No-one is going to deny that Tops need feedback in a scene. This commonly includes the bottom communicating needs, discomfort and safety concerns. or communicating and processing their feelings in aftercare.
At the same time, a basic working definition of topping from the bottom might be: “an attempt by the bottom to steer play or the power exchange in a direction they want”.
The distinction might be clear to you, and I do think that each of us can make that distinction in our own encounters, but laying down firm boundaries between the two is difficult, and communicating to our partner where that boundary is is even more difficult.
In a scene, if a bottom were to say “I think that would feel more intense in bent over position than upright” is that feedback? In many people’s dynamic it is. Or is it an attempt to top? In many people’s dynamic it is.
IS THERE A CONSENSUAL AGREEMENT?
Drawing a boundary between feedback and topping from the bottom rests on an assumption that there is a mutual understanding of what communication we, personally, consider good or bad. Effectively, we are saying that topping from the bottom is communication that violates that agreement.
If we agree that I am in complete control of a scene, and you say “Hey, could you use the cane instead of the strap? I really want it to sting”, then naturally I will view that as an attempt to top from the bottom. But, if we agree to experiment with a roleplay interrogation scene and you say “I’d get into this a lot more if the windows were blacked out”, then I probably wouldn’t view it as feedback rather than attempt to wrestle control.
Like everything we do, the assumption that two people have a shared understanding of how that line is drawn buys into the myth that we somehow telepathically communicate with compatible partners. We don’t. I’m sure there has been many a conversation that has started with “But, in my previous experiences I’ve been allowed to…”
Although we like to think that pre-scene negotiation is going to be crystal clear, it never is because encounters are something like a call-response. They’re two people reacting to each other. I think it would be particularly hard to verbalise the amount and type of feedback you want.
Which isn’t to say that a top doesn’t know the amount and type of feedback that they want. I just think that sometimes it is something you need to adjust/correct on the fly.
ATTITUDES IN THE COMMUNITY
Unfortunately, there are Dominants who apply the label “topping from the bottom” to shut down their submissive’s attempts at feedback. It’s a douchy thing to do, and it often comes close to an attempt to violate consent.
There are certainly other Dominants in the community who actually embrace it. Not everyone thinks submissives should be “seen but not heard” and many Doms like a playful, interactive, perhaps even pushy, sub. A Dom who’s still on a learning curve might even find that it can help improve their topping skills.
CHOOSING HOW TO VIEW TOPPING FROM THE BOTTOM
Understanding that one person’s topping may be another person’s feedback makes attitude to topping from the bottom important. Rather than immediately see it as manipulation and get butt-hurt about attempts to wrestle away your control/authority, I think it’s important to realise that there’s no universal standard for good/bad feedback and to take control of what it is that you, personally, want.
It’s up to you to say “if I want suggestions on what to do, I’ll ask for them” (if that’s the approach you want to take) and adjust the communication to the way you want it.
Feature image by Felix D’eon
• Submissive Guide – 5 Ways to Recognize Topping from the Bottom
• Dominant Guide – “Topping from the Bottom”: A Phrase to Use with Care
• Clarisse Thorn – BDSM Roles, “Topping from the Bottom” and “Service Top”
• A Submissives Journey – Bottom Topping, or Topping from the Bottom in a D/s or BDSM Relationship