Not an Odalisque

How Is A Classroom Like An Aeroplane?

with 8 comments

Debate about consent annoys me. The community’s got it pinned down: you’re a rational being with a sense of self-preservation, which means you get to make up your own mind about the risks you take, and I get to do whatever I want as long as you agree to it. Any conversation after that concentrates on grey areas, extremes, and improbably thought experiments, and leaves me wanting to scream, “Kant was wrong! Nothing’s universifiable, even universafiabilty!” and hit people without their consent. The people saying, “Ah, but what if…” too often have an agenda. “Ah, but what if the drunk girl is your long term partner, and she’s deliberately come into her—well, our—bedroom and taken off her clothes?” That scenario doesn’t have much bearing on the wrongness of sleeping with drunk 14 year old strangers. The difficulty of determining the precise number of gin and tonics I have to drink before caning me is a bad idea doesn’t alter the principle, either. Image

I’m maundering on about consent. I do have a reason: I came across an issue I hadn’t considered before, that of “manipulating safe words.” It was brought up by a top involved in group role plays, in a tone of obvious annoyance. Safe words, I heard, where not for the moment when you need to take a breather, have a cup of tea, calm down and return to the scene, but for real, and possibly embarrassing, medical emergencies. Manipulation of safe words is a crime which will exclude you from all future play.*

 My first reaction was negative. It was something along the lines of, “Fine, I don’t want to play with you either, you big bully.” The ability to pause a scene, to say I’m being pushed too far, I need a break, I can’t cope, is valuable to me.** I don’t expect that we’ll always be able to pick up where we left off, sometimes you just can’t get back into the headspace, and sometimes, as happened recently after I stopped a scene with HH (due to abdominal pain, in case anyone wants to accuse me of manipulation), the number of strokes will miraculously multiply when a scene is resumed. Would kink be a better experience for me if I couldn’t safeword out of a scene that isn’t going in the direction I want it to? Unequivocally not. In fact, being able to stop a scene is what gives me the confidence to take a risk, and it’s rather nice not to always know where every scene is going.

I, however, rarely take part in group role plays. I’m rarely invited, maybe because the other participants are worried I’ll safeword every time I feel like having a hot drink. In those circumstances, I would have a responsibility to the others playing, which includes not ruining their carefully arranged scene on a whim. The idea that stopping play for anything but a medical emergency is manipulation still doesn’t sit quite right with me, though.

Consent only means something if you can withdraw it. What I want now might be different from what I thought I would want when you asked me a week ago. We have safewords to make consent meaningful, to ensure that every second a scene is going on, everyone wants  it to continue. If your excuse is, “She said three weeks last Tuesday that she really liked the idea of Suffragette-style forced feeding,” then I think you’ve got your head around the letter, but not the spirit, of the law of consent. 

Here we come to the universifiability problem, however. It’s not just gags and subspace that cause issues. How do you constantly consent to being on an aeroplane? Or having an operation under general anaesthetic? Could I withdraw my consent to my mobile phone contract, please? And what if my kink is being pushed so far beyond what I think I can deal with that, given the choice, I’d be screaming my safeword and coming at you with a knife? Am I not allowed to play with that one?

 I think mobile phone companies are kind of evil, and I wouldn’t invite one into my bedroom. Practical problems, like the one in the aeroplane example, ask us to put a value on continual consent, and it is clear that they don’t have a high value in wider society, but we can expect them to have one in kink. I charge for tutorials cancelled at the last minute with little guilt, but that it because I believe that answering my questions on this week’s reading isn’t torture.  At least, it shouldn’t be. Or won’t, if I work a bit on technique.

 The great thing about consent is that, knowing the aeroplane won’t stop if I change my mind, or that using a safeword because I need a break isn’t allowed, I can opt not to get on the plane or into the schoolroom in the first place. That’s an elegant solution until it strikes me that it applies to everything: I can choose not to get in the gentleman’s car if I don’t want to be raped; not go into the dungeon if I don’t want to be beaten senseless.

Having come round in a big circle, I’m still wondering: does kink require a higher standard of consent than other activities? If so, how do I make sure, that for me at least, it gets it?


