“But isn’t that ‘topping from the bottom’?” // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 5

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 #5.'

This is part 5 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:


Content note: This post describes manipulative communication, BDSM role-policing, and situations with (potentially) questionable consent (all without much detail). It also mentions abusive dynamics and red flags for those in the text and footnotes. There’s one very brief reference each to a house fire and a trauma flashback in one of the footnotes.

“But isn’t that ‘topping from the bottom’?”

In previous posts of the series, I’ve talked about top-centered BDSM education and the risks of not educating bottoms. I’ve also described what bottoming skills are and what can make it hard to intentionally use them. Before I discuss learning and teaching bottoming skills, I want to address the question whether intentionally using bottoming skills is the same as ‘topping from the bottom.’

You may have heard the term before: ‘Topping from the bottom’ or ‘topping from below’ expresses the idea that a bottom is trying to influence the course of a scene or relationship in a way that doesn’t perfectly align with the desires of the respective top (or those of a random bystander). It tends to be framed as something negative, something to avoid at all costs, especially for a submissive.

Consequently, kinksters have spent quite some time trying to determine where desirable responsiveness and “feeding one’s partner’s dominance” ends and ‘topping from the bottom’ starts. Usually, the answer is something like, “You’ll have to figure it out for yourselves.”[1] However, I think this question is the wrong approach to this topic altogether. Here’s why.

First of all, most instances where I myself have been accused of ‘topping from the bottom’ or heard other people’s behavior described that way, no one was even playing (or part of a 24/7 D/S relationship) at the time. Instead, those were social situations (e.g. at a munch or a play party) in spaces with a “we’re all equals” default.[2] In other words, these were either comments about theoretical play (we’ll get back to that) or, much more often, reactions towards the social behavior of a person who is a bottom/submissive in play. These accusations usually came with a heavy dose of shaming and role-policing (see below) and usually happened when the bottom in question didn’t act as obedient and submissive as the observer thought they should. And they came almost exclusively from tops/dominants who were talking to/about bottoms who weren’t even among their own play partners. In literally all of these situations, “that’s ‘topping from the bottom'” has been an attempt to discipline the bottom in question and change their social behavior: to make them backpedal on whatever statement they made (so they can regain the top’s approval), to make them defend themselves (which would then be used as further ‘proof’ for their lack of submissiveness and/or humor), to ‘prove’ their submissiveness right then and there (preferably by acting more submissively towards the accuser). It has never felt like anything but an inappropriate and non-consensual manipulation to me, whether I was the direct target of the accusation or just a witness to it, whether it was framed as a ‘joke’ or as a serious comment. And despite all my analysis, such remarks still often hurt and can leave me speechless in the moment, especially when they come from people I consider friends. Accusing me of ‘topping from the bottom’ also usually ruins any chance these people may have had of ever playing with me in the future.

That said, let’s talk about actual play situations that might lead a bottom to worry they’re ‘topping from the bottom’ or to be told they’re doing so by someone else (either their own top or a random bystander).

For the first scenario, let’s assume a bottom really does ask for so many minor changes and/or puts up so many limits after the scene has started that the top has barely any room left to actually run that scene. In that case, it’s very likely that the bottom simply lacks the necessary trust in the top (at least in this particular situation). This could be due to the bottom’s inexperience with giving up (this kind of) control or receiving (this kind of) stimulation, so they might (consciously or unconsciously) attempt to limit the scope or intensity of what’s happening. It could be because one or more of the people involved are trying to do too much too soon instead of taking the time to build trust at the speed of whoever is the slowest. It could be because the bottom isn’t quite sure they actually want to do/receive what the top asks them to, but the situation doesn’t feel ‘bad enough’ to require a safeword (or they haven’t agreed on a safeword to begin with),[3] so they express their consent uncertainty in other, more indirect ways. In any of these cases, it’s probably a good idea to pause and check everyone’s consent again, and to stop what you were doing altogether if consent remains unclear. If all of you agree to continue after such a check-in, it’s probably also a good idea to slow down and/or dial back the intensity to a level that’s within the bottom’s (and the top’s) comfort zone. Focus on (re)establishing or increasing trust and save activities that feel slightly too challenging for another day. (This kind of situation might also point to problems in other areas of communication and/or consent, so it might be necessary to do some further digging, especially if a similar situation occurs more than once with the same person.)

