So, which are you? Don’t know? Haven’t thought about it? If you’re into the alt-sex at all, this question is going to come up, and sadly there’s widespread confusion about these terms – not to mention fear, misapprehension, arousal, angst, and weeping. But enough about me.
Here’s an old joke: To find out who’s on top in your relationship, get all cozy and snuggled in bed with your lover one night and wait until someone gets up to turn off the light. Look back at the person still in bed: There’s the top.
This is a stupid joke, and I will attempt to explain why.
First, a word about lingo. Top-bottom, dominant-submissive, and master-slave – they’re not the same, although they roll off the tongue interchangeably in pop culture. Some BDSM communities are more strict than others about usage, but in my experience top-bottom is a generic term for giver-receiver, more or less, and not just in that way it’s familiar to any connoisseur of ’70s gay porn.
Dom-sub implies a more pronounced power exchange, a more psychological tone. And master-slave even more so, most likely a long-term relationship with a formal agreement of some kind.
As anyone with a good hairdresser knows, the top-bottom dynamic can take many, many forms. In the popular imagination, though, it’s all the same: freaks in leather, a sniveling submissive following around his big daddy top like a mouse, probably on a leash. I’m not being catty about leashes by the way – or collars, which are a powerful psychological device and a common symbol in the scene – but thanks to a score of bad movies, this picture is now the sole image of kink for unimaginative non-kinksters everywhere. Try to get over it, will you? There are some twists in this road.
You can’t make assumptions about topping, bottoming, sex, and power. Sure, it’s about power, but it’s power exchange, named and bounded. Which is not to say it’s predictable. No, lots of bottoms like to be surprised – just that the control and negotiation are explicit, even if it’s hard to see from the outside. It may involve sex, or not. It may involve sensation play—flogging, bondage, etc. – or not. The shit’s been talked about, and you just can’t tell how, exactly.
The top could be giving the bottom something he or she asked for directly. (Or maybe not. A top can’t be too slavish and risk the dread title “service top.”) At the very least, the top knows the bottom well and knows his likes and dislikes, his limits and sweet spots. The top may even exercise his or her control by instructing the bottom to do things to the top. I told you this gets twisty.*
In last week’s column, I tipped my hand a bit by writing about taking turns with rope. For astute readers, that sounds like a “switch,” someone who will top or bottom, or may top with some folks and bottom with others. Switches can seem like the bisexuals of the BDSM world; a purist would say the switch just hasn’t made up his or her mind about which team to play for. Could be, I can’t decide.
One thing that is not negotiable – or shouldn’t be – is that the top is responsible for the bottom. Completely responsible. The bottom is responsible to communicate, of course, but otherwise he or she has placed their physical and emotional well-being in the hands of another. Their encounter could be sexual, it could involve rope, sex toys, floggers, and more, or non-sexual intimidation or humiliation, in private or public. In safe play though, this is a consensual game where the top holds the keys and the trust required is non-negotiable.
I’d even call it radical. Of the self-proclaimed tops I’ve known, most of them have bottomed as well. Knowing that vulnerability, they say, makes you a better top. The level of trust this requires is probably the most terrifying prospect of kink for the non-kinky. After all, in a culture obsessed with individualism and self-reliance, to be in the hands of another flies at so much we’re taught to mistrust, about interdependence, communication, and responsibility. And getting off, of course.
But I digress.
How do you tell if you’re a top or bottom? That might be the wrong question. What do you want? Who do you want it from? While there are people who can say definitively, I’m a top, or I’m a bottom, always am and always will be, there is also a vast sea of people – most people – for whom the answer is: It depends. What you want can change over time, or with your mood, or who you’re with. The labels don’t make the person.
So, back to the old joke. To find out who’s on top in your relationship, get all cozy and snuggled in bed with your lover one night and wait until someone gets up to turn off the light. Look back at the person still in bed and ask, “do you like it with the lights on or off?”
*And there’s a lot to learn. Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s books The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book, both available at Greenery Press, are a good place to start. And you’d probably be surprised at how much your local BDSM scene is organized around education and discussion if you venture there.