Position, Role, and Fetishism

I believe one of the most pervasive misunderstandings in kink is the difference between top and bottom, Dominant and submissive, and fetishism. In My experience, this confusion is not limited to people who are new to the culture, but people who have been involved in it for many years and don’t quite seem to know what they are and which apply to them. Because I think it is a fundamental aspect to concise negotiations and overall better experiences, allow Me to explain.

The first thing that is helpful to think about is that our experiences are multi-dimensional. Whether that experience is kinky or not, there is never just one thing going on at a time. Even if you’re just sitting there, breathing, your body is completing a multitude of tasks at once: your heart is beating, your body temperature is being regulated, and your immune system is on alert. Likewise, in kink, there is more than one thing going on. Three of those things are the focus of this article.

The three things are: topping and bottoming, or what I’ll call “position”; Dominance and submission, or what I’ll call “role”; and fetishism. While they all relate to one another, they have distinct differences which are helpful to understand, not only for self-awareness but when seeking out others for play. Understanding which concepts best describe you can help you hone in on who and what it is you’re looking for.

First, I’ll define position. When someone assumes the active position in play, we call that person the “top”. This is the person who provides the sensation, physically and/or emotionally. This means it’s the person who is spanking, tying, spitting, humiliating, or penetrating. The complement is the person who assumes the passive position, what is called the “bottom”. This person receives the sensation, physically and/or emotionally, that the top is providing. This means it’s the person being spanked, being tied, being spit upon, being humiliated, or being penetrated. Of course, one can do both, and when someone does they’re called a “switch” or “versatile”. Note that this doesn’t say anything more than who is giving and who is receiving.

Next, we have role. Consider that in life, there are people whose role is to lead or assume control and there are people whose role is to follow or to relinquish control. This dynamic applies to kinky play as well. The person who leads or controls play is called a “Dominant”. Dominants make the decisions about how and when the spanking, tying, spitting, humiliating, or penetrating will take place. The person who follows or is controlled in play is called a “submissive”. A submissive is not there to make the decisions about how and when the (negotiated) activities occur, their role is to submit to the decisions of the Dominant. In BDSM culture, we call this dynamic “D/s”, which is short for “Dominant/submissive” or “Dominance/submission”.  It’s what the middle two letters in BDSM stand for. (There is another dynamic which we call “M/s”, which is short for Mistress/slave or Master/slave, and is another form of power exchange which has different expectations, but I’m not going to go into that here.) Note that this doesn’t say anything about who is creating or receiving the sensation; only who is in control of it.

Lastly, there’s fetishism. When the term “fetish” was first introduced in the early 20th century, it was used to describe something that needed to be present in order for someone to feel sexual arousal. Since then, it’s grown beyond its clinical beginnings to more broadly encompass something that is not considered inherently sexual but causes sexual arousal, such as shoes, being put in a diaper, being tied to a chair, or being slapped in the face. And now, we also have a pop culture concept of “fetish” which can be anything someone is fixated on, including things we think of as sexual.

A fetish is a subjective experience. What is a fetish for one person may not be for another. Because it is subjective, it will therefore involve personal variables about what, when, and how the fetish manifests. Fetishes may be common between people, such as seeing a woman put on pantyhose, or be unique to that individual, such as that it must be Mistress Belinda putting on nude, Cuban-heel, thigh-high stockings with black contrast. Note that this says nothing about giving or receiving, or about power dynamics, just arousal.

Now, I’ll describe some of the confusion people seem to have with these layers.

Probably the most common misunderstanding I see is the conflation of position and role. While it is common for the person assuming the top position to also be the Dominant, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes a person can control the way in which they receive sensation. If Mistress Belinda says, “Lick My stockings!” how would we describe her position and role? Well, because Mistress Belinda is both dictating the action and receiving the licking, she is acting as a Dominant bottom. The party that is agreeing to follow Her command and provide the licking is acting as a submissive top. Another term you may hear used to describe a submissive top is “service top”. This person submits to requests/orders/control about how they will provide sensation to another.

