Guest post: Un-Clustering Kink

Today we have a guest post by Jess Mahler about a subject near and dear to my heart: how we conflate dom/top and sub/bottom and how just understanding that those are all different things that you get to mix and match however you like can make your relationships work a lot better.

Keep an eye on Jess’s website too, she has an F/m fantasy novel coming out in January šŸ™‚


I’m laying back on my bed while my sub eats me out.

I’m laying back on my bed while my sub ties me up.

If you are in kink there’s a good chance your brain just screeched to a halt.

We have a problem with how we use words in the Scene. Specifically, we have a problem with how we use four words: dominant, top, submissive, and bottom. The way we use these words has fucked up a lot of individuals introduction to and experience of kink, and has fucked up a lot of relationships as people trying to communicate their needs with these labels end up mis-communicating and everything just gets buggered.

First off, let me give you two examples of folks who have been buggered by this issue. Then we’ll talk about how to un-cluster this clusterfuck.

When I first entered kink, I knew I liked being in control. But I also liked being tied up. I liked feeling helpless. And of course, I thought I was a woman. So I assumed I was submissive. If you have experience in kink, you are probably seeing the problem already. I got in a relationship with a guy who liked tying me up, but didn’t like being in control. I kept trying to give him control, he kept trying to be in control and we both were utterly miserable.

It wasn’t until years after that relationship ended that I was able to really recognize my own preferred roles (yes, that’s plural) in kink. See, when I first started learning about kink the idea that someone could be a dominant who was into bondage and liked pain just did not exist. So I got fucked by the assumption that someone who liked being tied up and liked being hurt was, of course, a submissive.

A few days ago, someone shared in a FB group an article by someone else who got fucked by these mis-used terms. He entered the scene, knew he liked to serve and take care of people, and thought that made him a submissive. Then he went to a thing where he was acting as a service submissive, giving manicures to a bunch of femdoms and… let’s just say it didn’t go well, kay?

Like me, this guy had minimal info going into kink, and the info he had did a bad job of sorting out the different roles. The article he wrote was his attempt to uncluster this mess, but unfortunately, he seems to still be operating under a lot of assumptions and misinformation. I’m not linking to the article, partly because I don’t want to drag the guy and partly because I really don’t want anyone new to kink taking his ideas. (Look, if anyone tells you that masochists don’t safeword, GTFO, okay? Seriously, masochists safeword. Masochists safeword all the fucking time. The rest of his ideas, imo, aren’t any better.)

But what he saw was that he liked to serve people, and of course that meant he had to be submissive. And, look, being a service dom is TOTALLY a thing. It is. 100%. It’s extremely common among age play folks, but even those of us who don’t age play can be service doms. I don’t usually get into service (in either direction), but sometimes the highlight of my day is tucking my sub into bed. And I put myself in charge of shaving them because I love taking care of them that way, and I am the dom so it happens like I say.

Okay, so we have two people (three if include my ex) who got screwed because the Scene doesn’t do a good job of differentiating between top and dom, bottom and sub, or of educating folks about the different ways of being a dom, sub, top, or bottom.

So let’s take a look at those terms and maybe see if going forward we can keep more people from getting fucked.

In general, you’ll see the following definitions:

A top takes the active role in a scene

A bottom takes the passive role in the scene

A dom likes to be in control

A sub likes to be controlled.

With me so far?

So why, in the article this guy wrote, was giving a manicure considered bottoming? Like, unless I’m mistaken, if you are GIVING a manicure you are the active participant in the scene, and the person receiving the manicure is the passive one. Right?

But “logic” of the Scene is that the person giving the manicure is doing a service for the person receiving the manicure and doing a service means their a sub, and therefore the person giving the manicure is the bottom. Because that’s the way words work. Apparently. In some alternate universe I refuse to continue to inhabit.

So let’s un-cluster this scenario.

The person giving the manicure is the top bc they are the active participant. The person receiving the manicure is the bottom because they are the passive recipient, and without further information we can’t say if there even IS a dom or sub in this scenario because we don’t have anything tell us who (if anyone) is in control.

Stick to the definitions, de-conflate dom/top and bottom/sub, and you are well on your way to un-clustering the way words are used in the Scene.

But let’s take it one step further. Why was manicuring thought to be a bottom thing in the first place? Because is was serving the person receiving the manicure.

