Learning how to top: From curious to competent

Today my blog turns two! First of all I’d like to thank my readers new and old for being interested in what I have to say and sharing me with their friends! Without your support and comments I would just be here talking to myself. Hopefully what I have to say helps some of you just as blogs like Bitchy Jones’ Diary helped me. In the spirit of helping, I decided to come up with some guidelines on how to go from a curious newbie to a competent top, as this is one of the questions I often get in my email and comments, and it’s never an entirely straightforward journey. I should note that this entry was a joint effort between Edward and I. I couldn’t have done it without him.

1) Identify and become comfortable with your interest in topping.

Realize that you’re kinky. This sounds easy, but it’s often not. Both Edward and I, to some extent, didn’t realize that what we liked to do sexually was a bit odd until we were in our late teens. Once you realize this, you also need to acknowledge that what you like to do requires special consent. You can’t just assume that because someone wants to make out with you they want you to gnaw the fuck out of their neck or pull their hair even if that seems perfectly normal to you.

You’re not an abomination. Once you realize you’re not quite ‘normal’, you also have to accept that you’re also not wrong. Just because the majority of people don’t like hurting consenting others, tying them up, or bossing them around doesn’t mean that you are evil for wanting those things. For me, I think it helped that I had to come out to myself as bisexual before I came out to myself as kinky. I grew up in a very religious household, but I had come to accept that my bisexuality was not an abomination and had learned to accept a humanist ethical code. I had already had several years to get comfortable with the idea that if your actions are not harmful to yourself or others, then there’s nothing wrong with them. It didn’t take me long to recognize that consensual masochism, bottoming and submission are not harmful to those involved.

Even if you are Christian (I’m afraid I’m not familiar with other religious texts: commenters feel free to pitch in) Matthew 7:12 says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”. Even though I’m no longer Christian, I still think this is a pretty good rule. While as a top you may not be interested in bottoming, if you can accept that others truly love bottoming, then you can see that both of two people can be fulfilled by engaging in BDSM together. And as a bonus, ‘sex’ doesn’t have to be involved!

As a follow up from the Golden Rule, you need to also realize that just because someone else’s kinks are different from yours doesn’t mean that theirs are wrong while yours are right. The kinky kaleidoscope is one of the beautiful things about human sexuality. Judge not lest ye be judged!

2) Identify what about kink interests you.

I use kink as an umbrella term for both BDSM and things that fall outside of (but often overlap with) the BDSM realm like fetishes. Just to clarify for the newbies, topping tends to be the person performing an action, regardless of whether that’s tying someone up, beating them, or telling them to sit still while being tickled. The BDSM alphabet soup stands for the following:

B is for bondage. Tying people up, wrapping them in Saran wrap/cling film, putting them in a cage or chaining them to the wall with cuffs are all examples of things a bondage top might do.

D is for domination or discipline. Dominants like to give orders that are dutifully followed by a submissive or slave. This can occur from a scene-by-scene basis (which can be for just a few minutes or several hours) to a constant dynamic (which is known as 24/7). Orders can consist of anything from, “Take off my shoes!” to “Hold this ball against the wall with your nose for an hour, and if it falls you will get one cane stroke for every minute shy of the hour”. It just depends on what the dominant and submissive are both interested in. It should be noted that not all dominants like administering pain, but some do.

S is for submission. This is where the BDSM acronym gets a little ridiculous as S actually stands for both submission and sadism. I know it’s a bit strange, but just go with it. Submissives can have a myriad of individual interests, but their main kink is doing things because their top/Dom/Owner said so. Whether it is kneeling at their partner’s feet while watching tv, reorganizing their dom’s library, or fucking the shit out of their dom, they enjoy being bossed around by the person of their choice. Note that submissives don’t necessarily like doing anything their top/Dom/Owner tells them to, and you should never assume that just because you’re a top a sub will do whatever you say. Furthermore, not every sub wants to be your sub, and you should never assume otherwise. Doing so would make you a douche dom.

