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I Don’t Talk About Topping Much

November 6, 2009

Partly, that’s because while in practice I switch, I identify more as a bottom. Partly, it’s because, even writing pseudonymously, my spouse prefers that I not talk about what I do with her as a top. What I do as a bottom is personal to me, and I can talk about it as I see fit; what she does as a bottom is personal to her, and she doesn’t want to see the details in the blogosphere.

People who top in various aspects of BDSM play do so for a variety of reasons, and I’m not going to attempt a typology of topping. Since our experiences are highly individualized, it’s tough to say much more than, “this is what I do, this is how I feel about it.” And my freedom to do that is limited, so I tend instead to talk about my experiences bottoming.

I did, however, run across someone saying a lot of things about topping that resonated with me, and that I will share for that reason. Over at Cuntlove, Cleofaye writes about her shift from bottoming exclusively to topping female and male partners. She started out as a bottom — a common though not exclusive pattern and one that I suspect but can’t demonstrate is more common among women. She says:

Then I met K. K was a girl in my women and gender studies class who I fell in love with hard… She was a sub, but only interested in the Bondage and Domination, but not in any sort of erotic pain. From K I learned that I loved control, much more than I thought I would.

Being a top was hard work. Yes, I had all the power, but as they say in the spiderman movies, with great power becomes great responsiblity. Now, having sex wasn’t about me anymore. I wasn’t allowed to be selfish and I wasn’t allowed to lose control anymore. Everything I did had to be carefully thought through to make sure I wasn’t making my sub uncomfortable, overstepping her limits, or putting her in danger. …

[…] Giving orders and making demands were something I had never been very comfortable with, but the second I saw how excited and turned on those orders made K, any feelings of guilt or hesitation were gone. It became a game, a job; figuring out what I could do that would turn her on. How I could top the last experience, how I could take her to the next level, how I could push her limits even more without crossing the line. Her needs became my needs. Learning her desires and limits made me feel closer to her then I had ever felt to anyone.

Almost 20 years ago now, Professor Ralph Bolton said in a conference session, “you should never intellectualize sex unless you’re topping an S&M scene.” (He’s spent much of his career doing academic anthropology around sex, so I expect then and now that he meant you should never intellectualize it while it’s happening.) But topping, for me, has always meant being in my head: planning, reading, thinking, adapting, constantly adjusting to keep my partner on the journey she was seeking, often while consciously avoiding the obvious route. For that reason, even when I do something as a top what involved genital stimulation for me (and I often don’t), it’s hard to come. I have too much to do and too many other things to pay attention to. Getting off is not really on my priority list.

(My partner’s orgasm isn’t necessarily on my priority list — whether BDSM need be “sexual” is contested terrain among BDSMers ourselves, and to the extent it is, often it is sensual, erotic, sexual, but not genital-focused or not orgasm focused. In fact, I’ve told my spouse that I’d like to orgasm less as a bottom, but she gets a sense of completeness out of making me climax when she’s topping.)

Cleofaye says she has had one partner that she could let go and go a bit heavy with, a man:

knowing that we would both be into S&M play was the main reason we started hooking up in the first place. The first few times I was with him, I underestimated both him and myself. I’m a pretty strong girl, and I’ve learned to hold back most of my life. I never use all my strength to do pretty much anything. I held back hitting him, scratching him, I stopped myself from using all my strength, every time.

He took me aside and told me to stop holding back, that I hadn’t come close to his pain tolerance. For one of the first times in my life, I could let go, stop holding back, and I let myself go. It was a wonderful feeling. Spanking him, slapping him, hitting hit with a riding crop, he would get harder and harder. He would break his usual stoic sexual behavior to grunt and groan and scream in that way that tells you they are the border of pleasure and pain.

I don’t think that holding back as a top is exclusive to women, but I think it is a more powerful force to overcome. Tops have limits, too, and there are things that I’ve had partners want to do that I was not prepared to do as a top. But my spouse has had to work much harder with some mental blocks as a top. When I first said I wanted her to kick me in the testicles, she couldn’t do it. She didn’t refuse. She liked the idea. So there I was, naked, kneeling, breath hot with anticipation. She went to kick me and … stopped, as if an invisible hand grabbed her foot. It took a lot of practice to make that invisible hand go away. A lot of wonderful, wonderful practice.

I do really appreciate that I’ve been playing with the same person for over a decade now. There’s a pattern of evolution with regular partners, from “this does nothing for me but she wants to try it,” to “she loved it last time, so maybe I can amp it up a bit” to “this gets her so hot that it makes me hot to watch her react to it.” I savor that evolution.

In the end, something is true for me as a BDSMer that I would certainly never claim as a universal. For me, topping or bottoming, BDSM is intimate. Which is not to say that I only ever play with romantic partners or even with people I know well; but it is to say that doing BDSM creates in me a powerful sense of intimacy with a partner. And while I wouldn’t claim it as a universal, there again I’m not alone:

A BDSM session would leave us giddy and light headed. We would lay in bed, catching our breath. We actually fell deeply in love very quickly, which I think is one of the real dangers of BDSM. You have to trust each other and learn to read each other, something that leads to intimacy that you may not have intended. It connects you to your partner quickly and intensely, it’s an adrenaline rush and it’s a release of physical energy that’s like nothing else.

