Honest and thorough communication is the bedrock of BDSM and being afraid of ‘topping from the bottom’ or accusing someone of doing so are not conducive to a healthy and happy relationship.
Topping from the bottom is a phrase that gets tossed around in many different situations and for many different reasons. Critics of the phrase point out that it is often used as a means of silencing a submissive or bottom in an unhealthy way which is true. I’ve also heard bottoms or submissives express that they don’t wish to communicate something to their top or dominant because they don’t want to top from the bottom. In both of these scenarios communication is being thwarted.
However, just on the face of it, one cannot top from the bottom simply by communicating. In the context of BDSM, the roles of top and bottom denote physical action so in order to top from the bottom there must be physical action. One cannot top from the bottom by communicating because communicating is not physical action. (Unless you try to get unnecessarily and counter-productively technical.) In the BDSM realm, action follows negotiation, which means action follows communication, therefore communication in and of itself is not action.
I believe the phrase was born of a very narrow understanding or interpretation of D/s, one in which there are explicit roles that have been negotiated and are understood and agreed to by both partners, and in which the dominant is always the top and the submissive is always the bottom. According to Google, explicit is defined: “stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt.”
It’s important to understand what a top is and what a bottom is. The best definition of a top is ‘one who acts’ and a bottom is ‘one who is acted upon.’ A good example is that for gay men the top is the one who penetrates and the bottom is the one who is penetrated. Spoiler alert, this is different than a dominant and a submissive.
Traditionally, the one who penetrates is the dominant partner and retains power. They are the one acting and therefore have control, whereas the one being penetrated is the submissive partner and is not acting, only receiving the action and therefore has relinquished power and control.
In this sense, top=dominant=one who acts and bottom=submissive=one who is acted upon. Assuming the above scenario is the case, these roles must be explicit, negotiated, understood, and agreed to.
In the case of the kind of D/s relationship described above, then if the submissive does something out of line of the negotiated roles with the intent of affecting change or controlling the dominant or situation, then that is topping from the bottom. The key here is “does something with intent.”
If you are a submissive, have done something which falls outside the scope of your agreed to role, and have done so with the intention of retaining power which you’ve agreed to relinquish or with the intention of taking control of that which you have agreed would be controlled by the dominant, then congratulations, you have just topped from the bottom.
If you are a submissive but have not taken action with intent, then you have not topped from the bottom.
Again, in order for topping from the bottom to even be possible, the relationship must be top=dominant=one who acts and bottom=submissive=one who is acted upon and communication or negotiation does not equal action.
Think back to all the people you have ever met in the kink/BDSM community. How many have ever met such a strict definition of D/s? How many had such explicit roles?
Now think back to how many times you’ve heard the phrase ‘top from the bottom’ either outside such a strict definition of D/s or in response to communication and not action.
So, why the fuck do people use the phrase? It seems almost entirely meaningless and very nearly never applicable.
I’ll tell you why. Because almost never in a relationship is it always top=dominant and bottom=submissive, because roles aren’t explicit but evolve because actions take on new meanings depending on context, communication is difficult and sometimes painful, life is messy, and sexuality and how we relate to it is complicated. The phrase is used as a shortcut or it’s meant to circumvent the ongoing negotiation that is required in any healthy relationship. This happens on both sides of the slash.
Remember what Google said about explicit? “Stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt.” Negotiating explicit roles sounds really difficult, bordering on impossible, but it is possible and some people do commit themselves to such a relationship. Also, it is possible to structure a relationship such that it is agreed that further negotiation = action and so it would be possible to top from the bottom simply by communicating. For most relationships, having explicit roles with no further negotiation allowed has disastrous consequences or at least is unsustainable because people change. Negotiation and communication is inevitable, even if the communication happens in the form of the relationship falling apart.
Buddhists believe that one of the characteristics of existence is annica or the concept of impermanence. Stated simply, nothing is forever. This would lead me to believe that it is natural for roles to change and evolve and stifling that is not healthy. Limiting communication by negotiating it out of a relationship is not healthy. So it makes sense that a healthy relationship makes allowances for change and this necessitates communication.
Topping from the bottom by simply communicating is a thing, but only in an unhealthy relationship. So, my fellow kinksters, the phrase topping from the bottom is bullshit and perpetuating it, and the kind of relationship it implies, does no one any favors.
Knock it the fuck off.