S is also for sadism. If you are a sadist, then you enjoy other people’s pain. In the BDSM community, this often takes the form of impact play: some form of hittie thing (hand, flogger, cane, bullwhip) is used to inflict pain on a bottom or submissive. The motto safe, sane, and consensual is often used as an indicator of what’s ok when it comes to sadism (and topping generally). While sadists may enjoy the idea of people’s pain regardless of consent, it’s only ok to act on hurting people with their consent. Fantasies are one thing, but when it comes down to reality, if they didn’t say you could do that, don’t do it.

M is for masochism. A masochist enjoys pain. This doesn’t tend to be pain of the stubbing-one’s-toe variety. Masochists usually enjoy receiving pain from people they are attracted to. Masochists are not necessarily submissive. You can be a dominant masochist, a submissive masochist, or just a pure masochist with no desire for power games.

Switching. A switch is someone who likes being both top and bottom or Dom and sub (or in my case Dom and bottom). You may find that you’re just interested in one of these things, or you may be interested in trying them all out. Feel free to try a few things out before deciding what feels best for you. I should also mention that BDSM does not have to be sexual. While there often is a sexual element, some people experience BDSM as a non-sexual thing. If this is true for any of my readers, feel free to tell us more about that in the comments.

Fetishes. Overlapping with BDSM, and certainly within the realm of kinky, are fetishes. A fetish is when something non-sexual becomes a sexual stimulus. Strictly speaking, someone is only considered a fetishist if they cannot orgasm without this thing being present, but it’s often used in a more casual way to mean that the presence of said thing greatly enhances the sexual experience. Fetishists can be interested in BDSM, but don’t have to be. For example, a foot fetishist might like licking your feet because it makes him feel submissive, but he may also just love feet in the same way that many men love boobs. A good bit of boob touching, licking, etc. doesn’t make someone submissive, and similarly, liking to lick someone’s feet doesn’t necessarily make you submissive. Other common fetishes include furries (people who derive sexual pleasure from dressing up or seeing people dressed up as animals or some sort of human-animal combo), splosh (getting off on people being covered in wet or messy substances such as whipped cream, custard, mud, etc.), body piercings, hair (long, red, shaved, stubbly, you name it, someone has a fetish for it), leather, and latex. All of these fetishes can overlap with BDSM, but don’t have to, and there are many, many, many more fetishes. As above, if someone else has different kinks than you but is still playing in a safe, sane, and consensual way, be cool man, be cool.

Finding your kinks. If you have realized that you’re interested in being a D/s top, you need to figure out what kind of things you’d like to order your bottom/submissive to do. There are lots of options. Some people enjoy tease and denial (which can involve chastity), others enjoy being pampered with massages, some love dictating exactly what happens during sex, others enjoy giving pain to demonstrate power, while others revel in receiving pain in exactly the way they like. Some people (like me) enjoy all of these together (though not at the same time, that would be a little crazy). To get ideas about what you might like you can read erotica, check out some tumblrs, or just let your mind rove through all of the fun things you might like to explore. And remember, just because you don’t see what you envision in other people’s porn doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. There is no one way to be kinky.

3) Find a partner (whether for a scene or for life).

This can be tricky, particularly if you don’t live in a booming metropolis. It’s good to be open initially to trying out different roles and activities as long as they don’t just completely turn you off. Edward and I suspected that we were submissive and dominant, respectively, but we both started out playing in the opposing role because we found people we liked and wanted to get some BDSM experience even if it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. We both enjoyed our experiences and learned a lot from them, but eventually were able to live out the roles we felt drawn to initially. Now we consider ourselves switches, though I lean dominant and he leans submissive. And while I would recommend trying out different roles, I wouldn’t recommend marrying a dom if you feel like you’re a dom until you’ve at least had a chance to dominate someone (unless you’re committed to having an open marriage).

You will have to put yourself out there a little bit if you want to find kinky partners. That can mean being open with your friends about it so that they might recommend another kinky friend to you, that can mean using a vanilla dating site that has a fair number of kinky folk, you can get involved in online BDSM forums, or go to munches (casual kinky meet-ups). I lived in a small town when I first started getting interested in BDSM, so I used a vanilla dating site to find other kinky people nearby. I met Edward at my local munch.

