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Safe is as safe does?

I like safewords. I use them … not necessarily a lot, but frequently, within the context of our mostly-bedroom kinky scenes. Sometimes I get defensive about this, perhaps because safewords easily become a focus or a symbol of the limitations of the SSC mantra, or emblematic of a “just in the bedroom” sensibility. The topic seems to come up somewhat regularly in the local scene, where the discussion keeps going to and fro between safewords as an important part of doing kink safely, and safewords as unnecessary for more experienced (or often by implication, more real) kinksters. There’s also the thought that safewords won’t help when the shit hits the fan and may even provide a false sense of security to the dom, but otherwise there isn’t all that much discussion about what it means to safeword or how their use affects play.

My lover and I are both long time roleplayers, of the geeky gamer type, and we have the obvious safeword: “offgame”. (I think I might have used “hold!” a time or two when I haven’t had time to stop and think about it.) And I’ve been known on occasion to tap twice, martial arts style, in that borderzone between ingame and offgame where the body has had enough but the mind isn’t clear enough or fast enough to react. These meta-level communications, maybe safewords maybe not, serve different purposes for me, and I don’t think I’ve grasped all the possibilities or implications of them yet.

Lately I’ve been wondering if this kind of safewording I do is different from that usually meant by the term, and whether safewords in general or even in this personal usage are useful for me. One of the reasons I do BDSM, one of my goals that is, is to get into an altered headspace where safewording gets difficult. A headspace maybe related to that Dw3t-Hthr describes (?), though I’m not very far along the road yet. For me, the path winds through physical pain and the acceptance of its inexorability, through hurt, maybe comfort, and possibly humiliation. I don’t know yet, really.

Thing is, the way I use safewords is easy for me even well into the scene. Not easy emotionally, necessarily, since I get into this space of not wanting to disappoint or speak out of turn, but easy cognitively. I can say, “offgame, I’ll probably get panicky soon” even when I’ve collaborated my way into a headspace where the panic is triggered by the sense of helplessness, of not having the right to protest. I’ll say that and usually only then get panicky and hyperventilating. Why do I do that, what’s the use of it?

(Let me digress here a bit. “Offgame”, as I’ve heard it used in role-playing game communities, refers to a level of reality outside or away from that which is collaboratively created or accepted by the players as real within the game. Knowledge and shared understanding of the boundary between ingame and offgame gives the players the security to immerse themselves as fully as possible in their characters and in the experience of the game: it becomes possible to experience and act out very intense and/or very complicated emotional states and identities and relationships and states of being without endangering the ordinary reality. Whether you play with dear friends or relative strangers, it’s important to be able to ask “hey, offgame, is it okay for you if my character gets really angry with yours” if the immersive experience seems to get more intense than previously agreed. The offgame level of communication can also be used to enhance the experience, when the players use it to negotiate narrative events or nuances of interaction.)

I think at least partly, retaining that slim hold on the ordinary level of reality gives me the safety to immerse myself in altered headspaces more easily. The skill of drawing and redrawing the boundaries of ingame and offgame does transfer to kink, perhaps because I’ve practiced immersive experiences in the context of tabletop games since I was a teen, and I’ve gotten slowly used to carrying the meta-level along. It gets easier with time to switch between them, without losing the hold on the immersive state. Knowing the offgame reality is out there does make it safer to explore inner worlds, and thus safewording to say, for instance, that I’ll probably get panicky soon may be a way of comforting myself, reminding myself of the boundary, even as it provides possibly-useful information to the dom. It does not yank me out of the submissive headspace at all, which is something of a mixed blessing at best.

What I wonder is, is this way of using the safewords useful, in light of my goal of altered experience, or does it get in the way? If and when I can safeword reasonably easily even when I’m in headspacey, is it just a residual effect from all that deliberate playing with shared realities, or does it mean that some part of my head is resisting the path even as I’m engaged with walking it? Would I be able to go further if I didn’t stay aware of the offgame level? And is that even a meaningful question in the context of mostly-bedroom kink, where the whole point is that it’s not the sole reality?

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