View From The Top: I Started As A Bottom

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I started as a bottom.

When I was in high school and starting to discover sex, and kinky sex, and the internet (it was 1993) and the alt.sex newsgroups with 3.3 million users, it didn’t take me long to also discover that boys on those kinds of platforms were very, very eager to talk about sex. With me (or anyone, really). And, because boys have something to penetrate with and I had something to penetrate, I, like the vast majority of us, fell into the assumption that that meant I had to be the bottom. The “submissive.”

It would take me years to uncouple those identity alignment assumptions, and to figure out that my own path was one of topping, dominance and mastery.

I spent six years with my high school boyfriend. I wanted to do everything with him. He was really into the idea that I was into women, so that was a bonus for me. It was just a hot fantasy we would talk about during sex, that occasional whisper: Wouldn’t you like it if another woman was here, what if you were licking her pussy, what if she was licking yours. And that, for a little while, was enough.

Until, you know, it wasn’t.

But meanwhile, we tried everything we could think of — blindfolds, silk scarves as restraints, anal sex, sensation play, wax, ice. We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves, and something was missing, but I knew I liked rough sex. I could never quite place why it was that I still wanted… more. Something else.

Meanwhile, I was still writing online, sharing my life through the growing communities of LiveJournal and Diaryland. I made many bisexual feminist friends, other young women also sharing their lives, many of them writing about trying to figure out how to get out of their relationship with their boyfriend so they could go be gay. That was my story, too. We talked every day, sharing our action plans and our fantasies about women.

I left him because I was gay, or at least that was the reason I gave. Though I’ve known since middle school that I was into women, it wasn’t until I left him when I was about 19 that I came out as queer and started focusing on dating women. I’d taken a break from school between high school and college to figure out what life outside of Alaska was like, and shortly after the break up I went back to school and started discovering academic women’s studies, feminist texts and queer theory.

In college, rooted in a lesbian feminism philosophy that I was devouring, I was definitely into the egalitarianism of I-do-you-you-do-me sex. We’d take turns, neither above nor below each other, and each of us would get something we wanted.

Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to work.

But I still craved kinky sex. I still craved the spankings and the sex toys that my ex and I had experimented with. I fell in love with my best friend (as one does) in college, and because she attended sacred sexuality weekend retreats with the Body Electric School, I started to explore that, too, and found some of my most cherished teachers.

That’s about when things got complicated, however, and evolved so that I was much more interested in topping. I’ll never forget a workshop I attended — titled “Power and Surrender” — where I learned how to tie a meditative rope harness covering from shoulders to pussy on another woman, and how to throw a flogger. That workshop changed me, opened up a sense of empowerment, authority and strength that I had previously repressed.

And then there was the little issue of my budding sadism: I knew that sometimes deep release was necessary in order to break through to the next stage of development, and when women would cry — and I mean really sob, really break down and wail — during the workshops, I would get incredibly, incredibly turned on. Hmm, I thought. There’s something going on here.

I went out and bought a three-foot-long leather flogger the next day.

But it wasn’t just that easy, not really. I agonized over the position of topping women, of dominating them. I had eaten up all that feminist theory (much of which, now, seems so incredibly outdated!) about how all forms of penetrative sex are rape, and that kink is inherently demeaning to women, and that violence in any and all forms is wrong, wrong, wrong. But is kinky sex really “violence?” I had to dig deep and figure out how the violence really came in lack of consent, and that with consent, activities become “intense sensation” instead. It took me many dozens of conversations with dozens of lovers who explained things to me (patiently and kindly), and talked about agency, and care, and safe words, and all the smart techniques kinksters use to explore deeply vulnerable play.

If someone had told me then, I never would have believed that I’d end up in the relationship I’m in now, with a 24/7 trans boy who identifies as a slave, and I as his master. I never would have expected to have occasional lovers on the side. I hadn’t guessed I would have let go of monogamy, or of partnering with femmes (though that does remain the gender I am primarily attracted to). It took a long time to figure out how to go from a playful bisexual bottom to the queer genderqueer butch dominant that I am today.

So how’d that happen? How did that transformation take place over the last fifteen years? How did I go from being so hesitant to slap a girl across the face, even when she was asking — begging! — for me to do so, to now being able to use erotic humiliation and extreme sensations in my sex life? How did I reconcile my feminist beliefs, which sometimes seemed completely at odds with my carnal desires for rough sex and crude fantasies?

I’ll tell you.

Welcome to View From The Top.


