Archive for August, 2009

topping a top
August 23, 2009

Not too long ago, I was approached by a big, bad, burly dyke dominant. She explained her situation to me and asked for some help. In short, she’s relatively new to the BDSM scene and she had been given the clear message by a number of people (and books, and so forth) that if she’s gonna top someone, she’d better bottom first so she knows what it’s like.

This presents her with a bit of a dilemma. She’s one of those fine specimens we call dominants. As in, not a switch and not a submissive. And she’s the responsible sort, so she heeded all this advice and tried a couple of times to arrange to bottom to people so that she could dutifully experience some of the physical sensations (or her own version thereof, at least) that would be inflicting on her various and sundry current and future play partners. Problem is (and perhaps you can see this one coming – I certainly did) that she wound up having a few terrible experiences in which a fellow dominant was more than happy to oblige by whacking her with this or that implement, and was a complete fucking asshole about it. You know the type – “Aha! Finally you have seen the light, and admitted that what you really crave is to submit! On your knees, boy!” Never mind that’s very explicitly not what she was after. She was after an experiment in sensation so as to have a physical reference point from which to approach her own topping. C’est tout. Or, alternately, “Sure, I can top you!” (Insert immediate, forceful blow to tender un-warmed-up ass cheek resulting in a loud “ow!”) “Hahahaha! You’re such a wimp! Hey, everyone, I topped so-and-so and she’s a total wuss!”

I totally get it. This sort of story makes me absolutely seethe, because I’ve experienced it myself. As a dominant who really likes to bottom, I gotta tell ya, finding people who can top me in a way that doesn’t turn into an exercise in pure frustration (and not that good kind) on my part is such a chore that I’ve all but given up. Other dominants often seem to see an invitation to top as a cloaked invitation to dominate – no matter how carefully explained. My anticipation of a good time, and my relaxation into the deliciousness of someone else doing the work so I can ride a wave of pure intense-sensation bliss, has frequently crashed and burned due to poor attitude management on the part of my play date. And if my fellow dominant’s egos are so wrapped up in displaying their own Extreme Glorious Dominance that they’re unable to listen to and respect a clearly stated hard limit about the kind of emotional energies I’m interested in engaging with, then what the heck does that say about the way they must deal with submissives? What does it mean about someone when they are unable – sometimes even though explicitly stating they totally are – to make the distinction between dominance, which is an energetic or emotional approach to a scene (or just about any other interaction), and topping, which is a physical arrangement that’s generally about the application of sensation? How safe is a player, if all they’re really after is a variation on the thing that turns them on, regardless of their negotiations with the other parties involved, and they fail to listen to both pre-stated and in-the-moment statements and signals that they are on the wrong track?

You might think the ideal solution would be to find a submissive or switch who has good topping skills, on the other hand, and recruit them to perform the service of topping. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work out. That’s not to say it never does – I do have a couple of very satisfying scenes in my past that started with me handing over a flogger and saying, “Now, work me until I say stop, and put your back into it.” But many submissive folks seem to just have a very hard time holding their own when asked to beat the hell out of a dominant, especially one whom they are accustomed to treating like a cross between all-powerful untouchable royalty and a delicate flower that needs the gentlest of care. I’ve had too many teeth-gritting experiences in which no matter how many times I barked “Crank it up already!” the submissives in question simply couldn’t bring themselves to give the kind of sustained intense stimulation I require to float off into that happy place. And I must say, hovering just under the edge of flying kinda makes me want to tear my hair out. Not to mention I’ve also had the experience of getting happily beaten by someone who can hold up their end of the bargain, only to see such a scene’s extremely negative effects on submissives with whom I regularly play, such that I needed to provide aftercare to them after it’s all over with. One of them almost assaulted the top in question; another had to leave the room and pace because she couldn’t stand watching someone be “violent” with me.

