If we frame a discussion in the terms of SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual), the safeword gives the ultimate power in a scene to the submissive. The power exchange is limited to working within this confine. At any time the scene can be stopped using a safeword. In SSC it’s usually the intention of both parties that the safeword is never called, because if it is then the scene may be considered to have gone “too far”.
RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) is slightly more complex. It usually also involves the safeword being a stopword (unless that’s specifically negotiated to not be the case because both parties agree that a particular type of scene would be spoilt because of it), but it could be the case that it is not the intention that it is never called. There is a type of sadomasochistic play, for example, where the negotiation is basically: “I will do this to you until you call the safeword”. The reason it’s played that way is that the sub wishes to get to a certain point and there is a possibility that the Dom will stop before it is reached. It’s a way to push limits further, but ultimately the sub still has the control to stop the scene with the safeword.
CNC (Consensual Non-Consent) is more complex again. In this case the safeword is often negotiated to not be a stopword. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the safeword doesn’t exist (though many will tell you “we don’t play with safewords”). What it means is that both parties understand that the safeword signifies an urgent problem that requires attention, but that the Dom can then evaluate whether to continue with the scene or not.
Why have a safeword in CNC if it might not end the scene? For exactly the reason outlined above. There is good pain and bad pain. Hands going numb or your head banging against the wall is probably bad pain. Not being able to breathe or a pain in the heart region is probably bad pain. Going into a panic attack or feeling a PTSD trigger is probably bad pain. The safeword becomes a quick emergency button, to hit fast if something is wrong.
Of course, with SSC and RACK, the safeword doesn’t have to stop the scene. It’s not a law, the only rules you’re playing under are the ones that you both, as two mature and intelligent adults, set for yourselves. So it could be that the safeword is called, a problem like bad ropework is investigated and solved, and the scene continues.
In a scene, there are many factors that can inhibit communication between a Dom and sub, Things happen, and sometimes they happen so quickly that the Dom may not notice things have gone wrong. Not to mention that two things are happening simultaneously – the physical and the mental. The physical is usually easy for the Dom to monitor, but even partners who know each other intimately do not have perfect knowledge of the mental.
Having a safeword is often spoken of derisively as “giving power to the sub to stop the scene”, but that’s not really the reason we use safewords. We use them as an efficient signal in highly complex BDSM scenes. When things go wrong, you want to be able to communicate quickly. You may also be in a subspace where you’re not in a fit condition to say things like “Sir, something you just did feels like it punctured my rectum and it now feels like I’ve got a red hot poker up my ass”. You are probably going to be lucid enough to call “red” though.
It seems to be some kind of badge of honour for a sub to say they don’t use a safeword, and those kinds of conversations quickly degenerate into how much they “trust” or “love” their partner. It’s a false conversation. There’s no link between safewords and trust or love. If you trust your partner, then hopefully you will never NEED your safeword, but trust doesn’t prevent accidents or unexpected physical or mental events happening. It’s really not about the level of power exchange, it’s a tool of communication. And communication is THE most critical thing in what we do.
• Chicagonow – Kinky BDSM: Safe words
• Tiedmeupnow – Safewords when you’re gagged, and other forms of communication
• Tiedmeupnow – The importance of safeword
• Xeromag – About safeword
• Reddit discussion – What made you use safeword?
• Salon – When safewords are ignored