Tag Archives: consent

How I say yes

Large street art of a green octopus arm spelling 'yes' on a background of dark red waves

Content note: Vaguely described sex, with one explicit (and potentially gendered) term for genitals right at the end of this post.

I push the sugar bowl, the bag, the random thing between us to the side, opening a direct line. I turn more of my body towards you. I begin moving slower and more deliberately. Like other dances, this requires full-body focus, a sizzle of curiosity, an ounce of advance trust.

I play with my hair, my hem, my cutlery. I eat something and casually lick my fingers (are you paying attention?). I lean towards you, chin on hand, eyes sparking. Raise my eyebrow. I blush. I can’t stop grinning. My fingertips slide along my collarbone. I find some part of you that I can’t stop looking at — your mouth, your hands, your eyes, that little scar, the perfectly neat fade of your hair, that shadow where your skin disappears under carefully chosen cotton or leather. We haven’t touched each other, but this is indeed a dance.

***

After yet another accidental touch, I don’t draw back. Just wait and let the change ripple out underneath the surface. I release a few more square inches of arm or thigh into you, a little more weight (will you hold this?). I uncross my legs and recross them, weaving heels and calves between chairs and boots. I don’t pull down my skirt again. I lean closer; breath becomes audible. Pauses grow important as time disappears.

These are not accidents. I part my lips, a soft gasp in response to that particular touch of yours. I arch my neck, skin stretched over throat while my eyes close. A sigh, a shiver. I bend my head, bones bumpy beneath my hair. I find new surfaces on my body to offer to your gaze, your touch; to lean into you. I uncross my legs. I realize my hand is resting on your thigh but I don’t remember putting it there.

Getting up means untangling all of these layers and limbs and hoping the thread between us doesn’t break, survives the transition from here to there.

***

I let myself be slowly pushed into a wall, arch my back to allow your hand to pass behind me, tilt my head to give you access to my skin. My lips part, my tongue becomes impatient for yours, yet I stay where I am and wait for you to decide when (the most delicious anticipation). I shift my arm out of the way, unblocking the path of your hands on my body. I purr, moan, tremble in response to your touch.

I slowly sink back, onto the bed, the sofa, the nameless surface under us while we keep kissing. My legs drop open at the slightest nudge. My hands fall away, useless, forgotten. My hips roll towards your hand, your thigh, finding the angle that is just right, right now.

Head arched all the way back, eyes closed. Heels finding root, hands grabbing for a hold somewhere, anywhere. Cunt pushing into you. Fuck. Fuck.

“Yes!”


I’ve recently read a few posts and articles that seemed to imply that ‘consent’ in the context of sex and kink means ‘asking for and granting permission for every single step in a specific formula of speech.’ I believe that is an utter misunderstanding of how consent and communication work in real life. I hope this piece proves that there are many other ways to say “yes” than just words. I have done all of these things, usually more than once, although probably not in this exact order and perhaps not every single one with the same person. And while this particular piece of writing doesn’t have a strong emphasis on pain or on an obvious power dynamic, the experiences it describes all happened in a BDSM context. 

(That said, despite my love for nonverbal communication — I am a dancer after all —, I’m still a huge fan of and strong advocate for verbal negotiations when it comes to BDSM and/or sex. Partly for safety reasons, especially when partners are new to each other or unfamiliar with a technique. But mostly because talking about kink/sex with people I’m attracted to and who are attracted to me is fucking hot.)


Image source: Flickr/Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0), cropped and color edited by me

“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.

What is hard about intentionally using bottoming skills? // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 4

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 #4.'

This is part 4 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 contains two brief quotes of non-gendered sexual talk during a scene.

What can make it hard to intentionally use bottoming skills?

In previous posts of the series, I’ve looked at the reasons for all the top-centered BDSM education, the risks of not educating bottoms about safety and their own agency and responsibility in a BDSM context, and examined what bottoming skills are. Before I get into the topic of learning and teaching bottoming skills, I want to talk about the reasons that can make it hard for bottoms to consciously use bottoming skills in our scenes and relationships.

In conversations with other kinksters (bottoms, tops, and switches in different relationship constellations) about bottoming skills, I’ve sometimes encountered some hesitation, some resistance to the idea of bottoms deliberately using specific bottoming techniques. It seems that many of us are afraid our BDSM magic won’t work anymore if we take a look behind the curtain and learn the practical mechanics of it. That doing these things intentionally will make them less ‘real,’ less worthy.

Why though? Why does even naming bottoming skills as something we can actively learn and deliberately use in our BDSM seem to ruin some people’s idea of how it should all work? There are several reasons I can think of.

First of all, there’s simply the fact that many of us already use bottoming skills without consciously deciding to do so. That’s because many bottoming skills are extensions of various life and communication skills we’ve already developed elsewhere, perhaps to the point of them becoming unconscious. Or we’ve already done something in a BDSM/sex/relationship context so many times that we’re not even thinking about it anymore. Maybe we’re just such an exceptionally good match in terms of chemistry, communication, and kink with our current partner(s) and have yet to run into a place where things don’t work as effortlessly. Some of us even may have some degree of unexplained ‘talent’ for bottoming where we just seem to ‘instinctively’ know what to do in a given situation.

