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What’s in a label? Topping, bottoming, Dominance and submission

 (I wrote this essay for the forums at, back in 2012.  Recently a few people asked me to bring it forward, so here it is… )

Note: Our society has become very enamored of the concept of Dom and Sub. Many people come into the lifestyle without ever hearing that any other dynamic can exist, which is why I have written this little essay. I do not wish to give the impression that you or anyone else are restricted to one or another of the roles I have described here. My reason for writing it, in fact, is exactly the opposite– to show that there are more roles and motivations within BDSM than are commonly recognised.

I don’t want to give the impression that any role is solid or permanent. There is a lot of fluidity in most people. Needs and desires change and mutate over a lifetime, within a relationship, for any reason or none. And motives, methods, preferences can be mixed together.

Many people know what they want to feel, and how they want to feel it, and many people get a lot of pleasure out of providing sensation for someone else. This kind of dynamic is widely misunderstood in current BDSM parlance.

Let me start with a handful of Definitions; 

This, as someone recently pointed out to me, is not a definition included in Webster’s dictionary.  But the way I am using “top” and “bottom” here has been common since the seventies. I swear it! Long before I ever heard “submissive” and dominant” there was “top and bottom.” Google agrees with me, so there.

Topping and bottoming refer to relative roles in activities. Dom and sub refer to relative roles in relationships.

When two people are having sex, there is usually one person who is active and one who is receptive. In SM activities, one person is doing unto, and one is being done unto. The active person is the top, the receptive person is the bottom.

Dominant and submissive refer to relative status. Also, for many people, the motivations behind many relational activities.

In the relationships that we define as D/s, one person’s preferences and desires define the relationship, and the other person allows the relationship to be defined by their partner. We say the sub has given their power to the dom.

For our purposes here, we can say that topping and bottoming are the things we do, dom and sub are how or why we do those things. 


Why are these distinctions important to you?

The big problem that arises from this misunderstanding and the resulting social expectations, is that people– women in particular– believe that they want to be submissive and owned because of their desire for sensation when what they really want is to have a whole lot of attention paid to them. And when a service top– whose real intent is to serve– thinks that he has to be the boss in all things, when in fact he might not be suited for that role at all.

Many people come into the lifestyle thinking that anyone who does unto, is dominant. Anyone who receives, is submissive. That’s not always true; Not all tops are doms. Likewise, not all bottoms are subs.

Folks who know how they want to be done are often called “Bossy bottoms,” or SAM’s (“Smart Ass Masochists”) or “Pillow Princesses” or other things, but they they might actually be “Dominant Bottoms.” They might not be submissive at all, in other words. And really, there is no reason why they should try to be.

Tops who want to provide what such a person wants to feel get told that they are wimps, or not really Doms– and in fact, they might not consider themselves to be dominant. They can call themselves “Service Tops,” and IMO, that’s a mighty fine and honorable position to claim. An active partner might not be suited to be the boss. If not, then there is no reason why they should try to be.

If you want more information on what kinds of things can happen in BDSM, I recommend these books, All four of them are ‘old’ these days, and pretty much every other book about BSM is a repeat of what is in these books.

They are;
The New Topping Book
The New Bottoming Book
 by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
Screw The Roses, Send Me The Thorns by Philip Miller and Molly Devon
SM 101; A realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman

They can be found at Amazon or ordered from your local independent bookseller.