Topping from the bottom

Recently I’ve read some interesting posts about how topping from the bottom isn’t necessarily a bad thing and how the idea that it is can go horribly wrong. Those posts reminded me of another post I read ages ago about how the phrase “topping from the bottom” doesn’t really mean anything.

So that we’re all on the same page, “topping from the bottom” can be used to mean anything from “my submissive deliberately breaks rules to manipulate me into punishing him” to “my submissive asked me to hit him somewhere else because that spot was getting sore”. It generally implies that the bottom is somehow overstepping his bounds and trying to make the top behave a certain way.

I’ve been pretty attached to that term because I thought (wrongly, as it turns out), that people were generally using it in the “submissive trying to manipulate the dominant” sense, not the “how dare a lowly submissive request anything” sense. In the manipulative or pushy sense, it describes a problem I’ve run into myself and that I think a lot of straight dominant women have run into thanks to the way male entitlement can screw up otherwise fun power dynamics.

However, as important as I believe it is to talk about how power dynamics outside of your relationships affect the power dynamics inside of your relationships, I don’t think “topping from the bottom” is the way to do that. Just like the terms “submissive” or “slave” are so subjective that it’s useless to say you’re looking for a “submissive” without defining what exactly you man, saying someone is “topping from the bottom” hardly tells me anything about what’s actually going wrong.

Even in the most narrowly defined “we have a punishment dynamic and my sub deliberately misbehaves so I’ll feel obligated to punish him” sense of topping from the bottom, there are still so many different things that could actually be wrong. Maybe the sub thought that misbehaving a little was a playful way to ask for a scene and didn’t know the top disliked it. Maybe the sub felt neglected and thought that misbehaving was the only way to get their top’s attention. Maybe the sub was afraid that their top would be bored by perfect obedience and leave them. Like Ferns says in her post, labeling a problem “topping from the bottom” doesn’t help you solve it. To do that, you need to talk about why you’re unhappy with a specific behavior and figure out why the sub is doing it.

Aside from the issue of whatever behavior you call “topping from the bottom” being a symptom, not a root cause, it’s become so broadly defined that it’s kind of useless. The idea that it’s topping from the bottom for a submissive to make a request is just ridiculous. I want to know what my submissive wants! Maybe I’ll give it to him and maybe I won’t, but I can’t make that decision if he withholds information because he’s afraid that I’ll get mad and say he’s topping from the bottom.

By calling anything and everything “topping from the bottom”, we’re setting submissives up to be unhappy and unfulfilled, if not outright harmed. Dominant types are not mind-readers, we can’t fulfill our submissives’ needs unless they tell us what those needs are. Even in the best case scenario, telling submissive people that they can’t express preferences or make requests means that their doms have to flail around hoping they’ll stumble over what their submissives need to be happy. In the worst case, it sets submissive people up to tolerate abuse because they’re afraid that standing up for their own needs in any way means they’re bad subs.

As much as I’d like the phrase “topping from the bottom” to mean something, it just doesn’t. It’s time to let it die.

10 thoughts on “Topping from the bottom

  1. A very interesting post as usual, but I have the feeling you are mixing two different things into one.
    Namely: to superficially label a problem or a request with the ‘topping from the bottom’ one-size-fits-all stamp is silly. But dropping the term itself sounds sillier still. Consciously manipulative “subs” are a thing and “doms” (especially the inexperienced ones) should better be aware of the phenomenon, as it may easily lead to so many serious issues – so using words for what they mean sounds just reasonable.

    • Consciously manipulative subs are absolutely a thing, and a thing that should be talked about. I just think that “consciously manipulative” does a much better job of describing the problem than “topping from the bottom.” Once upon a time that phrase may have actually meant something, but I think it’s been stretched so far out of shape that it’s just not useful anymore.

      • But why give in to this “stretching”? Whenever language is involved, savy people have been simply correcting those who misused words by pointing out their mistakes, and everything kept working fine – like, for thousands of years.
        BDSM is not an alien or particularly special twilight zone where reason ceases to apply… If we had to change our vocabulary every time a misguided ignorant shouted his new definitions loud enough, communication would go down the drain.

        • There is also no Official Board of BDSM that hangs around waiting to educate and correct people on the “proper” use of terminology. And if there was such a thing, they would be a laughingstock.

