Being An Asshole, or Topping From the Bottom?

Thank you to Devastating Yet Inconsequential for permission to repost this post.  My comments are below the double line.

topping from the bottom

Can we please, please retire this concept?

Listen, there is such a thing as being an asshole in bed, no matter what kind of sex you’re having.  These types of behavior might make you an asshole (depending on context):

  • constantly insisting on getting your own way
  • not letting your partner finish the sex equivalent of a thought before correcting them
  • trying to force your partner to do things they don’t like and don’t choose
  • pouting or whining that things aren’t exactly to your liking
  • giving your partner long lists of changes you’d like them to make
  • refusing to play along with any idea you haven’t thought of yourself

When bottoms do things like this, it’s sometimes called “topping from the bottom.”  But the behavior listed above is equally obnoxious from a top or dom.

Listen to your partner.  Give them space to try things.  Be “good, giving, and game” (as Dan Savage puts it).  Be willing to try things yourself.  Prioritize your constructive criticism and give it at a pace your partner can handle.  Recognize your partner as a fellow human being with their own needs and desires, which have an equal claim to be fulfilled.

And, whatever side you are on, don’t worry about “topping from the bottom.”  If you’re worried that you’re impossible for your top to satisfy, work on that.  If you’re distracted by your bottom’s constant comments, talk about that.  But let’s get rid of this concept that I’m pretty sure causes a lot more stress, grief, and reluctance to communicate than it could ever possibly be worth.


First of all, I quite agree that the whole concept of topping from the bottom needs to go away, largely because of what Dev says, namely how badly it (and the fear of being accused of doing it) interferes with communication and the ability to resolve problems.  Even in a D/s relationship, you have a right to have your needs heard and respected, and that means you’ve got to be able to communicate them to your top without fear of this kind of nonsense.  Even in the most extreme M/s, TPE, etc. relationships, you ultimately still have those rights as a human being, even if you’ve negotiated them away.  A smart dominant will listen to them and take them into consideration no matter what the form of the relationship, just as any intelligent partner in a vanilla relationship will.

On the face of it, and without context, this list of behaviors can indeed be quite obnoxious.  I’d argue, actually, that many of them are considerably less appealing when a dominant does them than when a submissive does – and they are very much part of where BDSM may, and often does, cross the line right into abuse.

What the concept of topping from the bottom does is obscure this distinction, and that’s part of why it’s such a bad idea, because far too many people on both sides of the slash cannot tell the difference between topping from the bottom and protecting their own selves from abuse, between a healthy interchange of thoughts and respect for limits as well as attempts to accommodate a partner’s needs and desires, and outright abusiveness.

The notion of topping from the bottom is often pulled out by abusers to justify running roughshod over their submissives, and used as a bludgeon to shut them up and beat them into greater submission, even when so doing is clearly harmful to the sub.  It’s also used as a measuring device to compare one’s own submissiveness to that of other subs, by both subs and doms, when the reality is you simply cannot compare two people or situations, because of differences in individual needs.

Topping from the bottom is a concept that is not limited to what happens in bed, but is also often pulled out by dominants to justify all manner of abuses of their submissives in the rest of life as well, and to stop the sub from objecting.

If we remove the concept and term from our vocabularies altogether, the realities of what may be happening in a given situation are much easier to sort out.

Here are some examples of things that might look like TFTB, or being a jerk on the bottom, but aren’t – and are in fact much more abusive on the part of the top than anything else.

You have needs or limits that your partner isn’t respecting, despite your having repeatedly emphasized them during negotiations and tried to get them respected during play, and he keeps trying to force you to comply with his wishes, which are in direct opposition to your limits.  Perhaps he’s even repeatedly said he will honor them, and then doesn’t, and his behavior is causing you harm.  It’s obvious he has either not actually heard you, or has deliberately chosen to ignore those limits.  Perhaps he is trying to force anal sex on you and you hate that, or he continues to try to use a toy or other technique that you have already told him is off limits, or insisting that you do things that aggravate existing medical problems that he knows about.  Maybe he completely ignores your safeword.  After a while of his attempts, and of trying to behave in a “submissive” fashion by using your safeword and more appropriate forms of trying to get his attention, you get really upset and may even finally start yelling because you want and need to be heard and he isn’t hearing you, but every single time you’re together, he continues to push and demand, and you continue to refuse, and to insist that he respect your limits.

