Monthly Archives: May 2019

The risks of not educating bottoms // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 2

Graphic of a woman in a white shirt and dark skirt. She holds a clipboard and points at the headline 'Teaching from the Bottom, Part #2.'

This is part 2 of my “Teaching (from) the Bottom” series, a group of posts about bottoms who teach and things that are taught to and by bottoms. Please see the first post for details on my language use and other introductory notes. You can find the other parts here (more links will be added when I publish the respective posts):


Content note: This post discusses potential consent problems and describes possible other ways BDSM interactions can go wrong.

The risks of not educating bottoms

In many BDSM workshops, the attending bottoms are framed as interchangeable, passive objects for tops to practice on (if they’re addressed at all), for reasons explained in part 1 of this series. This perception can be reinforced when the teaching top’s demo bottom doesn’t offer any commentary from their perspective and only acts as a silent ‘living mannequin’ to be acted upon as the instructor’s plan requires.[1] (Granted, it can be difficult to teach and bottom at the same time, and I’ll get back to that aspect later in the series.)

In that kind of workshop setting, bottoms aren’t worked into the lesson plan as an equal part of the workshop audience. Therefore, bottoms usually arrive at any insight about our own contributions to a scene/relationship by way of coincidence, competent observation (which usually requires a solid foundation of experience and self-reflection to know what to pay attention to in the first place), or complex deduction from what is said to the tops (which also tends to require previous knowledge and experience). In other words: Bottoms are left to their own devices when it comes to learning how to prepare for the kind of play discussed, how to deal with it during a scene physically and emotionally, what issues to communicate to our tops, and how to collaborate with our tops for a mutually enjoyable scene. The less experienced a bottom is, the more of a problem this creates for them and for their (future) tops.

As a result of this neglect in workshop structuring, some bottoms avoid going to skill-centered workshops altogether, especially if they don’t have a trustworthy top partner who’d go with them (and aren’t up for being randomly matched with a stranger). These bottoms don’t just miss an opportunity to learn something about the bottom role in a specific type of play (even if it’s a less-than-ideal opportunity to begin with) and pick up some knowledge about topping skills along the way, but they also miss out on learning the safety information given there (even if that’s still primarily directed at the tops). So we potentially end up with bottoms who have no idea how to assess how competent and safe (or risk-aware) their top is, who don’t know what topping involves (even if it’s just from a technical perspective), and who don’t know what they can bring to the table in the first place to make a BDSM encounter more enjoyable and to minimize or avoid any unwanted risks.

Let’s look at how being (or playing with) such a bottom makes BDSM more risky in ways that aren’t fun and exciting.

First of all, there’s the issue of consent. If a bottom (whether they’re masochist and/or submissive) doesn’t understand the risks inherent in a specific type of play or relationship, they can’t validly consent to it. Both ethically and legally, this is a concern we shouldn’t dismiss lightly. Much of BDSM consists of activities that are only legal if and when everyone involved consents to them (and that would otherwise be assault, rape, illegal imprisonment, etc.), so we should make damn sure we have both given and received that consent, no matter what role we’re in. Besides that, it’s unethical to manipulate people into doing or accepting something they wouldn’t have agreed to otherwise, for example by not giving them all the relevant information to assess the inherent risks and potential consequences. It’s even more unethical to use people’s identities in such manipulation (e.g. “a real/ true/ natural submissive/ masochist/ bottom would always/never (want to) do X”).[2] In short: Informed consent from all participants is necessary for BDSM to be both ethical and legal.

Besides an understanding of the risks involved with the type of play we’re considering, bottoms also need to have enough understanding of topping skills to be able to assess the competence of our (potential) tops. While a whip landing away from its intended target area may only result in a bit of unexpected pain and perhaps an unwanted bruise, incompetent rope bondage can cause permanent nerve damage (up to a loss of control over one’s fingers, for example), and clueless choking or other breath play can literally kill us.[3] The higher the risk of a given BDSM activity, the more important is the top’s technical competence in that activity. Bottoms don’t necessarily need to know every single detail of a given topping technique, but we need to know enough to at least be able to judge whether a top has portrayed their own skill level and the risk of a specific activity accurately — which is an important part of assessing a top’s trustworthiness. Ideally, bottoms also know enough to be able to actively collaborate with our tops when aspects of a scene (such as activities, positions, angles, ties, dynamics) need to be adjusted due to tiredness, unwanted pain, disability/illness, lack of space/equipment, or unforeseen emotions.

