Tag Archives: show and tell

Learning from bottoms: why, what, where? // Teaching (from) the bottom, part 6

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 #6.'

This is part 6 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 mentions the existence of manipulative and abusive kinksters (both tops and bottoms), names some brief examples for not-so-skilled topping, and lists different kinds of pain. It also mentions a variety of BDSM activities, including sexual ones, with no or very little detail. Some of the footnotes talk more about abusive dynamics and name some red flags and possible risk minimization strategies.

I’m finally getting around to finish this series! In previous posts, I’ve talked about BDSM education that is centered on tops and the risks of not educating bottoms. I’ve also explained bottoming skills and looked at what can make it hard to intentionally use them and explored the question whether doing so is the same as ‘topping from the bottom.’ Now I want to look in more detail at why both tops and bottoms can benefit from learning from bottoms, what bottoms can teach each of those groups, and where we (might) do so [1].

What can bottoms learn from other bottoms?

Why should a bottom learn from other bottoms? Won’t their top/dom/domme teach them everything they need to know and mold them to their liking? (I mean, sure, this is a hot fantasy or role-play idea for some of us, but let’s stick to real life here.)

Most obviously, perhaps, other bottoms can teach you about bottom experiences and bottoming skills. After all, we are the ones who can most likely relate to much of what you’re experiencing as a bottom because we’ve been there (or somewhere similar). We’re the ones with whom you can trade stories about how a particular BDSM activity or dynamic feels from the bottom/submissive side and we can tell you what bottoms do during a scene to make it all work. We can also tell you how to handle the crash that is likely to happen when you ignore that advice. Other bottoms tend to understand why it can be hard to express your needs and desires, and we can tell you that doing so doesn’t make you a bad bottom. Other bottoms have likely been through one or more ‘kid in the candy store’ phases (where one wants to do all the kinky things right now and where one frequently throws caution to the winds in all the enthusiastic ‘frenzy‘) and can tell you to slow the fuck down and leave some unexplored kink for when you’re in your 30s/40s/50s/60s. We may also know and tell you which tops require a warning label — and if so, for what [2].

In my experience, (well-educated) bottoms are sometimes more likely than tops to give other bottoms accurate information about activities, people, and the risks involved with them — simply because we’re not trying to get you to play with us and (unconsciously) glossing over any risks in the process. That doesn’t mean that all bottoms are automatically trustworthy (they aren’t — manipulative and uninformed bottoms exist) or that you should never trust a top who offers to explain things to you or mentor you (although I would advise extra caution and careful assessing of the real-life power dynamics at play if ‘mentoring’ very quickly turns out to be ‘doing BDSM with that top’) [3].

And finally, no matter who you are and what your role is, you should never just have one person (or group) as your single source of information about anything, including your top/dom/domme, no matter how much you love and/or trust them. If you use just one source of input, it’s a lot easier for other people to selectively withhold information from you or give you wrong information to begin with, to non-consensually manipulate you, and to potentially even abuse you (which is also true in non-kinky circumstances) [4]. Especially when you’re new to BDSM in general or to D/S dynamics that aren’t scene-based. So make sure you have more than one source for your input on possible play types and relationship styles and about the potential risks and suitable safety precautions associated with the things you want to do [5].

What can tops learn from bottoms?

So, yes, bottoms should absolutely learn from other bottoms. However, I also strongly believe that tops should learn from bottoms, including but not limited to the bottoms they actually play with. Why? Because, while solo BDSM also exists, BDSM is generally thought of as a partnered activity (or a team activity, if you play with more than one other person at a time), and everyone involved in it has valuable information to offer and experiences to share. To wholly dismiss the perspective of bottoms as irrelevant to top education or to assume tops can’t learn anything valuable from us (including some topping skills!) is to be naively uninformed at best and arrogantly ignorant at worst.

The paragraph about not relying on a single source of information in the previous section also applies to tops, of course. Unfortunately, manipulative and abusive bottoms/submissives exist as well, and tops may want to put up some shields against them, too.

So what is it that tops can (and should) learn from bottoms? Most importantly, tops can learn from bottoms how we experience the things we do together because even when we’re really expressive during a scene, there’s always a part of our experience that isn’t visible from the outside. Then, there’s the whole range of what it is that we do during a scene (and before/after a scene) to make things work and feel good for all involved. I’m sure that observant tops can deduce several of these things on their own, but bottoms (and switches who bottom) still have first-hand, internal experience with these things that, again, isn’t always visible. Tops can also learn from (and with) bottoms what signs and signals to watch out for in reading us and how to communicate with us during a scene.

And finally, bottoms can also teach tops quite a few topping skills, even if we’ve never topped a scene in our entire life. However, many people don’t want us to do so. A while ago, Kinky Lotus exasperatedly wrote on Twitter:

“Experienced bottoms are still only seen as being able to help new bottoms learn to stretch and communicate about nerve issues.”

and:

“New tops want new bottoms who won’t tell them how bad their rope is & experienced tops want new bottoms that will fawn all over them and tell them how amazing they are. Nobody wants a bottom that will tell you your TK is shit & you didn’t look them in the eyes once the whole tie” [6]

While Kinky Lotus has expressed these issues in rope-specific terms, the underlying principle is also true in other forms of BDSM. In my experience, few tops (sadly especially experienced ones) want a bottom who will tell them their aim is consistently off and their flogger strands keep wrapping in ways that clearly aren’t intentional. No matter if it’s done during a scene or sometime afterwards.

I am occasionally annoyed by my own reluctance to criticize a top about their topping technique, especially when it’s something ‘objectively’ wrong (e.g. “you rarely hit the spot you aimed for and it didn’t seem like you did that on purpose” or “you repeatedly hit my back hip bones”) and not just a matter of taste or compatibility (e.g. “I would have preferred more/less thud than sting” or “I would have liked a slower/faster increase in intensity”). More so when it’s a casual partner I don’t have an established friendship or other relationship with already. Nevertheless, even if it makes us uncomfortable, saying these things is important so these tops can become aware that they’re continuously missing the spot or failed to do a basic safety check (feel/ask where the pelvic bones are located on this particular person’s body). And even if you’ve already decided not to play with that top ever again, please take one for the team if you can, and tell them for the benefit of their next bottom who may be newer and more clueless than you [7].

Why would bottoms know anything about topping?

But why would bottoms know anything about topping to begin with? Aren’t we speaking outside of our area of expertise here? Nope.

First of all, as bottoms, we are the recipients of topping and therefore the ones who know best how things feel from that side of the interaction, whether we play with pain/sensation, power/control, restraint, service, or a mix thereof. More generally, we often have first-hand knowledge of what type of impact toy will feel stingy, thuddy, or burning, which will reverberate deeply or stay on the surface, which will feel concentrated or dispersed (thanks to Xan West for that distinction in terms), often even if we’ve never played with that particular toy before. Bottoms can describe nuances of pain (or humiliation or devotion or…) that many tops can’t even sense because — as more than one sadist top has told me — to them “it all just hurts” when they try a toy on themselves (or imagine themselves in the bottom position). And bottoms can tell you what part of an implement actually landed where because, well, it’s our body it landed on. We know which top actions support us, which challenge us in welcome ways, which harm us, which annoy us, and which just do nothing for us, both inside and outside of a scene [8]. Especially if we’ve been doing this stuff for years. Or decades, even.

Aside from that, there isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a magic barrier that keeps bottoms from learning stuff about topping, whether it’s in a workshop (which we may attend even though it may not be aimed at us, if only to serve as a training model for our top), from a book or blog post, from a conversation with a top (or a switch who tops), during a scene, or in a reflection of one afterwards. Also, just like tops, many of us have physical and/or mental skills from our non-kinky life that we can draw on to understand and explain how certain topping techniques work. I’m thinking of a wide range of skills and related occupations and hobbies here: racket sports, yoga or acrobatics, martial arts, partner dance, physiotherapy and medicine in general, sex work, acting, coaching or teaching (of humans and/or animals), caregiving, household/office/event organization, management skills, military or law enforcement, and so on. While none of these things are the same as BDSM, we can still often transfer our respective skills from one area to another.

And while I’m sure there are some topping skills that need a lot of practice and that are genuinely hard to teach if you didn’t put in that practice yourself (e.g. stuff like advanced Florentine flogging), there are a lot of things tops do that really are not that hard, technically-speaking. Which doesn’t mean they’re any less fun or effective [9]! Furthermore, lots of aspects of a partnered activity can be taught from either side, whether that’s partner dancing, foot massage, or different types of BDSM. We’re not always used to seeing that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. And if tops can teach bootblacking or deep-throating to bottoms (which hardly anyone ever questions they can!), then bottoms can surely teach fundamental impact play technique and safety, how/where to attach and remove a bunch of clamps, or where to place rope to minimize the risk of nerve damage. Oh, and (bottom-leaning) switches exist, too.

So, yes, many bottoms can explain — and often demonstrate, too — (at least) the basic handling and function of a toy/technique and relevant safety considerations just as well as tops can. I would even argue that a high conscience of one’s own body, a theoretical understanding of the forces (physical, anatomical, and mental) involved with a specific BDSM activity, and the ability to explain and demonstrate these things in a way someone else can understand are actually more important skills in teaching (at least) basic topping skills than extended topping experience. So there really is no reason why bottoms categorically shouldn’t also be able to teach some topping skills.

