The Importance of Safe Words in BDSM Play

Ms Morgan Thorne has been a lifestyle dominant for 20 years and a Professional Dominatrix for 6 years. She can be reached at her website, twitter, and Facebook.

One of the best known things surrounding BDSM is the safe word. In kinky circles, the use and necessity of safe words are often debated. In this article, we will take a look at safe words, whether you need them and when to use them. This isn’t meant to cover all instances of safe word use, nor all the subtleties involved, but simply to give a general overview.

The easiest way to let your partner know what’s going on with you is to communicate in plain language. Checking in and communicating is essential to many play scenes. People should feel able to talk to their partners during a scene: to talk about how they are feeling and indicate if something is wrong. However, there are times when this is not possible or appropriate, which is when safe words (or signals) come into play.

If you are engaging in consensual non-consent (CNC) or resistance play, you may want to use a safe word.

CNC and resistance play can refer to scenes where the Top ‘forces’ the bottom to perform activities, and the bottom resists (verbally or physically). These activities are negotiated beforehand, so the resistance is more role-play than genuine distress.

Safe words allow partners to engage in this type of play, where the bottom may be saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’. The Top then knows that they can continue in their actions, even overcoming resistance, without having to figure out if the bottom really wants them to stop. If the safe word is used, the Top then knows to check in and find out what the bottom wants or needs.

Safe words are also very useful when engaging in many types of pain play.

A well known line in the kink world is “ouch is not a safe word”. A bottom receiving intense pain play will often say/yell things that would make us think twice about continuing. I’ve been called a bitch (and much worse) by bottoms while in one of my sadistic moods. I know that they are simply processing the sensation rather than genuinely upset with me in part because they aren’t using their safe word.

Of course, if a Top is ever unsure about the reactions a bottom is having, it’s best to check in using plain language!

Safe words are also used in public dungeons and many private play parties.

This is one of the ways dungeon monitors (DMs) can keep track of play. You wouldn’t want a monitor stopping your scene to make sure everything is ok, just because one of the people involved is role playing distress. While it is a general rule that you must let the DM know that you will be engaging in this type of play before hand, they do expect a certain amount of dramatic yelping during play. A DM will step in (or should step in) if they hear a safe word used and the Top doesn’t stop play to check in with the bottom.

If a bottom is gagged or unable to speak for any reason, safe signals can be used.

A safe signal is a non-verbal cue that takes the place of the safe word. Safe signals can be whatever you agree on, as long as everyone involved is clear on what they mean. Tapping out is probably the most well known signal and it works great if partners are close to each other or able to use their hands. Dropping a ball or an item that will make noise is another common signal to use and works well if partners have some distance between them.

Likewise, safe words can be any word (or combination of words) that you would be unlikely to use during sex or play. At parties there are usually house safe words – ones that all participants are expected to use so that the DMs can identify when a safe word is used. Common ones include:

  • ‘safe word’
  • the traffic light system of ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ (with yellow meaning slow/ease up and red meaning stop)

Feel free to create your own safe words, but I prefer to use these as they are easy to remember or say and understood by kinky people everywhere.

A safe word should be used if play is getting too intense, but that’s not the only time it’s applicable.

Bottoms can indicate that they have a muscle cramp, for example, or that there is an issue with bondage that needs adjusting. Safe words can also indicate a withdrawal of consent – if the bottom changes their mind about the planned play, they can revoke the consent they previously gave by using their safe word. When I play, a safe word is reason for a check in, where what is said will be taken at face value. My partner can tell me that something needs to be adjusted, that they want to continue, but without me using a specific implement that is becoming too much or that they want to stop our scene for whatever reason.

Safe words are not just for bottoms, Tops can use them as well. Most of the time though, Tops simply stop the scene or change what’s needed instead of using a safe word. They are able to do this because they are directing the play.

When a person uses a safe word, they should never be ridiculed for it.

BDSM isn’t a competition and bottoms aren’t expected to just take whatever a top decides to dish out. A safe word should not be looked at as a bad thing, but rather for the tool of communication it is. Having a safe word in place doesn’t do much good if the bottom is afraid to use it or too proud to use one when it’s needed. As a Top, I rely on my bottom to use a safe word (or otherwise communicate with me) when they need to do so. As much as they trust me to stick to our negotiated play and keep them safe, I trust that they will let me know if something is wrong.


Again, safe words are optional, use them if and when you see fit. Safe words are not a magic word, they only work if the people playing respect their use. They are another way that partners can use to communicate. Be sure that you cover the use of safe words in your negotiation before play and don’t assume that everyone uses them or uses the same words.


Ms Morgan Thorne has been a lifestyle dominant for 20 years and a Professional Dominatrix for 6 years. As a former health care worker, she is very knowledgeable regarding safety in BDSM. She is a sex work advocate and an outreach worker with The Naked Truth Entertainment. Morgan is also a fetish film performer and model. She is a writer with Kink E Magazine and volunteers in her local community as a DM and event organizer. She is a kink educator who teaches across North America. Identifying as pansexual/asexual, Morgan tries to be inclusive of all identities and orientations during her teaching. Her new book “A Guide to Classic Discipline” is expected out spring/summer 2015

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