Updated: DECEMBER 14, 2023
Reviewed by Dr. Sunny Rodgers
on December 11, 2023

A safeword, or safe word, is a word or phrase someone uses during sexual play to indicate their physical and emotional state. They are commonly used to withdraw consent during sexual play. However, they can also communicate ongoing consent. People use safewords to protect themselves from emotional and physical harm during intense play.

Submissives usually use safewords to communicate with a dominant partner during BDSM play. However, anyone can establish and use a safeword to communicate their level of consent during a sexual encounter.

Safeword may also appear as two words, "safe word."

History of Safewords

It's not clear how long people have used safewords in the BDSM community, but it's likely they arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of the activist movement committed to creating community standards around safety and consent. They became mainstream in the 2010s through the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series of erotic novels featuring BDSM play and their associated films.

Why Use Safewords

Safewords are a quick and easy way for people to communicate with their partner during sexual play. A safeword clearly communicates whether play should stop or continue at the same or a different intensity. Having a safeword can also build trust between partners and help people reluctant to speak up assert themselves. This helps make sex better and reduces the risk of unintentional harm.

Safewords can be especially useful in the following scenarios:

  • Role-playing: Safewords allow participants to stay in character while maintaining control over the scene. For example, in a rape roleplaying scene the “rapist” will ignore the struggles of the “victim” but will stop the scene if their partner’s safeword shows they are uncomfortable.
  • Consensual nonconsent: Safewords allow a submissive to give themselves over to the fantasy of relinquishing control to their dominant, while giving them a tool to assert themselves when required.
  • Play parties: Safewords make these events safer for all participants as people can easily assert themselves to new play partners. That’s vital at these events when people often push their limits and may find their boundaries changing or accidentally crossed.
  • Edgeplay: Safewords help dominants know if they are causing emotional harm or crossing physical boundaries during this intense play, which often causes bodily harm.

Safe Signals

Safe signals are physical gestures that can take the place of safewords. Safe signals can help people who are unable to use safe words to give ongoing consent and show their level of comfort with the play. For example, someone may use a safe signal while gagged or performing oral sex. People who do not feel comfortable verbally expressing themselves during sex may also feel more comfortable using a safe signal. Safe signals can also help people with disabilities that impact their speech play safely.

Safe signals should be easy to see and differentiate from normal gestures during sex. Some good examples include:

  • Winking
  • Tapping the partner on the shoulder
  • Crossing fingers
  • Giving a peace sign

More About Safeword

How to Choose a Good Safeword

A good safeword is a word that’s unlikely to come up naturally in a sexual encounter because that makes its meaning clear. It should also be memorable, so the person using it can remember what to say and their partner can easily identify its usage. A safeword should also be easy to say, with just one or two syllables, as speaking can be difficult during sex. Partners might talk about potential safewords together before deciding on the one that works best for them. During this discussion, people can also explain what they would like their partners to do when they say specific safewords.

Sarah Casper, a consent educator who founded Comprehensive Consent, suggests partners "Choose a word that otherwise wouldn’t come up. My go-to is 'pineapple.' But if I’m doing a roleplay scene that takes place at a supermarket, I might choose something different. 'Red' is considered to be a classic safeword, too. It’s a little less silly than something like 'pineapple' which might make it feel better or worse."

Casper recommends couples practice using their safeword with a partner. "Start fooling around then use your safeword even though you feel fine. It might sound silly, but accessing a safeword can be hard the first time. People can get in their heads that they’re ruining the fun or “overreacting.” This kind of practice in saying the word and seeing a partner react well can better prepare you to say the word with ease if the time ever comes. It also will allow you to play with what safeword feels good to you."

Examples of Safewords

The colors of traffic lights are the most common safewords, as they are easily understood:

  • Red: Play should stop immediately. Someone may use this safeword when they reach a limit or boundary, feel uncomfortable, or no longer consent to ongoing play for some other reason.
  • Yellow: Move forward with caution. The person feels a little uncomfortable and would like to dial back the intensity. It’s a good idea to discuss the best way to proceed, whether it’s continuing the same play at a lower intensity, changing the activity, or pausing the play temporarily.
  • Green: This interaction is good. The person would like the scene to start or they are enjoying themselves and would like to continue.

Any other words can become safewords as well, as long as partners negotiate them before a scene so everyone is on the same page. A Lovehoney survey found "red" is the most common 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 not recommended safewords, as someone may say them during intense play even when they are enjoying themselves and want to continue. A submissive begging their dominant to stop can be a part of the scene. Distinct safewords can help avoid confusion in these roleplaying scenes.

Potential Problems with Safewords

Although safewords aim to improve communication and facilitate consent, this does not always happen. While the BDSM community has a strong track record for discussing and facilitating consent, abuse and sexual assault still occur, as they do in the wider society. 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 some people discourage or ignore safewords.

There are also times when a scene may be so intense that someone feels too fearful or overcome to use their safewords, even though they might want to. A good partner will pay attention to their partner’s physical cues and check in on their partner, even without hearing a safeword.

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 without the knowledge or experience to handle them. Much of the BDSM play in the book was non-consensual, and this example made new community members more vulnerable to abusive scenes themselves.

Other Ways to Play Safe

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.

Good play partners also communicate with their partners about their hard and soft limits so they can negotiate how play can be mutually enjoyable. After a scene stops, BDSM experts also recommend partners spend time practicing aftercare to strengthen their bond and return their bodies and brains to a normal state.


Latest Sex Positions

View More Positions More Icon