Detangling some different meanings in top/bottom

{I’ve had like, a completely different form for a post on this topic in my head for literally years. Doesn’t look like that one’s getting written at least any time soon, and I had some stuff that caused different thoughts since, but currently had some thoughts in a new form and want to write something!}

(Additional/general/underlying point: It is really, really common for these to be conflated, tangled, assumed to go together, etc, in ways that do harm, interfere with communication and self-understanding, etc, including domist ways.)

  • Who is physically or otherwise actively doing things (vs having them done to them).

  • If there is a power dynamic, who is the d-side.

    • I had a whole thought-set on how a meaning of topping was a kind of ‘semi-domming’. Then I read the beginning of The New Topping Book, where top/bottom are just used to mean d-side/s-side basically entirely, and ran into more posts and stuff, and – yeah it’s in fact often more than that.
    • One issue that comes up is that there’s not actually enough conscious attention to whether or not a scene in fact has a power dynamic. A lot of unspoken defaults and etc mean that things people will sometimes go talk about as ‘only physical topping’ in fact totally have an unspoken power dynamic going on. This is a problem in a variety of ways.
    • I think the combination of these two can get in fact kind of gaslight-y at people.
  • Who is leading/directing action.

    • Note that this is not actually the same as the active-doing meaning, though they’re often conflated. Example: telling someone how to hit/touch/tie/etc you.
    • Again, neither a ‘one person does one and the other does the other’ nor a binary. ‘Fluid (or for that matter non-fluid but say determined by preset signals) turn taking’ and ‘cooperative construction’ are things that can be done.
    • Also variation in how this can be done – ‘person 1 decides what to do and does it’, ‘person 1 decides what to do and tells person 2 to do that’, ‘person 1 has an idea and says to person 2 ‘how about this”, etc, can be possible and different dynamics.
  • Who is responsible for/doing ‘scene emotional work’.

    • I’ve come more to conceptualizing this as a category, and have struggled for a while with how to refer to it. At the moment here using the above.
    • Credit to Xan West for a lot of these thoughts – see Two Footing and Holding the Scene in the essay One Sadist’s Consent.
    • Scene emotional work is the work that goes into keeping things ok and well, noticing if there’s a problem and doing something about it, etc. One example, going to what Xan talked about, is ‘staying present’ in the ‘real world’ to notice things like ‘it is a bad idea to go farther’, ‘something has gone wrong’, etc. Another example is making sure aftercare needs get met.
    • One of the things Xan points out is that there’s often a very strong implicit idea/expectation that the ‘top’ (in the d-side sense and conflated/tangled with others) does this work, and the bottom does not (and that this idea/expectation is a problem).
    • One additional place I’ve seen this: there’s recently been more recognition and discussion of the fact that ‘tops’ can also need aftercare. (Which is very good and important and should continue and strengthen). However, at least I personally have not actually seen much discussion on how tops getting aftercare is conceptualized. I think this is largely due to this bringing up tension with ‘expectation that ‘bottom’ is not doing scene emotional work’.
      (To be clear, wanting to be free from expectations of this scene work and have someone else take it on is a valid thing to want or to need for scenes to work for you. However, like wants and needs in general, dynamics of this ought to be part of negotiations and compatibility, rather than implicitly assumed in a one-size-for-all.)
    • I was going to put planning the scene here, then it occurred to me it could also go under leading/directing, then it occurred to me that leading/directing could itself be seen as under emotional work. I think the best model for me currently is to continue to separate them out, with the leading/direction (where I do think scene planning/genesis/impetus properly falls) being a type of emotional work in the broader sense but in a different category than this one here.

2 thoughts on “Detangling some different meanings in top/bottom”

  1. I want to think this over, because there are a bunch of different ways emotional work can happen in a scene or in a D/s relationship, and I would say the majority of them go unspoken and un-negotiated, and are just assumed to occur in particular ways and assumed to be handled by particular roles.

    Frex, in many discussions of journaling/scene reports as a communication practice, it is assumed that bottoms are the ones doing that act of emotional vulnerability, and that it will not be reciprocated or balanced by something the top does that is as vulnerable. Instead, the top’s role is to read, listen, hold space for this vulnerability, and use the information to plan the next scene/direct the D/s dynamic in the future. Both are doing emotional work, but it is of a different timbre.

    Frex, one of the common things that occurs post scenes that tops are assumed to do is to attend to and where appropriate praise the effort/bravery/labor/emotional and/or physical strength/emotional risk on the part of the the bottom in the scene and where appropriate reassure the bottom that they are pleased with the bottom and the scene. Some folks do this as part of aftercare, some during a next day check in, some both. In turn, bottoms are generally expected to communicate openly about the emotional needs they have and the emotional impact of the scene, whether they have drop, to ask for what they need if they are experiencing drop. This is also emotional labor, but of a different sort.

    I think the words “hold space” that you referenced in my post are apt. The emotional work generally assigned to tops (not overtly, just expected) is that of being a container, of holding space, holding the bottoms emotional reactions and needs related to the scene. And the emotional work generally assigned to the bottom is that of emotional risk, emotional openness, and emotional vulnerability.

    To be clear: I am not saying that these *should* be the expectations, but that culturally they currently *are* the expectations. I have many issues with these expectations, some of which I have written about.

    Anyway, thanks for laying this out so I could think on it more.

    You noted that people don’t often discuss how tops getting aftercare is conceptualized. I have not written about this, but I potentially could. Did you have particular questions you were considering wrt this?

    1. (Want to come back and respond to the rest of your comment (!) also but atm wanted to respond re:)

      You noted that people don’t often discuss how tops getting aftercare is conceptualized. I have not written about this, but I potentially could. Did you have particular questions you were considering wrt this?

      Hm, so – ok, common narrative of ‘how a scene goes’ (like you said, the fact that this is such a ‘should’/expected narrative is not *good*, but currently a thing that’s around):

      There is arrangement for the scene etc. There is the scene, in which the top does things to the bottom. The bottom maybe goes space-y, etc. Once the scene ends the bottom is probably wrung out type things, so the top helps provide them aftercare to help with that/get them back some to earth/etc.

      So, people are talking more about ‘tops can also need aftercare’, but not really discussing that in the context of how a scene-etc goes more generally. Which a) it’s unclear how that’s conceptualized as fitting into the noted narrative. So it’s kind of this ‘add-on’ without addressing more underlying assumption and one-size-fits all tendencies.

      And b) that narrative *is* in fact how some people want to scene, and there’s not really discussion of what to do with a top’s potential aftercare needs in that case, since the bottom providing them doesn’t really go with the ‘bottom is wrung out etc and being taken care of’ thing.


      More generally/re other parts of your comment, yeah it’s def the case that there are a lot of forms of emotional work going on and different expectations of them etc; I really would want a more specific word for this one that identifies specifically this group/cluster/category. And, ty for pointing that out, and pointing out other kinds of emotional work and expectations!


      Thank you!

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