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.