On Fetish Meme, Richard asks
Do you have, avoid or just tolerate the use of safewording in BDSM scenes?
For playing at the club with strangers or casual acquaintainces, I always use safewords, whether topping or bottoming. It is the safe and sane thing to do with anyone you do not know extremely well. At the club, we typically use “yellow” to mean either “slow down” or “pause and talk to me”, and “red” to mean that the scene is over.
One thing safewords do is allow a top to proceed less cautiously than they might otherwise. You should start a bit gradually with someone you don’t know well in any case, but once your bottom starts showing signs of pain, it becomes hard to know how much pain they want. Is whimpering or writhing a sign that they are near their limits, or are they willing (hoping?) to be beaten to the point of agonized screams? You can ask ahead of time, but it’s impossible to answer with complete precision. Safewords can help the bottom put brakes on the scene when they need them, and help establish for the top where the limits actually are.
At the more extreme end (using a safeword to stop a scene that has really gone wrong), I could echo a point Bitchy once made – it’s really workable to just say to me, “Hey, this isn’t working out, I need to stop.” I can tell that’s a serious statement and I’d respect it. But safewords allow me to assume that “stop stop please stop oh god stop” is…well, quite possibly sincere, but not a demand. (With a new partner, I’d probably say, “‘Stop’ is not a safeword,” and just make sure they remembered that they had actual safewords.)
But even in the “I really need you to stop now” case, a safeword has value in that it’s clear, sacrosanct, and easy to remember. You don’t have to compose yourself to sound serious and sincere. You just have to say one word. You can yell it, whimper it, moan it, or whatever. No skill is required.
Early in our relationship, I was attracted to the idea of playing with Joscelin without safewords. He flat out refused, and events since then have proven him correct (even from my perspective; naturally he is within his rights to refuse whether I agree or not). He sometimes has emotional responses that we can’t predict. (One time he got angry for no good reason and said “Red” realizing that his anger was both a danger and a sign that he just shouldn’t be playing that night. This is way preferable to having him, you know, explode in fury during a scene. Admitting that you’re broken is better than trying to continue, with the risk of breaking your partner.) And sometimes I go a bit overboard myself and can use reining in.
Safewords are one of Jos’s ways of being responsible, which is important to him.
I would play without safewords (as a top) with someone I trust and whose needs and psychology were such that it seemed wise, and who was willing to take the risks involved. (Richard, for instance, seems geared towards completely surrendering control to someone he trusts, and enjoying that powerlessness. Joscelin, by contrast, needs to understand everything and be able to verify facts and feelings at all times.)
I’m not sure I would bottom without safewords. I have played with two or three people who were skilled enough that they took me right to my limits over and over without ever triggering a safeword, which is a nice trick with me. (I am a wimp on several levels.) But it would require a lot of trust on my part, and I don’t really see the point, since I’m not looking for actual complete powerlessness when I bottom. Given that I don’t have a true submissive relationship to anyone, I would be suspicious of someone who asked me to play without safewords.
I’ll address another concern, which is that safewords allow the submissive to control the scene in an undesirable way. I have a pretty simple perspective on that type of general idea.
Of course the submissive controls how much they submit. That is their absolute right and responsibility. The only possible issue occurs if a submissive lies about their level of submission. (You shouldn’t claim to want to be a slave if you’re unwilling to experience something you actually don’t enjoy, although even slaves – in the consensual BDSM sense, of course – have limits.) But most people aren’t “lying” so much as simply “mistaken” and in any case, the relationship is what it is. If your partner or submissive isn’t giving you what you need to feel satisfied, then you can negotiate or find a different partner.
Pretending that it’s not (or shouldn’t be) their decision or choice is wrong, IMO. It’s not how I want to do it, in any case. You’re not “less” or “worse” if you only want pain that you can enjoy, or if you only want to do things you find hot, or if you have a lot of limits. You should just try to be honest and open in describing your needs and limits to your partner. Similarly, if you crave for your partner to take you past where you would willingly go, you should communicate this willingness also (while recognizing that doms get to have limits too).