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Sinclair Sexsmith is a feminist dominant, poet and strap-on expert who writes the award-winning sex blog Sugarbutch Chronicles.

Sinclair has written 36 articles for us.

75 Comments

  1. 0

    Is anyone else uncomfortable with the master/slave language? I’m all for “you do you” but to see this language used apparently positively by a white (or white-passing, I apologize if I’m wrong) person I’m kind of taken aback.

    In thinking about my own opinion and why I hold it, I know actual slavery is morally wrong/repulsive, and so to me basing a sexual/romantic/emotional relationship around the structure of slavery seems wrong. But because of the discrimination I have faced as a queer person based on “morals” I hesitate to base a judgement of someone’s sexuality on my moral feelings.

    Given the history of slavery and of those terms, though, something seems off to me, and if the author of this post is white I think it’s not a case of reclaiming something offensive but instead possibly appropriating it.

    • 0

      I share some of your reservations about the term, but there’s also a whole subset of the kink/BDSM community that identifies within these dynamics. I’m sure there are many other people who can speak to this better than I can, but I just wanted to point out that it’s not just Sinclair’s term but rather a whole community.

    • 0

      Hm, I think I see the connection you’re seeing.

      The “master/slave language” in BDSM is used to articulate a type of consensual power play, not non-consensual ownership.

      You mention “the history of slavery” and how this language could be “appropriating it”, but I’m not sure what would be appropriated because slavery has occurred globally across many, many nations/cultures/races.

    • 0

      Thanks Hana and Tango for taking time to respond. I don’t know a lot about the BDSM community so I’m sure I have more to learn on this topic and that might change how I feel about it. The inclusion of consent is obviously so important but I’m not sure that completely changes how I feel about this.

      @ Tango, I didn’t mean appropriation in the sense of cultural appropriation, like wearing clothing or spiritual symbols from a culture not your own. I meant it in the broader sense of taking something with a certain meaning and repurposing it in a way that could trivialize the original meaning. To me, a person calling themselves a master or slave, taking a real, traumatic thing that has happened and does happen and hurts so many people and using it to describe something that is not that original thing seems a little disrespectful. Whiteness in the American context is relevant because white Americans were the perpetuators and profiteers of slavery, not the ones harmed by it.

      • 0

        As a (white, American) who is identified as a slave, I initially struggled with the word, a lot.

        What finally brought me around to it (I mean, other than my obvious erotic orientation to that kind of structured ownership fetish) was the realization that slavery has a long, long history. It has been around almost as long as humans. In some iterations, it was even consensual/contractual, like with certain Roman dynamics.

        What I do has nothing to do with race play (although there isn’t anything *inherently* wrong with that). And honestly, if a black person told me they found my use of the word disrespectful, I would probably switch back to the more generic “property” descriptor. But here’s the thing: They haven’t, and I’ve had many soul-searching discussions with black friends, many of whom identify this way as well.

        Let’s be clear: unconsensual slavery is abhorrent. Consensual slavery is fine. The two are very, very different. Just like rape is awful and consensual sex (even playing with faux-assault) is fine.

        Here’s the other thing: it’s the best word for the job, despite its loaded cultural connotations. What else do you call a human who is owned? If we had another word for that, which wasn’t loaded with the unconsensual cultural history, maybe I would use that. But, we don’t. So I’ve made my peace with it.

        I hear that it’s not a relationship structure you’d like to be in, fair enough! But be careful not to judge a relationship’s morals by how much you don’t want to be in it. 🙂

    • 0

      As the author of the post, to be honest, I’m completely uncomfortable with it. It’s something that I struggle with, precisely for the reasons you stated—primarily because I’m a white person and we have a particular, very very recent history of slavery in the US, where I live, the effects of which still benefit white people and me, specifically, and contribute to systemic racism.

      There are quite a few folks who use pairings like Owner/property or Dom/sub instead of Master/slave, precisely because of their discomfort with those particular terms.

      I’m about 5 years in to this exploration of what it means to be master and slave, and what it means to be part of that community, and it has been incredibly valuable to learn these skills and actually take part in that community. (Maybe I’ll go into this in a future column? Short version: This set of skills is something I’ve done in relationships unconsciously for a while, which was bad; and now that I’m doing it consciously, things are way better.) I resisted the particular words for a while, but after being part of the M/s world for longer and longer, I’ve grown more comfortable with it because of the difference in definition and usage.

      I don’t see a lot of consciousness about this issue in the M/s world, which is predominantly white, though. Which I don’t like and am very uncomfortable with, and try to bring up and point out racist language and microagressions when I can (as I do in pretty much all communities I’m in, but I push myself to speak up a little more in this one).

