There's an old saying: you can go to a munch and ask ten people, "What does kink mean to you?" And you'll get ten different answers.
Everyone comes to their own definitions from their own histories and perspectives. And while yes, our vocabulary has to have some kind of commonality—you can't say "chair" and mean table—where that commonality ends varies a lot.
But there is one word that does not vary. It is a word that is common to just about every dungeon, party, munch, and every other kink event in the country:
And that word is RED.
RED means NO. RED means STOP. RED means NO JOKING AROUND, I REVOKE MY CONSENT TO WHATEVER IT IS YOU ARE DOING.
Because "no" may or may not actually mean "no," and "stop" may or may not actually mean "stop"; it depends on what's been negotiated between the players involved. But RED is universally understood and accepted as the failsafe switch; there's no playing around with that.
Yelling RED in a room full of kinky people is like yelling FIRE in a theater: people are going to look, and more than one will probably come a-runnin' with the hose.
There is no joking around with that word.
Newbies are taught the sanctity of the word as soon as they enter the scene. "If you want your scene to stop at any point, say RED," they are told. Other words can be negotiated between themselves and their play partners at later times; safewords can be arranged.
But RED is always the starting point.
Which is great, in my opinion. Having the same word understood by everyone in the BDSM community is a powerful tool. But here's where we drop the ball, and fail with newbies, as far as I'm concerned: we don't talk about what comes after.
What is supposed to happen after someone cries RED?
My Husband and I do not have safewords, not in the conventional kinky sense—at least, not the way I view them. I do have a safeword I can use so I can tell him, quickly and pointedly, that whatever he is doing is doing me harm.
#1 rule: "Protect the property." Sometimes, that means telling Owner that what he is doing is going to do more damage to the property than he realizes. Because let's face it, Doms, Masters, Owners—they're not mind readers. They do make mistakes, and sometimes, they get just as caught up in the heat of the moment as us subs.
But that safeword I have with Husband is not a demand to stop the scene. It is a passing of information of sorts: I am making sure he knows what he is doing is damaging the property, and will therefore have consequences. Whether he stops or not is still up to him. That is the part of our dynamic.
Nobody else has that privilege with me. With all my other play partners, RED means stop, period. It is not a notification, or a request: it is a demand. Whatever play we are engaged in must immediately end.
But then what?
The first time I used RED with a play partner in the middle of a scene was fairly recently. I was in his dungeon, and he was tying me up in a way that was very quickly becoming triggering for me. He didn't know it. I didn't even know how bad it was getting...I didn't know my thoughts were spiraling out of control.
I'm used to playing on a thin line, that high-wire of emotion where the cord is stretched and the fall is deep...but while I may often teeter, I usually manage to regain control before I go over.
Every step brings me closer to new heights. It's a thrill of a walk.
But this time, I went over.
I didn't even know it at first. It was my Top's slave who finally sensed it, understood things had gone too far inside my own head, and let her Owner know. And it was he who really put a stop to our scene—he just asked me for confirmation once he had already stopped.
"Do you need to call red?" He asked me gently.
"Yes," I said. And I burst into tears.
Every second after that felt like an eternity, even though it only lasted a few minutes. He untied me with calm demeanor and soothing words. I continued to cry. His slave brought me tissues, I think.
Then he sat down nearby and told me we needed to relax for a few minutes.
In those few minutes, all I could think of was that he was now too afraid to play with me.
We had planned this whole scene—this whole night—and I had just ruined it. Because I had called red, and red meant the scene was over. No more S/m. No more play.
We had never discussed before what would happen if I called red, and now, we were flying blind.
In truth, he was not thinking along the same lines as I was, not at all. He was taking a moment to stop, refocus, and think about how he wanted our scene to continue. He would have been perfectly willing to stop our scene, had it been necessary. But in that moment, he just wanted to move me as far away from my trigger as possible.
But the longer he sat there, the more despondent I became. I was damaged goods, I was weak, I was broken, I was too fragile to play with—those were the thoughts going through my head.
To be clear: I did not regret confirming his red. It needed to be done. But now came the fallout, and I didn't know how I was going to deal with that, because I didn't know what to expect.
The "fallout" only lasted a few minutes, like I said.
I believe I flat-out yelled at him, "I am not broken, don't look at me like that."
In that moment, he realized how disappointed I was in myself. He retook control of the situation, and of me. He decided on a successful continuation of the evening.
So it continued. And it was not just a success, it was fucking amazing.
It had almost been a complete catastrophe. But sometimes, recovering from a near-catastrophe brings its own newfound joy.
RED is important. RED is an awesome thing to have in our arsenal. But part of negotiations, along with things like boundaries, limits, and aftercare, should be what happens if someone cries RED.
•Does it mean the play must pause for a discussion, but will then continue along another vein?
•Does it mean all play must end, and negotiated aftercare must begin?
•Does it mean all contact whatsoever must stop?
•Does it mean a violation of consent has already occurred, and an apology must be given if the relationship is to continue at all?
(I hope that last one gave you a moment of whoa. It was meant to. I have met too many bottoms who think like this, and in my opinion, they are doing a disservice to their Tops.)
In a way, RED should be a plan of action, much like aftercare or check-in (for those who negotiate that). All parties involved should be on the same page what RED means, and what it requires of all players. It should be part of preliminary negotiations.
And then, hopefully, used only rarely.