Where can you learn from bottoms?

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that you, too, should learn from bottoms, where can you do that? This learning from bottoms can take place informally, like in a chat between friends, or in a conversation at a munch, or of course by observing and and talking to your own bottom partner(s) (including professional submissives if you work with them). I actually believe this is a very common way to learn about kink, not least because it’s a lot more accessible than a workshop or a demonstration for many of us. The drawback to such informal teaching is that it’s harder to plan for, and that the information given is often less carefully selected and well-structured to enable effective learning compared to a good book, video, or workshop.

You can also learn from bottoms in a more ‘formal’ setting, such as a workshop or demonstration. With the caveat that many workshops still don’t include much input from and about the bottom perspective, I’m still a fan of them and encourage you to participate in them if you can. They offer the opportunity to get input from the presenter(s), exchange experiences with other attendees and hear different perspectives, try out a new technique in a non-scene setting and get immediate feedback, and of course to meet others who share your interest in that type of play. That said, in-person workshops aren’t accessible for all of us, and not everyone learns well in such a setting. What I’m saying about workshops, however, often also applies to other formats of ‘formal’ BDSM education (such as books, blogs, podcasts, videos, or online workshops). I also would count sessions with sex workers/professional submissives here when they are primarily used for a teaching purpose.

There’s also an area of overlap between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ teaching, such as private one-on-one mentoring, either in person or, to a degree, online. For example, you might find an experienced bottom friend or acquaintance who agrees to teach you something in a sort of ‘mini-workshop for one’ [10]. I know more than one experienced bottom who delights in explaining to a new top how something is done and then serving as their practice model, whether that’s in a more ‘workshoppy’ context or in an actual scene. While some bottoms may find this type of teaching incompatible with their own submissiveness, others are either fine with teaching from a non-submissive headspace or they frame the teaching as a service they perform for their dominant or the community at large. (As with every other BDSM activity, it’s not the activity as such that determines one’s role, but the way the participants frame it.)

Over the course of a kinky lifetime, I recommend that you find a variety of bottoms to learn from in different contexts. If they/we charge money for our services, pay what they/we ask or find someone better suited to your budget. If we don’t charge money, try offering something else in return for our efforts, from a heartfelt “thank you,” to a cup of coffee or a nice dinner, to some knowledge of your own, to a task you can do for them/us. Bottoms and our skills and services are unfortunately still too often taken for granted, so explicitly acknowledging and honoring them (and yes, paying for them, if applicable) is a good way to help change that. (This is an excellent place to link to my Patreon, right?)

As you can see, there are many reasons why both bottoms and tops should learn from bottoms, many things that can be learned from us, and lots of ways to find and access our educational offers. The next post (the final one in this series, at least for the time being) will discuss the issues that can come up for bottoms who teach, especially when we teach while we bottom. It will also look at collaborative learning and teaching done by bottoms and tops together.


Notes

[1] A disclaimer first: Not every sentence in this post applies to every single bottom (or top). Of course, the expertise and teaching skill of an individual bottom (or top) is as varied as the range and duration of our experience with BDSM, the variety and expertise of the partners we’ve shared it with, our level of interest in reflection and explanation of kinky matters, and our communication skills in general. Not every bottom (or top) who is amazing to play with is also good at explaining things about that experience. Not every bottom (or top) who has a lot of accurate theoretical knowledge always has the same range of experience as well. Not every bottom (or top) knows every type of BDSM technique or relationship. So please make your own assessments of the people you meet and/or read about (myself included) and potentially want to learn from.

[2] Some examples of what bottoms may tell other bottoms about certain tops: This top has bad aim but is great with psychological play. They’re a hot fuck but bad with power dynamics. They often push limits that people don’t want to have pushed. They’re a great partner for a scene but not-so-great in a relationship. They have major jealousy issues. They’ve repeatedly violated people’s boundaries despite being told to stop. Each of these things are probably good to know, even if they’re not necessarily a dealbreaker for all of us.

[3] If only to avoid the kind of “submissive training” offered by some tops/dominants that really is just manipulation, exploitation, and (emotional) abuse of (often) young and/or inexperienced bottoms who don’t know enough to understand what they’re getting into there (which makes their consent questionable at best).

[4] I want to emphasize that abuse is of course never the fault of the one who is/has been abused. However, as someone who has been emotionally abused and gaslighted by a former intimate partner (not a cis man, by the way), I still find it helpful to think of strategies that may reduce the risk of such abuse happening again and to acknowledge that I still had some agency during that relationship (even though I was making choices based on the highly distorted information and often outright lies I received from that partner). The abuse was still entirely the fault of my ex. And if you (or I) experience abuse in the future despite taking lots of precautions, that will still be the sole fault of the abuser.

[5] And then think about whether the information you’ve received even makes sense at all, whether it actually applies to your situation, and who is giving it to you for what purpose and with what agenda. Yes, that sounds terribly distrustful and not sexy at all. Nevertheless, this is simply part of your job and your responsibility as an adult who wants to engage in activities that are potentially risky (and all kink is, although to different degrees) and need both your and your top’s informed consent. You’re a bottom/submissive, not a mindless robot (no shame on robot role-play, of course!).

[6]  ‘TK’ is short for ‘takate kote‘ (aka ‘box tie’ or ‘gote shibari’), which is a common type of chest harness tied with rope that can either be used on its own or as a foundation for other ties.

[7] I’m assuming that the top in question is making genuine mistakes they’d want to know about so they can rectify them. Most tops will indeed be that person. However, it’s possible that a top already is aware but just doesn’t care (which probably is a sign that they’re not a trustworthy partner to play with at all). And if you have reason to believe it’s genuinely unsafe for you to make this top aware of their shortcomings yourself, I’m all for keeping yourself safe first. But maybe you can tell other bottoms so they can do their own risk assessment about this top? Or maybe you can ask another top to casually mention the issue in an unrelated conversation to see if the person is more receptive to the criticism then? Or perhaps there’s a party host or dungeon monitor who can keep an eye out for that person at the next event? Because if you don’t even feel safe in offering this top some constructive criticism, there may be a bigger issue at hand than just bad aim, and it probably shouldn’t stay a secret. Then again, I don’t know your situation, so you’re the one who needs to make the ultimate judgment of what you can and can’t do.

[8] Of course, these things are not universally the same for all bottoms. However, there are some things that are fairly universal in their effect. E.g. both irregularity and a fast increase in sensation intensity will get more adrenaline going and create more mental overload — which can be very exciting —than regularity and easing into a sensation very slowly, which is likely to feel more floaty and meditative — or boring. Whether a given bottom likes either of those effects and what emotions and reactions each of them brings up in us is a completely different question, though. As with any other BDSM information, nothing can replace actual communication with the person you want to play with. Still, the basic information “X will do Y” remains the same, and it’s something that bottoms can teach tops because we have experienced it in our own bodies (and brains), while other tops have only witnessed it from the outside.

[9]  To be highly enjoyable for all involved, topping (or bottoming!) really doesn’t have to be an exceptionally athletically accomplished thing whose looks will awe any spectator. In fact, I actually would argue that more often than not it gets less enjoyable the more performative it becomes, unless the pleasure comes from the shared performance as such.

[10] Just like a more experienced top might agree to meet a less experienced top to show them how to handle a specific toy. Or how they might agree to give a bottom a short demo of how a toy feels, in a way that isn’t considered a scene by either of the participants.


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

Ideas for non-impact pain play

Collage of different methods for non-impact pain play. Includes claws, rope, chili, clothespins, teeth, a Wartenberg wheel, a hand grabbing flesh, a frog doing yoga, and a drawing of rough body play

CN: This post contains many brief descriptions of possible techniques for consensual pain play. Other forms of BDSM (such as bondage, D/S, and impact play) are briefly mentioned in a few additional examples at the end. There’s also a list of physical and mental illnesses and disabilities (as reasons for not doing impact play). The post and especially the footnotes contain several mentions of possible injuries and other unwanted consequences of non-impact pain play (in the context of safety information).

Doing S/M means hitting people or being hit, right? Wrong.

I mean, sure, playing with sadism and masochism or with intense sensations can absolutely mean impact play (I myself especially like canes and floggers for that). But there are many other ways to play with pain and intense sensation without anyone striking anyone else with anything.

Why would you want to do S/M but avoid impact play?

Many people are into intense sensations and/or pain as part of their BDSM, but don’t find impact play is a good option for them.

Maybe you have chronic (or temporary) physical health issues that make impact play risky or painful in unwanted ways. If you’re anything like me, you probably want to avoid getting hit anywhere near your acute sciatica (which can affect the butt, thighs, and calves on at least one side of the body). Maybe you’re dealing with a slipped disk or other spine-/pelvis-related issues and don’t want to risk things getting worse by adding forceful impact in the whole area. Maybe you’re a migraineur or sufferer from other headaches or shoulder issues and therefore don’t want to receive any impact on your upper back. Maybe you have asthma or another lung illness that would be exacerbated by being hit on your back or chest with some force. Maybe you’re hypermobile/have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and need to protect your joints by avoiding abrupt movements or impact. Maybe you’re the top and have wrist or shoulder injuries, so hitting your bottom is painful for you. Maybe one or both of you have mobility issues that make it hard to find a good position or angle for impact play that works for both of you.

