When we talk about new players in the public scene, we often assume that we are talking about bottoms. I recently started a conversation in a forum for a kink event I was considering attending about how to help make the event a welcoming space for newcomers. A few participants in the conversation quickly positioned the “newbies” as a population that was sexually available, unskilled, and vulnerable to exploitation. One self-identified sadist expressed glee that a group of “newbies” might be gathered in one place (“a sadist’s dream,” another concurred), while others rushed to caution that we wouldn’t want “newbies” to draw too much attention to themselves, lest they be taken advantage of by unscrupulous “predators.” Leaving aside the odd assumption that people new to this particular event would be new to kink altogether, the implications were troubling. New players were assumed to be bottoms, and bottoms—to either our delight or our concern—were assumed to be vulnerable.
When I entered the scene as a new top, I also encountered the assumption that new players were bottoms. I got this message largely by omission. Conventional wisdom in the community held that new players should try a variety of scenes with a variety of partners to get a feel for different kinds of play. But conventional wisdom also held that new players should avoid inexperienced tops. Wait a second… what about those of us who were inexperienced tops? Well, there was one piece of conventional wisdom that concerned new tops: players who wanted to top should bottom first.
As a new top, this requirement posed a problem for me. In my first years bumbling through the public kink scene, I’d pushed myself into situations I did not want in hopes of gaining knowledge and experience. By the time I came to the scene ready to honor my desire to top, I was no longer willing to permit my body to be used in ways I did not desire, or to let sex or play be a means to an end. Refusing to bottom was the right way to respect my own boundaries, but it seemed to be the wrong way to be a top. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that requiring new tops to bottom benefits neither bottoms nor new tops. Instead, this practice helps maintain a hierarchy that favors a small group of established tops over new tops and all bottoms.
The stated reason for tops bottoming first is that it makes us better tops. Bottoming is supposed to make us safer players. It is supposed to improve tops’ technical skills by giving us a sense of how a particular implement feels to the person upon whom it is used. It is also supposed to increase our “empathy” for bottoms—more on this curious turn of phrase shortly. These improvements, we assume, benefit not only tops but also the people who bottom to us by providing a sort of “quality control”—an assurance that we are safe, skilled, and respectful players.
To refuse to bottom, on the other hand, is taken as an expression of disrespect. To simply declare oneself a top is seen as arrogant, presumptuous, and entitled, and showing dangerous disregard for bottoms’ safety. Even as I write this, I am aware of my fear that my argument here will seem merely self-serving, or that I am trying to “get away with something” by arguing that one can top without first bottoming.
But if the problem here is the safety of bottoms, requiring new tops to bottom is the wrong solution. First of all, what do we mean by “safety”? Emotional safety? Physical safety? Let’s look at physical safety first.
It is never possible to guarantee that no one will be physically injured as a result of play, but the risks can be easily reduced. Players should be aware of basic safety concerns for a given kind of play, information that is readily available in introductory classes and readings. For play that requires technical skill, tops should be aware of their own skill level and be prepared to communicate and make decisions about their play based on that awareness. Tops can also improve their skill through practice, either on partners, on themselves, or on inanimate objects. Established tops have usually had more practice with a given skill than new tops, but it is ridiculous to say that new tops should never be allowed to try a new kind of play (how do we think those established tops got started!?). Rather, new tops who want to try a kind of play for the first time should be honest with potential partners about their level of preparation and let bottoms decide whether they are willing to take the risk.
Perhaps a top’s preparation for a particular kind of play involves having previously bottomed to it. If so, the top may feel somewhat more equipped to intuit how certain sensations feel to the bottom receiving them. But every body is different, and bodies change day to day. Knowing how a particular top experienced receiving a caning on a particular day is no substitute for knowing how this bottom is experiencing this caning right now, information best gotten through some combination of the top’s reading the bottom’s cues and both parties’ active communication. In other words, previously having bottomed is neither sufficient nor necessary for topping effectively now. Far more important is being able and willing to communicate and collaborate.
If the kind of safety we are concerned about is emotional safety, then requiring new tops to bottom is actively detrimental. When we insist that new tops must bottom, and when we insist that having bottomed first makes a top a legitimate play partner, we undermine all parties’ ability to consent.
