How we talk about play

Recently, I read a BDSM erotic romance where the characters talked about play in a way that jarred me out of the story. Play was an action that the top did to the bottom. “Are you asking me to play you?” the dominant would say to the submissive, or the text would say things like, “he didn’t want to play her any harder right now.” This use of the term “play” is not reflective of kink community culture, and shows a lack of research on the part of the author. (As do other elements of the representation of kink culture in this particular novel.) I found it especially jarring as a reader, and it made me think about why this specific misrepresentation of kink culture was more disturbing to me than the others in the novel.

In kink communities, we don’t use the word play in this way. Play is a noun, as in “it depends on the kind of play you’re interested in,” and is often modified, as in “I’m into pain play and humiliation play; I don’t do piss play or age play.” Play is also used a verb, as in “want to play?” or “I’ve seen you play.” We don’t say things like “He really wants to play him,” or in general talk about play as if it something we do to another person. It definitely is not something that one role (like dominant) exclusively does to another role (like submissive).

Instead, when we talk about play in connection with others, we say things like, “do you know Fran and Rebecca? They are a gorgeous couple. I really want to play with them,” or “He said that he loved playing with you.” We use the word “with” when we talk about play, and I find that tiny word to be hugely important.

In common vernacular, folks say things like “I want to play ___” when they are referring to an object like a violin or an activity like basketball or cards. When folks talk about someone playing another person (particularly in AAVE where the phrase is most commonly used), it generally means treating someone like an object, using them, not treating them with respect.

Playing with implies more active engagement, more mutuality, more respect. There is more than one subject, more than one person with agency and desire. All parties are playing together, no one is the object of the sentence, no one is being played as if they are only done to, and are not doing themselves. Sometimes in kink, we do objectification, and might enjoy the idea of being the toy or doll that a top is playing with, or being a predator that plays with her food. Even in those cases, we generally phrase it as “playing with”.

Why is this important? For me, it boils down to mutuality being a core ethic in my BDSM practice. (I offer, in my kink ethics class, a starter pack of 5 pillars of kink ethics. The others are intentionality, consent, judicious disclosure, and responsibility.) I don’t think of kink as something top(s) do to bottom(s), but as something all parties actively choose to do with each other. No one is an object here, even if we play with consensual objectification. We all choose, are active participants, and we are all mutually responsible toward each other in play.

This is particularly important to me because it is incredibly common for the agency, actions and responsibilities of bottoms to be unrecognized and treated as unimportant or non-existent. This is particularly common when folks are thinking and talking about feminine or femme bottoms. This is a way that we as a community and culture fail to recognize the power, choice, independence, labor (psychological, physical and spiritual), and active role of bottoms. It reeks of misogyny. This concept of play creates toxicity in kink culture that doesn’t only impact bottoms. It fucks us all over, including tops.

I spent many years as a top thinking I was responsible for everything and could not be vulnerable or have my own needs, in part because of this pervasive idea about tops doing all the work and having all the responsibility in play. Believing in this ableist concept of the all-powerful top that is responsible for everything and needs for nothing made it next to impossible for me to be myself as a disabled person, or to have the kind of intimacy I needed and wanted with the folks I was playing with, or with the larger community. As a disabled top, it is particularly important to me that we use language and create kink culture that honors the agency of bottoms, and that is invested in mutuality.

As an erotic writer, I have spent substantial time and energy illustrating the active agency, power, and independence of bottoms, and the vulnerability and needs of tops. In my most recent work, I am centering disabled characters (tops and bottoms), imagining a kink world that doesn’t operate from the kind of ableist framework where tops don’t have needs or vulnerabilities. My erotica attempts to illustrate the kind of mutuality that I perceive as being central to kink praxis.

Here are a few excerpts from my erotica to illustrate that sort of mutuality:

This excerpt from “Strong” illustrates the way the bottom supports the top, and the vulnerabilities the top brings to play. (As a heads up, it describes rough sex, intense D/s dynamic, and gender play that includes play with misogyny.)

I always start by fucking her throat.  It is the most personal hole, and I claim her there first, make sure she knows she is helpless to stop me.  Her job is to open to me, give to me, feed me with her eyes. I begin by placing the cuffs on her wrists, lock them together, and force her to her knees.  My hands grip her hair, and I force her mouth onto my cock.  This is how we start, every time.

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.

“That’s right, choke on my cock,” I said gruffly.

There was rushing in my ears as I watched her choke, tears streaming down her cheeks, her eyes locked on mine, soft, reassuring.