Oftentimes a dominant or other partner will try to get the person whose limits are being violated like this to believe that she is the selfish, demanding one for insisting on having her own way, and to label this “topping from the bottom”, but don’t you believe that for a minute.  You have an absolute right to have your limits respected and to insist upon it.

Better still if you leave altogether if this is a serious ongoing pattern that continues despite repeated discussion about it, but as long as you’re still there, you are not in the wrong for such insistence.  What you are doing is taking care of yourself, taking care of the property, being responsible for your own safety and well-being.  What he is doing is what is abusive.

If he accuses you of topping from the bottom when all you are doing is trying to keep your own self safe, then that is abusive by itself.  At minimum, it shows a profound lack of understanding of what healthy D/s is, and a severe lack of respect for the needs of other people.

If your partner continues to violate limits, and you see it starting up again, interrupting and stopping them before it gets going again is not being a jerk.  Again, it’s protecting your own self.

In a close, intimate relationship, you are perfectly entitled to ask for changes you would like your partner to make when whatever they are doing is hurting you or otherwise causing harm to your or the relationship as a whole.  The idea that we cannot and should not try to change others is nice in theory, but it’s been overdone, because the reality is that sometimes very important issues need to be dealt with by change on the part of one or the other party.  The fact of the matter is, we do tend to expect our partners to be willing to bend, as we do, to accommodate each others’ needs, particularly in the most intimate relationships in our lives, and that requires change.  To hit someone over the head with a long list of desired changes clearly isn’t such a good idea- BUT, if they have been things you’ve already discussed ad infinitum, then perhaps pulling them all together in one place isn’t quite as heinous a crime as it may first appear.

The problem, though, is that most of us cannot make huge numbers of changes all at once, and we need to tackle these things one or two at a time, so even if you do have a long list, it behooves you both to select one or two to start with, and work on those by themselves until they are resolved, and only then move on to the next ones on the list.

Better still if you haven’t waited until you’ve got a long list built up, of course.  Working out issues as they arise, without putting them on the back burner for any reason, is the best way to a) nip them in the bud, b) prevent them from becoming bigger problems, and c) avoid building up a backlog.

The same holds true whether the desired changes are those that deeply affect a relationship (such as insisting that a partner stop abusing alcohol or drugs, cheating, being abusive, etc.), or changes that a dominant wants to have his submissive make as part of the D/s agreement.

If a dominant starts giving a submissive a list of changes he wants, and then takes her to task when she cannot perform them all right away, to his satisfaction, he is the one who has set her up to fail by expecting too much too soon, especially if he expects her to do it all on her own, without any assistance or guidance from him. When the changes are not the kinds of core things that threaten a relationship completely at its foundation, it is particularly incumbent upon him to introduce them gradually so that she has a real chance to succeed.

In healthy D/s, as with healthy vanilla relationships, change is a process, and we MUST allow our partners time to adjust, time to learn new skills, time to integrate new patterns into their way of being in the world.  A dominant in particular who wants changes had better be prepared to patiently teach the submissive what he wants her to do (or arrange for someone else more qualified to do so), to lead her there, to increase expectations gradually – and to behave himself in ways that support the changes he is asking for.  It is essential to not do things that sabotage the very changes you are asking for.

So, for example, if you want your submissive to lose weight (an all too common thing), perhaps she needs some education about how to go about doing that.  Help her find the information if she needs it.

Learn yourself what a reasonable and healthy rate of weight loss and increase in activity levels is, and don’t try to demand something unreasonable of her.  Asking a person who is overweight and has been sedentary for many years to suddenly start walking a mile a day, every single day, right off the bat, is utterly unreasonable, unrealistic, could be outright dangerous to her health, especially for those in middle age or older, and sets her up completely for failure on multiple levels.

Have her see a doctor to ensure that it’s safe for her to exercise and diet before demanding she start, particularly if she is older.  Learn what a healthy, graduated exercise plan is your self, and help her construct and schedule her healthy, safe workouts if she needs assistance with planning.  Encourage her, and acknowledge even the small successes.

Participate with her.  Go with her on walks or to the gym when your schedule allows.  It will do you good as well, it will allow you to lead by example – and it will be a great way to spend time together that will also let her know that you really and truly support her.  But be encouraging; don’t discourage her for what she cannot do initially.

