Basic Suspension Safety [Level 3]

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Article:

The Golden Rule of Risky Business

Any time someone is tied in such a way that the rope can end up supporting their body weight, the risks are significantly stepped up. The most important factor in managing this extra risk is to acknowledge one simple fact:

You are going to fuck up.

Everybody makes mistakes, eventually. If you develop your technique based upon the assumption of your own infallibility, when you finally do make a mistake, the consequences could be severe. Instead, I recommend forming, and practicing, and constantly reminding yourself, of the following habit:

Always be more than one fuckup away from disaster.

This means employing redundancy, both in your external technique -- using ties where a single thing wrong won't cause critical failure -- and in your internal technique -- giving yourself checkpoints and checklists to verify your own thinking at critical junctures.

In this article, and in the course of illustrating various suspension techniques, I'll talk about some examples of how I apply this principle, but they are only that -- examples. You may develop your own methods, and you certainly will encounter new situations. At the end of the day, safety is not a technique, but a mindset. Learn to look for what might go wrong in any circumstance, and then apply the above rule, always keeping in mind that you are the most likely thing to go wrong.

Knowing When You Are Ready

Almost everybody suspends before they are really ready. When I think back to my own first suspensions, I wince at how little I knew then. On the other hand, I managed to get through the learning process -- with many fewer resources than are available today -- without ever injuring anybody. Was that luck? Probably in part. But I believe it's also in part due to applying the philosophy I discussed above.

Let's back up a second and delve into what I mean when I say ready. I could teach someone with no experience and a bit of aptitude all the ties needed to get a person into the air in the course of an afternoon. However, just because they could go through all the steps to correctly suspend someone doesn't mean they could safely perform suspensions. The largest part of not being a hazard to everyone you suspend is being able to respond appropriately when the unexpected happens. This is something that is much harder to measure, and to train for, than correctly tying some harness or other. There are two main things that go into it:

  • Being confident enough in what you're doing to calmly, but quickly evaluate how to respond to an emergency
  • Having a wide enough range of experience that taking one or two steps off your planned path doesn't put you in completely unfamiliar territory

The more experience you gain on the floor before attempting suspension, the more familiar you become with how rope behaves in a wide variety of circumstances, and the more comfortable, natural, and effortless it becomes to make the rope do what you want. This is critical because in a suspension emergency, you are already juggling factors of time, gravity, and body mechanics; you're not going to have spare attention for figuring out how to tie and untie knots -- you want the actual handling of the rope to already be second nature.

That said, there are other aspects of suspension that the only way to prepare for them is to do them. So just as important as when you start suspending is how you start suspending. At the beginning, you want to do everything possible to reduce the potential consequences when you fumble something, including:

  • Always having people nearby to help if you get into trouble
  • Asking a more experienced practitioner to monitor or assist you
  • Keeping your bottom's chest statically attached to the ring, so that they can't possibly hit their head
  • Leaving your bottom's arms free while entering and leaving suspension, so that they can protect themselves if something goes wrong
  • Avoiding ties which have a high risk of nerve injury, restrict circulation, and/or have a high level of discomfort
  • Tying over a mat

If you have the opportunity to tie an experienced suspension bottom when you are doing your first suspensions, they will be more able to tell you whether things feel right, help spot impending safety hazards, and provide feedback to help you improve, thus not only making the learning process safer but also accelerating your development as a rigger.

More suggestions can be found in this discussion thread on the topic.

Tying at Your Level

There are people whom, despite their being pleasant individuals and very skilled riggers, I don't recommend my friends to tie with solely because they aren't able to recognize the limits of their own capabilities. Conversely, there are fairly novice riggers whom I don't hesitate to encourage my loved ones to play with, because even though they are not amazingly skilled in absolute terms, they know what they can and cannot do, and play within the envelope of what they can safely achieve.

What you should be gathering here is that your knowledge about yourself is more important than your knowledge about rope. If you have a skill level of 10 but choose a tie with a difficulty of 12, you're putting your bottom at far more risk than someone with a skill of 5 doing a tie with a difficulty of 3.

The vast majority of humans have never seen or been in any type of rope suspension. This means that as soon as you start performing suspensions with even a shred of competence, you are likely to be surrounded by people (probably including your partner(s)) telling you that you are amazing. Do not believe them.

The best way I know to accurately judge whether you're tying within your ability is to step back and mentally observe yourself a little while you're playing. Look for signs like these:

  • Do you feel rushed, trying to get one thing done before another becomes a problem?
  • Are you nervous, jittery, or full of adrenaline?
  • Are you focused on thinking about the technique, or what you need to do next, rather than paying attention to your partner's reactions?
  • Do you suddenly feel awkward handling the rope, fumbling things you thought you had down?

