View From The Top: The Thing About Sadism


The sadistic urge grows in me like a seedling. A tiny spark that gets bigger when I don’t tend it. I am civilized, I was socialized: I can ignore it, I can pass it over, I can find another place to release it — like a violent film, a really good run at dawn, an impassioned lecture in front of a class. But other forms of release don’t quite give me the gratification of consensual impact play.

It all comes back to trust, and to connection.

Something inside me — a beast or a monster, an archetype or a warrior goddess, a channeling — craves destruction, degradation, conquering and intense all-consuming passion. Wanting something that much means only thing I can think is I must control myself, I must control myself, I must control myself.

To trust the other person to safeword — to communicate if the scene, the play, the intensity, my ferocious growl goes too far — and to trust their agency, their power to truly give consent, allows me to bypass that learned, socialized, civil message that plays over and over in my head like a ticker tape.

So let’s see what happens if I don’t keep control. Let’s see what happens if I unleash this power, this rage, this tension, this flood of emotion and sensation I have been holding back for as long as I can remember. Sure, sometimes there are release valves — but it’s not the same as opening the floodgates.

I don’t have to keep it in check. I don’t have to hold back. I trust this person to hold me, to take it, to stop me if I go too far, to look me in the eye and say, thank you. Because — or so they tell me — they need it, too.

Sometimes, I feel like a predator.

Letting my sadistic impulse roll through me is a different kind of letting go.


It may as well be a massage — in fact, some of my favorite toys are massage tools, like bongers and the “massage flogger” from Bare Leatherworks. Its expressed purpose is for cathartic release.

But there’s more to it than just massage. This play between us has something else; it has risk, it has thrill and lust, the building of trust, the practice of push and pull because of the connection between us. We can make eye contact while I touch you, while I guide you through a process of sensational feeling, big and bold sensation made to get deep into the big muscle systems of the body and let go.

All the sensation is for you. I get the indirect stimulation of watching your arousal, I get the pleasure from being a guide through a difficult time, like a coach or a mentor. You can do it. Take a little more. Breathe into my hand. I know sometimes it is hard for you to cry; sometimes you have to have a little help to shake and jolt and coax and urge the deep feelings out. I know sometimes you get stuck; sometimes it takes contact or touch or someone else’s orders to let the dam break and let it all out.

Emotions and experiences get trapped in our bodies, in the large muscles and the fine tendons. Sometimes, the body needs care in order to let those experiences go, to be free of their grip on us. Sometimes we can’t do it ourselves. Sometimes we can’t do it with love and sweetness. Life is messy, full of funk and stuck and the ugly human urges we all have. Sometimes the only way to work through it is to match it.


What if I never come back from there?

The monstrous want of the gratification from causing pain feels infinite, unbearably inconsolable in its desire to consume. It snarls and snaps, foaming at the mouth. It grasps with claws and clumsy arms, it wants to eat and fuck, a cycle of input and output. I want to break things — holes, walls, people. I want to feel the begging in my pelvis and let it ignite the fire under me to burn bright up my spine and light up all my colors.

How can that not be sick, the way I want to take, destroy, damage?

This sadistic impulse in me has been there as long as I can remember. Late at night in my Strawberry Shortcake sheets, talking to the monster inside that wants to bite and rip and tear, I learned that it’s safer to explore in the dark, under the covers, after everyone went to sleep. I learned to hide it from other people. I learned violence never solved the problem.

But it did not change this deep desirous want, this mawing need to slam myself up against another and watch the bruises surface. To know that I have left my mark, irrefutable, on someone else, and they let me, and they liked it, and they still respect me and think I am a good person. Because of course I would not do this without safety, without permission — consent is such a keystone, such a fulcrum upon which everything can change. Consent transforms violence into loving sensation.

Sometimes in a scene, I go so deep I fear I will lose touch with what I really should or shouldn’t do, with what is safe. But that’s when my partner is holding the scene, holding our boundaries and limits with safewords and negotiations. I trust I can go as far as I can, and they will tell me. They will keep me, and them, safe.

