moments that really impressed me about my current boyfriend was when I asked him, many moons ago, if he knew what a safeword is. He paused, then answered, “I think I’m familiar with the idea, but I probably don’t know much more than a stereotype, so I’d like to hear you define it.” Humility and open-minded curiosity are so incredibly hot!

Righto. Hot boyfriend aside, I’m here to explain safewords and check-ins, and how those concepts can exemplify excellent sexual communication for everyone — not just S&Mers — in a world that doesn’t do a good job teaching anyone how to communicate sexually.

When two (or more) people have a BDSM encounter together, generally they set a safeword — a word that anyone can say at any time to stop the action. (Sometimes people don’t use safewords. This is their choice and I totally respect it. I would not recommend going without safewords for anyone who doesn’t know their partner extremely well, and I would be seriously sketched out by anyone who pressured a partner to go without safewords.)

When I give advice about setting safewords, I usually offer the following:

A) Some people like to say that it’s good to use a safeword that’s jolting, and is likely to make your partner feel totally unsexy. Isn’t there a “Family Guy” episode in which Lois & Peter’s safeword is “banana” or something?

B) In my experience, the generally accepted safewords in the S&M community are “safeword” and, more commonly, “red”. I consider it useful to go with the “public standard” because that means that in the future, you’re likely to be attuned to the correct word if you practice BDSM with other partners as well. (It also means that if you ever do S&M in a public space such as a dungeon, everyone in the place will recognize your safeword if you scream it.)

C) At first I wasn’t that excited about this, but I’ve grown to love the fact that the safeword “red” also sometimes encompasses “green” — and “yellow”. That means that if I’m in the middle of an S&M encounter, I can say “red” and my partner will stop; I can then catch my breath and say “green”, which means “by God keep going!” Or, if I’m a little uncertain about the territory but don’t actually want my partner to stop — if I just want my partner to be a little bit cautious — then I can say “yellow” (and, of course, I can move to “green” if I become really psyched, or shift to “red” if I really want my partner to stop).

I know that this probably doesn’t sound sexy at all, but it totally can be! Consider the following example: during my last vacation to America, I had an S&M encounter with a dude I’ll refer to as Klark. (It’s not my fault. He requested the pseudonym.) At one point, Klark was experimenting with hurting me, and I had my eyes closed and was whimpering / crying out in a totally glorious way. (The poor overnight desk clerk. He was only one short flight of stairs away from us.) I think Klark was legitimately having trouble detecting whether I was enjoying myself, though — understandably, because we had only just met, and I enjoy sinking myself into dramatic masochistic misery — so he leaned over me and said, in a low dark voice, “Red, yellow, green.” Immediately, I gasped back “Green”. Because he spoke in a gritty and dominant voice, and the check-in was quick, we were able to maintain the mood — and it was actually kind of hot in itself.

Which brings me to the other thing: check-ins. Sometimes, you want to check in with your partner. Which can be easy: you can just say, “Hey, how does this feel?” or, as a more precise example, “Give me a rating of 1-10 on how good this feels (or how much this hurts).” But if you want to do it quickly and without shifting the mood, you can do it as I outline above in the Klark example. Or even quicker, as for example with the hand-squeeze system, where the participants agree ahead of time that you can squeeze another person’s hand twice and expect two squeezes back — and if there aren’t two return squeezes, it’s time to stop and figure out what’s going wrong. (Squeeze system: also very helpful when gags are involved.) (And here’s a literary example of check-ins in a vanilla encounter.)

Sometimes submissives will have a hard time safewording — whether out of pride, inexperience, or eagerness to please — and that’s another reason check-ins can be good even when there’s a set safeword. If you aren’t sure how to read your partner’s reactions and you suspect ze may be uncomfortable with what you are doing, then you might consider checking in even if ze hasn’t safeworded, because your suspicion may be right.

What I love about safewords and check-ins:

1) Hypothetically, mainstream society acknowledges that anyone could say no at any point during sex, but in practice, this is really hard. A variety of forces — girls socially pressured not to be so-called “cock-teases”, boys socially pressured to supposedly “prove their manliness”, and everyone anxious to please their partners — work against people’s capacity to say no; and while there is a vague understanding that “no means no”, that vagueness is as far as it gets. There’s no explicit framework in place for how to say “no”, and no understanding of how to continue an encounter (or relationship) after one’s partner says no. Even worse, there’s an assumed linear progression of sexual activity — the best example is the “base system”, which places sexual interaction on a metaphorical baseball diamond where “first base” = groping and “home base” = penis-in-vagina sex. Have I mentioned that I hate the base system?

So anyway, the biggest moral of the story with safewords and check-ins is that consent does not only happen once. Consent is always happening, and can always be renegotiated or withdrawn. Adapting my understanding of sexuality to reflect this — even in my non-BDSM sex — might have been the best thing that ever happened to my sex life.

2) On a related note: Good sex is not about entitlement. If we acknowledge that anyone can safeword out of any sexual act at any time, then we acknowledge that no one is entitled to any kind of sex from a partner — ever. If your partner loves you but doesn’t want to have sex with you? That’s a respectable choice. If you’re really turned on, but your partner can’t stand the idea of having sex right now? That’s a respectable choice. Those two are easy, I think, but how about these?

+ If your partner used to do something with you a lot, but doesn’t want to do it anymore? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you are married to your partner, but ze doesn’t want to have sex? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If your partner performed a sexual act with another partner but would prefer not to do it with you? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you know your partner likes a certain kind of sex, but they don’t want to do it right now? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you think a certain act is “mild” and “taken for granted”, like kissing or tickling, but your partner doesn’t want to do it? That’s a respectable choice.

By the way, if you (like I once did) feel as though your partner is entitled to sex of any kind, I encourage you to re-examine that feeling. Ditto if you’ve got a little voice in your head telling you that you “ought to” be up for sex all the time just because you don’t get it very often … or that you “ought to” be up for sex if you’ve done it with your partner before … or whatever. The other best thing that ever happened to my sex life was when I finally, finally, finally internalized the idea that my partners don’t ever “deserve” sex for any reason — that there’s no reason I ever “should” be having sex — and that the only reason I should ever, ever, ever do anything sexual is because I legitimately want to.

Of course, if you truly believe that you need a certain kind of sexuality in your life, then you’re absolutely entitled to ask your partner to consider it — and you’re entitled to leave the relationship if ze isn’t up for it. But this doesn’t mean that you “deserve” to do that act with that person, or that your partner “owes” you a certain act.

And hey, if your partner isn’t down with one specific sexual act, then that means you’ve got the chance to explore all kinds of other sexuality. Another other best thing that ever happened to my sexuality? Quite possibly, it’s my current boyfriend — whose religious adherence has drastically limited our physical sexual options.

* * *

Check out the previous post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists, not to mention the next post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *