Safe Words

by Justin E. H. Smith

Lfm71 The first thing you need to understand about the BDSM community is that we are committed to one thing above all: mutual respect. We respect each other's kinks, and we seek to help one another to realize our fantasies.

Some people have fantasies of being dominated, and those of us who help them to realize these fantasies are not in the end looking to hurt them, or to abuse them, but only to help them. It might look cruel from the outside, but in the end it's all about respect (and mutual pleasure!).

Some in the community even affirm their commitment to mutual respect by taking a solemn vow. This is what my partner and I did early in our relationship (going strong since 2002). I said, “Laurence, I hereby swear to respect the integrity of your person, to respect your will, and your inherent right to realize your fantasies, and I promise to help you to realize them without harming or abusing you.” And he said, “Russell,” and then went on to recite the same little speech.

A central part of this commitment to mutual respect is the choice of what are called 'safe words': when the domination becomes too severe, when the fantasy pleasure begins to cross over into real displeasure, the submissive is able to call a halt to the session by exclaiming a word that has been agreed upon in advance, such as usufruct or plutonium, which signals that he has had enough, that the fun is over and he needs to be released.

For a long time this arrangement worked very well for us. I would have him gagged and bound, joyfully raising welts on his buttocks with a bushel of birch twigs, when suddenlly he would mutter through the bandana in his mouth: baleen! Some other day it would be corn pone, or carpetbagger, or drumlin, or orange roughie, but the message always came through loud and clear: Laurence couldn't take it anymore. Laurence had had enough. Cease and desist, Russell. It's about respect.

In 2005 Laurence and I began planning our grand tour of the south of France. He got into his head that he was going to learn French, even though he'd always been terrible at languages and never got beyond the most basic phrases about el baño and so on. Around the time we began planning, we reached an undeniable low in our sex life together. Nothing seemed to do the trick. He was crying out gabardine or pinafore or pinniped or whatever the damned safe word was for the night before I'd even begun tightening the clamps! He just wanted to be done with it so he could get back to reading Foreign Policy (especially when Colin Powell had a featured article).

Things were looking irreparably dreary, until one day Laurence had a breakthrough: what if, he said, we were to kink things up a bit by having a fake safe word that I could cry out and that you coud pretend not to respect? Would that be disrespecting me, or would that be more respectful kink? Sounds good to me, I said. As long as we have a real safe word that continues to bring about the desired result, then why not see what it's like to experience the playful disrespect of the safe-word rule?

For the dummy safe words we agreed on a few French vocabulary items that Laurence was having trouble memorizing; for the real, overriding, torture-annulling term, we settled on glyptodont.

What a session! You should have seen Laurence crying out those French words to no avail, desperately running through his entire vocabulary lesson for the week as I continued to twist his balls: nonobstant! auparavant! dorénavant! jadis! Nothing did the trick! With each word he offered up, he seemed to descend to a new depth of ecstatic, primal, unspeakable pleasure. There was no mention of glyptodonts at all that night.

By the time we pretty much exhausted the Petit Robert (which I had kept since college), Laurence had come up with a new plan. Now, rather than designating individual lexical items as our faux safe words, his dummy pleas would consist in entire stanzas of classical French poetry. And in order to ensure that he learned his poems comme il faut, the new twist on the old safe-word rule, we agreed, was that there could be no mention of hylomorphism or zoophyte until the entire stanza had been properly recited. Such a twist would have been thoroughly condemned by our friends in the community, since at least until the end of a successful recitation it left the submissive with no way out. But a bit of transgression between consenting adults never killed anyone. And anyway, we told ourselves, transgression is what BDSM is all about.

For our first session governed by these new rules, the stanza was the first bit of Paul Verlaine's 'Marine', from the Poèmes saturniens of 1866, and the safe word was camelopardus. That night, Laurence gave the most stunning oration as I bunched his foreskin into a knot:

L’Océan sonore
Palpite sous l’œil
De la lune en deuil
Et palpite encore.

And again, no mention at all of camelopardus.

For the next session (which took place a good many days later; I admit my work as county coroner often sends me into long spells of erotic dormancy), Laurence promised to recite a much more lengthy bit of the Poèmes saturniens, the so-called 'Effet de nuit' segment, before invoking the designated safe word (stagflation). And that night I was treated to the most elegant recitation:

La nuit. La pluie. Un ciel blafard que déchiquette
De flèches et de tours à jour la silhouette
D'une ville gothique éteinte au lointain gris.
La plaine. Un gibet plein de pendus rabougris
Secoués par le bec avide des corneilles
Et dansant dans l'air noir des gigues nonpareilles,
Tandis que leurs pieds sont la pâture des loups.
Quelques buissons d'épine épars, et quelque houx
Dressant l'horreur de leur feuillage à droite, à gauche,
Sur le fuligineux fouillis d'un fond d'ébauche.
Et puis, autour de trois livides prisonniers
Qui vont pieds nus, un gros de hauts pertuisaniers
En marche, et leurs fers droits, comme des fers de herse,
Luisent à contre-sens des lances de l'averse.