4) Plan a scene based on your own and your partner’s interests.

Now that you’ve identified what you’re interested in and found a willing partner to try things out with you, you need to plan a scene. First find some mutual interests, and then start plotting things out. You won’t always need to plan scenes, but Edward and I both found this to be a helpful tool when we were first topping as it allows you to relax a little because you know what’s coming next and aren’t pressured to come up with things on the spot. You can also use scene planning as a time to educate yourself. Do you want to tie someone up? Then you’re going to need to learn how to do that. This is a great list of references for BDSM jargon, starting relationships, bondage tutorials, safety, techniques and activities and more. Do you want to flog your partner? Then you need to know where on their body to do that. Here is a primer on impact play, which is any kind of beating with hands, paddles, floggers, crops, whips, canes, etc. A great book to start with to get good information on safety as well as some ideas for scenes is SM101. Another great resource for all sorts of kinky things is Kink Academy. Edward recommends thinking of the end result you want (i.e. your submissive tied up and begging to fuck), think of the steps necessary to get to that point, and then learn what you need to learn to do that in a safe and confident manner. Here is a list of ideas of actual activities to do. Feel free to comment with scene ideas for kinksters new and old (though indicate if the scene is for more advanced players).

5) Enjoy your scene and scenes to come.

You need to have a safe word. This gives you both the ability to end the scene at any point if either of you find it’s just not working for you. A common system is stop lights: green for all good, yellow to indicate that things are getting a little too intense, and red to indicate that the scene needs to be stopped immediately. Some people use the number system for impact play with new partners to get an idea of their pain tolerance. After a few strokes the top might ask the bottom how painful that was on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being excruciatingly painful and 1 being not at all painful. Edward has also used a squeezing system to check in with subs without interrupting the scene. You can take their hand in yours and they can squeeze once for good, twice for bad. If your bottom/sub is gagged, then you will need to give them a non-verbal way of indicating a scene should stop. For example, they can hold onto a ball that can be dropped if it’s all getting to be too much. Even when you have safewords, you still need to be observant. A bottom/slave may try not to use their safeword when perhaps they should, or they may enter sub space and become unable to safeword. Take things slowly when you’re getting to know a new partner. It’s better to stop a scene or slow it down a bit earlier than you both might like than to take things too far, and reach a point where that bottom/sub never wants to play with you again.

Don’t take your partner’s limits as your to-do list. If a new partner has told you that they are terribly afraid of clowns, you should not take this to mean that you should break out the clowns to really up the fear factor. In a long term D/s relationship a subs fears may be something that can eventually be explored (with their consent), but this is not where you should go for your first scenes. When they tell you what they like, listen to them and do some of that. If there’s some things that you love and they don’t mind, you can do that as well, but respect their limits.

Adopt an alter ego if that helps you. When it comes to actually carrying out the scene, things will often feel a bit unnatural at first. This is perfectly normal. While I’ve made a point of saying that women don’t need to wear corsets and heels in order to be dominant, if wearing a sexy outfit makes you feel powerful, then it may be helpful to use that at least for the first few times. However, if you feel most powerful in fluffy bunny slippers, then you should go with that. At first you might not feel like a very dominant person. Initially you might want to imagine someone whose power you admire and step into their shoes. This is the basic logic behind role playing – you can tap into an alter ego that allows you to do things you might otherwise find difficult. Maybe you want to become a doctor, a librarian, a professor, or a burglar. Anything that feels sexy and powerful to you could help you get into your top groove. If you don’t need this role playing to tie people up, give commands, or hurt them, then don’t worry about it, just be you. However, if you’re not sure you could do it on your own, but feel like you could with a little help from your alter ego, then go for it.

