View From The Top: The First Time I Knew I Was a Top

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1.

The first time I knew I was a top was when a girl I was dating said, “Please, hit me harder,” and then, later, whispered, “I can take more than you can give me.”

It was a dare. Her eyes flashed when she said it. She boasted her ability to bottom to heavy pain and sensation, and she was right — I was holding back, fearful of my own power. It scared me. It felt like a bottomless pit of growling, howling violence that I was just barely keeping in check.

Her dare made me stronger, and made me ask: What would happen if I opened up that part of me and allowed myself to explore it? Could I be trusted to honor safewords, to stop if something went wrong, to be accountable if we went too far? How could I balance this fear, this real and ravenous inner sadist, and reality?

That was the puzzle I wanted to crack.

2.

The first time I knew I was a top was in second grade, when my group of three wouldn’t do what I told them to, and they became a group of two. I was always the leader, always bossing them and my two younger sisters around. Part of my growing up process became repressing the wildness, the inclination to be in charge and in control and right. I was told that I needed to share, to not be bossy, to let other people have their way sometimes, to put my needs second, to consider other people’s needs more.

To start, it was just adults who told me to do this — other kids, especially my friends, happily went along with my plans. But then they started to want their own turns in charge, and to tell me I was no fun and wrong and mean, and I spent too many birthday parties in a row at the pizza parlor wondering if anyone would show up.

I was a bottom when I first started trying out kinky sex play, in part because it was easier. Topping — and especially topping for my pleasure — was much, much harder, because it was going back to a feeling I’d suppressed. I had trained myself to knock it down, hard, and so it was even harder to ask it to come on out and play.

best-lesbian-erotica-1998

3.

The first time I knew I was a top was when I read Karlyn Lotney’s story “Clash of the Titans” in Best Lesbian Erotica 1998, and broke the spine open to that spot from reading it so often. The story is pretty switchy, following a butch top and a femme bottom through an evening of multiple scenes of kinky play. The dirty talk, the strap-on sex and the play with power exchange in every line had me panting.

At first, I was puzzled about why I liked it so much. The complexities of gender are explored, but without exploitation. The sex descriptions are really hot. I like how they’re mutually into each other, taking turns, getting their needs met.

But really: I wanted to be that butch. I wanted to do scenes like that in my own life.

4.

The first time I knew I was a top was in a workshop about power and surrender,* and when I heard other participants releasing old things through heaving sobs, I knew I wanted to learn how to help others do that. That workshop made me begin to understand the ways BDSM — and impact play specifically — could help work shit out.

I believe experiences and emotions are stored in our bodies. I once sat in on Emily Nagoski’s class at Smith College where she mentioned, almost in passing, that she didn’t believe there is any such thing as the mind-body split, because the mind and the body are not two different things; there is only the embodied mind.

Often I’ve wondered if that’s why I’m a top: because I seek the experiences of guiding someone through a process of release. I seek to provide relief and refuge from the complicated realities we face and combat every day.

Coda

There wasn’t a singular instance where I knew, without a doubt, that I’m a top. Maybe identity is more fluid than that, anyway. But many small things have added up to the whole, and while this view from the top is still occasionally fraught with challenges, it is precisely where I want to be.

* Full disclosure: I now lead workshops like this one. Over March 20-21 in Oakland, CA, I’m cofacilitating a Wicked Equinox weekend on Tantra & SM with Alex Jade. Go to bodytrustcircle.com and get on the mailing list to stay informed.

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.

17 Comments

    • I don’t think that’s the *only* reason people are tops, it just happens to be one of mine.

      Dominant people get release in all kinds of ways … there’s release in beating someone, in wrestling, in fucking hard, in telling someone else precisely what to do to one’s body so as to achieve maximum orgasm. I think the possibilities are endless, really!

    • I personally don’t get off when I’m topping. I really enjoy it, and sometimes I get turned on if the person is attractive to me, but I don’t get off. But I love getting a bottom’s response, and it’s similar to the enjoyment I get from a lover’s response. The *sensation* isn’t similar – but the *enjoyment*. (I don’t know if this makes sense.)

      Like Sinclair, I’m butch, but I’ve never bottomed. What gets me off sexually is pretty vanilla, actually. (Although, I suppose it’s a double turn-on if I’m doing something kinky and sexual to my intimate partners – but the orgasm thing for me is pretty damn average, heh.)

  1. In love with this series. I don’t think of myself as bossy on the day to day so that was an interesting part to read/mull over. For me there is a release with being a top as it makes me extra present with my partner, even if we are not close, super aware of where they are at and what they are feeling. This in turn helps me be present in the moment and in my own body-both things that can seem to slip away from me during sex at times.

