I often say that all consensual sexuality is okay. Open relationships? S&M? Same-sex partnerships? One-night stands? Porn? I could care less how people have sex, as long as the people involved are consenting adults. This means that most of the interesting and important questions are about consent: how do we make sure that we always have consensual sex? How do we ensure that we’re always respecting our own boundaries and our partners’ boundaries? How do we talk about our preferences and our consent? I write a lot about sexual communication for this reason.

Every once in a while, though, there’s something interesting to discuss besides consent. (Totally weird, I know!) One of those interesting things is stereotypes. Also interesting: bad dynamics in the BDSM community.

One example of a bad, weird dynamic is the “one true way” thing. Some people act like there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to do consensual BDSM — as if some consensual BDSM is more legit than other consensual BDSM. Often, people do this via what we call “role policing”: they make claims about “real submission” and “real dominance”. (Even worse, people will sometimes act like dominant people are socially “better” or “more important” than submissive people. Or they’ll act like men are “inherently” dominant, or women are “inherently” submissive. It’s a clusterfuck! Thomas MacAulay Millar has a great essay about this called “Domism“.)

Examples of role policing might include:

* “If you were really submissive, then you would be serving my dinner right now instead of having me serve myself.”
* “If you were really dominant, then you would pay for my drinks.”
* “If you were really submissive, then you wouldn’t be confident enough to write a blog about your sex life.” (Not that I’m biased or anything.)

Sometimes these are hilarious light-hearted jokes. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re bullshit, and they make people feel as though they’re “bad at submission” or “bad at dominance”. Also, it gets really silly when we start thinking about switches — people who can feel comfortable in the dominant role or the submissive role, such as myself.

One very common, relevant assumption is that dominant people always enjoy inflicting pain: that sadists and dominants are always the same group. They’re not! Sometimes people are into sadism, or into dominance, or maybe they’re into a lot of sadism but a little dominance, or whatever. The same thing goes for submission: sometimes people are submissive and like taking pain, but sometimes people are submissive without being masochistic, or maybe they’re into a little bit of submission and a lot of masochism, or whatever.

Or maybe they’re masochists who like ordering their partners to hurt them. I once threw a memorable party at which my then-boyfriend, a mostly-submissive gentleman, arranged for a bunch of our friends to grab me and hold me down while he ate cake off my body. As he did this, I clearly recall shouting at him: “You better hurt me, or I’m going to safeword on your ass.” So he hurt me! It was great.

Because “submissive” and “masochist” aren’t always the same thing — and “dominant” and “sadist” aren’t always the same thing — the BDSM community uses the terms “bottom” and “top”. A “bottom” is a blanket term for a submissive and/or a masochist — the receiving partner. A “top” is a blanket term for a dominant and/or a sadist — the partner who is providing sensation. The point is to have words that indicate who is giving and who is receiving, without making claims about each partner’s preferences. (These words can also be used as verbs. For example, if I am “topping”, then I am in the dominant and/or sadistic position.)

And yet! Even though we have these handy terms “top” and “bottom”, which are specifically designed to help us avoid making assumptions, people end up making assumptions. There are two common BDSM community phrases that are often deployed in tones of disgust and irritation. One of those phrases is “topping from the bottom”. The other phrase is “service top”.

“Topping from the bottom” indicates a person who exercises power in the relationship, despite being in the “bottom” position. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, as long as both partners consent. But some people talk about “topping from the bottom” like it’s bad — as if power ought to belong to one side or the other; as if the bottom should never express preferences or make decisions about what’s going on. Which is ridiculous.

I’ll grant that it can be annoying if I’m trying to be a top, and my partner isn’t listening or isn’t doing what I want. But in those cases, it’s important to pay attention to what is actually going on. Is my partner resisting because he actually doesn’t want to do what we’re doing? In that case, I should respect his preferences. Or maybe my partner is resisting because he wants me to punish him. Or maybe we just have bad chemistry! Whatever. The point is, “topping from the bottom” isn’t inherently a bad thing. “Topping from the bottom” doesn’t make the bottom into a “bad submissive” or whatever. It just means that either the person is trying to communicate, or the person is looking for a certain kind of push-pull dynamic.

(I am hardly the first person to notice that “topping from the bottom” is a badly-used phrase; here’s a rant from another BDSMer on the topic.)

Simultaneously, there’s the phrase “service top”. It’s basically the same thing in reverse. A “service top” is a top who enjoys topping in line with his partner’s desires. And once again, some people act like this is a bad thing — as if service tops “aren’t dominant enough”. But it’s not inherently a bad thing! If a service top is doing things just because her partner likes them … then good for her!

I sometimes use phrases like “topping from the bottom” and “service top” to describe dynamics of a relationship: to talk about what is actually going on. But that’s because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with topping from the bottom or being a service top. I try to avoid joking around about it unless I know that the person I’m talking to is not sensitive about the topic. And I really don’t like it when people use those phrases while role policing.

BDSM can carry an incredible emotional charge, and a lot of the time, people will want comfort and snuggles after doing BDSM together. Sometimes, part of that comfort and snuggles includes reassuring the partner: “I know you just beat the shit out of me until I cried; I enjoyed it — I still like you and think you’re a good person.” Or, “I know you called your safeword while I was hurting you; I still think you’re a beautiful submissive and you did a great job — in fact I love it when you call your safeword because it helps me understand you better.” I think that in these cases it’s totally okay to say something like, “You’re such a good submissive.” But it’s so important to keep in mind that there isn’t some kind of submission that’s inherently “better” than any other kind — or dominance that’s “better” — or sadism, masochism, whatever.

And here is the part of the entry where I pull aside the mask and reveal that even though I claimed I wouldn’t talk about consent … I was secretly talking about consent all along!

The consent problem here is that role policing can be used to mess with people’s consent, because role policing can be used to pressure people. If a person wants to feel like a “real submissive”, and you tell them that “real submissives” always receive anal sex … then the person might accept anal sex even if he doesn’t really want to … because he wants to be a “real submissive”.

I have personally witnessed accusations of “topping from the bottom” or “service top” being used to hurt people who were just trying to communicate, or arrange a relationship that they liked. For example: “I thought you were a submissive. Why are you asking me to tie you up? Stop topping from the bottom! I’m the dominant partner, I make the decisions!”

An important facet of consent is trying to create a pressure-free environment, so that all partners feel comfortable talking about what they want. Sometimes, it can be very hard to create that environment, because pressure isn’t always easy to see or understand — but if we want maximum consent power, then we have to do our best. One way to create a pressure-free environment is to be careful about phrases like “topping from the bottom”, “service top”, and the role policing that can go along with those phrases.

The image at the top of this post shows a shocked-looking man wearing a leash and a collar. He is about to spank a dominatrix who is bent over his knee. I believe that I first spotted the picture over at maymay’s blog.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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