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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. Could we ever get some other perspectives about topping? I just feel this style of topping and at this level of intensity is all we ever get to read about and I could use a little more Relatable Content

    • I appreciate and resonate with Sinclair’s willingness to be vulnerable about their personal experiences with sex, sadism, topping, and BDSM. My personal experience has been that not all tops are sadists (and oh how I wish that they were!), and there are different styles of sadism, just as there are styles of masochism.

      I agree that it would be great if there were a multitude of kinky columnists with diverse viewpoints on topping, bottoming, sadism, and masochism, but we don’t have either enough venues nor enough writers.

    • While I value various perspectives, getting this column going in a positive direction has been a struggle. For this reason, I would be surprised if there were a lot of toppy-types chomping at the bit to get their own work out there.

      I wonder if you might find the content you seek by encouraging discussion in the comments of this column. I would guess that a good portion of the kinky folk on AS read this column and would be willing to engage in dialogue.

    • Yeah I feel this. I also feel Sinclair’s post in a way, but at a remove, like a metaphor. I’m a top but not a sadist, and where I get that floodgates feeling is around not violence but… Well, bossiness. I like being in charge of shit and feeling in control, and I have to keep that in check in normal life so as to not be a huge jerk, so topping is where I can just be in charge without worrying. It’s a lot closer to therapy than to sex, really, it’s just a type of partner-driven therapy that has the added bonus of being pretty hot.

    • I understand the difficulty in getting more writers and stuff but… I don’t think that changes the validity of what I’m saying.

      This is an extremely narrow definition and experience of topping, as are most of Sinclair’s pieces. As a bottom it feels shitty to only hear this one perspective on topping.

  2. My experience with sadism is not really for expressing the aggression that I’ve repressed, but to not feel a damn thing at all. I get too emotional in my normal life. However, when I do a scene, it allows me to be cold and uncaring. I want to be anyone else but me. If I hurt you, there will be lots of begging for me to stop and I will just keep myself cold. I get a good feeling from it, especially when I do this with a partner who is into more extreme punishments. In a way, it’s like my partner is crying and feeling in my place while I get all the power!

    • For me personally — and you do you! — reading your description of not feeling anything and having your sub as a proxy for those feelings scared the shit out of me. I’m commenting on this not to say that yours isn’t a valid way to play, as I firmly believe it is, it’s just really helpful for me to realize that not everyone is looking for the same thing and learning new ways to articulate that!

      There really are a lot of different flavors to BDSM, I think it’s easy for forget that and assume we’re all getting the same things out of it.

    • I don’t think I would allow or force myself to be completely cold or uncaring. It would be too easy to just lose control of the situation. At least, for me it would. I need to make sure I don’t slip off and suddenly not care if something is wrong. I have to use some form of caring so that I know something is not right, but that is me. I’m not good at external clues when punishment is involved. As long as you two play safe, right?

  3. Hmmm….. I can relate to all of this but I do feel like sadism is different for everyone. It depends on my mood. If I am depressed and numb, I use sadism to feel some emotion I am repressing. If I am a complete emotional wreck, I use sadism to learn how to control and suppress my chaotic mind. The whole point for me is control and self exploration, unless there is a certain partner involved. If my partner and I just need to get completely lost in a scene, we will go for sadism. Other than that, I just want to be kinky af.

  4. I appreciated this article, and I’d also be stoked to hear from a greater diversity of top/bottom perspectives (different motivations, levels of intensity, interests, personalities) on Autostraddle.

  5. Beautifully written. I want to continue, and let it be known that I am not into shaming of any kind, but this article was SO hard to read. The lust for unbridled violence only tethered by consent is so terrifying. To better explain, I am a grown child-abuse survivor. My mother was so violent that my story could easily be compared to things from ‘A Child Called It’. I definitely understand the use of consented violence within kink couples for release, passion, growth, etc but the way that you describe it scares me. The thought of it being a beast, the thought of something so insatiable, the thought of an accidental push past the line of okay and not, is….painfully scary. I have toyed with the idea of bottoming and seeing what that might feel like but I could not trust myself to use the safeword appropriately. I was raised to put my needs/wants below those of others, to deal with pain or discomfort even if there was an easy way to fix it, etc. Personally, it would be horrific to know that all of the power was in my usage or non usage of my safeword to stop this “thing” that grew bigger than the person inflicting the pain. To know that I couldn’t trust “you” to stop by the look on my face or the tears in my eyes is too much to bear. I hope any of that made sense.

