Sex, safe word and active consent
In the ever-evolving landscape of BDSM, fetish and kink, there is the inviolate business of consent. The parameters of sex play and adult play may be subject to change and experimentation, but the basic agreement among the players on when to continue, pause, review and halt should be a constant. Without such unwavering consent, neither trust nor respect can be established. And without these components, attempts to engage in sex or fetish games would fizzle, seem aimless or cross over into physical abuse. Mutual or unanimous agreement helps to eliminate the potential of miscommunication, ensures safety and is fundamental to heighten the experience of all those involved.
Note: Adult play is engaging in pleasure or power exchange that may not seem sexual (i.e., Shibari-Kinbaku or Japanese rope bondage).
A conversation about consent is the first interaction in sex play or adult play. It is important to discuss what each participant expects, their tolerance levels, specific wants, needs and experiences they are seeking. After consent is reached, a safe word should be established so each player is able to communicate during the session if they wish to halt or end it. A safe word represents a specific agreement, a kind of shorthand, among the participants.
How does a safe word work?
A safe word is a word that you agree upon with your sex play partner(s) to indicate stop (or other needs). It’s a word that isn’t usually said as part of adult play therefore the words ‘no’ and ‘stop’ are not used. The replacement word should be easily recognizable as the genuine intent to stop an action or activity during a session. It can be any word such as “strawberry,” “Washington” or “Amsterdam.” Any word is fine so long as there is agreement, including “pumpernickel.”
A safe word is not merely for the submissive player(s). It is used by the dominant player(s) and other participants as well. It is used by anyone at any time during sex play. It should be respected by everyone involved. It is a simple but practical way to tether the experience to consent. Consent in every stage of the experience, especially challenging or unfamiliar, is key.
Note: Players include dominants, submissives, assistants and witnesses.
Traffic signals in adult play
There is universal acceptance of the significance of traffic signal colors: “red” means stop, “green” means go, and “yellow” means wait.
These colors offer a set of words that are readily adaptable as safe words. For the purpose of sex play, “yellow” may be redefined as “pause and discuss” to indicate a need to temporarily halt the session as a participant may be nearing their limit (or for any reason) and to discuss how to proceed in a more acceptable manner.
As a safe signaling system, traffic colors may be more effective. They reduce the possibility of misunderstanding even further. The colors may be used to better communicate specific feelings in response to a particular action or activity.
What happens when you can’t speak?
Fetish gear include devices that restrict speech or inhibit vocal sounds such as ball gags, mouth spreaders, masks, or hoods. In these situations, the players should agree on safe “signals” that can be communicated via fingers, hands, feet or head nods instead.
For example, holding out one finger could mean “go,” two fingers could mean “pause” and three for “stop.” A thumbs up for “go” and thumbs down for “stop” are easily recognizable gestures. Other ideas for nonverbal signaling include tongue clicks, buzzers, bells, etc. It is important to agree on a nonverbal signal or set of signals that are clear and specific. The key is to preserve the intent of safe words even when one is literally prevented from using words.
Signals and gestures are inherently more subtle than safe words. Each partner should agree to be vigilant in watching for the nonverbal cues that everyone agreed to use.
Safe words and signals are an essential mechanism in sex and power exchange sessions. It is an active indicator of consent. They communicate how someone really feels in a situation where protests of “no” and “stop” might simply be part of the game. Players should not underestimate the importance of consent in adult play.
Consent should be active, specific and non-negotiable. Each player involved should have the opportunity to actively consent to every aspect of the session and at every stage. If someone is entertaining any doubt, that player should use the safe word or signal to stop or pause. The other player(s) should abide by it.
Do not let fear or pride keep you from using safe words. Using them is not a sign of weakness. They are necessary in an environment that thrives on trust and respect. Acknowledging limitations and boundaries is one of the first steps in a healthy, intimate relationship. Further, active consent and safe words make pleasure and joy possible in sexual exploration.
- A safe word is set before play ensues.
- A safe word is intended to ensure consent is in place at every stage of play.
- The practice keeps everyone safe especially when one player is less prepared or in doubt about an action or activity.
- A safe word works when either partner doesn’t hesitate to use it.
- A safe word is effective when all parties respect it by being prepared to immediately stop no matter what.
- Safe signals can be used instead when vocal words are inhibited by play.
- Safe words and signals enhance sexual exploration by having a mechanism of trust is in place. They promote healthy relationships.