A safeword is one or more words or actions which have been agreed upon to have special meanings by a top and bottom (or dominant and submissive) prior to play. These words or actions serve as signals, usually to regulate or stop play. While it's more common for a bottom or submissive to use safewords, tops and dominants may also want to use them from time to time.
- "Red" means, "Stop straight away. I am in difficulty"
- "Amber" means, "Slow down. I am getting near one of my limits"
- "Green" means, "No problems. Full speed ahead"
One of the advantages of using the regulating-type of safeword (such as "Amber" or "Green"), as opposed to having to describe exactly how one is feeling, is that these short words minimally affect the mood of the two bottom or submissive. If they happen to be in the throes of passion, or experiencing an intensity of pain, having to stop and explain how they're feeling and what they need to happen next can put a dampener on their own mood and that of their partner. With pre-agreed signals (i.e., safewords) their scenes can continue on without spoiling the mood.
Where someone is unable to speak, for example if they have been gagged or mummified, then their safeword may in fact need to be a safe action. For example, they may have a ball to hold and when they drop it, that's the equivalent of yelling "Red".
Safewords are useful tools, but they can't guarantee the well-being of your partner. Sometimes they break down because of the environment, and sometimes they simply don't work because of the state of mind of your partner.
In terms of environment, one of the biggest problems is noise. For example, in many large cities around the world there are BDSM-oriented nightclubs where BDSM enthusiasts can get together, chat, and drink. There are often play facilities available, but because of the nightclub atmosphere there is frequently loud music being played. Any safewords used there will often not be audible above the music.
While we can often recognise that noise or the environment can be a problem and compensate for it, it's not always obvious that the state of mind of a submissive or bottom has changed and that they can't use their safeword. This might happen when they are overwhelmed with endorphins and simply not able to feel pain any more, or when they are in the full throes of subspace and actually can't think clearly and safely about their own wellbeing.
And, of course, they may be incapacitated in some way, or even unconscious, and may not be physically able to use their safeword.
Thus, importantly, if someone doesn't use their safeword, it is not an indication that everything is OK. Even if the submissive or bottom assures you that they are OK they may not be. They might simply not be able to tell.
In the absence of a reliable confirmation from someone that they are OK, the top or dominant should regularly confirm that their partner is really OK in other ways.
Many tops and dominants will compensate for the deficiencies of safewords by learning their partner's body language, watching how they breath during intense play, touching their bottom or submissive to check body temperature, blood flow and muscle tension, occasional questions, and so on.
A submissive or bottom might use their own awareness of their physiology to detect changes, such as noticing their own breath rate or muscle tension, to monitor themselves.
This is useful, but body language and body signs are also not sufficient. Having learned what might be normal responses and conditions for a submissive, you should keep in mind that these can and will vary due to changes in health or medical condition, changes in fitness, changes in mood, and other changes.
Unable to use a safeword
Some submissives and bottoms are psychologically unable to use a safeword, even in the best of situations. They may be desperate to please and see their use of a safeword as a sign that they're not being pleasing, or they may see the use of a safeword as representing a limit they don't think they should have. In such cases it often doesn't matter how much the top or dominant insists that they want the bottom or submissive to use their safeword. The submissive or bottom might simply have a block which they can't themselves overcome.
For this reason, some tops and dominants will deliberately set out to cause a new partner to use their safeword, such as by administering an intense, but otherwise safe, caning. They do this to reassure themselves that when the critical time comes during some serious play later on, that their partner can actually communicate via safeword. If this new partner won't say their safeword even under a controlled caning, the top knows that they can't expect to ever hear a safeword with this partner and then they plan accordingly (or they don't play with them at all).