What is not cool and not okay in any of these situations is to shame the bottom for being inexperienced, uncertain, afraid, or insecure. It’s not okay to say (or even just imply) that we shouldn’t have (these) limits. It’s not okay to tell us to “stop topping from the bottom” or to say “just relax and you’ll be fine”[4] and dismiss any concerns we might have. It’s not okay to question the ‘realness’ or ‘authenticity’ of our submission, our masochism, our gender, or any other identity we might care about and imply that we should behave differently to prove ourselves to whoever has said these things (as I said earlier, I consider this kind of talk a red flag for potential emotional/ psychological abuse). And it’s most definitely not okay to just continue with the scene despite the fact that the bottom clearly isn’t getting into a good headspace.[5]

In a different scenario (or in the same scenario, actually), there may also be mistaken assumptions about how the dynamic between bottom and top should look like. Maybe someone assumed that bottoming/submitting meant giving up all control over everything that happens in a scene/relationship (when in reality, people can exchange exactly as much power in exactly the areas that work for them at any given point in time). Or that a masochist had to take everything their top wanted to dish out (when in reality, people can receive exactly the type and intensity of stimulation on exactly the body parts that work for everyone involved). Maybe this situation just needs clarification and perhaps a reassertion of one’s current limits and desires. Or maybe this leads to the realization that there’s a mismatch of expectations that can’t be resolved, so the scene/relationship might need to end altogether. (Yes, it’s okay to be sad about that.)

Maybe what a bystander reads as ‘topping from the bottom’ is just a situation where a more experienced bottom gives feedback and instruction (which may or may not be more than they usually do in a scene) to support a less experienced top through a scene or through the use of an unfamiliar implement. This might actually be framed as a service the bottom offers to the top (or to the BDSM community at large), so don’t assume the bottoming is automatically less submissive because they keep giving directions to the top. Or maybe the people involved just prefer using a lot of verbal feedback because the top has trouble reading non-verbal body language. In either case, there’s nothing wrong at all, and outsiders to the dynamic just need to shut up (and perhaps walk away) and let the participants do what works for them.

Perhaps the ‘topping’ bottom in question is using their attempts at ‘control’ as a provocative way to engage the top in play that centers on resistance or punishment, or they are trying to start a switch fight (where the winner will be the designated top). Many brats (and the people who like them) make use of such dynamics and have an understanding with their partner about the ways and areas in which they can push back to communicate a desire to be fought down or punished. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, so anyone who’s not a part of that dynamic needs to stop imposing their own preferences on other people and let them have fun however they like.

Finally, the bottom in question might simply just not be submissive at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a dominant masochist or an in-control pillow queen and wanting to tell someone else exactly what kind of stimulation to put where for how long. There’s also nothing wrong with having a pain-centered scene between equals or to do a rope scene that has a lot of shared experimentation and bottom feedback.[6] This is yet another case where everyone not involved in the dynamic needs to stop their role-policing and leave the scene/relationship participants to do their thing however they please.

Of course, the examples given in the three previous paragraphs (bottom supports top with direction/verbal feedback, bottom acts bratty/resistant to inspire punishment or to signal a switchy dynamic, bottom is not a submissive) can also result in a mismatch when the desires of the bottom and top in question don’t align. In that case, the encounter either needs to be clarified and renegotiated or ended. But even if there was a mismatch and what looked like a promising scene at first has ended in a disappointment for all involved, there’s still nothing wrong with being a bottom (or a top!) who wants to play like that. You just need to find someone who’s a better match.

I’m sure there are also cases where bottoms behave in a way that feels super entitled and demanding to the tops they interact with. I still think that ultimately boils down to either “it’s a mismatch” or “people need to understand that bottoming doesn’t equal submission.” In either case, the solution probably is to for the bottom to better understand their desires so they can communicate that all they want is to find someone who will do exactly what’s in their script for an enjoyable scene (because someone probably will be). However, I will say that even the brattiest bottom and the most dominant masochist still need to pay attention to their respective partners’ needs and desires as well. Even dedicated service tops and submissive sadists usually don’t want to be treated like the human operating system for a toy bag. Everyone who tops wants to get something out of a scene: sadistic creativity, dominant satisfaction, the sense of a job well done, sexual release, human connection, and/or plain, old money — so I suggest all bottoms act accordingly (this is also true the other way around, of course).

