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.
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A pile of good things and a pile of bad things: partitioning terminology

{Originally posted on my tumblr on Thurs Feb 6 2014}

In our world, there are a lot of very broad terms that, in what they are used to label, involve both awesome ideas, helpful things, and good people – and also abuses, problems, and horrible and harmful things. As far as I’ve been able to tell, people who use these terms but are at least to some extent aware of this situation tend to take one of three approaches for dealing with this.

1) Use the term exclusively for the bad things, and separate out the good things.
As an example, I read a story by an author who does this for therapy. She thinks therapy is useless and generally problematic. However, in the same story, the people trying to help the main character talk about how it is important for him to have someone to talk to who will value him, and also take him to a person who can teach him techniques for emotional regulation (like meditation). These things are explicitly said to be not therapy.

2) Use the term exclusively for the good things, and separate out the bad things.
This is the approach people with a ‘if it wasn’t consensual, it wasn’t sex, it was rape’ conceptualization are taking.

3) Use the term for both the good things and the bad things.
So, therapy can be abusive, but doesn’t have to be, it can be unhelpful and it can be helpful. Consensual sex and sex that is rape can both be called sex. Etc.

Personally, approach 3 is the one I usually take. I find it more useful in letting me talk about both bad and good things that other people (or society) use the term for without getting into a terminology discussion or getting everyone confused because of it. I find it more useful in navigating things that aren’t black and white – maybe I went to see a therapist and it was both problematic and helpful. And I find it less of an issue of singling some things out – therapy is hardly the only relationship that can be abusive and can be positive. Kissing and other types of interactions can be consensual or not just as much as sex can. Etc.

But, regardless of which version someone prefers, the thing that it’s important to watch out for is when people end up talking past each other because they’re taking different approaches, and aren’t thinking about this difference.

Heroes and Villains

This isn’t properly a kink topic – more of a morality and personal media analysis topic. But given the way my kinks work, these categories are a very large part of the dynamics that I like, and sometimes I talk about characters as being in these categories (as I did in my last post). So I think it makes sense for me to define the terms as I use them.

For me, villains are characters who willingly hurt innocent people. Or, to put it in more exact though less simple terms, characters who willingly hurt people who are too innocent/not guilty enough to be hurt in that way. (As usual when I use it, ‘hurt’ here means ‘hurt in a way that violates their human rights’. So for instance refusing to put up with people violating your boundaries is not hurting by this definition, even if it really upsets them. Likewise, neither is causing someone consensual pain, etc). Several of these terms being flexible, this leaves a lot up to the author of any particular narrative.

‘Willingly’ is flexible because a person who has no other choice is not acting willingly, but a person who does and takes that one anyway is. So when they want to determine morality this way, authors get to decide what choices their characters had, and who gets to count as having had no other options.
–An example of this is the question of whether and when ‘I was following orders’ is an acceptable defense against war crimes – if the idea of violating orders was unthinkable? If it would have brought severe punishment? Never? Etc.

Meanwhile, ‘too innocent/not guilty enough to be hurt in that way’ is flexible because people have often very different opinions on how much it is alright to hurt guilty people, and how guilty they have to be for that. As an example of this:
–Someone who thought that death was an appropriate punishment for profiting off of slave labor and someone who did not would write very different takes on a story about exploited factory workers planning to bomb a rich neighborhood.

On the other hand, heroes are people who are actively against willingly hurting innocent people. (‘Actively’ is another rather flexible word, which I here use to mean basically anything aside from ‘they never really thought about the topic, but if you asked would probably end up saying they were against it’. So it can range from simply opposing it to refusing to do it to going out to stop the people doing it). This has the same areas of flexibility as the other definition. For some examples:
–If a character is offered the option between shooting one person or watching 10 people be executed, does making the second choice make them selfish for prizing their own ‘purity’ above 9 lives, or does it make them admirably committed to their principles (or neither)?
–While most people would agree that the heroes could not torture random civilians, is it alright for the heroes to torture people with known misdeeds?

As a relevant definition, I generally define dark heroes as ‘heroes who have a more permissive opinions on what harm it is acceptable to deal out to guilty people than some baseline’ (the baseline can be many things – the other heroes, their canon characterization if this is a fanfic, etc).

As an example of one way this shows up in my kinks: as I mentioned in the previous post, one villains-as-constricts dynamic I like is guilty-feeling repentant villains. Often, I like to see these villains hurt – imprisoned, enslaved, tortured, etc. Sometimes, I like it when the people doing this are the heroes. Such a dynamic is only possible in a moral universe where there is some level of hurt it is alright to deal out to some level of guilty people.

Edited to add: a comment a reader left made me aware that I’d missed a rather important point. That being: the standard discussed here is based on my morality/worldview. A more general formulation would be ‘villains are characters who violate the determining tenet of the morality system/worldview being used and heroes are people who are actively against violating that tenet’.  The determining tenet of my morality/worldview is not hurting innocent people. Therefore, that’s what determines heroes and villains for me. However, if for instance my determining tenet was ‘obey every command of the Great Leader’ or ‘create a world populated only by left-handed people’, then villains who didn’t hurt anyone, but did violate the commands of the Great Leader or hid right-handed people, and heroes who hurt innocent people because the Great Leader told them to or killed innocent right-handed people would be a part of my stories.

