Safewords, Breath Control, and Safety

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November 1994

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I've heard a lot of people talk about using safewords, but I like to be gagged and hooded as well as bound (and blindfolded if anybody cares, but that isn't relevant here), so that saying anything is really not an option for me. When I'm in bondage that's this restrictive I don't even want to talk, but just in case I need to, how can I communicate with my Top?

<A> If you enjoy this degree of bondage I'm surprised you haven't answered the question for yourself by now, or had a Top answer it for you, but if safe words are out of the question, try safe movements or sounds.

No matter how bound up you are you can usually make some sort of noise, like a grunt. One grunt might be an accident, but in an emergency you need to communicate quickly, so don't make your safe sound anything complicated. Two grunts can stand for something like Red: I'm in serious trouble, scene's over, or at least free my mouth in a hurry so I can tell you what's going on. Of course, you may want to communicate in a lighter vein, and since three grunts might be mis-heard as two, four grunts can be similar to Yellow: I need to communicate with you, please help me do so.

The classic gagged-and-bound safe movement is to drop something the Top has given you to hold, and that will call attention to itself when it falls, like a rubber ball.

The important point is not whether you use my suggestions in particular, but that you and your Top work out a system so that you can communicate with her or him when you need to, without disrupting the scene when you don't need to. Whatever you work out should be part of your pre-play negotiation.

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<Q> Can you say something about the hazards of playing with breath control, and the safe ways of doing it?

<A> Something about the hazards, yes. Something about safe ways of doing it, no. I know some people who play with it happily and successfully, and others who find its dangers to be exactly what makes it hot, but except at the very lightest levels where you're really only playing with playing with breath control – a head trip, let's say – I don't think breath control is a safe game.

Breath control is the practice of limiting someone's access to air. It's a relatively extreme form of SM because it can be hazardous to your health in ways that flogging, for example, is not: mistakes really can be fatal. Like most extreme activities, breath control is too sophisticated to learn or to be taught in a column or a book. I don't think it should really even be attempted by anyone who does not have a thorough, first-hand knowledge of the process, and who has not been trained by a person knowledgeable enough to be an expert.

Breath control is sometimes effected by pinching off a person's nostrils and covering his mouth with a hand. This method is simple and effective, and also allows the Top to let up very quickly if necessary. I've seen people do breath control with gas masks whose rubber edges conform to the face and seal well, regulating the bottom's access to air through the breathing hose. And breath can be controlled with a wide, soft strap around the neck. This last form is especially dangerous because you may press on the carotid arteries in the neck, cutting off blood supply to the brain rather than air to the lungs, and even a few seconds' deprivation of blood can cause irreversible brain damage.

I've answered this question because I know that people play with breath control and I am concerned that they do so as safely as possible Please do not take my response as instruction about how to do breath control, or as approval for it.

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<Q> With so many things to negotiate how can I know I've covered all the bases?

<A> You can't. That's one reason people play with safewords – it's a way to expect the unexpected. But you can know that you've covered all the big bases, by learning about yourself and about the reality of SM practices, which often are quite different from people's fantasies.

It's also why I suggest that people move slowly, especially when they're novices (or novices at some particular activity) or playing with a new partner: the more slowly you move at first the better you can see trouble coming.

You might think of SM in the same way you think of driving. When you were learning to drive it took all your attention to keep the car on the road. What with the gas, the clutch, and the brakes your feet were working overtime; and then upstairs there was the gear shift, turn signals, high beams, low beams, and that damned steering wheel that had a mind of its own – and you hadn't even gotten to how cool you'd look if you could get the convertible top down and crank up the sound system. At first, pushing the car to 20 mph was a big deal, and often more than you could handle, because at 20 you couldn't keep up with all the techniques and still anticipate trouble on the road; driving on the freeway was out of the question.

After awhile, however, the techniques became second nature, and you were better able to plan for contingencies at higher speeds. By the time you got old enough to be reading this column – assuming you ever learned to drive – you could tootle on down 101 along with everyone else, and generally have a safe drive.

The same process holds with SM. By playing slowly and cautiously at first you have a chance to learn the basic skills you need to enjoy a safe and satisfactory journey or scene. The more you learn the easier it becomes to play with more spontaneity.

Still, many people who know better get out of control from time to time, and there are emergencies no one can prepare for. That's why cars have horns, and why safe drivers carry flares and other emergency gear, and it's why we have safe words and sometimes exacting negotiations. Perhaps this preparation is what "sane" means in the community slogan, "Safe, sane, and consensual": when you know you can't cover every base, you can include that knowledge in your negotiation, your preparations, and your scene.

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