Divided by a Common Language

By on October 13, 2009

Patrick califia Dear Patrick,
What is this obsession Americans have about tops and bottoms? It’s as if they are two different species. My friends and I like kinky sex along with all the regular stuff, but we’d never make a big deal out of a bottom who suddenly decided to top, for example. Unless they’d made a mess of it! We’d just all say “Good for her,” or him, and order another pint and see what we could scare up for our own evening entertainment. Aren’t we all a bit of both? Depending on who I am with, a totally different side of me might come out, and I don’t want to limit my options by getting stuck with some label. But it seems to me the whole scene is overrun with American influence!
Made in Britain

Dear Made in Britain,
You’re bringing up two points, really—whether American kinksters have too much influence overseas, and whether any useful purpose is served by using labels like “top” and “bottom.” Wish I knew what you think about the term “switch,” because a lot of the desires and behavior you describe could fit—no, I won’t say it. You are beyond labels.

Let me take the first issue first. A preoccupation with order is often associated with this thing called topness. It’s certainly true that during the last decade, there was a virtual explosion of S/M literature that came from the US. Suddenly we had instruction manuals for nipple play, spanking, how to be a mistress, how to be a bottom, yada yada yada. Greenery Press has done a lot of good in this area. I frankly would have devoured these books like toffee if they’d been available when I was a sprout of a sadist. But they might have put me off as well. All this instruction can take the spontaneity and wicked fun out of it. As my British friends have pointed out, Americans can talk your head off. They negotiate so much there’s no energy left to be naughty.

But I think publications like Skin Two (and there aren’t really any that compare) have done a great job of publicizing British and European resources. When I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve found thriving kinky communities in every city. (Vienna, I miss you guys!!) Each one has its own flavor, style, slang, mores, and specialties. But there’s not such a tendency to keep track of the scene’s history in England and Europe, which is a shame, because some of the hottest erotica and most stylish looks come out of that world.

As far as I am concerned, America will always be The Colonies, and the spiritual home of all kinky people is England. Victorians referred to spanking as “the English vice,” for good reason. Nowhere else do you find the same kind of brisk discipline, stiff upper lip masochism, and rude jokes. You can stack up all the books by American authors but they won’t reach as high as that.

I know that multinational capitalism is responsible for the spread of a lot of American crap. But especially in subcultures, we have the freedom to make things our own. If you don’t like the American flavor of pervery, by all means, write and publish and sing and runway your own. And invite me to the party.

Second, you are asking a bigger question about terminology and roles. Just how formal do we need to be when we define our identities? Do we lose something when we polarize certain behaviors or desires and think of them as opposites? Well, of course! That’s why paradigms are constantly being remade, reshaped, subverted, inverted, and rediscovered. But humans are such tricky and complicated animals that every time we think we understand ourselves and have a way to describe it, we defeat our own wisdom, slip out of the boxes, and turn into something else. It’s fascinating.

I really like the approach that you and your friends have taken to BDSM. I think that it may stand a chance of meeting more people’s needs as well. The use of the top/bottom system has left a lot of people stranded. If you only focus on your needs to submit or get done, you miss out on a lot of the fun of grabbing somebody else and doing them. More switching would take care of some of the problem our community has with lonely bottoms who do not get enough play. But that’s only if everyone would agree to top as much as they bottom.

But I don’t think you are going to get rid of the polarization because for many people, it is the most accurate description of their core sexual needs and personalities. I’ve heard many bottoms say that they won’t play with a top who switches. They need that polarization before they can feel that the top genuinely wants to do things to them. There’s also a minority of tops who don’t like bottoms who switch, but we do tend to be less picky about it. I think for many tops, the idea of bottoms who switch is like straight men who like lesbian porn. We want to watch it, we think it’s cute and hot, but in the back of our minds we always imagine wading in and refocusing the action on our own implements.

Some people eroticize the idea of having sex with someone who is like themselves. They relax, get excited, and feel safe when they believe the other person wants the same thing that they do. But others eroticize difference and the tension and mystery that comes with it. They are not excited by someone who resembles them. They might require a difference in gender expression, body size, race, class, or sexual energy.

Over the three decades I’ve been in this community, I have always seen both components within BDSM. There are the people who want their set categories to be mutually exclusive. They feel they are entitled to a certain amount of respect because of the time and energy they devote to maintaining certain standards of conduct and appearance. Many of them like uniforms. Then there are the anarchic, polymorphous perverse troublemakers who just do exactly what they want, when they want it, without consulting the rule book first. I believe there’s a lot of excitement to be had in just knowing you are thumbing your nose at a perhaps older and certainly more rigid crowd. The look for this group of people is more eclectic and cutting-edge.

Besides. Seriously. What if you wrote to me and I said, “You have to cut this out, figure out what you are, and stick to that. That’s the only way you’re going to be honest or find any happiness or a stable relationship.”? You’d just say “bollocks” and do whatever you wanted to do. As it should be!

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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Patrick Califia

December 22, 2009 @ 10:20

Dear Heather: I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you about your new aspirations. This sounds to me like a fantasy that deserves a second look. I agree that it is tough when you have mostly been sub to contemplate a topping scene or two.

But if you think about all of the skills that you need to be a good sub–the communication, imagination, dressing up, identifying what is erotic in real life versus fantasy–those are all skills you need to be a good top!

It also helps, by the way, to be turned on to the person you are topping. When you feel genuine desire, you are so motivated to get inside his or her head! And having your top there might be a useful safety net for you, or it might feed any exhibitionism you have. Showing off is something most tops like to do.

Hope you have already taken off on your whim and had a lot of fun with it.


October 14, 2009 @ 11:23

Thank you!!!! I am sub normally but have strarted to have more Domme thoughts and yearnings. The Dom in my life has suggested that He would like to watch me Dominate another sub and I could not get the appeal at all. I do now. Also after reading that I feel more at ease with grabbing somebody else and doing them as you put it. Does sound like good fun to me, I will give it a go some time!

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