This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot, where I became the Sex + Relationships Section Editor on December 15, 2011.
I write a lot about my experiences with BDSM — that’s a 6-for-4 acronym that covers Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. I have a fair amount of experience engaging in BDSM; I also have a fair amount of experience in the BDSM subculture. The subculture consists of meetup groups, educational workshops, dungeons where people practice BDSM, a set of well-reputed books and resources, Internet social networking sites, etc. The subculture also has its own norms and pitfalls.
Many BDSMers use the word “bottom” to refer to a masochist and/or submissive, and “top” to refer to a dominant and/or sadist. I am a switch, which means I feel comfortable in either the top or the bottom role. I haven’t observed every BDSM group in the world, but in my experience, one BDSM subculture pitfall is that we don’t explicitly teach very many “bottom skills”. In fact, a lot of the time, “bottom skills” aren’t even recognized as skills.
But bottom skills are totally the skillsiest skillz you can imagine. Let me start by describing my ex-boyfriend who was most in touch with his bottom side. When I met him, I was much less experienced than him at BDSM, and I was basically unaware of my top side. I think there are probably a lot more women than we think who would be up for being BDSM tops, but since cultural norms tell us that women aren’t dominant, lots of those women simply don’t recognize those feelings. My ex-boyfriend agrees, and as a result he’s specifically trained himself to surreptitiously draw out a woman’s dominant desires.
With me, he started by giving me the gift of his fear. We saw each other around the community a few times, and I guess he took note. Then one day, we were both at a BDSM meetup, and from nearby — while he was speaking to someone else — he remarked that I terrified him. He knew that I’d overhear.
I looked at him. He avoided my gaze. Eventually he worked his way around the crowd so he was actually speaking to me, and that was when he actually met my eyes and said directly to me, straightforward, in a charming and casual tone: “I’m terrified.”
Of course, this is vulnerability on a silver platter: it’s confident vulnerability. You scare me. Yet I’m still talking to you, even though I’m sure you could hurt me real bad. He was being so obvious, yet there were still so many tacit dimensions to what he was doing, and I had never quite seen anyone like him before. I was intrigued, and felt myself gain a predatory focus.
He was like that throughout our relationship. Throughout the flirting, throughout the BDSM encounters. He communicated very directly when there was a need for direct talking. But he also showed me so much of what to do. When I put my nails in certain places, he’d arch his body directly into them and groan. When I did something that was difficult for him, he’d get quieter and less responsive in an extremely obvious way while he dealt with it. He’s the only man I’ve ever seen who knew how to tip his head back for a kiss (he was also tall, so most women would have to be in very particular positions for this to work, ahem). A lot of this was instinctive, of course; many bottoms would recognize themselves in these tendencies … but he’d learned his own instinctive responses and fine-tuned them.
I want to make it clear here that I don’t want anyone to “perform” a type of sexuality that they don’t like; trust me, I know just how much a person can feel responsible for “acting out” their sexuality. I’ve been there. But that’s different from a person taking their own desires and reactions, and honing them for maximum communication power. That kind of thing takes experience and self-knowledge. Which is one of the things I value most about BDSM — the inner exploration it can enable. I just wish we taught about it better.
I definitely think the BDSM subculture is great at teaching certain topics: for example, how to perform certain activities safely. In major USA cities, there are often workshops on how to safely hit people with whips. Communication also gets a decent amount of airtime; for example, everyone in the community knows what a safeword is (indeed, a lot of people outside the community know about safewords, too). Sometimes, tops are even “judged” on their “dominant skill set”. But bottoms are usually seen as just being “along for the ride” — or are merely judged for “how far they’re willing to go”, which is even worse, because it discourages some bottoms from setting boundaries.
(As a side note, here’s a pro tip on looking for tops. If you’re talking to a top who can’t stop bragging about how awesome and experienced they are, I advise you to walk away. Or perhaps I should merely say that I, personally, would walk away from that. My favorite, most respectful dominant partners have all had a hefty sense of humility and been very willing to learn — even if they were very experienced.)
So why sub skillz got no respect? I think it’s partly because a lot of them are subtle and hard to see. In general, any “receptive” social role is going to get less credit in an interaction, because lots of people think that the “initiating” social role “does all the work” — but the truth is that the “initiating” social role simply does more visible work. You see this happening with mainstream gender roles, too; for example, some men complain about how women expect them to do “all the work”, like asking women out on dates. But the truth is that for any role played by one gender in the usual heterosexual mating dance, there is an opposing or matching role that takes its own kind of work. For every man who has trouble asking women out, there is a woman who has trouble appearing approachable … or who wants to ask men out but thinks that she will freak men out by doing so (and indeed, she might well be correct). Things are tough all over, baby.
Communication — any kind of communication — is not just explaining one’s desires out loud. There’s also a ton of non-verbal feedback and non-verbal reading that goes on. Everyone communicates, but because a lot of bottoms communicate primarily by responding, bottom communication is often invisible. There’s also a whole nother level of bottom communication sometimes achieved by people who are really good, which involves tacitly running the encounter from the bottom side. Like what my ex-boyfriend did in my anecdote above.
Other bottom skills have to do with bottoms monitoring their body and taking care of themselves. Some of this is physical. One thing I would absolutely love to see is a BDSM workshop on body chemistry: I’ve written about it and I try to keep an eye on how it works in my life, but I’ve literally never seen a class on the topic. My experience is that all kinds of things — from sleep to intoxicants to the quality and amount of food I’ve eaten — can drastically alter my experience of BDSM (and, for that matter, sex). But I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor, and although some things are obvious — like: it’s easier to take pain when I’ve had enough sleep — some things are not obvious at all.
And then there’s breath control. I am definitely a novice at this, but I’ve got the feeling that understanding how my breathing intersects with my pain tolerance could lead to a whole new level of BDSM. The one thing I’m sure of right now is that it’s easy to reflexively stop up my breathing when I’m in a lot of pain, or to breathe irregularly. But if I can force myself to breathe more regularly, then it gets easier. So the only advice I can offer bottoms here is for them, too, to watch their breathing and look for patterns.
Of course, taking care of oneself isn’t just physical; it’s mental and emotional too — setting boundaries and understanding oneself. It’s important for a bottom to know what they won’t do, will do … or what they want to do, but suspect will be complex and hard to deal with. In fairness, it is also important for tops to know these things about themselves, but the risks bottoms take tend to be more intense and direct than the ones tops take. Also in fairness, the BDSM community has developed some tactics for talking about this: for example, I often write about BDSM checklists, which list a huge array of BDSM activities and encourage people to rate their desire for and experience with those activities.
A lot of taking care of oneself involves a self-aware learning process. Calling a safeword is absolutely a skill, and it’s a skill that gets easier with practice; but sometimes I’m still not sure whether I actually want to safeword, and I’ve been doing BDSM fairly regularly for years. (For this reason, a lot of BDSMers use the “stoplight system”, whereby “red” means “stop definitely for real!” and “yellow” means “I’m not sure about this, but I don’t think I want to stop, so let’s slow down or switch activities”.) A lot of bottoms enter an altered state of consciousness we refer to as “subspace“; understanding how to navigate subspace is its own highly personal thing that deserves multiple stand-alone articles. Plus, I’ve learned a lot about which types of pain I like and dislike, but my tastes (like everyone’s) can and do evolve over time.
In short, processing intense sensations — and understanding where a person’s brain is at, and what they want even when they’re processing those sensations — is its own constellation of BDSM skills. Again, most relevant for bottoms, but also relevant for tops.