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Facts and Myths About BDSM Safety

Reposted with the author's permission.

A Note from the Author

As a result of the increasing number of free - usually well meant - BDSM sites, chat facilities and mailing lists on the Internet, the quality of solid BDSM-safety information is decreasing rapidly, mainly due to the fact that people quite often repeat what others write, without properly testing or researching, if the information provided has any bearing. The POWERotics Foundation (http://www.powerotics.com) is committed to providing accurate information about BDSM and has been doing so for the past decade. The article below covers some of the most widely spread myths about BDSM safety: the myths as well as the real facts and solutions. All these subjects cover very basic, common, frequently occurring safety situations - the ones most BDSM-people will encounter once or more often. You may use this article free of copyrights, provided you quote the source of it (POWERotics Foundation/UrbanKink - http://www.powerotics.com).

Kind regards,

POWERotics Foundation
Hans Meijer, chairman

Facts and Myths about BDSM safety

Not everything you find on the Internet, when looking for safety advice, is good information. Much of it in fact forms part of very persistent urban legends. Here is a simple list of first line safety issues: the myth as well as the facts.

First this: much of what is to follow is general advice that can NOT substitute individual medical advice by a professional! Many of the situations, described below, CAN be an indication of more serious problems and trouble. In other words, especially if what is happening has no obvious cause, check with your doctor! Doing that is hardly ever a problem. Doctors have seen it all before and are not there to judge your inclination, but to cure you and your doctor will simply maintain a professional attitude, regardless his own opinions. If you really feel uncertain about your doctor's opinion - turn to a first aid center. These are almost always completely neutral to what it is, people do. They have seen worse, without doubt!

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Bondage safety: the proverbial bandage scissors

No matter how often you read the advice, to have a pair of bandage scissors at hand, in order to quickly cut through ropes and leather in case on an emergency - that will not work. Bandage scissors will hardly ever cut through ropes and most certainly not through leather! All you will do is probably break the scissors.

What to do?

In the majority of cases an ëmergency will be either limbs turning pale or blue or the sub fainting. Neither calls for the type of emergency action, that would require you to cut ropes or restraints. True, fainting especially might be a scary experience if it happens to you for the first time, but there is time enough (and it is probably easier) to simply untie knots and undo buckles and locks.

That leaves real emergencies, such as seizures, heart attacks, et cetera.

Unfortunately, any very sharp knives (the box cutter type) will cut through leather quickly, but these are very unsafe close to the body in an emergency situation.

The only real safe solution is to first of all use common sense. Do not tie up people with a heart, lung, diabetic or similar condition at all, or at the very least do not use complex scenarios with lots of rope or other restraints and only restrain them up when already on a bed or a bench. Also, never ever tie up people who are on psychiatric medication of any kind.

Secondly, your first concern will be oxygen, so make sure this is what you target your first release efforts towards (collars, corsets, ropes around the torso and waist). Next, release wrists and arms, especially if they are restrained on the back and allow for a comfortable position while you release whatever restraints are left. And: immediately after you have secured oxygen intake, call 911 or other emergency services FIRST before continuing your release efforts.

In the case of a real emergency the "bandage scissors" will only make you lose valuable time and your efforts will simply be fruitless. If you feel you need a knife available, buy a sail maker knife (available from nautical shops). These have one rounded top edge, hence are relatively safe to use and will cut through rope (if maintained properly and regularly sharpened!). However, be aware that - even if you mean well - knives and scissors in the hands of someone, who is likely to be close to panic him or herself, who is attempting a rescue are usually dangerous and - involuntarily - will complicate the situation rather than resolve it and create extra risks.

It is not a bad idea for dominants and submissives to do an occasional rescue drill, just so the two of you will gain some experience.

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General safety: panic, hyperventilation and fainting (the "Breath into a paper bag" credo)

In a BDSM-context the sequence: uncertainty, fear, mild panic, hyperventilation and possibly fainting is a very logical one and one that can almost always be prevented quite easily. What many tend to forget is that fear and panic are often not so much the result of what is happening (i.e. the "BDSM action") but that these have a very simple physical cause: dehydration and lack of nutrients! When your body is low on energy (a steamy BDSM scene, followed by an orgasm, takes about the equivalent of the energy, used by a professional football player during a match!!!), inexplicable reactions of fear and uncertainty are likely to happen. You can prevent almost all of that through:

  • warming up the muscles prior to active play with some mild stretching exercises or by taking a hot bath or shower
  • making sure there is sufficient sustenance DURING your scene (for both the dominant and submissive partner). Make sure there are simple, fast working nutrients and fluids available (sugar lumps, chocolates, a banana and fruit juice or isotonic (sports) drinks or plain water) and make sure both dom and sub replenish their need for both regularly DURING a scene.

Fainting is the body's natural reaction to an overload of oxygen intake (hyperventilation) or a simple lack of energy (an empty gas tank, so to speak). Hyperventilation is (very) shallow breathing at a high pace, usually but not always combined with sweating, a (much) higher pulse and feelings of fear or anxiety that do not seem to have an obvious cause. Unless (usually frequently and outside the BDSM-realm as well) hyperventilation has an underlying cause (emotional trauma or intense stress of some sort), it is no cause for alarm and although annoying, it is usually not a physically dangerous problem. If nothing else happens the attack will either eventually stop by itself or the body will faint and simply turn off the switch.

