In order for a BDSM scene to qualify as safe, sane, and consensual (known as SSC), the sub needs a way to opt out, which is typically handled via a safeword. You probably know the stoplights colors—red for stop, yellow for slow down or pause, green for good. They’re so ubiquitous you could almost believe they’re required, but there are other options.
Sometimes a sub has a personal, possibly silly, safeword like “fried green tomatoes.” There are also non-verbal safewords. For example, if the sub is in a position where they can’t talk, they might be given a bell to ring or on object to drop or told to tap on the Dom’s thigh. But I like to play with variations that go beyond the standards. Here are some of the ways I’ve used safewords—or an apparent lack of them—in my books.
Deep Under: in the first BDSM scene, Jack is ordered not to speak. He tries to tell Maddox what his safeword is, and Maddox tells him the next word Jack says is his safeword. If other words, if Jack talks, the scene will end. Funnily enough, more than one reader perceived this as Jack not having a safeword, but he has the entire dictionary. He can say literally anything to stop the scene. I liked the way this made Maddox seem cruel and uncaring without actually putting Jack in danger, plus Maddox has reasons for not wanting to hear from Jack at that point.
Aftercare: when Aayan is fretting about his lack of experience playing the Dom role and whether he did anything to Garrett the night before that was out of line, one of the things that worries him is that they didn’t establish a safeword. Garrett tells him they don’t need one because, for him, no means no. I think we sometimes forget that no is an option. The purpose of a safeword is to allow the sub to scream and complain and say no without having the scene stop, which some subs want to do. But a sub who doesn’t enjoy that dynamic doesn’t need a formal safeword. They can simply express how they’re feeling and expect the Dom to listen.
Trained: my T. M. Chris pen name gets way deeper into dubcon than my Tanya Chris pen name, and Trained is one of my more dubcon titles, but Dalin does have a safeword. It can be easy to miss because it’s never described as a safeword, but Thoros tells Dalin on multiple occasions that he can stop what’s happening by saying please. Dalin is just too stubborn to say please because that would mean “losing.”
Tamed: Jake has a safeword when he and Eduardo are playing for fun, but he doesn’t one have for their discipline sessions. What he does have is the simple option of standing up. He’s not restrained, and he’s bigger than Eduardo. In fact, we see him halt the action multiple times in the earlier scenes, and Eduardo never makes any physical attempt to bring Jake back. Jake returns of his own accord. Jake doesn’t need a way to call red because no one is playacting. They’ve agreed on a punishment and Eduardo merely waits for Jake to submit to it. But Jake could always walk out the door instead!
My latest T. M. Chris release, Schooled, follows along the lines of Tamed. No safeword is ever discussed, but at the end of the book we see Kelvin decide he’s had enough and stand up, at which point we realize he’s had that option all along. Of course Kelvin was enjoying being spanked far too much for that.
SSC isn’t the only ethical way to practice BDSM either. There’s also something call RACK, which stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink. In RACK, sex partners generally agree what’s permissible before the scene starts—understanding what the risks are—and from there the scene might proceed without any option for the sub to end it. This is obviously a more risky way to play, but some kinksters prefer to have the choice taken from them. The lack of an out is part of their kink.
You don’t see many BDSM books using RACK instead of SSC. One I know of is Risk Aware by Amelia C. Gormley, which is about a submissive hemophiliac. I’d love to hear about other books that use RACK or that play with safewords in interesting ways, like For Real by Alexis Hall, in which Laurie doesn’t want to use a safeword because having one didn’t stop his last Dom from hurting him.
If you’ve got a rec, drop a comment.