Topspace, Bottomspace, And Sado-Erotic Ecstasy
TOP AND BOTTOM
most activities SM folk engage in, some are drawn to the
passive role (the bottom, or submissive), others to the
active one (top, or dominant). Still others prefer to let
personal chemistry decide what role they will play in the
sado-erotic ritual. There are a lot of choices in describing
the duality of the SM encounter, dominant-submissive, master-slave,
sadist-masochistů. But the one I'll try and stick with is
the top and bottom metaphor because it reminds me that the
two roles fit together as the top and bottom half of the
SM encounter, not mirror opposites, but complements, like
yin and yang, fitting together to create a satisfying and
Suffering And Submission: The Bottom
strangers to SM, bottoming may be the hardest SM experience
to understand. Who would want to feel suffering? In many
traditions, suffering was ascribed to the justified punishment
of the wicked. Freud explained human motivation in terms
of the "pleasure principal," namely, that we steer
towards experience that will feel good to us, and masochism
seems unbalanced indeed when measured by that frame of reference.
The prevalence of pain and suffering in the world has long
been advanced as a philosophical proof against the existence
of God. Pain seems to be something you would almost have
to be sick to enjoy. The truth, of course, is that some
kinds of suffering can be very sweet, indeed.
examples: Southern Californian that I am, I enjoy cuisine
- Thai, Hunan or Mexican - so hot that it is painful to
eat. Rock music, perhaps the most popular music ever, fairly
assaults the ear (Pete Townsend of The Who crafted his onstage
guitar sound to make it physically hurt to listen to). Humor
is often predicated on the emotions of shame, humiliation,
and embarrassment. The athletic experience gives participants
and observers an opportunity to encounter and combat the
cleansing fires of physical agony, the thrill of victory,
as well as the agony of defeat. The Bossa Nova is another
example, a bittersweet music and dance reveling in the mournful
joys of unrequited love. The Blues is an American counterpart,
a musical tradition celebrating poverty, desperation, suffering,
insanity, and death. On the scriptural front, the bible
dedicates long passages to sacrifices, fasting and labyrinthine
rules and regulations dictating submissive compliance. The
humiliating rite of the confessional rewards us with absolution
for confronting our darkest, most shameful secrets (it's
a lot like therapy in that respect). The portrayals of martyred
saints often pair beatific facial expressions with violent
bodily ordeal. Bernini's statue of St. Theresa expresses
perfectly both spiritual ecstasy and sado-erotic rapture:
her head thrown back in swooning bliss, eyelids fluttering,
mouth lolling open, while a leering cupid fires arrows into
her breast. In fact, cherub-faced, leering Cupid, hunting
for lovers to impale with his bow and bloody arrows makes
a nice compact expression of love's sado-erotic joy. The
mushy tear-jerking ballad, the deafening rock concert, the
blood splattered "action adventure" film. Even
Hebrews 12:11 says "For the moment all discipline seems
painful rather than pleasant; later it yields a the peaceful
fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by
it." Clearly, some kinds of pain are actually desirable.
can be a welcome antidote to numbness. Much of contemporary
urban life panders to the concerns of the ego: the immediate
gratification of desire and deliverance from sickness, discomfort
and want. Many of the world's religious practices are designed
to do exactly the opposite: break the reliance on comfort
and easy living, to challenge us to do the hard work of
becoming better people. The principal behind this sort of
deliberate pain is its ability to turn off the loud demanding
mouth of the ego. The ego focuses on abundance of food,
strength, shelter, success, and sex. But the ego is often
nearsighted, and not always as smart as it thinks. A life
lived for the ego's pleasure can leave the rest of you starved
and impoverished. The ego may be gratified by wealth, health,
and good fortune, while the soul is gravely ill, wounded
or starved into spiritual anorexia. It is easy be successful
and still miserable. Ask Richard Cory.
when we move past the selfish concerns of the ego, that
we encounter our capacity and need for higher human experience:
love, worship, justice, purpose and compassion. When we
are free of the yammering of the ego, these things come
to matter far more than our short term needs and wants.
