Tuesday 1 September 2009

The responsibilities of a top

I’ve had a blogger profile for several months now, and an empty blog waiting for me to be inspired to post. I thought I’d find an opportunity to write about who I am, what drives me, why I like to have a girl across my knees for a spanking. But I’ve just spent a weekend with EmmaJane, and she’s made a very interesting post about one aspect of it. Not about the hot stuff, really: more about the difficult parts of This Thing We Do. So I think I’m going to dive in. Why talk about the easy parts, after all? The realities are much more interesting.

Well, to be fair, EmmaJane did make a post about the hot stuff. And I'm sure there will be more about that. There certainly has been in the past. But I’m feeling thoughtful tonight.

EmmaJane wrote:

We played later just before bed and Caoilfhionn was getting a very hard slippering from her housmaster, with the very scary, hurts so much it makes me and Kami cry, slipper. I got 12 to start with. And they hurt so badly. At 2 I couldn't see how I could get to 12. And at 11 I lost it completely. I screamed and jumped up in pure rage, literally stamping my feet in anger.

HH gave me a minute then bent me back over for the 12th. And that was it, we were done. But I couldn't relax. The anger had upset me. One minute I was heading for deep headspace and the next I was out of scene throwing a tantrum. And it wasn't fair on HH.

So I asked for more…

And later:
As we drove to the airport HH and I chatted about it and started a gentle argument over it. He claims the lack of headspace is his fault as a top. That it's his responsibility to create the situation where I can get there. And apply the right amount of pain, discipline and intimidation to make it work.

I in turn argued that no matter how great a top is that ultimately the bottom or sub has be open to him/her. And I told him that with all due respect I thought it was patronising for him to think he had so much power over me.

I’ve thought about this a lot in the last day or two. Of course EmmaJane is right that in general the bottom offers the top control and he takes what is offered. In that sense he can't take what isn't given - at least within the bounds of consent.

But it's not really as simple as that. Most bottoms want to be able to give in, to surrender to the scene [though that isn't quite the same as surrendering to the top – resistance has its place in role-pay (grin)]. But I'm sure that EmmaJane did want to give in this weekend: it was the fact that she couldn’t that frustrated her, and it was the frustration that led to anger - with herself as much as with me, though anger is not a finely focussed tool.

I do think that part of the skill of a good top is to facilitate letting go: to make the bottom feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to read her well enough to stop at the right time: not too soon, not too late.

That doesn't mean carrying on until she says I've gone too far. I don’t usually play with a safeword in the classic sense: something like “oranges” or “aardvark” that will stop the scene. But I know a genuine appeal when I hear it, and I’ll always pay attention if a girl uses my name. But safewords aren’t a solution anyway: in CP play, very few girls call a halt because it hurts too much. And keeping enough control to safeword is a big obstacle to letting go. Yes, the bottom can stop it. But no responsible top can/should assume that she will stop it, so I believe that "deciding when to stop" is primarily the top's responsibility.

So where exactly do the responsibilities lie? EmmaJane thinks it was her job to tell me if I went too far, and that it’s not my fault if she didn’t. I think I should have read her better during the bedtime slippering, and understood better that “I need more” meant "enough to fix the disconnect" rather than "enough to be cathartic".

But I'm not beating myself up over it: EmmaJane and I trust each other enough to talk through such things and understand them. [In fact we’ve already done that.] But this thing we do is all about the interactions between two people. We take risks, because risks give the hottest scenes. But taking risks means that scenes don't always go exactly to plan, and aren't always exactly what we hoped. When that happens, the causes are usually shared. EmmaJane says it was "because she couldn't let go", but I claim my share of the responsibility.

But still: it was a great weekend, with many hot scenes. And we learnt a lot about each other, which we will put to good use in the future. There is no substitute for communication.


  1. Sounds like an amazing way to spend a weekend!

    As to who's responsibility it is to stop a scene, I think it's notht he top and the bottom; however, in some cases, when the bottom goes too far into headspace, or won't stop a scene for the sake of personal pride, then it is the top's responsibility.

    Any chance you're going to write a self-introduction? Or is that little blurb to the side all we're going to get?

  2. Yay! I've been hoping you'll get around to putting this blog to use, Mister Higgins!

    I think there's another aspect perhaps neither EmmaJane nor your self have considered. Sometimes, emotions just come up, unbidden, and not 100% related to what is happening in that instant (i.e., at some other time, it would have been different emotion, due to the other various factors of life, recent thoughts and emotions, and the celestial influences. [Just kidding on the last!])

