The risk for getting injured in rope applies to "traditional" partnered tying as well as to self-tying, of course. However, the dangers involved in self-bondage are a bit different than for partnered bondage, and there are some unique safety considerations. Even if all possible safety precautions are taken, this is never a risk-free activity! Knowing some of the potential pitfalls can help you mitigate the dangers and practice in a risk aware manner. There have been many fatalities caused by self-bondage – you can read some case reports here. The overwhelming risk factor in those fatal cases was being alone in bondage, which is why I strongly advocate for always having a spotter and never self-tying alone.
All the basic dangers of partnered bondage (including fainting, fall, rope marks, nerve damage, etc) also apply to self-suspension. Nerve damage is especially important to learn about – lots more details on that topic can be found at this site! I have given myself nerve damage in a hip harness self-suspension – these types of injuries can definitely happen no matter how experienced you are or how many safety measures you have in place.
Since many people come to self-suspension with a background in partnered suspension, comparing the safety profile of the two provides a relative context to start building risk awareness for self-suspension. With that in mind, consider the following ways in which self-suspension is more (and in some cases, less) risky than "traditional" partnered bondage:
Some general factors that can make self-suspension riskier than partnered suspension (and some ideas on how can we control for those) include:
Some general factors that can make self-suspension in some ways lower risk than partnered suspension include:
Drops are another major self-suspension risk. Drops are relatively rare, but can have devastating results. Some precautions you can take to decrease the odds of a dangerous self-drop:
When you’re learning (or experimenting with something new), hang your hard point very low – being an inch off the ground totally counts as a suspension!
Keep careful, conscious track of your critical line (this is the line that’s keeping your head from hitting the ground), and don’t adjust or remove one critical line before completely securing another. For example, securely tie off a chest harness, then raise and securely tie off the hips, then disconnect the chest for an inversion… and securely tie off the chest again before lowering the hips. A spotter can also help track this. Adjusting critical lines on the fly is a more advanced and risky move, so work your way up to it.
Use rated rope for your uplines and properly rated hardware.
Assess your hardpoint and use your own judgement regarding its safety.
Use a crash pad, or at least a mat. I have a crash pad like the ones climbers use for bouldering. It was a bit expensive, but I’ve dropped myself onto it once and can assure you that the investment was totally worthwhile.
Always self-suspend with a knowledgeable spotter who can double check the safety of your tie-offs, transitions, etc.
With self-suspension, it’s crucial to start getting down before you are over tired. You must have enough body awareness to save some mental physical reserves to safely get to the ground.
When undoing a suspension, remember that generally it gets worse before it gets better; you will usually make the suspension more strenuous just at the point when you’re almost done, because undoing lines to come down will make the suspension more intense. If you’re experimenting, take all these factors into account, and work with a spotter. Ideally, your spotter should be someone with experience at least in partnered suspension, if not self-suspension. See the next section for lots more information on spotters!
There is risk to everything that we do – you could get hit by a car while you're walking across the street. Risk awareness and mitigation are key, because some types of bondage are more like strolling across the street in the crosswalk on a sunny day after looking both ways, and some are more like running across a busy highway on a rainy night wearing all black. No one is suggesting that you always wear a helmet while crossing the street. But knowing what the specific risks are and taking reasonable steps to mitigate those risks goes a long way.
Before you take to the air for any type of suspension, it’s crucial to evaluate your health and consider your own individual risk factors. Health conditions increase certain risks, and at some point the risks outweigh the rewards of a given activity and we sit back and say, hmmm, maybe it’s not such a good idea to do that. If you have frequent seizures, you aren’t permitted to drive. If you are on blood thinners, your doctor will likely advise you not to go downhill skiing.
Likewise, there’s some kinky shit that you probably shouldn’t do if you have certain health conditions. Someone with poorly controlled diabetes probably shouldn’t bottom for bastinado (caning the feet), and someone on coumadin (a potent blood thinner) shouldn’t bottom for play piercing. This is simply about being rational regarding the risk-vs.-reward ratio of any given activity.