Then there’s the whole myth that a ‘natural talent’ for bottoming or submission is not just a requirement for being (or becoming) a skilled bottom, or that it’s all we’ll ever need, but that ‘talent’ is also worth more than the deliberate choice and conscious practice of bottoming skills. (Not that ‘talent’ and intentional choice/practice were mutually exclusive.) Unfortunately, ‘talent’ is also often misinterpreted as proof of a bottom’s ‘naturalness’ or ‘authenticity,’ whereas a bottom or submissive who has chosen to learn and use certain bottoming skills is seen as ‘superficial’ or even ‘fake.’ Well, this is nonsense. It’s irrelevant if we just ‘naturally’ do something bottom-y or if we do it intentionally; it just matters if it works and if it results in a dynamic that is beneficial for all those involved. In fact, I’d argue that choosing to learn and use a skill actually shows more dedication and ‘realness’ than just winging it on sheer ‘talent.’ (And after a bottom has practiced a while, I doubt anyone would able to tell the difference between their ‘natural talent’ and learned skill anyway.)

Another factor is the common cultural narrative of how sex is supposed to work: Magically, without words (except, perhaps, “I love you”), and in amazing synchronicity — like in the movies! There’s this idea that we’re supposed to be swept away in perfect romantic harmony or in an irresistible torrent of passion, leading to a crescendo of exactly synchronized fulfillment. The kink version of this is the top/dominant who ‘just knows’ what their bottom/submissive wants and needs and is able to give it to them without any of that pesky negotiation or limit-setting. Or the bottom who has no desires or needs of their own except to please their top and do whatever their top wants, also without any negotiation (or at least none that goes beyond, “Are you willing to obey me 100% or be punished however I see fit, no questions asked, yes/no?”). And while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying that kind of fantasy as a fantasy, it’s simply not how romance, sex, and/or kink work in real life. In real life, sex and kink (or at least good sex and good kink) often need quite a lot of words and deliberate actions, because none of us are always and forever in perfect sync with our partners in terms of when, where, and how often we want what kind of sex or BDSM. And that’s fine. That’s normal.

However, these fantasies are still powerful (and pleasurable!) for many of us. After all, many real-life bottoms/submissives eroticize not being in control; we get excited by a certain degree of mystery, risk, or even fear; we explicitly want to get to a point where our rational, analytical, thinky brains turn off for once. Some of us dream of being with a mind-reading, infallible top who magically knows what we want/need before we even know ourselves and who tells us exactly what to do with our messy lives. Some of us wish that we could be effortlessly submissive, able to endure and eroticize absolutely everything our top asks us to, and perfectly able to fulfill their every desire.

And even if we know this is not how it works in real-life BDSM, we may still be erotically (or otherwise) invested in these kinds of feelings and ideas. And, well, those fantasies usually don’t feature bottoms who process (or intensify) pain by using breathing techniques they’ve learned in a class, who routinely keep running a background check on the state of their hypermobile joints throughout every single scene, or who deliberately choose whether to loudly groan, “Oh, goddammit, will you fuck me already!” or sweetly whine, “Pleeeease fuck meeee?!” depending on what best supports the current dynamic and the preferences of the people involved. So it’s no surprise that we can find it hard to reconcile the images of BDSM perfection with the idea of being a bottom (especially a submissive one) who does use bottoming skills intentionally. Without losing any of our authenticity.

There’s also this idea that the bottom should be a blank slate, a mound of putty for the top to shape into whichever form they desire. For those of us who enjoy (and not every bottom does!) responsiveness over initiative, who get a kick out of our adaptability, who like pleasing our tops by way of becoming their ‘dream bottom’ as much as we can, who like attempting the impossible, this can indeed be a wonderful dynamic to play with. Those of us who are intensely into behavior modification (and not every submissive is!) might even find attempting this perfect malleability a worthwhile spiritual exercise in selflessness or flexibility beyond the scope of a BDSM scene. Nevertheless, real life has a way of imposing limitations on this boundless changeability (and not just if we already deal with chronic illness, neurodivergence, mental health issues, and/or physical disability — or with poverty, parenthood, or anything else that usually translates to extra baggage in the world we live in). Besides, perfect responsiveness and even complete passivity still require specific skills, so why not deliberately use them to get even closer to the desired ideal?

So, yes, it can be hard for bottoms to feel like it’s okay for us to intentionally use bottoming skills. Even after we’ve analyzed all of this, the idea of deliberately doing what we do can still sometimes mess with our headspace during play, especially if we eroticize or otherwise strive for a lack of control and predictability in our BDSM encounters.

However, in my personal experience, it’s absolutely possible to look behind the curtain and learn exactly which strings need to be pulled to have a particular effect and still feeling every single bit of the magic as if we’re experiencing it for the first time. In fact, I actually find that I sometimes can feel the magic and see behind the curtain at the same time and marvel at how the mechanics work so amazingly well together to create this emotional effect. And believe me, that’s as fucking real as it gets.

There’s one more potential obstacle I need to address in this context, though. It’s the one emotionally-loaded question that sooner or later always seems to come up in relation to bottoms being aware of what we do and doing it intentionally: “But isn’t that ‘topping from the bottom‘?” I’ll discuss what people mean by that term and why they use it in the next part of the series!


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

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.


Notes

[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.

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.