Maybe your neurology and/or psychology make impact play undesirable. Maybe your brain doesn’t deal well with sudden changes in sensations or their intensity, so the quick and fast pain that is associated with a lot of impact play isn’t pleasurable for you. Maybe you and/or your partner were beaten as a kid or assaulted as an adult and want to avoid having any memories or trauma flashbacks of that triggered by impact play.

Maybe there are other reasons why you want to avoid impact play. Maybe it’s simply too noisy for the environment you’re in and you need a quieter form of pain play. Maybe you want more physical closeness and eye contact than is possible in many types of impact play. Maybe you just don’t like the kind of pain or sensation that comes with being hit but still would like to incorporate some S/M into your play. Or perhaps you do like impact play but also want to experience/inflict other kinds of pain because you like variety, because you couldn’t bring your favorite impact toys while traveling and don’t want to spend money on any pervertables, because your ‘impact play areas’ are already majorly bruised and need time to heal, or because you’re just a gorgeously greedy masochist who wants all the consensual pain you can get or a wonderfully greedy sadist who wants to have a whole orchestra of pain play types at your disposal.

Ideas for non-impact pain play

Whatever your reason for ruling out impact play or branching out from it, I have some ideas for you! For this post, I’ve put some more detailed remarks on safety and hygiene into the footnotes. These should be enough to give you a rough idea of the risks and risk reduction methods associated with specific forms of non-impact pain play. However, please also do your own research, find additional information, and double-check what I’ve said. I’m not a medical professional, just a happy pervert who is sharing ideas and experiences to the best of my knowledge.

1. Using just the top’s body to create consensual pain

My first category is types of non-impact pain you can create with just the top’s body. So this is written from the top perspective.

You can scratch your partner with your fingernails [1]. You can bite them. You can suck on their skin to create painful hickeys. You can either grab whole handfuls of their flesh and squeeze. Or you can just pinch a bit of skin, with your fingertips or even with your fingernails. For extra pain, you can add some twisting of the flesh/skin in question. You can pull their hair. You can poke them with one or more fingers (this is especially effective on bruises and/or trigger points). You can also dig body parts like your hands/knuckles, elbows, knees, or feet (with or without shoes on) into their flesh. The pain of this can intensify if you push the bottom against a surface such as a wall, the floor, or a bed that isn’t too soft. Generally, rough body play can fit into this category as well, and I’d also put rough sex here.

All of these things can be done with more or less intensity. Most of them can be done at different speeds, too.

2. Using just the bottom’s body to create consensual pain

You can also use (mostly) the bottom’s body to create painful sensations.

One example for this are all kinds of stress positions (such as holding your arms stretched out to the sides for a long time or ‘sitting’ against a wall) to create muscle fatigue and the resulting endurance pain [2]. Some types of stretching can also be used to create pain by using the bottom’s body. You could probably also use or adapt yoga poses for this. Or you can use other types of endurance or strength-building exercise (e.g. push-ups, sit-ups, squats, ballet stretches, laps) until things become painful.

Since these methods in particular are highly dependent on the physical abilities of the bottom and can cause joint injuries if not done right, I recommend careful attention to the bottom’s current range of movement and endurance and not pushing beyond that range without solid anatomical knowledge to back you up.

Within those parameters, the top can of course also add a bit of pressure or weight at crucial points to increase the stress/stretch. They can either use their own body for this or give the bottom something heavy to hold (such as full water bottles, heavy boots, or a stack of books).

3. Using additional tools and toys to create consensual pain

Of course there are also many tools, toys, and assorted items you can use for pain play without hitting.

Some of them will still cause a quick, sharp pain (so they might not be suitable for people who can’t handle this). Others can be used to slowly increase the pain intensity. Some methods can do both. The type of pain caused by these methods covers a wide range, from deep pressure to surface pinch or snap, from burning to stretching pain, from brief  to long-lasting sensation.

One of my favorite non-impact pain toy is a bunch of clothespins or other clips and clamps. Depending on their weight, strength, and size, they can be used almost everywhere on the body (note: clamps are not just for nipples!). Some people enjoy tying together a series of clothespins on a piece of string or ribbon, placing the clamps in a row on the bottom’s body (e.g. along the underside of an arm or across the stomach), and then yanking them off all at once (this is called a ‘zipper’). Others use two sticks (e.g. chopsticks), place a nipple between them and tie the sticks together with rubber bands [3].

Rope is also a very flexible toy for creating pain. Even if you can’t tie a single knot, rope can hurt through abrasion (e.g. by pulling the rope across the skin quickly and causing soe degree of rope burn or by using a very coarse rope like coconut rope). It can also be used in rope bondage that is painful, whether through pressure of the rope as such, stretch caused by positioning, and/or the pain that comes with suspension bondage. There’s also predicament bondage (which can also be done with other bondage equipment) where the bottom has to carefully balance between two positions/sources of sensation and relief from one element will increase the pain/stimulation from the other one [4].

There are also items like Wartenberg wheels that can be rolled across the skin with more or less pressure and create a tickly to painful sensation; steel claws, so-called Vampire gloves with sharp tacks sticking out of them, or plain old cutlery forks that can be used to scratch the skin [5]. There’s a variety of electro toys (such as Violet Wands, TENS units, tasers, and electronic fly zappers) that can create sensations from mild tingling to intense pain [6]. You can use rubber bands in different lengths and widths and place them around limbs or even torsos, draw them back and let them go to snap against the bottom’s skin (which might be considered impact play by some, even though there is no hitting) [7]. This method also works through a thin layer of clothes although you won’t be able to see the skin and judge the degree of redness/swelling/bruising through fabric. You can also collect (and disinfect) some crown corks and put them into your palm before grabbing your bottom’s flesh, or make your bottom sit or kneel on them (see note [5] below). Other painful things to kneel (or sit) on: rice, rough and uneven bast mats/carpets, or just a hard floor.

Another category of non-impact pain play is piercing/needle play and/or cutting. I’d also count sutures and medical stapling here [8]. Some people also practice ice branding/freeze branding. (I suppose heat branding also belongs into this category but I’d suspect most people don’t do this primarily for the pain but for the resulting permanent mark.)[9] A milder form of hot/cold pain can be achieved by playing with ice cubes (let them melt a little bit before you use them so they don’t stick to the skin) or candle wax (plain white paraffin candles are best; beeswax candles get too hot and should be avoided).

And finally, there are some plant-based ways to cause pain. Figging (that is, inserting a buttplug-shaped piece of peeled ginger root into the anus; this creates a burning pain) is one method. You can also use ginger on other mucuous membranes such as a vulva, but I can’t tell you if it’s safe to be inserted into a vagina. Some people also use things like peppermint oil, wasabi paste, tiger balm, chili oil, mint toothpaste, or other warming/cooling substances on nipples or genitals/anuses. Or you can go outside and find a bunch of stinging nettles to drag over someone’s skin (preferably while wearing gloves) [10].

General considerations for non-impact pain play

As you can see, there are a lot of options for those who want to play with pain or intense sensations, but can’t or don’t want to do impact play.

In choosing your methods for pain play without hitting, consider the tastes and abilities of the people involved as well as the physical and psychological effect you want to achieve. Not all bottoms experience the same type of pain the same way. Not all tops are comfortable with all pain-inducing methods or able to use them at all. Find what works for both/all of you (or what at least makes you curious enough to try).

Before you start, I recommend sharing your interests and preferences in terms of pain play (e.g. types of pain, body parts to receive pain on, favorite toys and tools, roles and dynamics, things to avoid) with each other, asking/telling your partner(s) about allergies/sensitivities (e.g. to grass/hemp, rubber/latex, plants/food items/natural ingredients, disinfectants), and agreeing on how to communicate during the scene (including safewords/safe signals) and what type of aftercare (if any) you want to do.

Any level of intensity in pain play is okay, so if in doubt, start small/slow, wait for reactions, and then decide if you want to do more. If you use any toys beyond your bodies, watch for signs of breakage and understand if and how you can clean them (especially when the items aren’t specifically made for BDSM use).

Of course you can combine many of these methods of non-impact pain play with each other (sadistic rope with a side of biting? scratching and clothespins? grabbing and trigger point poking? needles and nettles? kneeling on concrete with boot soles digging into your thighs?) or with other types of BDSM, such as bondage (chains and wasabi paste? leather cuffs and rubber bands?), D/S dynamics (sitting on crown corks while reading poetry to your top? stress positions and coach/student role play?), sex (giving cunnilingus while kneeling on rice? fucking your top while you wear a ginger root butt plug?), or even impact play (hickeys and punches? knocking off wooden clothes pins with a riding crop?). I always encourage creativity in kink!

As with all other forms of BDSM/sex, watching your partner and paying attention to their reactions is not just a way to ensure safety (or keep risk within the agreed-upon parameters) and consent, but usually also a whole lot of fun! Yes, this goes for both bottoms and tops.

I’m sure there are other methods, tools, and toys than can be used to create consensual pain as well as more implement-free methods to do so. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments!


Additional notes on safety and hygiene

[1] Fingernail scratches carry a fairly high risk of infection. I recommend washing your hands beforehand and disinfecting the skin afterwards, even if you can’t see (yet) that it’s broken.