With this in mind, check this page for a summary of conditions that at the very least require extra caution, awareness, and expertise for self-suspension. In some cases these issues may make certain suspension positions or practices particularly (and probably unacceptably) risky, or may mean someone shouldn’t self-suspend at all—these conditions all exist on a continuum, and evaluation needs to take into account the entire picture of your health and fitness, not just a single diagnosis. I’ve included both the health issues, and some thoughts on what they mean for suspension.
Weight is less important than overall fitness both in assessing health in general, and in considering your safety and ability to self-suspend. Tying yourself up and hanging in the air can be very strenuous! Dynamic sequences involving drops and position changes or especially challenging suspensions require a high level of fitness and body awareness. This is not to imply that dynamic suspensions are more dangerous than static suspensions—in some cases they are safer, but often they do require more athletic ability. The best parallels I can think of are yoga or circus arts training (bar, hoop, silks). Are you healthy and fit enough, at whatever size, for those activities? You may need to build fitness before you can do the more strenuous types of self-suspension (should you choose to do those types of rigs at all).
The fitness needed and strain involved in self-suspension are eminently scalable, it is not an all-or-nothing either-you-can-do-it-or-you-can’t activity. If you want to do strenuous, dynamic suspensions (and there’s no reason you have to; they’re not everyone’s kink), be realistic and spend some time training! Rigging involves practice, skill, and training; being suspended (by others or by yourself) also utilises many skills, like body awareness, balance, and core strength. Just as a skilled rigger can meet at bottom wherever they are in terms of fitness and body size, so too can you adjust your ties to your body and find a level of tying that’s comfortable, fun, and safe for you.
It’s important to note that both ends of the weight spectrum have some additional considerations for self-suspension. Very thin people are at higher risk for acute compression nerve injury and can have comfort issues when common ties cause a lot pain where rope presses up against bone without much padding. Logistical challenges for larger-bodied people include difficulty seeing the knots/tensions when tying certain types of harnesses and challenges with finding the best rope placement and avoiding rope rolling and moving out of place.
Self-suspension is not about brute strength. Personally, I can't even come close to doing a single pull-up, but I can do lots of dynamic moves in the air. If you have a higher strength-to-weight ratio (meaning that you are strong relative to your own body weight—if I can lift 120 pounds and weigh 200 pounds, things will be more difficult than if I can lift 200 pounds and weigh 120 pounds), you will have a much easier time repositioning yourself (especially hoisting yourself up). A higher strength-to-weight ratio allows some self-suspenders to accomplish through brute force moves that the rest of us have to put more thought into accomplishing… but a lot of the time we can accomplish them! Much can be achieved with body awareness and knowing how to move, balance, and manipulate your center of gravity. I’ve certainly seen larger bodied people who were extremely capable and graceful in the air. You can learn to leverage your weight to your advantage, at any size.
One issue to consider is whether your spotter will be able to partially support your weight to help you in an emergency situation. If the answer is “no,” one possible work-around is to set up a pulley system and do your rigging from that, so that even a relatively small spotter can safely lower you to the ground quickly if needed. Pulley systems create an additional layer of complexity and potential point of failure, so this is an area where additional expertise is required. You should also keep a step stool, chair, or “apple box” (a 1-2 foot high, 2 foot square box that is ideal for this purpose) nearby. If you get stuck, having your spotter pull that under you so you can use it to take some weight off the ropes can be very useful.
There is a spectrum of opinions regarding the use of spotters for self-bondage, and something of a gap exists between what people say should be done and what many people actually do. I will definitely go on record recommending that you never self-suspend alone. Being bound and alone (either self-tying or being left alone by a top) is highly dangerous, as fatalities can attest to.
