May/June 2003
According to Cléo
by Cléo Dubois




By Cléo Dubois with Emma Bianchi

For players that are in a primary relationship with one another, one of the biggest challenge I have observed is that the Top is afraid of pushing the bottom, of hurting him/her, of really taking the bottom down. Reminding the bottom that there is a "please slow down" safeword, such as "yellow", available for their use, can give the Top some space to really push the bottom, to hand over to the bottom some of the responsibility for their safety. The bottom really does have some level of response-ability in a scene, and it's a good thing for the Top to remind him/herself of this, as well as their partner.

To push your bottom, don't ask for permission! Announce your intention. Tell them to present their body to you for your further pleasure. See how fast they obey you. Maybe they need a little tenderness to encourage them to give you more. You might want to tell them how much you appreciate the gifts of their body, their vulnerability or the service they are performing. Don't be shy to let them know if it turns you on! There might also be times when making your bottom beg for more is just what is needed. The traditional, "Mistress, please may I have another one?" can work wonders to push a bottom to his or her limits.

For all this to work, you must have provided the bottom with a sense of safety. You their trust. Do not break it. If you wrap the whip, step on your slave's naked toes with your high heeled boots, don't try to cover it up! Acknowledge your mistake and go on!

Another challenge is for a Top to follow his or her own intuition. In order to do this, it's essential to be relaxed, alert, and into what you're doing. Breathing, slowing time down from the speed at which we run our daily chores will help you be centered and present in your Dominance. You must also be sensitive and open to the bottom's responses. How about ordering your bottom to breathe audibly, and let the sounds they wish to make be heard. The old-guard rule of keeping your eyes on the floor and being completely quiet might make reading your bottom's responses very difficult, though it might of course be appropriate during certain games! Watch your bottom's body: tension, clenched hands, breath-holding, a body not offering itself to you when you order it to, might be signs that you are going too hard, too fast. Have you ever put on a tit-clamp that you can tighten, as you look into your submissive's eyes to see how far you can take them with that pain as you slowly screw the clamp tighter and tighter with a smile on your face? That gets me high every time I do it!

Part of intuition is paying close attention to your own turn-on, and emotional response, as well as the responses of your bottom. If you're having a good time, and getting turned on, that's a pretty good sign that you both are.
Being really open to your partnerís responses means perhaps letting go of the plan you might have made when thinking of your scene. You may tap into a phobia you didn't know about. Say you wished to surprise your submissive by giving them their first temporary play-piercing. You pull the sterile needle out of its packaging, remove your bottom's blindfold, and show them that clean needle that you so much want to slide through their nipple. He suddenly starts sweating, turning pale and approaches near panic. You have obviously run into an undiscussed phobia, and you need to put that needle away, and reassure them that you are not going to pierce them today, perhaps next time! Start doing something different, and discuss the difficulty later. If you try to process the problem now, you might as well give up on the scene there and then.

Remember, there was a time when you had not tried anything kinky, as a Top or bottom. At some point you opened yourself to exploring the unknown. Stay in touch with that spirit of exploration, and you might yourself enjoying all kinds of new activities and roles that were never, to your knowledge, part of your original fantasies! Allowing your male submissive to wear frilly girl's panties upon his request might lead you and him to discover and enjoy his female persona, complete with corsets, wig and make-up! In that mode s/he may become with the proper training the adoring servant you always wanted.

One of the biggest challenges faced by a Top is taking the initiative in matters of communication and negotiation. The first step toward negotiating is establishing a level of safety and trust between players so that fantasies can be freely shared. Make sure that the terms you are using mean the same thing to each of you. C/B torture might mean to your male bottom having his balls squeezed, and to you, inserting twenty needles into his scrotum sac! Humiliation might mean spread-eagled bondage to the bottom, but golden showers to you! Or vice versa! Ask your partner, "What do you mean?"