    • Switch here and I experience the same thing — but the opposite. I’m dominant in non-sexual situations and so being a sub provides me with the much needed opportunity to let go of control. It definitely makes me more present.

    • It seems like for some folks, the bossy/dominant personality crosses over and they are also bossy/dominant in bed, but for other folks, they can have bossy or dominant personalities in life and really want to give over and release in bed. It doesn’t necessarily correlate—I think one is just as common as the other.

      And I’d say that we very often assume folks with dominant social personalities are also tops or doms in bed, and that is not necessarily true. Our assumptions can get us in trouble here.

      • Yeah, it’s taken me a few years to work through the dichotomy of having a very dominant personality, but tapping into that desire to be bossed around in the bedroom. It doesn’t help that people are often the ones projecting their assumptions on what role I hold in my relationships because apparently being confident and strong automatically makes me toppy or “the one who wears the pants” (whatever the fuck that means).

        As an aside, I’ve been reading through your other articles here on Autostraddle and other sites, so a huge thank you for being part of my new education.

  2. I am so very pleased to see this coming in regular installments 🙂 I’ve always been interested in power dynamics and how they affect the ways we relate to ourselves and others. I’m excited to read an intelligent discussion/dissection of BDSM by such an eloquent writer.

  3. In case anyone is confused this is about way more than being top. It’s about being the dominant Sadist on the S-M spectrum. Plenty of tops not into S-M at all. But she writes beautifully.

    • Absolutely true, thanks for making that distinction. It’s really common from the gay boy world to use ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ to indicate who is doing the penetrating, not who is the top in the BDSM sense. I come out of the kink communities, too, so I often align the top as being the sadist and the bottom as being the masochist, because that’s how I identify and who I tend to partner with/date/fuck. But that’s not always the case.

      This series is not meant to be prescriptive, in any way. I don’t expect it to work like this for others, I’m just saying that it works like this for me.

      • Exactly. I just know some girls who are “tops” in that they like to wear the dildo but ask them for a spanking and they go all shy. You’re a top top, so to speak! I love your writing and the honesty in this column.

  4. Love having your writing a series here Sinclair!
    I’m interested to hear more about how you deal with internal conflict/guilt of wanting to dominate a woman. It is seen as such a contrary and “immoral” desire by much of modern society, but for me, the internal dissonance is much worse. I’ve read lots of Sugarbutch and appreciate the advice and observations there and look forward having community discussion here too.

    • If I can chip in my 2 cents, I was personally put off kink for many years because of the attitudes of some of the people I saw doing it. And I didn’t find the porn hot (I still mostly don’t). I was and am a good feminist, and “I would never do that”.

      I’ve stopped saying that particular phrase.

      What helped me deal with it was my first kink partner – in my mid-thirties – who was a strong, determined, feminist woman… and a submissive – actively encouraging me to try it out. What prompted her to go that route with me is that as a butch (I don’t want to be essentialist about this! – not all butches – but it’s part of my butch identity), I was about getting my partner off. I love their responses and reactions. (I like getting off too, but it’s not my primary aim.) I’m also pretty toppy with sex in general.

      You can’t get consent much more active than someone saying “PLEASE do this to me!” And as it worked out, I had a knack for the thing she liked, and I also really liked her responses. If someone is squirming and egging me on from cunnilingus or being beaten, it turns out it doesn’t make much difference to my enjoyment. They’re both great.

      Since then, I have been very fortunate to be involved with many strong, feminist, awesome women who like me doing nasty things to them. And that’s how I’ve managed to avoid mental conflict – they are CHOOSING these activities and they are CHOOSING me to do them with (it’s very flattering). Of course, I too am exercising my own choice – as a top, I actually have my own hard limits.

      There are still sexist dickwads in the kink scene, and plenty of people who use kink to justify their screwed-up relationship paradigms (and not just heterosexuals). But I surround myself with people who have a similar view on kinkiness – just because you’re a sub in a scene doesn’t make you a doormat in life – and it works out just fine.

    • One more thing – some people feel kink is “sick” or due to screwed-up internalisation of society’s more toxic paradigms. Up until a few years ago (relatively speaking), the medical profession said the same thing about queer desires.

      I have friends who say “maybe so” to some past trauma, or to societal programming making us kinky (and others say “definitely not”). But the fact is that if this is what floats our boats right NOW, there’s no point sitting around blaming ourselves or trying to rationalise it (unless you’re acting out in toxic ways). Learning to enjoy it in a way that feels healthy for you, with whatever boundaries you need, and does not harm those around you is the most essential first step, I feel.

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