ASK THE THERAPIST
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin
<Q> I've heard that in SM the bottom gives a deep psychological gift of trust to the Top. Is there a parallel deep psychological gift the Top gives to the bottom?
<A> Under the best circumstances, at least in my experience, the gift of trust goes both ways. This seems to me to be why the play I've found most satisfying, like the human interaction of any kind I've found most satisfying, is based on a shared sense of responsibility, honesty, and integrity.
In SM by which I generally mean the consensual gift and receipt of intense sensation the bottom must trust the Top to maintain control of the scene: to keep the space safe from intrusions and distractions, not to increase the tempo or intensity of sensation too quickly, not to breach negotiated limits, and not to take undue advantage of her physical, emotional, or endorphined vulnerability. The Top, on the other hand, must trust the bottom to respond honestly, and to provide feedback on the basis of which he can gauge his actions.
In DS by which I generally mean the consensual gift and receipt of psychological control the bottom must trust the Top to take care of him when he relinquishes his usual defenses, and the Top must trust the bottom to serve her when she makes her needs and desires known. When the bottom trusts the Top enough to give himself to her this completely, the Top has the chance to accept his gift and then to give back an expanded gift that includes herself. Once this cycle has been established it can ideally be repeated over and over again, within a scene or from one scene to the next. This is what is meant by an "energy exchange," which, at least in my SM context, I hope will be erotic.
In some long-term DS relationships the Top also provides the formal structure, or the container, within which the Top's and the bottom's physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual connections can play themselves out. In those cases the Top sets the standards for the players' interactions, and maintains the boundaries within which they interact. It is then the bottom's responsibility to honor that container's limits and to fill the container in the terms the Top has established. This is another feature of the gift of trust, since each person must trust the other to do his or her job: the bottom must trust the Top to establish and maintain the relationship's boundaries, while the Top must trust the bottom to fill and to honor those limits.
In ordinary SM conversations we don't hear much about the responsibility of the bottom space, or the vulnerability of Top space; but as I see erotic power exchange, the deep psychological gift of trust you mention is based in the willingness of both (or all, if you play that way) parties to be fully responsible for their feelings, thoughts, and actions, and also to be fully open and vulnerable to the other person's (or people's) feelings, thoughts, and actions. This is why, even though some people prefer to Top and some prefer to bottom, the positions are equal, and equally valuable: you really can't have one without the other, and if you think you can, try topping that chair over there, or bottoming to the rug.
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