*I’m reporting a short speech, out of context, from a limited perspective, and omitting all the useful detail. That’s because this is a post about my reflections sparked by these words, not about my rightness and someone else’s wrongness. The speaker only concluded that ‘manipulators’ of safewords wouldn’t get to play again, a position I’m not going to criticise in a post about consent. 

**I actually don’t have a safeword, I rely on my partners’ abilities to understand “Hubert, I want to stop the scene.” I’m using ‘safeword’ throughout as a useful shorthand.


Written by Not an Odalisque

June 5, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. I always like to talk about safewords, because I think people see them in very different ways. (So it’s funny in a way that we bring them up all the time without much discussion about what they mean or how we use them.)

    Personally, I don’t role play, so perhaps my view on this is only marginally relevant. But for me, a safeword is a last resort where all other communications (including screaming, crying, pleading, saying no) have been insufficient to make the scene manageable for me. A safe word is for the point where someone wanted to push me to/past my limit – otherwise, “Please stop that”/”I can’t take any more” would be sufficient. As such, it’s unlikely to come as a surprise to my top – by pushing me like this, they knew it was a risk that I would withdraw my consent in this way. If I’ve got to the point where I’ve needed to use a safe word, then it wouldn’t be possible for me to continue a scene afterwards – I would need aftercare. (I say ‘if’ but I mean when – it has happened in the past.) From this point of view, I understood where the top you referred to was coming from. I didn’t think she meant that someone who used a safe word was bad, just that using it meant the play was over – which is exactly what I would expect, given the way I use them.

    I hope that made sense (I’m a bit fuzzy today), and I understand that people see safewords differently. As I say, maybe the role play or simply how you like to play affects how you view them?


    June 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm

  2. We use the traffic light system (green means I’m fine, amber or orange means take it down a notch, red means stop the scene). It’s particularly useful because my top can use it to check in with me easily if he’s worried that I’m not ok (“What’s your colour?”). More recently I just say if I want to stop. like you, the knowledge that my consent will be respected means I feel better about taking risks. My partner always praises me for stopping when I need to, which reinforces my ability to withdraw consent, and hence my ability to consent meaningfully.


    June 6, 2012 at 7:41 am

  3. The more I think about it, the more problems I have with the idea that “Safe words, I heard, where not for the moment when you need to take a breather, have a cup of tea, calm down and return to the scene, but for real, and possibly embarrassing, medical emergencies. Manipulation of safe words is a crime which will exclude you from all future play.”

    1. I’m really bothered by the idea that anyone, top or not, gets to judge whether a bottom used their safeword for a ‘good enough’ reason. To be clear, I top exclusively and I still believe that I have no right to decide whether the person bottoming to me had a good enough reason to use their safeword. What I get to decide is whether I want to play with that person again.

    2. The emphasis on medical emergencies says to me that emotional emergencies don’t count. That’s just stupid. Like many people have said before, it’s much harder to fix broken trust than it is to ice a bruise or bandage a cut.

    3. That statement seems to universalize what could otherwise be a perfectly reasonable statement of preference. It’s not the way I feel comfortable playing, but I think it would be okay for another top to say “I don’t feel like I’m really in control when my bottom safewords for any reason except a medical emergency. If you do that, I won’t play with you ever again.” That’s a very different statement from (paraphrasing) “safewording for any reason besides needing medical attention is always always always bad and wrong”.

    4. It sounds to me like the top who felt manipulated by the bottom’s use of a safeword is blaming the bottom for wanting to play at a different level of intensity from the top. That is, taking a breather, having a cup of tea, then going back the scene is probably going to lower the intensity. It may be hard for the top to get back into the headspace they were in before the scene stopped. That doesn’t mean the bottom is wrong, it just means they want a less intense scene than the top does. If the top isn’t getting what they want out of their scenes, they need to communicate better and pick play partners who want (and can handle) the level of intensity they like, not blame their play partners for (gasp) being different people.


