How safe are safewords?

by Hans Meijer

A question. Is a safeword really a good safety measure? And another question: how safe is a safeword? And finally: isn’t the BDSM community just a bunch of parrots, all repeating the same dogmas over and over again?

After some thirty-odd years of being a publisher, sometimes a teacher and a board member of a variety of BDSM-organisations my personal answer to the self-imposed questions is that there isn’t an easy answer. But …… there is one answer: dogmas are neither effective, nor omnipotent, nor universally true. As far as the safeword-dogma is concerned: I think the value of safewords is highly overstated.

First this: there is nothing wrong with establishing safewords in the following situations:

  • Prior to active incidental play on parties with a partner you do not know
  • Prior to active play during one night stands or incidental contacts
  • In the very early stages of a developing BDSM-relationship
  • In any situation where either of the partners involved feels safer WITH a safeword

However: safewords neither work miracles, nor do they provide an absolute guarantee for safety in any situation!

Let’s face it. Whenever you are at the verge of a nervous breakdown, are having a heart attack, are simply too scared or are close to fainting or becoming nauseaus (to name only a few examples) you will have other things on your mind than to either remember the correct color code for safety or come up with a word like “strawberry”, “tugboat”, “codundrum” or whatever it was you decided upon. It is much more likely that if any coherent sound passes your lips it will be something like “help”, “shit”, “damn” or “fuck off”. More likely in fact – there will be no or hardly any sound.

Besides – it is more than a little likely that the submissive partner especially will not use a safeword – even when feeling overpowered, scared or angry – simply because most submissive minds do not work like that. They will be either too proud, too scared, too uncertain or simply too busy to come up with a safeword. Plus, if you want to be truly overpowered (which is the ultimate goal of most submissive people), you don’t even want to be presented with a safeword, let alone use it.

On top of that, within a more or less established relationship safewords really do not work and most partners in a relationship actually consider them to be rather silly. Besides, within a relationship the only two safewords that really count are “talk to my lawyer” of “if you want to call me, you’ll have to call my mother”. People within an established relationship simply have other ways of communication.

So, personally I think much of the “safeword dogma” should be taken with a firm grain of salt. Yes, safewords can be useful in certain circumstances. No, they are not universal and not a general rule.

There is a little more to all this though.

Safewords create a false sense of security

Quite a lot of people are of the opinion that whomever came up with the original safeword idea must have been a dominant and most likely a man. Safewords are in fact very much the domain fo the dominant – not to use them, but to wait for them. This, in their mind, creates a sense of security and is likely to portray them as a sensible, responsible dominant. At least ….. that is what they think. Neither, unfortunately, is true.

Apart from the above mentioned occassions, what a safeword actually does is to lay most, if not all, responsibility for safety on the shoulders of the submissive partner. Which is where it should not be. Responsibility for safety should be distributed in exact equal quantities between te dominant partner and the submissive one. Both have an equal and shared responsibility towards their own, each others and the situations’ safety.

Besides, relying on the submissive partner to use the safeword when needed may very likely create an unsafe situation, because she is likely NOT to use it, even when needed. Hence, it may very well create a false sense of security.

copyright Hans Meijer ©  2003