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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