There are sexual experiences that can strip you of believing you have bodily autonomy, feeling safe in your own body, especially during sexual encounters. These leave you feeling powerless over your own sexuality. It could be through sexual violence such as rape and molestation, aggressive sexual coercion from a partner and unwanted touching, workplace harassment, or anything in between or beyond. Individuals who survive these singular or multiple experiences can carry trauma that follows them through their sexual life.
As someone who has survived multiple years of sexual abuse and multiple experiences with rape, I found myself grappling with how to get past the mental scars and trauma. I tried many things, including meditation, music, and porn, but they failed to work for me. The first time I used safe words with a partner that wasn’t “stop,” which can be triggering, it was liberating, freeing, and I was eager to do so again.
Here’s how safe words — a designated word you say when sexual play with a partner becomes too intense, painful, or creeps past your boundaries — helped me and can help you too.
Safe words empower you to communicate directly without going into detail.
Like many survivors, I struggled to assert myself and my needs. However, using words such as “red,” “yellow,” and “green” to indicate my comfort level was positive. I could communicate without over-explaining, which can be a barrier to speaking up. Other words that aren’t related to the traffic light analogy such as “grandma,” “lettuce,” fire,” and “T-Rex” can be used too.
Once you use the safe word, all sex has to stop. It can’t resume until both partners discuss why one party used the word.
The most important component when using safe words is having a supportive partner who listens to you. They must understand that anything can have the potential to push you out of your comfort zone. Checking in with one another throughout sex is key to ensuring that everything is consensual. It also helps to make sure that everyone is on the same page and truly comfortable. With safe words, a survivor is able to control their sexual interactions, and having a supportive partner can be restorative.
Using the safeword without judgement helps a survivor see that their trauma isn’t a weakness.
The minute you feel anxious, triggered, or uncomfortable with an act or a position you should use whatever safe word you both agreed upon. Do not worry about what your partner will be thinking. Moreover, know that it is more than okay to assert your boundaries. The use of the word can give you time to reflect on exactly what you want them to do or not do. Then, you can discuss your boundaries more thoroughly. Your trauma isn’t a weakness. Instead, it’s something that can open the door to much more exploration that keeps consent and triggers in mind.
Safe words can give survivors a sense of control back to them, a key component for healing.
When I was raped by an ex-boyfriend, saying “stop,” “get off of me,” and “you’re hurting me” didn’t stop him from inflicting violence on me. Instead, he continued to get more aggressive, and ultimately took away my feeling of control within sexual encounters. Although the experience took my faith in the word “stop” away from me, I learned how to regain control by using other safe words such as “pumpernickel.” For the first time, I felt in control over every part of an encounter.
Safe words remind you that your body is yours.
During the years of molestation I went through during childhood, my body never felt as if it belonged to me, but to my abuser. It also felt as if the things that were happening to me were happening outside of me. Almost like they were happening to someone else. Afterward, I struggled to feel as though my body was actually mine and not working against me somehow. Safeword usage helped me see that I can indeed have a say over what happens to me and that someone listens to me in full. Survivors’ bodies are always theirs and they are allowed to assert that at any point and for any reason.
Safe words have helped me come a long way since I began this journey to reclaim my sexuality after trauma. Like with so many survivors, my road to healing is ongoing and I’m still learning about how to set boundaries with partners properly. But safe words have shown me that healing is possible and that sexuality doesn’t have to be lost. You can have power over your body and you are not broken, but strong.
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