[Ads-l] "safe word"

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Wed Mar 1 13:53:06 UTC 2023

I was asked to look into the history of _safe word_, in BSDM use, which (somewhat to my surprise) isn't in OED or Merriam-Webster (Cambridge has it), and I figured I should share my research here.

(In passing, I found 1979 examples of both _top_ and _bottom_ in BSDM use, antedating the OED (1980 and 1982 respectively).)

The very earliest examples are in lesbian contexts, but there are straight uses pretty early as well. Here are the first few I've found:

1979 _Lesbian Glossary of S/M/ Terminology_ in _What Color Is Your Handkerchief? A Lesbian S/M Sexuality Reader_ (Samois) 7 _Safe Word_ A code word partners involved in S/M sex agree to use to Stop! the action immediately.

1981 P. Califia _Feminism & Sadomasochism_ in _Heresies_ (#12) 31/3 The bottom is usually given a 'safe word' or 'code action' she can use to stop the scene. This safe word allows the bottom to enjoy a fantasy that the scene is not consensual, and to protest verbally or resist physically without halting stimulation.

1981 Martha Equinox _If I Ask You to Tie Me Up, Will You Still Want to Love Me?_ in _Lesbian Inciter_ (July) 6/3 It's important to agree on a safe word, something you could say that would automatically stop the action. I find it much easier to really let go when we've agreed on a safe word, & I think because of the intensity it's safer. Besides, sometimes we say 'no' & 'stop' & we don't mean that at all, we're just into it.

1983 G. G. Scott _Erotic Power_ v. 69 Max endured in silence, though Natasha had given him a safe word to use if the session became too tough. But he didn't use it because he felt that crying out to stop the session would be a sign of weakness. Ibid. viii. 115: Couples discuss their likes and limits, and the foursome usually arranges a signal, perhaps a safe word that any member can use to stop an undesired activity.

There are earlier examples in the sense 'a word regarded as socially acceptable in a given context', but I don't really consider these to be very relevant.

Jesse Sheidlower

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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