Given that many people get into self-suspension because they don’t have a partner to tie them, how can you find a spotter? Some ways are:
Finding (or making!) a friend who also self-ties, and taking turns spotting each other
Asking experienced riggers in your area to spot for you, perhaps in exchange for a service you could provide for them
Finding someone who’s interested in learning self-suspension and exchanging mentoring for spotting (just be sure you teach them how to be a spotter first – the articles below are a good starting place!)
Recruiting housemates, partners, or friends to be spotters
Practicing at a peer rope workshop or similar gathering where others are available and willing to help if needed
Asking people assigned to monitor safety at parties and events, often called “dungeon monitors” (DMs) or playspace monitors. Responses will vary based on the knowledge, comfort level, and duties of the individual DMs, but it’s worth making the inquiry!
One of the things to keep in mind is that it’s not enough to have a pair of eyes and ears—those eyes and ears needs to be attached to a person who can recognize an emergency and know what to do. What if you pass out? What if you fall? Do they know where your safety scissors or rescue hook is, and how to use it? Do they know what procedure to follow in an emergency? There are entire classes offered on this subject (sometimes called “Suspension Rescue”) – take one if you can, and if you have a regular spotter, encourage them to go as well. Since many of us self-suspenders spot for each other, this is crucial knowledge for all of us. The following articles contain some helpful basic knowledge:
It’s crucial to discuss with your spotter how they can best help facilitate your solo scene. Some self-suspenders like their spotter to provide anticipatory service, such as moving objects out of the way, offering water, helping pick up that piece of rope that’s just out of reach, etc. For others, that sort of “help” completely disrupts their scene, and they want to be left totally alone unless they ask for assistance or clearly have an emergency.
Do you want your spotter to watch you intently, because that’s what makes you feel safe? Or does someone staring at you seem too intrusive and you’d rather they were there, listening and nearby, but mostly focused on something else? Consider what will make your solo scenes fly, and don’t expect your spotter to be a mind reader – clearly communicate what you need from them.
I know some people use “safe calls” or have someone watching them over a video service like Skype instead of having a spotter on site. I think this can give a false sense of security, as things can go wrong extremely quickly. A spotter from afar calling 911 so medics can find your body when you've been dead for just 10 minutes does not, to me, seem markedly better than finding my body the next day. I realize that sounds dramatic, but we are dealing with dangerous practices here, and it's important to keep in mind that while risks can be mitigated, they can never be eliminated, and many are unpredictable.
As many self-tyers see spotting as a service someone provides them, it’s common for people to give back to their spotters in various ways. This can be as simple as taking turns spotting each other, offering them a massage afterwards, or plying them with baked goods. Consider how to provide an exchange that energetically feeds everyone involved, and you’ll get to do happy (and safe) self-suspension with spotters who will be delighted to come back and spot for you again!
Inversion (where the head goes below the heart) requires special consideration. There is actually quite a bit of literature specific to this topic—on the use of “inversion tables” to treat back pain and on the safety of various inverted yoga poses. A few things happen when you’re inverted—for one, the weight of your abdomen (including organs and fatty tissue) presses up against your diaphragm, making it harder to breathe. Your intrathorasic pressure (pressure inside your chest) is increased. especially if you strain or hold your breath while inverted, which us perverts are known to do. Your intracranial pressure (pressure inside your head) is also increased when you invert. Blood pressure is increased.
Common contraindications listed for inversion in the literature include high blood pressure, glaucoma or other eye problems, pregnancy, cardiovascular disease, diabetes (degree of diabetic control is the key here; some diabetic people can invert and some probably should not), and ear or sinus infections. As a side note, most articles on yoga inversion I researched also listed menstruation as a contraindication for inversion. The only reason I could find for this had to do with beliefs about chakra energy flow rather than anything I would consider a medical contraindication.
