Bondage and Safety

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October 1991

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1991 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I find the thought of bondage during sexual play exciting. I date several men currently, and feel I can trust them all to play safely. However, my girlfriend told me of her experience with a longtime boyfriend who, she was surprised to discover, neither played safely nor stopped the play when she asked him to. How can I know I will be safe and not sorry?

<A> Alas, there is no certainty in this life; but there are ways to increase the likelihood of safety and satisfaction, and to decrease the likelihood of danger and damage. Those ways boil down to education, communication, and negotiation.

To educate yourself, learn the basics of the toys and games that interest you. For example, some kinds of rope can cut the skin easily, some almost cannot. Some are too thick for restrictive bondage but may work well in decorative harnesses. Professionally-made cuffs may seem expensive and forbidding to people whose SM experiences are mostly of the slap-and-tickle variety, but they are often far safer than such innocent bedroom items as silk scarves and ties, whose knots can be almost impossible to open. Rawhide cords tighten when wet.

If you fancy bondage, keep a pair of snub-nosed surgery scissors on hand wherever you play. Certain nerves along the wrists and ankles can be permanently damaged by too much pressure exerted for too long, and in a panic situation even an experienced bondage master may not be able to get his or her fingers to work properly. No one can tell you what you like, but you can gain both academic and first-hand experience through courses taught by local BDSM organizations.

Communication is a two-way arrangement that includes but is not limited to negotiation. When you know what you want – and what you don't want, and what you're not sure about – tell your partner, and listen to what he or she has to say as well. Be specific in what you say, and if you don't understand what you hear ask for clarification.

When you play, always include a safeword that cannot be confused with any other communication, and ask each other during your play what that word is to be sure neither of you has forgotten. Your girlfriend may have set up a scene where she could struggle and be restrained – a common enough fantasy, after all – so that when she said "No, no, no, stop, stop, stop," her boyfriend might have heard that he was doing his part. Among the most common safewords I know among experienced private players in the SM community are Yellow (slow down, back off, this is getting too intense) and Red (stop the scene immediately). The larger community has begun to use Safeword as its safeword, so that people at parties can all be alerted at once, without confusion.

There is also a kind of informal education available more within the SM communities than outside, among people who only play privately. If you go to play parties, watch the folks you want to play with. See if they play safely, if they know what they're doing, if they respect their partners' limits, how they behave with their partners when the scenes have ended, if they are the sorts of players you want to trust. If you can't watch them play at parties, ask other people who have played with them or seen them play. Uneducated players who do not know their own limits, unsafe players, players who do not respect their partners' limits – all become known fairly quickly in these small communities, and it is better to know the score beforehand and save yourself some grief than learn first-hand what you may wish you'd never had to learn at all.

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