By now, you have probably seen images from BDSM/kink movies or pornography. You may have tied up a date or given someone a spanking. It’s definitely fun and always feels a bit naughty. As a submissive myself, I love kink and BDSM. But beyond sexy times, BDSM offers something that the entire country could benefit from: a safe word.
If you are unfamiliar with the idea of a safe word, it is pretty simple. A safe word is any word people agree on has the power to stop sexual play. It is a clear way of letting your partner(s) know that what is happening is not okay and you need it to stop now. No more negotiations, no more “just a little bit more,” no more “Please, I am so close!” but a definitive point to stop what is happening.
Most commonly, people use the word “Red.” Red is culturally associated with the idea of stopping. Additionally, “red” is not something that generally comes up in sexy talk. Unlike “no” or “don’t” or “stop” which can be confusing depending on context, “red” is only used when you need to stop what is happening. Additionally, “red” can be said at a social event (e.g., frat party, club) and the word stands out. If someone is at a party and says “Stop” it can go unnoticed because it is a common word and is used in many contexts. “Red” on the other hand, isn’t something that gets yelled out at a frat party very often.
Safe words are a clear way of letting your partners know that you are not okay with what is happening. Men have a hard road when it comes to modern sexual relationships. Sometimes it is unclear if someone is really okay with what is happening. Sometimes guys get mixed signals. Think about the times when you are with someone trying to be cute and teasing with, “Oh! Don’t! Stop! I am not that type of girl!” while giggling and continuing to touch you. It’s cute, but are you sure she isn’t serious about “don’t” and “stop?”
In New York and California, sex education classes now include the idea of affirmative consent. This is the idea that before you progress to each new sex act you have to get verbal permission. “Is it okay to kiss you?” “Can I touch your breasts?” “I want to have sex, do you?” It’s a good concept, but in practice can be onerous. Having to confirm consent for each new step can be cumbersome and what if you miss one? Is that now grounds to say “rape?”
A safe word is an opt-out option where affirmative consent is opt-in course of action. Sometimes it’s easier to get an okay to start making out and know that your partner has the power to say “stop” when they are uncomfortable. It is a clear signal you need to stop and stay on safe ground.
For a safe word to work, everyone has to know that they need to be respected and honored. If someone says “Red,” you can’t push for “just a little more” or finish what you want before stopping. Continuing action after “red” is akin to rape. If we treat it like that, then we make it clear when someone is okay and when you have reached a limit.
Men need a safe word more than women in some ways. Rape is horrible and as a survivor I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, I got the necessary medical and mental health help I needed and I can move forward with my life. If I call rape on a guy after something happens and he goes to jail, the long term repercussions for him are enormous. For men, trying to be good men and respect a woman, a safe word makes things much more clear. The boundaries can be seen in a way that you cannot without a safe word.
Implementation of a national safe word is simple and relatively inexpensive. However, finding the political will to give everyone clear power over their body will be difficult. The current structure of laws around sexual assault, the sentences associated with them, and the enormous backlogs of rape kits favor the rapist. We have politicians trying to justify “acceptable rape.” Giving everyone a clear way of saying “stop touching my body” where there are few grey areas will upset the people who don’t mind that over a quarter of all Americans are raped at some point in their lifetime.
Creating “red” as a national safe word would clear up many of the grey areas around rape. We need to empower both men and women to have safe, sane and sexy relationships. A safe word moves us closer to this.
Note: I submitted this piece to an online publication I respect. Initially, an editor reached out to me stating they were going to run the piece. Two days later I received a notice from the Editorial Board stating they couldn’t run the piece because they don’t discuss “Sexually explicit work.” I wrote back asking for clarification about where this was “sexually explicit.” The only thing I can figure is that they equate “rape” with “sexually explicit” which saddens me. Rape is not about sex. It is about power. And beyond that, as someone who writes sexually explicit romance literature for a living, I think I have a clue about what is sex and what is a violent crime.