10 Tips for Tops

There are many styles of dominance, mastery, and topping, from the paternal to the viciously mean, but regardless of where you are, I believe you can be better. I believe this exploration of power dynamics can be a spiritually fulfilling path, and that it can lead us to many lessons and areas of growth.

Those of us who are on this side of the D/s slash, we who are the People In Charge, have a lot of challenges to building a healthy version of this identity, particularly when we are doing it in a context of social activism, intersectional oppression, and general awareness of institutionalized power imbalances. Here’s some of the best tips I have for folks who want to up their topping or dominance game, and be stronger, more resilient, and more compassionate while they are pursuing this work.

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Image by rife of Rowdy Ferret Design & Illustration

1. Create a Palette of Permission

If it’s hard for you to figure out what to do in a scene, or if your perfect submissive looks up at you and says, “I’ll do anything you want!” and your mind goes blank, this is a good thing for you to focus on. Create a list, on your own or brainstorming together with your submissive, of things that you know you have permission to do, in general, in periods where you are both your fit and healthy selves. (They may not apply when one or either of you are having an off day, are sick or physically unwell, or in different states of consciousness—like asleep or playing with some substances. They probably also only apply in certain places, like when you two are alone or in kink-friendly events. Check in.) Make a Top Ten list of things that generally your sub really loves and could do over and over and over. Trust that you can return to each of these things hundreds of times before either of you will get bored. There are infinite variations. Bonus tip: Make a wishlist of things you want to include in your Palette, but don’t currently know how to do, and start learning!

2. An On Switch For Your Dominance

Use your favorite words or positions that make you both feel empowered, deliberate, and sexy.
Many tops and dominants who play with power exchange during scenes, but whose reach and sphere of control don’t extend into other areas of their submissive’s life, need a way to have an “on switch” for their dominance (and an “on switch” for their submissive’s submissiveness, too). Consider building a D/s ritual that will, eventually, when repeated enough times, serve like a kind of Pavlovian symbol for you two stepping into those roles, something you both have a visceral response to. This ritual can be things like: You stand and your sub kneels at your feet; Your sub picks three toys and lays them out on the bed, then gets into a “present” slave position, and you enter the room; You recite a back-and-forth agreed upon (simple) phrases or promises to each other. Use your favorite words or positions that make you both feel empowered, deliberate, and sexy.

3. Receiving as a Dominant

Sometimes it seems incongruous to receive sexual touch or services from the top or dominant position. I assure you: this is common and makes a lot of sense. It’s difficult to feel “in control” and also at the same time to relax and receive. (Sidenote: This is at times very related to one’s gender, and one’s amount of stoneness. Most cis male doms—as a stereotype—don’t seem to have a problem receiving blow jobs, for example, do they?) One of the best ways you can work on this is by being very vocal with what you want to receive, and continuing to give orders and corrections and suggestions throughout the process. You also might want to work with physical levels, where you are physically above your submissive, to remind yourself that you are still in charge, even if their fist is in your hole. And read the essay How to Top Your Master by Raven Kaldera. Though it’s directed more at submissives, there are many useful things in there for dominants.

4. Got Guilt? More Aftercare

If you feel guilty after your scenes as a dominant, check in about it. Ask yourself: Did I really want to be doing that? Was I having a good time? Was my partner having a good time? Did we all come away from the scene generally glad the scene had happened? Scenes aren’t always perfect, of course (and aren’t always full of happy smiles and sunshine and rainbows). But generally, did it go well? Did you want to be there? Because honestly, if you feel that much guilt, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’d be better suited to less psychologically intense play. But if that’s not the case, and you really do want to be there (and your partners eagerly consent, of course), then you gotta deal with that nagging guilt from an internalized prescription of egalitarianism. It’s okay to create the relationship you want to be in. Normalize it for yourself by seeking more D/s community and sharing your experiences with others. And make sure you get enough aftercare yourself. You might need down time after, or quiet private time, or reflective time where your sub tells you all about what they liked and how all those dirty things you did made them feel. Or maybe cuddles. Experiment, and find your best aftercare methods.