[2]  Bottoms who are standing for a longer time should not lock their knees because this will increase the risk of them fainting. Many of us need reminding of this, especially when we’re distracted by other sensations. (This also applies to bottoms who are standing for impact play, no matter if they’re upright or bent over.)

[3]  Clamps hurt when they are put on, then usually dull a bit, and then hurt again when they’re taken off and the blood rushes back into the tissue. This is particularly important to remember when judging the bottom’s limits.

[4]  The risks associated with rope bondage, especially suspension bondage, are often underestimated. Please make sure you at least read a thorough how-to book, or better yet go to a workshop to learn from an expert or three in person. There’s a lot to learn about types of rope, placement of wraps or knots, prevention of nerve and joint damage, and overall risk awareness.

[5]  Anything you can scratch with can break the skin. Some people’s skin breaks more easily, and not all injuries are visible. So make sure you clean, disinfect, and perhaps even sterilize your scratching toys (if possible) before and after play, reserve them for one person only (to prevent spreading infections), and/or throw them away after use. You may also want to disinfect the area of skin you scratched afterwards. If you did indeed break the skin, an alcohol-based disinfectant will sting and can add an extra sadistic touch to your healthcare efforts.

[6] I advise extreme caution with any kind of electro play, especially if you have any heart issues (such as arrhythmia, a pacemaker, etc.). Please research the risks carefully and thoroughly because each electro toy works differently, and some can indeed cause death if not handled with the necessary care or applied on people with increased risk factors.

[7]  Rubber bands are porous and can’t be properly disinfected. They can create small skin injuries that may not be visible. Therefore, they are single-person toys (or better, single-use toys if they’ve come in touch with blood or genital fluids). You may also want to consider disinfecting the skin afterwards.

[8]  Needle play, play piercing, suturation, medical stapling, and cutting all require very careful hygiene procedures and the correct technique to avoid infection, unwanted needle injuries, and other accidents. I highly recommend going to a workshop on needle play before you do any of it to another person. If that’s not possible, maybe you can get the relevant hygiene information and some pointers on skin anatomy from a medical professional or even a professional body piercer? I used to think that needles were always advanced play for experienced BDSM practitioners, but Xan West’s excellent post “On Doing, and Writing, Blood Sports” (which has a description of a needle play done by someone at their very first play party) has made me reconsider this. I now think it’s still play that isn’t a good fit for newbies in most cases, but there may be exceptions to this rule, especially when someone experienced is coaching the experience.

[9]  Heat branding really is an activity that should be left to experienced players who have learned the proper technique and safety precautions. This really is something you can’t learn from the internet but need to learn in person, from someone who knows what they’re doing. I don’t know much about ice branding myself, but I’ve linked to a post that has a bit more info above. Both heat and ice branding are very likely to leave permanent marks (which is often why people do these things in the first place). Unlike tattoos, branding scars can’t be removed, so I recommend careful consideration of what it means to carry this mark from that person in your skin forever (and possibly way past the duration of your relationship with them).

[10]  These types of play can’t  really be stopped once you’ve applied the irritant. You may be able to remove some of the substance, but generally just have to wait out the effect until it stops by itself (scenes like this are also called ‘tunnel play’ because there’s no escape once you’ve entered them). So make sure no ones has any allergies/sensitivities to the substances you want to use (and maybe have some anti-histamines or even an epi-pen handy), consider wearing gloves when handling/applying them, and start with a very small amount at first. Oh, and don’t forget to take off the glove and/or carefully wash your hands so you don’t accidentally rub chili oil into your eye… The same logic applies to barrier-free sex after the application of such substances (so wash, wait, and/or wear a condom/use a dental dam).


This is a post for the Kinktober prompt “pain play, S/M.”


Image sources: Wikimedia Commons (Wartenberg wheel, CC BY-SA 3.0; dragon claws, CC BY-SA 4.0; couple); Pixabay (chili, clothespins); Peakpx (frog); Pexels (rope, hand); unknown (teeth). Collage, cropping, and color editing by me.

13 reasons why I love play parties

Play party scene built as a miniature

Content note: Brief mentions of harassment and various social injustices. Brief mentions of a variety of kink practices, including impact play, D/S, and bondage.

Play parties, BDSM parties, dungeon nights — I don’t care how you call them, but I love them![1] Here are thirteen reasons why.

1. Not playing there

Since “do I have to play there?” is the most common concern I hear from people who haven’t been to a play party yet, let’s start with this one. No, you don’t have to play at a play party. You can also just hang out in the bar/social area, look around by yourself, or find someone to just have a friendly chat with. No, no one will look at you weirdly if you do (assuming you’re respectful about the space and other people’s kinky behavior). Yes, even experienced kinksters sometimes (or often!) just go to a play party to spend social time with our kinky friends and perhaps meet some new people.

2. Wearing and looking at fetish outfits and other kink wear

Playparties are great places for wearing your favorite fetish attire (whether it’s leather, latex, uniforms, sportswear, or lingerie/underwear with nothing over it) and/or be as naked as you like outside of your own home. Whatever you wear (or don’t wear), someone there will probably appreciate your style.

And if wearing elaborate outfits yourself is not your thing, perhaps you like seeing them on others? At play parties I’ve attended, I’ve seen everything from lingerie to uniforms, from sailor girls to full leathers, from full nudity to 1950s-style dresses, from tweed jackets to blue jeans and black t-shirts, from little black dresses to latex ensembles, from eccentric experiments to classic understatement, from high glamour to crust punk, and many, many variations inbetween.

3. Celebrating the diversity of human bodies

In my experience, play parties are exceptionally welcoming places to a wide variety of people, including those who aren’t considered ‘mainstream-attractive’ (that is, young, thin, white, cis, normatively gendered, and seemingly able-bodied). There are few other places where we can see how regular people actually look when they don’t have (m)any clothes on. There are even fewer places where we can see how ordinary people look like when they’re doing sexy/kinky things. That alone is a major (and for many of us majorly healing) counterweight to all the media depictions of perfectly styled, carefully posed, and meticulously edited bodies that are the only depictions of other people’s bodies many of us will ever get to see.[2]

I’m not gonna lie: Racism, fat-hate, ableism, trans-hostility, and other forms of social injustice unfortunately still exist in BDSM spaces, too. However, looks (and the things that are tied into them) aren’t necessarily the most important characteristic for desirability. Physical flexibility, gorgeous responses, technical skills, creativity, and great communication and consent habits are just some of the things that can be valued much higher in BDSM spaces than a conventionally attractive face or a normatively beautiful/handsome body. So while everyone looks fucking amazing when they’re having a good time (really!), sometimes looks are fucking irrelevant when you’re having a good time with each other.

4. Recognizing and celebrating a variety of gender expressions and identities

I know several people for whom (queer) play parties were the first spaces where they could start exploring their gender beyond the range of the cis binary. Whether it’s occasional cross-gender role play that doesn’t have any impact on someone’s everyday gender identity or expression, or a first careful step towards a full-time transition from one’s assigned gender to one’s actual gender; whether it’s a subtle shift from one type of femininity (or masculinity) to another, or a dramatic transformation from one end of the gender galaxy to the other; whether the genders in question are binary or not: There’s room for it at a play party.

In fact, there’s a whole chapter about gender play and gender acceptance in this (highly recommended!) study of the European and North American “dyke+” BDSM community. This is how the author of the book starts his acknowledgements (he’s talking about said community):

“The first time in my life I entered a space of strangers who immediately recognized me for what I was — a boy in a woman’s body at that particular time — changed my life forever. It ultimately gave me the strength to live my gender and sexuality according to my own rules.”

While I have to acknowledge that trans-exclusionary people also exist among perverts, I’ve consistently experienced the BDSM community as much more welcoming to people of all kinds of non-standard gender identities, gender expressions, and gender journeys than any other community I’ve been a part of.

5. Indulging in voyeurism and/or exhibitionism

Play parties are wonderful places to listen to and look at other people doing kinky/sexy things with each other. Assuming you’re keeping a respectful distance and don’t interfere with other people’s play in any way, you can have a grand time watching others do all the perverted things you’ve ever dreamed about — and a few things you couldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams. And there’s nothing quite like having a chat about some kinky nerdery (or even a non-kinky topic) with a friend while other people’s screams and laughs drift over from the play area.

Often, exhibitionism and voyeurism feed on each other. Maybe you’re the one who likes to be watched and/or heard when you’re playing. At a play party, there’s a good chance that someone will want to look and/or listen. If you go off to play, there will often be an alluring background soundtrack of whacks and moans and screams and slaps to accompany you and invite you to join with your own sounds. Many of us find that this heightens our arousal and makes it easier to enter a scene headspace.

6. Discovering new kinks

There are some events that cater to a specific narrow range of practices (such as fisting or spanking or foot worship), but usually you will encounter a lot of different kinks and expressions of sexuality at a play party. If nothing else, this is an excellent opportunity to practice the “if you don’t like it, look/go elsewhere” style of setting your own boundaries and leaving other people to enjoy what brings them pleasure.

