July/August 2003
Going Deep
Topspace, Bottomspace, And Sado-Erotic Ecstasy
TOP AND BOTTOM

by Chris M

For 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 complete whole.

Sacrifice, Suffering And Submission: The Bottom

For 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.

Some 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.

Pain 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.

It is 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.

While 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.

Another 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.

While 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.

Having 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.

So lets look at some of the flavors of pain.

Submission 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 higher.

Sacrifice 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.

The 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.

Pain and Soul Damage

I don't 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 later.

The Top

If the 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.

While 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.

Mysterious, 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.

  • The 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.
  • The Lover 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 Dancer 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.
  • The Bully 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.
  • The Connoisseur One who has cultivated unusual, discriminating tastes, even of cruelty or pain.
  • The Artist 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.
  • The Alchemist Just 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.
  • The Scholar/Teacher 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.
  • The Tribesman 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.
  • The 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.
  • The 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.
  • The 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.

At his 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 adventure.

Top And Bottom Together

The 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.

Between 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