    June 10, 2012 at 1:55 am

  4. Thank you all for your comments.I’d better first say that, in leaving out identifying details, I may have left out pertinent points about how this person selects play partners and plays, so I’m discussing the ideas out of context.

    I’m interested to hear that you mostly safeword because you’re being pushed too far, @withgems. I spend a lot of time during scenes thinking about safewording for that reason, but more often do so because of a single issue–my arm is caught painfully, or I’m interested in play, but not violent nonconsent right now, can we do something else? How I use them definitely effects how I see safewords. @Thorn’s positive reinforcement model appeals to me.

    I got the impression that using safewords ‘manipulatively’ excluded bottoms from playing with the top in future, which is a fair reaction to incompatibility. It’s that freedom to choose which seems to be the nub of the issue, to me. Personal preference is often a way of politely thinking that someone else is wrong. I wouldn’t play while drunk, I disapprove of people who do (always always), but faced with real, not hypothetical people, doing so, I’d just say that I don’t want to be involved, not start telling them how I would live their lives. Many personal preferences (I prefer blondes, say) add up to cultural generalisations (non-white women aren’t beautiful). So, while respecting the freedom of choice, I struggle to clearly define the line between the two responses you describe, @Stabbity.

    I’ll carry on trying to think it out. Many thanks for your contributions.

    Not an Odalisque

    June 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    • I suppose my point is that if there was a physical, unintended problem (eg your arm being caught) I would just say so – so no need to safe word. I safe word when being pushed too far because for anything else I don’t need a code (which is kind of what a safe word is – stop, no, REALLY stop). I trust my partner to listen to me when I use plain language – they just might choose to ignore me, and the safe word is the thing that can’t be ignored. (They might ignore “This hurts too much, I can’t cope” because that’s how I often like to play, but if they ignored “My hand is going numb” it would be an asshole move.)

      This is why I’m curious about the role of safe words in role play – is saying something directly a no-go because it breaks character/mood? So is safewording preferable? I’m guessing because it’s not something I do, but am interested to hear others’ thoughts.


      June 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      • Sorry I missed your point so completely, @withgems!

        I find that saying something directly is often out of character. I once went through a whole scene with a strange pain due to an issue with an ankle cuff, unable to say, “this is painful, here,” because while *I* knew that my partner wasn’t trying to cause pain with ankle cuffs, my character thought his character wouldn’t care. Rubbing my ankle at intervals, while wearing a pained expression, wasn’t the right way to handle that, but I don’t know what would have been. Safewording would certainly be an option.

        The way I roleplay, speaking out of character is often equivalent to a safeword, but even if it wasn’t, I think I would feel that muddling the line between myself and a character wouldn’t be helpful. How can I get into a scene if I’m scheming about how to communicate as myself throughout? So safewords often replace, “my hand is going numb,” and that probably does have an impact on how I use them. Whether I’m role playing or not, though, they are a way of saying, “we need to get out of this headspace.” Slamming the breaks on, saying I need the caring, or at least concerned, version of my partner to return, is the same experience in both situations.

        I’d be interested in how other people use them, too. I may be spotted quizzing people at munches–I’ll report back!

        Not an Odalisque

        June 19, 2012 at 1:42 am

  5. I was in the room and heard the announcement you’re talking about (I’ve just discovered your blog and am having a nose about), and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with it, too. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t enter into that Top’s playspace, having heard it.

    The comments here are all really interesting and useful; I think I sit at a point that takes a little from each of them. Like withgems says, I’m only really likely to use a safeword in a context where, for want of putting it a better way, other protestations would be ignored. I think this interacts with the ‘character’ issue you mention, too. Like thorn, I favour the traffic lights, though I also use other methods of verbally checking in. And like Stabbity I’m much more concerned about emotional distress than physical (depending on your play style, YMMV).
    Unfortunately, i think that means I have little to offer beyond my first paragraph, so maybe I should’ve left it there, but thinking about the commenters different experiences and perspectives was an interesting thought process for me at least, so thanks for that.


    June 19, 2012 at 3:50 pm

  6. Safewords- hypnotic, trance subspace- and it’s hard to talk. That’s where a safeword may come in handy. Obviously.


    June 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm

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