And who knows? Maybe the thing you considered icky or boring yesterday will be one of your major turn-ons in a year or two — it happens! There is something about the radiant faces of people practicing kinks you’re not interested in that can make you very curious indeed: Would it feel as amazing to you? You may only know a certain practice from porn where it had no appeal to you. But now you see your lovely friends do that thing, and suddenly you realize there’s a whole new style to it that you hadn’t considered before… Kinksters as a group also seem to be rather prone to experimenting and trying new things, and there’s always “for science!” as a reason to give something a try and see if there’s anything to enjoy about it for you. (Sometimes there’s not. That’s also good to know, though.)

7. Learning and/or educating others about BDSM practices

There are several different ways to learn something about BDSM practices at a play party. You can simply go and watch other people’s scenes (while keeping a respectful distance). This might tell you something useful about good positions and angles for impact play, about how to use tempo and pauses in a scene, or about space management by the top. You might also pick up something about different response styles of different bottoms (or the same bottom in a different scene). Or you might be able to judge the tops’ accuracy in hitting their partners. However, you usually won’t know anything about any pre-negotiated agreements between the scene participants, and you won’t be able to see inside their heads to know how they are experiencing the scene from the inside (which might be completely different from what you assume from the outside) — for that you’ll have to ask (after the couple or group is done playing and doing aftercare).

You can also ask someone who isn’t currently playing (or negotiating or doing aftercare) whether they’d be willing to show you how to handle a specific implement or piece of play furniture. Sometimes people let you try out their toys on yourself (e.g. to compare the type of sensation created by various impact toys when you hit your own forearm or thigh with them). Some people can explain to you how different toys feel (while we have different preferences in the kind of impact sensation we like, we usually still agree whether a particular impact toy is more thuddy or more stingy). Someone may even be willing to give you a little demo of a specific technique you haven’t tried before and don’t know whether you’ll like it or not. These kinds of ‘try-outs’ usually aren’t considered full-on scenes, but they still require some basic negotiation of limits (e.g. “don’t hit my ass”), needs (e.g. “I need a pillow under my knees if I’m going to kneel”), and communication (e.g. “stop means stop” or “we’ll use the 1-10 scale to communicate intensity”).

8. Benefitting from their safety

Many people consider a play party a safer space for, say, a first play date with someone than a private home or hotel room. If something goes wrong, there are always other people around who can come to your aid should you need them. The presence of other people also provides increased safety in other ways. At a play party, there’s generally someone (such as a host, dungeon monitor, venue owner, or fellow pervert) who can explain or demonstrate how to safely use a toy, technique, or piece of play furniture. You can also usually find someone to keep an eye on your tied-up bottom when you need to unexpectedly go to the bathroom or eat a snack to prevent a blood sugar crash — or you can find someone to keep an eye on you when you’re with a new partner or trying a new technique.

Some people recommend watching others play to determine whether they’d be a good match for you, but I personally don’t think that watching someone interact with a different person tells you much about how they would interact with you. However, as I said in the previous section, you can learn something about someone’s technical skill level by watching them (Does their impact land where they aimed it? Do they pay attention to hygiene and safer sex? Do they place their rope with attention to nerves and other fragile body parts?).

You also have the opportunity to ask around about a potential partner and hear what experiences others have made with that person. You may still need to put in your own work and your own observations to separate gossip from facts, and determine if someone is just popular or actually safe. But you can at least find out if that person has been around in the community for a while or if they have just arrived and no one knows anything about them.

9. Being in a space with low/no alcohol or drug use

Compared to other parties, almost all the play parties I’ve been to have been spaces with an exceptionally low level of alcohol consumption or recreational drug use. That means there’s also an exceptionally low level of unpleasant behaviors usually associated with people being drunk or high. While I don’t recommend play parties as a going-out option to anyone who isn’t at least highly kink-curious, they can make a lovely space for socializing amongst fellow perverts even if you don’t want to play.

Please note that this can vary highly with the event/venue in question, so check ahead of time if this is an important factor for your enjoyment.

10. Enjoying a high-consent culture

Play parties are also spaces with a strong focus on consent. I have experienced a much lower frequency and intensity of harassment at play parties compared to regular bars or night clubs (including queer ones). While the BDSM community isn’t free from people who violate consent, there’s still a strong emphasis on consent as a necessity (not just a nice-to-have), and a widespread practice of extensive verbal negotiation before any play even begins. There are even studies that show that BDSM community members have lower levels of “benevolent sexism […], rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming.

I much enjoy being in spaces where even casual social touch (such as hugs to say hello or goodbye) is opt-in instead of opt-out. I like the culture of consciously asking each other about what we’re into and what we’d rather not do instead of assuming these things based on gender expression, BDSM role, or some other random and stereotype-associated characteristic. Most of all, I like the fact that this enables me to spend more time saying yes than having to say no — not feeling like I constantly have to defend my boundaries makes it so much easier to relax and trust the people around me, which makes it so much more likely that I’ll be in the mood to actually play.

Please note that different parties and communities will have different house rules about touching others and/or joining in with an ongoing scene. For example, gay male kink culture generally has a very different communication and consent style than the BDSM culture that has grown out of lesbian/dyke/trans contexts. So be aware of where you are and follow the house/party rules.

11. Being a part of a community

I’ve touched on this in previous sections already, but play parties are also a great way to feel like a part of the (larger and/or local) BDSM community, no matter if you actually play there or not. You can hang out with your kinky friends without having to worry who’s going to overhear your conversations about bondage events, D/S relationship issues, or the science of bruises. You can find out you’re not the only one to ever experience an allergic reaction to hemp rope, a three-day high after playing, a devastating drop, or an amusing mishap. You can give and get advice on a multitude of kink-related issues (see also #7 above). You can give and get support in difficult times (kink-related or not). You can volunteer for a task (whether it’s set-up, a bar shift, or a contribution to the buffet) and give some of your time and skills to the community. You can practice solidarity and pay a little more for your ticket so that someone poorer than you can get in for a reduced fee. If it’s part of your local kink culture, you can also be part of crowd funding and charity fundraising efforts.[3]

In short: You can help take care of the social network that makes the BDSM community (or your preferred sub-section of it) and benefit from it in return. And play parties are one place to do so.

12. Finding play partners

Of course you can also find play partners at a play party. While some kinksters don’t like going to play parties when they don’t have a pre-negotiated play date, others enjoy the spontaneity of pick-up play (that is, spontaneous play that is negotiated then and there, either with people you already know or with people you just met). Pick-up play happens at almost every play party I go to, as do brief try-outs of a toy or technique (which sometimes lead to actual scenes later).

Even if you don’t get to play right away or prefer a longer build-up anyway, you can make connections with people for another time. Knowing lots of kinky people means you’ll also have a much bigger chance that someone will introduce you to someone they know who also is into that kink you just mentioned.

Personally, I’ve met almost all of my play partners at play parties. Some I’ve played with immediately, some I’ve spent a year or two talking to again and again before we ever did a scene together. Some I also saw/see elsewhere in my social life, some I pretty much exclusively see at BDSM events. Again, this is my community, so this is predominantly where I meet my partners.

13. Playing!

Last, but certainly not least, play parties are excellent spaces to, well, play! You can come with your existing partner and enjoy each other in the company of others. You can find someone to play with then and there (see #12). You can cultivate play friendships, casual kink connections, long-term BDSM relationships, and whatever other arrangement suits you and your partners’ needs.

You can do a little light spanking twice a year or an intense sadomasochistic scene every weekend. You can do BDSM with and without pain, with and without power exchange, with or without bondage, with or without service. You can do role play in elaborate costumes or “just be yourselves” in your everyday clothes (as long as they go with the dress code of the event). You can do scenes that last ten minutes or three hours, or scenes that have started the day before and will last until the next night. You can do scene-based play between equals or be there in your 24/7 M/S dynamic. As long as you follow the house or party rules and have the consent of everyone involved, you can do whatever the fuck you like at the play party of your choice. Including fuck. If you like (and not all of us do).

And now: What do you like about play parties?


Notes

[1] You should probably know that while I’ve also been to a small handful of straight-centered and all-gender queer BDSM parties, I’m most familiar with play parties for the “everyone but cis men” crowd. These events are usually organized by unpaid volunteers, promoted mostly by word of mouth and — nowadays — announcements on FetLife, and usually attended by 20 and 50 people at a time (with rare exceptions that have up to 200 guests). The queer BDSM community that has formed around those events is international, a lot bigger than it used to be twenty years ago, but still fairly small compared to both the gay male and the straight-centered kink community. While this creates some characteristics that may less common elsewhere, I still believe that many of my reasons to love play parties are also true for play parties in other BDSM communities.

[2]  Contrary to how it might seem to us in the kink/sex blogging world, not everyone has easy access to alternative/indie/queer porn or even knows it exists in the first place.

[3]  This seems to be more common in the U.S. where there is less of a social security system and no universal health insurance (compared to many European countries).


This is a post for the Kinktober prompt “dungeon, play party.”


 

Image source: Flickr / Joy Schalunke, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped and color edited by me

Collage of various Pride flags, including gay pride, leather/BDSM, polyamory, butch/femme and others.

Queer attractions, identities, and words

Collage of various Pride flags, including gay pride, leather/BDSM, polyamory, butch/femme and others.

