What are bottoming skills? // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 3

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 #3.'

This is part 3 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 briefly mentions a variety of BDSM practices, including pain play, power exchange, humiliation, and resistance play. It also briefly mentions abuse/consent violations and real-life pain conditions, inside and outside of BDSM.

What are bottoming skills?

After examining why BDSM workshops are so often centered on topping skills and what the risks are of not educating bottoms about safety issues and bottoming skills, it’s now time to look at what bottoming skills are in the first place (I promise there’s more than blowjob skills or bootblacking technique!).

I want to emphasize that I’m discussing bottoming skills in a context of consensual BDSM play/relationships.[1] I’m going to talk about various skills and techniques that I’ve used myself, witnessed in other people’s play/relationships, or heard/read about. Some of the skills only apply to specific kinds of BDSM scenes/relationships (e.g. if you don’t play with pain at all, you probably don’t have a strong need to develop your pain processing skills), but many of them are useful across the board. Some of the things I’m going to mention below are of course also done by tops, and some are also useful in vanilla situations.[2]

While I’m writing in a fairly generalized way (“bottoms do X”), I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should do in any and all kinky circumstances.

I also want to make room for people being new and/or needing time to actually learn these bottoming skills (I certainly wasn’t able to do everything I mention in this post in my very first kinky explorations twenty years ago!). Learning takes time. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen, even after decades of doing BDSM. (And dealing with all of that is also a valuable skill for both bottoms and tops!) I believe that expecting immediate perfection of ourselves and/or each other is not a good (or realistic) way to approach any kind of skill.

That said, I also believe that being able to use these skills usually makes one’s BDSM practice both more responsible and more enjoyable for everyone involved. So I generally encourage people (including myself) to constantly develop and hone these skills as a normal part of their life. In fact, I tend to side-eye bottoms who claim that they don’t need these skills since their top takes care of everything for them because that can be an attempt to avoid responsibility for the bottom’s own part in a BDSM dynamic. I also tend to side-eye tops who claim their bottoms don’t need these skills (or that they themselves don’t need the respective topping skills) because that can be an attempt to withhold agency from their bottom in a manipulative and potentially abusive way. That said, I’m sure I haven’t thought of every potentially imaginable constellation under the consensual BDSM umbrella, so I may have missed an exception to the rule of “these are generally good skills for a bottom to have” in my thinking (feel free to point those out in the comments).

My focus here is on what bottoms do during play, mostly because this is where topping and bottoming skills differ the most (and also because I could write a whole post about every single one of the before/after skills, too — and this post is long enough as it is!). That said, I still want to briefly list some of the things we do and skills we use before and after a scene (and/or relationship).

Before play even starts, bottoms have identified our needs, desires, and limits (or at least figured out what we’d like to try to find out whether we like it or not). We have found and vetted partners who are both compatible and trustworthy (or dealt with their absence — because for many of us, our dating pool is more like a dating puddle and there aren’t always any matches within our geographical reach). Bottoms have communicated our needs, wants, and limits to (potential) partners and (hopefully) asked them about theirs. We have learned about safety concerns and disclosed relevant physical, neurological, or psychological issues. If we’re going to offer any services to our tops, we may also have learned the respective skills (e.g. massage, bootblacking, housecleaning, bookkeeping, deep-throating) ahead of time. We also may have set up safe calls or implemented other safety measures when meeting new partners or playing with them for the first time (or the first few times). And finally, we have gotten ready for the play date physically and emotionally (or at least arrived at the agreed-upon place more or less on time and with some energy left). In some cases, bottoms may also have realized that we’re actually not up for playing at that time/place and/or with that person, so we have communicated that to our counterpart. All of these activities are complex and sometimes challenging, and all of them require specific skills. Not everyone can automatically do them, let alone do them well. But most of us can learn these things, or learn how to do them better (whatever ‘better’ means for each of us: more easily, more efficiently, more effectively, more precisely…).

So let’s be optimistic and assume the preparations were successful, negotiations have ended in actual plans and agreements, and play between at least two eager (if perhaps somewhat nervous) participants is about to begin. What bottoming skills are relevant now?

