BDSM in mainstream media: Why I taught my kids about safe words

August 3 | Guest post by Marnie Goldenberg
'Safe Word Warning', hand-painted pallet sign, from Etsy seller HotShotPalletworks
'Safe Word Warning', hand-painted pallet sign, from Etsy seller HotShotPalletworks

Kinky sex has made its way into mainstream culture in places other than poorly-written-erotica-gone-NYT-bestsellers-list. Music videos like Rihanna’s S&M, Christina Aguilera’s Not Myself Tonight, for instance. Our kids are seeing it, hearing it, and some of them are even reading it.

My kids are young, so Rihanna videos and E. L. James’ fiction are not yet on their agenda. But there will come a time when talking to my munchkins about bondage and domination becomes relevant. I anticipate that the majority of learning on the topic will not be from me; they’ll likely see videos and ads or hear things from peers that could use some context. I prefer to be the person who provides that context with overarching messages about consent, trust, and communication.

Those values are not confined to safe and enjoyable kink. When those values are front and centre in a number of contexts and conversations with our kids, we help them see the breadth of their application — the primary importance of these values in positive and healthy human relationships. That, I think, will make that kink conversation a lot easier.

As an example, I had a conversation with my kids about safe words a couple years ago.

Safe words are used in the BDSM community to ensure that, during a sexual scene, people involved can communicate their interest to stop the scene or slow it down. Words like "ow" or "stop" don't usually work as safe words because they may not always be meant to end the sexual activity; in fact, those words may be sought out during a sexual encounter. Now, I’m not going to spend time on the ins and outs of safe and consensual kinky sex, except to say that the cornerstones are, you guessed it, communication and trust. So safe words are vitally important.

No, I didn’t talk to my kids about kinky sex — that will come sometime in the future. See, my kids love and enjoy each other and wrestle and horseplay a lot. While overwhelmingly it’s a mutually-enjoyed activity, not infrequently it ends with one injured or aggrieved party. If either of them hear the safe word while wrestling, the wrestling stops, and a check-in happens. It often gets forgotten or the tears or wails come before someone utters "origami" (the current safe word).

Last week in the car, a vigorous round of rough housing (yes, while strapped down by seat belts and in booster seats) ended because the safe word was spoken. My older son then said it was an inappropriate use of the safe word because his brother wasn’t hurt. We talked about setting rules for when the word is to be used. I made recommendations, they made the decisions, and I reinforced the need to always respect its use. No crying wolf now.

We also talked about what ought to happen after the safe word is used, which is to find out what went down. It shouldn’t just end the activity but rather make way for a straight up conversation to find out why the activity needed to be stopped and whether there were any misunderstood needs or perspectives.

For my kids, and everyone, the value is all about developing communication skills. Whether during a physical romp of sex with a partner or a bout of wrestling with a sibling, communication is key. And that is not part of the message that Rihanna is communicating when she sings “Now the pain is my pleasure. Cause nothing could measure. Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.”

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  1. I love it.

    Full Disclosure – I don't have kids. But I've always wondered why parents don't take these opportunities like you have. Bravo I say. Bravo!!

    12 agree
  2. holy crap, this is so smart.
    SO smart.

    not only because it allows for a seamless future conversation with your kids if you a part of the BDSM lifestyle, but beacuse this reinforces CONSENT.

    I LOVE THIS.

    27 agree
    • Thanks very much for the feedback. When consent-based curriculum is met with alarm I've never understood it. This is basic communication skill development. We don't need to use the word consent with 4 or 5 year olds but we certainly need to teach it!

      14 agree
  3. This is a great idea. When I was little, my dad taught my sister and I to use a safe word but in a different way. He told us if any stranger ever asked us to go somewhere with them for any reason, they would know and say the safe word so we knew it was safe to go with them. Luckily no scary encounters ever happened but it really helped to cement the idea of not going anywhere with a stranger.

    11 agree
  4. Great idea! ANYTHING that supports analyzing what you are and aren't ok with, communicating that effectively, and respecting other people's boundaries is extraordinarily valuable to learn. Especially with kids. Well done, you!

    4 agree
  5. I love this, and totally am going to start using it. Thanks for the suggestions!

    2 agree
  6. I'm an actor specializing in stage combat, and safe words are useful for us as well– we set them for particularly intense scenes or fights when we might need to stop that action without the audience knowing. Very useful stuff, and it prompts conversations about taking care of your scene partner.

    15 agree
  7. Yay teaching consent to children! I love the proactive approach you've taken with your children, and I especially love how when they say the safe word, it's not the end of the fight, but the beginning of a discussion.

    I am a Montessori teacher for 3-6 year old children, and I am constantly working to help teach young children consent. For me, it's very important that "No" means "No," and that "Stop" means "Stop." Whether it's children playing with children, or adults playing with children, "No" should always mean "No." Even if you're having a tickle fight with your child, and they jokingly say "Stop," as adults we should stop. If the child was truly joking, they will ask you to start again, but it's incredibly important that they fully understand the consent here. "No" means "No," and "Stop" means "Stop."

    When these 3-6 year old children grow up, they will find themselves in different situations, and I'd like to think that the children in my class will feel empowered enough to say "No" or "Stop" when they are in a situation they find uncomfortable, and that the children who find themselves on the other side of it will listen. Consent at age 16, 18, or 21 begins with teaching consent at age 3.

    31 agree

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