This post is a continuation of a series on why I hate the idea of “no topping from the bottom”. Catch Part 1 here.
A few years ago I remember being at a small house-warming party with friends from what was then my local kink scene. I had decided I was probably not going to play much while at that party—this was partly because my social anxiety makes enjoying exhibitionism really difficult and even without the anxiety, I’m not terribly excited by public play. But it was also partly because I didn’t trust negotiating to go well in a public setting. This wasn’t born from a specific past experience or any memorably bad encounters with participants in my scene. It was because I had learned, from a series of micro-agressions, that socializing as a sub nearly always meant conceding something I hadn’t initially intended to.
These concessions were often minor—“okay, I guess a little chocolate drizzled down my breasts won’t hurt” or “well, that paddle is a bit larger than I intended, but it will probably be okay.” And having chocolate licked off my breasts by friends didn’t leave me feeling traumatized. But it did partially erode my trust of public-sexy times. If negotiating on the fly wasn’t going to be easy, then I just wasn’t interested.
Towards the end of the house-warming I finally decided that a small amount of spanking with my partner, and some close friends, would be okay. At first it started nicely, but when the sensation got more intense than my liking, my request that folks back off was not immediately honored. Without really discussing it, everyone else had assumed that we were stop-lighting, and I was hesitant to call the more ‘dramatic’ safeword that my partner and I were used to using because I wasn’t upset in a Big, Dramatic and Must be Processed kind of way. (And this is how I had been taught by some of my scene mates that safewording is best used.) I finally grabbed my partner and muttered in his ear “I am not enjoying this, and need you to ask people to back off.” He did, and they did. But at no point did anyone realize—me, them, or those who were around us, that what happened was seriously fucked up. We hadn’t established our safeword before going into it and I felt like I had been bullied, in the guise of lighthearted teasing, out of my firm no. And these are people who I trusted—still do trust—who I know to have honorable intentions in their play. But the culture of expectations around public, ‘casual’, ‘not-really-a-full-scene so why negotiate like it is one’ play was that fucked up.
There is a real culture of a no-topping-from-the-bottom police in the organized BDSM scene. It is often couched in identity policing, as in, “it’s okay to say no to your dominant’s request, but only if you admit that means your not a real sub.” Identify policing is fucked up enough, but what is most egregious about this mindset is that it actively harms consent by defining good submission against un-sexy, mid-scene, “woah, let’s not do that” kinds of negotiating. There are many articles online that make what could be an okay dynamic (in which you define for yourself what you do and don’t want your ideal partner to agree with in a D/S dynamic, and then search for a partner who matches you in those ways) and instead create a dictum on the essential identity of the Sub and the Dom.
There are going to be the people who want to stop me and say “no, you don’t understand us. We’re just talking about [24/7, hardcore, d/s, old-guard] dynamics, not that more casual [top/bottom, bedroom-only, soft-core] stuff. Topping from the bottom is bad because it defeats the purpose of our negotiated [insert-here] dynamic.” And that’s totally fine, as far as it goes. But then these posts should all be about “why I choose to not re-negotiate or push back against requests my partner makes mid-scene, or even while we are making dinner” and not “what you are doing is wrong, let me teach you how to fix it.” What’s more—even if a person truly is topping from the bottom in some definable sense—it is flat wrong to assume that’s even a bad thing, because there are plenty of people who are really into that.
The reality is that the majority of the organized BDSM scene is not currently engaged in a full-time 24/7 dynamic where the submissive partner has decided to consciously and consensually cede all decision making to their dom. It’s not okay to redefine the word subsmissive to match your lived reality at the exclusion of all the sub-or-bottom identified people who are really okay with the way they are bottoming, thank-you-very-much.
And the Society of Janus should have known better. We all should. Negotiate whatever you want for yourself and your partners—as long as you are all happy about it, why would I care? But it absolutely must stop there. Declaring the Ways to Be in kink is harmful. There are no definitive ways to be except consensual. And pushing screeds against topping from the bottom actively harms some people’s ability to negotiate for what they want, and for their consent to be respected.
It’s hard to wrap my brain around how so many people are so willing to dis “topping from the bottom” or give in to crap about what it means to be a “true” submissive or dominant. And while, if you wanted to sit here with me all day, we could trace the structures of power within the BDSM community and link them back to mainstream society, examine how femininity is either conflated with or traded out for submissiveness in out-of-scene power dynamics, debate the significance of labels in creating essentialist understandings of sexual identity, analyze how a dominant sexual identity comes with social capital and undue privilege, and arrive at a very detailed analysis of exactly who is benefiting by pushing around the idea that expressing your desires could make you bad at bottoming or bad at kink, I don’t think it needs to be that complicated.
So I am going to skip straight to the part where we all acknowledge that coercing people (even in jest) out of advocating for their wants, desires and needs is just shitty, and that it’s crazy how many folks have trouble understanding this basic fact. That it’s crazy that in a scene with my own friends, we had trouble knowing how to properly use safewords, and that it’s crazy that we’ve reached a point where we think it is okay to sarcastically shame types of negotiation on the signage in public play spaces.
Top, switch, or bottom from whatever position you fucking want to—bottom, sideways, hanging upside down on a rickety-old ladder, virtually, while sleeping, or knee-deep in a very large bucket of purple paint. As long as your partners are consenting, that is your right. That is among your most basic of rights.