About a week or so ago (my perception of time is occasionally squishy), I was talking with a friend of mine over coffee. As she is a fellow sex nerd, and someone whose opinions I trust about such things, I was bouncing ideas off of her not just for this blog, but for the courses I’m putting together on healthy vs. abusive kink. I am blessed to have a social network of intelligent and thoughtful people. She and I were discussing just how many aspects of abuse are unacknowledged, and therefore unaddressed.
“What’s your take,” She asked me “on the posts all over Fetlife from people who claim they used to be abusive, but since they identify as submissive now, everything’s ok?”
I stopped for a moment, making a concerted effort not to do a spit-take and douse my dear friend in half-sipped coffee. This was not something I’d heard before. Granted, it’s increasingly rare that I’m browsing Fetlife, so it’s not unusual that I miss what all the cool kinky kids are talking about these days.
To me, that argument seemed absurd. In my understanding of power exchange, both sides have rights and responsibilities that need to be honored. Once I took a moment to step back and separate from my gut reaction, I realized that this point of view makes sense in the context of popular discourse. All of the public writing I’ve seen about abuse in the scene presumes that top/Dom/Master/receiver of power is the perpetrator of abuse. While the mission statement published by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom on SM vs abuse does not specifically identify tops as perpetrators, the language used can can be easily construed as implying that abuse flows from the top down. Given the timing and intention of the mission statement’s publication, its language makes a lot of sense. It was written not for survivors within the community, but rather to combat myths in the popular imagination about the community as a whole. (I know that there is a opinion among some circles that BDSM is abuse and the delineation is illusory. I am choosing to not engage that argument for the time being, and assuming that the argument presented in the mission statement is valid.)
No one talks about abuse that flows in the other direction, even though the phenomenon is very real. I have a few thoughts on why this might be the case.
The very idea is counter intuitive. Abuse from the top down is relatively easy to spot, and there are hallmarks we are all taught to look for. A safeword is violated, Domly McDomly pants types isolate their property from friends and loved ones, psychological play does not stop when a scene ends. A cursory google search will yield a much longer list. Not only are the mechanisms of abuse from the bottom up more subtle, they rub up against a lot of preconceived notions of what kink is “supposed” to look like, challenge a number of deeply ingrained cultural norms, and force us to acknowledge complexities that muddle an otherwise tidy narrative.
I think it’s worth mentioning here, that whenever I talk about abuse, I am looking at abusive behaviors. Behaviors can be addressed, examined, and changed. While there are inherently abusive and sociopathic people out there, not everyone who perpetrates abuse falls into that camp. In fact, not all people who perpetrate abuse are aware their behavior is, in fact, abusive. To quote Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection:
“The key is to separate people from their behaviors—to address what they’re doing, not who they are.” …”We have to stay away from convincing ourselves that we hate someone or that they deserve to feel bad so that we can feel better about holding them accountable.”
It can be easy to forget that in any power exchange, power can flow both ways, and there are a number of ways that submissives can use their power to manipulate their tops.
Extreme Topping From the Bottom
The term “topping from the bottom” is a common phrase in kink circles. It means that a bottom will essentially subvert the power dynamic, and push the scene into places the top didn’t necessarily want to go. Topping from the bottom is not necessarily or inherently abusive. However, it can be taken to an extreme where the bottom pushes, coaxes, or coerces the top to go past their own comfort level. And if the top does not comply with the bottom’s wishes, the bottom will disengage, berate their play partner, and attack their play partner’s competence as a person or a player.The dynamic between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth comes to mind, when I think about this form of abuse. Especially Lady M’s line: From this time/Such I account thy love.
Someone told me about a dynamic she was in, where she felt her submissive was sucking her dry. She felt that she could not exercise her own agency beyond the dynamic without him accusing her of being a bad top. It came to a head when she told him she needed space to deal with a family emergency. He then berated her for not being mindful or understanding of his needs. It was at this point, when she decided to end that dynamic.
Mistaking tops for mind readers.
Here is a realm where there be many proverbial dragons, because it cuts very close to sticky issues around the nature of consent. It can also be very difficult for an outside observer to distinguish between abuse from the bottom and abuse from the top when these sorts of issues arise.
However, this form of abuse behavior is all too common. I cannot tell you how many tops I know who have experienced this issue, at least to some degree. The story generally goes something like this:
There is negotiation of some form, where the top asks about limits and all that jazz. During scene, the top does his best to abide by the limits he knows of. Later, it comes out that the top had crossed some boundary they had no idea existed. Had the bottom come to the top and said “Hey, there was this boundary I didn’t realize I had. It got crossed and I was triggered. Can we talk about this?” There would have been dialogue, and there could have been some healthy and reaffirming solution for both parties. Instead, however, the top will either receive a vitriolic text or email (or sometimes both), in which the bottom berates the top for violating her boundaries and tells him what a terrible person he is, etc. This will occasionally be accompanied by a similar screed on Fetlife or Facebook, or some other public forum. The top not only feels like shit for crossing a boundary, they are also put on the defensive and are in an essentially no-win situation.
I’ve also heard a variation on this theme, which occurs in longer term dynamics, where the bottom will not only get angry at the top for violating hidden boundaries, but will also feel hurt and angry if the top overcompensates and does not push them “hard enough.”
Boundaries are essential, not only to healthy kink dynamics, but to living a fulfilled life in general. In its ideal form, a power exchange relationship is like social dancing. The lead directs the shape and content of the dance, but the follow is not a passive observer. She has responsibilities to be present, interpret her lead’s energy, maintain her frame, and look out for her own physical health. Bottoms and submissives, just like follows, are not off the hook when it comes to boundaries.
Once again, I go back to my girl, Brene Brown.
When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger.
What makes this behavior abusive is not necessarily the failure to express a boundary. We all get triggered unexpectedly, and sometimes we don’t know something is a hard limit until it stares us in the face. What puts this dynamic in the realm of abuse is how it’s handled after the fact. If the bottom can step back and takes time to communicate a trigger without shaming or blaming a partner, then there is space for healthy dialogue. When a bottom does not take agency over their experience and immediately blames their play partner for not responding to an unexpressed need, what results is a top feeling used and mistreated.
False Accusations of Abuse and Misconduct
And here be the most dragony-est dragon filled territory of all. An all too common form of abuse from the bottom up to accuse (or threaten to accuse) the partner of consent violation and, in extreme cases, rape. This card can be held over someone’s head, especially if the top is male identified and the bottom is female identified.
“Who are people going to believe? You or me?” Is a common refrain of this form of abuse.
It is very dangerous for me to be even acknowledging this form of abuse on a public forum, because, as I said before, it threatens the widely accepted narrative. If we admit that someone can be falsely accused of rape, we are called rape apologists. We are admonished for invalidating rape victims and survivors.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that these allegations can and do happen. Even worse, it is often nearly impossible to distinguish whether an allegation made online is a story of abuse or a tool of abuse, unless someone has intimate knowledge of the dynamic at hand. Heck, there are many people out there who have perpetrated this form of abuse who genuinely believe themselves to be the aggrieved party.
These false allegations do not just damage their targets. They are also damaging to those who truly have been victimized by a top and feel compelled to share their story.
As difficult as this issue is to acknowledge, let alone discuss, it deserves a place in the larger narrative and our collective consciousness. Otherwise we have no hope of addressing and combatting these very real issues.