Now let’s layer on top of that the community response to seeing a Big Domly Dominant get the beats. That alone is enough to discourage many dominants from attempting such an experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with dominants who say they really like to bottom in private, but never in public, because they fear being treated differently once people in their community have been given the opportunity to potentially perceive them as not 110% dominant. In other words, the community as a whole still stubbornly believes that to bottom is necessarily to submit – and if that’s not the message you want to send, then no matter what meaning you personally assign to being on the business end of a whip, be wary of following your desires where anyone else can see you. In other words, if you’re a dominant and you do something other than embody everyone else’s fantasy ideal, potentially to your own detriment, gawd help you.

I’m a bit too stubborn to follow that particular piece of reasoning when it comes to my own play, but it’s not been without its consequences. I remember being in a Montreal club once and asking a large, muscular male friend of mine (a self-identified slave, it’s worth mentioning) to have at me with his heavy flogger for a bit. I was just getting into the rhythm of the delicious thuds against my woefully tense back when another guy, who’d spent a fair bit of time sucking my toes at various fetish parties over the few years prior, walked by. He did a double take and his jaw dropped and he burst out – two feet away from me as the flogger tails kept flying – “but I thought you were a dominant!” I stared at him unsmiling, raised one eyebrow, and said in a deadly serious voice, “Do I look submissive to you?” At which he gulped and said, “Ah, no, I guess not. Sorry.” And went about his business. But the mood of my scene was broken. Thanks a bunch.

But what exactly does that say about a community, if we aren’t able to respect one another’s kinks enough to actually allow them to play out, free of supposition and judgment, in the spaces we create expressly for the purpose of congregating to explore them? What does it say about us that dominants actually do have legitimate reason to fear being treated with disrespect if they display anything other than the full expected package deal of prescribed domly behaviours? What does it say about how we treat submissives in our midst, if, as soon as one is seen as submissive, one is automatically treated with less respect? What does it mean when indulging in our kinks makes us the target for aghast disapproval, mockery, misunderstanding, and unwelcome or inappropriate come-ons? And what does it mean that despite all this, we tell our dominants that in order to be “real” they in fact must go through exactly this kind of alienating experience, otherwise they are necessarily incompetent tops?

So when my friend approached me, it was no surprise that she said to me, “I know you’re going to understand this.” It was no surprise that she took me aside in private to mumble a request for a scene sometime, making quite sure we were out of anyone else’s earshot. I wish it weren’t necessary, but there it is.

Which leads me to the next part of this post: the question of how to top a top and not be an asshole about it. My first suggestion: figure out what they’re after. Really listen. Then figure out if you can do it and if you’re interested in doing it. Not, I might add, whether you think they’re hot and really can’t wait to get at their cute little butt with that nasty cane. I mean, can you, as a fellow dominant, put your skills to use in a way that will hold the appropriate kind of energy for this sort of scene? Can you top without imposing your dominance on an unwilling subject? Can you apply your abilities for some purpose other than enforcing, or actively experiencing, your preferred power balance? If the answer is no, then don’t do it. Don’t engage with someone in the hopes that they don’t actually mean what they say when they tell you what they want from you – that after five minutes of your expert ministrations they’ll magically transform into your ideal submissive, which clearly they’ve been all along (having of course been in deep denial until now). That’s about you and your ego, not about the potentially wonderful, and very mutual, experience you could have with this person.

And what does that experience look like, if it’s not about power exchange?

Well, vulnerability and trust, for starters. It takes a lot for a dominant to both ask for and take a beating, especially if it’s not their generally preferred kink. If you’re asked to assist in the endeavour, be honoured, and approach it without presumption. In no way am I trying to say that topping a dominant is somehow more valuable than topping a submissive – far from it – but there is a certain specific kind of rare and precious fragility that a dominant brings to the experience of bottoming, because the risk of being misunderstood at their most vulnerable is high. So for me, the experience of topping a top is one in which I get to enjoy the trust someone’s placing in me, and the fruits of that trust: bonding, mutual respect, the chance to practice or improve my own technical skills, and possibly even the erotic or otherwise pleasurable charge of getting physical with someone in a way that has zilch to do with power dynamics and everything to do with the way they feel and smell and breathe and move. Sure, you could call that vanilla, but in my mind when you take two kinky freaks with a bag of toys and neutralize the power dynamic, you’re still left with two kinky freaks and a bag of toys. As long as you’re not trapped by your own preconceived notions of what all that means, the possibilities are endless.

ooh, baby, let me get out my agenda: the logistics of non-monogamy
August 10, 2009

One of my most popular workshops is the one I give based on my 10 Realistic Rules for Good Non-Monogamous Relationships (soon to be a zine – I’ll keep ya posted). And one of the things I find people are most often hungry for, which I don’t address in that piece or workshop, is the specific how-tos that make non-monogamy work well.

