topping a top

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.

24 thoughts on “topping a top

  1. This post was really good for me to read, I think. I’m a bottom, as you know, and I really enjoy a good beating, but it’s been years since I’ve asked anyone to beat me. There are two (related) reasons for that. First is that I’m not particularly submissive, and second is that the enjoyment I get out of being beaten is not really sexual. I like the sensation and the adrenaline and endorphin rush that comes with the sensation, sort of in the same way I enjoy a really punishing workout. I also enjoy the vulnerability of it, and the feeling of being cared for that a good beating can give.

    But because of these two things, I don’t feel like I would have anything to offer a potential top. If I don’t want to have sex with someone, do their laundry, or call them ma’am, what reason would they have for wanting to beat me? I would be all take and no give.

    But this post gives me the impression that there might be something a top enjoys about beating someone just for its own sake. That maybe an offer to make them dinner if they come over and flog me would be enough, because there’s something about the flogging itself that they would enjoy.

    Anyway, I know this wasn’t the point of the post, really, but it did give me some stuff to think about, so, thanks. 🙂

  2. “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.”

    This line really struck me. After this whole post about how messy it is to be topped as a dominant, the one line throws away the identity of anyone who switches, and simply lumps them in as submissive. As if, someone who switches in public can’t be anything else but a submissive, because anyone with a self respecting dominant bone in they’re body wouldn’t be seen to do that.

    Really I think the issues are as complex as anyone who is sometimes dominant and also sometimes likes to bottom.

    Jake, there are plenty of people who would enjoy beating you for the joy of beating you. Because, really D/s is hard, and sex is messy, but a good beating would be nice to give.

  3. Jake – sweet. And yes, there’s lots to love about flogging, and many other sorts of play, that has zilch to do with D/s.

    Bitsy – In no way was I intending to throw out the complex possibilities of switch identity. And, though you didn’t mention it here, I’m also not intending to dismiss the many possibilities inherent in submissive identity – for example, submissives are not all service-oriented or inclined to top when requested. I’m positing that some people think that for a dominant, the best way to get a beating is to recruit someone (either submissive or switch) who *is* interested in topping them as a form of service. That statement is not about dismissing all the other possibilities, of which there are many – I just laid out one (and then brought up some ways in which even that doesn’t always work).

  4. 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?

    I’d be interested what you think about 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 in the first place. Even if experiences of dominants who actually want to bottom in the public scene weren’t as frequently and regrettably shitty as you’ve described, personally I’d still doubt the merit of prescribing it instead of leaving it to the individual person.

    In various instances I’ve come across this idea, not people saying they themselves want to bottom, but people prescribing that someone else should bottom before daring to lift a crop, it did not seem to come from a genuine concern about learning and possible usefulness of experiencing sensations before giving them to someone else. It seemed, under a pretense of educational merit, to stem from the “what you really crave is to submit” attitude.

    The prescription may be a phenomenon that mostly shows up in the confines of the public scene. For dominant people who play with one specific partner at home, such a prescription would mean a) playing with a stranger before playing with one’s own partner or b) switching with one’s own partner before actually doing it the way round both parties desire. So in the case of monogamous, non switchily inclined people, “you must bottom first!” would have pretty absurd consequences.

  5. I’m not Andrea, but if you’re interested in my opinion (because I generally have one):

    A formulation that I’ve heard a lot is “try it on yourself first”. That doesn’t require switching or playing with someone else. Also, it gives you a good idea of how blows of a given force feel.

    Obviously, the feasibility of using a toy on yourself is going to depend on the particulars of the toy in question and where you plan to use it, but I have to say that the idea of letting an inexperienced top beat me with an implement when they have no idea what the force:pain relation is kind of would scare the hell out of me.

    I’m less convinced of the value of letting someone else use the toy on you, though. I mean that doesn’t really give you a good idea of how much force they’re putting behind it, necessarily. If I were learning to flog someone, I’d rather sit down with an experienced top and be told things like “with this toy, use the same amount of force you would use brushing fluff off your mattress, it has a lot of sting,” and, “this one’s heavy, it should almost feel like you’re throwing a baseball” or whatever. That seems much more valuable to me as a learning tool than just getting beaten with whatever it is.

  6. Hi Jake, yes of course I’m interested in you opinion. Yep, that’s how I try out hitting implements to get a feel of their impact. I hit my own thighs (or rarely prop up my legs and hit my calves). For learning to aim, I have long-suffering cushions. With bondage I rely on my partner, really. We try out a new bondage position for him without going deeply into a mood of dominance and submission, without making it inescapable, and he gives me a lot of feedback during such a practice.