The most universal one probably is communication. At the very least, bottoms must (yes, mustexpress our ongoing consent with whatever is happening in our scene (or relationship) — or withdraw our consent if and when we want to stop an activity or the whole encounter.[3] We can do that in many different ways: By using plain language (e.g. “Fuck yeah, this is great!,” “I’ll need a break soon,” “Can you please switch to a different toy/loosen that bit of rope/tell me that you still love me?,” “No, stop!”), by using safewords (e.g. “green/yellow/red,” “mercy,” “giraffe”) or safe signals (e.g. hand gestures that align with the traffic light code; tapping out), or by using non-verbal sounds (e.g. moans, grunts, purrs, yells, crying) or body language (e.g. leaning/turning towards a sensation vs. moving away from it).[4] That said, tops are still responsible for paying close attention to their partners’ physical and mental state and for checking in if they have any doubts about their bottoms’ consent. Bottoms can of course also check in with our tops (e.g. by using “yellow” or by just asking “are you okay/still with me?”) if we’re uncertain about the top’s physical or emotional state or their consent.

Of course there’s a lot more to in-scene communication than just “yes, I consent” and “no, I don’t consent (any more),” though, so bottoms also use a similar variety of ways to let our tops know how we feel about what’s happening: facial expressions, eye contact (or the lack thereof), body language, sounds, words… Whether we receive a caress, a slap, a punch, a kick, an insult, a compliment, an order, or the withdrawal of stimulation by way of a blindfold, earplugs, or full-body mummification, bottoms also respond to stimulation of all kinds, whether it’s physical or psychological, ideally in ways our tops can perceive (which might be harder in low lighting or a loud environment). Depending on the bottom, the stimulation, and the negotiated style of communication, this response can be big and obvious (loud moaning, shouting, trying to get away, full-body movement, sobbing, orgasm) or small and subtle (a shiver, a hitch in our breath, a slightly prolonged blink, a swallow, a brief hesitation). Such responses can also give back energy to the top and feed their dominant/sadistic (and/or stone) desire. In scenes that focus on the bottom’s stoicism and/or self-control instead, this may take the form of not responding and instead absorbing whatever is coming at us with as little outward reaction as possible. But even then, some bottoms (and tops!) like playing up to the point where the bottom’s self-control ultimately breaks down and a response can be seen/heard/felt.

Bottoms also process pain or other intense physical sensations (and one person’s ‘boring’ may be another one’s ‘intense’ — and BDSM is not a competition anyway), both physically and emotionally (if we play with pain/sensations at all). This may include pain we don’t directly experience as pleasurable but willingly endure nevertheless because it emphasizes the dynamic between us and our tops. We may use breathing techniques to lessen or heighten the pain; we may tense or relax our muscles or adapt our position to influence how the sensation feels. We may influence the speed of an impact scene by how we respond, e.g. by only returning to the original position once we’re ready for the next stroke or by only saying, “Thank you, ma’am. May I have another?” once we actually mean it. We may work with mental images that turn the pain into warmth or waves of liquid or a blooming flower; we may mentally redirect the pain to a different body part or turn it into something arousing. We may use silent affirmations in our heads that remind us why we’re doing this or that we are strong enough to endure it (e.g. “I choose this,” “She owns me,” “I deserve this,” “I can do this,” “He believes in me,” “I’m theirs to use,” “I belong to her,” “I’m doing it to please them”). Or we may give up all attempts at (self-)control and let ourselves wallow in our utter ‘helplessness’ and deeply ‘unfair victimization’ at the hands of our ‘cruel and cold-hearted’ tops and do all the crying, wailing, and giving up we want to. In short: Processing intense stimulation may mean controlling our (outward) reaction to it, or it can mean letting ourselves react as intensely as we can. Different bottoms have different preferences, and preferences may change depending on the type of scene or the respective partner.

It all depends on the negotiated flavor of our scene and the emotions and dynamics we’ve set out to experience: Pain in BDSM scenes can be about strength and endurance, failure and victimization, sensual pleasure, punishment or reward, and many other emotions and dynamics. It’s also useful when bottoms are aware of our different reactions to different kinds of pain (e.g. stingy pain is a challenge, but thuddy pain is a sensual pleasure — or vice versa; butt spankings feel humiliating, but back floggings bring a sense of pride — or butt spankings may feel close and loving while back floggings feel distant and impersonal; a series of twenty short, intense strokes may be easier to take than twenty clothespins on the undersides of our arms that are left on for ten minutes — or the other way round). Everyone is different, so it makes sense to discuss these things with our partners ahead of time so they know what kind of pain is likely to make us feel how we want to feel (or how they want us to feel if we’ve given them control over that).

