(Disclaimer: It pains me to have to include this, but in writing this I am not implying that I advocate NOT using safewords. This is how it works in my relationship, and, as I say, I don’t play this way with anyone else. Educate yourself and make good decisions based on YOUR needs, and not what I, or anyone else, writes on the topic.)
We had friends over for dinner, drinks and a bit of play the other night, and one of the (many) topics of conversation that came up was safewords. As some of you may recall, W and I don’t play with safewords. We never have, not even the first time we played. Nowadays, when I play with someone new, I always establish a safeword, but I never did with W. We discussed it, and decided that we just wanted to use the English language to communicate. I have always simply “used my words” to communicate, whether we are in-scene or not. If something’s wrong, I tell him. He expects me to tell him. It is part of our agreement, and our understanding that we are both responsible for my well-being. I take this responsibility very seriously.
This does, however, require a degree of trust in him that I have not found with anyone else, and that I never had with anyone else before him. Because I don’t get to just say, “Ouch, that’s hurts quite a lot, and I think you should stop now,” and he will do so. It doesn’t even mean that if I am crying and begging him to stop he will necessarily do so. It means that if my well-being is in imminent danger – if I am in danger of being harmed – I need to communicate this to him. Anything short of this and it is his decision whether to continue on or to stop. That’s the risk, that’s the trust.
And yes, that begs the question of how I could know that I could trust him the way I did in the beginning. And the answer will sound hopelessly naive (and perhaps it was, but since reality has validated it, I’m just going to shrug.) I just knew. I felt safe with him. I knew that if I said, “Something’s wrong,” he wouldn’t shrug it off and keep going. He might decide that it’s not as big a deal as I think it is – and unless I am in true danger of being harmed – I will accept his assessment. I truly am the only that can know if I am being broken or harmed, and if I am, I will tell him. He trusts me to do that. It is a trust and a sense of responsibility that goes both ways.
There are other reasons we play this way, reasons that have to do with my own headspace and temperament. I can be…stubborn in the face of feeling like I have failed. And safewording feels like that to me. It is foolish, and flies against that “self-responsibility” thing, and if I am playing with someone else you can damn well believe that if I need to use my safeword, I will (no false bravado here), but between W and I…we both know (and he most particularly) that I might let myself be hurt in the not-good way rather than safeword with him. So this allows me to be responsible without making me feel that I’ve somehow failed (totally my own head-trip and nothing W has ever placed on me.) In fact it is he that constantly says, “It’s not a contest, everyone is different, with different tolerances,” and that he doesn’t want the most extreme radical bitch around. He wants to take me as far as I want/need to go, whether that is someplace extreme or not.
It also allows me to live within the cocoon of safety and hotness that him always being in control of the scene affords me. Ultimately he decides when to stop, no matter what I say. And that, for me, is the essence of what I need in scene. A complete giving over of the reins.
Simple English works because neither of us wants to stop a scene for something that can be remedied. Sometimes I just need that rope to be moved so that my hand un-numbs, or my position shifted so that my rings don’t get twisted so badly (unless of course that is what he is after – twisted rings, not numb hands.) I would hate to have all play stop, period, unless I was in danger. I communicate with him what’s going on, he listens, assesses, and does what he thinks is best.
The only time that this is different is when I am gagged. Then we play with a kind of safeword: a series of three sharp, staccato grunts, to let him know that something is wrong. But even then, it works the same as above. I communicate, he listens, assesses, and makes a decision.
I do think there is a danger in relying to heavily on safewords, on both sides. A Top may feel less responsibility, or be less attentive to other kinds of non-verbal cues, if he/she believes that a bottom will “let him know” when it’s too much. And a bottom may not communicate when something is wrong for fear of “failing” or even just stopping play. So in some respects, it can lessen communication between play partners. For shorthand between partners that don’t know each other well, it can give both a measure of comfort, but I would be cautious not to let that be a false comfort (and that is a note to myself as well, as I take steps to play with some new partners in the near future.)