Primary

So, I’m reading some polyamory writings, including a bunch of definitions, which led me to a thought on the multiple things that people mean when they use the word ‘primary’ for a partner. Here are three that I’ve encountered (note that they are not mutually exclusive, and a lot of people use ‘primary’ to mean more than one of them at the same time):

  • Some people use ‘primary’ to mean what I use ‘significant-other relationship’ for. So, a centrally important intimate relationship wherein all the partners have such feelings and have agreed that they have such a relationship status.
  • Some people, for instance here, use ‘primary’ to mean ‘building a life together’ and such. I would probably use ‘life partners’ for this.
  • Some people use ‘primary’ to mean people with whom you set rules about each other’s other relationships. I don’t have another word for this, but I think it would be good to have one, because it’s a very particular thing that it’s important to be able to talk about. Until I get a better word, I’m going to be using the term ‘bounds-primary’.

Personally, I don’t use the word primary much myself. If someone asked me if I had a primary/ies, I would say yes, meaning my significant others. I think being life partners with someone, for me, would necessarily also mean being significant others with them. And I don’t have a third-type primary/bounds-primary at all, and don’t really forsee having one, because I have a different relationship philosophy from the one that concept is part of.

More words!

So, as I noted way back here, my terms ‘principal’ and ‘constrict’ don’t feel right to me when I’m talking about positive power dynamics – which, given that I specifically came up with the word ‘constrict’ to mean ‘someone who is constrained by a power outside of themselves against their will’, makes sense.  But, I’d like to talk about positive power dynamics too, sometimes. So, new words:

The top of a positive narrative power dynamic is the authority. This isn’t perfect, but it’s the term I found that best keeps the connotation for someone who has power due to it being vested in them.

The bottom of a positive narrative power dynamic is the liege. This is really less than ideal, given that it actually means both the top and bottom of a power dynamic, and is used more often for the former (as in, ‘my liege’). But, I haven’t yet found another word with the connotation of someone giving power over them to someone else, as opposed to having power exerted on them. (If anyone knows any better words, please tell me).

The difference in it’s simplest form is the presence or absence of good consent. A constrict is made the bottom of a power dynamic nonconsensually (by a principal, by social forces, etc). Therefore, a principal, even a well intentioned one or one who was not the one who forced the dynamic, is party to a nonconsensual relationship. A liege makes themselves the bottom of a power dynamic, because they want to, and the relationship between the authority and them is consensual.

The personal and the societal: What do I mean when I say ‘kink’?

[This is something that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while, and I decided it was time to get it out there]

As a general rule, when I say ‘kink’ on here, I am using it as a way to say ‘I have a thing for’. I have a thing for punishment, I have a thing for honorifics, etc. And, it seems that a lot of people use it in this same way (case in points, kink memes). This usage can then mean several things.

  • “This thing gives me specialfeelings. They are a particular kind of specialfeelings that are kink feelings”.
  • “This thing thing gives me specialfeelings. They are sexual feelings.”
  • “This thing gives me specialfeelings. They are are particular kind of specialfeelings that are kink feelings, which are a subset, a superset, or in some other way related to my sexual feelings”.

(The first is the one that is the case for me).

However, I also use ‘kink’ in a way that means something beyond the personal. If I talk about ‘kinky people’, I don’t mean ‘people who have things for the stuff I have a thing for’. I mean something wider than that. Well, what do I mean?

Now, the one thing this could mean would be ‘they have a thing for some thing(s), in one of those aforementioned ways. Just like I have things that give me specialfeelings, they have things that give them specialfeelings (though their things and specialfeelings are possibly different from mine)’.

However, in practice, there’s often another distinction. Often, kink doesn’t just refer to having specialfeelings for anything, it refers to having specialfeelings for things outside the mainstream. So, if I were to have PIV sex with someone as equals, this would not be considered a kinky activity even if I had a thing for it, while if I were to tie someone up, this would be considered a kinky activity whether or not I had a thing for it.

I do think both definitions have their uses. The second is important for group identity in the face of social non-inclusion, and generally acknowledged as such. However, it is also important to not lose sight of the distinction between ‘I have a thing for this’, and ‘having a thing for this is outside the social mainstream’. Because personally, I don’t have a thing for either PIV sex or general bondage, I do have a different kind of feeling about both of them, and the fact that one is considered kinky and one isn’t has no bearing on this for me.

Meanwhile, the first is useful as a way of thinking about things. Thinking of things in terms of ‘what do I have a thing for? What gives me specialfeelings?’ (as opposed to in terms of ‘this is How This Is Done, this is the Way of Things’) is important, and it’s important for everyone, including the people whose ‘what gives me specialfeelings?’ does end up lining up with the cultural mainstream.

Specific Narrative Kinks: Dozens

What do I mean by this:

I like unpleasant things being counted in dozens. Not when they’re going on (so not like 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12) but when they’re being talked about. ‘A few dozen times’, ‘a couple dozen lashes’, that kind of thing.

Why do I like it:

The first time I saw this used in a story, I noticed myself really liking it, and thought a bit about why. I recently saw it in another story, remembered its appeal, and thought about this again.

I think it’s because saying ‘a few dozen’ is the perfect middle ground between the impact of something being very bad, and the impact of an amount.

Something being very bad appeals to me. The constrict being hit with something (whether this be a whip or an agony beam) and the description of the agony or other horribleness of this, etc.

Amount also appeals to me – the constrict having to endure something as it just keeps going.

Low numbers – say ‘5 times’ – give the first but not the second. High numbers give the second but lose the impact of the first – ‘a few hundred times’ means there just can’t be that much focus on each individual one.

Dozens are the perfect middle ground. Twelve doesn’t seem like such a high number – I can count to twelve in a few seconds – so I can still keep the impact of each instance. But ‘a few dozen’ also makes the final number high enough for the appeal of duration to come in.

Meanwhile, the ‘few’ and the ‘couple’ also bring in understatement, which is yet another thing that appeals to me.

Actionable counterpart:

I haven’t tried anything with it yet. It might be harder to incorporate, because of how it specifically has to do with talking about something in a third person way, but it would be interesting to try.