Content note: This post briefly mentions the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, femme exclusion from lesbian/dyke spaces, trans hostility and TERFs, and bi erasure. It also quotes some prejudice against people who are receptive-only sexually (‘paper’). None of these topics are discussed in any detail.

It is has been Pride season, and I am was once again sorting through identity labels. (And there are so very, very many of them nowadays!) And since a bunch of people expressed interest in a post about this topic, here we go.

Language changes

I thought I’d be done with most of the identity puzzles after I settled on ‘femme’ for my gender and ‘queer’ (and ‘into BDSM’ and ‘non-monogamous’) for my orientation about twenty years ago, but of course it’s never that simple.

Because words change their meanings over time, and today’s ‘femme’ isn’t the same ‘femme’ I came out as over twenty years ago (and that wasn’t the same ‘femme’ that was around in the working-class lesbian bar culture of the North American 1940s-60s, even though it drew on many writings about that time).[1] Today’s ‘queer’ isn’t quite the same ‘queer’ I adopted in the early 2000s as someone who isn’t a native English speaker (and that wasn’t the same ‘queer’ that was reclaimed in the context of anti-assimilationist, cross-identity coalition-focused LGBTQ activism around the AIDS epidemic [link to YouTube video] in the U.S. 1980s, even though it was definitely inspired by it).

And although there never was a time when everyone around me used or understood femme or queer in exactly the same way (so I often had to explain how I wasn’t like whatever stereotype someone was thinking of), I feel more need to explain myself nowadays. Maybe that’s the result of an ever-increasing vocabulary for the myriads of ways that our genders, attractions, and relationships (or the absences thereof) can deviate from the cis-heteronormative model (what do you mean, there’s now a word for “I’m attracted to nonbinary people”?!). Maybe I just like precision in my language. Or maybe I just like analyzing how exactly I’m queer because that’s the kind of navel-gazing nerd I am.

So let’s go through some identity labels (and the pride flags symbolizing them) I claim as mine (and some I could but don’t), from the well-known to the more obscure.

Disclaimer: In my definitions of the various terms below, I’ve tried to use the understanding that I believe is currently the most common one (if perhaps at times a bit simplified by me for brevity’s sake). Nevertheless, I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself and my own understanding. I would also like to remind you that the language for queer identities and the meaning of many of these terms will keep changing and that many, if not all of these terms have multiple meanings at the same time, depending on who uses them in what context. So please do your own research and check whether what I’ve said here is still true at the time you read this and whether it applies to a different context/person as well.

LGBTGIA+ / gay / queer

First, there’s the rainbow flag and the big umbrella of LGBTQIA+, or ‘gay’ in the historical sense of the word (which included everyone who wasn’t straight and/or cis). So, while I’m not a fan of the ever-expanding acronym[2] and strongly prefer continuing to use ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for the whole, vaguely defined, fuzzy-bordered accumulation of “us” (mostly because of the history of anti-assimilationist and coalitional politics it reminds me of — see above), I still recognize the rainbow flag as a fairly universal sign for “not straight and/or cis,” which definitely includes me. So I still smile when I walk past a car with a rainbow sticker or see a stranger on public transport with a rainbow badge on their bag. And yes, I occasionally use rainbow accessories to flag my queerness, especially in contexts that don’t allow for lengthy explanations of my identity and desires. I’m aware that my life and the issues that personally concern me are not at the center of the recent or current mainstream gay agenda (which seems to be mostly centered on rights related to marriage and/or having children), but I’m still feeling like a part of a larger queer community and I’m absolutely on board for the general fight against anti-queer and anti-trans discrimination.

When I did some research about terms and flags, I discovered the existence of a separate ‘queer’ flag that has been designed to explicitly include various non-mainstream genders and attractions. I like the look of it a lot better than the traditional rainbow flag, but I don’t think anyone would recognize it outside of the part of Tumblr that has specialized in naming and illustrating every possible non-mainstream gender and attraction (or lack thereof), so using it to communicate anything about my identity to the larger world seems pointless. I do, however, strongly identify with the word ‘queer’ because it’s the only term that encompasses all the ways that my own gender and attractions deviate from the norm (and have done so in the past and may do so in the future). Also, I like being weird, odd, and strange, so ‘queer’ is what I use most often to identify myself in words. ‘Queer’ is where I’m at home. That said, I sometimes struggle a bit with the extremely wide scope of identities and practices that are called ‘queer’ today. While I feel that it’s useful to have an umbrella term that encompasses as many of us as possible (because there is strength in numbers), I also think we need to be careful not to lose track of all the ways we’re different from each other, especially in terms of the (relative, situational, and structural) privileges we have and the (relative, situational, and structural) discriminations and oppressions we face (because these differences matter).[3]

BDSM / leather / kink

My other umbrella-term home is the BDSM community, especially where it intersects with the queer community. I like the traditional leather flag better than the BDSM flag because of its gay history; I romanticize and eroticize (gay) leather culture quite a bit, but my own community and kink practice is still leaning a lot more towards ‘new school’ BDSM than ‘old school’ leather. Kink is something that is woven through my whole life, even though I’m not in any 24/7 relationship. But BDSM culture has informed so much of my thinking about larger issues of consent and communication and choice that it’s always present in the back of my head. As evidenced by this blog, I also really enjoy thinking about BDSM and everything related to it, so I dedicate a lot of time to this topic even outside of going to playparties or munches and having actual scenes. That said, I still bring my queer goggles to the world of BDSM, so I’m not any less baffled by cis-/heteronormativity in kink than I am by cis-/heteronormativity elsewhere.

As far as I know, there aren’t any separate flags for being a bottom, a masochist, or a submissive, but I am all three of those things. I keep looking for ways to visually communicate at least some of these things (at least in kinky contexts), but since I don’t wear collars at all, and few people in my queer BDSM community seem to understand even the meaning of a basic black hanky, or the left/right symbolism [link to YouTube video] of wearing one’s keys, wristbands, or indeed hanky, I haven’t been very successful with that. So I keep returning to words as the main way of communicating my kinky identity — which is fine, if at times a bit exhausting. (In my early kink years, I used to switch but eventually lost all interest in topping/dominating anyone, even though I still have a bit of a sadistic streak at times.)

Polyamory / consensual non-monogamy

I’ve also spent most of my adult life in consensually non-monogamous arrangements of various kinds. I consider myself fundamentally non-monogamous, even though I’ve agreed to be monogamous with two previous partners at their request (ironically, both of them then cheated on me) and have also been monogamous and even celibate in practice due to circumstances. I enjoy having what I would call an ‘anchor partner,’ someone who has been in my life for a really long time with no end in sight, someone I feel at home with, someone who has stayed with me in good times and bad times, in sickness and in health. I also enjoy both of us having various other important connections to other people, including those that involve kink/sex. There’s room for other romantic connections, too, even though they don’t exist for either of us at this time. I cherish being part of an international, queer, kinky network of people who are friends, play partners, roommates, romantic partners, and/or share other connections with each other. Again, I can’t separate my non-monogamy from the queer and kinky context it takes place in (and has almost always taken place in). I’ve never used the polyamory flag anywhere (perhaps because I really don’t like the colors), nor have I ever gone to a polyamory meet-up. But then, the vast majority of my queer BDSM community is some variation of consensually non-monogamous, so I’ve always found my role models, bad examples, and people to talk to about non-monogamy there and haven’t had much need for a non-kink-centered polyamory community besides that. In terms of language, I most often say I’m (consensually) non-monogamous because that seems to be the most neutral term that brings up the least amount of incorrect assumptions in other people and leaves the most room for change. I don’t use much polyamory jargon (such as compersion, comet, relationship anarchy, or metamour) but prefer to describe the connections I have and how I feel about them in a language that is more common.

I’ve also chosen a bunch of flags (and terms) that could describe the more precisely gendered aspects of my sexual and romantic attractions.

Ex-lesbian/dyke

I didn’t add a flag for this into the collage, but I’ve also identified as a ‘lesbian’ or ‘dyke’ (attracted only to women (as a woman)) in the past, and that’s still relevant to who I am today. Lesbian/dyke communities were very important to me for several years. They have provided me with many social and cultural reference points and ultimately enabled my access to a larger queer history and community. However, since more than half of the people I’m usually attracted to are either non-binary people or trans men, that label stopped feeling right a long time ago. Also, ever since I’ve come out as a femme and started to look more feminine in the mid-1990s, the lesbian community has been noticeably less welcoming to me, and once I’ve started having relationships with people who used ‘he’ pronouns (but weren’t necessarily men), my belonging in lesbian/dyke spaces has been questioned even more. Eventually I became tired of always fighting for inclusion where I wasn’t wanted and left to make my home in queerer spaces. Nowadays,[4] there’s of course the added problem of having to check whether a given lesbian/dyke space is actually inclusive of trans women or whether it’s a gathering place for TERFs (in case you don’t already know: that is an acronym for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’; aka “gender-critical”). So despite some nostalgic feelings of connection to them, I generally approach lesbian/dyke spaces with extreme caution these days.

Butch/femme (it’s not just for lesbians!)

