View From The Top: Palette of Permission

I held Sarah’s* hands over her head with one hand, her back pressed up against the wall. My fingers didn’t actually reach around both of her wrists, but we both let the restriction expand to limit her, even if we knew she could move if she wanted to. She moved her spine against the wall, pushing her hips toward me, then thrusting her chest out, those sensitive places begging for attention.

Kissing her neck, I gently touched my fingers on her inner thigh, at that place where her stockings end and the garter framed her skin, as softly as I could, and slowly — and then half as slow as that. Making her wait. Drinking in her eager willingness. Feeling her body relax even more as we tuned into each other, breath synchronized. Not in any hurry. I liked things slow, I liked to draw things out. It made everything last longer, and that much more delicious.

And I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.

When Sarah and I had been together about six months, we started to have more intense negotiation talks about what we would or wouldn’t do in bed. Meaning, how I did or didn’t have permission to dominate her.

I was used to checking in about everything. “Is this okay? How does that feel? Are you okay? Do you need me to change anything?”

I’m sure in the beginning checking in that way was useful — I was gathering information about her body, and Sarah was building her trust in me slowly, offering up a little bit more and seeing how we both handled it. But after six months, perhaps we didn’t need to do so much of that. Perhaps I didn’t need to do so much of that. What I’m saying is, Sarah was getting annoyed.

“Can you stop checking in with me so much, please? It can just ruin my headspace,” she told me at a late brunch at one of our favorite diners one weekend. It was after noon, but they still served fresh seasonal fruit pancakes and excellent veggie scrambles. “I appreciate that you want to make sure I’m okay,” she went on. “But you know me. I promise, if I’m not okay, I will tell you.”

I chewed my lip and looked at her. “I just don’t want to go too far,” I said. “I get, you know, nervous.”

“I know you do,” she reached over our half-eaten food to cover my hand in hers. “I appreciate that, I really do. But you have to trust me. I can advocate for myself.”

“Okay. I can try.” It felt like pressure. It felt like I wasn’t doing it right. It felt like when I was careful, I wasn’t ruthlessly pursuing the dominance, but when I was ruthless, I wasn’t a careful enough dominant. How could I hit that fine balance?

I sipped my coffee and took another bite. We chewed in silence.

“You know what I like,” she said, thinking aloud. “I mean you could probably make a list of all the things that you do that I love. We’ve talked about that so much.”

I nodded, ticking off some items in my head: growling commands, anal sex, playing with knives, rough body play, making her crawl, blow jobs, restricting her hands… I could easily add ten or fifteen more. “That’s true. I do have this permission list, in a way, of things you’ve told me I can do pretty much at any time.”

“Right. And it’s not just a static list, more like a wide range of feelings and ways we play.”

“More of an artist’s palette than a to-do list,” I offered, thinking about the list of things she desired and enjoyed most, and how I could stay and play within that, completely assured that she wanted to do those things, without much risk.

She smiled, dropping her voice and squirming a little. “I like that. I like being your canvas. I want you to take what you want,” she said. I’d heard her say that before. It thrilled me every time. “Which is why it’s hard when you keep checking in with me. I don’t want to assure you that I like it; I want you to like it.”

I was reaching to cut a bite of the pancake on the plate between us and stuck my fork through a couple of berries, too. But then I set it down, and instead I swallowed the growing lump in my throat.

There is always a risk in kinky play — these activities and are edgy, and the psychological places they touch can be intense. Even playing with something we’ve played with many times before can suddenly bring panic or pain that is overwhelming. But I had to also trust that if that happened, she would tell me. And if she told me, I would, of course, stop and check in, and do whatever I could do to support and help.

What if I only played within that palette? What if I stood tall in the confidence that any of those things are fair game? “I want to try it,” I said decisively. “I have some ideas.”

“Oh? Like what?” She looked at me sideways, sipping coffee.

“I think… I want to surprise you,” I said, already a little nervous, but thrilled to take more control.

So, four days later, when we had a date on Wednesday night and she came back to my house, I followed my impulses and did what I wanted. I walked her slowly back against the wall. I kissed her, biting her lip. I growled in her ear, “I’m going to take what I want tonight.”

She moaned.

I still had to decide what was next. But I had infinite combinations on my palette, I just had to pick one, to choose, and to ask myself: what is it that I want, right now? My mind ticked through the options, fluttering my fingers over her bare skin and the edges of her panties under her short skirt, until I got a mental image of my good knife over on top of the dresser. Yes, I thought. That’s it.

*Sarah is not a real person; she’s an amalgam of various lovers, fantasies and relationships I’ve had.

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Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is “the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queer women” (AfterEllen), who “is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places” (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Sinclair identifies as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor and an introvert. Follow their writings at Sugarbutch Chronicles.

Sinclair has written 43 articles for us.


  1. *groan* I should not read this at work, I should not read this at work, I should not read this at work….This was sooooooo good!