After all this discussion of risks and ways to practice safer self-suspension, I'd be remiss to not mention the concept of risk compensation. This idea has been around for centuries, and is sometimes also referred to as the “Peltzman effect” after an economist who studied automotive safety. “The concept is that humans have an inborn tolerance for risk—meaning that as safety features are added to vehicles and roads, drivers feel less vulnerable and tend to take more chances. The feeling of greater security tempts us to be more reckless.” –Smithsonian Magazine
I have experience with this phenomenon myself. Before giving myself nerve damage in a hip harness, I was quite cocky, feeling myself to be impervious to any hip-harness related maladies. I was taking more and more risks and paying less attention. When the injury happened, I was using a single-wrap hip harness (all of about 20 feet of rope) in an extremely dynamic way, in repeated, intense sessions over the course of a few weeks. You chip away at your margin for error, bit by bit, and eventually that margin disappears and shit goes sideways. I'm grateful that the price I paid for this lesson was only a mild, temporary injury. As the proverb goes: “Experience is the best teacher… but the tuition is high.”
Remember that all these safety measures are only as effective as your ability to continue executing your basic self-suspension skills. Be aware that as you take steps to increase safety, you're also prone to be more willing to take risks, and that may counteract safety benefits. Don't fall in the trap of thinking you have infallible safety measures in place (and therefore can certainly attempt that tricky new transition without a spotter around) or are invincible—even though we all feel that way sometimes!
“One big challenge is simply in learning. Not a lot of classes are out there for self-tying or suspension, and a lot of suspension stuff relies way too heavily on TK, which I obviously cannot tie on myself.”—Azura Rose
“I've always had a love of rope, and for a long time had very few prospects for tying on others. Getting into rappelling in my early twenties became an factor in learning self-suspension; discovering the fun of inverting myself and swinging wildly while on rope... that type of movement is not necessary to sport rappelling, so probably an early clue. ;)”—Anacharsis
“I had a friend that taught me the basics of rope, and oversaw my first two self suspensions. After that, it was a lot of self teaching, experimenting, and finding out what works for me and my body.”—Pepper Pots
“I started as a rope bunny and got frustrated when my partner at the time would struggle with learning ties, but they would come naturally to me since I have worked with rope for over 20 years (I am in the Navy!). I started to self tie for practice since I wanted to learn myself and then I found videos of people self-suspending online which led me to start self-suspending. I have since sought out experienced people who self suspend in order to get tuition. It's huge fun and I enjoy the mental challenge!”—Angel666Sub
Self-suspension has a relatively high bar for entry, combining the requirements of bottoming (body awareness, tolerance, etc.) with the requirements of topping (technical knowledge, possessing the physical supplies, etc.). It demands an extremely high degree of knowledge about your own body, as well as your physical and mental limits.
Self-suspension is still not very widely or publicly practiced, so learning how to do it is often the first challenge people face. When I started experimenting with self-suspension, I didn’t know a single person in my area I could look to as a mentor, and there were zero classes offered… and I live in San Francisco, arguably the kink capital of the US (if not the world)! I'd only seen a small handful of people self-suspend, none of whom lived anywhere near me. I couldn't even find videos on the topic. I ended up taking what I knew from years of experience with partnered bondage and applying it to self-bondage. This is reasonable but hardly optimal, as it doesn’t translate 100%. My experience of largely being self-taught was part of the inspiration for starting this site! These days there are also many more events and classes that feature self-suspension education.
Since many of us who do self-suspension are basically self-taught, we tend to struggle a lot with imposter syndrome (“a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”)—this makes it extra challenging to find someone willing to teach these skills. I still struggle with this when I teach suspension in general, and self-suspension particularly.
Self-tying is a very creative form of bondage. There is a lot to be said for the combined wisdom of the community; however there is also much to be said for being creative and coming up with what works for you. Use established suspension safety wisdom and skills to mitigate risks and practice in a safer manner (and never self-suspend alone), but remember that particular ties are not the “twue” way. They were created by people… and you can also create your own ties! Self-bondage is an amazing opportunity to workshop and experiment with new and innovative ideas.