Against Requiring New Tops to Bottom (and toward treating all players with respect)

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.

How I Got Here: An Introduction

On the train home from an emotionally intense weekend, I asked the person I was traveling with how she’d come to bdsm. After she’d told her story, which ended abruptly when we hit my stop, I realized I wanted to tell mine.

This is my story: I wanted kink to save me.

It was a fantasy I’d been bringing to lovers for years. After a traumatic first relationship in high school where my girlfriend convinced me I owed her sex whether I wanted it myself or not, I came into new relationships with an unexamined urgency. I was in pain, and I wanted that pain fixed. Each new lover, each new sexual encounter, was an opportunity. If I only did sex right this time, the fantasy went, everything would change.

It was a fantasy that did not see my lovers. There was no place in it for my partners’ needs, my partners’ desires. It was a fantasy that did not see me, did not see that my body was once again being used in the service of a narrative that had nothing to do with bodies. In my abusive relationship, I’d used my mouth, my fingers, and far more nakedness than I could bear to promise my girlfriend I loved her. Now I wanted the promise that sex couldn’t hurt me and was conscripting my body and my partners’ bodies into proving it.

Most of my partners kept their distance from me where sex was concerned. My senior year of college, I was lucky enough to have a partner help facilitate my coming into my own desire. Cat was the first person I knew who identified as polyamorous and, oddly, the only man I’d ever dated. He showed me his desire for me and waited gently, patiently, for me to name desires of my own. What I named was still limited by what I understood to be possible; I knew people who did bdsm—my college even had its own bdsm student club—but I’d never considered it in relation to myself. I was still, after all, trying to work out “the basics.”

At the same time, I got back in touch with a high school friend in another city who had just opened up her marriage. We at first reconnected over polyamory, then over her also becoming involved with Cat, and finally over each of us seeing enough of his flaws that we both cut ties. Within a few months of opening their marriage, my friend and her husband discovered kink. Both kept LiveJournals, and I read eagerly, hungrily, their stories of exploration and self-discovery. This was what I craved for myself: for desire to be a site of transformation and joy. Through the journals, I saw those possibilities in bdsm, and I wanted them.

By then, I was in a sort of sexual limbo with a dear friend. Our dynamic, which periodically shifted between tensionless friendship and something more sexually charged, had taken a sharp turn just before she left for a semester-long study abroad. Much would change before we saw each other again, I knew, but surely in that one night of intense and joyous intimacy just before she left the country was the promise of a future. We would explore New York’s kinky underground together, I was sure of it. So as I graduated from college, watched my friends and chosen family scatter to the winds, spent long days unemployed and purposeless, and was too proud to admit how alone I felt, I checked off days on the calendar, waiting for my friend and our transformative future.

And then, of course, I lost her too.

It was nearly two years before I first set foot in kink space, and by then, my sense of urgency had returned. I brought so much anguish with me: resentment that my high school friend had come so easily to her self-discovery when I felt so cut off from mine; shame at my inexperience; anger at the partners who had seemed to promise an end to my pain but never delivered; guilt at my sense of entitlement—I knew my partners didn’t owe me sex, but I thought the universe did, and the more panicked and powerless I felt, the harder it was to keep the two separate.

I did not bring embodied desire. Before my friend came home from study abroad, I’d had a host of toppy fantasies, but those were forgotten in my heartbreak, my loneliness, and my desperate terror that sex for me would always be a site of trauma, defeat, and broken promises. Instead, I came to the kink scene with the same fantasy I’d brought to every lover: this place, these people could help me end my anguish, if only I could figure out how to do things right this time.

Just as my fantasy failed to see my lovers, it made invisible to me the particulars of the community I’d found. I sat through classes on how to hit, pierce, or tie up a partner, ashamed that I did not yet know if I wanted to hit, pierce, or tie up anyone, resentful that I had no way of trying. It never occurred to me to evaluate the experiences I was having. If the people around me thought it had been a good class, I supposed they were right, and that my still feeling stuck was simply my own failure—as always, when it came to sex and desire—to grasp something everyone else in the room easily understood. And if the people around me criticized the class, I felt even more ashamed. Yet again, I was too foolish and too inexperienced even to have noticed.

And then there were the parties. My high school friend’s transformations had begun at play parties, and I was sure each monthly gathering held the possibility of change. There was a cycle to it: the week before, I’d be giddy, fantasies spinning fast and big and mind-altering. When the day came, I’d grow uneasy. I’d slip on borrowed clothes, lingering at the mirror, wondering: Was this the night? Would I come home different? And then, hours later, I’d return, crushed and defeated, as far as ever from untangling the mystery of who I was, what I wanted, and why my sexuality so often seemed to keep me isolated.

