Are safe words enough for emotional and physical safety?

You might have heard of safe words like 'RED' or 'PINEAPPLE' as ways of communicating 'STOP' in a BDSM scene instead of using words like 'stop' or 'no'. But, are having safe words enough to support emotional and physical safety between two people playing with dominance and submission?

Why use a safe word?

Safe words are used to communicate, stop or slow down during sexual activity. When the word stop or slow down, I might be confusing or too close to the type of role play or not as easy to use as a random word like pineapple or mango. While safe words are generally thought of for kinky things, they can be used for any intimate situation, including non-sexual ones like when processing conflict in a conversation. It's a way to quickly and clearly cue the need to stop and check in.

Why aren't safe words enough?

Having safe words doesn't guarantee they'll be used or used in a way that both people agree on. If you care about keeping things consensual and pleasureable for yourself and your partner, you'll need more tools to navigate the messiness of being human! Things change, consent is reversible at any time, and sometimes we don't know a boundary until we bump into it. I love kink for it's potential to help us learn about ourselves and contribute to erotic empathy for our partners.

Here are 4 reasons why people might not use safe words to their advantage:

1. Power differentials between partners

Real world and roleplay power differentials can impact whether someone feels safe or able to use a safe word. Real world power might look like: one partner desiring the other one more, age, wealth, experience. Role play power might look like: submissives feeling a sense of invalidation if they use safe words, worrying about performing for or pleasing their Dominant at all costs. 

2.  Not knowing how to use safe words 

What happens when a safe word is used? How will the other partner respond? Will we take a break and then restart? Change activity or intensity? Have a conversation or a cuddle?

The traffic light safe system is a good example where clarity is required. What does 'yellow' mean? Does it mean 'I'm almost at my limit, go SLOWER' or 'I'm almost at my limit, push me a little MORE'.

3. Not knowing when to use safe words

Are you supposed to use the safe word when you're in crisis only? Can you use if if things are a little bit off? What circumstances might qualify the use of a safe word? What if you're bored, don't like what's happening but still feel safe, changed your mind but are willing to keep going, want an adjustment, have an unexpected response to something?

4. They may not be verbally communicative

Sometimes when we are in the zone or a flow state - we lose our articulate verbal skills. We might feel floaty or physically intense and it might be hard to verbalize things. Relying on a safe word misses the opportunity to change communication tools as the experience intensifies. People are still communicating displeasure/discomfort when they are dom space or sub space - but it might be with non-verbal signs like avoiding eye contact, getting squirmy, going very quiet. Trauma also can make many of us withdraw in unexpected ways. 

Use safe words as part of other safe system tools. 

  • Pre-negotiation conversations/texts - build a scene you both are on the same page about. Activities + vibes + aftercare
  • On-going communication - checking in can be with dirty talk, taking breaks, asking for feedback, gauging intensity. It's not just "you ok?". Using a check-out (fav things, feedback) can also be part of closing rituals or aftercare
  • Flagging insecurities for your partner. Share anything you're nervous about from body shame to performance anxiety to intimacy
  • Have mutual pleasure goals. What would make this experience a success for both of us. Your goals might be different but they share an erotic space
  • Use Intensity based safe systems. Try number-based systems like 1-10
  • Non-verbal safe systems - holding up fingers to indicate intensity levels, closed fist/open fist for yes/no, noise makers like squeaky toys, blinking, pinching, affirming bum or toe wiggles.
  • Aftercare - aftercare is part of a safe system for self and for partner. Agree on what aftercare might look like and what's available (for example, are the full 20 mins of cuddling you want available?) Prepare self-aftercare practices too.

 Safety Tips for Dominants

  • What emotional tools can you use when someone uses their safe word? Curious questions? Holding space? Helping to ground? 
  • How might you feel if someone uses their safe word? Frustrated? Relieved? Confused? Rejected? Worried?
  • Do you feel comfortable having and using a safe word? 
  • Are you aware of your bottom's non-verbal signs of pleasure/discomfort? 
  • Do you trust your bottom to use their safe word? Practice inviting your bottom to use their safe word when they don't really need it. Try asking them to use their safe word at least once during a low-pressure activity or scene
  • Reassure and remind your bottom they have a safe system
  • Check-in for intensity - ask your bottom on a scale of 1-5 intensity where they are at? They can answer verbally or show fingers

Safety Tips for bottoms

  • Self-consent - check in with yourself before. Do you have a tendency to not speak up? Do you feel obligated to take it? Do you feel you'll disappoint your top or be less confident if you use a safety tool? Does it feel less "real" for you? 
  • Pack a little safety kit - what scents, textures or visuals are grounding for you if you don't feel like yourself
  • Ask your top to remind you to breathe, use your safe systems and communicate
  • Get to know non verbal signs of displeasure and communicate them to your top after
  • Ask your top if you both can use safe words
  • Practice safe systems during low pressure activities like oral
  • What aftercare can you give yourself as a bonus or if aftercare isn't available/satisfying? Have a bath, make a treat, journal, stretch, draw, watch a funny show - how can you decompress on your own?
  • If you could give feedback on one thing, what would it be?


"I'd never been to this kind of workshop before, so I was a bit nervous at first, but Luna was so relaxed she put the whole room at ease and soon we were laughing and discussing creative ideas together."