Bottoms who don’t know what physical or emotional issues to watch out for during certain kinds of play are also putting themselves at physical and emotional risk and/or can violate their top’s consent. For example, a bottom in rope bondage who doesn’t know that a bit of tingling in their hand could signal serious nerve damage may not alert their top to this occurrence (because the bottom doesn’t want to be nit-picky and bothersome, and the tingling seems like nothing compared to the pain they usually play with). So their unaware top will not fix the respective bit of bondage and may involuntarily cause a potentially permanent injury in their bottom. And even if the bottom is okay with that risk, the top may not be, which circles us back to consent as well (because tops also need to consent and get to have limits of their own — including limits that their bottoms don’t have). A bottom who isn’t aware what good-fear and bad-fear feel like for themselves may not be able to communicate to their tops when a scene shifts from one to the other. At best, this will simply lead to a misunderstanding that can be easily cleared up afterwards, but at worst, this can lead to a traumatic experience with a lengthy aftermath for both bottom and top.

And if the top in question also lacks experience and/or information (because many of us start experimenting with BDSM stuff before we read up on it, go to a workshop, or meet someone who knows more than we do — and not everyone speaks English and has private, unlimited access to the internet, which further limits the available sources of accurate information), they can’t step in to educate their bottom and explain what to watch out for in a scene.

Aside from all these safety concerns, bottoms who aren’t aware of their own contributions to a BDSM scene or relationship also aren’t aware of their own agency and responsibility in creating and maintaining the dynamic between them and their tops. Which means, all that work has to be done by the tops, which can easily lead to top burn-out and even a violation of the top’s consent (Corey Alexander has written in more detail about their need for bottoms to accept responsibility and support them as a top in play and beyond). And last, but certainly not least: skilled and educated bottoms can make both individual scenes and BDSM relationships a whole lot more pleasurable and satisfying for ourselves and for our tops.

In summary: Bottoms who can’t judge what their tops are doing (and how safely they’re doing it), who don’t know what they themselves are doing before, during, and after a scene (and all bottoms do things, even if they remain perfectly still and silent), and who don’t have a language for what they do are less able to keep themselves safe (or as safe as they want to be), are more risky to play with for their tops, and very often simply are a lot less fun than a more aware and educated bottom.

So, what are bottoms doing? What are these ‘bottoming skills’ I speak of? That’s what the next part of this series is about!


Notes

[1]  While doll play and other forms of playing with passivity and silence certainly have their place, I personally prefer more engaged demo bottoms in the workshops I give and attend.

[2]  I consider this kind of talk a red flag for potential emotional/ psychological abuse. This kind of manipulation-by-questioning-someone’s-identity is also sometimes used by bottoms/ submissives/ masochists on tops/ dominants/ sadists, which doesn’t make it any less unethical.

[3]  Some kink educators (some of whom also have a background in the medical field) believe that all choking/breath play can accidentally kill people. I believe it’s good to consider their arguments in making one’s own informed choices about this practice and its potential consequences (physical as well as psychological ones). I also believe that education about harm reduction is better than not giving people any kind of information about something risky (and potentially deadly) they may still want to engage in. So: if you and your partner are interested in choking or doing other forms of breath control play, please at least read up on possible risk reduction techniques, so you can decide what risks and methods are acceptable for both of you (and be aware that doing solo breath play puts you at an even higher risk of dying accidentally, so please learn enough to take appropriate precautions).


Image source: Pixabay, color edited and text added by me.

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Why is BDSM education so often aimed at tops? // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 1

Graphic of a woman in a white shirt and dark skirt. She holds a clipboard and points at the headline 'Teaching from the Bottom, Part #1.'

This post begins my “Teaching (from) the Bottom” series, a group of posts about bottoms who teach and things that are taught to and by bottoms. You can find the other parts here (links will be added when I publish the respective posts):

The series mostly focuses on the kind of teaching and learning that happens in group workshops and will just occasionally branch out into other forms of kink education (such as educational writing or podcasting, videos, or one-on-one private/informal teaching or mentoring). It’s based on my experiences within the dyke/trans/queer (or “everyone but cis men”) BDSM community in Europe since the late 1990s and also draws on what I’ve read and heard about other kink communities here and elsewhere. I’m writing with the assumption that the kinky activities I’m talking about happen between private people, but much of what I say probably also is relevant in interactions with sex workers/professional dominants.