If your answer to some or all of these is "yes" -- and especially if that is your prevailing feeling throughout the scene -- you are likely pushing yourself dangerously beyond your abilities. That said, a little self-awareness of your level of self-awareness is helpful here. People who are obsessively self-critical are likely to read that list and say "but I can think of times I feel that way in almost every scene!". We of course all have moments of uncertainty; if you're never near your edge, you're probably not learning much or having a very interesting time. What you don't want is to be constantly beyond your edge.

Preflight

Often what goes wrong during a scene can be traced back to something which happened -- or didn't happen -- before the scene even started. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Pissed Play Partners, or something like that.

Interviewing Your Bottom

The most important aspect of preparing for a scene is establishing communication with your partner. The things I like to discuss prior to a rope suspension scene fall mostly into three categories:

Present Condition

I'd estimate that more than half of the occasions on which I've had to interrupt or abort a rope scene had to do with food and/or hydration. Bottoms that are new to rope suspension tend to underestimate how demanding it will be on their body, and experienced bottoms tend to overestimate their powers of mind-over-matter, so I try to ask these questions every time, even when it may feel silly to do so:

  • When did you last eat?
  • Are you thirsty?
  • How are you feeling in general today?
  • Have you been sick recently?
  • Did you sleep well last night?
  • Is anything sore today?
  • Is the temperature here comfortable for you? (cold decreases durability; heat increases fainting risk)
  • Do you want to use the bathroom before we start?

A lot of this information can be elicited in casual conversation when you first meet your partner for the day, to make it feel less like an interrogation. I try to always get my partner holding a glass of water by the time we get down to serious negotiation, regardless of whether they said they are thirsty.

Personal History

I want to know as much as I can about my bottom's body before putting it under stress. Some questions I like to ask new partners include:

  • Do you have any medical conditions?
  • ...physical limitations?
  • ...recent or old injuries that still bother you, even occasionally?
  • ...allergies? If you have an inhaler or EpiPen, where is it? Can you show me how to use it?

Jim Duvall suggests that a good way to add redundancy to the interview process is to also ask "when was the last time you were in a hospital?". Shay suggests asking for a list of current medications, which may provide information about medical conditions someone no longer thinks about -- she also has an article on the particularly high risks of blood thinners.

If using hemp rope, you may want to ask specifically about grass allergies. Hemp allergy is rare, but when present is usually associated with other plant allergies.

I also want to know about my bottom's past experiences with rope. Beyond just asking about level of experience, some questions that help draw out more specific information include:

  • What particular positions do you know work well or poorly for you?
  • What's the most difficult tie you've been in?
  • What has been your favorite rope scene, and what made it good for you?
  • Have you ever been injured in rope, or had a rope scene go really badly?

The answers to these questions also give you invaluable information about what an individual enjoys in rope, and are a good kicking-off point for general negotiation about the parameters for your scene.

Risk Awareness and Management

In order to receive their informed consent, I need to be sure that my partner fully understands and agrees to the risks involved in the play we're planning. Thus, I prefer to give new partners an overview of those risks, even if they claim to be fairly experienced:

  • I discuss the possibility of their skin being marked, and ask if there are any areas they want me to avoid.
    • Impressions in the skin in the pattern of the rope generally fade in a few hours
    • Bruising, either from direct pressure or petechia where circulation is restricted, may last up to a couple weeks
    • Rope burn can last up to 6 months or even longer depending on severity (but usually only occurs in more extreme or dynamic suspensions)
  • I explain that the most severe bondage injuries tend to involve being dropped, and that I'm taking responsibility for not dropping them.
  • I go over the warning signs of nerve compression, explain that while I do everything I can to reduce risks they must also be vigilant in listening to their body, and re-iterate that I want to know about any tingling, numbness, or unusual sensation. If I'm planning a tie that has specific known nerve risks, like a TK, I'll often call those out individually as well.

Finally, I train them on my preferred hand check, and how to do a self hand check (if applicable).

Rigger's Checklist

Once we're at the play area and about to start, I run a quick mental checklist before beginning:

  • Have I inspected the hardpoint?
  • Are there any human, tripping, or other hazards in the environment?
  • Where are my safety cutters? Are they visible and in reach?

A Note on Mats

Particularly for the knees, elbows, and head, a small bit of padding on a hard floor can make the difference between a minor bump and a serious injury. I always prefer to tie on a mat when it's a feasible option. There are, however, new hazards that can be created by mats, which you must be aware of and balance against the benefits:

  1. The mat sliding around under you, particularly when adjusting a lift line -- the time when it's most likely to happen is also when it's most dangerous to lose control, an unfortunate combination.

  2. Tripping over the edges of the mat. Usually less hazardous to the bottom than #1, but also hazardous to the top.

  3. Mats that are too squishy make it hard to keep your balance, especially for a bottom standing on one foot. This is more of an annoyance than a safety hazard, assuming you're aware of and compensate for it.