But the problem with logistics, see, is that everyone likes ‘em different. So no matter how much experience or knowledge I have, it’s experience and knowledge about what works for me – which is necessarily different from what’s going to work for you (unless you and I are already sleeping together). What I can do, though, is give you some questions to think about. Consider it part 2 of my nasty homework assignment on non-monogamy. Part 1, as mentioned above, is about the foundations of non-monogamy – who are you, and why are you doing this? This post, while of course it overlaps with the first one, is more focused on how to be efficient and sensitive about your time and priority management in non-monogamous situations. This is a workshop in itself, too – the advantage of workshop format is that it’ll be part lecture, part skillshare and part guided discussion, the latter two being things you can’t get nearly so easily out of a blog post. But at the very least, as a post, this provides a list of thought exercises so that you find the answers that might work best for you.

What do you need?

Time for you. What does that look like? Quiet time to read and be alone? Exercise? Self-care and pampering? Masturbation? A weekend in the outdoors? Time with other people that does not include your partner(s)? Time to take care of your physical or mental health needs?

Time for friendship. Friendship is not always more stable or durable than love relationships, and it isn’t necessarily sexless, but let’s go with the idea that it’s wise to cultivate trusting, caring relationships with people with whom you share no or little sexual tension. This means you have a network of support that provides a stable counterpart to the vagaries of romance. Don’t make these relationships dependent on whether or not you’re currently partnered, or multiply partnered – make sure you reserve enough time and energy to cultivate them regardless of your non-monogamous situation, or they might not be there when you need them most. So, what friendships are currently in your life that you would like to cultivate? If you don’t have any, what might you do to invite some into your world?

Time for responsibilities. Not that it isn’t fun to cast oneself into adventures, but it’s wise to leave enough time to work, learn, deal with family and finances, and so forth. The stress of leaving them til the last minute, or leaving them out entirely, can end up biting you in the ass and making it more difficult to enjoy your partners’ company in the end anyway. What are your major life responsibilities? If you have too many, can you reduce them, share them, conclude them or streamline them to better suit your desires? Can your partner(s), friends, colleagues or family members support you in that?

Emotional balance. If non-monogamy, for you, is a roller-coaster ride of drama and tension, you might want to re-think your motives for engaging in multiple relationships. Drama can distract you from deeper emotional work you might need to do, and perpetuate unhealthy relationship patterns. If your relationship with someone is compromising your emotional health and well-being, think hard about what you are getting out of it versus what you are losing because of it. What feels like a healthy emotional balance to you? How do you know when you’re not in balance, i.e., what signs do you look for? How do you know when you’re doing well? What resources can you marshal, or what different choices could you make, that would help bring you back into balance?

Sex. Your sexuality belongs to you. There’s nothing worse than feeling as though your sex drive exists only to satisfy everyone around you. What does your sex drive look like? What factors affect it? How much commitment to sexual relationship you can manage with that in mind? What will you do if you perceive an imbalance? How might any of this change based on NRE or other factors?

Values. Think about freedom vs constraint when you are engaging in relationship with someone who also says they are “non-monogamous.” The term itself means virtually nothing. The 10 Rules are a good place to start in evaluating what you want from a non-monogamous relationship, and discussing those rules with your partner(s) – doing the “homework” – can be a valuable way to establish where your non-monogamy values match and where they may differ, and what each of you can and/or are willing to do to bridge the discrepancies. For example, for me, non-monogamy means being open to whatever comes along, while always considering what’s already there. In other words, I do not pre-define anything – the only rules I have with my partners are communicate about everything, all the time, and have safer sex. Non-monogamy, for me, is about extreme freedom – freedom flavoured with plenty of commitment and responsibility, but freedom nonetheless. Some people instead choose to experience their non-monogamous inclinations in far more circumscribed ways that would drive me absolutely batty, but if it works for them, who am I to criticize?

