Dear Patrick, I am very sure that I am a top. The other side of BDSM holds no erotic charge for me at all. But I keep reading (and being told) that the best way to learn how to be a top is to bottom. Frankly, such a thing would be repulsive to me. How can performing an act that I cannot enjoy going to teach me how to be a skilled top? I am an intelligent person with a reasonable amount of empathy. Why can’t I simply talk to the person I am playing with or educate myself in other ways?–Zero Bottom Energy
Dear Zero Bottom Energy: The suggestion that you learn how to top by experiencing the things you are expecting the bottom to do goes way back to the dusty origins of S/M education. But it is not carved in stone. If you figure out what this injunction was meant to prevent, you can probably also figure out other ways to ensure your play is not only safe but enjoyable for your partner and yourself.
There are a couple of concerns that prompted this statement. One is the fact that sensation play needs modulation and precision to be successful and arousing. It can be difficult to predict which implements are the most challenging for a bottom to eroticize, just by looking at them. Some people would look at a flogger that weighs twenty pounds and decide it was a monster of a thing, while others would cringe at the sight of a thin switch broken off a tree. If you are going to whip somebody, for example, you need to know whether you are handling a warm-up implement or something that only a few people can handle.
The way that you hold and apply the instrument is also important. A stroke that pulls up and lands only upon the skin will feel different than a stroke that is aimed at the bondage table beneath the bottom’s body. The angle of the blow and whether the skin is wet or dry are also important.
A top’s actions have emotional as well as physical consequences. I once had to insist that a novice top release their bottom from a small locked cage. ‚”She’s okay,‚” the top said. ‚”She’s quite safe there. Nothing bad can happen to her.‚”I replied that she had been there for two hours, with no interaction with her top, and was getting emotionally strung out and depressed. She needed some reassurance and some human contact. Of course, if she was the right kind of bottom, long-term confinement might have been exactly what she wanted.
Standing bondage is another example. Do you know what it feels like to be asked to hold your arms above your head for a significant amount of time? Do you know how long it takes for your hands to fall asleep? Do you know what it’s like to kneel on a hard wooden floor?
Safety is not the only concern here. The bottom offers up their pain, suffering, or emotional experience as a gift to the top. Do you know when you are being offered a gift or manipulated into going too easy on somebody? If you want to form a psychic connection with the bottom, it helps to understand where they are at energetically. If you have no idea what it is like to bottom, that may be tricky.
You have a valid point, that doing something you dislike will not give you any idea how these things would feel to somebody who craves them. But you can test out various implements on your own naked thigh, for example, so you can rank your toys from easiest to most difficult before you play. The same thing goes for electrical stimulation or clips or anything else. You can teach yourself to be grateful for and respectful of the amazing abilities of a good bottom. You can ask the person you are topping to describe their experience for you. If you are an empathic person who is willing to take direction while he learns, that will help.
There’s another time-honored method of learning how to be a good top. That would be to get involved with a more experienced bottom who is patient and prepared to walk you through the steps of the games they enjoy until you acquire enough experience to take over and run the scene on your own. Perhaps this will offend your sensibilities as much as the previous suggestion. I’m just sayin’.
Patrick Califia is a therapist in private practice in Northern California. His practice includes internet consultations as well as face-to-face psychotherapy. He is a prolific author who has published widely about BDSM and sexual politics. Patrick’s books include Macho Sluts, Sensuous Magic, and Public Sex: The Politics of Radical Sex.
This column is not intended to offer medical or legal advice. It is for educational and entertainment purposes only. If you need medical or legal advice, see a doctor or lawyer!
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