March/April 2003
According to Cléo
by Cléo Dubois




By Cléo Dubois with Emma Bianchi

First, let me say that these observations come out of a perspective shaped by 15-plus years playing on both sides of the SM equation, as a Top in my private and professional life, and switching as a bottom in my private life. They are also deeply influenced by my long experience working with couples learning about the dynamics of BDSM, in my Academy of SM Arts. This article also focuses on the specifics of the BDSM play, rather than the 24/7 D and S relationship, which I am really not qualified to comment on since it is not part of my reality as a kinky players.

Before broaching the specifics of topping, I'd like to make some comments about SM play in general. The most basic requirement, which I cannot emphasize enough, is that the parties involved be committed to being honest and open with one another. Without a desire for honesty, a good SM experience cannot get off the ground. Of course, communicating with your partner(s) is of utmost importance. Learning to communicate our needs and desires is often a challenge. As a veteran player once said to me, "Communication is great, especially when it's working!" We are going to talk a lot about communication. In order to become a good communicator, you need to know a couple of basic things: Who you are, what you want and what you know,. These things are equally important for both a top and a bottom to consider, but right now let us focus on the Dominant standpoint.

The answers to these lofty questions have wracked the brains of the finest metaphysicians for centuries! However, with all the self-discovery we make in SM we are, of course, uniquely positioned to answer them! Seriously, though, in the context of an SM scene, the answers to those questions are specific to our desires and fantasies and in fact are not all that hard to get to. Right at the beginning of a scene, some basic techniques of centering oneself such as breathing, letting go of our daily worries, and paying attention to how one feels in that moment help to develop and hold the control necessary to make the scene work for you and your partner. You should know and be aware of your skill level as a Top. Know what you can do, and are comfortable doing, and what you're not sure of and need to gain information about or proceed with caution. Attending classes and demonstrations, sharing information, seeking mentorship in the SM community are all ways that expert SM practitioners have learned and honed their skills. Make use of them!

Another important aspect of a Top's self-knowledge is knowing your limits as a Top. By this, I mean not only your skill-level, but knowing the kinds of play you are really not comfortable with, or interesting in doing. For instance, speaking for myself, I refuse to do Nazi interrogation scenes, despite having been asked by a number of Jewish clients. That is my right.

Next, let us think about our desires. What kinds of things might you be looking for as a Top? There are a myriad joys and pleasures in topping, and I'd like to talk about just some of them here. Getting clear about what we want to experience in a scene is a sure way of feeling more satisfied with our dominant role.

Getting what you want is more complex than one would think in SM play. It seems like there are many of us out there who "do" the bottom, and end up not getting what we really want. This isn't good for us, and, as many bottoms will tell you, it's often not really good for them, either, since if we're devoting our energy to fulfilling the bottom's needs, we're really flip-flopping the dynamic. Who's the master and who's the servant after all? Obviously, in great play everyone's needs are fulfilled. The way to get there is to make sure that there is some parity in the energetic exchange. It's not about equality but it is about valuing each individual's needs equally. The way to get there, in SM, is to assume your role, enjoy the goodies that the role has to offer, and stay in it! I'm going to talk about some of those delicious things below. Look at this list. Think about how the different kinds of pleasures resonate with you.

Would you like to see your bottom's raw, naked, uncivilized, animal core, brought out to the light of day, knowing that you brought it out with your own hand and brain?

Would you like to bask in the love and devotion of your submissive?

Would you like to ask for and receive service, in just the way that pleases you? (This one sounds great, but in fact it is very difficult for some of us, and particularly for women, in my observation, to demand and receive pleasure just the way we want it.)

How does the very act of taking make you feel? Does it turn you on? Does it make you feel your own personal power? How does that feel? Pretty good, I imagine. Think about taking your bottom to their limits, to there and back, really experiencing the power of your own skill, your voice, hand and brain, of your own sadism, of your own desire to inflict pain and overpower, because you know you can, because it's OK.

Pushing your bottom to his or her limits, and perhaps crossing them. Does this excite you? Does it scare you? This kind of play obviously takes a great deal of care and responsibility. One thing you can do to push your bottom's limits is to use your sweetness and powers of seduction, asking him or her to give you just one more, just for you. Gaining your bottom's trust and consent in this way is often a very powerful experience for all players concerned.