Perhaps the second most common misunderstanding is the difference between wanting to assume a role and wanting to assume a position. It is common that people who say they want to Dominate or submit don’t actually want to do those things at all. Someone may say they’re submissive, but what they really want is to bottom. That is, they want someone to take the active role in creating sensations for them, not submit to someone else’s control about how those sensations happen. Likewise, some who consider themselves “Dominant” are really tops, in that they enjoy creating sensation for others, but they want someone to tell them what they want them to do, and then they’ll do it.

Maybe the third most common misunderstanding is the confusion between what it means to actually exchange power and to fetishize it. There are many people who say they want a Dominant or submissive, whether it be for play or a relationship, but what is really going on is that they actually just have a fetish for it. What does that mean, exactly?

Submissive and slave, like Dominant and Mistress/Master, are words we use to describe the way power is exchanged. Fetishism is not about power, it’s about arousal. Because a fetish is about arousal, to fetishize something is to be aroused by one’s own subjective perceptions about a person or object. It’s a form of appropriation, or assigning a value to something based on one’s own feelings or beliefs about it rather than what it actually is. For example, being aroused by someone with glasses because they’re assumed to be more intelligent or by a person with blonde hair because they’re assumed to be less; certain ethnicities because they are “exotic”; or Dominant women because they are believed to exist to be a service top to men’s sexual fantasies.

Since a person’s ideas and fantasies may in no way reflect the reality of the person or object, it is said the person or object is being fetishized. While fetishizing something is normal, it can be problematic. People may not welcome someone’s fetishization of them. This is not only because it’s appropriation, but because it’s a form of objectification. Nonconsensual objectification to serve another’s erotic and sexual desires is dehumanizing. This is why I believe it is especially important for fetishists to understand their motivations and responsibly negotiate them. Without this awareness, you are treading in very touchy terrain.

An example that encapsulates the three areas of this article is a man who identifies as a “submissive” and wants a “Dominant” woman that dresses, acts, feels, and speaks in the way that he desires. In actuality, this man is fetishizing a woman who he would like to control into being what he wants her to be. So, this man who thinks he’s a “sub” is actually a Dominant fetishist. If he wants her to do things to him, such as “tease and denial”, he’s also a bottom. If he wants to do things to her, such as body worship, he’s also a top. This relates to what we call “topping from the bottom“, a misnomer that really refers to “Dominating from the submissive role”. I can tell you that as lifestyle and professional Dominant with over a decade of experience playing with a lot of men, this is a very common situation.

So, what is happening here?

Many men seem to find the idea of being controlled by a woman to be sexually arousing, but the actuality of it is not what they are really looking for. There is a disparity between their fantasy of what She is like and the reality. This fantasy is often the result of the influence of media, such as pornography, on one’s ideas and perceptions.

Let me talk a little bit more about how porn can help create this situation.

Porn is a business, and its business is to arouse. Those who create porn must think of what arouses their audience. If their audience is men, they need to understand their fantasies. Since a person’s fantasies put them at the center, they do not necessarily reflect reality, where they aren’t the sole participant but part of an equation and set of circumstances with one or more people. (This isn’t a male or erotic phenomenon, by the way, but a natural byproduct of fantasy itself.)

In a FemDom clip, for example, the idea isn’t so much about depicting a woman actually being in control, as it is about her embodying what they think their (male) audience  wants her to be like. This is why it is common for Female Dominants to encounter men who expect Us to simply act out their fantasies without little to no regard about our part of the equation. (And, yes, Dominants can also be confused by the fantasy of what they believe they are supposed to be.)

The mixture of not understanding these concepts and the blurring between what is fantasy and what is reality can add to the confusion of who you are and what you are trying to accomplish. If you recognize what it means to be Dominated versus being be topped, or if what you are really feeling is a fetish, you will be able to find a more comfortable space in which to explore your kinks and further refine your experiences.

If you would like help figuring out your own kinky identity, I offer high-quality, personalized coaching.

Hard Limits and Soft Limits

If you have spent any time experimenting with BDSM, you probably very quickly heard the term “hard limit”. Hopefully, you also heard about its close relative the “soft limit”. While they are both refer to limitations placed on the activities performed during scenes, they mean different things.