          Language is fluid, and capable of incredible nuance. Is there a difference between “happy” and “joyous”? We rarely, if ever, describe a happy person as “gay.” But why stop using the word “gay” to mean “happy?” Well, because common usage has a much different meaning that made it difficult to easily convey precise meaning – which is the purpose of language. There are all sorts of linguistic devices that are no longer used because they are simply not worth the further explanations that they require.

          From my perspective, the problem ISN’T that a sub could be manipulative – obviously, any human being can be manipulative. However, a dom who considers legitimate feedback from a sub to be “topping from the bottom” – and thus subject to being ignored – can cause a BDSM scene to become abusive and downright dangerous. Whether that dom does this out of innocence (they are new and have been warned against “topping from the bottom”) or because they are callous (“no sub is going to tell me how to run this scene!) really doesn’t matter.

  2. I absolutely love this post of yours. The very first thing I stumbled upon in sites like Fetlife is D types saying that the submissive was topping from the bottom because of a preference. I am not a mindless troll and I don’t wish to be with anyone who wants to be one either. This means if I have to be scared to express how I feel then we aren’t compatible whether you want to call it topping or whatever. I agree with you and Ferns that topping from the bottom really is a cop out to finding out what really is going on in the relationship instead. If a submissive is testing authority, there most likely is a reason.
    In the reverse I would also say this goes for D types with submissive saying D types aren’t be Dominant enough. If a Dominant is consistently not expressing control than something is wrong in the relationship that needs to be addressed.


    • The very first thing I stumbled upon in sites like Fetlife is D types saying that the submissive was topping from the bottom because of a preference.

      Ugh. As time goes by I just get more and more disgusted by the idea that a “good” sub has no wants, needs, preferences, or desires beyond pleasing their dom. If you’re so insecure that you can’t deal with a sub so much as expressing a preference, get a real doll and be done with it.

      In the reverse I would also say this goes for D types with submissive saying D types aren’t be Dominant enough. If a Dominant is consistently not expressing control than something is wrong in the relationship that needs to be addressed.

      Good point. I’m kind of tentative as a dom because I’m really worried about accidentally harming people. If someone told me to stop bottoming from the top, that would not only completely fail to fix the problem (most likely trust issues in my case), but would probably make it worse (if I wasn’t nervous about being a good dom before, I sure would be after someone told me that).

  3. ” I want to know what my submissive wants! Maybe I’ll give it to him and maybe I won’t”

    The mindful domme in a nutshell.

    Maybe the submissive version of this is:

    “I want to discover what my domme wants so that I can do my best to give it to her.”

  4. I knew I was never using the term ‘topping from the bottom’ again when I read a novel where a sub was begging and the dom threatened to stop the scene if she kept trying to ‘top from the bottom’. Thank you for stating so clearly why this term has become so useless.

  5. I’m probably going to get flamed for this, but…
    I’m a (very vanilla, shh, I’m young) sub. I consciously manipulate, top from the bottom, whatever you want to say.
    But yeah.
    My partner says something like “Go do your studies” [I’m a student] I almost always respond with “make me” or I’ll randomly say to him “I’ve been a bad girl, maybe I need to be punished…? ;)” etc and tbh that’s just naturally how our relationship works.. if I weren’t that edgy kind of flirty (snarky, backchatty, whatever) then it just wouldn’t really work out on a personal level, let alone d/s-y level.
    So, regardless of what the internet tells me (that I’m a bad girl, and not… in the good way, that I’m topping from the bottom)… I’m going to keep doing it because there’s no one-dynamic-fits-all kinda thing.
    Peace out.

    • Sorry it took me so long to get your comment out of the spam filter – Akismet’s usually so good at sorting spam from real comments that I’ve gotten lazy about checking up on it.

      Anyway, I think if you and your partner are having fun, you should keep doing what you’re doing. I personally like it when my bottom mouths off a bit in scene – for me it’s a playful way for them to encourage me to go harder.

      Not that I can possibly know everything about your relationship from one comment, but it sounds like you’re playfully inviting your partner to ‘punish’ you, not deliberately breaking a rule that’s important to him to force him to punish you. Maybe a different partner would see your flirting as ‘topping from the bottom’, but maybe you’d be bored to tears by someone who expected silent obedience with no backtalk, so no one can really say one of you is Doing It Wrong.

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