  7. Ranai – I think that message comes from several places, and with several rationales, probably including that “you must crave to submit” attitude. But I think the big one is actually not that. I attribute it, rather, to a certain Old Guard-style mentality that sees all play as about dominance and submission, and all dominance and submission as hierarchical and progressive – as in, everyone comes into the community as a submissive (this also supposes that formalized dominance and submission always and only happen in the context of a leather community), and some people “progress” to become dominants, who have gained their credibility as dominants by “proving themselves” to be a valuable part of the community through “doing their time” in submission.

    This supposes that all submissives provide service, and that the community, not just the dominant involved with that submissive, is entitled to that service because of the submissive’s “station” as a submissive. It also supposes that dominance is “better” than submission, as in, more powerful / enlightened / etc. Needless to say these concepts are highly problematic.

    It’s a framework that may have been appropriate in some places at some times in the past, and currently for that matter, but it’s only one model among many and even as such it works differently in different geographical regions and in different community compositions.

    I personally dislike the model precisely for the reasons you describe – as in, it makes no sense to prescribe this path as the only way into BDSM, because it takes no account of individual make-up, motivation, desire (like, hey, where do switches fit? nowhere! except everywhere, you’re just only allowed to switch once!), capability, relationship situation (as you pointed out in your last paragraph), etc. Basically, if a given group of people gets together and decides this is the model that really works for them, I’ve got no problem with that, but from there to imposing in on everyone else and then pooh-poohing those who don’t conform to it as being not “real” players / leatherfolk / etc. just makes me wanna screech.

    The attitudes I’m talking about in my post don’t necessarily come directly from this mentality, but I would argue that they’re direct descendants of it – it’s a pretty psychologically powerful system that has definitely left its mark on the community as we know it today.

    (And thank you, both Ranai and Jake, for discussing some of the many ways one can learn a topping skill that’s not about bottoming. There are lots!)

  8. Man, I keep reading these things you and Maymay say about the physical community in your neck of the woods, and I thank the lord for the community I’ve wound up in. Small town makes it difficult to find a partner as a bi sub, but ye gads I’m glad I don’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

  9. “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.”

    this is quite possibly the best thought i’ve taken in in well over a month. i absolutely love that. my wife and i play top/bottom play a lot, but very rarely dom/sub play. it’s just not our thing, but it confuses people when we work together as equals on something technical about our scene. clearly, according to “community standards,” the girl inside the rope isn’t supposed to have any input on how she gets there. bwahahahahahahaa!

  10. Alcibiades – I only wish it were just in my neck of the wood. Problem is, I’ve seen it come up all over the place throughout North America at the very least. It’s not consistent but it pops up with great regularity. In my own neck of the woods it’s actually not so bad, all things considered. Anyway. Glad to hear it’s not bad in yours!

    Thalassa – Why, thanks! 🙂

  11. I have been working on this mini reply for two days – apprehensive about posting. I have been reading your blog for some time and thought that it would be ok to come out from the shadows. I am somewhat “new” so forgive me if this elementary or obvious….

    Do you think that bottoms, submissives, etc. benefit from experiencing the view from the other side as well?

    I ask because many people I know (and I use the term loosely) are all of a sudden identifying as switch versus bottom or submissive. I am not even sure if this shift has anything to do with the former or not, but it is a bit confusing to me.

    Ok….breathe and hit send! Oh, and thanks for such a great space with really insightful and thought provoking posts.


  12. Hi Kathrin! Thanks for the kind words. Super good question, and not elementary at all – oddly it’s not talked about much.

    IMHO, and YMMV, but as long as a bottom or submissive is comfortable with the idea of topping or dominating, then hell yeah, doing so can bring with it a host of benefits. I know I’ve definitely seen a number of submissives and new-to-switching switches experience “the other side” in this way and all of a sudden come to a ton of new insights about who they are as a submissive, what would and wouldn’t work for them, what sort of dominant they would be best matched with, and so forth. It’s just taking a new angle on power, and those of us who enjoy playing with power often do find many angles of approach to be of interest. As for non-power-oriented bottoms, it can still be helpful to play as a top, as playing from that place can give you lots of information about how a scene runs, what it’s like to wield a specific toy, what each player can contribute to the scene to make it better, and so forth.

    Of course, I would never suggest that a self-identified submissive should step over the line and take up dominance if that doesn’t feel right to them (or bottom to top). For some, the very idea would go against their deepest sense of self. For others, the weirdness of it would be uncomfortable and upsetting rather than exciting and intriguing. For others it would just not be sexy or fun, so why bother? And of course it all depends on who you’re doing it with too – sometimes you may wait a long time before meeting someone who really brings out a new side of your kink. After all this is about people and connection, not just positions on a chart.