And we see this a lot in kinks. Going down on someone is seen as inherently submissive, and will be referred to as bottoming, even though the person going down is the active participant. Um…. you see the part of the definition where is says a dom likes to be in control? I will go down on my sub if I want because being in control means I get to do that.

But why is going down seen as bottoming and/or submissive? Because it’s serving the person who is on the receptive end. And if you are doing a service type action, it’s bottoming. Even though it’s active. *sigh* Are we seeing the pattern now? ARE WE?

Okay, but I like getting tied up, right? If I tell my sub to tie me up, I’m receiving a service–the service of being tied up. And yet the message I got coming into the scene was that this made me submissive bc by being tied up I was being the passive participant and that made me a sub. Because bottoming? Maybe?

Un-cluster. If I go down on my sub I am a dominant who is topping because I am in control and I am the active participant. If I have my sub go down on me, I am still the dominant but I am now the bottom, because I’m the passive participant. Mmkay?

And if I tell my sub to tie me up I am also being a dominant bottom.

So… why is it that folks brains will screech to a halt at the idea of my sub tying me up and not at the idea of my sub eating me out? Why have our brains classified the same situation (only the action my sub is doing is different) so differently?

Yes, I’m beating a dead horse. Or at least I hope I am.

Stop conflating dom and top. Stop conflating sub and bottom. When talking about scenes, default to the actual definitions and not the ingrained biases of the scene.

The person who is active is the top. The person who is passive is the bottom.

The person in control (if there is one) is the dom. The person who gives up control (if there is one) is the sub.

For our final act of the evening, we’re going to deconstruct “service top” and “topping from the bottom”

Service top:

definition 1: Someone who likes to be the active participant in the scene and provide a service to the bottom. Related: Service dom. “Yeah, I’m a service top. I haven’t done bondage before but it will make you happy, I’d love to tie you up.”

definition 2: A term used to shame doms who like to do things that don’t fit the Scene’s bias. “Can you believe she goes down on her subs? She’s nothing but a service top.”

Topping from the bottom:

definition 1: A term used for times when the bottom breaks the negotiated terms of the scene to try to dom from the bottom. Blatant conflation of terms top and dom has led to much confusion.

definition 2: A term used to shame bottoms who are not submissive. “I’d never play with him! I’m always in control of my scenes, he insists on topping from the bottom.” Again, blatant conflation of terms.

So that’s it. Mix and match freely, have fun, stay risk aware, un-cluster the Scene by un-conflating our words, and for god sakes stop shaming people for not fitting the biases the Scene tries to teach us.

3 thoughts on “Guest post: Un-Clustering Kink

  1. *cheers wildly*

    /someone else somewhere in the cluster of identities and preferences close to “dominant bottom” (though I do also top)

    Louder for the people in the back.

    I’d love to have more discussions about this with people, too, like how this works in their lives and scenes, and tips for figuring out exactly what you’re craving when you have a multiplicity of top/bottom dom/sub desires, and so on.

  2. I see this kind of weirdness once in a while in the chastity world. Yes, you’d think that wearing a device is inherently submissive, but many vanilla couples don’t see it that way – for them, it’s more of a type of sensation play.

    Even more mind twisting are the male doms who enjoy wearing a device. Again, the sensation of not being allowed to orgasm just heightens one’s arousal. I’ve even seen interesting power dynamics in which a brat sub will hold their dom’s key, and he has to torture the hiding place out of her – which, of course, is fun for the both of them.

    Great post.

  3. It makes me particularly irritated how often ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ are conflated not just with D/s roles, but with heterosexual sex roles, to the point that I’ve basically given up on the terminology. Like, many, many people in my experience refuse to distinguish between “in control/not in control,” “gives sensation/receives sensation,” “active/passive,” and “penetrates/get penetrated,” and try to make the top/bottom distinction mean *all of them at once.* And then they mysteriously insist that a (cis) man getting a blowjob is topping, a man penetrating someone is topping, and his partner in either case is the bottom, regardless of however they’ve previously defined top/bottom. But if a (cis) woman wants to receive sensation (except maaaaybe oral sex), then suddenly they will assume that receiving sensation, being passive, and not being in control are exactly the same thing and all imply each other. Just, ugh.

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