safe words alternatives

Why Safe Words Aren’t Always Safe (And What To Do Instead)

RED! Pineapple! BaNAnaAa!

One of the top tips for people looking to get adventurous in the bedroom is to establish a safe word.

Safe words are great and can be really wonderful tools to help you explore your sexuality and kinks. They are not, however, the only tool you can use and there are many common circumstances where they might not be appropriate.

Keep reading to find out when safe words aren’t appropriate and how to be a safe date whether using safe words or not.

What are safe words?

First let’s talk about what exactly a safe word even IS. If you haven’t come across this term before, then you’re probably very new to this world – welcome! A safe word is a word or phrase, like a secret password, that you agree on beforehand with your partner(s). When this magic word (or words) is spoken, whispered or yelled, it is time to stop what you’re doing and check in.

Sometimes people will use multiple code words with different meanings.

A commonly used set of safe words mimics the traffic light system : green, yellow and red.

In fact, this is so common that ChatGPT is convinced that red is the most commonly used safe word.

Why are they awesome?

Sounds fun! But why do we need safe words? What makes them “safe”?

Well, sexual adventures can take us to many exciting and unexpected places. You might think that you’ll love something, but when it comes down to the moment, you might feel differently. Bringing up difficult feelings can be overwhelming and it helps to have a quick and easy word cue to use that makes sure whatever is happening stops immediately.

This is especially useful when you’re playing out scenes where yelling “STAWWP!” and “NO!” is all part of the fun. Having a very different word, like BUMBLEBEE, allows your partner(s) to relax and trust that your pleas of resistance are a part of playful acting and they can confidently continue with their sexy roles. If and when the safe word is uttered, everything is on hold until everyone feels good about continuing, which may not happen, and that’s all fine and part of the point.

What’s wrong with relying on safe words?

So you’ve got your safe word and you’re excited to get started on your thrilling sex scenes. Why isn’t that enough?

Well, it might be enough for some people and certain situations. It’s certainly better than not having a safe word!

However, relying on safe words can devolve into the same kind of defensive reaction to crossing boundaries when someone fails to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances. You’re placing the responsibility on the more vulnerable person and blaming them for unintended harm. Sometimes people may have every intention of using their safe word yet still have trouble using it in action. It isn’t really fair to then blame them for their boundary being crossed.

What situations make it difficult to use them?

Intoxication

Many people enjoy using alcohol or other intoxicants to help them relax into a sexy mood. Moderation is key. The more intoxicated someone is, the harder it is to be certain of desires and the easier it is to have miscommunication trouble.

Alcohol, in particular, impacts your judgment, your memory, and your ability to communicate.

Someone who has been drinking may not realize when a boundary has been crossed until it has been crossed for some time, or maybe not even until they wake up sober the next day. If a line has been crossed, it may be more difficult to remember the safe word and/or then say it. If the person who has crossed a boundary is intoxicated, they may not realize the safe word has been spoken or may not think it’s a big deal to keep going a little longer.

If you choose to mix sex and intoxicants, educate yourself on the effects of the substances you’re using. Set limits before you start ingesting them and check in frequently. Consider using non-verbal safety signals and practice using them.

Social Anxiety

A study published in 2020 that spanned across 7 countries found that 1 in 3 people between the ages of 19 and 26 meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder, much higher than was previously thought. People living with SAD fear social situations, especially when they perceive negative evaluations from others. Many of these people are also unaware of how it affects them.

SAD can impair one’s ability to communicate their needs and to reach out if they need to. The sensitivity these people have to negative judgments means that even the slightest hint of disappointment might scare them away from making use of an agreed-upon safe word. In this case, it’s important to give lots of reassurance and it must be genuine.

Acute stress response

Our bodies have a natural acute stress response, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’, though there are a few other forms this comes in as well. Your heart races, you start sweating and your mind is significantly altered. This is perfectly normal under some conditions, but when this system becomes overactive or can’t resolve itself, one might develop what is known as acute stress disorder (ASD).

Many people make light of PTSD, co-opting it as a term to describe stress in day to day living, but clinically it is defined by a chronic acute stress disorder lasting at least 1-3 months. In fact, about 80% of people with ASD will then go on to develop PTSD. Overall, the proportion of people diagnosed with PTSD is relatively low, my experience living as an AFAB person and speaking with others has taught me that there are many cases that go undiagnosed.

If a boundary is crossed with someone who has a history of ASD or PTSD, they may dissociate and/or be incapable of communicating. If you’re engaging with someone who may have this sort of history (extremely common in AFAB people), it’s important that you know your partner very well and can pay attention to their non-verbal signals. If you are ever in doubt, stop and check in. Better safe than sorry.

Autism

Prevalence rates of autism vary from 1 in 36 to 1 in 100.

Autism affects your interpretation and communication of emotions and social cues. If you or someone you are engaging with sexually has autism, it’s a good idea to be extra cautious about boundaries.

People with autism tend to struggle with building and maintaining close bonds with people and often live lives of isolation. This makes them super excited about close connections and they will do whatever is necessary to keep people close, even if it means allowing others to violate their boundaries. Many have silenced their body’s signals in response to a violation and become pretty bad at recognizing that anything is wrong.

Proactive Boundary Setting

Knowing that these conditions exist and impact our ability to set, recognize, and communicate boundaries is half the battle. The other half is acting in a way that can minimize harm.

  • Establish boundaries before a scene even starts, like “no penetration” or “no drawing blood”.
  • Practice using your safe word in low-stakes scenarios. You can do this in the form of a foreplay game. Have one partner slowly, and progressively touch or kiss different body parts while the other partner practices using the safe word. Or even watch your partner play with themselves and say the safe word to make them tease themselves.
  • Write down boundaries and place them somewhere you can see them. Write down your safe word(s) as well as any definitions you find helpful to see. This can help override some minor cognitive impairments that would otherwise keep you from remembering the word.

When in doubt – take a pause

Remember, you care about the person or people that you’re with and one person’s pleasure is not sufficient reason to cause someone else’s emotional distress. Big emotions can come out to play in these vulnerable situations and the responsibility has to lie with whoever is taking the active role in a scene. That person always has to be aware of the well-being of the submissive partner.

If you don’t know your partner well enough to be absolutely certain that they want you to keep going, it’s always better to take a pause and check-in.

Dom(me)s needs a lot of reassurance and confirmation that what they’re doing is ok. You’re unlikely to have the scene of your fantasies on the first try because you do need to build up your trust and knowledge of each other.

Safe words are a great tool to help you get through thrilling scenes. They also should never be the only tool you use. Frequent, clear communication and trust-building are essential elements to a satisfying sex life.