I Wanna Play!
So, like me, you’ve had these – urges. Forbidden desires. Maybe you’re not sure what to make of them yet. Maybe you feel a little guilty about them. Maybe that’s part of the fun. Or maybe you’re pretty comfortable with them, really. You’re just not sure what exactly to call them or how to describe them.
Fortunately, people who apparently have a lot more time on their hands than we do have come up with some handy identifiers for explaining key “roles” in the vast BDSM theater of passion. You may find yourself identifying with elements from multiple identifiers. It’s ok. BDSM, like any relationship/people related activity may require custom adjustments for greatest success. Although philosophies may vary among players, clubs, regions and sub-groups, BDSM is ultimately about exploring personal frontiers. My New Guard philosophy says that it’s ok for us to define those frontiers individually as long as we communicate, communicate, communicate clearly with our play partners to make sure we’re all using roughly the same words to mean roughly the same thing.
First off, of course – what the heck is BDSM? It’s a currently popular term used to include a number of variations of kinky behavior, most notably Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism. Clearly there are other fun things one can do, but it’s a term that scoops together enough of What It Is That We Do (WIITWD), that it communicates its meaning effectively.
Within the greater context of BDSM there are specific activities that involve participant identifiers to explain who is (generally) performing actions and who is receiving them. Most notably: Top, bottom, Dominant, submissive and switch. There are also two major types of BDSM play: sensation play and role play/mind play.
The terms Top (sometimes spelled informally, in lowercase, as “top”) and Dominant (also, “Dom,” or “Domme”) refer to the person ostensibly in charge of the action during a scene/encounter. This is usually the person wielding the flogger, dispensing the discipline, barking the orders, tightening the restraints, lacing the corset or in some way taking a role of authority.
Hollywood has generally portrayed people who enjoy the dominant role in BDSM play in terms of fashion, usually focusing on leather, latex, vinyl, boots, whips, and handcuffs. Although each of these is certainly a wonderful part of the kinky landscape, creative players know that they’re only the beginning. Why can’t Goldie Locks tie up the three bears and spank them? What’s more terrifying than being at the mercy of an enraged Catholic schoolgirl during exam week? It’s ok to let your imagination run wild. Let the inmates interrogate the guards, the altar boys bugger the priests, the martyrs lead the lions around on leashes.
Although people sometimes use the terms Top and Dominant interchangeably (either from ignorance or as part of a verbal shortcut among those “in the know” during informal conversation), they do have important practical and semantic differences regarding power exchange. Generally, when someone refers to a Top, they are referring to someone who engages in play without an emphasis on power exchange. Partners are essentially equals in and out of scene. A Dominant, however, expands the role to include at least some degree of psychological and/or sexual control, thus creating a hierarchical play relationship. Some Dominants seek partners for “real life” 24-hour/seven-day-a-week Dominant/submissive relationships.
The list of kinky things that go together well includes collars and leashes, blindfolds and nipple clamps, Tops and bottoms, Dominants and submissives. Each compliments the other, although the human interactions are a bit more vital to one another’s existence. Without the bottom, the Top has no one to play with. Without the submissive, the Dominant’s sense of balance and security is incomplete.
Just as the Top or Dominant generally performs an action (spanking, whipping, tickling, restraining…), the bottom receives the action. As with their counterparts, bottoms tend to be more sensation driven and engage in play fairly free of power dynamics. Submissives, on the other hand, are engaged in play where agreed upon levels of control and power are surrendered and the mutually consensual imbalance explored, enjoyed or even celebrated.
Now, this all makes BDSM sound nice and neat and well organized, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, that feeling won’t last long. The oh, so lovable Darklady, like many other New Guard players, rocks the binary model by adopting the designation of “switch.” Like the bisexual, the switch knows what s/he wants: everything. Top, bottom, Dominant, submissive – it’s all fair game. A switch may decide whether to take on the Top or bottom, Dominant or submissive role based on what gender or age their play partner is, the type of play engaged in, the emotional or sexual dynamics that exist between play partners – or other personally meaningful and mutually agreed upon reasons. There are some who claim that, like pixies, talking frogs and one-size-fits-all comfort, switches do not really exist. But those of us who know better, know better.
Because humans are clever monkeys, we’ve come up with a myriad of ways to play Let’s Pretend. Within the BDSM multiverse, there are as many ways to set up and act out a scene as there are participants, but there are two major stages upon which we may present our passion plays: the body and the mind.
Much can, and probably will, be said on this subject but, in overly simple terms, there are those who play for the body rush and those who play for the mind fuck — and each can serve as a gateway to profound emotional and/or spiritual insight. Any given scene can, of course, include a combination of both forms of stimulation. For instance, just as there are those who simply enjoy the sensation of giving or receiving a whipping, spanking, body restriction or modification, and those who find their bliss in service, verbal humiliation, or role-playing – there is usually some blending of the two. One might, for instance, enjoy both the feminine charm of cross-dressing as well as the discomfort of restrictive garments. Likewise, an eagerness to please or administer corporal discipline combined with a student/teacher scenario blends the two extremes nicely. The “rape” or ravishment fantasy, familiar even to theoretically “vanilla” dreamers, is another clear example of combining the best of both play concepts.
However each of us chooses to self-identify and play, ultimately we are embarking on individual paths of sensation and self-discovery. As with any journey, expect the unexpected, don’t be surprised if you feel lost once in a while and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Perhaps most importantly, relax and enjoy the ride.
The following books are highly recommended for reading about basic BDSM concepts and include glossaries with a wealth of Scene-related terminology:
The Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
The Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
SM 101 by Jay Wiseman
Different Loving by Gloria Brame, et. Al.
Come Hither by Gloria Brame
Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns by Philip Miller and Molly Devon
The Loving Dominant by John Warren, Ph.D.
The Sexually Dominant Woman by Lady Green
Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices by Brenda Love