No matter who you're sleeping with, how long you've been sleeping with them, and what type of sex you're having — if you're not feeling it anymore, you're allowed to tap out at any point, for any reason. While it's important to discuss consent and knowing what you and your partner(s) are comfortable with before turning up the heat, knowing something like how to decide on a safe word can be a great way to keep everyone safe and comfortable during sex.
"A safe word is a word selected by sexual partners together that when used indicates one partner would like to pause sexual activity for any reason," McKenna Maness, sex educator and former education and prevention coordinator at The Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), tells Elite Daily. "Perhaps sex got too intense, or the partner is physically uncomfortable or in more pain than they would like to be, or roleplaying crossed into something less desirable for that person, they’re overstimulated— in any of these cases, the partner who would like to stop can say their safe word and the other partner would know that it is time to stop immediately and check in!"
Although having a safe word can be a tool for communicating with your partner(s), it it no way means that partner(s) are allowed to skip the boundary convo or try something new without first getting consent. "It should not be your goal to make someone use their safe word. A safe word exists for reasons of safety. Boundaries are made for a reason and not everyone likes theirs' pushed. At the same time, it does not make you weak to safe word out," Lola Jean, sex educator and mental health professional says.
"Safe words" have roots within the BDSM community and are often associated with more kinky types sex. Additionally, expressing when you're not feeling something or need a time out, can be useful in all types of sexual activity — from bondage and role play, to gentle spooning and basic missionary. Whether you're going at it and your legs are in a weird position so it kind of hurts, or you want to check to make sure your contraceptive is in place, a "safe word" is nothing more than a signal that you need to stop and check in.
"You always have the right to stop whatever you and your partner(s) are doing to each other for any reason — communication is key and safe words facilitate that!" Maness says. If you just got your IUD replaced or you've had the worst day ever and can't stop thinking about your terrible coworker Shannon, you may not realize that you're not trying to have sex tonight until you've started to have sex. Safe words, then, are like an immediate "eject button" from sex, without feeling pressure to explain what you're feeling in the moment, before winding down the physical touching or expressing everything on your mind to your partner(s).
When choosing a safe word, it may be helpful to pick a universal phrase — like traffic light colors. "It’s easier to remember the difference between yellow and red even when in the depths of sub space," Jeans says. "You can add words like 'Red Stop' to end completely as opposed to just “Red” to stop what you are currently doing." If your first grade teacher ever used a paper traffic light as a public-shame discipline system (I'm triggered) or if you've ever been in a moving vehicle, it's easy to remember that "Red means stop." Words like traffic light colors, that hold deep cultural significance can be great choices for a safe word, as you're unlikely to forget them.
If you're not a big talker during sex or a verbal safe word doesn't feel comfortable, Maness suggests incorporating a physical "safe word" or a physical signal that you need a time out. Yet, like a safe word, a physical tap-out should be a motion you wouldn't otherwise do during sex. "Maybe tapping your partner’s shoulder or winking, a peace sign or crossed fingers — as long as they will see it and understand it," Maness says.
If you're someone who likes to laugh or joke during sex, it may be a good fit for you and your partner(s) to choose a funny safe word. "My safe word is 'Mike Pence' because that would make someone stop dead in their tracks during a scene to question what was going on —plus I do like a safe word that makes me giggle," Jean says. Although humor may play an important role, Jean also speaks to the importance of finding a word that's memorable and literally easy to say. "When choosing a safe word, it’s important that it is something you can easily remember and say. It should be a word that would likely not come up within play or a word you don’t say very often. (I rarely would use Mike Pence’s name in my sexy times.) Mike Pence is also an easy two syllable punch."
Maness too agrees that choosing a safe word ideally means picking something unforgettable. "It has to be something you will absolutely be sure to remember during sex. If you are single or non-monogamous, you can choose one just for yourself and communicate it before sex, and if you have a partner you consistently hook up with, whatever that looks like for you, you can decide together what to use," Maness says. "It could be parachute. It could be persimmon. It could be shovel. Just make sure it’s memorable and you both/all know what it means."
Maness also suggests thinking about a word you wouldn't otherwise say when having sex. Something completely random like an inanimate object, an inside joke, or something otherwise unfamiliar to the communication you and your partner(s) typically have during sex. Though it may feel right to have your safe word be something silly or totally random, using it is a serious move. "Using a safe word — even with a long term partner — has a certain weight to it that other words do not. A safe word means business. It means slow the f*ck down and check in with your person," Jean says.
Of course just like finding the right safe word for you, understanding exactly what your safe word will mean is another important conversation. "It’s important to set forth what the safe word or signal means too— usually it means 'stop now' but you could also ask your partner to give you physical space when you use it, or tell them you want comfort and aftercare at the point where you use it," Maness says. "Using a safe word is revoking consent in that moment. Your partner shouldn’t take offense, or be upset or hurt. You aren’t necessarily ending the sex permanently, although if you are that’s fine too."
If using a safe word means your boundaries were crossed, you may want to further discuss with your partner how you're feeling and what you need to feel comfortable and safe when having sex. Your safe word could mean anything from, "Your knee is knocking into my hip and it kinda hurts can we switch positions" to "I don't like where this is going, we need to stop". Having an open dialogue with your partner about what your safe word means and how it will be used is just as important as choosing the right word for you. "It’s a great tool that just requires honest/open conversation," Maness says.
If you are thinking about the right safe word for you, take time to ponder your personal boundaries, preferences, and the types of sex you do and (maybe more importantly) do not want to be having. During any sexual encounter — a LTR, one night stand, or super hot orgy with ninety people — the most important thing factor is active consent. When it comes to deciding on a safe word, you get to choose how it's used, when it's used, and what it means.