If You're Topping From the Bottom, You're Doing BDSM Wrong

It creates an uncomfortable power dynamic for everyone involved.

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In the world of BDSM (an umbrella term that refers to Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism), there are tops, bottoms, and switches. Unlike in the gay community, where the terms "top" and "bottom" refer to who’s giving and receiving anal sex, "top" and "bottom" in BDSM refer to the power dynamic between the peoples “playing” together.

The top is the dominant partner, often referred to with an honorific, such as sir, majesty, mistress, goddess, master, etc. The bottom is the submissive partner. When playing together, the top controls the scene (consensually, of course), telling the bottom what to do and how to do it. But sometimes, a submissive can turn this dynamic upside down—and not in a good way—by a behavior known as "topping from the bottom."

“Topping from the bottom is when a designated sub in the scene is giving direction to or making decisions for the dominant in a way that goes against the predetermined power dynamic,” explains Tiana GlittersaurusRex, polyamorous educator and co-founder of The Sex Work Survival Guide. Typically it’s frowned upon because it goes against the code of behavior everyone consented to at the beginning of the interaction.

To learn all about topping from the bottom and why it’s generally discouraged, we not only spoke to GlittersaurusRex but also Kenneth Play, an international sex educator and sex hacker. Here’s what the two BDSM experts had to say.

What could topping from the bottom look like?

Not sure what types of behavior constitute topping from the bottom? It can happen in a variety of ways, but it all comes down to one main thing.

“Topping from the bottom is anything where the bottom is giving instructions to the top on what they are doing,” Play says. “For instance, if a female pro-domme [professional dominatrix] is pegging a client, and the client is giving the domme instructions the entire time on how to do it, micromanaging the entire experience.”

Another example is when a submissive gives directions on how to be tied up after it was agreed upon that the other partner would be leading the scene. “Sometimes it can be a simple, ‘Make sure you grab this before you do XYZ,’” GlittersaurusRex says. “It can be as slight as a sub asking to be hit by a particular whip when the dominant has already selected a pre-approved impact toy.”

"Being a submissive is an exercise in control, release, and trust."

What doesn't count as topping from the bottom?

It's still okay for the submissive to give their partner feedback on what does and doesn't feel good. “So, if you are receiving impact and you are asking for things to be a little softer or harder, for instance, this is more calibration than topping from the bottom,” Play says.

“Redirection, safewords, and anything that is for the safety of the submissive should never be seen as topping from the bottom,” GlittersaurusRex adds. “Especially when you’re new to BDSM and playing with an experienced top, you may not even know all the hard and soft limits you should cover in your pre-scene negotiations.” So if a dominant hits the submissive in a no-go-area—like over a vital organ or a joint—and the submissive calls attention to it, there should be an immediate check-in, not a continued expression of dominance like “shut up!” or “I’m in charge!”

If topping from the bottom is bad, why might a submissive do it?

“Topping from the bottom sometimes happens if someone doesn't trust the Dom and can’t let go,” Play says. Trust is fundamental every time you have sex, but it is especially necessary between a dom and sub engaging in kinky, potentially dangerous activities. If this behavior is happening, it could be a sign that the bottom is not in the right headspace to continue playing.

“I see this commonly in folks who are switches, meaning they can be both dominant and submissive depending on the partner or circumstance,” GlittersaurusRex adds. If you’re used to be the top, sometimes those dominant vibes can come out when you’re bottoming in a particular scene.

“Then there are some cases where someone doesn’t fully understand their role as a bottom,” she says. In order to avoid this, there should be clear communication prior to the scene about what will and will not be happening. If amid the scene, you two seem to be off, then it's necessary to stop and discuss. Only once you've come to a mutual agreement and are on the same page should you proceed sexually.

Why is topping from the bottom generally considered a bad thing?

Whenever you have sex or engage in BDSM, you want to enjoy it as much as possible, but you can't do that if you're constantly being questioned or judged. “It’s a perfectly fine dynamic when it’s negotiated and it arouses both of you, but if one party is attempting to subvert the other, it can kind of sour the scene,” Play says.

The bottom, too, doesn't get to fully enjoy the experience either. “Being submissive is typically more than sexual release but also mental and emotional,” GlittersaurusRex says. “It's like an overworked mother who brings her children to her spa day; if she’s yelling at her kids when she’s trying to relax, she’s not going to get the full effect." The same goes for BDSM and bottoming: "Being a submissive is an exercise in control, release, and trust. You don’t get the same impact and release if you’re wrestling for the reins."

How can you stop topping from the bottom if you're struggling with it?

The first key is to recognize you’re doing it, which, frankly, shouldn’t be that difficult. (Your top will often chastise you if you are topping from the bottom!) “Then have a conversation with your partner about why it’s hard to let go, and ask for anything that would make you feel safer,” Play says.

“Isolate the areas where you’re unable to let go of control and add that to your pre-scene negotiations,” GlittersaurusRex recommends. “Some partners overlook details like tying up hair before putting a ball gag or hood on, or not putting lubricant on a toy before insertion, so make a point to review not only which toys you like, but how you want them used and what needs to be done for each toy to be pleasurable for you.”

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