      For now, because it’s the most accurate words I have, I’m choosing to use them … but I’m not entirely unconflicted about that.

      As a word lover, I think words can grow and change and morph definitions over time. While I do absolutely recognize the particular history that directly affects me, I also know that the words and concepts of master and slave are not a new invention in human history. The enslavement of African folks is just one of myriad examples throughout history. So I think that is one of the main arguments I hear about it—that the experience of ‘slavery’ is not so unique to that one part of history.

      I use these words is because these are the most accurate words we have right now. I’m still new to this community and seeking to recognize others and find more friends who know about this stuff, so I’m using the words that are recognized by others so that we can find each other.

      Identity words are complicated—some of them just *fit* better or differently than others. And these particular words fit what my boy and I are doing, particularly within the parts of the kink communities that practice them.

      Also, if you ever have the chance to hear sex/BDSM educator Mollena [http://www.mollena.com] do her workshop on taboos, which includes some of her philosophies about M/s languaging, I highly recommend it.

      I think pursuing M/s is very complicated … There are many folks who don’t have an objection to those words based on race, but rather on the fact that enslavement is wrong. It’s complex to start unravelling fetishes that are on one hand, ‘morally wrong,’ but on the other hand, totally get you off and satisfy your life in a way that other things never have and in a bone-deep way you feel you need. I think in the RACK—”risk aware consensual kink”—camps, I understand that when things are done with full enthusiastic consent and taking responsibility for what happens, then it’s okay to fantasize and play. Personally, I want it to be done with a lot of consciousness and in a way that aligns with my values, but I also have to balance that with what sustains me, too.

  2. 0

    My younger self never would have believed that that sort of thing would suddenly be appealing to me. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t until I read carmilla fan fiction (more specifically the 50 shades of Creampuff saga) that I realized there was this entire world I had kind of dismissed because it never did much for me. It’s kind of thrilling to figure out this different side of myself

  3. 0

    I may not have passed english composition yet, but I know that was a great conclusion up there. Gathers up all the main points and is a cliffhanger at same time.

    Gunna enjoy this column and relate to the kink/sex neg feminism induced guilt of year past.

  4. 0

    A lot of this resonates with me. I came out as bi in the early 90s and I also had all these (not very helpful) feminist voices in my head about how dating women should be egalitarian and somehow purer than dating
    men.

    I’ve had spanking sexual fantasies as long as I’ve had sexual fantasies (maybe age 11?) and younger me really had no way of reconciling them with my understanding of feminism. Plus, I’m a survivor of CSA and one of the early bibles for survivors (The Courage to Heal, iirc) was definitely against survivors getting involved in bdsm.

    I think it was reading lesbian erotica and erotica specifically written by and for women that helped me at least accept my fantasies, if not act on them.

  5. 0

    I’m especially interested to read about how kinky tops/doms/”masters” reconcile their feminist teachings with BDSM. I hear a lot about choice and agency in reproducing otherwise oppressive acts, but I think there’s a lot more to unpack there.

      • 0

        Yes! Because we live in a patriarchal and misogynistic culture, how does that influence our feelings related to sex? How does socialization play into the enjoyment of certain acts, like dominance and submission? And are certain things okay (not that I expect there to be a clear consensus on any of this in the community), like sexualizing re-traumatization or 24/7 lived submission and objectification, just because they bring sexual satisfaction? That’s only a fraction of the issues I think would be worth unpacking, but I’d also like to read about your specific journey into BDSM. Maybe you asked some similar questions while getting into the community?

        • 0

          Awesome, those are great questions and I will ponder them as I keep working on the themes and content for this column, thank you! Yeah I definitely have a ton of those kinds of things myself too … questions that plagued me for years, and ones I’m kind of over, and ones I’m asking now. I’ll give that more thought and keep unpacking as well as I can.

  6. 0

    Obviously there was nothing that made me click on this article, since I should have known better (violent kink/ BDSM is very definitively not my jam) but I do hope one day BDSM will no longer be seen as cool/radical/queer and all the abusers who hide behind kink will be exposed.

    Signed, a survivor

    • 0

      Hey V, I hope the abusers who hide behind kink will be exposed, too. I’m also a survivor, and I’ve spent a lot of time working with BDSM as a healing tool and with survivors in general.