5. Build Trust Slowly

Build the trust you need from your submissive to know that they are honest and they can follow through on what they agree to.
D/s and power dynamics are completely built on trust. Thats part of what I love about it: It requires so much deep knowing and intimacy. It takes work to keep it safe, protected, and intact. When the relationship is going well, the work can feel effortless. But this trust doesn’t just show up when a submissive kneels and offers themself to you. You gotta build this trust between you slowly. Most of us do this intuitively, but it’s helpful to do it consciously too. Not only are they building the trust they need from you, since they are putting their body and psyche into your hands, but also you are building the trust you need from them, which includes the ability to trust that they are honest with you if they get overwhelmed or need to stop, trusting they mean what they say, and trusting for them to reach out for support. Trust builds slowly and is earned over time. Don’t rush it.

6. Two-footing a Scene

This is a concept I learned from Xan West, which is the idea that generally, in a scene, the top is completely “in” the scene and present while still holding the boundaries of the negotiated agreement and some awareness of the surrounding space (though whether you’re at a busy dungeon or home alone would make that slightly more or less challenging)—that’s two-footing, being both in the scene and in the reality. Most of the time, it’s just a given that the top is the one who is doing this two-footing. But some activities really cause us tops to lose our footing. (Has that ever happened to you?) Make a list of activities that you think could cause you to tumble so deep into the scene that you have trouble keeping a hold on reality. Lean on your submissive for support, perhaps ask them to hold the boundaries and negotiations of the scene so you can lose yourself. Bonus: Make a list of realities that keep you so engaged that its hard to dive into the scene at all, like for example a crowded dungeon.

7. Recovering from Fuck-ups

Some of us have really strong reactions to fucking something up. We beat ourselves up about it, our confidence crumbles, and we shirk away from whatever it was we fucked up for a long time after. If you want to up your dominant game, you gotta get good at fucking up, because here’s the thing: You will fuck something up. I don’t mean something huge and irreparable (hopefully not), but more so small things that will stop or delay a scene for a while until you can get things back on the rails. The measure of someone (a dominant or partner or sub or just about everybody, I think) isn’t whether or not they fuck up, it’s what they do and how they respond to that fuck-up. So ask yourself: Do you take responsibility? Sincerely apologize? Understand what went wrong? Integrate that into your being so you will remember not to do that same thing again? And then, when the other folks involved are ready to move forward, can you let it go? Work on your ability to recover from fuck-ups and your scenes will be smoother.

8. Dive Deep into Theory

Read all the books and blogs you can get your hands on. Find your local resources and study those, too.
The power exchange subject isn’t an abundant one, but there are books out there, and really good theorists who from whom you should absolutely learn. Raven Kaldera runs Alfred Press, and they have dozens of books about cooperative power dynamics, limitations, and real scenarios for living D/s and M/s. Andrea Zanin’s writing is largely compiled at sexgeek.wordpress.com and every piece is worth reading. (She also has a fantastic list of kink resources, including many specific power dynamic books.) I highly recommend these: 1) Dear Raven and Joshua: Questions and Answers about Master/Slave Relationships by Raven Kaldera and Joshua Tenpenny, 2) Slavecraft: Roadmaps for Erotic Servitude – Principles, Skills and Tools by a grateful slave with Guy Baldwin 3) The Marketplace Series (The Marketplace, The Slave, The Trainer, The Academy, The Reunion and The Inheretor) by Laura Antoniou.

9. You Are Not An Asshole

If you—like me and like many thoughtful, feminist, and sensitive dominants—have fear that what you are doing is “bad” and “wrong” and difficult to reconcile with your moral code, here are some ideas. First, make sure you really understand the concept of agency. You fully trust someone’s no, right? You can trust their yes, too. You can trust that they, not you, know what they want. Second, remember that everyone fucks up, and work on your ability to recover; don’t expect to be perfect and never make mistakes. Third, take a good, strong look at what you think being an asshole in this context would be, and actively work toward not being that. Remember: Most people who actually are assholes do not spend much time worrying about whether or not they are assholes. That you are concerned and aware tells me that it’s 95% likely that you are not an asshole. (That other 5% is for folks who are not so self-aware. So hey, build that muscle, and follow Socrates: Know thyself.)

10. Masturbate More

Are you getting stuck building scenes, finding creative new ways to use the toys you have, or creating dirty experiments for your sexytimes with your submissives or playmates? There’s an easy place to start for that one: Masturbate more. Spend more time with porn and erotica to fuel the fires of your erotic self, but also make sure you spend some significant time letting your mind wander into erotic territory and exploring whatever may show up there. Take notes and highlight things you’d actually like to try!