Note on language: I’m using “bottom” as a shorthand for “people who bottom,” by which I mean masochists, submissives, switches, and other people who are the receiving partners in a BDSM scene/relationship at least some of the time. The same is true for “top,” by which I mean all people who top, such as sadists, dominants, switches, and other people who are the giving partners in a BDSM scene/relationship at least some of the time.[1] I’m also using ‘BDSM’ and ‘kink’ interchangeably. My use of these terms includes both scene-based play with bondage, pain, and/or power dynamics as well as ‘lifestyle’ 24/7 D/S relationships.


Content note: This post discusses sexism, gendernormativity, and anti-femininity, especially in kink spaces. It briefly mentions abuse in relation to BDSM. It also briefly mentions various BDSM practices, including needle play and breath play/choking (with a longer footnote about the latter).

Why is so much skill-centered BDSM teaching aimed at tops?

When people think of BDSM skills, they often think of the skills that are most obviously visible when watching a BDSM encounter from the outside: How to swing a flogger, aim a cane, tie a rope harness, stick needles through someone’s skin, or manipulate someone’s mind in a consensual and (directly or indirectly) enjoyable way. In other words: They think of topping skills.

Because tops tend to be the ones orchestrating a BDSM scene, they’re also often responsible for implementing the mutually-agreed-upon safety measures. Depending on the type of play they and their bottoms want to engage in, tops need to know where to hit or kick someone else without damaging their joints or internal organs and how to use an impact toy without giving themselves a shoulder injury (or accidentally hitting bystanders or knocking things off of furniture). They need to know how a rope chest harness or lycra hood will affect their bottom’s breathing, how to create and maintain a clean environment for play piercing and avoid needle-stick injuries on themselves, and/or how to use various psychological and communication techniques to create the desired effect in their bottoms and themselves. (This is obviously not a complete list.)

So clearly, there’s a need to teach tops who want to do any of these things how to do them in a risk-aware and consensual way — and in a way that is as pleasurable, cathartic, sexy, challenging and/or intimate as everyone involved desires. Workshops (and other educational formats) that focus on teaching these topping skills are important. (I’ll return to the question on who is teaching later in the series.)

However, there’s no ethical topping without consenting bottoms (because without consent, topping would be assault and/or emotional abuse). And bottoming also requires skills, and the application of those skills doesn’t stop once play has begun.

Why then are there so few skill-centered workshops that focus on the bottom perspective? I can think of several reasons.

First of all, we’re unfortunately still living in a sexist and gendernormative world where men are expected to be in control, to actively do things (whether they want to or not) and women are expected to be passive, submissive, and acted upon (whether they want that or not). And because the kink community isn’t automatically free from unjust real-life power relations (and often sadly doesn’t even try to be), we see the same dynamics there as well. Topping is often associated with maleness/masculinity and bottoming is associated with femaleness/femininity (and vice versa), so there’s often an assumption that all bottoms are female and all tops are male. Which is of course utter nonsense.[2] Nevertheless, the actions and desires of men and tops are often centered in BDSM community spaces of all kinds (including educational spaces and materials) and the actions and desires of women and bottoms are sidelined and devalued, as are the actions and desires of people who aren’t straight and/or cis. Even in queer contexts, anti-femininity still is a problem (even when there are no cis men around).

As BDSM practitioners, we also often draw inspiration and eroticism from real-life power hierarchies to use aspects of them in our play. From BDSM stories in particular (including such mainstream fare as Fifty Shades of Grey, which also portrays highly questionable consent and outright abuse as kink), to romance tropes in general, movies, books, and (therefore?) many people’s imaginations are full of sexually experienced, powerful cis men seducing inexperienced, less powerful and often younger cis women.[3] Sometimes, however, this eroticizing of real-life inequalities together with unexamined (or equally eroticized) gender stereotypes can lead to a blurring of the line between unwanted real-life injustice and play/relationships between consenting participants. This can influence how kink communities and BDSM education are organized. Corey Alexander has written a great overview of how these assumptions play out even in queer kink communities; and Thomas MacAulay Millar has provided a fantastic and detailed breakdown of ‘domism,’ role policing, and gender complete with many quotes from two anthropological studies of ‘pansexual’ (= straight-centered) BDSM subcultures in the U.S. (for once, the comments are definitely worth reading, too).

In Western culture, we also tend to value activity, initiative, leadership, and visible technical skills (which, again, are stereotypically associated with masculinity) over receptivity, responsiveness, followership, and less visible emotional/psychological skills (which are stereotypically associated with femininity). In addition to that, technical skills are often easier to explain and measure from the outside than emotional or psychological skills. In BDSM, that translates to lots of workshops about physical techniques that are taught primarily to tops (and by tops) and very few (if any) workshops about the skills and techniques that are used by bottoms.