At times, the soul may even be willing to lay down life
itself in sacrifice for a higher ideal. In pure ego terms,
sacrifices of that magnitude make no sense. But when you
consider the totality of human motivation, the ego is only
a small part. Rituals and lifestyles that humble and chastise
the ego do so with aim of reigning in hubris and arrogance,
to facilitate awe and reverence of all that is sacred in
the world. Pain, carefully orchestrated into educational
ritual is one of the paths forward. It can be the pain of
forsaking pleasure and willing acceptance of hardship, toil
and deferment of reward. It can be the physical mortification
of the body. It can mean deliberately humbling yourself
through the submissive posture and mindset of prayer. It
can mean sacrificing things you treasure. It can mean toiling
for the benefit of the less fortunate; improving the world
in some modest way. It can mean confessing your darkest,
dirtiest secrets in confession. The great Western religions
advocate fasting and endurance of hardship as proper spiritual
practice. Even Zen Buddhist literature is rife with cane
swinging monks who whack their students if they become insolent
or lazy. Other examples include boot camp, fraternal hazing,
the gauntlet, the Aboriginal walkabout, and countless coming
of age rituals around the globe.
these experiences may humble, traumatize or even temporarily
annihilate the ego, they are intended to strengthen and
nurture the soul. The rites of passage in many pre-industrial
societies use pain as a transformational catalyst. To complete
a demanding, frightening, or painful ordeal is to cease
being a frightened helpless child and become a capable,
brave person, one who can endure the hardships of adulthood.
The novice is transformed from someone who doesn't know
if they can do it, to someone who has done it. Ideally the
initiate emerges stronger, wiser and, hopefully, because
of their first hand experience, more empathetic towards
the suffering of others.
purpose of religion is preparing the faithful to contend
with the suffering we inevitably encounter in life. Buddha
went so far as to say "life is suffering". The
shortest verse in the Bible is "Jesus wept." Together
these statements show a scriptural recognition that suffering
is a necessary and deliberate part of this world; not even
gods and holy men are spared. World mythology has shown
that life and adventure are always entwined with peril,
risk, and suffering. C. S. Lewis once said, "Pain is
the megaphone that God uses to awaken a deaf world."
And Neitzche said "What does not kill me , makes me
stronger". And athletes will tell you "No pain
no gain". To reach Dante's Paradise you must traverse
all nine rings of Dante's Hell.
the concept of pain as a soul nutrient is not an SM invention,
it is a central principal of SM practice. By saying yes
to pain, we are saying yes to life, even at its worst. For
some, SM embodies the surprisingly religious belief that
pain and suffering hold purifying and enriching qualities
that surpass the ego's comprehension, while speaking directly
to the concerns of the soul. For others, genuine suffering
may be preferable to the bland pleasantness or numbness
that is the culturally advocated norm. SM, in contrast,
embraces suffering with a vengeance.
said all this, lets turn our attention to the bottom himself.
In theory, the bottom is the top's complement. That element
which when added to the top completes him or her. The bottom
is an embodiment of whatever fantasy the top and bottom
collectively decide. If the top's job to transport the bottom,
the bottoms role is to be the initiate, the acolyte, worshiper,
penitent, victim lashed to the alter of toplust. The bottom
is witness to the top's performance, whose purpose there
is to get high, be swept away, discover the languid joys
of surrender. The Bottom is also something of a connoisseur:
one who has developed exquisitely fine tastes analogous
to those learned to appreciate fine discrimination in savoring
an wine, a work of art or performance of a piece of music.
By this I do not mean a snob or a know it all, but someone
who knows how to get high from a painting, from music, from
a poem, or a from really hot scene. A good bottom has refined
his or her tastes to notice and appreciate subtle distinctions
that would be lost to less discerning tongues. And like
the proverbial wine snob, a good bottom knows how to process
experience into joy, has learned to differentiate magnificence
from the run of the mill. This is not to say that bottoming
is a rarified experience. There is in the bottom a bit of
the dog or cat flopping onto their back and exposing their
belly to be petted into Nirvana. As any beast lover knows
it is a simple joy that sends both top and bottom on a blissful
voyage. The bottom may define themselves with respect to
their dominant partner as a sort of servant or an underling.