    I've had at least one scene with my Master where this rage came out of nowhere and surprised the hell out of both of us. We found a way to work with it, and managed to turn the scene into something that took it into account, and discussed it in detail in the after-cuddle, but there was no way he as a Top could have seen it coming and planned for it, and I certainly didn't know what was happening until suddenly I was seeing red.

    We're playing with fire when we do WIIWD, and sometimes the wind blows the fire in an unexpected direction, and we have to deal with it as it happens. It's in the dealing with the unexpected that we truly succeed as Top and bottom -- not in being able to read the other person's mind and anticipating everything (because that's not fully possible and that way lies madness!)

  3. Great continuation of this debate. So glad you have finally started posting, please don't stop now! As usual you have such perspective and insight, one of many reasons I love to ply with you.

  4. It sounds like a great weekend! I look forward to reading more. Welcome to blog-o-sphere "officially".

  5. @EJ "To ply with you", there's a great new verb for our lexicon.

  6. I'm still processing both EJ's and your thoughts on this subject, but it's for sure there are at least two complicated things that people have picked up one. One shouldn't be complicated, but is, and that's safewording. I've had a post rumbling around in my head for ages about why we don't safeword when perhaps we need to. And yes, there should be an element of the top being able to "read" us, but at the end of the day, nobody is a mindreader, so we as bottoms have to take a portion of the responsibility for ourselves.
    The second issue is around unconnected emotions surfacing. I have had scenes where I've been inconsolable after very little, and it's all completely unconnected to what just happened, but rather as Zille said, something unbidden that just comes from nowhere. And that's very hard for me to understand, let alone a top.
    Anyway, far too much waffle on my part! Welcome to blog land!

  7. And a big welcome to the world of blogging from me!

    Zille makes an excellent point here:

    "It's in the dealing with the unexpected that we truly succeed as Top and bottom -- not in being able to read the other person's mind and anticipating everything (because that's not fully possible and that way lies madness!)"

    It's human nature to find reasons to feel guilty and beat ourselves up when we feel we've "failed" in some way - especially if we feel we've failed another person. But given the very nature of sceneplay, you're BOUND to stir up some unexpected feelings.

    BDSM requires such a high degree of trust. Any given scene is loaded with volatile stuff lurking unseen just below under the surface. Think about it: you've got one person relinquishing control to another, putting their trust in them to exploit their vulnerability and cause them pain, embarrassment, humiliation, etc. Frankly, it’s surprising that MOST scenes don't go off the rails in some way.

    I say celebrate the times when it all goes right and try not to focus too much on the bumps in the road!

  8. HH, great to have you here, I've read a lot about you, it will be good to read your thoughts.
    I had the heads up from EmmaJane, welcome.

  9. What an unaccountable relief it was to read this post and to hear the renowned HH speak. ;-)

    I thought there was only one top in the world who grasped these things (now no longer in the world), but I am thrilled that I am wrong.

    As an aside, in my own experience there were many times (a majority?) where, instead of going harder, an unexpectedly lighter and more familial whacking actually shattered the control. My husband was, in some ways, a very devious top. ;-)

  10. An actual post-- how exciting!

    I agree that the best tops are those who read the bottom the best and figure out a way to provide the experience s/he wants. I can only even come close to letting go when I trust that the top can read me well enough to know if I'm in distress or even if the scene just isn't working for me. Even then, it's really difficult for me. Fortunately, I also like milder play. :-)

    On the other hand, topping a bit myself has taught me a lot about how to communicate as a bottom-- the signs that help, the questions I wanted answered beforehand. I agree that most of us bottoms use a safeword only reluctantly, and often not at all even when we should. I like the idea of using the top's name as an out, as that's quite a bit more natural for the bottom.

    Whether there's a safeword or not, though, the top has to be able to trust the bottom to call an end to the scene if s/he needs it, especially during an experimental scene and in the early days of playing together. I agree with Emma Jane-- no matter how good you tops are, you don't have the power to read our minds, not matter what the romance novels and spanking stories may say.

  11. This was a very thoughtful and thought invoking post. Daisy and I have always had a safeword in place but as you noted, it is my job to know when her pride is stopping it's use.
    I also feel lucky to be here for your first post.