So… what are your values about non-monogamy? What does non-monogamy mean to you? When you daydream about the ideal relationship situation, what does it look like? How closely does real life currently match that? Does your ideal situation look like your partners’? If not, what can you do about that?

What do your partners need?

Answer the above questions with regard to them – or better yet, ask them to answer the questions and then share your answers and talk about them.

How do you navigate challenges when they come up?

This part’s not so much a list of questions as it is a list of things to consider.

Consideration: Consideration is a manner of thinking that informs just about every action you might conceive of. In short, it’s about realizing that every action you take has an effect on the people around you, and aiming to evaluate each situation from the perspectives of those whom they are most likely to affect.

For example, I once had a play date with a sweet boy who was involved with a girl who described herself as “very jealous.” The girl, a writer, was putting together a book about a topic that’s of interest to me, and she wanted to interview me for it. Due to timing (a short visit to a city not my own), I had to schedule the play date with the boy back-to-back with the interview. I didn’t know much more about their relationship situation, but once he and I finished playing, he offered to walk me to the café where I was supposed to meet her. I paused to inquire: would it be okay with her to arrive and see the two of us together? How would she feel about that? He thought about it for a second, and called her from his cell phone to check in about it. She said it was fine, and everything went smoothly. A few days later, I got an e-mail from her saying that she really felt cared for when she found out that I was the one who had suggested he check in with her – it made her jealousy dissipate to realize that my interest in him did not translate into a disregard for her feelings.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’ve screwed this sort of situation up at least as much as I’ve gotten it right, but the principle remains that considering others’ realities in a respectful way can go a long way toward smoothing what might otherwise be really challenging situations. And the more information you have about a given situation, the better you will be able to do that. Which brings me to…

Respect. What does respect mean for each of you? Where are your individual sensitivities, what do your values mean in relationship, what expectations do you have about how you will be treated and how you should treat others?

Compromise. I have some really strong feelings about this one in my personal life, but not everyone does, so I will put it out there for your consideration. My motto is, don’t compromise – prioritize. I believe that if you make a compromise, it necessarily means that you are agreeing to something that is less than what you really want. I believe that this process, especially if repeated over a long period of time, can create a buildup of resentment that can eventually lead to the breakdown of the relationship.

Priority-setting – explaining what your priorities are in a given situation, and listening to what your partner’s priorities are in turn, and determining ways to tweak the logistics so that all priorities are met – is often a good way of avoiding a compromise situation. For example, if you are able to name that “I want you to be with me on my birthday,” to you, means “I really want to have a relaxed, one-on-one time with you that evening, and I want to spend the night with you,” then you’re much further along than when your partner thought he needed to cancel lunch plans with his boyfriend, organize a surprise party and buy you an expensive gift.

Further, I believe that in many cases, compromise is not necessary – that with enough open, non-confrontational communication and genuine generosity, people can find creative ways to accommodate everyone’s desires without making it into a you-versus-me situation. (Hint: it really helps if you think outside the box in terms of coming up with solutions. For example, it’s amazing what hiring a cleaning lady can do to minimize domestic tension over the frequency of vacuuming.) In the cases where that’s not possible, rather than living in the state of tension that produces, I encourage people to question the relationship itself – after all, sometimes relationships are best when they end at the right time, or are reconfigured to better reflect the realities of compatibility, desire and so forth. This doesn’t mean that I think people can never live happily in a state of compromise. It just means that I think a lot of people opt for compromise first, because oddly enough it’s easier than the other two options (requires less communication and less inner work!), but that it can lead to disastrous results in the end.