Thank you, Cleofaye, for saying it so well.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. JohnnyRiot permalink
    November 7, 2009 12:10 am

    Amen! Kudos to you.

  2. November 9, 2009 9:10 am

    I absolutely *love* the quote from Bolton.

  3. November 10, 2009 5:42 pm

    One thing that makes me nervous about topping — one thing that makes me suspect that although I’ve discovered that I really enjoy it, I’ll never be as into it as I am into bottoming — is that I really really want to fall into the heat of the moment. That’s the glory of SM for me. (I can put a lot of thought and effort into determining my partner’s needs, but that feels like being a bottom for me, and the reward I want is to be owned.) And so when I find that I consistently have to watch myself, hold back, with a bottom, I do it — of course I do it — but I also start losing interest. Before my relationship with my first and last submissive boyfriend was cut short by my departure for Africa, I think this was starting to be one of those terrible toxic cycles that many of us BDSMers are familiar with: he sensed that I wanted to go further and so he’d feel guilty that he couldn’t go as far as I wanted him to, which made me feel guilty because I know how awful it is to be a submissive who feels like you can’t go where your partner needs you to go, and then he’d feel guilty because his guilt was making me feel guilty, etc etc etc ….

    I even recall going for advice to another top about this. I told him that I really wasn’t into the calm, careful, cold control and I asked him how he deals with it. He looked at me. “You like to lose yourself,” he said. “I don’t.”

    On the other hand, as I already noted, I do like putting a lot of work into figuring out what turns my partner on as a bottom. Maybe eventually I’ll find the angle, the sideways tilt that enables me to flip the lens around and put that same work into turning on my partner as a top. It’s just that right now it doesn’t look likely.

    (Incidentally, I also started solely as a bottom and got into topping later. And I also agree that this is a more common pattern for women, but yeah, anecdotal. I’ve been meaning to write a post for ages on how gender issues around topping/bottoming made it so much harder than it needed to be for me to grasp my top identity.)

    • November 11, 2009 11:15 am

      Not just anecdotal. I’ve read research that showed quantitatively that women who self-identify as BDSMers of various kinds came to that identity slightly later with men, and more often discovered their interest with a partner, while men figured it out earlier and more often by themselves. I can’t recall if the sample was limited to het folks, though, and this was 1980s, so the community has changed somewhat. There is more recent research, but I don’t recall seeing anything in recent years that answers the “how did you first begin” question.

  4. November 10, 2009 7:06 pm

    Oh my god. I stumbled on your post from Feministe. All I can say is that I am both honored that my post spoke to you, and love what you have done to expand on it. I love that Bolton quote and will have to use it in something at some point. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    I found it much harder to write about topping because like you said, bottoming was about me, topping was about them, and for me it is much easier to talk about myself then it is to talk about my connection to someone else. I’m glad to see my own experiences reflected in someone else

  5. November 11, 2009 2:20 pm

    Clarisse, great to see you around.

    I’m just going to be vulgar in saying that this completely validates what I’ve said. There’s a big gender disparity in kink roles, women tops are scarce. I know Trinity says she’s tired of being told she’s a unicorn, but the empirical result is what it is. Women tops are comparitively scarce.

    I find the notion that women tops, but not women bottoms, drift out of kink over time interesting. I have no explanation for it. Since they are less prevalent than male bottoms or female bottoms, partner availability shouldn’t be a rate-limiting factor. There may be huge issues with social pressure and internalizing guilt or something like that that drives women out.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that as women pair off, lots of women tops find relatively permanent relationships with non-kinky partners. But that’s a conjecture. If that’s right, and that’s a big if, and if it’s generational and that’s also a big if, we might see a bulge of empty-nester-women-tops coming back into circulation at some point.

    • November 11, 2009 2:49 pm

      I would guess that — given how many male subs there are out there, and how few female tops — and given our society’s stereotype of “dominatrix” as shorthand for “hott” — women tops are more likely to get into topping because they realize it’s a good way to get male attention. (I am of course not saying that all women tops are doing it for attention!) And of course, a woman who gets into it for that reason is more likely to drift away from it later.

      And thanks. It’s so nice to have more regular access again, though I don’t know if I’ll be able to devote as much time to the blogosphere as I used to (the motivation is lessened when no one around you does it … on the other hand, I don’t have anyone who can intelligently discuss BDSM with me here in Africa).

      By the way, heads up — we’re talking about you in comments here.

    • osoborracho permalink
      November 13, 2009 2:58 am

      I suspect that the female top vs bottom ratio is skewed because of societal pressure and sexism. Women are socialized to be submissive and passive in all aspects of life, but especially in bed. (The whole penetration vs. envelopment mindset thing.)