      I think BDSM is absolutely not for everybody, and the way that the queer/cool kids have moved toward shaming people for not being kink enough is ridiculous to me, there is nothing wrong with sex without BDSM, just as I believe there’s nothing wrong with sex with BDSM.

      I really think the vast majority of the BDSM community are not abusers, but that abuse does happen in BDSM relationships, just as it happens in any kinds of relationships. But yeah, it absolutely happens, and in my experience it’s pretty awful when it does. I might even say that the more intense the relationship (with both a power dynamic and/or sensation dynamics), the more horrible the experience is, because so much more trust is needed to sustain that intensity.

      It’s been very good and interesting to see some of the kink communities I’ve been in deal with abuse issues and accusations and instances of sexual assault. The kink worlds are not particularly good at this (is anybody, really?) but I see so many people trying, and some new strategies being attempted. I’m really interested in how these conversations evolve and I’ll try to keep standing up and speaking up in those communities to advocate for survivors. I also encourage you to do so, too, if you can or when you’re ready or if possible, since you obviously have strong feelings on the matter.

  7. 0

    Wow, thanks y’all! I’m glad you are excited to read more, it encourages me to write more. If you have any particular questions for me about these topics, I’d love to see ’em, since I’m still forming the series. Email me, sinclair@sugarbutch.net, or leave comments here + I’ll do my best to read them.

  8. 0

    I am super excited about this series. I’ve been reading Sugar Butch for years, and I am happy to see you on Autostraddle. I actually met you at the Baltimore Femme Con and was totally star struck. Ha! Can’t wait to read more.

    • 0

      Hey! Fellow queer Juneau-ite, that’s rare. When did you graduate? I was JDHS 96. I bet we know some of the same folks, or maybe that you knew my dad’s sports card shop that was over by Foodland for about 10 years.

  9. 0

    YIIIISSSSSSSSS!!!!

    Oh my gosh, so excited! I got to the end and was like “wait a sec, does that mean we actually get a series to actually talk and find out way more!?”

    I recently went looking for resources on becoming more comfortable and familiar with dominance/submission, and more specifically tips and advice on being (tomboy) femme and a top with zero prior experience, and this is clearly the universe answering my desperate cries for help when nothing seemed to cater to the queer demographic the way I hoped. I am so ready for this!

    • 0

      Hey Mer! For more of my stuff on D/s, and lots of tips and advice for tops, check out the “feminist kink” category over on Sugarbutch: http://www.sugarbutch.net/tag/feminist-kink/ … Specifically keep an eye out for “10 Tips for Tops” and “The Four Topping Stages”, those might be useful. Also, I run a drop-in group for dominants online called Dom Club, http://www.dsconfidence.com/dom-club/ and the next one happens 2/10, you’re welcome to come join.

      • 0

        Wow!!! Thank you SO much! This is amazing, I’m already completely head over heals in love with this column and it’s barely even begun haha. I super appreciate you taking the time to reply to me, I can’t wait to check out that feminist kink category.

        I can’t even with how awesome this is

        • 0

          My pleasure! 🙂 Hope you find some useful stuff. If there are any particular questions you have been kicking around, I’d be curious to know them as I keep writing this column … I’m still shaping what I’ll be writing about, so ideas are helpful + welcome.

  10. 0

    So glad to read this. I am so happy that your life and teaching and guiding is exploding into the world.
    And in a way to hear my own story being told from a different perspective.
    Blessings

  11. 0

    “I hadn’t guessed I would have let go of monogamy, or of partnering with femmes (though that does remain the gender I am primarily attracted to).”

    Kind of a strange throwaway comment. Does being a femme somehow make someone less of a top? Does being into femmes somehow make someone less of a top? Why does genitalia or gender presentation have anything – anything at all – to do with being a top or a bottom? Being primarily attracted to a group and ‘letting go’ of being with the group one is most attracted to seems like something that would warrant a comment or two explaining what is going on?

    To be honest, as a radical queer socialist femme who is constantly treated as non-radical by butches and pressured out of queer and radical spaces, because feminine = inferior, silly and weak (and as a badass and strong femme sub who is with a sweet and amazing femme top), I wasn’t 100% sure where you were going with that.

    • 0

      You’re right, if you don’t know the full story that comment is pretty confusing.

      Here’s the whole story: Sinclair is mostly attracted to femmes. Then, along comes me (a not-femme boy) and they fall in love. So, because they’re with me (mostly-monogamously) it means they can’t also be with femmes in a partner-y way, and that was not part of their plan, since they love femmes so much.