There’s also butch/femme (specific lesbian/queer types of masculinity/femininity) culture (symbolized here by the logo of the now-defunct butch-femme.com website and forum where I took my first online steps as a femme in the late 1990s, even though it’s not technically a flag). Contrary to some recent claims that butch and femme are “lesbian-only” terms and identities, butch/femme as a lived culture has always included trans men and other masculine-of-center individuals (although they may not have called themselves by these terms), and ‘butch’ has never only referred to people who identified and lived as women.[5] Historically speaking, ‘femme’ has also always included bisexual women who had sex/relationships with women/butches.[6] For me, butch/femme as a dynamic is about mutual desire and the queer eroticization of difference in gender, which is expressed and embodied as variations of masculinity and femininity and their relation to each other. Butch/femme as a culture and community for me has always been about mutual support and shared resistance against the oppression we face (even if we don’t desire each other — and not all femmes desire (only) butches, and not all butches desire (only) femmes). It’s about being in this together, even if we experience the world in different ways and suffer from different forms of oppression. Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of that butch/femme culture around me, and these identities are now often misunderstood to imply “lesbian,” so I’m not referring to butch/femme as much as I used to. Nevertheless, butch/femme remains an extremely important reference point for both my femmeness and my queerness, and has been the first place where I understood and experienced gender as something that is neither binary nor determined by biology.[7]

Incidentally, my strong tendency to eroticize queer gender difference is also the reason why I never call myself ‘sapphic,’ ‘gay,’ or a ‘homo.’ I feel like these terms imply an emphasis on same-gender attraction — and that’s just not me, because I’m rarely attracted to people of my own gender (that is, femme). In fact, I often feel more aligned with ‘heterosexuality’ (attraction only to people of a gender different than your own; usually only understood as attraction between men and women) than with ‘lesbianism’ because of this, and have more than once been tempted to add “into: heterosexual dynamics in a queer context” to my FetLife fetish list…

Into masculine and/or nonbinary people

Even if ‘butch/femme’ has become too limited in current understanding, sometimes I still want to express that I am predominantly into people who are masculine-of-center, no matter how they identify, but usually not cis men. There are a multitude of flags/terms that cover a part of this preference spectrum, but none that covers all of them and nothing else. Nevertheless, let’s talk about some potential terms/flags I might use to narrow down my personal kind of ‘queer.’

There’s ‘androphile’ (attracted to masculinity), which I like because it covers masculinity across a wide range of more specific genders (so butches, trans men, and masculine-leaning nonbinary people are all included). However, I struggle with the implicit assumption that I’m also into masculinity in cis men (which I’m usually not, unless they’re very gay and therefore not at all interested in me[8]). There’s also ‘skoliosexual’ or ‘ceterosexual’ or ‘allotroposexual’ (attracted to nonbinary/genderqueer people), which I like because it finally acknowledges that there are more genders than male or female to be attracted to and actually centers these genders. However, there’s some debate whether it should be used if one is also attracted to binary genders (which I am) and whether people who aren’t nonbinary themselves (which may or may not include me) should use that term at all or whether that’s always implicitly ‘fetishizing.’[9] Beside, as far as I can tell, none of these terms are actually used outside very specialized (and usually online) queer communities. So their usefulness to express the scope of my attractions in my everyday life (the vast majority of which takes place outside of these communities) is rather limited, which is why I usually resort to describing the matter in a more common language.

Into more than one gender

Perhaps ‘polysexual’ (attracted to multiple genders but not all of them) is a more accurate label for me than the ones in the previous section, even though it’s nearly as unspecific as ‘queer.’ I would probably use ‘polysexual’ more often if the term wasn’t so easily confused with ‘polyamorous’ — and if it had any of the political implications of ‘queer.’ Making things even more complicated in the fact that ‘polysexual’ is also currently used in a derogatory way for a type of non-monogamy that is more focused on sex than on emotional bonds (in contrast to ‘polyamorous’). So all in all, that term doesn’t seem like a good candidate for clarifying anything.

I’m technically also ‘bisexual’ (attracted to people of more than one gender / attracted to people of my own gender and of other gender(s)). However, apart from a short time as a teenager when I sort-of claimed to be bisexual (and actually had genital sex with a woman before I had genital sex with a man), I’ve never identified with that term. I can’t relate to the strong association the word ‘bisexual’ seems to have with attraction to cis men in most people’s understanding, and I’ve always felt rather alienated from the kinds of explicitly bisexual communities I’ve come across (so I was interested to see that mirrored in Sinclair Sexsmith’s recent post about bisexuality). That said, as someone whose attractions don’t fall neatly into either the ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ category, I am still affected by many kinds of anti-bi prejudice and bi erasure, no matter how I actually identify (but that’s another text for another day). So I try hard to stop automatically distancing myself from that category (I don’t like it, but apparently, some old ‘lesbian’ habits die hard!) and to stand in solidarity with all kinds of bi-identifying people.

I haven’t included the pansexual (attracted to people of all genders / attracted to people regardless of gender) flag because I’m clearly not into all genders (for example, the vast majority of femininities does absolutely nothing for me erotically, no matter how much I sometimes wish this was different). Neither am I attracted to anyone without much regard for their gender — on the contrary, gender is one of the most relevant aspects of attraction for me, and I care very much about it and about the gender dynamic(s) between me and my partners.

And then there are the ways in which my desires and attractions deviate from the norm even more…

Receiving, responding, reacting

I have added the flag for ‘iamvanosexual’, aka ‘paper’ or ‘pillow queen/prince(ss) (wants to receive sexual/genital touch but doesn’t want to give it — the complementary terms are ‘placiosexual’ and ‘stone’) to express that I have a strong preference to be on the receiving end of sexual/genital touch (with the possible exception of sucking cock). There is quite some stigma attached to this preference (and also to its counterpart): people like me routinely get called “lazy,” “selfish,” and (especially if we are cis femmes) often have our queerness questioned if we don’t ‘give’ as much as we ‘get’ (as if receiving was a passive, uncommunicative, and one-sided activity!). Therefore, I’m still in the process of claiming this preference as a part of my identity, but there is no denying that receiving and responsing are where I am most at home in terms of my sexuality (or my kink, since this also ties in with me being a bottom and a masochist). My interest in seeing and touching other people’s genitals used to be a lot bigger, but has almost ceased to exist at all these days (I still want my sexual partners to touch my genitals, though!). And even when I still enjoyed being a lot more “active” sexually, stone partners have always been a very comfortable fit for me and I never felt like my sexuality with them was lacking anything. In terms of language, ‘iamvanosexual’ is useless for me because almost no one knows what it means — I couldn’t even find any information about its etymology or origin. ‘Paper’ is sliiightly more known, but doesn’t work for me as a metaphor at all (I’m not passively lying there for someone else to do something to me nor am I a blank slate…). I am somewhat nostalgically fond of ‘stone femme’ (in the sense of: a femme who desires stone (butch) partners), because that’s the context where I first encountered the concept. However, the same term can also refer to a femme who’s stone herself, so it’s not very clear. It also seems to imply that I only desire stone partners and/or only butches (neither of which are true for me). Just out of spite, I would like to reclaim ‘pillow princess,’ though, despite the fact that neither the ‘pillow’ and the ‘princess’ part don’t exactly match the type of bottom I am. But I really fucking like reclaiming words that have been used against us and turning them into a source of pride and strength.

I could also put my tendency towards responsive desire here (that means, I often need to be in an erotic context already before I remember that feeling desire is even an option), or even my experience that sometimes my erotic attraction to people only kicks in after they have expressed their erotic attraction to me (as far as I know, there isn’t a separate identity label for that particular experience, yet). I’m not going to expand on these aspects today, though (again, that’s another post for another day).

Demisexual, maybe? (Or gray-asexual?)

I’ve also tentatively added the demisexual (sexually attracted only after an emotional connection has been formed) flag, even though I’m still not sure this label fits my experience. Here are some of my thoughts about this so far: I never look at a picture of someone I don’t know personally and feel sexually attracted to them. I might appreciate their visual appearance (aesthetic attraction). I might even feel sexually aroused from depictions of sexual situations (aka porn), but I can’t remember a single instance in my entire life of thinking “I wish that person would fuck me instead of their fellow porn actor” or “I’d absolutely be down for having sex with that good-looking person I have never interacted with.” Maybe it’s because I’m so deeply involved with the queer BDSM community that I can’t even imagine sex without a previous lengthy conversation and (hopefully) a resulting emotional connection of some kind (although I don’t remember this being any different when I was still living a vanilla life). Maybe I’m just one of those people for whom kink comes first and sex comes second (unless there’s no sex at all) and sex without kink doesn’t exist (so I should try thinking through this in terms of ‘kinky attraction’ rather than ‘sexual attraction’ anyway). Maybe my disinterest in fucking without talking first is due to my responsive desire (see above) and the lack of people/situations who’d spark said desire. Maybe it’s just that I have a low libido these days and therefore don’t feel much like having sex altogether. Maybe there just aren’t very many people whose gender (and kink role) matches my attractions and who’d at least be open to erotic interactions with someone of my gender, and that’s why I think I rarely experience sexual attraction at all. Maybe I’m just — for lack of a better term — ‘sapiosexual’ (attracted based on an ‘intellectual’/mental connection) and confuse that with an emotional connection. Maybe I’m just a sexual prude who isn’t interested in hook-ups and one-night-stands (but is fine with kinky pick-up play). Maybe gray-asexual (being somewhere between asexual and allosexual/non-asexual) is a better description for the way my sexual attraction works. Maybe it’s a combination of some or all of the above. Or maybe I am indeed demisexual and my sexual attraction to someone doesn’t kick in before I feel some kind of emotional (and mental) connection to them. Then again, there have been a few people with whom such a connection was almost instant and I knew within the first five minutes of talking to them that I also wanted to make out with them and possibly have sex later. There have been people whom I probably didn’t just find aesthetically attractive, but also considered erotically interesting. And then there have been times where I most definitely felt a strong sexual attraction to someone, usually after we’ve already had at least one pleasant erotic/sexual encounter with each other and I very much wanted there to be more. I also wonder what counts as an “emotional connection” in this definition of demisexual: Does it have to be long-term? Does it have to be romantic? Does it also have to include life outside of kink/sex? At which point does the term become so watered-down it becomes meaningless? And then there’s the fact that how I practice my BDSM often results in an extraordinary intimacy and intensity (even with a near-stranger) that may not necessarily translate into everyday life but that is still real and meaningful and may result in sexual attraction and desire on my part after we’ve started with the pervy stuff. So, for the time being, this one still has a big question mark for me. I may need to talk to more kinky demisexuals, and kinky gray-asexuals, and kinky allosexuals with responsive desire to compare experiences and figure this one out…

