Part of kink 101 is learning about safe words. They’re such an important part of exploring safely. However, where shibari is concerned, does this translate?
Traditionally, safe words are used to slow down or pause play. This works pretty well for the most part. Popular safe words are words that aren’t often used in play. For example, “pineapple” (although no shame for incorporating pineapples into your play…) or graded systems, like traffic lights.
I’m a huge fan of safe words. I think they can be used effectively in all sex — whether it’s kinky or not — and everyday life. Want to pause an argument? Safe word. Need to leave an event early? Safe word.
Most kink play is able to stop immediately: if you’re doing impact play, you say, “Pineapple!” and play can end. However rope — especially suspension — isn’t like that. It takes time, and often an increase in discomfort, before a rope bottom can be untied completely.
So… what do we need to consider when keeping ourselves safe in rope, and how useful are safe words?
The first thing to note is that shibari is inherently dangerous and a pretty daft thing to do. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement but practising risk aware rope is imperative. There are a number of safety acronyms that float about, but my favourite one for rope specifically is PRICK: Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink.
According to House Cat and Anatomie teacher @mouseinrope, risks in rope can include:
- temporary or permanent nerve damage (e.g. wrist drop);
- passing out (which can mean your bladder and/ or bowels empty involuntarily);
- temporary or permanent skin marking;
- bruising, abrasions and/ or rope burn;
- strangulation or breathing issues in tight rope;
- joint damage;
- risk of falling.
In addition to the physical risks, there are also psychological responses that can include anxiety, fear, and trauma. These are common reasons for rope scenes to end; it’s not just about physical discomfort or pain. .
Knowing the worst-case scenarios is important. Most of them happen rarely — partially due to practising risk-aware rope — but many can’t be easily predicted and happen too quickly to avoid. Instead, it becomes about managing the aftermath: something everyone who practises rope needs to commit to.
When do you use your safe word, and what does it mean?
If you decide you’d like to use a safe word in rope, be specific about what it means given the nature of shibari. In kink, “Red” can mean stop play immediately and play can stop immediately. However, as mentioned, stopping in rope is rarely immediate. I often find that localised pain or discomfort can increase before it decreases. Coming down from suspension means weight is often distributed in ways that add pressure to body parts that are already at their limit, and the actual act of blood rushing back after being stopped can be incredibly painful. As a rigger, you also need to make sure you have the energy to untie.
@carponoctum_3’s safe word in rope is “Mercy”. It means: “Don’t stop, but I need a position/ intensity change asap.”
If your safe word means you need to start untying/ be untied now, then make sure you leave enough time and energy for this to happen. What that looks like will be an individual choice, and likely dependent on the day itself too.
Many people find safe words to be too vague. @mili_ficent explains: “A single word or colour doesn’t provide enough information to convey the issue or figure out how to safely address it, whether that be a change or to end the scene. Instead, communicating that ‘this element is causing xyz’ means all people in the situation understand the issue and can take the most appropriate action.”
Using traffic lights in combination with body parts is @kassdelimon’s advice: “I get spacey when bottoming so am not able to articulate long sentences. So, for example, I’ll say ‘left hand yellow’ meaning I’m reaching my limit of pain/numbness.”
So, while safewords can be a good indicator that something isn’t right, in rope they need to be combined with more precise language relating to body parts, sensations and urgency.
- Left finger, red / My left little finger feels numb and I need it to be released now
- Waist, yellow / The rope around my waist is too tight but I’m ok to wait a minute or two
- Pineapple/ I don’t feel like I can sustain the rope on my right arm because it’s pinching just above the elbow
“The time taken to untie and the range of potential issues a bunny could be experiencing means you need different, more expressive communication,” concludes @justanotherrigger.
Labbing vs playing
Often in kink words like “Stop!” and “No!” aren’t recommended safewords because they can be used contextually to mean the opposite. This might translate to rope scenes too. So choosing a safeword that isn’t a word you use out of context is important. This is why the traffic light system is so popular.
But again, it all depends on what you’ve agreed with your partner. @finding.glow prefers to keep it simple: “Stop (or anything remotely similar) simply means stop.
There can be a line between ‘labbing’ and ‘scenes’ though, which @a_sadisitc_rigger describes: “I think in “scenes” using a safe word is very important; when labbing it might be easier to say what the problem is immediately.”
In scenes, a safeword can be a great way to break flow if necessary. It can open up space for the rigger and bottom to discern what needs to happen, which will inevitably need more communication. In rope, a safeword alone isn’t really enough.
Labbing is a great opportunity to get to know each other as rope partners and opens up a forum for more direct, ongoing communication.
