Good evening, and welcome to the part of our show
where we skewer some sacred cows!
Many people will tell you that using a "safeword" in the context of BDSM is a good idea. In fact, I'm one of them. A safeword is simply some word which you can use as a code word to tell your partner to stop if something you're exploring becomes too intense or crosses a boundary--perhaps even a boundary you didn't know you have.
Part of the value in BDSM is that it offers a way for people to test their limits. Because of this, you may find that you react to something in a way you didn't expect; if this happens, you may need a clear and unamiguous way to let your partner know that you need things to stop.
This becomes especially important if you are doing something such as resistance play, when words like "no" or "stop" do not actually mean "no" or "stop." In such a case, it's very helpful to have a word that does mean "stop."
Having said that...
...I will go on to commit something akin to an act of heresy in some parts of the BDSM community, and say that safewords are neither necessary nor sufficient for safe BDSM play.
For some people I have encountered, using a safeword in all BDSM play is something of a religion. I've met many people who'll say that safewords are always necessary, and that anyone who doesn't use a safeword is an idiot, or worse.
I do not use a safeword with some of my partners, and we engage in resistance pay, pain play, and other forms of BDSM where safewords are traditionally regarded as sacred.
But you just said you recommend safewords!
Indeed I do. In fact, I will go even one step further, and say that there are situations in which not using a safeword is foolish, or worse. For example, if you are engaging in any kind of "edge" play, such as resistance play, with a partner you don't know well, you'd damn well better have a way to get things under control if they start to go wrong, and most importantly, you need a way for your partner to be able to say "stop" and mean it.
But I don't believe safewords are always necessary, and I don't believe safewords are a guarantee that things won't go wrong. They are a tool, nothing more; and like all tools, there are times when safewords are appropriate, and times when they are not.
As a tool, safewords are most appropriate for BDSM play that involves some element of power exchange. They''re a lot less useful in situations where there is no exchange of power or control. For example, safewords aren't really terribly vital if all you're doing is simple sensation play--trying different kinds of sensations to see what you like and what you don't. If you don't like something, you just say "No, I don't like that," and you're fine. in this context, "no" means "no, and it's as simple as that.
OK, fine. But you do resistance play without safewords! Dude, that's WHACKED!
It's all about context.
BDSM is arguably one of the most contextual activities in the range of human experience. Things which are psychologically, physically,a nd emotionally safe and healthy with one partner may be risky, damaging, or destructive with another partner--even when the activities themselves are exactly the same. And a lot rides on how well you know your partner--how well you can read your partner's reactions, how well you can put yourself in your partner's shoes. If you can read your partner very well, you can and sould be aware of your partner's reactions and emotional state at all times--sometimes before your partner is even aware of them!
In these cases--
Aha! But what if you're wrong? You can't be perfect all the time! What then?
That's true. It would require a superhuman to be perfectly aware of another person's emotional state at all times.
As I was saying, in these cases, you should at least be able to tell if something really has gone wrong, and your partner is experiencing something neither of you had counted on. There are ways to communicate "no" without just saying "no"--"really, I mean it" is one. With a pertner you know extremely well, and have a good deal of experience with, that knowledge and that experience, together with good old-fashioned common sense and a bit of attentiveness, can let you know something's wrong at least as quickly as a safeword can.
And while we're on the subject of common sense; That, of and by itself, is the greatest single safety factor in any BDSM scenario. A safeword cannot take the place of common sense. Relying on a safeword to keep you safe is foolishness; it will not help you to avoid dangerous situations in the first place, and it will not help protect you from a careless, unskilled, or malicious partner. It sometimes happens that people believe they are safe as long as they have a safeword, and become lax about the other factors in safety, such as the skill, experience, and attitude of their partner. A safeword is just a tool, and it should not be the only one, or even the main one, you use to keep you safe!
That's what I mean when i say safewords are neither necessary nor sufficient. They are not necessary at all times, such as when engaging in non-D/s play or when engaging in activities with a partner you know extremely intimately; and they are not sufficient, in that they will not always protect you. Used properly, they are a valuable tool, particularly with partners you may not have a great deal of experience with. But they are tools, not religions; don't over-depend on them, and don't assume that you must always use them at all times.