And I haven’t even started to discuss gender…

I’m not going to elaborate on my own gender because this post is focused on desire/attraction, even though I actually have a hard time separating my own gender from everything I wrote about here. For now, I’ll just briefly note that there is more to say about the nuances of femme as a gender and how it is and isn’t related to ‘female’ and ‘feminine.’ There’s more to say about how femmeness intersects with all the identities and communities mentioned above. There’s also more to say about whether I’m cis or nonbinary or possibly both, depending on context. Some other time, though.

Community vs. behavior

One thing became very clear for me as I thought my way through all this: In choosing what terms to use to describe aspects of my queerness, community and politics matter a lot more to me than technical correctness. I need to feel like I share (some of) the values and cultural references of a community to feel like I belong to it. I also need to feel like (the relevant-for-me part of) a community accepts me as a valid member. And I need to feel like I’m at least not completely at odds with the politics associated (at least in my own head) with a community/term. This, more than anything else, explains why I’m so much more comfortable with ‘queer’ than I am with ‘bisexual.’ It explains why I still hold on to my identity as a femme with an origin in butch/femme culture (even though the actual scope of my attractions is a lot broader than that) and not as a “normal” counterpart to trans men, trans women, and/or nonbinary people. It explains why I keep using ‘kink’ as a synonym for ‘BDSM’ and not as a word to describe sex that goes beyond the penis-in-vagina model but is otherwise entirely vanilla. And so on. Because context and history (both large-scale and individual) matter, and there is no objectively right way to put our attractions and desires and identities (and activities and genders) into words. There’s just what makes the most sense for each of us at any given point in our lives. I for one still reside comfortably in “queer kinky femme.”

I hope you have enjoyed this journey through my assorted attractions and desires and the identity terms I use and don’t use to talk about them! Could you relate to any of this? Did you learn anything new? Do you know of any useful resources about the lesser-known identities/attractions I’ve discussed here? Please leave a comment if you like!

Bonus content: Here are all the identities superimposed on their respective flags:

Collage of various Pride flags, including gay pride, leather/BDSM, polyamory, butch/femme and others. Overlaid with the identity terms attached to each flag.


Notes

[1] Yes, that’s when ‘femme’ started to be a queer term (although it was more commonly spelled ‘fem’ then). No, Anne Lister’s bisexual lover Marianna Lawton was not the first queer person to be called a ‘femme’ – unless you want to also count everyone else who has ever been addressed as a ‘woman’ in French. Yes, there were still predecessors to what later became butch and femme identities and relationships both in Europe and North America (and presumably elsewhere, but I don’t know enough about that to even make educated guesses), and I would count Anne Lister and her lovers/partners among them.

[2]  I also believe no variation of this acronym will never be able to include all of us unless we literally just use the entire alphabet. Besides, I still hope that just using ‘queer’ will stop the endless circular debates whether all nonbinary identities are included in the ‘T’ or whether we should add an ‘N’ for them somewhere; whether pansexuals are included in the ‘B’ or whether we need a separate ‘P’ for them; whether the ‘A’ stands for asexuals, aromantics, allies, or all of them; whether the ‘Q’ is for ‘queer,’ for ‘questioning,’ or for both; and in what order these letters should be arranged and what that order implies about everyone’s importance. (At least the debate whether ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ can share the same ‘T’ seems to have died down due to overall changes in queer language use in the past 10-15 years…)

[3] Even if everyone in this example is white, middle-class, and non-disabled (and in reality, we really, really aren’t), there is a relevant difference between being a bearded cis guy who exclusively has romantic relationships with feminine cis women and who sometimes wears a bit of nail polish or some glitter when he goes out to a have a wild night and a lesbian trans woman who is fighting to be legally recognized as the mother of her biological child and who has a bunch of committed relationship partners, neither of whom she is married to. There is a difference between a feminine bisexual cis woman who is monogamously married to a cis guy and occasionally fucks him in the ass and a butch cis lesbian who is married to another cis dyke and has never had any of the implicit protection from street harrassment or job/housing discrimination that often comes with being more gender-conforming and having a (cis) male partner. There also is a difference between an androgynous cis lesbian or a moderately-masculine gay cis guy whose rightful presence in LGBTQIA+ spaces is never questioned by anyone and a nonbinary person who has been assigned male at birth or a bisexual cis femme who always have to justify their presence in these spaces and prove that they’re “queer enough” to be allowed in (let alone accepted). Mind you, I’m not saying any of these fictional people are more or less queer than the others. I’m just saying that different kinds of queernesses come with different privileges and oppressions (sometimes dependent on the context), and that it is important to keep those in mind and not brush them away with “but we’re all queer, so our differences shouldn’t matter!”

[4] I’m using “nowadays” not because TERFs are a new phenomenon (they have unfortunately existed at least since the 1970s), but because I used to be much more ignorant of trans women’s concerns when I was younger and therefore didn’t ask these kinds of questions.

[5]  This is evidenced for example by the fact that “FTM/TG” is still included in the search options of a butch/femme dating website that has been online for over twenty years. For an even older example, I suggest reading Leslie Feinberg’s semi-autobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues [free pdf available at the link], the oral history study Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis, and/or the latter part of the essay On Rereading “Esther’s Story” by Joan Nestle.

[6]  Here I refer once again to Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis as one record of how lesbian and femme identities were understood in the 1940s-60s. I also would like to remind everyone that until at least the 1970s, ‘lesbian’ was commonly understood to include all women and female-assigned nonbinary people who had sex and/or relationships with women, whether or not they also had sex/relationships with (cis) men as well. Today’s microscopic nuance in language for LGBTQIA+ identities is a very, very recent thing, so when you read older texts, please don’t assume that ‘lesbian’ in the 1950s or ‘dyke’ in the 1990s meant the same thing as ‘lesbian’ does today.

[7]  I’m skipping all the things I could say about femme as a gender in and of itself and as an identity independent of butch (I may delve into this topic another time, though). For now, I just would like to say that ‘femme’ is not a synonym for ‘woman,’ or for ‘person who was assigned female at birth,’ or even for ‘feminine.’ It is a deeply queer term and identity, and I really fucking resent its trendy use by straight people and its rampant appropriation by fashion companies.

[8]  Yes, I’ve much enjoyed Carol Queen’s The Leather Daddy and the Femme. No, I don’t think any of it is even remotely likely to happen to me, for a variety of reasons (my own lack of genderfluidity and the high degree of separation between gay male kink culture and everyone else’s kink culture in my area being just two of them).

[9]  Yes, transfeminine people in particular have very good reasons to be wary of (mostly) cis men (aka “chasers”) who like them as sex partners and/or porn performers but would never get romantically involved with them. Yes, transmasculine people in particular have very good reasons to be wary of (mostly) cis women who treat them as ‘masculine or androgynous lesbians’ and don’t actually respect their maleness/lack of femaleness. I’m not denying that cis people’s attraction for trans/nonbinary people can be highly problematic. However, I don’t think we’re doing anyone a favor when we treat any kind of sexual attraction from a cis person to a trans/nonbinary person as something that can only ever be exploitative or disrespectful of their identity. I believe that if we can say we’re “into women” or “into men” without anyone protesting that this is ‘fetishizing,’ we should also be able to say we’re “into nonbinary people.” Surely, the scope of real-life variation encompassed by the category “woman” (or “man”) is not much smaller than the scope of variation encompassed by the category “nonbinary” — and no one is into literally all women (or men), either. (Of course I say this as a cis-ish person who has been drawn to people on the transmasculine spectrum as my sexual, kinky, and romantic partners for about fifteen years, so I’m not exactly a neutral observer here…)


This is a post for the Kinktober prompt “symbols / labels,” even though the emphasis is not actually on the BDSM-related terms I use for myself. That’s because I initially started writing the post in July (hence the Pride reference at the beginning) and have now gone back to it to finish it. 


Image source: I found the individual flags in the collage on various websites which I unfortunately didn’t bookmark. I redrew the butch/femme logo from a low-res image, put the collage together, and added the overlay and text in the second image.

“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.