At home, I have a large expanse of puzzle flooring throughout my studio. I like puzzle flooring because it doesn't tend to suffer from issue #3; it provides very sure footing. However, puzzle floor is impossible to get grit out of if people walk on it with shoes, so it becomes gross very quickly in public spaces.

Medium-thickness high-density wrestling/gym mats can also work well if you have a large enough expanse to prevent their sliding around.

Proper matting, to my mind, makes a suspension scene much more pleasant, as well as safer, because you have a comfortable place to play on the ground and can go back and forth between ground and air.

During Suspension

Mind the Head

Your first, last, and several of the intermediate responsibilities are to keep your bottom's head from coming into rapid contact with the floor.

For this reason, the safest way to perform a suspension is to start by attaching the chest to the ring as the very first thing you do, and leave it attached for the entire length of the suspension. That is exactly what I recommend doing until you become quite proficient at suspending people. Once you move into the realm of techniques where the chest rope is adjusted or absent during suspension, the risks are multiplied.

When Changing Things

Whenever making a change to the situation, in particular adjusting a support line, I try to run a mental checklist that goes something like this:

  • Can I clearly see that the rope I'm touching is actually the rope connected to the part I want to change?
  • Can I clearly see that there isn't anything else connected to the part I want to change or the thing I'm moving that will affect what happens in an unintended way?
  • What sequence of forces is this change going to put on my bottom's body during and after the change? Are those in line with ways their body actually goes?
  • In the course of making this change, if I screw up, can the bottom's head hit the floor?
    • If yes, what can I do to minimize that risk?
  • Is there anything attached to the head/neck?
    • If yes, detach it first
    • If I really want to make other changes while the head is tied in (usually a bad idea), re-run the entire above checklist with triple attention

I'll frequently run through this checklist while I'm preparing a support line to be adjusted, using the time between when it's all neatly dressed and when it's dangling loose and one step away from being fully unlocked. If anything fails the checklist, I can resecure or pause undoing the support line and resolve the issue. If you're not yet sufficiently comfortable with handling support lines that the motions are mostly automatic, I recommend doing the checklist before you start to untie one.

Checking In

I can't give you any simple rule for when to perform hand checks and other check-ins. The most important thing is to maintain an awareness that your perception of time may be distorted while playing. Personally, I'm not good at sitting and watching my bottom chill out/suffer, I always want to be doing something. So if I've just changed something, I use having just finished making a change as my prompt to possibly check in -- or if I haven't changed anything for a while, I use my urge to do something as my prompt to check in. I find it hardest to keep track of time and remember to check in when in the middle of a fun activity not involving changes to the rope, like sex or impact play. My recommendation in that type of case is to plan for your own limitations, and choose safer techniques for when you expect to be more distracted.

Fainting

Always be on the lookout for the following warning signs, which usually mean fainting and/or puking are imminent:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Seeing spots
  • Ringing ears
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Incoherence (unless expected; should know from good negotiation)

An upright position, heat, dehydration, and hunger all increase the chances of fainting -- in fact most instances I've encountered involved at least 3 of those risk factors. While extreme pain is also frequently cited as a cause of fainting, it hasn't been my experience that the intensity of play is a good predictor of fainting in a rope suspension context; in fact I've had a couple people come close to fainting while just standing comfortably on the ground (avoiding locked knees may help prevent that, but is not a panacea).

If somebody starts to feel warning signs of fainting, get them into a seated position on the ground and give them cold water. If they have already lost consciousness, lie them down. Usually they will come around right away once horizontal. For a healthy, young individual with no medical conditions, if they faint under explicable circumstances and immediately recover, it is not likely of great concern, and you may even choose to return to play shortly if some of the contributing factors can be eliminated (e.g. dehydration).

If somebody does not immediately come around when laid out horizontally, check for pulse and breathing, move them into recovery position, and seek emergency medical attention.

For a more complete treatment of responding to fainting, see this article by Shay.

Falls

In case of a fall, the most important non-obvious thing is to not move the bottom until medical assistance arrives. Please read this article for a complete explanation.

Coming Out of Suspension

If someone has been horizontal or inverted, and you are bringing them back to standing, make the transition gradually; bringing someone suddenly upright is likely to cause fainting and/or a nasty headache.

When exiting suspension via a standing position, it's not unusual for bottoms to come down, say they're feeling great, and then pass out 5 seconds later. For this reason, I like to leave the chest attached to the ring (and slightly tensioned) for at least a minute after ending a suspension before letting the bottom stand on their own. If at all uncertain, use the chest line to assist the bottom into a seated or horizontal position on the ground.

It's not unusual for people to be a bit loopy for a while right after an intense suspension scene. Even if you didn't negotiate any aftercare in advance, it's a good idea to stick close for a little while to make sure they don't walk, climb on ladders, drive, etc., before they're ready.

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