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March 1996

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I'm a novice top, but I know I really don't know how to conduct a scene or do any of the things tops are supposed to know how to do, like whipping, bondage, etc. How can I find a trainer to teach me the ropes – and if I do find such a person, am I still a top? What do trainers charge?

<A> In Mark Thompson's Leatherfolk (Alyson Publications) Thom Magister writes about coming out as a very young top with Charley, a tough, sophisticated, experienced bottom 15 years his senior. Like you, Magister didn't know anything of what he was supposed to do in his role. His bottom knew that too, and called his bluff when Magister pretended to a sophistication he did not have. But once Charley knew that Magister had what he believed it took to become Charley's Master, he arranged for Magister "to apprentice with a series of expert Masters. A bondage Master, a whip Master, a shaving Master, a cutting Master, and so on down the line of necessary skills." Then, "for more than six months I spent at least four hours every day (or night) of the week listening and learning. I was not allowed to do a solo scene with anyone, including Charley, until I had completed my training. Still, during that entire period, I had a slave. Charley was my slave but I was not yet his Master and would not be until another three months passed and I had proven myself both expert and worthy."

Magister's training, which took place in the 1950s, may seem a bit formal to people in the SM communities who are young enough not to have been brought up with Old Guard protocols, and this column in not the place I want to engage the debate about which approach to learning and participating in SM is better. But I do want to point out that we're all novices about some things at every moment in our lives; that we all have to learn what we want to know, whether the subject matter is flogging, baking, surgery, or computer programming; and that there are people in every area of human endeavor who know enough about a subject to teach it, and who enjoy doing so. It's up to each of us to find those people when we want to learn what they have to teach, and to evaluate what they have to offer. Not every person who knows how to fix a car, serve a tennis ball, or brand a slave can do the job equally well, and not every person who can do a task well can also teach someone else how to do it. I also want to mention the first two lessons Charley taught Magister: "S/M is the search for excellence in ourselves and in others," and "Be responsible." Having said that much, I can point you in a few directions.

Some topping skills you can learn more or less from books, some you had better be shown, and some you must learn in person through hands-on practice; but while you can learn top skills and top behavior, it is my personal observation (with which other people may disagree) that you cannot learn to be a Master or a Mistress: that must be innate.

For book learning, The Topping Book, by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt (Greenery Press), will stand you in good stead after you know something of what you're doing. The Bottoming Book by the same authors (Greenery Press) is nearly as useful for a serious top to read. Though arguably thin in places, The Master's Manual by Jack Rinella (Daedalus Publishing Company) offers some insights into topping behaviors in general.

Both Pat Califia, in Sensuous Magic (Richard Kasek/Masquerade Books), and Race Bannon, in Learning the Ropes (Daedalus Publishing Company), provide entertaining and realistic fictional vignettes to illustrate the practical SM techniques they describe, which you might use as models for some of your own early scenes. John Warren, in The Loving Dominant (Rhinceros/Masquerade Books), and Jay Wiseman in SM 101 (from the author), cover a lot of how-to information cogently.

The Lesbian SM Safety Manual, edited by Pat Califia (Alyson Publications), will give you insights into playing safely with women, while the forthcoming (1996) Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely (Daedalus Publishing Company), which I wrote with Sybil Holiday, will give you a good deal of background about communicating and negotiating about your play, as well as information about what not to do. And in The Sexually Dominant Woman (Greenery Press) Lady Green lays out a whole program for novice tops of any sex or gender who feel uncertain of their ground.

Checkmate/Dungeon Master (male) and Sandmutopian Guardian (all sexes and genders) continue to be good sources of technical information in magazines.

In beginning your SM topping education, classes of all sorts will be of immeasurable value. In some you can watch an expert demonstrating technique in action, in a few you can try your own hand, and in most you can ask questions of the presenter and converse with other students as you learn.

In San Francisco, classes workshops, panels, and/or presentations are offered through the Society of Janus at nearly every meeting. QSM sponsors a wide variety of SM classes and workshops on a regular basis for people of all sexes and genders. The Ring offers regular classes aimed primarily at gay and bisexual men, and the Outcasts offers programs for gay, bi, and het women who play or want to play with other women. Pat Califia, working most recently with Sarah Lashes, offers two-day "Basic Black" workshops for women of all orientations.

Several professional dominatrice offer lessons in one or more of their special arts, and while I can't attest to the SM or the teaching skills of every mistress in town, I know that Kaye Buckley, Clèo Dubois, and Sybil Holiday all teach and are all top rank at what they do. Lord is also a highly skilled professional dominant when you want to learn from a man. Since I am an agent for none of these people I cannot tell you what they charge, but you can find out in a phone call or two.

Finally, acknowledging your ignorance is an essential step if you're ever going to learn to be the highly skilled top you want to be, and it's far more likely to make you a better top than pretending you know what you're ignorant about and risking your safety and the safety of your bottoms. It will also lead you to better play partners and more satisfying play. You may not be Thom Magister, and the days of serious apprenticeship may be largely past, but if you're a top, telling the truth can only make you a better one; if you're not a top, it's better for you to find out early, before you make a mess of things.

Here are addresses and/or phone numbers for all the resources I mentioned in this column. If you can't find them at your local emporium, many of the books and magazines are available at Different Light on Castro Street, or Good Vibrations on Valencia, in San Francisco; nearly all of them, as well as many others, are available in person or by mail through QSM, address below.

Books (1996 addresses)


Organizations and Classes

Professional Trainers

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