In our April 12th Ask WickedMir column, we explored learning the lingo of BDSM.
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Hi Wicked Mir,
I'm new to the kink community and have considered myself a bottom in most of my relationships. I have also been a sub.
I don't like the word slave and was wondering if you wouldn't mind clarifying the difference between the 3 terms. One more thing, if you don't mind, wondering the difference between a service bottom and a sub.
I appreciate your knowledge and time!💖
Thanks for your questions, and for taking the time to write me!
As the old joke goes, you could probably ask 12 kinksters about these words and get 14 answers! And there are certainly nuances about how these words get used in different sub-cultures within kink land. That said, I'll give you my answers based on what you can expect to hear most often.
Bottom/ Top tend to be the most all encompassing terms. The bottom is generally receiving the action; the top is generally guiding the action. The top flogs; the bottom gets flogged. The top spanks; the bottom gets spanked. The rope top ties; the rope bottom gets tied. Often you'll hear this in a BDSM context, but you also hear it a lot to describe sex roles in the gay community. The top fists; the bottom gets fisted. The top fucks; the bottom gets fucked.
You can think of the bottom and top as participants in a dance where both roles are critical and need to be in sync -- no matter what type of dance you're doing. You can think of Fred Astaire as the top, directing the choreography. But as the old Frank & Ernest comic put it, "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, ...backwards and in high heels."
To sum up, bottom/ top in most usage are very inclusive terms that can be used to describe the leader and follower in a variety of dynamics -- including the sexual roles in relatively vanilla relationships, active/ passive roles for bondage and domination play, dominant and submissive in D/s dynamics, and giver and receiver of sensation in Sado-masochistic dynamics.
One cautionary note from my personal perspective: Because these terms are relatively inclusive, they also have their limits and can get confusing if you don't know what type of play we're discussing. You may also be a bottom in some contexts and a top in others -- even within a particular relationship. For example, I might be a dominant, and still order my girl to beat or fuck me. Even though I'd be technically a bottom for the sensation or sexual play, that doesn't change the fact that I'm the Dominant giving the orders. Because of this, I like "bottoming" and "topping" more as verbs than I like "bottom" and "top" as nouns. It's more useful for me personally to think of bottoming and topping more in terms of what you do than what your general role is.
For more on these dynamics, The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy are excellent.
Submissive/ Dominant (or sub/ Dom) describes these roles within the context of consensual power exchange. In D/s, the submissive willingly cedes some form of agency to the dominant through their dynamic. The dominant is calling the shots in some specific way and the submissive is giving their trust, willingness, and vulnerability for that to happen.
For me, D/s is all about the mental and emotional play between the submissive and the Dominant. There is a deep power and energy for me as a Dom in holding a strong container for vulnerable and hot play, and bringing a submissive's desire and actions in line with my own. No matter what else we're doing -- rope or canes, sexy times or watching a movie, or just getting my toenails painted while we lounge in bed -- I'm the one calling the shots and my submissive is the one trusting me to do that.
There are probably as many styles of building D/s dynamics are there are dominants and submissives. Some submissives only submit during scenes or playtime; others cede control over some or many aspects of their day to day lives.
You asked specifically about service submissives as well. Service submissives give acts of service as part of their submission. A service submissive might take on specific duties or chores for their Dominant. Those acts of service might be fairly kinky -- perhaps bootblacking or serving as a sissy maid in a frilly outfit. Or, they might be relatively vanilla tasks that become an act of service because the Dominant wants it. For example, I once had a service submissive who helped me with large garden tasks for my permaculture design work.
Not all submissives are interested in acts of service. I've dated submissives who specifically did not want to engage in acts of service but were submissive in other ways. If you're into service, it's a great way of deepening your submission. If you're not . . . it will probably annoy you. No submissive "has to" do service to be a "true submissive." There are no rules about how to structure D/s relationship -- only agreements.
Anton Fulmen's The Heart of Dominance is my current favorite book on D/s from a Dom's perspective. There's also a great book called Conquer Me by Kacie Cunningham that explores submission from a woman's perspective.
And then we come to Master/ slave dynamics. This one gets a little tricky, because there are a few different usages going on.
I personally don't engage in M/s dynamics, and when I was less involved in the kink community, I thought of slaves as some kind of uber-submissive. As I've learned more, I've been surprised to learn that's not always the case.
Some folks use Master/ slave to refer to a 24/7 power exchange dynamic -- but otherwise they're basically in a Dominant/ submissive relationship. I've also noticed that I tend to hear this usage a lot in the gay leather community. Jack Rinella's The Master's Manual and The Complete Slave explore M/s dynamics within that context.
Some folks use the terms as a specific kind of role play, particularly exploring the taboo of historical slavery.
What I've personally seen most often in an M/s dynamic is a specific kind of ownership and service which goes well beyond the bedroom or D/s. Often, Masters (or Mistresses) and their slaves form kinds of power couples and power households that Really Get Shit Done.
International Ms. Leather 2010 Mollena Williams-Haas comes to mind as an exceptionally powerful slave. Wife to a world renowned composer, she manages world travel, public appearances and press while also continuing her own work as a kink educator and public figure. From a New York Times interview published Feb. 23 2016 : "The fundamental feature of their relationship is not obviously sexual, Mr. Haas and Ms. Williams-Haas, 46, said in an interview at their airy apartment near Columbia, with expansive views of the Hudson River. 'It’s not caning,' he said. 'It’s the fact that I need someone who is with me when I work.'"
Owned slaves might be responsible for a family business, managing a leather house, running a leather contest, or a variety of other high-end tasks. The more I see these kinds of slaves in action, the more in awe I am of their sheer strength and initiative. In contrast to many submissives, the slave's task is not necessarily to submit. To manage the Big Picture of improving their owners' lives, many slaves need to manage upward, strategically push back, and take full ownership of many of the tasks that have been delegated to them. It's impressive -- and not at all what I expected when I was new to all this.
Just one last thought on dynamics of all kinds. Because there are as many ways to do BDSM as there are people, it's a good idea to use any of these terms as a discussion starter. Don't assume that because someone is a "bottom," or "submissive" or "slave" that it means what you think it does! Brad from the Society of Janus always suggests that you follow up that descriptor with a question: "What does that mean for you?" It's really good advice. (And one we should always be asking ourselves as well!)
I realize that this is very long, but I hope that it's helpful!
PS: Do you have a different perspective? Share it in the comments below!
PPS: Do you have a question for Wicked Mir? Send your questions to AskWickedMir@gmail.com