Northern Exposure Kink Conference in Anchorage, AK! And: Judging the International Ms. Leather Contest

NE2013I’m catching a plane tomorrow for Anchorage, where the third annual Northern Exposure kink conference will be taking place.

NE is run by Sarha, who was just sashed International Ms. Leather 2013 at the IMsL weekend and contest in April in San Francisco. I was on the judging panel for this year’s IMsL contest, and while I promise I didn’t play favorites (Alaska rules!), I’m thrilled that my home state is representing the leather community this year, and I’m really excited to participate in the conference she produces.

The lineup looks pretty incredible. Though NE is remote, Sarha has attracted an incredible group of presenters who are teaching on a wide array of advanced topics. I’m particularly interested in the many M/s workshops that are offered, and I suspect I’ll be sitting in on as many of those as I can, taking copious notes. That’s a recent study subject of mine that I am really enjoying delving deeper into. I’m also really excited that Midori is presenting! I have been in classes of hers before, but it’s been many years, and I’m looking forward to learning from her. Lee Harrington is also going to be teaching!

Northern Exposure happens to coincide with Pride fest, so Sarha hooked me up with the folks over there, and I’m going to be teaching Writing Dirty, my skills for writing about sex class, on Thursday night (tomorrow!). I’m up against Drag Queen Bingo, so I suspect it might be a small class, but I hope we’ll have some good discussions and write some interesting sentences. I LOVE teaching writing classes, and often the ideal class number is something like 7-12, so I will be very happy with a small class.

The boy is coming with me. We’ve met at leather conferences before, but aside from IMsL in April, we haven’t actually come and gone from one together. And at IMsL, we didn’t get to play much (you know, just once or twice a day for short scenes, no big epic gang bang like at Winter Fire, no long, elaborate scene like at last year’s IMsL. I’m glad he’ll be there with me. I’m only teaching one class, Cock Confidence, aside from the writing class for Alaska Pride, so I should have some really nice time to play.

(Hopefully I’ll come back with some good stories to tell y’all.)

And, speaking of IMsL.

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International Ms. Leather 2013 Sarha and International Ms. Bootblack 2013 bella join the IMsL and IMsBB alumni on stage at this year’s contest and leather weekend

I’d never judged a leather contest before. I attended IMsL the year before, but I’m not particularly familiar with leather contests. I’ve been more and more involved with the leather scene in the past few years, attending more leather conferences, events, and happy hours, and participating in more conversations online about leather and reading up on leather history and culture, but I’ve only recently really come to understand the difference between BDSM, kink, and leather, which, though related, are slightly different.

I’ve been kinky since as long as I can remember, adding sensation play and power dynamics to my friendships, playtimes, and interactions since my first adolescent sexual experimentations, and probably even a bit before that. I’ve considered myself part of the BDSM communities since … well, at least formally since about 1999 when I got my official membership to the SPCC, the Sex Positive Community Center (now the Center for Sex Positive Culture) in Seattle. But I’d only ever really gone to classes or events to gain a particular skill to take back to my bedroom—I never really stuck around in the leather community.

Until recently. Really it was Dark Odyssey that started me on that path in a significant way. I thought I was familiar with leather culture and the kink/BDSM worlds, but when I started teaching more at leather events, I experienced how different it really was, and realized how I’d longed for leather community even without knowing it. I was on the board of the Lesbian Sex Mafia in New York City around that time, too—clearly seeking some more kinky community, not just to support my own kinky efforts but also to immerse myself in and learn new, different things.

I found a lot of what I was seeking at Dark Odyssey, and I found a lot of people who really felt like my people in a new way. (I’m kind of sad to be missing Fusion, which is next week! But it was either Fusion or Northern Exposure, and I’m so glad to be in Alaska right now. I don’t know if I’ll make it to Summer Camp in Maryland in September, but I would really like to. I’ve been two years in a row and I’ll miss it if I’m not there.)

So when I ran into Glenda Ryder, who runs IMsL, at Summer Camp last summer, I was thrilled to consider the possibility of being a judge for IMsL 2013. I knew very little about the history of leather contests, what it pertains, what a judge would do (aside from the obvious, duh), but I’d attended once (and watched almost exactly 20 minutes of the contest) and was interested in being more involved with leather culture, so I said yes.