      I’m a female switch and I’m awful at topping. I enjoy doing it once the scene gets rolling, but at the beginning I always feel awkward and have trouble getting into the right mindset to really USE my partner (if that makes sense). I’m a recovered doormat and have gotten to the point where I’m assertive out of the bedroom, but I still feel like a deer in the headlights when topping. Luckily I’m getting better at it with experience.

      Sexual expression as a bottom is far easier for the repressed since it’s a more passive role. On the surface it’s not about your dirty, kinky desires, it’s about your top’s dirty, kinky desires. (In reality BDSM scenes often revolve more around the bottom’s desires, but we’ll ignore that for now.) When bottoming, you can get your kink on but avoid owning it at the same time if you like, since you’re the ‘passive’ partner. As a top things don’t happen to you, you do them. A top can’t disown their sexuality the same way.

      One of my friends is naturally a top, but she’s in a long-term relationship as a sub. I am dead certain she would only be a ‘master’ if she’d had a penis. This leads me to wonder how many women in kink end up bottoming either to please their male partners or because women are expected to be natural subs.* As fetishized as the sexy domme caricature is, I don’t think real female tops get the same respect male tops do or else they’re expected to be something they aren’t. I doubt that Trinity looks like a latex fetish model holding a prop whip.

      *Obviously this is true of some circles but not others. It seems like the BDSM community is a mix of liberal, conservative, feminist, sexist, and everything in between.

    • November 19, 2009 1:37 am

      I’m a top, and always have been. I’m also highly analytical and have figured out a lot about WHY I have the kinks I do.

      My dominance stems, at least in part, from a very angry place. In my late teens and early ’20s I loved the idea of 24/7 power Xchange. I loved inflicting humiliation and pain. I felt as though I was avenging wrongs that had been committed against me.

      At this point in my life (mid ’30s) I’ve worked through most of my anger issues and gotten rid of the “victim complex” that made me want to teach men some collective, painful lesson. My kinks have mellowed accordingly and I’ve finally figured out that D/s is about giving my partner what he wants under the GUISE of making him do things – it’s not about me literally doing whatever I want to someone whether he likes it or not. Who knows, maybe twenty years from now my psyche will be totally healed and I’ll become vanilla – although I hope not because my kinks, such as they are, make things SO MUCH FUN…

      So my tentative theory is that dominance comes from anger while submission is rooted in other emotions – and anger tends to burn hard and then dissipate. Then again I’m not really part of a D/s “community” or anything so I’m going solely on my own experiences.

      It’s probably true that lots of Dommes end up in long-term vanilla relationships, but I think that happens to kinksters of all stripes. I personally am holding out for a long-term relationship that incorporates love AND kink, but in my dating life I’ve bumped up against Madonna-whore complex on many occasions – which is to say that I’ve started dating some nice submissive boy who suddenly bailed on me to be with a vanilla girl. I got the definite impression that these guys believed giving up their kinks was an inevitable part of becoming an adult and “settling down”. Their loss.

  6. denelian permalink
    November 22, 2009 4:20 am

    anecdotal…
    but. i stopped working as a Domme for good reason. personally, i’m a switch, but if i don’t know you, like you, want you *AND* trust you, you don’t get to touch me [obviously i am using a generic “you” here].
    every single time i went to *ANY* BDSM gathering of ANY sort, at least 3 or 4 different “dominant men” [i sarcasta-quote because i dislike the specific men i am speaking of] would try to do things to me, or convince me to be involved with, THINGS I DO NOT LIKE.
    and my “no” was never, ever accepted. i would be smacked by men i had JUST TOLD i would not let spank me, grabbed and held by men i had just told i would not let tie my up, touched by men who i had told *specifically* that they did NOT have permission to touch me.

    and almost every time it happened, two things happened. i was told that it happened because “everyone knows that all women have a little sub and want to be dominated”; and i was villified for being angry at people who refused to respect my boundries.

    every woman i know whose has left the scene has left for the same reason – that underlying assumption that, if a woman “admits” she has kink, she is saying she is completely available to every single person who wants her in any way she wants her.
    MOST people in the BDSM scene are NOT like this. a few bad apples, etc.

    it’s all anecdotal, and i bring it up because it also aligns with your thoughts on why women are more often bottoms than tops – i thing that it isn’t *really* true, but that the pressure is so great on women that most of them end up going along with it and ID as bottoms when they aren’t. [and MAN does it piss a top off when the top “realizes” that you are not a “real” bottom!]. but that is a society-wide issue, not a BDSM specific issue…

    • December 19, 2009 7:51 pm

      I know exactly what you mean, Denelian. I don’t ever go to BDSM events, because I know my limits won’t be respected. While I consider myself a switch, I publicly identify myself as a Domme because the number of men I have met in my entire life that I would trust to top me is exactly two, and both of those men bottom for me.

      Besides that, the number of men who identify as submissive who are actually raging misogynists who just want to get their rocks off and expect us to cater to their every kink because we’re female is staggering. It is far less frustrating to find a vanilla man and tell him that I’m into kink, and that if he’s curious we can try it together and if he doesn’t like it we’ll stop. “Trouble,” who is my favorite heavy-play partner ever, STILL identifies as mostly vanilla.

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