Before I discuss what they are, I want to mention that people have varying definitions of what they mean. So, you may run into explanations that differ from mine. This is how I define them.

First, I want to talk about a couple of common misconceptions. The first is that people (usually newer players) think that “hard” and “soft” refer to a to a scale of play intensity. So, when asked about their hard and soft limits, will say something like, “medium”. Another even more common idea is that a soft limit refers to something you have done and might not like very much, such as CBT or electrical stimulation (“e-stim”). Often this is followed by a, “but I’m okay doing it if you enjoy it, Mistress.” Those are not soft limits, they are preferences. Limits have to do with boundaries.

Then, what is a soft limit and how does it differ from a hard one?

A hard limit is non-negotiable. It is something you are not willing to do under any circumstances. This can be a never, ever kind of thing or it could be only for this one scene you’re negotiating with this one person(s) you’re about to play with.

A soft limit is negotiable but within certain parameters. It is something you are willing to do as long as certain conditions are met. Like a hard limit, a soft limit can be something that is static across time or it may depend on the scene and who’s involved in that scene.

Hard and soft limits apply to both physical or mental/emotional activities. Some examples of physical hard limits could be impact play, spitting, or anal stimulation. Turning the above examples into physical soft limits could be liking impact but only on your butt;  liking spitting, but not on your face; or enjoying anal stimulation as long as there is no penetration. Some emotional hard limits could be degradation, abandonment, or brainwashing. Turning these into emotional soft limits could be finding it hot to be called a slur as long as it’s playful and not “mean”; liking to be abandoned as a part of your scene but only if followed by a particular type of aftercare; or enjoying being verbally brainwashed about what your gender is but not your sexuality.

An easy way to determine if a limit on an activity is hard or soft is to ask yourself: “Am I willing to do this activity under ANY circumstances?” If the answer is NO, then you have discovered a hard limit. If the answer is YES, and you have specific requirements that must be met in order for you to do it, then you have identified a soft limit.

When you realize that you are willing to do an activity in some instances, think carefully about what those instances are. Imagine what circumstances would need to occur in order to allow something to be done or said to you. Inversely, imagine what circumstances would absolutely stop you from wanting to do it.

People often seem confused about the circumstances part. I regularly have people tell Me something like, “I have a hard limit on marks. They can’t last more than a day.” What you have actually just told Me is that you have a soft limit on marks. The reason is because you’re actually okay with being marked, it’s just that those marks have conditions. The condition is that they last no more than a day. If you could not be marked at all — that is, you cannot leave the session with a trace of anything — then it would become a hard limit.

Some limits are very clear for people and some limits are not. Physical limits are usually easier to determine. Emotional limits, on the other hand, are often nebulous territory. It’s common for people to say they are unsure about their emotional limits. They may indicate they enjoy being degraded, for example, but are not really sure where that enjoyment may end. Then, someday, during a scene, they hear a word or phrase or end up feeling a certain way after a particular scenario and realize they have just discovered at least one fence post in the field of their emotional landscape.

It’s okay if you’re not sure about what your limits are. Even experienced players may not be sure of what they will enjoy — especially with a new play partner — or be aware of all the conditions around a particular activity. One way to become more sure is to go into your play consciously. Have conversations about your scenes, maybe take notes or even journal about them. This will help you become more aware of what is working and what your limits may be and why.

 

Mistress Tissa’s Lexicon: Boner High

Boner High: The effects in perception and judgment due to sexual arousal. This can be expressed positively and negatively. (For My non-English readers who aren’t aware, “boner” is a slang word for an erection.)

When someone is sexually aroused it is usually accompanied by a motivation to seek out a way to release the tension that builds from this arousal. The good thing that can come from this is that it can add fuel to a hot fantasy, open minds to try new things, expand consciousness, and make for more satisfying sexual experiences. The bad thing is that people may do all sorts of stupid shit while under its influence — from the slightly embarrassing to the criminal. Lives can be and have been forever changed from impulsive behavior due to its effects.

