Thursday, May 4, 2017

It's a Shoreline, Not an Edge ( #BDSM #SafeWord )

by Annabeth Leong

A safeword sounds so simple. It’s a thing you say to stop the action when it gets too intense. It keeps a scene from crossing the line between fun and harmful.

The safeword approach I’ve most commonly encountered is the traffic light system—red for stop, yellow for slow down, and green for keep going.

A key part of practicing BDSM, we are told, is establishing trust that the people involved will use their safewords if and when they need to. The bottom will say red or yellow, and so will the top. They will use these words to indicate whether things are getting too intense physically or emotionally.

It’s a nice idea, and it’s an ideal I aspire to, but I’m going to let you in on a fact that’s caused me a lot of secret shame: I don’t do a good job of timing when I say a safeword. I often say it later than I should, or not at all. In this post, I’m going to why I think this is fundamentally related to certain features of BDSM.

So, theoretically, one might always do things that are solidly within one’s abilities (physical, mental, and experiential)—the BDSM equivalent of running half a mile when you know you are quite capable of running five. In that case, the safeword functions as a check in case of emergency, and in those cases one might not think about it much.

However, my own BDSM practices usually bring me up against one type of edge or another. One thing that attracts me to BDSM (and I don’t think I’m alone here) is a desire to push against certain limits. For example, while I suppose I could spank myself, I’ve never managed to do that to a level that I find satisfying. I can take more pain when it comes from someone else, and I usually want my top(s) to help me push myself a bit.

What this means is that, if a scene is going the way I want it to, I’m going to eventually get into a zone where I have to assess if something is hard in a way that’s okay (physically, emotionally, or what have you), or hard in a way where I need to slow it down, or hard in a way where I need it to stop right now.

An edge sounds like a line, a clear point. You’re on the cliff, or you’re falling off it. You’re in Florida, or you’ve crossed into Georgia.

But in my experience, borders are not nearly that clear. I think my edges in BDSM work more like beaches than guard rails. At what point are you on the sand or in the water? There’s a transition process. There’s water that seems shallow until the tide suddenly comes in. There are stretches of beach where you can walk a long way out “into the water” but somehow never get more than calf deep.

So, I don’t want to be in the water to the point that I drown or am otherwise harmed, obviously, but I do want to be in the water. It’s not necessarily easy to figure out how much water is too much water. Knee deep? Waist deep? Chest deep? Do I want to dip my head under for a few seconds?

And an ocean doesn’t just sit still and wait for me to figure that out. Neither does a BDSM situation. I might carefully decide I want to be chin deep, but then suddenly find that crashing waves are making it hard to breathe through my nose. I can be conservative and go chest deep instead, but sometimes that doesn’t feel satisfying, if what I really wanted was to be submerged to the chin.

I would argue that by definition this situation makes it impossible to define one’s edges perfectly. So there will always be times when I stop a scene earlier than I technically need to, and there will also be times when I stop it a while later than I should—or maybe not at all.

Saying so makes me feel like an irresponsible bottom who no one should play with, but the more I’ve thought about this over time, the more it seems true to me. I’m trying very hard to pay attention to myself and my situation while playing, and to keep a part of my brain aware the way a top has to (because I don’t want to just fully abandon myself to them). However, I’m not going to define the edge precisely and perfectly every time.

I think I wouldn’t manage to even if my goal was to always stop early. There are moments on the beach when you take one careful step forward and the land seems to fall out from under you. There are moments when a wave knocks you off your feet and begins to sweep you out to sea. The only way to be sure this won’t happen is to avoid the water, or perhaps the beach entirely.

There are a few other forces at work as well. In my experience, a lot of bottoms have the idea that they ought to be tough and avoid saying a safeword “too early” at all costs, and a lot of tops are only dimly aware that they’re allowed to say a safeword, too, if they need to. So this sets up a situation where people are incentivized to say a safeword too late.

I was lucky enough to play with a very conscientious and responsible top for a while, and she tended to err very much on the side of caution. What that made me realize was that one can always come back and play another time, pushing harder if you want to. I wish the incentives fell more in that direction. (Though, as I think I’ve been making clear, that wouldn’t guarantee safety).

Another force at work, at least for me, is that, while a safeword works well for me as far as physical pain, I find it confusing emotionally. If I get into certain trauma-related areas during a scene, I often can’t remember a safeword, or can’t think clearly enough to use one. Safewords are touted as this great thing that avoids confusion, but I eventually realized that for me they introduce more confusion than they reduce. So I now ask tops to take my words literally. If I say no, I mean no. If I say stop, I mean stop. I realize this wouldn’t work for certain sorts of consensual nonconsent, but for many other types of play, it helps me get out of trouble when I fall into it emotionally. Even if I’m pretty far gone, I still have the instinct to say no if I need to slow down, or wait, or something similar, even if I can’t remember a code word.

