I just read another essay arguing that topping from the bottom doesn’t really exist—that the phrase is just a way that people try to shame bottoms for having limits, expressing preferences or negotiating for what they want. And yeah: that totally happens. I see “topping from the bottom” get used that way all too frequently, and it’s unfair and unhelpful and pretty shitty.
It’s also almost exactly the opposite of actual topping from the bottom. Someone clearly and explicitly negotiating for what they want out of their kink isn’t topping from the bottom; topping from the bottom is when someone negotiates to submit and then covertly and manipulatively tries to take control of the scene or the relationship—without admitting that they’re trying to be in control.
The classic case goes something like this:
Bottomy Bob has a powerful fantasy of total submission. In Bob’s fantasy he relinquishes all control to a powerful dominant, who then locks him into a cock cage, forbids him any sexual gratification, and takes him parties where he’s stripped naked and used to orally service all the stern and haughty guests. Hot stuff!
So eventually Bob works up the courage to actually find that powerful dominant, and when they ask him what he wants he says: “To surrender all control to you!” It’s exactly like in his fantasy!
Until they respond with “Great! I want to tie you up and beat your cute ass cherry red, then fuck you senseless!” Now there’s no cock cage, there’s no sexual denial, there’s no objectification and public humiliation: none of the real meat of Bob’s fantasy is fulfilled. Because he didn’t ask for it. Plus he’s gotten himself signed up for a bunch of stuff that he might have no interest in or outright hate.
The sensible thing for Bob to do here would be to back up and say “Oh hey, actually there’s some specific stuff I’m into and would you be down for that instead?” But sometimes that isn’t what happens.
- Some people have been mislead to believe that bottoming necessarily involves submitting. That if you want to get spanked, the way you have to do it is to give someone control over you and then cross your fingers and hope they decide to spank you.
- Some people are ashamed of their kinky desires and use “I only want to serve you” as a way to avoid having to admit what they want while, again, crossing their fingers and hoping that someone does it to them.
- Some people believe that what they want is submission, but their fantasy dominant always does everything right—where “right” is defined as “exactly as they themselves think it should be done”—and they don’t actually enjoy accepting desires and decisions that vary from their own.
If Bob’s suffering from one of these dilemmas, maybe he goes ahead with the spanking and the fucking, hoping that his partner will eventually get around to the really sexy stuff. From the outside, this sounds silly: how on Earth would his partner know how to give Bob what he wanted? But don’t overestimate power of libido and denial. If there’s something that I think is the hottest goddamn thing in the world, it’s easy for me to believe that it’s objectively and obviously the hot thing to do and that my partner is bound to catch on eventually. That’s how you get people silently suffering through submission that isn’t really what they want, while clinging to hope that any day now what they really want is gonna magically happen to them.
The step from there to topping from the bottom is short and nearly inevitable. Desire always finds a way out. The person with the unacknowledged fantasy starts finding ways to subtly (they think) prod their partner in the direction of fulfilling that fantasy. The person who thinks they want to submit but isn’t actually letting go of their own judgments starts finding passive aggressive ways to criticize their partner’s choices, undermine their decisions, and “correct” their way of doing things.
Eventually Bob starts safewording out of spankings at the first tap, because he never really wanted them in the first place. And he starts dropping sideways hints about chastity and humiliation and expecting his partner to put the pieces together. And when they don’t take that bait, he starts criticizing them for being a shitty fake dominant who’s doing it all wrong. That’s topping from the bottom.
Topping from the bottom isn’t when someone negotiates exactly what safewords they want to use and how they want to use them. That’s just good negotiation. It’s not even when someone speaks up in the middle of a scene to say that they need something to be different. That’s also good negotiation, combined with a good understanding of the ongoing nature of consent.
Topping from the bottom is when someone negotiates to serve your every whim, but then keeps up a stream of criticism, complaints and “helpful” suggestions that make it pretty clear that serving your preferences is not their real agenda.
Toppy types: It’s valuable to learn to recognize this pattern. It’s different from resistance—where your partner wants you to conquer them and then they’re happy. It’s a pattern of attempts to take control that don’t respond well to being met with firmer dominance. And the way forward is to back off the dominant energy and work on figuring out what your partner really wants.
It’s super valuable to learn to not assume that everyone who wants to bottom wants to submit. If someone negotiates for you to paddle them, and you don’t discuss D/s, then you shouldn’t be surprised or offended if they start telling you exactly how they want the paddling to go. If it’s important to you that you be in the driver’s seat, it’s your job to make that clear.
Bottomy types: It’s valuable to understand that submission (following someone else’s lead and doing what they tell you) is only one specific subset of all the lovely kinky bottomy things that you can negotiate for, and that you don’t have to agree any more of it than you really, truly want to. If you want to get tied up exactly the way you want, for exactly as long as you want, and there’s a specific sequence of dirty phrases that you want whispered in your ear while you’re there—you can negotiate for that and someone will be jazzed to do it with you.
If you want to surrender control of some details and not other details, you can negotiate for that.
If you want to submit in general but there are a few things that you need to have or need to not have, you can negotiate for that.
If you’re already submitting and you realize that something isn’t working for you, you can respectfully speak up and let your partner know that.
But understand that trying to get things without admitting you want them doesn’t work, and that telling someone you want to surrender control when what you really want is for them to follow your script is both inconsiderate and corrosive. This can be tough to recognize if all we’ve known is fantasy, because a fantasy dominant always follows the same script we do—so how can we know whether real-world giving up control will feel great or not? It’s okay to need to get some experience and figure out where your boundaries really belong. But do work on figuring it out.
When you’ve agreed to let someone else drive, notice if you keep reaching for the wheel. Try and understand why that’s happening and address it in a direct, loving, respectful way rather than continuing to say “I live to serve” while waging a covert war to take control of the dynamic.