Actively learn to communicate
However… communication can be hard! When we’re in rope, or tying, it can be challenging to admit when something isn’t sustainable or doable. Especially if we are usually able to do it, or we see other people looking effortless in or tying a similar tie.
There are also potential challenges around using a safe word. Some perceive it as a sense of weakness. Others ‘collect’ safewords and feel they’ve only had a successful scene if someone’s had to nope out. Neither of these are true. Not every tie needs to end with empty tanks all round and there is no shame in having to end a tie before its perceived end point.
“Safe words aren’t safe because the person may unconsciously fawn, says @sucampesino. If you are a people-pleaser it’s important to practise communicating your “No”. In rope a safeword (or equivalent: “I need to come down now.”) may be used more often than in other kinks, where they really should be a last resort. But it can still be difficult to articulate this if you are not used to doing so. It took me months to feel confident to admit that I was unable to sustain something in the moment. But, when I did it, levelled up my rope practise. You need to get comfy saying no.
@kaoru.neve, a House Cat at the studio, says that a rope bottom communicating how much time they have left in a given tie is: firstly a skill that the model develops over time. This can be months or years depending on practice. Secondly, she notes that it isn’t accurate to real time “as both rigger and model live in a separate time world.” However the number is still useful to communicate. “For example: “I’ve got 2 minutes left,” vs, “I’ve got 5 minutes left,” vs, “I’ve got 15 minutes left” signals different things to the rigger and elicits different responses depending on their confidence, rope skills, and complexity of the tie.”
Take joint responsibility
Committing to take joint responsibility is a great way to relieve some of the pressure. However, it’s important to note that models can go non-verbal in rope, or simply sink into a space in which communication means they lose their headspace. In this case the immediate responsibility will fall to the rigger to check in.
Especially when labbing, bottoms can agree to communicate feelings and sensations in good time, and make sure they are self-checking hand movement. Riggers can ask questions or encourage self-checks from their models.
Some verbal check ins:
- Is that a good pain noise or a bad pain noise?
- How does x feel?
- On a scale of 0-10 how painful is x?
- I know you dislike x, I will move you out of it in the next 30 seconds
It’s also important to note that the less well you know someone, the more you should be communicating.
For @annabones and @fredhatt it’s important to figure out the right time and right language to use when giving/asking for feedback, or your experience risks turning into an interrogation scene.
The more you demand communication-wise from your partner inside the rope, the less likely they are able to sink into a pleasurable headspace and produce endorphins. Fred and Anna use “soft” check-ins during rope play. Fred asks, “Are you happy?” (instead of the more alarming, “Are you ok??”) or simply places his head close to hers regularly throughout. This method allows Anna to relax, knowing that Fred will regularly provide opportunities for her to give feedback if needed.
Alternatives to verbal communication
There are also many reasons to have a non-verbal alternative to a safe word: anxiety and “rope space” are just two.
Su explains: “Anxiety stops the ability to use a safe word. Anxiety affects our breathing and hinders our ability to communicate. If your brain is distressed it has to choose between saying a word or getting more oxygen through the same throat. The later wins.”
@clover.brook and her partner @wykd_dave use a strategy they call “PAC” or Positive Action for Consent (they wrote a full piece on Feltlife a few years ago:
Clover says “Having a positive action for consent might be more beneficial for bottoms who feel they could have a freeze reaction to something happening mid scene.” This is also potentially a useful strategy for people playing with heavy D/s dynamics or those who go into a deep headspace when in rope. This strategy is essentially the reverse of relying on the person in rope for “active communication” so demands less of the bottom.
In Clover’s words it works like this: “If my rigger places their hands in mine I would squeeze back in response to let them know I am okay, my circulation is fine and my nerves are good and I am comfortable to continue with the scene. If I do not squeeze back in response to the initial check, where my rigger has placed their hands in mine for a response, they will untie me. No response equals no more scene. No questions asked, I will be untied. The discussion comes later.”
“This takes the responsibility to initiate a safeword (which can be hard to do a lot of the time) or indicate what the issue is away from the bottom. With this method, all you have to do is not respond.”
Safewords are quite a divisive topic. If you choose to use them in rope, use them wisely!
- Be risk aware: rope is inherently unsafe
- Agree what your safe words are and what they mean
- Safe words can be useful to break flow, but often aren’t enough on their own
- Ties take time to come out of and can get more painful before pain stops: account for this
- Noping out of a tie is nothing to be ashamed of
- Good communication is imperative, but can also take time to learn
- Adjust communication to accommodate labbing vs scenes and choose when and how to communicate as appropriate
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