Some Masterless slaves or unpartnered submissive have taken
to calling themselves Ronin, the Japanese term for an unemployed
Samurai with no master to serve, to describe their unfulfilled
desire to serve.
lets look at some of the flavors of pain.
means turning your care, focus, and trust outside of yourself,
as opposed to concentrating on your own wants. In bottoming,
the means are fairly handy for doing this: you offer yourself,
your pain, your dignity or your servitude as a sacrifice.
Humility, acceptance of an externally provided edict, puts
your trust in something outside you, something bigger, something
has long been part of spiritual practice. By forsaking something
you desire, you bind yourself more tightly to the object
of your devotion. It is a ritualized setting of priority,
explicitly raising your devotional commitment above the
temporal desires of your ego. It can be a powerful soul
building exercise. Sacrifice means "to make sacred"
and giving something up to a god, goddess, ideal or person
to both exalt them and bind the worshipper and worshiped
in a consecration rite. Sacrifice is the essence of gift
giving in general, when the pleasure given away is greater
than if it had been kept. This is different from the concept
of investment, which is a willingness to forgo gratification
today to reap greater return later on. In sacrifice, the
act of giving is the reward itself.
concept of sacrifice is also essential for tops, if more
subtle. A good top should sacrifice years of work in mastering
her or his craft, should always be ready to sacrifice one's
immediate desires in the interest of building a scene satisfying
to both themselves and their partners. Regardless of your
role, you should be able to savor the joys resulting from
your sacrifice. The feeling of "here is why I demean
myself, here is why I accept the pain, here is way I practiced
all summer with my whip" is a great feeling indeed,
both because it feels wonderful, and because it teaches
us, again and again that great experiences await us in unlikely
places. Sacrifice brings wisdom as part of its reward.
and Soul Damage
want to leave the false impression that all pain and suffering
is beneficial and good. Some events are so terrible and
traumatic that they demolish both ego and soul, leaving
their victims brutalized, isolated, and incapable of loving
themselves or others. Some religious institutions have scandalous
records of crushing the souls of their own faithful, in
the vain attempts of afflicting the egos through harsh discipline.
To stay with the athletic metaphor, instead of the incremental
tearing down and building up of muscle, soul trauma is akin
to traumatic physical injury: a wound that cannot heal without
proper care. Pain can mean permanent injury. More on this
previous paragraphs describe the trip the bottom takes during
the SM ritual, the top is the sculptor of that experience.
In Christian tradition the top would be a priest, confessor,
a conduit to holiness and mystical encounter. In older traditions
the top would be a shaman one who guides his patient through
ritual exploration of self (This aspect of the tops function
has similarities to today's psychotherapist). If the bottom
is initiate or acolyte the Top is master, teacher, and guide.
the top is the one who is captain of the voyage the bottom
is not sent alone. The top is both guide and participant
in the ceremonial exploration of self and the experience
of the divine.
powerful, sexually charged, loving but cruel, the top is
an amalgamation of mythic characters common to many of the
worlds great cultures (Carl Jung called these characters
archetypes). Hidden just below the leathery surface of today's
dominant top, are a number of recognizable archetypes.
Warrior Someone trained and skilled in the use of
potentially deadly force, like a ninja, or samurai, who
is empowered to wield destruction. Someone dangerous,
brave and decisive, who is comfortable taking or dishing
out punishment and pain.
A sharer of pleasure and intimacy, a Casanova, Don Juan,
or Mata Hari. A giver of small, beautiful gifts, possibly
a bit of a sexual virtuoso. Someone who can make their
partner come all night, and beg for more.
The dance is an amazingly apt metaphor for SM. It's a
ritual of closeness, physicality, and beauty, in which
beginners and advanced practitioners can participate.
