I’m at Burning Man, hanging upside down by ropes tied around one of my legs. It’s sticky-hot outside. I’m being whipped with rope ends, and the ropes on my thigh start to feel too tight. Dust is sticking to me everywhere and I’m feeling restricted in my chest. I have crossed the line between fun, challenging, and exciting to bad-pain and not-so-much fun. I feel on the edge of panic. “Yellow,” I call, and my play partner reacts immediately. “What part?” he asks. “My leg,” I gasp. He immediately lets slack into the line, gently lowers me until I can reach above my head and press my palms onto the earth. I take a deep, stabilizing breath and feel my body release tension. Ropes still dig into my thigh but it is that stings-but-is-somehow-sweet sort of pain again. “Better,” I say. “Good,” he replies and continues to slap me with rope ends.
Safewords are an invaluable tool when it comes to kink. These predetermined code words help participants communicate easily and efficiently when an action or sensation stops feeling good and consensual. Safewords allow us to enforce our boundaries clearly and quickly to avoid causing harm to our play partner. In my case, using one of my safewords cued my partner to give my leg a break so our scene could go on longer than it would have otherwise.
Good safewords don’t just communicate “stop,” they also offer details about where your partner is at and take guesswork out of a scene. I prefer to use a colour gradient system:
Yellow to signal that something is feeling intense.
Orange to signal that a specific action must stop.
Red to signal that all play must stop and that a check in and aftercare is needed.
When I play as a Top, this system allows me to relax into the play space because I don’t have to ask myself, “Is this too much?” I know my play partner has a tool to communicate safely and confidently. As a bottom, this system allows me to have some control over the pace and intensity of the scene. Orange allows me to stop something that doesn’t feel right. I don’t have to tolerate something I don’t like just because I don’t want to stop playing. Safewords help cue your actions regardless if you are playing as the Top or the bottom. Anyone can use safewords.
Many folx also prefer the traffic light method: Green for “keep going,” yellow for “slow down,” and red for “stop.” I like this method because it is clear and also cues enjoyment with “green.”
Alternatively, some folx prefer to use a random word that will not come up in everyday conversation: firecracker, pineapple, frog, cucumber, etc. This word can literally be anything you and your partner decide on. This method can be playful and help bring laughter and light feelings to a situation that is potentially difficult. Above all, make sure that your safewords are easy to remember so don’t forget them!
Regardless of what kind of safewords you choose it is important to remember that consent is withdrawn when a safeword communicating “stop” is called. If the scene continues after a safeword is called that it is assault. Safewords keep interactions safe and consensual.
Safewords also help build trust and intimacy between play partners. When I first started exploring kink, I had a play partner express gratitude to me after a particularly challenging scene. What he said really solidified how important consent communication is to allow people to relax and fully enjoy themselves in a play space: “Thank you for using your safeword today. I know I can trust you because I know you will communicate your boundaries with me. I feel safe playing with you because I know I am not causing harm.” Our safewords are something to be celebrated. Safewords are positive, not negative.
During my dusty play session on playa, I used a second safeword with my play partner.
Now that I can reach the earth I make hanging upside down easy by alternating my weight between my hands and the ropes around my thigh. When I support my weight with my hands I am incredibly unstable and I begin to spin and swing in a way I hadn’t before. My partner sees this and playfully punches my biceps, making stillness more difficult for me. I dance around on my hands dodging his impacts. I begin to spin. I lift my arms to my chest but this only makes me spin faster. “Orange on the spinning,” I half-shout. I feel his hands grasp my hips and I stop. I take another deep, stabilizing breath and ground into his supportive touch. I look up at him and stick my tongue out. “I hate spinning.” We laugh and continue to play with the new predicament element of our scene. Again, I reach for the ground to take some weight off my leg. My play partner targets my arms so I am forced to choose between enduring impact pain on my arms or enduring all of my weight on my leg when I lift my arms to protect them. Predicaments are my favourite.
When our scene is over we find a cozy spot on playa-speckled pillows. We sit together and coil up his mass of tangled ropes. We both express surprise that our play space was not as intense as we discussed it could be in our negotiation. We sit and enjoy the afterglow of play and have light conversations about our favourite parts of our scene.
It does not matter that our scene was not intensely painful or challenging. What matters is our memorable connection that day and how ridiculously fun it was to play together at a party in the desert, of all places. Using safewords changed our scene for the better. Our safewords transformed the ideas for our scene into a co-created, shared, and silly experience of intimacy that was unique to us.