  2. I agree with “Sarah” as time goes by, as a sub, I don’t want to be checked in on the time.

    There are lots of ways to describe play time, but one of the big ones has to be me (as the sub) giving the Domme power. (There are twiddles around that with safe words and so on, but lets go with it as a good general statement.) Every time you say “Are you ok?”, however you ask it, you’re giving power back to me, while you’re also expressing concern and love/tenderness.

    If it’s the first time we’ve tried something, there’s absolutely no doubt we both need that checking, that concern and that tenderness. But as the relationship becomes more established and longer lasting, I know Mistress loves me and cares for me, I know I can stop the scene if I need to, and I trust her to be aware of my body and it’s responses if there’s something weird going on. I really like it when, as you did for Sarah, she takes control and doesn’t give it back to me. So, so hot!

  3. So, just to be clear: I’m not anti-BDSM, I personally enjoy kink, and quite a few of the activities described here would be very appealing to me.

    But I’m also very uncomfortable with the composite character of Sarah, especially as she seems to exist as a representation of the author’s general experience with subs? She seems to be positioned as sort of generally applicable to What Subs Want, when that question is definitely best approached on an individual basis. I think a lot of subs do want less dom guilt and less fussing around about negotiation, but that’s absolutely not how everyone feels, and when there’s no transparency about how this actually happened in actual reality (i.e. was it several people who all felt like this and none who didn’t? one ex who did and one ex who emphatically didn’t? just a fantasy?), it feels like speaking for other people.

    If this is based on the author’s experience with a real person, I think it would be better for that specific person to have their own fake name and slightly changed personal details, rather than to just be part of the generic Sarah.

    • I came here just to say this. Rubs me the wrong way and makes me side eye the author. I was going to comment on the fact that so much of what I read on this column is about how conscientious the author is and how apparently no one actually wants them to be that conscientious. It borders on self congratulatory and tbh I almost never trust doms that make such a production out of how scared they are to hurt people. It’s over the top, and then to read at the end that sarah isnt even a real person (and is even part fantasy, to fuckin boot!) just puts another nail in that coffin.

    • I really strongly agree with this. It feels like the Sarah composite is always a sub ultimately wanting Sinclair Sexsmith to always do more of what they want, which makes me uncomfortable as well. There’s a hint of manic pixie dream sub, at least to me.

      • Maybe that’s because that is the type of sub that she goes after. It’s called a preference. I have a friend who was basically like the Sarah composite and since I was new to the kink game, being her platonic domme was very much as described. Lots of feelings, negotiation and trust building. If anything, I had more fun when my friend hinted and asked for more things. There is a lot of complexity in kink. Not everyone’s experiences will be the same. But now that I have some experience, I know I would openly look for a sub that is like my friend more than a fresh new sub that is into something way different. We look for familiarity in relationships. If the next person wants something slightly different, it’s okay because there will still be stuff that we can do that is also within my limits.

  4. I look forward to these articles every two weeks! I haven’t found any other place that comes close to resonating as well with my kinky fantasies and non-binary gender (I do read bottoms up happily as well!). I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to mentally try on an M/s relationship that sounds palatable to me while I try to figure what I want. Thank you for sharing so personally!

  5. That must be difficult for Sinclair, but it also doesn’t mean that criticism (especially specific criticism that points out a particular problem and offers potential solutions) is wrong.

    View From The Top definitely comes off like it’s intended at least in part as an educational resource – for example, the purpose of this particular column is to teach the reader that an alternative to negotiating every act is to negotiate a list of acts that it’s okay to just initiate without asking. That’s really good advice! I will possibly end up taking it! But the Sarah device combined with the semi-educational nature of View From The Top suggests that subs in general want to do this, while also obscuring whether even one real sub wanted to do this in Sinclair’s experience. “What subs want to do” is very, very different from “what subs want to do in my fantasy” and also varies from person to person, and I think that’s especially important to get across when trying to educate people.

    • So how would you go about protecting the partners’ privacy? I think Sinclair is using the Sarah device to keep the focus on their experience to respect the privacy of previous partners. Additionally, they seem to like a narrative approach of sharing learned personal experience as opposed to holding themselves up as the person knowing everything and lecturing at us. I appreciate all those things as I get more of a sense of why and how things can be exciting or fulfilling. I also did not feel like there was any implication of ever speaking for all Ds or subs. If I felt that vibe from anyone I would have less respect for them, so I do get why that bugs you, it just doesn’t hit me that way. We all have different filters.

      • Ah, I see you proposed altering names and details but not making a composite. I can see how you might prefer the emphasis on diversity rather than inclusion.

    • This column is about my personal experience, period.

      Some folks might learn some ideas or things from it, some might (and certainly do) disagree. I have learned a ton from my journey, and so sometimes I share theory or guidelines that I’ve learned that have made my journey and identity stronger, but those things are all still only from my perspective.

      I do not speak for all dominants. I do not speak for all submissives. Not for any writing or speaking I have ever done.

      This column is not ever intended to say that “subs in general want to do this.” And absolutely, there are many, many submissives who do not want what Sarah* (or any of the submissives, fantasy or based on real people) wants, or what I want in a submissive. I am not nor would I ever say that she — and I — represent what D/s is for everyone, or what it should be.

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