Finally, topping is often associated with active and deliberate doing while bottoming is associated with passive and ‘unthinking’ receiving. That can make it hard to figure out what skills and techniques bottoms use at all. It can be even harder (for tops as well as for bottoms) to accept the idea that bottoms can deliberately use receiving techniques and still be completely authentic and ‘real’ in their responses as well as remaining just as submissive/bottom-y.

So, as a community, we keep focusing the vast majority of our technique-centered workshops on topping skills only. The implicit (and very wrong) assumption in many of these workshops is that topping takes skill and requires practice — but bottoming is “just standing/lying/kneeling there,” so presumably everyone could do it.

As a result, there’s a distinct lack of kink education and skill-sharing directed at bottoms that teaches us things like how to receive a flogging or caning, how to prepare for being tied up or pierced in a scene, or how to deal with having one’s mind and emotions consensually manipulated. (This is also not a complete list.)

That’s a problem. And I’ll explain why in the next post of the series!


Notes

[1]  This is still just a rough approximation of the variety of kink practices and identities that exist in real life, so I want to at least acknowledge that dominant masochists, service tops, submissive sadists, and other such combinations also exist (if that’s you, please feel free to comment with anything about your particular perspective I may have missed in my writing). Besides, in service interactions, (submissive) bottoms often give and (dominant) tops are the receiving ones, which further complicates things – at least when it comes to finding appropriate umbrella terms.

[2]  In reality, gender identity (e.g. female, male, non-binary, agender), gender expression (e.g. feminine, masculine, androgynous), sexual orientation (e.g. lesbian, gay, bisexual/pansexual, asexual, queer), and BDSM roles/preferences/identities (e.g. top, bottom, dominant, submissive, sadist, masochist, switch), are all separate categories that can be combined in any way: There are masculine bisexual women who are dominant masochists, feminine non-binary asexuals who are service tops, androgynous heterosexual men who are submissive sadists, queer femmes who are submissive pillow queens, masculine gay male switches who aren’t into pain play at all, androgynous agender pansexual sadists who aren’t into power exchange at all, as well as the more commonly portrayed masculine heterosexual men who are dominant sadist tops, and feminine straight women who are submissive masochist bottoms — and so on. Oh, and not everyone is cis and/or dyadic (= non-intersex) to begin with, different BDSM experience and intensity levels exist across the board, and people also can fall anywhere on the monogamy/polyamory spectrum. Real life really is that amazingly varied and wonderful.

[3] For the record: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with enjoying these kinds of stereotypical stories or relationship dynamics, as a fantasy or as a consensual reality. It just becomes a problem when other stories and dynamics are portrayed as less valuable, authentic, or healthy — or not portrayed at all.


Image source: Pixabay, color edited and text added by me.

Unmentionables

Person in Carnival of Venice mask and clothes, holding a gloved hand across the painted-on lips of their mask

There are many things I can’t write about on this blog because they would put me, my partners, my friends, and larger parts of my queer BDSM community here in Europe at too much risk of exposure.

Because this community is tiny. Our biggest international event has about 250 participants, our munches and workshops have around twenty guests on average, and our play parties usually have about 25-50 attendants. The overall number of queer perverts who are in touch with one or more parts of this queer BDSM community is of course bigger, but still: Compared to similar events in the straight-centered kink world, these are ridiculously small numbers.

This community is also intensely interconnected. Most of us are non-monogamous in some way, many of us have an extensive network of kinky friends that reaches across several national borders, and lots of us travel to queer BDSM events all over Europe. Like many other marginalized communities, we tend to have strong friendship ties even across different subgroups. We mostly value inclusion over separatism (even if that means we’ll keep running into all of our exes forever). We also remember each other’s faces, no matter for how many years people disappear before they come back, sometimes with a new name, set of pronouns, gender identity, degree, job, child, partner, disability, and/or kink identity. Compared to straight-centered BDSM contexts, it’s much harder to hide in an anonymous mass of people because the mass just isn’t there. Neither is the anonymity.

What is usually a benefit when it comes to community-making and (the good kind of) social control, is also a risk when it comes to unwanted outside attention. Since there aren’t very many of us, we’re easier to identify even by outsiders to this community, individually and as groups. And while some forms of BDSM have become a lot more accepted in mainstream culture in recent years, people can (and do) still lose their jobs or child custody, or get into trouble with their landlords, neighbors, family, etc. over being outed as practicing sluts and perverts. So the need for privacy still remains for many of us.