I first started getting interested in BDSM after I acted as a dominatrix in a play. I wore the traditional get-up of corset, high heels, make-up, and a flogger. When I did my first scene as a top I took these trappings with me, and they helped me assume the persona that I wanted. As I did more scenes I found I didn’t need those things in order to be dominant, but I do think they helped when I was nervous and unsure. An analogy for this is learning to play the guitar: some people can automatically start writing their own songs, but for most you learn other people’s songs first until you’re comfortable with the skill set, and then you can go on to express yourself. Similarly, tapping into a person or archetype’s power can help you as you learn new skills, and then once you have the basics down, you can start to make things up as you go along.

Use a blindfold. Another tool to use when you’re a bit nervous and unsure is a blindfold. I’ve been topping for six years now, but I still feel a little silly when I’m trying out a new bondage tie. What to do? Blindfold my slave! If they can’t see you as you retie a knot for the third time, you may feel a little more relaxed.

The end result looks pretty, but I did not get this right the first time around!

The end result looks pretty, but I did not get this right the first time around!

Don’t feel like you have to talk the whole time. Trying to figure out what to say during a scene can be difficult when you’re getting your bearings as a top. Feel free to give your bottom/sub clear instructions, but leave it at that. If your partner has expressed to you that they really like it when you talk to them, then follow Dan Savage’s basic dirty talk advice: say what you just did, say what you’re doing, and say what you’re going to do. If you get inspired along the way, then go with that, but don’t feel pressured to call someone a dirty little whore if that’s not what either of you wants. Edward particularly likes it when I tell him what I’m going to do to him because it builds anticipation. For example, “I’m tying you up now because I’m going to whip you later, and I don’t want you moving around too much when you’re in pain”. This adds a psychological element to play: sometimes fear of something can be even more intense than the actual event itself. However, when you’re just starting out, stick to basic instructions until you feel comfortable saying more.

If you enjoy a scene, you can always repeat it. Don’t feel like you have to craft a completely new scene each time you play with someone. If you really enjoyed a scene, and it went well, you can always repeat it. If you’re in a D/s relationship, you can even do it every day if that makes you both happy. Eventually it might even become a ritual, which can be a daily reminder of your D/s dynamic.

The scene won’t always go perfectly. Try to be flexible. Maybe you were planning on keeping your sub in a really difficult bondage position and flogging them until they had nice welts, but that position just isn’t working for them and their pain threshold is low that day. These things happen. If you deal with this well by changing positions or dialing down on the pain, you’ll be able to try again another day or find an equally sexy position that allows them to be more in the moment.

If you’re switching with a long-term partner for the first time, you need to treat them like a new partner. Edward and I switched for a month at one point in our relationship, and while some things went well, others didn’t because we both felt like we already knew each other, and thus did not need to communicate quite as much as we would usually do with a new partner. We forgot about the importance of debriefing, which I will cover next.

6) Aftercare and debriefing

Aftercare. After you’ve finished a scene, it’s important to give your bottom/sub some sugar either literally or metaphorically. If you’re casual play partners (particularly non-sexual ones) you may just want to fix them some hot chocolate and wrap them up in a blanket, but if you are sexual partners, then cuddling is usually a good idea. Check in and make sure they are all right. Bottoms and subs can experience what is called sub drop. A scene can often be exhausting, and create adrenalin and endorphins, so afterwords bottoms often experience a crash. Snuggles and sugar often act as an antidote. Tops can also experience top drop, which is a similar crash after a high, but is more from the psychological experience than the physical. These drops can occur anywhere from minutes to a day or two later, so just treat yourself and your partner nicely and know that if you’re a little sad after scenes, that’s perfectly normal.

Debriefing. Debriefing is particularly important with a new partner, but can be used with a long-term partner as well. After a scene it’s good to discuss what went well and what did not for both of you. If something didn’t work, it’s important to figure out why. When I was a submissive in my first D/s relationship one scene didn’t go well at all: I was having trouble relaxing or taking much pain. My dom stopped the scene and we had a chat and realized that I was mad at him because he said he’d arrive at 8 and didn’t get there until 10, and that was just completely keeping me from enjoying the scene. It wasn’t that the pain was too much or I didn’t like being wrapped in chains, I just wasn’t happy with him and needed to discuss that before being able to relax and let go. Similarly, it may be that a bottom can take lots of pain, but not when they are in a certain position. Finding out what specifically did not work will help you figure out what does work. Asking your partner what they would like to do again is also great because it allows you to create an experience that’s thoroughly pleasurable for both of you.