      They were certainly not trying to say femmes don’t make bad-ass tops or powerful bottoms; they totally do. Which is probably why they’re a little sad about missing out on that hot femme action. Which is probably why they made a comment about it.

      Hope that clears it up. 😛 You can catch up on the backstory at sugarbutch.net if you’re curious for more.

      • 0

        Ah – I was confused because they also said they weren’t monogamous, so I wasn’t sure how their partner being a not-femme boy somehow excluded femmes.

        If they’re actually monogamous, that’s different – and explains the issue. I just wondered about it, since the beginning also talked about gender & misogyny in BDSM assumptions without going into it, and I wondered if that was their way of picking up that thread.

        • 0

          Haha, fair enough. 🙂

          For us “mostly monogamous” looks like very occasional casual play with other folks, mostly at erotic workshops. At least, so far. So, fucking, perhaps! Additional partnerships, probably not. At the moment, anyway. These things do shift.

    • 0

      Hey Hannah, I was going to write much of what rife already wrote … mostly that that comment doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not femmes are tops or bottoms or are in any particular position in authority exchange, imo the gender doesn’t have anything to do with what role someone should or shouldn’t have, and I’ve been in scenes with femmes and butches in both the dominant and the submissive role, and that’s been fun. Since I tend (heavily) toward topping myself, mostly I’ve been with femmes who are bottoms, and the point I was trying to make is that mostly I’ve been with femmes, period—I don’t usually date boys/bois, I’ve been butch/femme oriented for most of my adult life, and still consider myself primarily attracted to femmes, but I’m currently with a boy. We’re monogamish, I guess—hence the “mostly” monogamous—we sometimes play with others, but don’t have any other relationships at the moment. And like rife said, that could change.

      It wasn’t meant to be a throw-away comment but more like … a preview, a hint of what other kinds of things I’ll be writing about in this column. I think gender combined with power dynamics is really interesting, and one of the things I do really want to write about is the assumption that femmes are bottoms and the devaluing of femininity (aka old fashioned sexism) in the queer worlds in general.

      Thanks for your thoughts, and for helping me clarify what I was trying to say! 😀

  12. 0

    Please do tell!

    I feel like I’m you, I’m you after you’ve been gay for years and you know what you want, but you’re not quite there, and so far everyone you’ve dated was either vanilla or way beyond you, wanting you to do things you aren’t comfortable with yet. So you just need some time and exploration.
    Yeah

  13. 0

    I’m so thrilled about seeing Sinclair’s writing—who has the smartest, passionate writing about my favorite topics!—on Autostraddle, which is obviously also full of smart, passionate writers.

    I’ve eagerly awaited this column for awhile, and it’s so good to see the first View from the Top drop this week! There is a feminist (book club) meetup group here in Seattle that I’m a part of that is vehemently opposed to kink, and they just sent out an invite to discuss BDSM and feminism. I realized that I don’t have the patience to show up to defend my lifestyle again to a group of people who have expressed that the sex I have with my partner is just a result of the patriarchy and that if I was a better feminist then I would stop enjoying the things I’ve desired my whole life.

    It was sad to lose that group as a place where I could participate in thinking critically about kink and feminism—but now it’s come to Autostraddle!

    Also, I’m really glad to see both Sinclair and rife participating here in the comments, it makes me so happy to hear the view from the bottom, too, and I greatly admire you both! 🙂

    • 0

      Ugh, that sounds really hard Lady H! I’ve been in feminist groups that are really against BDSM too, it’s a tricky place to navigate. And eventually I just had to stop trying to argue, we had these fundamental differences about how we saw the world and I realized I probably couldn’t change their minds. Although I have heard from some folks, years later, who said that I helped them open their minds and change them about the how BDSM can possibly be empowering to some folks, so that’s good I guess. But it took so much effort and sadness and emotional labor on my part, I got less willing to do that as I got older, and more picky about my friends and groups. Which was a loss for me, in lots of ways.

      Totally makes sense that you don’t have the patience for this particular feminist group. Also there are some really good kink spaces in Seattle! The Leather Reign event happens in November (?), and the Center for Sex Positive Culture is awesome. Plus of course Babeland, they usually have good resources too. Highly recommended, just in case you don’t know about ’em. (I went to UW and SCCC and came out in Seattle, and I still spend a lot of time there. Love that town.)

      • 0

        Yes! Emotional labor has been on my mind so much over the past year — I can relate to being less willing to waste it these days. It’s bittersweet to get that time back and have to grieve the people you lost because they relied on your emotional labor to maintain a relationship.

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