One leads, the other follows. It can be shared with many
partners as a cordial social activity or it can be smolderingly
intimate. My friend and mentor, Gil, even while he was
teaching me the secrets of BDSM, was always running off
to square dances with his partner which I always found
pretty nelly. Now I understand.
A powerful figure who is willing to use that strength
to dominate, terrorize or torment others who are helpless
to resist. One who takes delight in doing bad things and
loves an unfair fight.
Connoisseur One who has cultivated unusual, discriminating
tastes, even of cruelty or pain.
Like a painter, a dominant uses the body of his submissive
as a canvas creating works of beauty for the top and bottom's
shared pleasure. Being an artist, godlike, they create
characters and make things happen to them. They kill,
rape, torture and subject them to peril. They belong to
the artist, to dispose of how they wish.
as the alchemist mystics took base elements of lead, earth
and water, and attempted to turn them into gold, we take
the base feelings of aggression fear, shame, pain and
loss, transforming them into works of beauty and illumination.
One who has worked to amass a wealth of knowledge and
has distilled it into wisdom, one who is skilled and willing
to teach this wisdom to students.
One who is a member of a group of peers who share a tribal
identity and culture. One who belongs to something larger
than oneself, who knows people, and who people know, who
has a connection to others like themselves.
Parent If you'll pardon the incestuous metaphor, the
parent-child metaphor is intimate, loving, supportive,
but unequal in authority, with the parent having responsibility
for educating, training, and disciplining the child. Daddy'
lap, mom's hairbrush and the woodshed are all standard
symbols in the scene.
Animal/Familiar The familiar is an alternate identity
that lives within us, in animal form, and is often associated
with shaman, witches or warlocks. This other identity
often has greater strength and endurance, and rich carnivorous
appetites. There are a surprising number of scene folk
who identify with animal familiars. My friend Joseph has
a lion personality that emerges during play. Bernadette
Wright of Baltimore becomes a puma. The popular horse
and pony extravaganzas speak for themselves.
Healer/Shaman The holy man or high priestess who performs
magic, casts spells, works cures on and heals the sick.
In the shaman tradition, the healer takes the subject
(bottom) on a spiritual voyage, a visionary exploration,
from which they return wiser and more healed than before.
Where the artist uses the body as a canvas, to the shaman,
it becomes both alter and sacrifice. The dungeon is the
temple or sacred cave: rituals and candlelight are used
in both. And, as it turns out, pre-industrial societies
have great many rituals and rites that strongly resemble
some of the things we do in the dungeon.
or her best, the dominant is a cousin to the martial artist,
the Arthurian Knight, the ever-so-slightly-Zen western gunslinger,
the Renaissance man or woman. Readers of romance novels
recognize the dominant as the "tall dark stranger"
when male or as the "femme fatale" when female.
Both are dangerous, desirable and promise eroticism and
And Bottom Together
ancient Buddhist text, "101 Zen stories" includes
a Koan about a skilled harp player whose best friend was
a skilled listener. When the harp player played sang about
a river the other could see it, and hear the lapping waves.
When the player sang about a love like wine, the other could
taste it. When the listener fell sick and died, the player
cut the strings and never played again. That's what the
bottom contributes: the purpose for the top to perform their
craft. Without the bottom, the listener to the tops music,
the top is nothing.
bottom and top, SM is the language spoken, and the message
is always the same: Life is good, even when it hurts. Even
when there's suffering. Even when there's humiliation. Even
when its arduous. The experience of pain is a crucial training
for survival. It teaches us that when you are dealt a crippling
blow, even a tragic one you can and must go on. Many of
the painful initiation rites implicitly teach this lesson:
Hardship can be endured, can be ennobling, can lead to strength,
courage, and joy. Sin can be expedited. Retribution can
be made. The suffering and confusion in this world can be
transcended. It's a message of survival, the same message
of the Fakir meditating on his bed of nails, the aboriginal
leading others in the firewalk, the yogi contorting his
body, the tribal initiate enduring the agony of scarification,
the holyman letting a ceremonial bonfire take the finest
livestock in a ritual of sacrifice. Peace comes from the
conquering the fear of pain