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

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.

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22 thoughts on “Teaching (from) the bottom (part 1): Why is BDSM education so often aimed at tops?

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  2. An excellent, well-thought out and researched post. I and a friend have frequently asked a similar question – now I have a piece of writing I can point to for some possible answers that we have intuited but not been able to articulate.

    One question. I am familiar with the term pansexual, but did not understand that it is “straight-centered.” How is that so? I admit I am not well-versed in queer culture – perhaps it is a lack of understanding there that has led me to believe that it is the opposite? Can you clarify?

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    1. Thank you, I’m glad the post is useful to you!

      Re. pansexual vs. straight-centered: The (semi-)public events of the European BDSM communities I’m familiar with mostly invite either men only, everyone but cis men, or “everyone.” Events for “everyone” are still very centered on male/female pairings (or groups), though, even if the women in question don’t necessarily identify as heterosexual. Male/male pairings (or groups) who do kink/have sex with each other without any women involved are extremely rare or completely absent from such events. I also often hear from queer women who *don’t* play with cis men that they encounter a lot of unwelcome attention or even direct harassment from cis men at events that claim to be “for everyone” (which mirrors my own experiences).

      This is why I refrain from calling these spaces “pansexual” (which isn’t a very common descriptor for “open for all” events in my part of Europe the way it is in the BDSM communities of North America anyway) and describe them more factually as “straight-centered” instead: There are definitely not just heterosexual people present (especially the women often seem to be heteroflexible/bisexual/etc.), and no one is excluded based on their gender/orientation, but straight people and their desires are still very much centered in the vast majority of marketing materials, pricing structures, decorations, assumptions about participants and their roles/interests, rules for (safer) sex, bathroom situation, and/or consent culture, occasionally to the point of organizers being extremely dismissive about the concerns of women who don’t want to play/have sex with cis men, trans people of all genders, and non-binary individuals. In other words: Being welcome on paper as a queer/trans person doesn’t always translate into *feeling* welcome and actually being thought of and included during the entire making of an event.

      (Disclaimer: This comment is intended as a description of certain tendencies I’ve experienced and heard about repeatedly, in multiple cities and countries over almost two decades. Of course I can’t speak for every single all-genders/all-orientations BDSM event in all of Europe simply because I haven’t been to every single one of them or even heard from someone who has been there, never mind all the events I don’t even know exist. I’m also sure that there are people who are trying to make their BDSM events truly inclusive in terms of genders/orientations throughout the whole process and not just on paper. So: #NotAllEvents #ButManyEvents)

      Hope this clarifies things!

      Like

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