    • Hey Alexis – thank you for being open and vulnerable in sharing your experiences. I feel that you have articulated yourself well and I hope that I have understood you correctly.

      I think that being a survivor of abuse and also into kink requires some extra negotiation and self awareness on the parts of everyone involved in the play. I don’t know that the way Sinclair describes their feelings and their sadism would be at all like the experiences of someone new to this type of play. But I also think that is the beauty of negotiation – as a bottom, your say is the ULTIMATE say in the scene. If you need to use nonverbal signals (such as tears, as per your example above) in place of a safe word, and you have clearly communicated this to your partner(s), then everyone involved will have consented beforehand, will clearly understand, and in a positive situation respect your needs and boundaries.

      I bring that up not to explain something that you likely are already aware of, but to emphasize the following. I have heard of survivors finding a kind of solace in the kink community as a way to exert control over a situation that might be emotionally or physically painful for them. Please note, I have only heard accounts of this and cannot emphasize with being a survivor of abuse, so please correct me where my knowledge is slim. To get metaphorical, it seems to me that there are those who find staring down the beast and knowing, deeply, that they have the ultimate control over the situation, over their body, and in a way over the dominant to be cathartic and empowering.

      If you choose to explore kink at any point in the future, I hope that you find it helpful on your emotional journey. And I hope that any partner you might take has the utmost respect for you and concern for your well being.

      Take care.

      • Jaxson- Thank you for the response. (I did realize the second comment was for the thread and general in nature.) Honestly, I never thought about it being empowering. I never looked at it as having all the power. I guess I don’t see myself that way. I think the situation would bring me back to a fetal, naive place and I would have to work consistently to assert myself as an adult. I’ve always thought that this kind of kink might be cathartic though and help with some personal growth. For me, therapy doesn’t quite cut it. The incessant talking doesn’t fix the issue or bring release. It feels more like spinning wheels. I wonder if giving myself in this way to a willing participant would give the appropriate growth and pleasure on both ends. Anyway, thank you for responding so tenderly. It is deeply appreciated.

        • Alexis, I did also want to share my perspective, as a survivor of sexual abuse, in case it’s helpful. Sometimes I wonder (and worry) about what caused my submission tendencies. My childhood abuse is something I struggle to place in terms of age vs when I started having sexual fantasies about being dominated, so I suspect I’ll never know. Nonetheless, it’s nothing something I’ve ever been able to suppress and it has been helpful for me both in and out of my sex life. (If it was something that I didn’t feel drawn to do, I wouldn’t recommend it just for the sake of healing or processing abuse, so I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a panacea for all survivors.)

          I am also someone who struggles to articulate my wants and needs and was taught that making someone else feel bad about hurting me was far worse than what they were doing to me. My family still reinforces this when it comes to sheltering my abuser and punishing me for refusing to have contact with them. Erotica and porn that centers around BDSM pushes this narrative that the best way to be a sub is to take what you’re given and that the dominant partner is omniscient about what the submissive partner wants and needs, as well. (Of course, there are awesome exceptions to this in porn/erotica, but it’s rare.) Yet in real life, I haven’t ever encountered a dominant partner who made me feel this way. I don’t know if I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, but I know that many of my partners have expressed their own guilt about their sadistic leanings and I think that guilt caused them to be very careful and thoughtful about consent and power dynamics between us. My current partner never acted on her desires because she thought it made her a monster, so we both entered this with a lot of experimentation and mutual reassurance.

          Since entering a long-term relationship where I’ve explored my submission more deeply, I’ve found that I’m more likely to see my well-being and comfort in all aspects of my life to be more important than making someone feel good. I speak up more when I need something or when someone is doing something harmful to me (for example, I’m the kind of person who previously would never accept the offer of water or anything if I was visiting another person’s home, no matter how much I wanted it, because I felt like that made me a bad person!) It’s been a really positive thing, as I find myself being able to be vulnerable with people about what I need and it’s led to better connections.