This excerpt from “Falling for Essex” illustrates the mutuality of the exchange between top and bottom, the ways that a top sometimes begs and a bottom sometimes needs to work hard on self control. (As a head’s up, it includes descriptions of pain play, edge play. playing with anger, and Daddy play.)

“I want to watch you take it on your thighs. Watch you writhe and push yourself. I want it all, no hiding. Can you do that for me?”

Damn it was hard to put it out there, to show his need. But sometimes a top has to beg too.

Samuel gulped, trembling so hard it shook the bed a bit. Leroy watched him clench his fists around the belt, determination shifting to steel and…was that rage? Oh yes, this was the faggot for him.

“Yes,” he breathed, desire plain in his voice. “Let Daddy see how angry you are. I want to see it.”

Samuel glared at him. Damnit, Leroy was not fucking kidding when he said he wanted it all. If it was anger Daddy wanted, Samuel sure had enough of that. He met Daddy’s gaze and bit out the words. “Here it is. Show me what you’ve got. I can fucking take it.”

He handed Leroy the belt and breathed in all the rage he’d been storing for years, careful to let it seep in slow and stay in control, as he lay back, holding Daddy’s gaze.

This excerpt from “Willing”  illustrates the vulnerability of the top, and the strength and agency of the bottom. (As a heads up, it includes a discussion of sadism and blood sports.) (Note: “Willing is printed in the collection Leathermen, ebook on sale in October for $2.99)

Oh please, Sir. I would gladly offer my blood.”

“Why?”

He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes a moment, and then opens them. The pulse in his throat starts racing, but his voice is calm, and matter-of-fact. I tease my blade against his neck.

“I have been watching you a long time, Sir. I have seen how you play. I see the beast inside you. I know what is missing. Those boys at The Lure don’t know how to give you what you really need. They don’t see that they are barely feeding your craving, and not touching your hunger. The boys here don’t see you. They just see their own fantasy. They are simply food. I am strong, Sir. Strong enough for you. I can be yours. My blood, my flesh, my sex, my service. Yours to take however you choose, for as long as you want. To slake your hunger. I would be honored, Sir.”

I take a deep breath, stunned, studying him. This boy who would offer what I never really thought was possible. He has surprised me again. That alone shows this boy is more than a meal. He just might be able to be all that he has offered.

I almost leave him there. I am ready to walk away. Fear creeps along my spine. With the centuries I have lived and the things I have seen, this boy is what scares me. There is nothing more terrifying than hope. I rake my eyes over him. He is standing quietly. He looks like he could stand in that position for hours. He has said his piece; he is content to wait for my response. Oh he is more than food, this one. What a gift to offer a vampire. Can I refuse this offering when it’s laid out before me? I step back, looking him over, and decide.

I breathe in possibility, watching the pulse in his throat. My senses heighten further as I focus my hunger on him, noticing the minute changes in breath, scenting him. I want to see him tremble. I want to smell his fear. I want to devour his pain, without holding back. Forget this public arena. If there is even a possibility that I might truly let go and move with the beast inside my skin, his growl on my lips and his claws grasping prey, I know exactly where I need to take this boy.

What we write about kink matters, including in erotic fiction. The language we use makes a difference, helps shape how we understand what it is that we do (WIITWD).  Using language that implies that tops “do all the work” and bottoms are not active players in kink helps to spread that idea in community. Talking about play as mutual, and all players as active in kink helps to interrupt that idea, and is a small piece of disrupting the reproduction of oppression in kink culture (especially misogyny). And given how intensely pervasive oppression is, we need to do whatever we can to disrupt it in kink community, our relationships, our play, our culture, and our language.

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47 thoughts on “How we talk about play

  1. “This use of the term “play” is not reflective of kink community culture, and shows a lack of research on the part of the author.”
    I beg to differ with you opinion here. I have been in around and about in the kink community (in the US) since 1999 and I have use the term “play” exactly like you are saying kink people do not. One thing I have learned over the years is as soon as I assume people in our beautiful world don’t think or act a certain way, I fine a group of them that proves me wrong.

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  2. @LordRaven Interesting; I wonder if there are regional differences on this. The scene I know the best is on the East and West coasts, in bigger cities, and the national kink conference circuit, and have never heard the word play used in such a manner in those contexts.

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  29. I have heard it used both ways as well, and the objectification doesn’t seem to a lack of respect – more like a moment held and then released, but I understand how words are powerful, and I like your points on them.

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