Whether our play involves any pain or not, bottoms also deal with a wide range of intense and potentially difficult emotions during a BDSM scene/relationship. This may be especially obvious if we engage in things like humiliation play, fear play, or scenes that play with consensual non-consent, but it’s also true for all other types of play that involves our minds and/or emotions (which even explicitly pain-centered play without any hierarchies ultimately does). Depending on what we play with and what kinds of relationships we have with our tops, we may experience intense feelings of fear, anger, abandonment, disconnection, grief, impatience, and/or vulnerability, either as an expected part of our play or as an unexpected side effect. We may even be triggered or otherwise reminded of trauma we’ve experienced in the past and have to handle that as best as we can. We may also have strong feelings of happiness, connection, sexual arousal, peacefulness, and/or even love. We may suddenly feel intensely romantic towards a casual/one-off partner during a scene, turned on like never before, spiritually touched, or seen and understood to an exceptional degree by our tops — ‘positive’ emotions like these can be just as volatile and difficult to deal with as things like fear or anger, especially of we didn’t expect them. We may also deal with times of doubts, worry, and insecurity during a scene/relationship and may ask our partners for reassurance. We also deal with the emotions our partners express and provide reassurance for them if they want it. Again, all of these things can change from bottom to bottom, from scene to scene, and from partner to partner.

Dealing with the full range of our emotions includes recognizing and identifying them (which is mostly internal work but can also be done out loud to a degree). It also includes making ethical and socially-aware choices about expressing our feelings (because it may not always be a good idea to just blurt out whatever we’re feeling without any filter — or it may be a very good idea indeed to say something even if it feels risky). To do all this, we may partly use similar techniques as we use in processing pain, and we may also take time after the scene to journal about them, turn them into art, and/or talk about them, with friends, our partners, and/or a therapist/counselor.

As I’ve mentioned before, bottoms also constantly monitor our bodies and minds during a scene/relationship, at least in terms of “am I still consenting to this?” (see above). To that purpose, we differentiate between a ‘yellow’ (= “slow down” or “something’s wrong, please check in”) and a ‘red’ (= “stop everything right now”) — and of course a ‘green’ (= “all is well, please continue”). Especially when we play with challenging emotional states or things like consensual non-consent, determining if we want something to stop or continue may not always be easy. Nevertheless, it’s our responsibility to let our tops know if there’s a physical or psychological issue that needs addressing (whether that’s “I can’t feel my fingers anymore,” “I’m having a major panic attack,” or “I just saw my abusive ex arrive at the play party” or something like “I need to pee,” “I forgot to close the curtains,” or “I’m getting cold”). Yes, if our tops know us well enough and have great observational skills, they may be able to notice some of these things and deal with them before we’ve even said something. Yes, there may be times where a bottom is so spaced out from play that they can’t reliably judge their limits anymore, so their top has to make that call by themselves. Yes, it may sometimes be difficult for a bottom to tell their top in the middle of a scene that their aim is off and the flogger keeps wrapping around their collarbones rather unpleasantly or to implicitly question their competence by asking them if this hardpoint really is suitable for suspension (especially when there’s a chosen or real-life power imbalance between them). Nevertheless, I believe the default in BDSM should still be that bottoms keep track of ourselves (along with the top) and that we’re responsible for communicating any issues (or things we expect to become an issue any second) to our tops as soon as we can. Even if that feels like a turn-off. Because our tops may consent to hitting us until our asses are bruised all over, but they may not consent to hitting us in a position that makes our sciatica act up again so we have to spend the next three days in bed on heavy pain medication. They may consent to call us all kinds of insulting and degrading names until we cry, but they may not consent to keep doing this if we regress to a younger age. (I’ll say it once again: Tops get to have limits, too.) Besides, not every top has already had the time to amass twenty years of frequent BDSM practice during which they’ve consistently improved their skills in all possible techniques to an expert level (if there even is such a thing as an objective ‘expert level’ in any of this).

Bottoms also eroticize things (e.g. pain, power dynamics, ‘difficult’ emotions) within BDSM that aren’t generally considered erotic and that might not be erotic for us in a different context or coming from a different person. We shift into a different headspace when we play (or enter into a 24/7 relationship) where different rules apply than in other areas of our life. In that headspace, we willingly suspend our disbelief and accept that our partner is now a top who is allowed to hurt us and/or control (parts of) our behavior and that we are compelled to obey them (or that they are our adversaries whom we have to resist, if that’s more to our taste). Depending on our preferences and the dynamics we’ve negotiated, we may also embody more ‘active’ styles of bottoming (e.g. doing resistance play, engaging in play fighting, being bratty/challenging towards our tops, but also begging, asking for permission, or offering services). Together with our tops, we create this alternate reality and support each other in our respective roles by using specific kinds of spoken or body language and other forms of behavior. We stay present, keep focus, resist distraction, handle interruptions, and maintain the scene space or relationship dynamic we’ve created with our tops.