          There have been moments during sex where I’ve been triggered by really unexpected things. I vividly remember absolutely losing it when my girlfriend was biting her way up my stomach to my chest — it made me feel like I was a kid again, unable to stop someone from hurting me, and in the moment I thought that we would never have sex again because I was so scared and angry at her for not somehow knowing it was going to trigger an emotional response in me, even though she stopped immediately and did everything you’d hope someone would do in that moment.

          But each time something like this happened, time would pass, and my desire would grow again, and we tried again with a clearer idea of the types of pain or scenes that didn’t work for us. Repeating this, creating new pathways in my brain where I am in control of my pain + I can trust this person + I am now an adult who can shelter the child inside me who has been in pain = a LOT of progress in processing trauma.

          Hopefully this is helpful in some way to encourage you to take the path that is right for you!

          • Lady H- I think we may come from the same cloth. I was raised to be the same way; never accepting anything from another person because it made me a “bad person”. Parts of your post resonated so deeply it was as if it came from my own lips. You and Jaxon have made me feel less alone and strengthened to keep understanding these pieces of myself. Thank you!

          • Alexis, thank you for this kind reply and for letting me express vulnerability. I’m really glad it’s helping make you feel less alone (as it does the same for me)!

        • Of course, I am glad to know I wasn’t telling you something you already knew.

          Be gentle with yourself, you deserve it!

    • Another one of your articles that resonates with me, Sinclair. Thank you for sharing yourself.

      I was always the kid that went too hard, that played too rough. Most people stopped “wrestling” or “rough housing” with me after one or two rounds because I was just too intense for most kids. I don’t experience the desire to use impact toys, but I want to feel that same struggle for dominance that I used to experience as a kid with a partner. I used to feel a lot of shame about my inability to modulate my intensity to match other’s, so I just… Stopped. Not just physically engaging in this way, but connecting intensely with anyone.

      Now that I am older, and more “civilized”, this aspect of myself feels like a floodgate also. It’s like all of these years of control come rushing out of me and I want to claw and bite and tie up my partner – but I want to win their submission first. I want a partner that pushes just as hard as I do, and when I take them I want it to be as a prize.

      (For anyone curious, this is called primal play. It’s a smaller faction of the kink community.)

      • Oh crap, I’m so sorry, Alexis. Obviously that second comment was meant to be in the general thread. I’m on a dummy account, so I can’t remove it.

        Perhaps the mods could help?

    • This was an incredible comment. Thank you for sharing this. It was so thoughtful and respectful and I think really represents the best of what these discussions around kink and consent can be.

      • Thank you (if that was meant for me)!

        But more importantly, thank you for sharing your experiences. I am glad that you have found a safe space where you can explore this particular kind of healing, and that it has been beneficial to you.

        Take care!

        • It was for Alexis, because I hadn’t refreshed the page or realized who I was replying to, but it 100% applies to your comment — I just hadn’t seen it yet! Basically just a big love fest.

          The comments on this latest piece have been really great and respectful. And I think there’s a healthy dose of people who are saying this isn’t something they’re into or something they understand in the kinkier columns but done in a respectful way that’s exactly what Autostraddle does so well (but hasn’t done super well in this column historically). This is the community I need post-election!

    • Thank you for sharing. I too am a survivor of child abuse. I don’t have anything particular to say or add, really; just wanted to thank you for speaking up, and to let you know you’re not alone. These sorts of issues come up often in kink circles, so there are people who are familiar enough to help you work through things if you like; but it does take communication of your needs, which —I well know— can be very difficult.

  6. (Reposting in the general thread because I accidentally made it a reply before…)

    Another one of your articles that resonates with me, Sinclair. Thank you for sharing yourself.

    I was always the kid that went too hard, that played too rough. Most people stopped “wrestling” or “rough housing” with me after one or two rounds because I was just too intense for most kids. I don’t experience the desire to use impact toys, but I want to feel that same struggle for dominance that I used to experience as a kid with a partner. I used to feel a lot of shame about my inability to modulate my intensity to match other’s, so I just… Stopped. Not just physically engaging in this way, but connecting intensely with anyone.

