I've been contemplating the path I've taken, in terms of BDSM, to where I find myself now. To make any sense of that, I need to rehash my meanderings through the various down-side labels that I've used for my part inside of power relationships. Now, before anyone jumps all over me, I know that my view of all of that is particular to my experience, and it may not match up with your views. I get that, and I'm really fine with it. I am trying to sort my own path out here. Not trying to be prescriptive. So, if you can, try and be patient with me. Or enter the conversation. Or just click on to the next place. It's all good.
In the BDSM bestiary, there are labels applied to roles and we are inclined to cuss and discuss the varieties of "beast" described by all the words we use. On the "down" side of the power based relational dynamic, we find (among a widely shaded pantheon of others) bottoms, submissves, and slaves. In general, those three are viewed as nesting subsets; each part of the larger set that umbrellas over it. Hence:
- All submissives are bottoms, but not all bottoms are submissive.
- All slaves are submissive, but not all submissives are slaves.
What else, one might be tempted to ask, is there to know? Pick your "level," and you are ready to "play" at this thing we call BDSM. Except, of course, it is never, ever that simple. Well, maybe it is. For some people.
We BDSM types borrowed the notion of "bottom" from the world of gay men, where the word "bottom" denotes the passive, receptive partner -- especially in anal/oral sex. Appropriated by the, not-necessarily-gay, BDSM community, the term is generally understood to mean the passive and receptive partner: the one who submits, suffers, obeys, serves. In my experience, bottoms are BDSM players who take on the receptive role for a negotiated, pre-defined, agreed to period of time (a scene or an evening, or a weekend). Some who enjoy the part of "bottom" play regularly with one or several partners who take on the role of "top." It is a complementary relational arrangement that tends to work for both partners when they can reach a balanced understanding that allows them to play congenially.
The submissive is, most often, a bottom who enjoys giving up some measure of personal autonomy to a partner who will accept the responsibility for those parts of her/his life -- the dominant. While it is common for bottoms to be passive within the context of BDSM play, the submissive's willingness to allow the dominant to control what happens may extend to a few or many parts of life. "It is not just play," or, "I'm not just submissive in the bedroom," are the claims made by many submissives. It is pretty easy, especially if one is new, young, or inexperienced, to believe that being submissive is a level up from being "just a bottom."
Slaves are those who are willing to turn over all of the control, within whatever negotiated limits may be specified at the beginning of the relationship, to become the property of a master. No rights. No property. No options. No way out. Slavery is, arguably, the most extreme form of bottoming. It is also, in some weirdly convoluted sense, the most prestigious manifestation of bottoming.
I came into the BDSM lifestyle, thinking that I might, maybe, possibly be submissive. I wasn't all that comfortable with the idea. It really didn't fit with my sense of who I'd worked very hard to be in my life, but it did seem to answer to something that I wanted in some deep, shame-filled, neglected part of my being. So, I tried to learn how to be submissive. I read a lot. I corresponded on lists, trying to learn from those who seemed to know more than I did. And I wrestled with my inner voices (and a cadre of inner demons) until I finally came to some kind of internal sense of peace over the whole business. I submitted; giving up control; giving up choices; sinking into silence; swallowing the words and the ideas behind the words; making my mind to conform itself to another's.
And I kept reading, learning, or so I thought, learning to submit; learning to be a better submissive. I steered a course that avoided the depths where it might be said that I was "topping from the bottom," and so, from day to day and week to week, I said less and less. Pushed down the thinking that might have given rise to opinions and ideas that would run counter to those of the ones to whom I'd given control. Except the thoughts were still there. The ideas never really went away. I was quiet on the surface while the chatter in my head pushed me further from the true connection that I sought.
Somewhere along the way, I came to believe that the "best" of the downside roles was that of "slave." Now, in retrospect, I question who, exactly, I thought it would be "best" for. For him? It wasn't his idea; not in the beginning, and probably never once in all the time we practiced that particular mode of D/s relating. I do not think that I was ever "slave" in his perceptions except when putting that notion out on the table might win him an argument; get me to acquiesce to whatever it was that he wanted in the moment. For me? For me the idea of belonging totally to someone meant a trade off -- I would give up all the rights given to any adult human if only...; if only doing that would give me safety and security and the assurance that I'd be wanted and treasured, cared for and protected. The child I was wanted all of that, even as I made choices from the perspective of a grown woman. He of course knew nothing of that bargain. It was all in my head. He never agreed to any of that. Never made any of those commitments or promises. That bit of negotiating never happened anywhere except in my own mind. What came about later ought to really be laid at my door. Negotiating is not a solitaire game.
Which brings me back around to the "beginning;" if it can be said that bottoming is the "beginning" of all of it. I have never spent any time bottoming. It seems to me now, that bottoming is purer if not simpler than its more laden corollaries. I do not pretend to be any sort of expert at bottoming. Just bottoming. I am new to this. I bottom when he is willing to top; and I do it for me. Just me. And I do not feel guilty or selfish about that. Surprisingly. I think, when he is choosing to top, he is doing it mostly for him. The way he wants to do it. He may be aware of what is happening on my end, but it really isn't his concern. He is involved, in the event, with getting what he wants out of it all. As am I. I used to white knuckle my way through sessions because it was all about him, and for me to SAY anything about what I liked or didn't like or wanted or didn't want -- all of that fell into the realm of "topping from the bottom." So, he topped, and got whatever he got out of it. And I suffered. Because I was trying to be a good submissive; a good slave. Now, I bottom. I play because I like to play, and if it gets too intense or there is some part of it that is not good, I say so -- because I want what I want. Too.
I still take care of him on a number of levels. I still listen to what he wants and needs. I still treat him with respect and love. He still watches what he wants to watch on television, and he seldom thinks to ask me about that. And that is OK. With him and with me. There at those bits of submission and slavery that work for us, and I don't feel the need to reject those parts of who we are. But it is just the fact that some of that was wrong for us. Unhealthy for us. Destructive for us. Better gone -- a bit of interpersonal history to be noted and recognized and left to move on along the currents of time.
Perhaps it is true in BDSM as in other facets of our lives, that none of us are all one thing or another. Most of us are conglomerations, mixtures, combos, collages that are built of the parts that work from the ideas and experiences that we encounter along the way. Spiritually, politically, physically, sexually, intellectually, personally, inter-personally, we take what works; what fits, and leave the rest behind. I've tried on the trappings of submission and slavery. For a time, I claimed those labels for myself. No more. At present, the best I will claim is to be some mixture of the subsets: slave, submissive, bottom -- sl-ub-ottom.