7) Continue exploring and developing new skills

Each partner is a new challenge. Don’t assume that what worked for you and your last partner will work with a new partner. Conversely, a new partner may have things they like to do that were off-limits for another partner. If you are switching, don’t assume that what works for you as a bottom/sub will work for your partner as a bottom/sub. Always communicate about interests, limits, and triggers before jumping in.

Approach new skills with humility. Just because you’re awesome at flogging people now doesn’t mean you can pick up a bull whip and use it without practicing first on something that isn’t your partner. I’ve been using paddles, floggers, canes, crops, and a dragon tail for awhile now, but when I got my mini bullwhip for Christmas, I knew that this wasn’t something that I could just start using on Edward right out of the box. Some skills need to be practiced alone before playing with others, and more basic skills should be mastered before moving on to more advanced skills. In the bondage world, for example, it’s best not to attempt suspension bondage before getting comfortable with safely tying someone up on the ground. When it comes to impact play, beginners can try leather straps, floggers, and crops with some basic information about where to hit, where not to hit, and cautions about wrap-around (when using a flogger, strap, cane, or any hitty thing with some length you need to try to avoid letting it wrap around the body, which can create deeper welts than the top was intending). When practicing these skills on a person, it’s best to do it on an experienced sub who will tell you when you’re hitting them in a bad location or when wrap-around is occurring. Similarly, some basic ties can be practiced on another individual right away, so long as the top is aware that they need to avoid cutting off the blood supply by leaving a finger’s width of wiggle room, and they have some bondage scissors so they can cut the bottom out of the ropes in case of an emergency (these scissors are used to ensure that in cutting your bottom out of bondage you don’t cut them too). Below is a table of activities appropriate for different skill levels and trust levels.

This is meant as a general guideline only and all of these activities require some degree of education with regards to safety risks. If you perform any of these actions you are agreeing to take full responsibility for them.

This is meant as a general guideline only and all of these activities require some degree of education with regards to safety risks. If you perform any of these actions you are agreeing to take full responsibility for them.

Decide how frequently you want to be dominant. How much you want to become dominant in your day-to-day life if you have a long-term partner is up to the two of you. This is a good guide to different levels of power dynamics. You may find that you like having this separate identity that you can step into and out of whenever you like. Conversely, you may find yourself wanting to become more assertive, decisive, and dominant outside of the bedroom as well. In my case, it was the latter. I grew up in a pretty traditional household with my father as the head of the family. I was socialized to always be nice and compliant. I was still sometimes bossy throughout school, and took the lead in group settings pretty naturally, but I wanted to use BDSM not only to explore my kinks, but also to work on becoming a stronger woman. A recent TED talk I watched suggests this strategy might work! This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of assertive, decisive subs out there (or doms who don’t need the practice). Some subs may be happy to sub because they have to boss people around so much in their daily lives that they want a bit of a break. For me, domming is a path to growth as well as orgasms. Others may need different things to grow, or may like BDSM to just be a bit of kinky fun.

Keep an open mind. Things that you used to find weird may start to appeal to you as you come to understand them more. Be open to that, and allow yourself to change and evolve. One of the great things about kink is that it turns sex into a never-ending journey of discovery both of the self and of you partner. Enjoy the ride!

Posted on January 9, 2013, in Advice, Bondage, D/s Relationships and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Couldn’t be more timely for me. That chart, especially… I’m so glad for Rule 34.

  2. Holy wowsers, woman. I’m spreading this one far and wide. Don’t be surprised if you see a rash of traffic for this, and if it gets a lot of love with a long tail. What a gift! Thank you!!!

  3. Very in depth and very relatable. Most things like this I’ve read are very impersonal and almost seem like they’ve been written by someone not into the lifestyle. This one is very different and I thank you for posting it. I’m saving a link to this. I already know I’ll be back again to read this over a few times, just to make sure I get it all, and hopefully understand it all.