When we claim that play is simply a matter of technical skill, we leave out one of our most important skill sets: the skill set necessary for consent. Vital for all players, consent skills include awareness of one’s body and state of mind, knowledge of one’s desires, knowledge of physical and emotional limits, ability and willingness to communicate, and ability and willingness to pause or end a scene if necessary. Not to mention understanding the safety concerns involved in a given kind of play and being prepared to make decisions about the level of risk one is willing to assume.
When we focus on tops’ physical skills, we often ignore tops’ consent skills. Worse, by assuming any new player is prepared to bottom, we ignore bottoms’ consent skills. When we do not try to foster consent skills but instead focus on protecting bottoms from “dangerous” tops, we undermine bottoms’ ability to make their own choices.
We are certainly not valuing consent when we insist that new tops bottom. This requirement tells people who have expressed desire to top that in order to do what they desire, they must first allow their bodies to be used in a different way—thus coercing new tops into bottoming. Worse, some established tops are all too eager to take advantage of new tops who bottom. In her post on topping a top, Sex Geek describes meeting a new top who has tried to fulfill the requirement to bottom and ended up in exploitative situations. Multiple dominants who agreed to top the new top were unwilling to respect her negotiated intentions; instead, they took the opportunity to insist that the new top was “really a submissive” or to mock or humiliate her. Again, what is the requirement to bottom worth if it permits tops like these to do their worst?
Perhaps, in some small way, it is abuses like these that the notion of “empathy for the bottom” attempts to address. Perhaps we imagine that some tops’ utter disregard for bottoms’ consent is merely a failure of compassion, and that if only these tops had firsthand experience of bottoming, they would treat the bottoms in their lives with more care and respect.
But the problem is not the failure of tops to bottom. The problem is how we conceive of tops and bottoms in the first place. Rather than seeing tops and bottoms as equally skilled collaborators in play, we create an out-of-scene hierarchy in which tops are authoritative, in-charge, skilled actors, while bottoms are skill-less bodies who are merely acted upon. In this system, tops assume responsibility for all players’ safety and all players’ consent, and bottoms—like the forum discussion’s helpless “newbies”—may be either protected or exploited but cannot look out for themselves.
This hierarchy consolidates power in the hands of a small group of established tops. In it, established tops alone are responsible for determining who is a safe player—in other words, who is “allowed” to top—but can avoid having their own practices around safety scrutinized. Additionally, controlling who is allowed to top while welcoming in new bottoms creates a ratio that ensures established tops are in demand as partners. And because bottoms are considered prepared to play whether or not they have developed the skills for meaningful consent, tops may push limits or violate boundaries with impunity. No wonder my declaring myself a top without bottoming first comes across as entitlement. To be a top in this system is indeed to be entitled—entitled to the bodies and consent of bottoms.
Rather than protect bottoms, rather than improve tops’ skills, requiring new tops to bottom helps maintain this hierarchy. It does so by getting rid of new tops. New tops are indeed a threat, but not primarily to bottoms. New tops threaten the supremacy of established tops by revealing that tops can be vulnerable and fallible, and that tops’ success as players comes not from their innate authority but from collaborating with skilled bottoms. New tops also threaten established tops’ exclusive access to bottoms—this is the threat that we fight by casting new tops as “unsafe.” Even to think about how new tops begin to play is to disrupt our fantasy that tops are inherently experts. This is why we have so little wisdom for players who want to begin topping. This is why we tell them instead either to transform themselves into bottoms or to leave.
There is so much to say about new players and the power structures of kink community: how deeply gender-coded this hierarchy is, how switches fit into this admittedly rather binaristic analysis, the gender dynamics of who gets told to bottom, what it means to be “new” anyway, and how to work toward a more just, more equitable, and genuinely safer scene. But for now, let’s look at how we treat new players. Rather than push away tops and prey on bottoms, we need to support all newcomers in building their skills. Let’s acknowledge that all parties are responsible for their own safety and create a culture where we truly value limits, boundaries, and everyone’s consent. Let’s support all players learning to negotiate, communicate, and be aware of themselves and each other. And when new tops come to us looking for what to do next, let’s do better than telling them to bottom. Let’s make suggestions that honor their desires, like practice or start small. We will be a stronger community if we can give our newcomers the respectful, compassionate welcome they deserve.