Once you've established a common vocabulary, you need to do what I call "negotiating for parity." What are you both looking for in a scene? Do you have enough compatible interests? In BDSM, there are six elements: bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. Whereabouts on these axes do your interests lie? Are you more interested in taking the role of governess? Or in flogging your bottom into deepest subspace? Both?
Is he or she wishing to have their genitals bound, tormented, and forced to orgasm? How willing are you to take your partner on a journey that is more for them than for you? This will depend on the level of your relationship. Are you interested in switching and taking turns? You need to determine whose needs lie where, and work out how will you get them met. If there's not enough parity, perhaps you can work out a system of rewards, or maybe some service! I know a 24/7 Arizona couple, a male Master and his long-time female partner and slave. She likes to get tied up in elaborate bondage, while he needs to get flogged once in a while. The dynamic between them doesn't involve switching, but to get this need met, he trained her to whip him, which she does very well from a position of service.

Another way to get one's needs met is to go outside the primary relationship for certain kinds of play. Obviously, negotiating non-monogamy is a tricky minefield and whole books could, and have been, written on it. One great resource is The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt (Greenery Press, 1997). The community player often shares aspects of his or her play outside their primary relationship, with the support of their partner and clearly negotiated boundaries. Let's suppose that your submissive is into being lightly spanked and disciplined as your personal French maid, but that you crave the high of giving a long, hard flogging to someone who can really fly with it. Or imagine that your bottom is just dying to taste the delights of temporary piercing, but that you feel faint at the sight of needles. If you are out, and live in a place with an active community, the opportunities are there to discover and explore.

In a casual negotiation with a friend or community member, or someone you may have met on the internet, you must remember that both parties have the right to decline if it doesn't feel right to you. You can always say no.

As well as the challenges of communicating, achieving parity, and getting one's needs met, there are a bunch of challenges in topping which are a little less pleasant to deal with, and which we would all like to avoid, if at all possible. For example, I personally like to avoid getting to a place of anger in the course of a scene. If I find myself, despite good negotiation and my best intentions, getting angry with the bottom due to his/her manipulation of me or the situation, I warn her that I won't continue topping if he/ she tries to push me into it. I like to express my sadism in a way that is clean and fiery, not clouded by anger and resentment. Indeed, I will stop the scene, at least for a while, until my anger has receded.

Another situation that can arise, since this is not an ideal world, is the medical emergency, or the bottom fainting. Try to avoid this scenario by asking the bottom to volunteer any information about medical conditions they may have. As for fainting, there are certain circumstances which can make it a likely occurrence. A bottom who has not eaten all day and whose blood-sugar is consequently low, put in tight bondage, particularly with arms raised above his head, especially if the genitals are also bound, might easily pass out. The likelihood is increased if the bottom tries to be stoic and push through feelings of faintness. This is a time when you will be glad you used quick-release panic snaps, and that you have your EMT scissors handy to cut ropes, if need be.

Obviously, any emergency must be dealt with immediately, since safety always comes first. A few years back, during the San Francisco Earthquake that destroyed part of the Bay Bridge, I had a young lawyer spread-eagled, face-down, on my bondage table. As I was whipping him, I notice the room beginning to rock. An Act of the Goddess! The lights went out. His concern was that I remove the collar encircling his neck! My concern was to get us both out of the dungeon as quickly as possible, which I did in the dark. Since then, I have an emergency lighting system in my play space. The Goddess, thankfully, has been a little calmer in recent years.

So, for a number of reasons, physical or psychological, a scene can break down. The bottom can get panicked, and you cannot get her to calm down, refocus, and regain trust. You, as a Top, might feel frustrated, angered, or disempowered, and lose confidence and interest. There is all kinds of space here for people to get emotionally hurt. My advice is to stay calm and stop the scene. Give yourself and your bottom time to cool down. However, do make sure that at a later time, that day or that week, you make time to communicate to each other what happened and to decide where to take your play relationship from then on.

Lately, in all the classes I teach, I have been pointing out that no matter how much work the whole SM community has done in the last 10 years in promoting our credo of "safe, sane and consensual," BDSM still involves a level of risk, which is in fact central to it and makes it exciting. This can sometimes be difficult and painful, but it is also what allows us to soar. Facing and meeting the many challenges of topping can bring us great joys which we would not be able to reach any other way. Personal and spiritual growth, deeper intimacy with our partners, savoring the richness of our sexuality, our power, our vulnerability, and exploring the limits of our erotic potential, are just some of the rewards of bravely honoring our kinkiness.

© 2002 -Cléo Dubois - Visit her website at