I spent last night (that is, Tuesday) at the very first Chicago Pleasure Salon, which went incredibly well! I had an amazing time, and from the feedback I got, lots of other people did too. Pleasure Salon will continue on every first Tuesday, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Planning all these sex-positive events keeps me busy, and my non-activist life is eventful, too. Lately, that’s made it hard for me to find time to actually … you know … have romantic encounters and process what’s going on in my head. (I guess that’s ironic, huh?) But although keeping up with myself has been challenging, there’s been an unmistakable shift. Namely, I’ve gone from being “pretty sure” that I’m “mildly” interested in topping, to “dead certain” that I love topping. I thought I might be a switch; now I’m sure. And the way that’s playing out is making me rethink all my previous relationships. (For those unfamiliar with BDSM terms: “switch” refers to a person who feels comfortable either as a top — that is, a dominant and/or sadist — or a bottom — that is, a submissive and/or masochist.)

I’ve written before that I always had sadomasochistic fantasies — since I was very, very young. Apparently, I was wired for BDSM since day one. (I don’t think everyone who practices BDSM feels it as quite such an intrinsic identity, but there are a number of us who do. I’ve had the “you mean, you tied up your Barbie dolls when you were a child too?” conversation many times!) In my early teens I had a bit of a freak-out and repressed it all; then BDSM came and found me almost a decade later. With a vengeance.

I came back into BDSM as a bottom, and it was a crisis. It was impossible to deny how much I wanted it, but I hated it too. On some level, I thought, “Well, this makes perfect sense” — it felt right. But on another level, I was horrified. I couldn’t reconcile my integrity as an independent, rational feminist with my need to be subordinated and hurt. It was a confusing, incredible time. I cried a lot, and I drank a lot, and I didn’t sleep much. I hated how fulfilled my bruises made me feel. It took a while for me to find some semblance of balance.

I adjusted: I took ownership of myself as a bottom. I believed it, accepted it, and gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. Let me say that again: I’ve gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. I love feeling agony I can’t escape; I love feeling as though I’m enduring shocking brutality; I love being hurt until I cry …. I love it. I love it.

And yet. I’ve always been a bit controlling, a bit fierce, a bit challenging. (More than a bit, really.) As I began to think of myself seriously as a bottom, I needed a way to mentally slot those personality traits into my new identity. Thus I concluded that I’d “always” been a bottom, but that part of that had “always” been challenging people in an attempt to get them to smack me down. The “bottom” label helped me adjust and figure out what I wanted, but perhaps it limited me, too. I decided that the dominant parts of my personality had always been an attempt to find strength in others; to provoke viciousness; to encourage others to lash out at me and subdue me. I did do some minor topping — but it was very minor. I never saw it as important, as necessary; I didn’t recognize that need the same way I felt my masochistic urges, which were a desperate near-overwhelming craving. I never thought of it as serious.

Still, at the same time, the energy between myself and my significant male partners was always such that outsiders were routinely shocked if they found out that I was the submissive. I guess it was evident that I took on a lot of power in my relationships. When I fell in love, it was with men who focused on me; who poured energy into me; who put a lot of thought into what I wanted, listened closely when I talked, admired me as much as they wanted me. The biggest thing I’ve sought in my lovers has been vulnerability, openness. To feel like they craved me, needed me. To feel like I could shape them. Arguably — to feel that I had a significant measure of actual control.

So.

Recently, I met the first male submissive where the energy between us felt compelling. He got my attention by offering me the gift of his fear … simply saying that he was scared of me. Intrigued, I focused on him, started to watch. Over the course of months we would see each other occasionally at social events; every time I saw him, I felt him more strongly. All we did was talk, but magnetism hung in the air around us like heavy perfume. I remember one conversation we had — our words were so charged that several people around us at the dungeon stopped talking and just watched. When I finally set my nails into him weeks later, it was like I’d been holding my breath. He closed his eyes and flinched against my hands; I finally exhaled.

It was so intense, so different. But as I got into it more, I started seeing how similar it is to the way I’ve acted in the past; and as he started telling me how he thinks about submission, I felt my viewpoint on my own power shift. He told me about how he thought of some childhood fantasies — dreams of being controlled by women in apparently powerless positions … and I thought about some of my own fantasies, of being a captive or a courtesan or in some other overtly powerless position where I nonetheless would have emotional dominance over my captor. He mentioned that he’d thought about dominating, but only as a submissive — taking control only because his partner wanted him to … and I thought about one of the most affecting BDSM encounters I ever had, where my partner reduced me to tears and then put his arms around me and said he’d done it only because he loved me.

You have to be careful with these after-the-fact realizations about selfhood. It would be easy for me to go back and edit all my memories and say: “Ah, I see now; at all these points, I thought I was bottoming, but really I was in control. I thought I dreamed of submitting, but really I wanted power.” I still think I’ve always been a bottom, but I wonder at some of the dynamics I’m remembering now. Perhaps one could say that I have also, on some level, always been a domme.

Bottoming is heavy, deep. When I’m doing a good scene as a submissive, I go under. I can barely speak …. Everything blurs into darkness. Doing a good top scene is so different. It sparkles. I laugh. All my words are precise as scalpels. Everything is clear. It’s true that both topping and bottoming make me lose myself, go blank, in a similar sensual-sexual way, and I see commonalities between them. I don’t act the same in both roles, but I want similar things: as a bottom, I dream about bleeding; as a top, I crave blood on my hands. Still, the difference in how I feel when topping vs. bottoming is significant.

So, yes, of course I see why we’ve come up with the top/bottom breakdown. I feel no need to question its existence, or call it unnecessary. Most gender and sexuality theorists these days acknowledge that sex and gender exist on a continuum, rather than as black-and-white absolutes, and I bet there are people out there asserting that there’s no reason for the black-and-white top vs. bottom; but I think that the black-and-white top vs. bottom is useful even if we can’t quite parse it all out. The distinction helps us draw the map, create these acts, decide what exactly will happen between us.

But.

He makes me cry because he loves me. Is he the dom or the sub? I’m a princess locked in a tower, with a strong knight defending me. Does he serve me, or do I belong to him? I’m a beautiful courtesan with haunting eyes, charging fabulous prices for my favors. Am I bending men’s hearts, or doing their bidding?

I still think it’s true that my provocative tendencies can be submissive. That I sometimes seek to create a combative dynamic in the hopes of losing. Craving to fight and be defeated. Craving to be broken, tormented, enslaved — to belong to him ultimately and completely. But I also crave his devotion — I want to own my lover. I crave power over his desire, the agony he endures for me, his ultimate submission. And I crave a shifting dynamic. I pull his head back, laugh low in his ear, I smile as I hurt him until he — overwhelmed — breaks out of my hold and takes control.

Top. Bottom. Switch. Both. All.

I want it all.