Safety Lessons (BDSM Series Part 6)

Today I want to concentrate on safety for those of you who may be newly exploring – whether in a light-hearted and light-handed way or not. You’ve already heard me talk about playing in a way that is “safe, sane and consensual” – a phrase that has become the credo of the BDSM community. While BDSM is meant to enhance eroticism and emotional connection, many of the activities are complex enough to be comparable to risky sports or athletic endeavors that require training, ever-increasing skill, and astute awareness. Thinking about playing safely means looking closely at ALL of the elements and the know-how that make the experience both physically and emotionally exciting.

Safety is key for both partners, but clearly, the safety of the bottom needs special attention. He or she is often dependent on the top – especially if in some kind of restraint. Even if not, he may drift into a much deeper altered state than the top – a deep trance brought about by the cascading rain of exotic sensations. As a result the bottom is more reliant on the top to be protective, one of many reasons why it’s important that the top proceed slowly in ramping up sensations or using complicated equipment with a new partner.

It’s unwise for a top to try to push a bottom to experience much more sensation than he or she is ready for, or knows that his partner can handle – sometimes even if the bottom is asking for more. The top needs to weigh wisdom against thrills – and sometimes wisdom has to win out. The top should keep watch for any signs that the bottom is in physical distress – too hot, too cold, muscle spasms, too long standing in high heels – a range of things. And that means learning what signs to watch out for. For instance, a top needs to be sure that bondage isn’t too tight, that limbs raised or held in position for a while don’t start to go numb or change color, that bondage never, ever encompasses the neck, that nipple and genital clamps are removed before blood supply to the area is compromised – which means leave them on for no more than 5 minutes. That if a gag is used it has breathing holes in it, that the nose is always uncovered, and that the bottom has alternate ways to safeword – for example, holding a ball in their hand and dropping the ball as a way of saying “red” – and the top needs to pay attention to the hand holding the ball. Generally, bondage and gags shouldn’t be used simultaneously anyway, and always keep the scissors handy for a quick exit. A top should know that the common, not so kinky fantasy of using silk scarves to tie a partner up is actually riskier than restraints designed for that purpose. Silk can tighten up and the knots can get so tight that they’re hard to untie. Handcuffs – also the stuff of many fantasies – should be real police issue, because the cheap, sex toy shop type of handcuffs don’t have the kind of double locks that keep them from tightening up when weight is placed on them. And that key – that safety handcuff key – should be tied to something bright and big, like a great big red ribbon, and then attached to either the top or the bottom for easy access. I’ve barely scratched the surface on safety issues here, but I hope I’ve told you just enough to show you how much detail you really do need to know. You can get a lot of good advice from two of the best books that I know of on BDSM – one is called “Screw the Roses, Send me the Thorns,” and the other is called “SM 101.”

Safety is all about details and, just as in any daring sport, this does mean instruction and practice. Going to a gear shop and buying a bunch of implements and using them without learning the ropes, so to speak, is a little like buying a Ferrari without a driver’s license!

Because BDSM can include intense episodes of domination and submission, the term “safe and sane” means being aware of the effect of these psychodramas. For example, let’s say you’re in the midst of a scene where the top is scolding the bottom for some lapse so that he can impose the erotic punishment that they are both looking forward to – but somewhere in the middle of this, the submissive’s memories of early emotional abuse, or maybe a violent ex-spouse are brought to light, and a genuine meltdown ensues. Or maybe it’s the top’s memories that rise to the surface unexpectedly. Either way, it would be unsafe and hardly sane to proceed with an emotionally gripping scene in the throes of that kind of flashback, as if nothing had gone wrong. The action has to stop to take care of the person in distress. Now this may seem obvious, yet we all have those places inside us that fight giving in to our perceived weaknesses. And this is where our partners need to be wiser. They need to drop whatever scene roles they’re playing and attend to the emotional needs. Being safe and sane, as you can see, covers a lot of ground and means paying acute attention to boundaries and limits across psychological, physical and sexual dimensions.

Because bottoms are the recipients of the most intense sensation play, they are going to have more obvious limits, but tops have limits, too. Tops should never let themselves be egged on or intimidated by a more experienced bottom who is asking for levels of intensity that they aren’t comfortable with – especially if they don’t feel sufficiently experienced to engage safely. The urge among dominants is to dominate – and that can sometimes supercede caution and wisdom. When this happens it’s out of a very human, but ego-laden tendency that even a well-intentioned dominant has to be wary of.

I spoke about consent in a prior article, and about gaining consent through negotiation. To summarize, no BDSM action should proceed without clear agreements and a set of safewords that are honored at all times. And, remember, safewords are there to be used liberally – especially “yellow” or whatever your declared signal is for “that’s enough, drop it down a notch.” That way, you don’t have to invoke any emergency stop signs. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it one more time – please don’t try to be a hero or a tough chick by testing yourself early in the game, or with a new partner. There’s time enough to expand boundaries as you and your partner get to know each other’s pacing and style of play.

Part of being safe and sane is concluding a scene on a positive note. By that I mean that when it’s time for a scene to end, there’s a little something called “aftercare” that you need to know about. Aftercare is a lot like “afterplay” in vanilla sex – but it’s even more crucial here, because BDSM can sometimes be quite taxing to both the body and the psyche. Physical tension and temperature changes that occur during play are felt more acutely once the neurochemicals of profound arousal wear off. Cuddling, snuggling under a blanket, hydrating with water, getting something light to eat, massaging sore muscles – all of these caretaking niceties are part of being a conscious player. It’s the top’s job to look after the bottom, especially if they’ve done intense sensation play, because she or he may be swimming in endorphins and not really up to moving around at all. Even if you were in a scene where you were playing at being tough and rough, once the scene is over, it’s important to let your nurturing side shine through, and shift back into the roles you were in before you began playing. A little later you’ll want to talk about everything you did – what you especially liked, what could have gone different, what you might want to do the next time. But just because one of you can leap seamlessly from playing into an analysis of the situation doesn’t mean you both can. So, take it easy before debriefing, and be sure you’re both ready. Try to relax and be there for each other. Some scenes end with, or naturally roll into, passionate lovemaking, and/or wild sex, depending on the relationship. In that case, afterplay and aftercare merge. Tops especially should not let the glow of their own orgasm and satisfaction overshadow the responsibilities to check in with a bottom and make sure that he or she is OK.

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