  12. I've already commented at length on Emma Jane's blog, but I wanted to pop over here and say both welcome and thanks for picking up the other end of the conversation. The bit of Zille's comment that Niki picked out really hit me, too. That kind of flexibility and generosity in both partners isn't easy to come by but it opens up such a great world of possibility. I know that I myself can sometimes get stuck in a rather binary view of BDSM and the Top/bottom, Dom/sub roles and expectations, and it makes it very easy for me to be hard on both myself and my partner when unexpected or difficult moments arise in our play.

  13. HH,

    That was a great first post. Welcome.


  14. Wow! I didn't expect this sort of response to my very first post, and I'm immensely grateful to all of you. It really makes it feel worth while.

    And I must give a special thank-you to Casey Morgan: I can't imagine a higher compliment than you have just given me. Hugs...

  15. The consequences of unexpected emotions may be easier to understand when more than scene experiences connect play partners. Those who share multiple interests and facets may more readily recognize the onset of distress well in advance of a derailment and communicate it without breaking the scene, (or even worse, the friendship). Yes, I know, perhaps it’s my learning fetish again, but I feel more comfortable playing with someone whose BDSM vision is expressed in expanding, evolving flavors and is a smaller but significant part of a larger more profound whole, than with those where there is no other overlap of interest. I also feel it is vitally important for both sides to trust themselves and each other to give themselves emotionally to the scene, but then, I’d say that in respect of any meaningful friendship.

    Good luck.


    PS. Would it be possible to change the background settings to white with black type? It's awfully difficult to read small purple and blue hyperlinks in airport lounges.

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  17. HH, I want to share my thoughts on this particular issue based on my experience of anger that arose within an intense scene that Niki, you and I role-played a while back. As a result of that experience, I believe it is up to the top to handle that kind of situation: so ultimately, I believe it was up to you to have understood EmmaJane's needs at that time, within the context of that scene.

    I do not believe mind-reading is necessary to handle the unexpected emotions that are triggered at times. Instead, the unexpected is best addressed drawing from the in-the-moment dynamics, along with the top's intuition and ability to be sensitive to the emotional needs of the bottom. I know I enter into these exchanges acknowledging that I ultimately seek the emotional peace and freedom that comes from complete submission to the top within the scene or session. I expect and trust the top to control the pace and dynamics. That is in fact what I want as a bottom, though I may not always want to admit it!

    The scene I recall had to do with hand belting. Niki has slender, beautiful hands and a typical HH belting would have caused her tremendous pain. I was feeling protective of her and wanted to take the pain so that her hands would be spared. In that moment I was unable to stop my own feelings. I tried to control their expression without being disrespectful to you within the context of the scene: that is the reason I asked you if you would accept my offer to take Niki's strokes on my hands, rather than just having griped that you were being too severe.

    You and she accepted my offer, and I felt so relieved that you agreed to spare her. At that point, I wanted to absorb the pain for her. It was my way of showing her that I love her and that I wanted to protect her. However, I then became angry and thought you were being mean. You saw the defiance in my eyes because you dealt with me harshly in response. I am glad you did because anything less would have stripped the scene of its emotional meaning.

    I was determined to not flinch because I did not want to give you the satisfaction of seeing me hurt for my gesture. I will never forget the way your eyes locked down on mine because I could see your intense determination to belt the defiance right out of me. Your unspoken demeanor sent a highly intimidating message, and I knew how capable you were of meting out hand-strappings. I will also never forget that first whip of the belt and the fire it lit on my outstretched hand. It was sheer agony. Still I did not want to cry as I did not want Niki to be upset.

    I kept my hand out for the next stroke while my anger drove me to maintain my defiant stare. I did not want you to hurt Niki's hands and yet I also did not want to 'top from the bottom.' I knew I would find resolution and peace only if you set the scene right. Without your judgment call, I never would have been able to really let go and let you push me past the anger, to total submission. I felt a complete loss of control when that happened. I remember suddenly averting my eyes because I was awash with shame, and in that moment, the entire episode came full circle and was incredibly cathartic for me. I had fully and utterly submitted to you, and that felt good.

    I deserved those strokes because it was not my place to have judged you in the heat of the moment. For all I knew, you might have wielded the strap in a way that would have been bearable for Niki. Because I had judged prematurely, I submitted to those hard strokes as my unspoken apology.

    I don't believe many tops are of your caliber, so I'm not sure many have the level of insight and _sensitivity_ it takes to make that kind of judgment call in the moment. Still, I am thrilled to see that you are opening up discussions like this because if any one can bring out the finer points in these dynamics as well as offer solid advice, I would want it to be you.