This leads in to the pleasure of increasing intimacy, and feeling connection with your bottom, just for its very own sake. Making eye contact, holding hands, a gentle kiss, whispering something sweet at a crucial moment in the scene, can alter the energy and powerfully increase connectedness. Have you ever experienced, for instance, in the middle of a fierce whipping, that you are overwhelmed with compassion for your bottom? These kinds of conflicting emotions are the very stuff of SM, and noticing and focusing on them can be a great source of a pleasure for a Top. In such moments, a Top can experience total power and control, and complete vulnerability, all at once. This is, to my mind, a beautiful paradox, and very hot!

Just giving someone an experience they have never had before, taking them to a new place, whether this is just in terms of a new and interesting sensation, or more importantly in terms of their inner life. In my SM travels I have often had the deep honor of bringing, or being granted healing and an experience of personal catharsis. Many practitioners of SM report the centrality of a sense of spiritual growth and healing in their play. Although, while SM can be a powerful therapeutic tool, please remember that it is not therapy. I personally believe in the irreplaceable value of professional psychotherapy if one wishes to go on that journey of healing and self-discovery.

In a larger frame, it can be very gratifying to watch one's bottom grow over time, as they increase in their self-knowledge and acceptance of pain and pleasure through their play with you. Have you thought about training? This might be about teaching a bottom to serve you the way you like it, or to take sensation in new and challenging ways. Think about teaching techniques of taking pain, for example teaching your bottom to receive sensation without making any noise at all, might bring your bottom to a very different place than simply counting strokes and re-offering themselves for another one.

Using techniques like this, one can begin to play with energy in fascinating ways. Have you felt the electricity running between you and your bottom, that makes you tingle all over? I call this "running energy." Of course, this is nothing new. Tantra practitioners and other aficionados of body ritual have been doing this around the world for centuries. Sometimes, in a scene, I get to a place where I feel guided. I let go of all of my plans, all of my conscious decisions, and just let my intuition take over. What a fabulous feeling! Pure power. Pure joy. Being totally present.

Another big pleasure in Topping can be discovering something new that you enjoy doing. If your bottom really wants to experience some technique or sensation that you are not versed in, learning about it and trying it out can be both challenging and extremely rewarding. You learn a new technique, and you learn something new about yourself, and your responses. Say bondage has never been a particular kink of yours, but your bottom longs to be restrained and to struggle under your power. If you go to the trouble to learn some knots and some bondage techniques, not only are you taking your bottom and yourself to a new place, but you have learned a skill and an art that is both creative and beautiful. This in itself is empowering and pleasurable, not to mention the aesthetic pleasure to be gained from admiring your handiwork, and how delicious your bottom looks struggling in its grasp!

In addition you will have pleased your bottom, and though the dictates of the role may not allow us to acknowledge it, let us mention that for most of us succeeding in Dominant service is a large and important part of the pleasure we get as Tops. We get to feel desired and sought after as a result and our sense of personal empowerment skyrockets!

Another aspect of topping that might thrill you is really facing and dealing with a taboo subject. Letting down the usual rules of propriety and going to a place with your bottom where you are being completely non -p.c., perhaps dishing out relentless nasty humiliation, giving vent to that really mean streak of yours, can be challenging, but can also be delicious for both parties. In addition, we stand to learn a great deal about the nature and dynamics of interpersonal power when we travel to the extremes and access our most basic emotions. Again, great care must be taken, and both players must be clear on the line between fantasy and reality. I cannot stress too hard that any kind of SM play should not be attempted while partners or players are experiencing anger or unresolved conflict with one another. This, of course, goes back to our original emphasis on good communication.

Of course, one way of keeping ourselves conscious of this boundary between fantasy and reality is to use role play to provide a context for the flow of all this power. Mistress games, Medical games, Daddy games, Schoolteacher games, Military games, and a myriad more all provide hot button-pushing roles for us to explore and reap the rewards of playing with power. A ritual collaring, for example, can give a clear indication of when a scene starts and ends. In the old-guard leather scene, for example, no-one would ever be seen putting on their own collar. It would always indicate that the submissive was either in scene-space, or it was a sign of being owned if their Master or Mistress was absent. This little ritual allowed the submissive to stay in bottom-space, and the Top to determine the beginning and end of the play session.

All these manifold joys of topping also come with their own challenges. Some of the challenges we encounter as Tops can be a source of great joy in themselves, as we meet them, and grow with them and through them. I have found that the joy and challenge generally go together in the SM experience.

© 2002 -Cléo Dubois - Visit her website at