  4. Swanky Adult Store

    Reblogged this on The Swanky Little Adult Store.

  5. What an excellent text. I especially like the realistic view on being part of a sexual minority and the special consent it necessitates, your emphasis on identifying one’s specific personal interests, and your practical, realistic approach to scening. Hats off to you both for writing this.

    Glad you like the resources list (and the fiction links). I value plurality of sources, so I looked around for various information sources when I was starting out.

    I like the impact play intro, will include it in the next update.

    Also, beautiful photo of your beloved Edward.

  6. A few additional thoughts.

    Space is limited, and in an intro one can never go into all the ramifications.

    One thing that might perhaps be clarified:
    ‘If you are a sadist, then you enjoy other people’s pain.’
    When starting out, reading it like this may have caused me to think: Well, no. Usually I don’t. Just sometimes… Am I not a sadist then? I’d therefore perhaps hedge it around with a bit more qualification.
    ‘If you are a sadist, then you have the ability to enjoy other people’s pain, especially if those people and the circumstances are attractive to you.’

    In the Fetishes section, as a side effect, it may help in the myth-busting department to include an explicit example of a woman who is into X – because people sometimes erroneously assume that women can’t have fetishes.

    Scening, one additional suggestion, especially for people who are not doing a 24/7 DS dynamic: Choose a sign or ritual between yourselves to signify when a scene begins, and when it ends. For example, our own ritual is that at the beginning of our scene, I give my partner my hand to kiss, and at the end again.

    My own alternative to the alter ego suggestion: I never played an alter ego. Doesn’t work for me personally, as I want to be obeyed as me, undisguised, or not at all. My key to making me feel powerful has been to ask my partner, during negotiations, if he could use his imagination during scenes. I can derive my own ‘feeling powerful’ directly from how my partner interacts with me. I explained it to him, and asked him to oblige with the ‘you have power over me’ interaction, to tip the scales from his side. Works for us. Nothing makes me feel more powerful than being instantly obeyed.
    Therefore, my advice for someone whose dominant is starting out (if that person, on that occasion, is into feeling powerful, rather than into playing overcoming resistance): Treat polite requests, tentative inquiries, suggestions, quietly spoken directions as if they were orders issued from someone who has power of life and death over you. See what happens. 🙂

    • Sorry for the delay in replying, but I agree with you on all points.

      Just as I pointed out that masochists don’t generally enjoy stubbing their toes, I should have noted that sadists don’t enjoy causing all pain and any pain – it tends to be with specific people, in particular situations, and certain kinds of pain. If you feel bad when you accidentally step on a strangers’ foot with a high heel, for example, that doesn’t mean you’re not a sadist.

      Women can indeed have fetishes. Any of my female readers have a fetish they’d like to share? I heard on Dan Savage once of a woman who developed a fetish for large or obscure words. She used to have trouble getting to sleep, so would read the dictionary and/or masturbate, and the two kind of fused together in her mind. So now hearing a partner use large or obscure words really arouses her and enhances her sexual experiences.

      That’s a great suggestion about having a scene beginning and ending ritual. I have more experience with either having casual scenes at play parties or a 24/7 dynamic, so I might have forgotten to cover some of the ways to negotiate that middle ground! Thanks for your input. I also like your note about having your partner obey you even for tentative inquiries, suggestions, and lightly spoken directions. Even in a 24/7 dynamic (or perhaps especially as it’d be exhausting to be fighting for power all of the time), I find that very helpful on my sub’s side.

      That could also be helpful for women whose boyfriends want them to try topping and they don’t know where to start. During a time designated by some symbol (e.g. placing a dog collar around his neck) he could follow her directions even when they are tentative or suggested rather than direct. That could give her more confidence and enjoyment with the process.

  7. Loved this! Great work *runs off to tweet it*.


  8. Great article! Thanks for sharing it … and giving permission for FindaMunch.com to include it in our “Tips for Newcomers”!

  9. these are some nice tips for beginners and ones that are already out there getting things done. thanks a bunch for the post. much appreciated.!

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