Any time you get sexy with someone, it’s a good idea to have a mutually agreed-upon way to pause the action if one person feels uncomfortable or needs a break. It’s not always practical or desirable to have a full-blown discussion mid-session, though. In these situations, having a “safe word”—a word or phrase that both parties understand to mean “stop!” or “slow down!”—is a great way to preserve the mood while sending an unambiguous signal to your partner that you need a moment to collect yourself, take a water break, readjust positions, end your session, etc.
What’s a safe word?
Safe words come in particularly handy during kinky or rough play when boundaries are likely to be pushed and vulnerability is high. In any sexual relationship, trust, respect, and robust communication are paramount; when edgier play is involved (for example, spanking and other sensation play, bondage, or roleplay) it becomes doubly important. Particularly in roleplay scenarios during which a partner’s “reluctance” might be the whole point, having a safe word is a good way to make sure you can engage in fun, uninhibited play while maintaining an easy way to put on the brakes.
In conversation with O.school, Gray Miller (AKA Graydancer), kink educator, advocate, performer, and writer sounds a note of caution regarding the use of safewords during more intense kink play: “I think safewords are a useful technique that is often misunderstood… If I’m starting to play with someone or something new, I don’t want to use a safeword; I want to… get to know how their physical reactions match up with what they are telling me. I want to be sure that we both have the ability to say, hear, and respect each other’s “no” clearly… Then, if we want to get edgy, we can start playing with the language.”
What are some safe word ideas?
A safe word can be simple, easy to remember, and carry an obvious association: “red,” “pause,” “brakes,” or “freeze” are all examples of safe words that, while not particularly imaginative, send a clear message and get the job done. Whatever you choose, it should have a distinctive sound and be free of sexual connotations, to ensure it’s unlike anything you’d say during the normal course of a sexual encounter.
Safe word ideas that are totally random
A survey from online retailer Lovehoney found that various fruits are popular safe words — likely because they appear so out of context. “Pineapple” was a favorite of many couples; “banana” and “orange” made appearances, too. You don’t have to limit yourself to fruit, however, to come up with something that is just absurd and unexpected enough to initiate a pause: any word that’s unlikely to be uttered in a sexual context is a good candidate. Food words like “mustard” or “coffee,” inanimate objects like “book” or “table,” place names such as “Copenhagen,” or “Timbuktu,” are all good candidates!
Safe word ideas with personal meaning
A safe word doesn’t have to be entirely random — it can be something with personal significance, an inside joke, or a reference to something about the relationship. Musicians might pick “Stratocaster” or “saxophone;” a wine-lover might choose “Cabernet” or “Sauvignon blanc.” In the Lovehoney survey, Harry Potter references came up, too, with “Hogwarts” and “Hufflepuff” both showing up. Maybe you had a disastrous first date at Starbucks, in which case the name of the ubiquitous coffee chain could give a nod to your relationship’s comical beginning.
Safe word ideas that are sure to turn you off
While some couples may like having a safe word that’s totally random, or a reference to something personal, others may prefer a word or phrase that’s actually a turn-off, immediately stopping the action and reversing the mood. In this genre, the survey found that the name of a certain widely reviled U.S. politician was a popular choice. Other options could include unappealing foods —“liver and onions,” anyone?— uncomfortable physical ordeals, i.e. “tetanus shot,” things with an “ick” factor (“spider,” “sea slug,” “Clorox”) or those that connote prickliness, cold, or otherwise unpleasant sensations (“cactus,” “porcupine,” “iceberg”).
Why context matters when choosing a safe word
Bay Area bondage practitioner Jesse Savage tells O.school that context is crucial when determining a safe word: “If you’re going to be engaging in play where someone has something in their mouth, like a ball gag… a ‘safe signal’ can be more useful than a safeword.”
Graydancer agrees, and told O.school that, in order to send an unambiguous message with safe signals, “I use the idea of ‘three things’ — making jazz hands three times, stomping a foot, grunting loudly, whatever is most obvious — as a signal to pause things and communicate more clearly.”
Savage emphasizes that using a safe word doesn’t have to carry a negative connotation or imply that a person isn’t enjoying themselves: “It can also mean, ‘Whoa, slow it down, I need a minute, I don’t want to come yet.’ Or: ‘That feels amazing but I’m also getting really light-headed and need a break!’” Along similar lines, Graydancer encourages people not to view safewords as an “on/off switch,” emphasizing that “kink is a very nuanced process.”
Since safewords don’t have to mean “stop the scene immediately!” Savage recommends using a neutral safe word that isn’t repellent or an obvious turn-off: “I’m a science geek, so I tend to gravitate towards safe words like ‘hydrolysis’ and ‘multiverse,’” he laughs.
Our own (informal) survey found the following examples of safe words used by real-life couples: “caterpillar,” “Seven Eleven,” “Andromeda,” and even, from a pair of die-hard Lizzo fans, “Batches and Cookies”! One couple we talked to, however, said they “learned the hard way” that a too-silly safe word (in their case, “Optimus Prime”) was a mood killer, too disruptive to the vibe to be a good choice for them.
You can always change your safe word if the one you’ve been using, for whatever reason, no longer works for you. Whatever you choose, make sure that it’s easy to remember, easy to say, and most importantly, agreed upon by everyone involved.