And for God’s sake, don’t sabotage her diet by trying to ply her with all kinds of high fat and high sugar content foods or huge portions, especially if you live together or spend enough time together that a substantial portion of your meals are taken together and you’re the one in charge of meals and cooking.

There is no one on this earth who will not benefit from a healthy, low fat diet, so help set the example for her whether you yourself need to lose weight or not, and help make it easier for her by making sure you don’t undermine her attempts to change with your own actions.  If you like a lot of candy and other junk food, fine, keep it there for yourself if you must, but make sure there are also plenty of healthy, tasty, “safe” things around for her to snack on that are allowed by whatever meal plan she is on whenever she wants a nibble.

And whatever you do, if you do do things that sabotage her, don’t blame her for her failure when you yourself are a contributory part of it.  It’s not fair, it’s not kind – and yes, it may well even be abusive if it goes far enough.

If she asks you for help and your cooperation in supporting her in her efforts, this is also not topping from the bottom.  It’s an entirely reasonable request.

If these kinds of things are too hard for you to do, then get your ass out of the dom kitchen, because you don’t belong there.

It’s hard enough in a vanilla relationship to offer support to a partner who is trying to make healthy changes, and to navigate the waters of negotiating a mutually satisfactory balance of needs and desires both in bed and in out, but if you are purporting to take on the control of another person’s life and behavior, then you had damn well better make sure your own ducks are fully in a row before you even start, and that you are capable of leading by example, not by demand, and both willing and able to be supportive of the changes you ask for.  To try to take control of any aspect of another human being’s life without having your own shit together enough to not feel threatened by the issues that will inevitably arise, and to be unable to get past your own issues in order to help her along the path you want her to follow, is outright irresponsible.  At best, it will result in a lot of unnecessary hurt feelings and pain; at worst, you will abuse her outright.  You do not have the right to try to control someone else if you don’t already have damn good control of your own self, including the ability to ensure that you don’t sabotage the changes you ask for.

If you find yourself in a relationship with a submissive who you think is topping from the bottom too much, the first place to start looking for causes is inside your own self.  If you are leading by example, with your own act together, with reasonable expectations and respect for her limits, you will inspire the submission you desire, and topping from the bottom will be an entirely moot concept.

If you’re on the bottom, it doesn’t matter what form your relationship takes, you still have a right to expect support from your partner of both your limits and any changes he wants you to make.  You also have a perfect right – and indeed an obligation – to stand up for your own needs and limits, and to insist they be respected.

If you’re the submissive asking for changes, then you also need to be prepared to do your part to help support him, whether it’s going together for counseling, helping him find resources he needs to learn what he needs to know so he can be more successful with the changes he needs to make, learning to recognize his legitimate attempts to change and trying to be more patient as he stumbles along, etc., but you still need to hold your own boundaries and limits if he continues to violate them.  To help him in this way is not TFTB; it’s supporting your partner, and in fact, can be seen as a form of service.

If what he is doing is harming you, and you stop him, what you are doing is protecting the property, if you really need to see it in D/s terms in order to make sense of the idea and learn to take care of your own self.

Good dominants will tell their submissives that they are expected to take care of the property, even if it means protecting themselves from the dominant himself.  Really healthy doms will recognize when that is actually happening, and take steps to fix their own behavior rather than blame the submissive for not being submissive enough or topping from the bottom.

Another all too common scenario that often earns subs the “topping from the bottom” mislabel is things like dominants who sit on their lazy asses and make their submissives work to pay the bills, and turn over their paychecks – once the submissive wakes up to how she is being used and insists on a change wherein he pulls his own weight and quits sucking off of her.

If you wouldn’t turn over your paycheck to a vanilla partner at that stage of a relationship, or be willing to support him, then don’t think for a minute you need to do so with a dominant.  Yes, people do do this in relationships quite successfully – and it may make perfect sense, once you know each other really, really well, and perhaps are even married.  But if some guy (or woman) asks you to start doing this when you first meet or shortly thereafter, trust me, they do not have your best interests at heart, and what you are setting yourself up for is abuse of your generosity, if not worse.  Demanding respect and that your partner pull his own weight is not only not topping from the bottom, or obnoxious, it’s the only reasonable and healthy thing any self-respecting human being would do.

Please join in and tell me other scenarios you can think of where healthy responses may be mislabeled as something like topping from the bottom.  These are only a few possibilities.

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