One effect is that it tends to change the way people perceive reality. This is similar to what a drug can do. One’s focus becomes very singular: fulfillment of the “need”. Blinders go on and everything else is drowned out. There is often an rise in poor manners and judgment, feelings of entitlement, double standards, and misunderstanding, ignoring, or even violating the boundaries of others. People may say or do anything in order to satiate their need — even at their own peril.

For example, one of My policies for all new clients is that they must put a deposit down on a session. The primary reason why I, and many other Dommes, require this is because of the prevalence of Boner High. What happens is: people begin fantasizing, get aroused, want relief, contact a Dominatrix to set-up a session, and then between the time they set it up and the time it’s supposed to happen, the sexual tension becomes too unbearable and they find release. Sometimes the act of making the appointment is actually the culmination of the high, if not just talking to the Domme. Therefore, once the tension has been released, the session is no longer desired (if it ever truly was) and so they don’t show up or cancel. As professionals, we obviously can’t sustain our livelihood by allowing ourselves to be subject to the negative effects of Boner High. (I do love the positive effects, though.) Putting down money shows us you’re serious and thinking with more than your Boner. And if you’re not? Well, that’s your responsibility, not Ours.

Mistress Tissa’s Lexicon: Scene Director

Scene Director: This is the person who attempts to tell the Dominant how to run the show. They may tell Her/Him how to dress, how they should behave, what emotions to feel, what their motivation is, how and when to do an activity and for how long. The more Dominant a person is they more they hate this.

Some of you may say, “But shouldn’t I tell the Dominant what I like and don’t like?” Of course. But there is a difference between discussing your likes and limits and micromanaging your Dominant. Scene Directors tend to want to make decisions that are normally the responsibility and interest of the Dominant. They tend to completely disregard the concept of “negotiation” and self-proclaimed and/or agreed upon submission. They assume that the Dominant is merely there to follow their script, instead of the one who is supposed to direct the scene. If you’re looking to be director, and want the “Domme” to be the actress in your fantasy, you’re looking for what’s called a “service top” (i.e. not a Domme).

When encountered by a professional Dominant it is especially irksome because it shows Us that despite your interest in what We offer, you either have a lack of trust in Our ability to do it or you are simply objectifying Our role in the interaction. If you feel this way, you may wish to reflect on what’s really going on for you; or, if it’s because you’re nervous because you aren’t clear about how We may do an activity, simply ask for more time to go over things.

A Scene Director is also said to be “topping from the bottom

Mistress Tissa’s Lexicon: Wank Maid

Wank Maid: My term for women/femmes who are expected to be at the beck and call of men/butches and their hard-ons. It involves a presumption that a woman/femme’s job — whether she’s Dominant, submissive, top, bottom, switch, vanilla, kinky — is to attend to men’s/butch’s sexual needs as needed. I also use “Cock Attendant“.

Some people LIKE being wank maids/cock attendants, so it isn’t inherently pejorative.

Mistress Tissa’s Lexicon: Drive-By/Drive-Through Top

Drive-By Top or Drive-Through Top: My term for people who are at the receiving end of horny bottoms expecting “service” for immediate desire fulfillment.

Much like a person who makes a suggestive remark to someone they are driving by, hoping for their attention in the process, or enters the drive-through at a fast food joint to place an order for immediate delivery, the bottom expects people to engage with and serve their interests at their whim.

Example: Guys often send Me emails, messages on other sites (like FetLife), and tweets with things like, “Mistress, tell me how you would bend Me over your knee and spank my naughty boy bottom! Show me who’s boss!!” or “I am a dirty pig slut and want you to use and abuse me, Mistress! Make me lick your dirty shoes and eat the shit from your asshole!”

This is someone placing an “order” that they want/hope/expect/feel entitled for you to fulfill. They approach and attempt to manipulate you into playing with them. The focus is SOLELY on them and you providing the top role to their sexual needs in the immediate moment. There is no attempt to negotiate or to ask you what you would like in return.

Sometimes these people say they’re a “submissive”, but make no mistake they are bottoms — and pushy ones at that.

Drive-By Bottom or Drive-Through Bottom are the equivalents for those who receive the same treatment from pushy tops.