by Annabeth Leong
The more I think about it, the more I’m uncertain about why the acronym BDSM is strung together this way, as if all the activities it describes are related. There’s a constellation of kinky stuff that’s treated as if it always goes hand in hand, but that doesn’t really make sense.
When I started showing up at kink events, I said I was submissive because I knew I wanted to bottom and receive pain. I didn’t realize there were distinctions here, and most of the events I went to elided them, too.
Over time, however, I recognized a growing anger in myself. I hated, viscerally, the experience of being treated as submissive. Of course, I met some cool people. I also encountered a lot of smarmy sneering, people talking to my dominant instead of to me (which, depending on your point of view, might have been proper protocol), jokes that irritated me, incorrect assumptions, and stuff that pissed me off in general.
I had a partner at the time who I called my dominant. Really, my partner was my sadist. We weren’t using proper vocabulary, but most people around us weren’t either. When we went to events, my partner adopted what they saw as a dominant-type persona, and I found it embarrassing and cringe-worthy.
At the same time, I truly do enjoy bottoming—as in, I love being on the receiving end of intense sensation. I love being tied up for a variety of reasons. I like it as a meditative state, I like it as a way of inducing discomfort, I like it as a decorative art, I like it as a way of experiencing the sensation of textiles on the skin, I like it as a way of drawing blood flow to certain areas to make them more sensitive, and lots more. I also love receiving pain. Impact play is a favorite for me, but I also love electricity, clamps, biting, and so on.
Over time, I realized I needed to distinguish between bottoming as a masochist and power exchange situations that framed me as submissive. These two things are so commonly associated that I’ve encountered many people who respond with disbelief or confusion when I try to explain that I want to be hurt but there’s no way in hell I want to submit.
I think a lot of kink activities boil down to being about trust. I do have to trust a top or a sadist. For me, that trust works best when I’m in the situation as an equal. It’s also easier for me to trust myself to speak up when I need to.
What’s funny about this is that I have a lot of submissive instincts. I am very, very good at service. It is easy for me to subsume my needs and focus on those of others. If you give me an order, my first reaction is to obey.
However, I don’t like that stuff about myself. I don’t want to feed it. What I’m working on in my life is to stop knee-jerk obedience. I don’t want to practice it on the weekend.
I know that many people experience submission as freeing. For me, it’s much more freeing to meet a top as an equal and figure out together how to hurt me for fun.
The more I’m around kink events, the more the dynamics around power exchange feel touchy and delicate to me.
For example, there’s a big kink con in Rhode Island called the Fetish Fair Flea Market. I go every year, and usually have a mixed experience. In some ways it’s awesome, and in some ways it infuriates me.
Early on, I went in clothing that identified me as an s-type (a sub or bottom). I didn’t always love how I was treated, but I didn’t know anything else.
One year, I went alone in these hot boots that I really loved. I didn’t think much about it at the time—I’m into feet and shoes, and these were just hot. They were thigh-high black leather boots that laced all the way up, with at least a three-inch heel. I felt gorgeous in them.
I could never have anticipated how much the boots would change my experience of the Flea. Apparently, the boots made people read me as a D-type. All of a sudden, I saw everything from a different perspective. I got more respect in the vendor halls. People answered my questions. The conference opened before me like a flower.
I still got regularly sexually harassed, don’t get me wrong. Random dudes still came up to me to share their sexual fantasies about me (I still presented female, after all), it was just that those fantasies had changed. Still, it was shocking to be freed from receiving the biases and assumptions that had come at me when people saw me as an s-type.
These days, when I go to the Flea, I struggle to find a way to dress. There’s not an obvious outfit that says masochist, at least not that I can think of. It’s hard not to wind up looking s- or D-. But really, I’d like to be able to step outside of power exchange with my kink experience.
And there are times when the distinction is subtle.
Last fall, I went with a top to a carnival. My top tormented me with unpleasant, frightening rides, laughing delightedly at my misery (I love that kind of thing, so while I was horribly uncomfortable, I was also having a great time). They pushed me to get on these things relentlessly, one after another.
I would call that a masochistic experience, not a submissive one, but I think, if we’d been in a different place, that it could have been a submissive one. In my case, the focus was on unpleasant sensations. My top was administering them, but I was receiving them because I find unpleasant sensations fun/fascinating/arousing/oddly compelling. In the submissive case, I think the focus would have been more on doing these things for the top, on being obedient despite the discomfort.
The emphasis on obedience is one of the things I really hate.
I’ve revised the way I describe myself at kinky events more times than I can count, and this probably still isn’t the final answer. However, it was really important for me to realize that what I’m interested in is sensation, not power.
And I hope this goes without saying, but I want to be very clear: I hold absolutely no disdain for those who do identify as submissive and enjoy it. It’s just not for me. Because I’ve spent time in that role, I have observed some dynamics around it in the community that I think are messed up, but I’m absolutely in support of people who want to explore the role itself.
Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for sadists who want to treat me as an equal.