Today I want to tackle (read: tear apart) a common kink misconception I’ve been hearing off and on for the better part of twenty years. That is: in BDSM, the power is actually in the hands of the bottom or submissive.
This statement is profoundly weird. I think people started saying it in order to disrupt the idea that bottoms have no say at all, which I suppose is a laudable goal. After all, the “BDSM is abuse” crowd is not known for nuanced thinking, so I guess a strong pushback might have been necessary at some point.
But simply flipping the statement gets you a new one no better than the original. And frankly I think it’s reasonable for anti-BDSM folks to call bullshit on that kind of simplistic response, because it truly is bullshit, even if I find the rest of their politics abhorrent.
Let’s unpack it for a sec. If we assume that two individuals with equal negotiating power decide they want to engage in some kinky fun, then it follows that they share power in whatever they’re doing. They both have to consent. They both have the right to safeword or otherwise bring things to an end if they don’t like where things are going, need a break, suddenly get a foot cramp, whatever. (I know, shocking! Safewords: not just for bottoms! Because tops are people too!) They have agreed to whatever roles or power dynamics they enact. It’s mutual. Let’s say it again for the folks in the back: IT’S MUTUAL.
If the bottom has all the power, then it’s no longer mutually shared. If the top has all the power, same deal. Neither of these scenarios is a good or healthy one. Either one would make it easier for abuse to creep in.
“The bottom’s really in charge” assumes there’s something intrinsically disempowering in the bottom or submissive role, such that it must be countered by defensive hyperbole. This says a lot about whomever’s speaking. Mostly, to me, it sounds like they’re ashamed of bottoming and want to find a way to reassert their empowerment. Or they’re ashamed of topping and want to displace the full responsibility of it onto the bottom so they don’t have to face their discomfort.
The only way a statement like “the bottom is really in charge” makes any sense is if you assume that people cannot really be equal negotiating partners. And while of course we must account for unequal social power structures in everything we do (not just in kink!), we quickly paint ourselves into a corner if we begin to think that social hierarchies make consent impossible except between people of perfectly equal privilege. We need to consider privilege in our negotiations, yes—but that doesn’t mean we simply stop engaging if there’s a privilege differential. If we did, basically nobody would ever engage in kink at all, or have sex, or enter pretty much any kind of negotiated agreement.
Asserting that the bottom is fully in charge of the scene doesn’t negate social hierarchies anyway. It just creates an illusion of safety because everything’s now sort of mathematically equalized. That equalization, of course, is based on the false idea that bottoming is about lack of power and topping is about a surfeit of it.
“The bottom is really in charge” also neatly excises the top’s agency, which is super objectifying and gross. Tops are not sensation-dispensing machines and dominants are not rule-enforcing robots. We tops already have plenty of contradictory expectations to pick our way through on this side of the slash. At least let us be human while we do it. Also, the dominant’s consent is just as important as the submissive’s consent. Not more important. But not less important, either.
Again: KINK IS MUTUAL. In a twenty-minute scene, in a weekend arrangement, in a full-time power dynamic—oh gawd ESPECIALLY in a 24/7 relationship, where mutuality needs to lubricate every single decision each partner makes all day long. In those “ugh this is difficult” moments of full-time D/s and M/s, the driving force helping people persevere must always be “and I want this, and it fulfills me, so I am going to work through the difficulty.” The moment it becomes “I genuinely don’t want this, but the other person is making me,” you have a relationship fail—whether it’s the submissive who no longer wants to obey or the dominant who no longer wants to command. There’s something very wrong when fulfilling your end of the deal becomes burdensome or harmful instead of somewhere on the scale between heavenly and challenging (or both at once!).
Both narratives—“the bottom is really in charge” and “the top is really in charge”—miss the point, which is that in kink, two or more people are ethically entering a relationship (of whatever type, intensity and duration) in which they agree on what’s happening and on who’s been given what authority under what conditions. Nobody’s ultimately more in charge than the other person, even in the most intense of non-abusive power dynamics, because they are bound by mutual and ongoing consent and active participation. When the participants act outside that framework, that’s where we veer into abuse—and submissives/bottoms are just as capable of breaking that contract and doing harm (emotional, ethical, physical) as dominants/tops.
So if you’re explaining kink to someone, skip the false flip. Especially if you’re speaking to the media, which is where I’ve seen this idea pop up rather a lot lately. Instead, focus on the mutuality of kink, the pleasure of agreed-upon play and exploration, and the full humanity of all concerned.