The main argument i typically observe used against safewords is that 'true' submissives 'shouldn't' require them. Supposedly, a 'true'/'real' submissive "has no limits", and will automatically and immediately 'prove' this by trusting a top utterly and without reservation.
There's not merely potential for abuse of power here; many people have direct or indirect experiences of such power actually being abused. The argument tries to convince bottoms that they are a 'failure' if they have boundaries, and want those boundaries respected (or at least not pushed without explicit permission). To me, this is manifestly ridiculous. People have all sorts of boundaries for all sorts of reasons, and unilaterally invalidating them is surely a recipe for significant psychological damage - even before taking into consideration the other physical, emotional and/or psychological damage that someone might accept being inflicted upon them in order to 'prove' that they're a 'real' submissive.
A second argument against safewords that i more recently observed is that the presence of safewords supposedly create a 'moral hazard'. At the time of writing, Wikipedia defines a 'moral hazard' as "a tendency to be more willing to take a risk, knowing that the potential costs or burdens of taking such risk will be borne, in whole or in part, by others". Insofar as i understand the logic of this, the idea is that the availability of a safeword will cause the top to go further than they otherwise would, because they're constrained solely by whether or not the bottom has safeworded; and this is particularly problematic given that many subs try to avoid safewording for as long as possible, for a variety of reasons1. Supposedly, without a safeword, the top is obliged to bear full responsibility for ensuring that things don't go too far and end up causing unwanted physical, emotional and/or psychological damage to the bottom. Consequently, the top will ensure that they don't go too far.
There are a few problems with this:
- First and foremost, the issues re. abuse of power, as described above.
- Secondly, it assumes the top is effectively a mind-reader, or exquisitely sensitive to what the bottom is feeling. It is highly unlikely that this is the case in early stages of a top/bottom relationship, and not necessarily inevitable even after the top and bottom have played together on many occasions. Even then, there are many other factors that can confound the top's ability to accurately 'read' what's going on for the bottom: the emotional, psychological and physical states of both the top and bottom, the environment in which play is taking place (visibility, noise etc.), interruptions, and so on.
- Thirdly, it can actually serve to reduce the possibilities of both top and bottom getting their needs met, for reasons i'll elaborate on below.
Note that i'm not prescribing that a safeword is always necessary and/or appropriate; i'm simply arguing against the notion that, in a general sense, safewords shouldn't be available and/or used.
Which brings me to why, as a domme, i love the availability and use of safewords in play.
i've recently started identifying as a sadist, acknowledging that i can, and do, derive pleasure from others' pain. But there's a critical constraint on this: i don't derive such pleasure unless i know the person on whom i'm inflicting pain actively and fundamentally desires to have that pain inflicted upon them. So if a bottom says to me, "Please, go as hard as you want, until I safeword", that's very liberating for me: i can abandon myself to my sadism, and to a certain extent set aside that part of my mind which is constantly fretting about my play partner's needs and desires and feelings. i say "to a certain extent" because i don't rely purely on hearing the safeword in order to stop or restrain myself; i know from experience that there is a part of my mind that is monitoring the bottom's responses and 'vibes', and that can (and does) reassert restraint prior to safewording, should that appear necessary. Additionally, my preference is to have a two-stage safeword system, with one word used by the bottom to convey "I need for you to stop doing that particular thing, but I'm happy for the scene overall to continue", and the other to mean "I need the scene itself to stop immediately"2.
It's important to note that, in the preceding, i referred to the bottom actively requesting that i keep going until they feel they've reached a limit/boundary, which they then signal via a safeword. There are at least a few different reasons the bottom might do this: not only a desire to make the top happy, but also because, for example, they get turned on by the idea of being pushed to their limits, or by the idea of trying to learn if they can extend their current limits. In any case, the availability of safewords can facilitate any or all of this, by the possibility of making clear the point at which things go "too far".
Having said all that, it's also true that the mere availability of safewords doesn't guarantee risk-free play3. Whilst writing this post, Dee brought my attention to Stabbity's post "Safewords: they're just words", which discusses this issue. However, although i generally agree with the post overall, i have issues with (my understanding of) a couple of points. Firstly:
some people get nonverbal when they get into subspace, and may not be capable of any kind of safeword or signal. To be clear, that's neither better nor worse than being able to safeword no matter what’s going on, but it's a good thing to tell your top ahead of time.The problem here is: what if you, as a bottom, don't yet know that you are unable to signal/safeword in certain situations? And it's not necessarily possible to learn this purely via self-analysis; sometimes one doesn't realise it can happen until the moment it's happening. i have, on several occasions, inadvertently hit (metaphorically speaking) an emotional / psychological sore spot that the person i was playing with didn't themselves know about. Not everyone has (or can have) perfect self-knowledge prior to going in to a play session.
I'm not knocking "red" as a convenient shorthand for "something is badly wrong and I need the scene to end right now this instant", but in general saying what you mean is clearer than using a code word.i feel there's a false dichotomy being set up here, as though one either solely uses the safeword or explains specifically what's wrong. Whereas to me, a safeword can be used to immediately stop what's currently problematic and gives them a chance to compose themselves a bit and get their head together - after which they can elaborate to the top on what was going wrong.
In any case, what all the above suggests to me is that, at the very least, tops and bottoms should, prior to play, try to ensure that they have something of a shared understanding about safewords as a concept. That is: what assumptions/expectations do they both have regarding their use and/or non-use, and the effects their availability / non-availability might have on all parties' responsibilities? There's probably not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to safewords, and recognising this might help to avoid, or at least minimise, some safeword-related problems.
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1. For example: desire to please and/or not disappoint the top; life experiences which have taught the bottom that quiet compliance regardless of personal cost is 'appropriate' or 'proper' (an issue affecting many women); a sense that safewording represents personal 'failure'.
2. An oft-used version of this is 'traffic lights', with the safeword for the first stage being 'yellow' or 'orange', and the safeword for the second being 'red'.
3. Indeed, for some people, the notion of risk-free bdsm/kink play is an active turnoff.