Hyperventilation can be caused by a variety of things: the lack of nutrients and fluids as mentioned above, unusual physical positions (such as having had the hands higher than the ears for any length of time or being "folded up"), tight clothing (such as corsets) or the assumption that the intake of oxygen is obstructed in some way (gags, tight ropes, arms behind the back or even a collar). The word ASSUMPTION is used here, because hardly ever will the oxygen-intake be obstructed in such a way, that there is a real cause for alarm, but you should take the assumption just as seriously. It may of course be the result of - previously unrecognized - claustrophobia. Finally, it may be caused by heat (the temperature in the room you are in is something to consider) or just by the intense emotions of the action, going on. Rubber and latex clothing - which is tight fitting and will trigger intense sweating - is also likely to cause hyperventilation and nauseau. The intensified sweating sends the brain misinformation! It tells the brain the body apparently needs cooling and the brain missed the signal, hence the sweating will be intensified even more!

Removing the bondages, restraints or tight fitting clothes, taking a break and eating and drinking something while "sitting it out" (if need be with the head in between the knees) will usually cure the problem. The proverbial "breathing into a paper bag" may help to stop the attack, but it far from always will. In fact, what breathing into a bag does is replace oxygen by your own (oxygen-poor) used air. A body - already assuming it has a lack of oxygen - may very well respond to that by increasing the attack, rather than slowing it down! Bear in mind that hyperventilation is NOT a reasonable, well thought out decision, but an illogical, reflex panic reaction!

Responses to BDSM situations from female submissives especially, may be very different due to their hormonal activity! The menstruation cycle, menopause and pregnancy for example are well known to have a serious influence on physical and emotional responses, but stress from other situations (for example at work or problems with the kids) may also trigger different hormonal reactions.

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General safety: "Being sub before you dom and testing out toys and gear on your own (dominant's) body is a good safety measure"

Well guess what - it is not. In fact, it is actually quite dangerous! First this: if you are person, able to truly feel emotions and impact from both dominant and submissive impulses, you are a switch. There is nothing wrong with that and in that case - to some extent - the above statement might bear some reality.

In general however (even for switches) the following is true:

  • self inflicted impulses (like "feeling the whip" or testing nipple clamps on your hand or even nipples) are totally different from what somebody else does to you, especially if that happens in an entirely different context with emotions raging at a 100 Miles per hour and lots of other impulses. What you felt, when you tested the clamp in the shop, has NOTHING to do with what it feels like to the sub, when used in a scene.
  • people with a predominantly dominant inclination (regardless of what they themselves or others tell them) can not possibly feel the emotions and impulses, someone with a submissive inclination feels, simply because the dominant does not know about the fantasies and emotions of the submissive, does not have them, hence cannot make the complex set of connections to actions, plus fantasies, plus emotions, plus hormonal reactions.

What the above statement does is put you to sleep, based on a false sense of security! There is no possible way anyone can see, read and feel what is going on in someone elses' head, regardless how close they are and especially not when such emotions and fantasies are - although complimentary and hopefully compatible - totally opposite! As a dominant especially, what you should do is be constantly aware of signals and body language and approach every situation from the viewpoint that you do NOT know what is going on, which will make you much more alert. Submissives should not ever assume a dominant is clairvoyant or "knows", regardless of what he or she may tell them.

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General safety: The use of safewords

First this: as a rule of thumb using safewords and safe signals during first and incidental contacts is a good idea. However, in most BDSM-relationships they are considered to be rather silly and useless.


It is highly unlikely someone in a panic situation will remember, let alone use, code signals such as "red", "strawberry" "tugboat", "elephant" or whatever! By all means, use PLAIN LANGUAGE for safewords. "Auch", "Oohh" and "Aahh" are not safewords, but anything that says "Help", "Stop", "Damn", "Shit" or "Fuck (off)" should be taken seriously and at the very least is cause for further investigation. Never ever ignore plain language communication and do not force people to use codewords they are not used to for an alarm signal! They won't and if they do - and do remember - it might simply be too late! Someone having a heart attack or fainting has other things on his or her mind than remembering the correct "safeword"!!!!!

Safewords are handy for mild play situations such as during parties or during first, careful, exploration. Other than that, they are largely nonsense and actually dangerous!

Third: NEVER EVER go on whatever it is you are doing until the submissive partner uses a safeword.

That again is very risky, if not dangerous and at any rate improper. Doing that is (conveniently) placing all responsibility for his or her safety at the subs' shoulders and it does not belong there. Both partners have an equal and individual responsibility towards safety. If you want to be a dominant, be one and that includes taking on the responsibilities that come with the job.

Safety is best served by plain language, which is why people yell "Fire!" when the house a ablaze and not "Safeword!"

Bear this in mind: the average submissive person will make serious attempts to try and follow instructions, provided by the dominant partner and it is far from unlikely they will endanger themselves by trying to remember and use the required safeword when instead "I can't breath!" would have been a much better idea. Besides, submissives in an active scene are on an endorphins rush. This simply renders them temporarily incapable of making any logical decision! The very least you will want to do is to make sure that at least his or her primal reflexes work! Safewords never are and never will become (no matter how hard you "train") primal reflexes!

Articles by and About Hans Meijer