So even if a bottom doesn’t look like they’re doing much during a scene, even if they really “just lie there” and do what they’re told, there’s still a lot going on within our bodies and minds to enable that degree of seeming ‘passivity’ and submission. It might not always feel like ‘work’ to those who are doing it, and not every bottom is consciously doing all of these things, especially not if we enjoy doing them and maybe also have some unexplained ‘talent’ for them, but we’re still having skills and using specific techniques in what we do (in not doing what we don’t do).

Once play is over (or at various points during an ongoing BDSM relationship), we handle its aftermath, including our part of the necessary and agreed-upon aftercare and debriefing. This may involve caring for our bodies (e.g. eating something, taking a shower, getting some sleep, caring for any injuries), our hearts and minds (e.g. by thinking and talking about the experience, journaling, taking some alone time and/or time with friends, doing therapy, having a spiritual practice), our environments (e.g. cleaning up our play space, washing and disinfecting toys, doing community work), and of course our partners (e.g. by listening to them talk about their experience and sharing ours, giving them a massage or eating them out, bringing them a cup of tea, giving them time to process). We may need to handle a (one-sided or mutual) crush or other feelings that have spilled over from play into the rest of our lives (which can sometimes happen despite all precautions). We may also need to reconcile the fact that our caring and wonderful (play) partner is also a mean sadist who wants to see us cry or bleed, or a strict dominant who wants to decide if, when, and how we get to speak, orgasm, or sit on a chair. Or reconcile the fact that we are strong, independent, social justice badasses and still want to lick someone’s boots, cheerfully cook them dinner in nothing but a frilly apron, and/or be beaten until we’re literally black and blue. We may also deal with the physical and emotional aspects of drop and/or support our partners through theirs (yes, tops can get drop, too). And hopefully, eventually, we also make plans for the next time!

I’m sure this is still not a complete list of all the things bottoms do that require specific skills and techniques, so please feel free to add additional things in the comments.

I also want to acknowledge that in rope communities, bottoming skills and how to learn/teach them[5] have been discussed a lot more clearly than in other areas of BDSM. My own thinking and (self-)perception has undoubtedly benefited from that, even though I myself haven’t done a lot of rope so far.[6]

The next part of the series is about what can make it hard to deliberately use bottoming skills in our BDSM encounters even if we know what they are and why they would be useful.


[1]  I’m sure some of these techniques can also be used to survive a non-consensual situation, inside or outside of kink (so if you find yourself in one of those and you can’t get away immediately, please use whatever works to help you survive!), but I’m not writing this to help anyone endure real-life abuse longer than is absolutely necessary.

[2]  Some of the techniques mentioned below can be used to deal with non-kinky pain (e.g. from an illness, injury, or disability — or from getting a tattoo) and non-kinky emotional challenges. Again, if that’s your situation, feel free to use/adapt what I say here, but be aware that my focus here remains on consensual kink.

[3]  Here’s a part of my personal consent ethics (yours may be different): In situations that have started out as consensual and during which everyone stuck to the agreed-upon limits, where a bottom simply changed their mind (which they can of course do at any time and for any reason), they must give an indication if they want to withdraw that consent. Otherwise, how is the top supposed to know that the situation is no longer consensual? Even tops with amazing observational skills aren’t mind readers. So if we can’t express this consent withdrawal (which unfortunately might happen), we also can’t accuse the top of knowingly violating our boundaries afterwards. In situations where previous agreements were violated by the top without consent from the bottom, I don’t think bottoms have to explicitly state that things have become non-consensual (because the top should know), even though it’s usually still helpful to do so for clarity’s sake (if only because even experienced and competent tops who care a great deal about everyone’s consent sometimes genuinely forget things or misunderstood the original agreement). If a situation is already at a point where openly stating “I don’t consent” will put the bottom at risk of (more) violence or other form of retribution, I don’t think they have any ethical obligation to keep repeating their “no” and are completely justified in doing whatever will get them out alive and as unharmed as possible. And just for the record: While I’m focusing on the bottom perspective here, the exact same logic applies to tops who want to withdraw their consent or have their consent violated by anyone.

[4]  Body language and non-verbal sounds might be more easily misunderstood than plain language or prearranged safe codes, so it’s good to clarify ahead of time if crying/giggling/silence is a sign that everything is going great for this particular bottom or if it’s a sign that there’s trouble.

[5]  Just in case you have trouble accessing the six different parts linked in this overview through Wayback Machine, here are the direct links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

[6]  There’s also some good writing about rope bottoming on FetLife, but since that’s a closed platform, I’m not going to link these articles.

Image source: Pixabay, text added by me.

2 thoughts on “What are bottoming skills? // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 3

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