Generosity. In my humble opinion, non-monogamy is a collaborative project. So as much as it’s crucial think about what your desires and limits are, it’s also really important to figure out what you have to offer, what you can do to be generous, what you can do to make things more wonderful for the other people involved. Perhaps that means giving them space, or offering them time, or facilitating the relationship between your partners and their other partner(s). Ask yourself the question, How can you contribute? Perhaps it’s by offering to clear out and spend the night at a friend’s. Sometimes it’s replenishing the stock of condoms because you know your honey has a date. Sometimes it’s listening to your gut and asking just the right question to make sure things are really actually okay. Sometimes it’s the sweet little details – I had a long-distance partner once whose live-in girlfriend used to groom him with great relish before he and I spent a weekend together. He would arrive to me with his entire body perfectly waxed and plucked thanks to her not-so-gentle ministrations. He felt cared for, and like our time together was approved by her; she felt less left out of the process of us being together; I felt happy because she’d taken the time to make me a very pretty present. So find your own ways of being generous. Just make sure you do it because you want to be generous, not because you expect a specific return on a given act of generosity (unless that’s discussed openly).

Communication. I could write a book about this, but instead I would advise to go ahead and work on your communication skills as best you can, to whatever degree is necessary and then some. Communication is an ongoing challenge in any relationship. The good news is that means you have a lifetime to hone your skills. The bad news is that it means you will likely be working on this for the rest of your life. Go at it with gusto. In a given relationship, it can be helpful to establish specific, regular ways of communicating that work well for all concerned. Set up a regular relationship check-in, hold a regular poly family meeting, commit to a standing date or phone call, send each other e-mail reports, come up with a clear way of flagging your need to connect – whatever works for you to make sure things are going well and that you remain connected.

Special considerations

Hierarchy. Do you have a primary and a secondary (or something to that effect)? If so, is there an order of priorities? If so, what does that look like? What do the terms “primary” and “secondary” mean to you, and do you agree on those meanings and how they extrapolate into expectations about behaviour? How generous are your partners about those priorities? How do you feel about their degree of generosity? For example, if you have a standing date with your primary partner (A) but your secondary partner, B, falls ill and asks your support that night, how generous is partner A about you changing plans? How respectful is partner B of partner A’s reality when making such requests? How does all this affect you?

D/s. Non-monogamy and D/s is a workshop in itself (and I do have one in the works…). Suffice it to say that if you are living in a D/s situation, that adds a layer of complexity to any non-monogamous arrangement that needs to be considered. Deliberate power exchange must be factored into the communication styles and patterns of a relationship, and considered at every turn. What does D/s look like in your world? How does the flow of power affect the choices each of you makes in your relationship(s)? Does that all sit right with your ethics and your sense of responsibility and care? If not, what can you do about that?

The how-tos: the three Ss

These are the biggies. They’re deceptively little in writing.

Scheduling: Google calendar, paper calendar(s), agenda(s), colour-coding, etc. What works for you? Come up with communications methods that make sense for all concerned.

Space. Do you live together or apart? If apart, do you have a long-distance relationship or are you close by? If you live apart, what sort of communication do you have with your long-distance partner(s) while you’re apart? What frequency, how long are your stays, what communication patterns will you establish with your at-home partner(s) when you are with the long-distance one(s)? What sort of travel arrangements make the most sense to all concerned? If you live together, how do you navigate your non-monogamy? Do you need private space that is not shared with your partner? Can you have sex with others in the home you share? If so, when, where and how? Can you bring home your other partner(s) unannounced? What techniques and space arrangements help keep things running smoothly? There are lots of options – my preferred situation is separate bedrooms, for example. A couple of my friends have opted for a “two blocks apart is living together” philosophy that works best for their relative sleep patterns and animal allergies. Still other friends sleep in the same bed, but have a guest room they each use when bringing another partner home for the night.

Sex. Sex toys: to share or not to share? Sex drive: how do you manage discrepancies? Specific sex acts: do you place limits on yourself, on each other? Safer sex: What do you need? What do you need to know? What do you need to talk about? (This can all extrapolate to BDSM play.) These are basic questions worth talking about in some detail.

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So there it is, folks. Happy homeworking!

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