Exchanging Power: Vulnerable Tops and Strong Supportive Bottoms

One of my favorite erotica stories of all time is “Big Girls”, by Patrick Califia (available in the collections Melting Point and Blood and Silver). I adore many things about this story, from the deep cultural context and representation of queer sexual geography to the ways it engages with butch-butch relationships and respectfully represents a top aching to be flipped. A longtime fat activist, I loved the pairing of a tall fat bottom with a short thin top, and the way the story celebrates Kat’s size. As a young sadist first reading it, I got a lot out of the story’s lengthy descriptions of S/M and the construction of the scene itself. (I was a sponge those days and soaked up knowledge from so many sources; this was one of the meatier ones, that helped me to get the differences between S/M play that was largely power-neutral and S/M play that had a deep D/s component.)

One of the core elements that makes “Big Girls” a story that I return to again and again is the way it represents power as an exchange. In particular, it illuminates the vulnerabilities of Reid as a top, and shows how she needs (and only sometimes receives) support from bottoms. It shows the immense strength and power of Kat as a bottom, and how the scene is built on a foundation of exchange of power, where both parties are supporting the other, both parties are taking risks, each is taking care of the other. “Big Girls” is deeply respectful of both tops and bottoms, and represents them in a complex way, rooted in community, deeply vulnerable and powerful, taking risks to claim their deep desires.

When I was working on revising my story “Strong”, one of the things I did was go back and reread “Big Girls”, to soak in the nuances of how that kind of exchange of power can be represented in its fullness. My intention in the revision was to infuse the story with a deeper representation of power in the moment of exchange, to illuminate the vulnerabilities of the top, and the ways the top needs the support and strength of the bottom. That felt like a deeply important aspect of the rewrite, not just for its own sake, but especially because of the level of misogyny these two characters were playing with, as they travelled through a gender play scene where the genderqueer bottom is first a girl and then a boy. I needed to illuminate the risks inherent in their play, and also interrupt common gendered tropes around strength and vulnerability.

These revisions are what made certain passages richer, more complex, as I attempted to show the exchange of power in more depth. What began as a description of how the characters start gender play with cocksucking became a passage that illuminated the fear of the top. (Heads up: this passage describes gender play including play with misogyny, and rough sex.)

Beginning this way every time gives us both a way to go deeper into ourselves, to sink into what we are doing, find ground for the genders we are playing in. My cock in her throat honors how she wants to do girlness, how much we both want her to be open and vulnerable and raw. Her eyes looking up at me and her mouth wrapped round my dick reflect back the masculinity I want to do with her, how much we want me to be cruel and invasive and dominant. I need to see that she wants this, all the way through, and she knows how much I run on adrenaline when we play this way, how it reaches into my core and twists.

I need to start fast, and hard, almost dare myself into it, because this scares the shit out of me, and that’s the only way to get over the mountain of fear that builds in me as I know we are going there. The more fear there is the rougher and faster I need it. I was especially rough that night, ignoring the gagging, groaning as I forced tears from her eyes.

Here is another similar moment later in the story that came from that revision process, where I attempt to illuminate the needs of the top, and the way the top depends on the bottom:

Sinking into thud roots me, pulls me deep into myself. Using my whole body helps me re-establish, find my footing. He’s not the only one that needs to put himself back together, and he knows it. Knows that this is for both of us, that I need this as much as he does, and his job is to feed the energy back to me, to help keep it cycling between us.

“Strong” was printed in Say Please: Lesbian BDSM Erotica and it is by far my most reviewed story. This collection has some great stories in it, and is well worth a read. Here are a few things the critics had to say about this story:

Angel Propps at Lambda Literary Reviews:

“Some of the best transgressive erotic fiction to come along in recent years has been authored by Xan West and in the story “Strong,” Xan is working at top form. Gender itself is the beating, bleeding heart of the play between a transgendered butch and a genderqueer submissive. Using language that shows all too clearly the terrifying loveliness that is vulnerability, Xan delivers characters who willingly choose to go places where others fear to tread and the result is incredibly, satisfyingly filthy and erotic. The caning scene within this story literally made my thighs ache, and not just in sympathy.”

Kelli Dunham:

“West’s story is some of the most boundary breaking erotica I’ve heard in a while, and a much more fun way to talk about gender than arguing about it, which is what our community seems to love most”

Helena Swann on Cuntext:

 “Finally, ‘Strong.’ I cannot even. This piece is nothing short of perfect. There’s the fact that it’s intense BDSM that pushes most of my buttons: public humiliation, blowjobs, knives, orgasm control, being (someone’s) (good) little girl, being pushed to take more. There’s the fact that this is a tribute to bottoms, to what we give to our tops, to what it takes to do what we do. That’s not even the half of it. Xan West, more than anyone I’ve ever read, intrinsically gets what I do at my core, as a femme and as a bottom. Reading this piece crystallized my thoughts: What I do is build gender. More specifically, I build gender through relationships–the way I talk to people, the way I touch them, the way I fuck them. This story is a precise, graceful, crushingly hot portrait of how that happens.”

You can get the ebook version of Say Please for $1.99 until the end of July 2014, which means that you have one more day to purchase this collection on sale.

If you prefer the print version, I should mention that Cleis Press is having a summer sale, buy 2 get 1 free, so you can still get a deal on Say Please, along with many of the collections in which my stories appear.

 

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8 thoughts on “Exchanging Power: Vulnerable Tops and Strong Supportive Bottoms

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  6. Thank you for the pointer toward Big Girls in this post; I read it yesterday and found it incredibly hot for a lot of reasons.

    You mention that one of the reasons you like that story is “the ways it engages with butch-butch relationships.”

    I’m curious–do you read the main relationship, the one between Kat and Reid, as clearly butch-butch? Perhaps because I was primed to see it that way (from this post), I imagined it to be butch-butch, but I was a little thrown off toward the end when Reid comments “”You can take me to dinner tomorrow night. I’ll wear my strapless black velvet sheath.” I don’t mean to put butch folks in a box that excludes the possibility of wearing a dress, sheath or otherwise, but that does seem atypical and it was a bit jarring given what I’d been picturing up til that moment. And then I sat for a moment wondering if I’d so easily read and pictured Reid as butch because of her dominance – a thought that I found disturbing since obviously folks of all genders can be dominant or submissive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an awesome question; thanks so much for nudging me to think about this.

      I plan to go reread this story and Califia’s other story that has Reid & Kat “What Girls Are Made Of”. (Which is in Melting Point and also Blood and Silver.) If I can dig out my old copy of Melting Point I may also read the introduction. I do want to see if I can pin down why I thought it was a butch-butch dynamic.

      My early thoughts are that I think the story is set up to have readers think so, and be jarred at the end. It contrasts upfront butch/femme dynamics with this relationship, both in Kat’s life and at the bar in general. It also presents the dynamic as butch-butch from Kat’s point of view, at least in the beginning, if I recall correctly. I just don’t accurately recall how Reid talks about her own gender. I concluded when I first read the story, that the comment about the sheath was intended to jar us and poke at our assumptions about butchness as readers, something Califia was fond of doing.

      Califia liked poking at gender and at assumptions about what it meant to be in a particular role, a lot, especially in his fiction. There’s a number of stories that disrupt ideas that tops don’t get fucked, that disrupt ideas about butches and how they fuck. Califia’s poem “Diagnostic Tests” also works to disrupt assumptions about butch and femme: http://tgstonebutch.tumblr.com/post/76989083266/diagnostic-tests-by-patrick-califia

      I will comment again when I’ve had a chance to reread. Thanks for an excuse to read this story again. I’m glad you enjoyed it too!

      Like

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