I met people at play parties, started to recognize faces that would greet me, talk with me, then disappear sometime during the evening with a date and a satchel full of implements I was too afraid to look at closely. Some people I met expressed interest in me, but they usually backed off when I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to what it was I was into. I met a top who offered to let me play with her submissive the next time the two were in town. I met a bottom I thought was cute, and we talked about grad school and erotic poetry, but I couldn’t bring myself to suggest we do anything.

Still without answers, still in pain, I decided to push myself harder. Every offer, I reasoned, was an opportunity. I let a stranger with whiskey on her breath pull me into a makeout session that slid further and further out of my control. I let a woman who couldn’t stop shaking her head at my age—she was all of six years older than me—into my home and my bed. There was a top I’d once turned down who had always been kind to me. I wanted to talk to her about topping, ask her some of the questions I’d started to ask myself. But that, I knew, was a ludicrous thing to do at a party, so I approached her for play and promised myself I’d try whatever she suggested.

Finally pushed too far, my body rebelled. I came home from a party unable to move. I lay in bed all weekend, arms heavy, chest thick, eyes hot and sticky, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. All my efforts, all my fighting, had only brought me here: my body pressed cold against itself on a three-foot square of mattress. Lying there, I knew with an awful clarity that I had been wrong. Kink was never going to save me. It was only making things worse.

I left the scene. I joined a writing group and was struck, moved, by how easily I felt competent there. My memories of the kink scene faded like a bad dream. I still had no answers about my sexuality, but I knew now that pushing past my own limits would bring me no closer to the answers I wanted. I sat back. I wrote. I waited.

In the writing group, I met a woman with whom I eventually became involved. She wasn’t into that kinky stuff, she assured me up front. Good, I thought. I was safe here. I did not tell her about the world I’d left. I only told her I needed to take things slow.

It was the first time I’d come to a relationship without that sense of urgency. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time a partner didn’t push me away. When we had sex for the first time, I felt vulnerable and strange. As we kept having it, I felt the knot of pain and hopelessness begin to unwind itself. I started to imagine possibilities beyond simply not getting hurt, not getting rejected. I started to see the shape of my own desire.

And so, in a sense, I’d been right all along. It was only when I was having sex consistently that I was able to start finding myself in it. But it turned out I’d been right about something else too: the shape of my desire was pretty kinky. The woman from my writing group told me she was “up for anything,” but she didn’t think “anything” meant a polarized power dynamic or her bottoming to acts I would not then bottom to myself. I shared with her the desires I’d been feeling, and we ended our relationship.

I did not relish the idea that I would need to find a place for kink in my life. I was not ready to go back to the places where I’d pushed myself to breaking or to the people who’d been there alongside me and never noticed. At the same time, I was not willing to ignore my desire. And I had resources this time. I knew where my limits were. I knew how to listen to myself, and, when things got to be too much, I knew how to leave. I tiptoed back, gently, open to possibilties but prepared to protect myself.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first. But I think I assumed that someday, it would get easier. That one day, I’d be like those tops I’d met early on, playing effortlessly at every event, bewildered by the idea that one might approach kink and play and desire with anything less than delight and satisfaction. What I’ve learned since coming back to kink is that it’s always going to be a challenge. I say “no” more often now. I admit more often when things are hard—and when I talk about my own struggles, those around me are often willing to admit to struggles of their own. Still, sometimes there is nothing to do but go home, knowing I am in no state to play or even be around play tonight. Sometimes there is nothing to do but be gentle with myself, to wrap myself in a blanket, sit back, and wait.

In our public discourse about kink, we do not often talk about the ways these things we do—these things that can be joyous, energizing, hot, and intimate—can also be hard. But for so many of us, they are hard. And that’s okay. We’re playing with sex, desire, power, and vulnerability. How many of us can say that these parts of our lives are simple? Would we even want them to be?

Ever since coming back to kink, I have been looking for spaces where we acknowledge the hard parts. Outside of heart-to-heart conversations with a friend or two, I’ve found very few. So I’m starting my own. On this blog, I hope to share some of my observations and experiences about kink, desire, and community. I want to talk about navigating my own desire and the public scene as an abuse survivor and as a new top. I want to talk about kink community norms and how they do or don’t serve us. I want to talk about the ways oppression plays itself out in our communities. And I want to tell stories that get at the truths about who we are and why these things matter. Not because I think that my experiences are the only ones or the “right” ones, but because I’ve noticed that when I start telling my stories, the people around me start telling theirs. All of our stories matter, and I hope this blog can help create space for those of us who seek authenticity and connection to find each other and share our ideas and our hearts. Welcome.