Updated: DECEMBER 3, 2018
Reviewed by Kinkly Staff
on October 17, 2022

A safeword, or safe word, is a word, phrase or code used in BDSM play to communicate a person's (typically a submissive's) physical and emotional state. Safe words are designed to help communicate ongoing consent, ensure a person's safety during more intense forms of play, and ensure there is no confusion about whether a person wants play to stop or continue.

The most common safewords are referred to as the traffic light system where:

  • Red: Means play should stop immediately. This may be used when a person has reached a limit or boundary, is uncomfortable or no longer consents to ongoing play for some other reason.
  • Yellow: This indicates that the person is enjoying the scene, but would like to dial back the intensity.
  • Green: This indicates that the person is enjoying the scene and would like to continue.

Any other words can be used as safewords as well, as long as they are negotiated in advance of a scene so that everyone is on the same page. A survey by Lovehoney found "red" to be the most commonly used safeword, but also uncovered a range of other safewords ranging from fruits, celebrity names (including Donald Trump!), fictional characters and foods. Words like "stop" are typically not recommended as safewords, as these may be uttered during intense play even when a person is enjoying that play and wants it to continue. A submissive begging their dominant to stop can be a part of the scene, and safewords are partly designed to help avoid confusion here.


More About Safeword

How long safewords have existed in the BDSM community is not clear, but it's likely they arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of the activist movement that worked to build standards around safety and consent in the BDSM community. Terms like "safe, sane and consensual" arose from this period as well. Safewords likely came to the mainstream's attention as a result of "Fifty Shades of Grey," a smash-hit erotic novel series that features BDSM play. The first book in the series was released in 2011.

Although safewords are designed to improve communication and facilitate consent, this does not always happen. While the BDSM community has a strong track record for talking about and facilitating consent. abuse and sexual assault still occur, much as they do in the world at large. In 2011, writer and activist Kitty Stryker went public with her own story, calling attention to predatory behavior in the BDSM community, where she said safewords could also be discouraged or ignored.

Following the release of "Fifty Shades of Grey," many BDSM veterans also voiced concern over the number of new people joining the community, many of whom were diving into intense scenes they may not have had the required depth of experience and understanding to pursue. In addition, much of the play in the book was non-consensual, thus making new BDSM converts more vulnerable to abusive scenes themselves.

While safewords are imperfect, many in the BDSM community still advocate for their use. It is also important for people to be choosy about who they play with. A good dominant will be receptive to safewords, stop play when it's requested, and communicate with the submissive about what's happening and whether play can resume or stop. When the scene is stopped, aftercare is often also recommended.

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