Edited to add (June 17, 2019): After I had posted this, Corey Alexander/Xan West pointed out to me that I had neglected to include one more dynamic that might be perceived as ‘topping from the bottom.’ I thought it was important to add into the actual blog post and not just into a comment, so here it is (with lots of gratitude to Corey for raising the issue). So far, I’ve assumed that all bottoms act in good faith and don’t try to manipulate their tops unless that’s a desirable part of their negotiated dynamic. However, bottoms can also behave in ways that are non-consensually manipulative, coercive, and/or abusive towards tops (not just the other way round). One way they might do that is by repeatedly asking for an activity that the top has named as a limit in previous negotiations and isn’t willing or able to share with that bottom (or anyone at all). Maybe the bottom keeps begging for this activity during scenes, maybe they give the top gifts that are clearly related to this activity, maybe they keep trying to get the top to watch or read porn/erotica that contains this activity while commenting how much they’d enjoy doing it with that top. Another way might be the bottom having a pattern of going into a submissive/pet/little headspace as a way to avoid their adult responsibilities without the explicit consent of the top. If the top is comfortable with the bottom expressing their desires or starting kinky interactions this way, none of these behaviors are a problem (and the rule of “go away and let people do their thing applies again). I also would say that a single occurrence of any of these things without any other pushing against the top’s limits and consent is probably not a major red flag (but still a valid reason to pay close attention to similar actions). However, if the bottom acts like this repeatedly and/or if the top starts feeling like the bottom doesn’t really accept the top’s boundaries and keeps trying to shift or subtly (or not so subtly) violate them without the top’s consent, I’d say the bottom’s behavior has become non-consensually manipulative and potentially coercive/abusive. As in previous examples, there’s also an element of incompatibility here, but I feel like the (semi-)deliberate and repeated boundary-pushing needs to be spelled out explicitly. In this case, the solution I’d suggest would be for the top to firmly reassert their boundaries and to have a conversation with the bottom about how to solve the incompatibility issues (which might involve ending the scene/relationship altogether). Consent is equally important for everyone involved in a BDSM dynamic or scene, and bottoms must accept and respect their tops’ boundaries just as much as vice versa. Even if they don’t like them and really, really wish they weren’t there. (End of edit.)

In short: Thinking someone is ‘topping from the bottom’ is either a way to describe a dynamic where taking initiative and giving a lot of input from the bottom is desirable and not a problem for the people involved (so the rest of us need to shut up about it and maybe walk away to look at something more to our voyeuristic tastes). Or it’s a situation where there’s a mismatch between what people are trying to do and what they would actually like to do/what feels good to them (so it needs reaffirmation of consent, slowing down, and/or renegotiation — or an end to the scene/ relationship). In either case, threatening to accuse someone of ‘topping from the bottom’ in an attempt to keep them from expressing their desires, needs, or limits is always a shitty and manipulative move.

So, is deliberately using bottoming skills the same as ‘topping from the bottom’? Short answer: No.

Long answer: Letting our tops know what we like and dislike, before, during, and after an encounter is a necessary contribution to a scene/relationship — if only so our tops can decide what to do when they want to comfort/reward or challenge/punish us. Whether we let them know these things ahead of time or during the scene as it comes up, whether we do it in a face-to-face talk, in writing, or in some other way[7] is a matter of personal preference and ability, negotiation, and circumstance. But even when we aim to do as much of our negotiation as we can before a scene (because too much talk messes with our headspace), we may still sometimes have to clarify things in the middle of a scene, e.g. when something unforeseen comes up that we haven’t discussed yet, when we forget to mention something important in advance (it happens!), or when there are misunderstandings that have to be sorted out as they occur.[8] What’s more, communication is not just for troubleshooting! It’s also to let our tops know how much we enjoy what they’re doing to us or allowing us to do for them, how pleasurably we’re struggling with this extremely hot challenge, how much we like them as a top and as a person, and/or how much more we’d like of this wonderfully mean, sexy thing they just did. So let’s use our bodies, faces, and voices to express all that — especially since the vast majority of tops seems to be really, really into their bottoms’ reactions.

And if it’s still hard to believe (even though it really shouldn’t be) that even very submissive bottoms can use their skills intentionally without taking anything away from their tops’ authority: How about we think of learning and deliberately using bottoming skills as a service? We don’t accuse a bottom who spends time on learning how to polish their top’s boots or cook their favorite meal of ‘topping from the bottom’ — we just appreciate their service skills. We don’t think a submissive is any less of a submissive if they practice deep-throating with a dildo or go through a series of ‘submissive positions’ every night until they can exercise them without thinking — we just appreciate their dedication. (All of these things both are and require bottoming skills as well, by the way.) So why not consider a bottom/submissive who takes a class about pain processing and knowingly uses what they’ve learned in a scene, who remembers their top’s favorite dirty talk phrases and intentionally uses them to enhance a shared experience, or who knows exactly how to look at their top to make them feel particularly toppy just as dedicated to the dynamic they share with their top?

Actually, instead of thinking that bottoms who intentionally use bottoming skills during a scene or relationship are either compromising their top’s authority or somehow ‘faking’ their submission by ‘topping from the bottom,’ I suggest we instead think of such bottoms as skilled and desirable partners in the dance of BDSM. Most partner dancing (such as ballroom, swing, salsa, or Argentine tango) has one person who leads and one person who follows at any given time. Having a skilled follower who intentionally does what they do to support the dance doesn’t make the leader any less of a leader. On the contrary, the leader of a skilled follower will probably feel more competent and enjoy themselves more, not less. And just like it’s easier (and often more fun) to lead a follower who isn’t stepping onto the dance floor for the very first time just then, it’s easier (and often more fun) to top a bottom who already knows how to competently receive and respond to what the top is doing. Just like one can usually dance more difficult steps with a skilled follower, one can often do more complex/advanced BDSM with a skilled and experienced bottom than with a complete newbie who hasn’t had any time to learn and gather experiences yet.[9] And just like a great follower on the dance floor probably spent some time deliberately analyzing and practicing moves and working on their posture and non-verbal communication skills (aka recognizing and interpreting the signals of a leader), and likely took some classes to that effect as well, a bottom who strives for further improvement will probably benefit from spending some time analyzing and practicing bottoming skills.

