When we talk about play in kink community, we often focus on the bottom’s experience, the bottom’s desires and needs, the bottom’s journey in a scene, without discussing the top’s experience, desires, needs, or journey. I’ve seen this in the way we talk about negotiation, warm up, and aftercare, where the focus is on the top’s skills at uncovering the bottom’s limits, needs, and desires. (It is often not imagined or considered that tops might have limits, needs or desires.) I’ve also seen this in educational settings where the focus is often on tops learning practical skills, and what that kind of play might feel like for the bottom, without including what the top feels, wants, or experiences in the conversation. (And without acknowledging that there are practical skills for bottoms as well that might be worth discussing.) It’s as if we are stuck in the idea that the top does and the bottom feels (a classic sexist binary, by the way). So if we talk about psychology, negotiation, emotional experience, aftercare, or desire, we are focused on the bottom’s feelings and experiences, and tops are often not part of the conversation.
(This is common in kink erotica too; much of it is from the bottom’s point of view. When the rare story is from the top’s point of view, kink erotica often still avoids describing the inner experience and journey of the top.)
Here are a few ideas I have about what might be behind this phenomenon. They are based on my own experience in pansexual and queer urban kink communities as both a top and as a bottom-heavy switch (of a variety of genders).
- I think that part of what is going on is that kink communities are unconsciously reproducing oppression, particularly heteronormativity and misogyny, in the way we conceive of top and bottom, and this is an extension of that, where tops are assigned a role often assigned to men (doing), and bottoms are assigned a role often assigned to women (feeling). (Though I need to add that there are unabashed misogynist folks in kink communities, and they often are in positions of power, as often occurs outside of kink communities, so it’s not all unconscious.)
- Many kink communities are organized in ways that center, prioritize, and privilege tops (particularly white tops with masculine genders), which is sometimes referred to as domism (a somewhat awkward term). This has been the case in all of the kink communities I’ve been a part of since I came out into the public scene almost 15 years ago, and was particularly the case in pansexual kink communities. So, the logic might go something like this: we don’t need to explicate a top’s experience or desires, because tops are at the center of social power; they are assumed to be known, already understood. It is bottoms that are unknown, not-yet-understood, a mystery to be explored and explicated (for the benefit of tops). (This may help explain why when I’ve heard folks talk about the importance of transparency, they focus primarily on disclosures of critical information and emotional experience by the bottom, and don’t seem to value or insist on the top’s transparency nearly as much.)
- On a related note, because tops (especially white masculine tops) are privileged in kink communities, their voices are at the center of most group conversations. (With the notable exception of the conversations that are specifically created to center the voices of bottoms.) In my experience, this often leads to group conversations that primarily look like:
- Tops geeking out about skills or sharing their knowledge about skills with other tops;
- Tops complaining about and disparaging bottoms;
- Tops enacting power moves within the community and generally acting competitive (especially in relation to other tops, sometimes using bottoms as objects in that power play);
- Tops doing the equivalent of announcing what they are looking for/are good at (e.g. the personal ad); or
- Tops speculating about and sharing their knowledge of the inner workings of bottoms.
So, while tops generally have the floor in the conversation, they rarely show vulnerability or discuss their own internal experiences, partly because they are often playing a game of one-upmanship and competition with each other. When they talk about their desires, it is often a power move, a brag, or a personal ad, not an open emotionally risky discussion about what gets them hot and what kinds of experiences they are wanting for their own growth.
- Here is another piece of why I think we rarely talk about the experiences, journey, or desires of tops: kink community concepts of consent tend to be skewed; they often focus primarily on the bottom’s consent (and rarely seem to consider the top’s consent). Kink communities are deeply invested in holding up the bottom’s consent as the foundation of play. This investment is partly because we have fears about how BDSM may be understood by folks outside of kink community, how it might appear similar to abuse and violence. In BDSM communities, we often differentiate kink from abuse primarily based on the bottom’s consent, and the top’s care for the bottom’s well-being. One of the main ways we can support the foundation of the bottom’s consent is by focusing on the desires, needs, experience, and journey of the bottom.
- Another thing that likely contributes to tops not talking openly about their own desire is that top desires (especially those on the edges) are scary and taboo. Talking about top desire means being open about getting off on being mean and cruel, making people cry, hurting people, humiliating people, fucking with people’s heads, controlling people. Owning your own desire for such things is often difficult, and can lead to intense judgment. Talking openly about this kind of desire often makes folks uncomfortable.
- Another factor that I think is part of this puzzle is related to what we value in tops. Tops (especially masculine tops) are often prized for being closed systems; inscrutable and invulnerable. It is the very not-knowing of a top’s inner workings that is often part of what makes that top hot. To illuminate a top’s journey or desires is to explore and discuss that top’s vulnerabilities and needs, to spoil the fantasy.
The obfuscation of the top’s desires and experiences does a number of troubling things. It makes it harder for new tops to learn, reality-test their experiences, problem solve, and figure out what works for them. It collaborates with substantial societal stigma around sadism, which can contribute to internalized shame in tops. It makes it harder for tops to express needs, vulnerabilities, limits, boundaries, and shifts in capacities. It reinforces a binary between top and bottom, marginalizing folks who challenge that binary (like switches and folks who have more complex roles like dominant little and service top). It makes it harder for bottoms to understand what is going on with the tops they are playing with. It makes it more difficult for tops to create scenes that meet their own needs, or push their own edges. It works against mutuality in play. It is rooted in and supports the reproduction of systems of oppression in kink communities, especially heterosexism, racism, ableism and misogyny. It makes it more difficult for tops when they are facing difficulties, dealing with unmet needs, or grappling with vulnerabilities related to play, if only because they don’t have a lot of practice articulating their experiences, needs, and vulnerabilities in relation to kink. Lastly, it promotes a particularly troubling mythology where edgy BDSM play is thought to have the singular goal of facilitating an experience for the bottom. I plan to write more about this mythology in my next blog post, I’m Not Just Doing It for You.