    I don’t know if identifying as a switch has anything to do with this – though for sure if someone does switch for the first time and all of a sudden discovers they kinda like it on the other side rather than just taking it as a learning exercise, that may change how they label themselves. But I know plenty of switches who never claimed a submissive or bottom (or top or dominant) label in the first place. Hey, we all have our journeys. 🙂

  13. This was a fantastic post, Andrea, thank you for writing it. I’m sorry that I don’t often read your posts, but I was alerted to this one via Figleaf, so I linked here because it was fantastically relevant to a shorter post of mine, but there’s much more here that I’ve yet to touch on (and would like to).

    Also, I’ll second you when you say that this sort of thing happens all over the world, not just your neck of the words. I’ve seen it happening in at least four very distinct scenes, so far, including San Francisco, which is incorrectly assumed by many to be some kind of BDSM mecca.

  14. Maymay – Thanks! Read your post too, and yup, I agree, SF is not (always and everywhere) the enlightened diversity-welcoming place some would like to believe. Which is not to say you can’t find good people there, because you can (and I have). It just means that every community has its segments, and any one of us likely won’t fit with all of them. I’ve personally pretty much given up on the Citadel (unless it’s hosting a dyke/trans event like Midori’s Bang 4 the Buck) due to the repeated instances of eye-roll-worthy behaviour I’ve experienced there, much like the ones you mention. Lori Selke wrote a great post about the heterocentrism of the crowd there a couple of years back… urgh… can’t find it and I have to run, but I’ll dig a bit more later.

  15. I’d be interested in taking a look at that heterocentrism piece, if you can find it. Also, by the by, Andrea, would you mind if I emailed you privately? I am in the planning stages of starting a new project thingy and I’m curious if you’d like to participate. Details forthcoming in an email if you’re interested. (My email is at the bottom of my blog.)

  16. This is very timely for me, as I’m in pretty much the situation you describe at the beginning of your post; looking to begin topping, wanting to do it responsibly, and trying to figure out who I’m going to get to top me (as seems to be universally understood as necessary, not that that kind of thing is unique to the BDSM community. Horrific apprenticeships or internships are endemic in a lot of industries in the past and today), so I appreciate the discussion here.

  17. Maymay – By all means. My time is pretty limited these days with grad school starting, but I’m certainly up for hearing what you’re up to! veryqueer3 at yahoo dot ca.

    Adrian – Great comparison. Horrific internships. Wouldn’t have thought of it! Good luck on your journeys…

  18. For what it’s worth, in my experience, the whole “you have to bottom before you can top” thing is nothing but lip service if the “apprentice” top is a straight man. Gay leather men seem to have a strongly ingrained start-as-a-boy-and-progress-to-a-daddy route, and women are almost universally expected to bottom for quite a while before they earn their topping “wings.” It’s amazingly gendered—and to me, repulsive—in heteronormative environments.

    Thanks for the info, Andrea. I’ll email you shortly.

  19. @Maymay. Yeah, I was kind of wondering about how I didn’t seem to be hearing about this sort of thing for straight mandoms <_<

    @ Sexgeek: I hear being a medical resident is basically a 24/7 torture session. I didn't initially question the assertion that you had to bottom before you could top (responsibly), because it does match with the traditions of the culture as a whole.

  20. So it seems we have identified two main sources of the ‘You must bottom first!’ prescription.

    1. (More prevalent in gay environments) A communal model which, instead of asking about individual desires, interests and relationships, claims, interprets and appropriates personal interaction as communally determined. The communal model has the possibility of hierarchical progression from exclusive bottom to exclusive top inside a predetermined structure, based on merit and promotion from above.

    Thank you for spelling it out, Andrea. I didn’t really get the wider implications until you explained the connection.

    The background model and set of fetishes this communal model was based on, I’d say – taking into account for example Guy Baldwin’s essay – is the military.


    2. (More prevalent in het environments) ‘You are a woman. You can’t possibly not be interested in bottoming.’

    I can’t say I’ve ever considered either of these notions relevant to my personal sexuality.

  21. Thank you so much!

    As a mainly dom type I can certainly relate to the frustrations expressed! You’ve expressed the whole thing much better than I could have so I’ve shared your words with my local group. Of course with full credit and a link back here. Hope you don’t mind?

    Thanks again,

  22. Ha! I’m belatedly reading the comments here, and have to say that thinking of medical residency as a 24/7 torture session and comparing it to BDSM rites of passage makes it sound. . . sexy? honorable? glamorous? Next time someone humiliates me, throws a scalpel past me in a tantrum, or expects me to be pleasant and cooperative after 30 hours in the same socks, I’ll think — somebody somewhere could be getting off on this. And instead of bursting into tears, or taking it out on my family, I will smile. Thank you.

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