ASK THE THERAPIST
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin
Q: I am a Top. I have always been a Top. I have never wanted to bottom, and I cannot imagine that I ever will want to bottom. But the longer I hang around "BDSM" people and the more I hear about "safewords" the more confused I get. Or maybe it's all of you in this "safe, sane, and consensual" community who are confused. When I meet a bottom, whether that's at a party, a class, a meeting, on-line, or anywhere else, I expect her to be obedient to my commands, respectful of my person, and attentive to my wishes, and I expect her to accept my Domination gratefully and with grace. I do not expect her to complain if she doesn't happen to like this whip or that paddle, or to whine if she prefers not to do what I say, or to object when I decide to make use of her in some way that isn't on her agenda. If she can fluff her hair and deny me just because she doesn't like what I say -- whether she says Red Light, or the clearer No, I Don't Want To, or the much more honest Fuck Off -- as bottoms around here seem to think they can do, then who is really the Top? Me or the supposed bottom who does just what she wants to do and no more?
A: You're asking one of the questions that has bounced around longest since the SM communities got organized. I think that once upon a -- and before my -- time, some people played the way you seem to expect them to, all power ostensibly inhering in the Top. But Guy Baldwin, writing about The Old Guard in Drummer some years ago (the essay reprinted in his book, Ties that Bind), reports that even in the good old days an experienced and knowledgeable bottom "outranked" an inexperienced or careless Top. From the other direction, I've regularly heard people outside the community -- some of whom are very familiar human sexuality in general but are not, themselves, players -- opine with great conviction that the bottom really holds the power because, as you observe, at least in these communities the bottom can always call a safeword. I think, as you might infer from the fact that I've invoked Guy Baldwin's piece, that both of the purist positions are based in misconceptions of how erotic power usually works, and I also think it was partly in an attempt to correct those misconceptions that the "safe, sane, consensual" notion was born.
We live in a society that even now works -- and especially up until the past 20 years or so has worked -- on a male-dominant heterosexual model: the man was supposed to be the Top in a man-woman couple, and was supposed to hold all the significant power. The woman was supposed to be the bottom, and was supposed to love, honor, and -- perhaps most especially -- obey.
The state of the world increasingly suggests that this model has not worked very well, but wholly apart from rapacious geopolitics and destruction of the biosphere, the model turns out to be an inaccurate representation of what really happens in couples -- even in vanilla, male-Top, heterosexual couples. Without tyrannical powers no one person can really run all significant aspects of someone else's life, even when both people desire such an end: it's rare enough that someone can actually run his (or her) own life passably well. Cartoons, television, and other popular media have demonstrated something closer to the truth through the unsubtle facade of parody. While hubby did who-knew-what in the workaday world, one powerless little lady after another very obviously kept the house in order, put food on the table, raised the children, and so forth. And then, whether it was Jiggs's Maggie or Dagwood's Blondie or June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson or I Love Lucy Ricardo or the same woman in more recent incarnations, she got, somewhat less obviously, most of what else she wanted by indirection, subterfuge, deceit, and manipulation. In short -- Burns and Allen got famous by parodying this very parody, allowing George to wink at its reality over his cigar monologues -- she topped from the bottom, which is generally the truth I have seen in couples of all orientations who try to live up to an all-and-nothing fantasy.
When I came out into SM I encountered this debate from all sides. I believed that Tops must hold the power, and I heard that bottoms did. As a switch I wanted to hold the power when I Topped, and I wanted to give it away when I bottomed. Finally, I recognized that the bow to safety, sanity, and consent -- in SM as in other aspects of life -- acknowledges that the relationship itself holds the power, within whose organic evolution the people who are related only dance. Sometimes the Top who leads holds the power, sometimes the bottom who follows, usually it is shared more or less equally, and on occasion no one seems to hold it at all, which doesn't mean it isn't there but only that no one's got hold of it properly yet.
I also discovered that Tops have safewords too, and that it is in their interests, as well as in the interests of their bottoms and their scenes, that they learn to use them responsibly.
Periodically I hear from SM couples who are new to the community or who have been playing outside the community; or from other SM couples who have not read the many players' books that have been published in the past decade-plus, nor attended the better SM classes offered at QSM, the House of Differences, and other venues. Probably the single most common problem I hear about from them is closely related to yours. In that usual scenario the couple complains that their communications have somehow broken down. The Top doesn't feel the bottom is obeying him, and the bottom doesn't feel she can do anything right to please the Top. Often such a couple has a written contract of their negotiations, and if I ask to see it the Top can usually produce it with a certain amount of pride because he has written it. But when I look at the contract, however long and particular it may be, its meaning can almost always be reduced to about two statements: I the Top can do what I want, and you the bottom can also do what I want.
Typically the couple wants to know why their communications have broken down, and typically I opine that the problem is, rather, that in a deep sense communications were never established. Communication of the order such a contract presupposes must be frank and aim to be complete on an ongoing basis, which means it is open for renegotiation as necessary. It cannot stand well or for long on false premises -- unless it is fulfilled falsely or covertly -- as well.
The question you really want to ask may not be Who is the Top? because the answer to that one's easy: the Top is the person the players agreed would Top. Instead the question of importance to you may really be Who holds the power? And the answer to that question is always far more specific to the relationship about which it's asked than it is to the roles the people in the relationship play.
William A. Henkin, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Board Certified Sex Therapist, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Sexology, is co-author, with Sybil Holiday, of Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely. He conducts his private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco.
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.