    Now that I am older, and more “civilized”, this aspect of myself feels like a floodgate also. It’s like all of these years of control come rushing out of me and I want to claw and bite and tie up my partner – but I want to win their submission first. I want a partner that pushes just as hard as I do, and when I take them I want it to be as a prize.

    (For anyone curious, this is called primal play. It’s a smaller faction of the kink community.)

    • Never heard of primal play but it sounds interesting. I actually like it when my partner pushes back and gives me something to work for. The eventual submission that comes is a great reward too. I just always thought of the clawing and biting as more of a passionate way to claim what is supposed to be mine, at least when I do get to top -_-. The intensity of the action was always a way to express the intense emotions I always had to control. When I started getting into kink, I must admit it was like opening a floodgate. I didn’t realize I was suppressed in ways that was more than just sexual. But I think that’s were the sadism comes in. I kind of notice, the more I explore dominance, the more I lean towards sadism. It’s kind of odd for me to explain.

      • I feel like I am coming from the opposite space. When I first started getting into kink, I knew there was something about it that was attractive/exciting/interesting. But, for me, it didn’t have anything to do with protocols or toys or anything. I think it was the “rawness” I felt in a lot of what I was reading. It wasn’t until I saw primals on FetLife (having taken the kink calculator quiz or whatever it’s called that I felt like “YES THIS.”

        There are absolutely areas of sadism that I find interesting, but don’t have any legit experience with. Especially because a lot of the stuff I want to try is on the heavier end of the spectrum and I don’t have the basics down… So things like blood play feel like wanting to ride a bike down a mountain when I’m not even sure I could drive one down my block. Ya know?

        I also feel you on the suppressed in ways I didn’t know. That’s another door I am hesitant to knock on, especially considering all of the stuff that has already come up for me.

  7. “Emotions and experiences get trapped in our bodies, in the large muscles and the fine tendons. Sometimes, the body needs care in order to let those experiences go, to be free of their grip on us. Sometimes we can’t do it ourselves. Sometimes we can’t do it with love and sweetness. Life is messy, full of funk and stuck and the ugly human urges we all have. Sometimes the only way to work through it is to match it.”

    Yes. Yes. I am a diehard switch… this is the exact kind of catharsis I enjoy giving when I let my (ethical) sadist loose on my play partners. This is also the work I get to do when I slide into my clinical masochist space and play with my (ethical) clinical sadist of a Significant Person. I am so lucky to have him in my life, because his ultimate cruelty allows my ultimate healing. Thank you for putting words to this.

  8. An interesting perspective as always, but I found it very difficult to read. I have a hard time finding truth in “Consent transforms violence into loving sensation.” On one hand I do believe that anything goes with regards to what two adults indulge in with each other, and at the same time…I find it hard to accept that one person’s sexual/egotistical gratification comes via the physical injury of another person (someone who they presumably care about and/or love). I don’t understand the partner who would consent to this being done to them either.

    I’m not intending to shame in the slightest, I just don’t understand. To me, violence and sex do NOT go together–I do not find violence to be erotic in the slightest; interpersonal violence is meant to hurt, injure, damage someone–how do feelings of wanting to inflict pain/etc on someone else fit into a relationship? Is it not worrisome to have such intense feelings of wanting to hurt other people, for one’s own benefit? Trying to understand…

    • I am curious, what do you think about martial arts? This isn’t as much of a non sequitur as it might seem. In my experience, both martial arts and kink are negotiated consensual violence. I respect my training partners. I do not want to harm them, even when I leave bruises, and I don’t want them to not attack me in the way that we have agreed they will, even when it means that I go home with bruises or (occasionally) more severe injuries. In that situation, consent turns violence into something we can engage with in a controlled setting for whatever our reasons are (self-protection, enjoyment, self-mastery, etc.). In that setting, we do violence to each other so we can both get our needs met. It’s not sexual intimacy, but it does end up being a form of intimacy, to practice to affecting someone’s body and reactions.