Aside from the stigma that comes with engaging in BDSM, literally all of us in this community are also marginalized by way of being queer, female, non-binary, and/or trans. Many of us don’t have even the vaguest veneer of presumed “don’t ask, don’t tell” cisheterosexuality to hide behind if we need to or at least one solid connection to a cis dude who can look intimidating if he wants to if we need to scare away annoying/potentially dangerous people. (Which is why the specific type and lived experience of someone’s queerness often still matters in assessing our realities of risk and access, even if we don’t believe that there are different “degrees” of queerness.) Not to mention that many of us are also disabled/chronically ill, neurodivergent, Black/people of color, sex workers, and/or poor and already experience discrimination and violence because of that, and not just outside our own community.

With the general right-wing backlash that’s happening in many European countries (and beyond), all of us (as individuals and collectively) are at risk of increased state scrutiny (e.g. the overly nitpicky attention that police and government agencies have paid to various queer sex/kink venues in Berlin and led to the Still-ongoing, months-long temporary closing of one of them), hate group attacks both online and offline (e.g. the trans-hostile attacks on London Pride last year as well as on the London Porn Film Festival last week), and multiple anti-sex/anti-queer internet regulations (e.g. last year’s Tumblr anti-porn policy that made large parts of queer and/or kinky self-expression and sex education invisible; or the upcoming British porn block). Not to mention the many supporters of the far-right parties who are still gaining parliamentary seats all over Europe and whose destructive actions unfortunately aren’t limited to “just” saying horribly inaccurate things about sexuality and gender (and related educational programs) to a public that still thinks it’s a good idea to offer them platforms to do just that. And then we still haven’t even started to look at how inequalities around race, class, disability, etc. further put queer and kinky people at risk and exclude them from the community support structures that exist.

So, to protect this beloved community and all of its members (including myself) from even more discrimination and violence, I don’t write about a lot of things I see other sex/kink bloggers write about all the time. I don’t mention the names of the kink events (such as munches, play parties, conferences, workshops) I go to. I don’t promote any of the workshops I’m giving in offline spaces. I don’t mention places, venues, dates, and try to remain vague even on countries. I don’t describe how people I interact with look in any detail. And I most definitely don’t post any pictures of any of us (including myself), not even with obscured faces (because in a community as small as this, our freckles, birthmarks, scars, tattoos, and piercings can be used to identify us just as much as our faces). And that’s not a risk I’m comfortable taking, especially not when it affects more people than just me, most of whom I can’t ask for their consent, if only because that would compromise my own anonymity and the partial security that comes with that.

I often regret having to make this choice. I often would like to be a lot more open. I often want to write about the whole range of topics I come across in this community (and give credit to the people, events, and/or FetLife discussions that inspired my thinking), to share details of the amazing events I go to (and create more of an archive of this community), to attach my face and legal name to this blog (and stop worrying whether I’ve told a personal story to too many people already to still feel comfortable with posting it — or vice versa), and perhaps even to link to the kink-educational work I do outside of this blog. I often worry that leaving out all this detail, all this joy, makes me sound aloof, inapproachable, or even fake. But I also know that there is no way back into the proverbial closet, so I want to be very careful with the bits and pieces I show of my own life and of the larger queer BDSM community on this continent (and in several of its countries). I do engage in risk-aware, consensual kink after all.

So I guess we’ll all have to live with this dissatisfying reality and my resulting hesitation to share information as generously here as I often share it in offline spaces or as I would like to share it in an ideal world. After all, I come from a line of queer and otherwise marginalized people whose names were put onto lists by actual Nazis (and whose names are put onto lists by actual Nazis again as we speak), who have found reasonable safety in obscurity (even if the price for that always was that we were harder to find for others like us), and who have good reason to be distrustful of the corporations that own social media and do highly questionable things with our data, the governments that make laws that criminalize more and more things related to sexuality, sex education, sex work, and/or LGBTQIA+ issues, and the actual Nazis (and other hostile assholes) in our very own neighborhoods.

Apparently, the sexual is still very political indeed.

(Edit: P.S. If any of you other sex/kink bloggers want to talk to me about your own risk management strategies, especially in relation to what I’ve said above, please feel free to comment here, use the contact form, or get in touch with me on Twitter.)


Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

This week’s topic for Wicked Wednesday was ‘unmentionable.’

This post marks my return to blogging after yet another absence during which I made shit happen offline which I unfortunately can’t write about for all the reasons spelled out above. Unmentionable indeed.


Image source: Pixabay