Finally, I’ve felt a lot of shame at times when I realized I ought to have called a scene sooner. BDSM at its best can involve very intentional and clear communication, but I wish more people talked about how it takes a learning curve to reach that place, and how you can still screw that up, even with practice and good intentions. I wish there was more focus on what to do when—not if—someone misjudges when to say a safeword, and how to care for each other in the aftermath. I sometimes get the impression that people think it is possible to execute these things perfectly and never have problems.

And I wish we talked more about beaches and shorelines and the muddiness and murkiness of sandy water. I think it’s a better metaphor than the deceptively sharp and clear idea of an edge.

(The photo attribution above is really small, so I'll repeat it here. The photo was taken by Sean MacEntee, used by creative commons attribution 2.0, sourced from this link, and found through photosforclass.com)

8 comments:

  1. This post should be required reading by anyone attracted to or engaging in BDSM. I'd extend this to say that "safe, sane and consensual" are equally muddy concepts to "safeword" when you're actually in the middle of a scene. We are not unitary beings, but bundles of conflicting impulses, and can simultaneously want and not want something to be happening.

    I also really resonate with your notion that pushing limits may be the essence of BDSM. It's a huge part of the thrill to go deeper, endure more, give more to the dominant, be willing to step closer to the edge even though you're terrified. There's an idea I've explored several times in my stories; in a long-term BDSM relationship, will you eventually either run out of edges, or do something so extreme that there's permanent damage? If not, what are the alternatives?

    Great, great post!

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    1. Aww, thanks. So glad you like the post.

      Your sentence that starts "we are not unitary beings" is it exactly.

      I've at times worried about the questions you raise about running out of edges, but at this point in my life I feel comforted. I think about it like exercise. I'm always pushing myself physically, and sometimes I do get hurt. But I haven't run out of ways to push, not at all, and I'm far from an Olympian. An experience that pushes me emotionally and physically today will probably still push me emotionally and physically a couple of months from now. I'm not sure why I used to think I would chew through those experiences so quickly (maybe it's something about the escalation with which books are often written). In real life, an intense spanking scene is still an intense spanking scene.

      There are ways things can feel intense when I'm frightened and doing them for the first time, it's true, but I still feel that intensity in other ways later. For example, ass play is still very intense for me, even though I'm far from my first time. It still involves pushing myself to handle my fear.

      <3 <3

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    2. And there's still that outside factors can change how intense something is. For me, going straight into any kind of pain doesn't work, even fairly mild hair pulling, unless I'm already aroused. So that's a "yellow" situation right off the bat, even if it's the same or even much less intense than I could handle otherwise.

      I also get nonverbal a lot, so I actually wind up using something more like a tap-out or head nod/shake.) If I'm still verbal, it's too early to start anything... so I wind up only playing with long-term partners for anything pain-related.

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    3. Hey thanks for this comment, Alex. This is a great example of the type of thing that makes a safeword a bit complicated to use, and you're very right to point out that playing with long-term partners can help.

      You're also totally right about how certain things feel different at different points in a scene. Once I'm in deep, I absolutely LOVE those giant heavy wooden paddles, but if a partner started out with one of those, I'd panic and say red immediately. The edge certainly moves during the course of a scene, and that's another way I think the shoreline metaphor is good.

      Really appreciate you reading and commenting. :)

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  2. Yes, Annabeth-

    Here's seconding Lisabet's comments. You sure do tell it like it is for you. Thanks so much for posting this dynamite piece.

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    1. Thanks so much, Daddy X! Being honest even when it scares me is one of my major goals with writing, so I'm very glad that comes through. :)

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  3. Complicated interpersonal relationships can be "in play" in play. I've observed cases (okay, maybe just one case) where a bottom comes close to going too far out of an intense desire to please the top, and perhaps even to compete with another bottom she regards as a challenge. A really good top can handle this situation, but tops get swept up in the flow of endorphins, too.

    I've seen relationships form, and sometimes fracture, in the arena of BDSM play when there's more than play involved. Of course those relationships involve a whole lot more than edge play, or play of any kind.

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    1. This is a really good point, too. The relationship can certainly affect an edge situation, and I think it's always good (if possible) to consider emotions like that, and how they might affect a scene.

      I believe I've written here before about a time I got pretty stupid about doing wild, risky things, just because I was super attracted to the top.

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