      Kink isn’t the same thing–I’m generally not in any state to notice sexual enjoyment when I’m on the mat, and if it’s acknowledged things just get weird–but sometimes I think of it using a similar framework. If I’m topping, I’m giving my partner what they want (and what they want might be for me to take what *I* want, even/especially if that includes hurting them). If I’m bottoming, I’m taking in what they’re giving me, but I still can and have stopped a scene when my top was (accidentally) hurting me in ways that I didn’t want. This may be hard to understand–I do think that people are wired differently around what they do with power and sensation, but for me, I love the mutual challenge in ways I can’t articulate. Just like I wouldn’t appreciate a sparring partner who held their violence back in a way that meant that I couldn’t engage authentically with them and which stifled the growth of both of our skills, I wouldn’t appreciate someone trying to tell me that a partner and I shouldn’t do the violence to each other that we both trust will lead to internal and mutual fulfillment and growth.

      I will also say, I’ve been damaged much more by a partner’s “vanilla” sexual abuse than anything kinky I’ve done, before or after that was done to me. Give me honest consensual violence with the power dynamics around it openly negotiated and respected!

      • Wow, this was awesome. I have never seen this comparison made and it’s fascinating and I really like having another example of how consent can change the context when it comes to pain.

        Seconding jay, thank you for this perspective!

    • I really like the martial arts analogy, and I don’t have anything near that good, but I have a few thoughts I can share…

      I’m a Buddhist and a survivor of child abuse. So I totally understand where “all violence is bad” and “violence and sex do not go together” come from. As a survivor, sex of any sort used to be a minefield. Though I’ve worked through most of that, there are still certain vanilla acts that I refuse to engage in and the idea of doing them with someone I love fills me with ick. It’s totally fine to not get why people are into some strange thing or other. Humans are weird.

      There’s a phrase in the BDSM community: “hurt, not harm.” To hurt someone is to cause a physical sensation. Yes pain, yes even physical injury, but ultimately it’s about sensation, and sensations in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. Something can be hot or cold and there’s no moral judgment there; all objects have temperatures, and human bodies are capable of perceiving those temperatures. However, to harm someone is to cause distress, suffering, emotional turmoil, lasting damage; and this sort of thing is unacceptable. Sure non-consensual violence causes harm, but so do plenty of other things. Indeed, one can harm others without causing any physical sensation at all, and people do it every day outside of the bedroom.

      But just as harm can exist without hurt, so too hurt can exist without harm. Consider surgery which, by definition, requires causing physical injury to one’s patients. And yet, surgeons, like all doctors, take a hippocratic oath to “first, do no harm”. How is it that stabbing someone, removing organs, etc, how can any of that be allowed?! It’s because we do not perceive these things as causing harm. We believe that causing these sorts of injuries is beneficial overall as a means of dealing with certain severe situations. But notably, we in Western cultures only think of this as natural because we were raised to. There are numerous other cultures where surgery is viewed as a great evil that does cause harm. I bring up cultural aspects because I think this question of what causes hurt vs what causes harm is ultimately a question of culture. But one’s own culture is often invisible until you’ve learned how to see it.

      Another thing to bear in mind about pain is that it’s a physiological response. Among other things, that response includes a rush of endorphins. Just as people enjoy the endorphin rush of running, or extreme sports, or sex, or rollercoasters, so too they enjoy pain for the exact same reason. Endorphins, like any drug, leads to altered states of consciousness, and humans really enjoy those. The only difference is that it’s a drug your own body makes. To bring up a really contentious topic, this is also why people engage in self injury (SI) as a coping mechanism. The rush of endorphins can serve to calm psychological distress. Thus, SI is like any other form of self-medication.

      Even though I bring up things like surgery and SI, I don’t think s/m is all about catharsis. For some folks it prolly is, sure, and that’s fine, but I doubt it’s the primary thing for most folks. Certainly it isn’t for me.

    • Oh, I see. You’re a troll who specializes in strawmen arguments! Great! *rolls up sleeves* tell me more about how adults making sexual choices that works for them is harming us all, please.

  9. As the NSFW editor and the editor of this column, anyone seeking to share alternative perspectives on kink is welcome to pitch; my email is carolyn at autostraddle dot com.

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