Alright, now that we’ve sorted out the whole ‘topping from the bottom’ issue and clarified that using bottoming skills intentionally is an asset instead of a problem, how can bottoms learn these skills? And what issues encounter bottoms who teach? That’s what the next part of the series is about!


Notes

[1] Or, “Agree with my take or you’re not a ‘real’/’true’/’authentic’ bottom/submissive” — but that’s generally a good point to end that conversation anyway because someone is probably trying to unethically manipulate you just then.

[2]  Yes, some BDSM spaces do have a rule that all bottoms will submit and defer to all tops — so entering these spaces means consenting to that rule. However, the BDSM spaces I hang out in (munches, play parties, workshops, private get-togethers) don’t have that rule, so the default social contract of “we’re all equals” applies instead. There is absolutely no reason within any of these spaces for a top to expect a bottom to behave in a certain way outside of a clearly negotiated scene or relationship.

[3]  For the record: a safeword is just a different way to say “stop this scene right now.” It can be used for any reason, big (you’re having a major trauma flashback, your partner has knowingly violated an important boundary of yours, the curtains are on fire) or small (you’re too tired to continue, the scene just isn’t working for you, you’ve just had enough of whatever you’re doing), that makes you want to stop. Also: Unless you’ve explicitly agreed that “no” and “stop” don’t mean “no” and “stop,” these words and other plain language have the same function as a safeword.

[4]  Honestly, has being ordered to relax ever led to someone actually relaxing?!

[5]  You’re probably expecting me to add a “unless otherwise negotiated” disclaimer here, but I won’t. In a situation like this, where there’s reason to suspect that the bottom lacks trust in their top (at least in this particular setting or in relation to this specific activity) and/or possibly doesn’t consent, I would always recommend erring on the side of caution and not forging ahead because “they said they were into consensual non-consent three weeks ago!” If you check in with your bottom and it turns out they’re fine and want to continue (if perhaps a little slower or less intensely), you can always get back to where you were and take it from there, right then and there or some other time. Making sure there is ongoing consent is always more important than maintaining anyone’s personal enjoyment of the flow of a scene.

[6]  Some rope people differentiate clearly between play time and lab/ practice/ experimentation time, while other people just like doing rope very collaboratively and without any hierarchy all the time.

[7] In my experience, using actual words to express what we do and don’t want, what we do and don’t enjoy is a very good default practice. However, I’ve also participated in a few effective negotiations that were almost entirely non-verbal (usually with people I’ve played with before multiple times or who otherwise already knew me fairly well), so I’m not going to insist that words are always the only possible way negotiation can take place and consent can be established. (No, this experience/ability doesn’t win me any ‘coolness’ or ‘hardcore’ or ‘realness’ points. It mostly just means that I know myself and my limits and that I was lucky in my partner choices.)

[8]  Even when you’re ultimately looking for a 24/7 TPE (total power exchange) situation, you’re (hopefully!) not going to hand over all the control over your entire life at once, especially not to someone you’ve just met (let alone to someone you’ve never met in person at all). At the very least, you need to ask enough questions to find out if your potential top even deserves that much of your trust in the first place. You may find some inspiration in these principles for healthy 24/7 relationships and may want to check out some further resources on the topic. I also recommend a lot of very careful observation over a longer period of time (so, not just a couple of weeks), preferably with an eye towards any patterns in their consent practices in the rest of their lives. And by ‘practices’ I mean things they do, not just things they say. I also recommend reading up about gaslighting and emotional abuse/manipulation, so you have an idea what kind of behavior isn’t okay (not even within BDSM). Hopefully, that will help you judge what to make of that person and their suitability as your top/dominant in such a wide-ranging arrangement. Finally, I believe that bottoms need to be able to withdraw our consent to any BDSM or D/S arrangement at any time and for any reason (and I generally don’t think it’s cool when leaving the relationship altogether and risking to lose a lot more than ‘just’ a partner is the only way to do that, especially when there are financial or other dependencies).

[9]  Which is not to say that newbies can’t be fun to play with — accompanying someone on their very first steps into new territory can be amazing (“being someone’s first to try something with” is a popular fetish on FetLife for a reason!), and some tops also enjoy having a part in teaching their bottoms or learning things together with them.


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

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