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The judges judging | The judges brief moment in the spotlight, onstage, when they introduced us

I spent more time with the judges panel than anyone else that weekend, and they were lovely people I’m thrilled to know. (One of my favorite activities was passing dirty fairy tale stories back and forth with Tillie during the contest.) It was great to spend some time with KD Diamond, and Sarah Vibes, both of whom I know from New York, and to meet Woody, the current International Mr. Leather, and hear more about the traditions of leather, fundraising, queerness, and history.

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#fullofwomen
I spent so much time at the contest part of the conference itself that weekend in April that I barely had time to do much else—I didn’t attend any of the workshops, though I wish I had. I did send my boy to attend a power exchange relationships class called “Exploring and Deepening M/s, D/s and PowerExchange Relationships” taught by Liza and Jody, which was excellent, from what he relayed, and he took many interesting notes and gathered some concepts we still discuss. I also participated in a author’s meet and greet with Mollena, Laura Antoniou, and Tillie King (one of my fellow judges), hosted by Mr. and Ms. SF Leather, where we read some snippets of our work (and got to see many of the literarily-inclined folks at the conference congregate in one place, which totally got me hard).

Oh! And, here’s a quick sidenote: Laura Antoniou read from her most recent book, The Killer Wore Leather, which is a murder mystery set at a leather contest conference weekend. I picked up the audiobook on Audible.com for the long 5-day drive through Canada to Alaska, and Rife and I have been listening to it and really enjoying it. The reader is excellent, and the story is really fun. It’s kind of amazing to see our community through an outsider’s lens, and it’s also a very tight insider’s satire. If you want to know more about leather community, this book is definitely a fun place to start. Full review to come when we finally finish the book.

three judges [me, Tillie, Sarah Lashes] and Glenda
three judges [me, Tillie, Sarah Lashes] and Glenda with our serious judge faces on
I also taught a Flirting & Foreplay class, for which Rife designed a little IMsL flirting bingo card, which was a fantastic hit. I want to do that again, and I think all leather conferences should have a flirting bingo card in their conference bags.

I don’t have tons to say about the actual contest itself, aside from that it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed being behind the scenes but still in an important role as a judge, as someone described it to me that weekend. I don’t always want to have attention on me, but I do like to be important, somehow, so that felt good. I thought the contestants were incredibly well spoken, all had very impressive resumes (and formal leather), and had both new young spunkiness and wise experience from many years of serving and guiding and participating in these communities. I learned a lot.

I’d prefer to go to more classes, and I’m looking forward to being more of a participant at Northern Exposure this coming weekend than I will be working. I hope to have some fun, learn some things, and have lots of conversations about what it’s like to be kinky in Alaska.

I’ve got lots more things to say about Sarha and how she won (she won!) on an excellent platform about outreach to leather in little towns and not just big cities, how she excited (and kinda scared) everyone with her black bear fur lined chaps (where do you think leather comes from, folks?) and how it felt to have my Alaskan identity coming together with my queer and kink identities, too. I could talk about the MC and how unimpressed I was with her racist jokes (just because you “make fun of everybody” does not exclude you from racism). I could talk about the beautiful redhead who had a pet girl on a leash with her all weekend, and a new friendship and relationship that has bloomed from a distance. But this post is already 1600 words long, and it’s time to go to bed, even though it’s 10:44pm and the sky is still light.

It’s going to be even lighter in Anchorage. I’m really looking forward to soaking up all the midnight sun I possibly can.

(Official conference photos by Rich Trove, thanks Rich!, except for the instagram ones taken by me.)

“Reading erotica is a GREAT way to explore your sexuality.” Tristan Taormino Interviewed Me On Sex Out Loud

Laura Antoniou & I were guests on Tristan Taormino’s Sex Out Loud podcast this past Friday, and the show is now up & available to listen to online.

This week’s episode of Sex Out Loud has two different guests talking about their work giving voice to sexual minorities, specifically the leather & BDSM communities. Laura Antoniou, one of the most published female writers of the queer/BDSM erotic genre, will discuss her popular Marketplace erotic novel series as well as the publication of her first mystery novel, The Killer Wore Leather. Sinclair Sexsmith is the kinky butch top behind the the popular Sugarbutch Chronicles. They’re also a writer, storyteller, and performer who studies critical feminist & gender theory, sexual freedom, social change activism, archetypes, and the tantric and buddhist spiritual systems.

Check it out!