I confess this went on for so long, and I was still so worn out from the afternoon's autopsy, that I dispensed with all pretense of dominance and just sat back and listened. Laurence didn't seem to mind.

We took our trip to France, and accumulated all the pleasant memories one could hope for. But Laurence had changed, that much was certain. At one point he dragged me to some out of the way used-book dealer in Montpellier, which wasn't even on our itinerary and didn't have a beach. I was visibly frustrated, but he insisted, having called all the bookshops of Languedoc-Rousillon, that this was the only place in the region that had what he was looking for. And imagine my surprise when, with a sort of insider wink, the crusty old dealer saw him coming and immediately got out the keys to the glass case that held his prized possession: an original, 1534 edition of Gargantua. Laurence shelled out 40,000 euros right there, and during the whole transaction kept giddily proclaiming that this was to be the 'holy scripture' of safe words. I didn't have the right to complain; Laurence and I both made good money, and we had an agreement that we would each retain independence in our own financial decisions.

On the way out, Laurence spotted an old paperback, and the dealer happily let him take it for free. It was an English book by some 20th-century philosopher of language named J. P. Austin (or was it J. R.?). It was called, if I remember correctly, How to Do Stuff with Words.

So after getting back to Tulsa for the next several months our sessions consisted in Laurence's Rabelaisian recitations, in perfect Renaissance French, and even with spot-on imitations of 16th-century Occitan dialect. He recounted the story of some great feast or other, or of some obese giant caressing his groin with the head of a duck. I just sat back and listened to it all, without even bothering to specify a 'real' English safe word. This was right at the time of the horrible Wal-Mart slayings, and to be honest spending my long work-days with the mutilated corpses of the victims was hardly helping my libido.

Things went on like this for what seemed like an eternity, until one day Laurence announced that all this stuff about overeating and flatulence was 'a real turn-off'. He'd had it with the Renaissance, he said, and was now ready to move on. To Georges Perec. He particularly liked La Disparition, Perec's novel written entirely without the letter e. He said that its absence really heightened the sexual tension. When he just couldn't take it anymore, he would begin to blurt out the epigrams that Perec included as an appendix to the novel, which rather than eliminating e featured it as the only vowel. The one in Latin sent him into rapturous throes:

E servem lex est, legemque tenere necesse est? Spes certe nec mens, me referente, deest; sed lege, et ecce even nentemve gregemve tenentem. Perlege, nec me res edere rere leves.

From Perec's OuLiPo circle Laurence acquired an appreciation for linguistic games. I don't recall who it was exactly, but one of them was keen on so-called 'piems', that is, poems that encode the value of pi through words that contain a number of letters corresponding to the digits of the mathematical constant's infinite decimal points. Of course, there is no infinitely long piem, but some have been composed that are pretty lengthy indeed.

Rather than relying on someone elses pietic composition, Laurence decided he would create his own. And so one night, in our first session after a very long time (and countless Wal-Mart autopsies), I was treated to the results of his oulipian endeavor:

Rus, I have a thing certainly…

he began, verging toward sheer nonsense as he rattled off his own mathematical mnemonic. I was mildly touched that the whole thing was addressed to me, even if I've never gone by 'Russ', and even if, if I did, it would have two s's and not one.

Anyway, at some point Laurence got into his head that piems are a pathetic crutch for weak minds, and that the only real way to go about mastering pi is through the numbers themselves. He said numbers were the purest and most potent of safe words, since they had no outside object to which they corresponded (I responded that that depends on what your ontology is, but he had already decided on the matter). Laurence had read about a Chinese man who in 2006 recited pi out to 68,000 digits, and he became determined to beat that record. Lu Chao's trick, he explained, was to accentuate every occurrence of the number 9 in the decimal series. This might work well in Chinese, Laurence said, but I'm going to put the accent on the 1's. Why 1's?, I asked, and Laurence said something about these being the purest of numbers.

We had a session just tonight. In fact, Laurence is still having a session. I can hear him rattling off blocks of decimals. 4-6-5-4-9-5-8-5-3-7… And here comes the Feynman Point, which is sure to give him a little charge (a brief, false sense that the series is working itself out into something rational?): 4-9-9-9-9-9-9-(oh yeah)-8-(damn!)-3-7.

I left the room to check my e-mail after a few thousand decimal points. His eyes were closed. He didn't seem to mind. I think he had an erection, but who's even checking at this point?

Laurence, I believe, has found his own sort of ecstasy. Entranced for a while by language, he has kicked out that crutch and moved on to numbers, the very purest ideas one can take before the mind (so he says). Pi is a magical number (he says): it defines the properties of the circle, that most perfect of shapes (Laurence), yet it has no end. It thus injects infinity into the perfect finite objects of our sensory perception (L.), and the more extensively one comes to know it, the closer one comes to unravelling the mystery of the universe (guess who).

This is certainly not where we started out so long ago, and I never could have imagined that this is where we would end up. But that's the thing about our community. It's all about helping each other to realize our fantasies. It's all about respect.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit

Follow Justin Smith on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself!
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Email this to someone