Power Exchange Categories: Doms & Tops & Subs & Bottoms & Switches

In my first foray into BDSM, it was my pain-loving “submissive” boyfriend who put a whip in my hand and begged me to use it on him. Being what I have always called “sexually game,” I gave it a try. I was not a fan of whacking him, not at first, I winced the entire time. Then he let me take a turn on the receiving end. Ohhhhh. I suddenly “got it,” the visceral appeal of a good sting-y beating, and I was then able to wield the whip with enthusiasm. I took on the role of Domme to his sub, and had a fabulous time dressing up in leather and dishing out punishments. I especially loved the intensity of feeling we experienced, and the unusual intimacy our BDSM life created for us. But after several months, frustration began to gnaw at me, especially as it seemed my supposed submissive was driving all the action. I was doing things for the sake of turning him on, not because I actually wanted to do them. I accused him of “topping from the bottom” and arguments ensued. Within a year, I had lost all interest in dominating him, and came to resent his desire for it. Within another year, what I had considered a “soulmate” relationship ended by my choice. The break-up was incredibly painful for both of us, and the experience made me certain that BDSM was a road to disappointment, and not for me.

Fast forward eight years: My new husband and I stumbled into a different version of BDSM for me, this time in which I was in the submissive role. It felt surprisingly “right” to me in a way being a Dominant never had. In fact, it felt so right that it had the power of a religious conversion, as if the clouds had parted and a divine light shone down on me. I am a submissive!  Discovering this identity flipped my experience of BDSM completely, from something confusing and disappointing, to something liberating and fulfilling. I finally understood why my previous relationship had failed: I was playing the wrong role. I had never been a true Dominant; what I had actually been doing with my ex was playing the role of “service top.” I was topping my lover for the purpose of giving him pleasure. Ironically, I did this because, at heart, I am a submissive pulled to surrender to my partner’s desires. But, of course, he was never really a true submissive either; my desires were never paramount to him. He was simply a bottom who got off on pain.  

In BDSM, the categories in which we place ourselves matters, and dictates how the experience feels, how it satisfies or doesn’t. Power exchange of any type will produce the energy of sexual polarity. But there seems to be a natural category fit for most of us, a sweet spot that best expresses who we are and what best serves our needs. It may take some time and experimenting to find that sweet spot, but venture down a BDSM path for awhile and you will find your own unique fit.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand is whether one enjoys BDSM as a fun roleplay game to spice up one’s sex life, or if power exchange roles feel more fundamental to oneself than that. Over the years, there has been a lot of talk and study about whether kink and BDSM is a form of “recreational leisure,” or if it can be considered a sexual orientation in the way being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual is now understood to be how we are wired. I happen to agree with my friend Mistress Lila when she argues that BDSM is not an orientation (link to piece on web site), but a path that encourages the playing out of different roles for different purposes. Dominance and submission (D/s), however, most certainly is a sexual orientation. The role we inhabit in a power exchange relationship not something we play at, but something that expresses something essential and unchangeable about ourselves. To discover one’s “right” role in D/s usually feels incredibly liberating, and an unmistakable pull from that point on. So, let’s begin with those categories – although it’s important to note that these are all very broad categories with room for incredible variation within.

DOMINANT – A Dominant takes the active, decisive role in a power exchange relationship, and will be most excited and fulfilled by sex when he can control his partner, along with what they do together during sex or even beyond. A true Dominant is likely to feel turned off by ceding control, and not even something as tame as receiving a spanking will appeal, unless of course directed by him/herself. Dominants often tell stories of knowing they liked to control others from a young age; for example, they liked to be the cop busting the robbers, or the one to tie up playmates for sport. Statistically, Dominants are more likely to be men. On FetLife, men identify as Dominants over submissive by a three to one margin, but plenty of women feel themselves to be essentially dominant as well, with 11 percent of women registered on FetLife self-identifying as Dominant. (A recent Cosmopolitan poll put the number as high as 30 percent of women leaning Dominant, although the poll neglected to provide a “switch” category, so that could include both). Every couple will need to negotiate the scope of the Dominant’s control, with many preferring to keep their D/s relationship confined to sexual activity (a.k.a. a Bedroom Dominant), while others are willing to go all the way toward a 24/7 or Master/slave agreement.

SUBMISSIVE – A sub can easily enjoy sex outside of power exchange but will find he or she experiences excitement and fulfillment at a much deeper level when letting go of control. Indeed, having to “decide” sexual matters often brings up anxiety and discomfort that is usually relieved by a more dominant partner taking control. Unlike the more active Dominant, a submissive may not have noticed any early clues that submission is something that appeals to her, or may instead simply describe herself as a “pleaser” (often, as if it is a flaw). Women are more likely to consider themselves submissive; indeed according a 2019 review of BDSM studies in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, up to 75 percent of women claim to be submissive, while the Cosmopolitan poll had 70 percent of women leaning toward submissive. Perhaps this lopsided gender split unfolds for cultural reasons, or perhaps women are actually designed by nature to be submissive, as I have sometimes argued. But many men are drawn to submission as well (12 percent on FetLife), and crave relief from the masculine expectation of being in control all the time. Again, a submissive may decide they only want to submit in the bedroom and retain independence in other areas of life, or may want to submit to a greater degree outside the bedroom, as a service submissive perhaps, or even a 24/7 slave.

TOP – A “Top” plays the role of dominant within the confines of a “scene,” often after negotiating with their “bottom” of the moment.  A Top does the beating or humiliating or whatever power exchange activity a couple has decided to indulge in. Tops may prefer the dominant role most or all of the time during BDSM play, and while they find kinky pursuits rewarding, they don’t necessarily need to indulge in them to feeling sexually satisfied.  A Top is a temporary designation, not an essential identity. Anyone, even a submissive, can take on the role of top for the sake of a hot scene.  (Submissive me really enjoys the chance to top someone other than my own Dominant; I find topping energy to be a a great doorway to desire)

BOTTOM – The “bottom” is simply the one taking the discipline or being controlled in a scene. Most often, a bottom has very specific desires he or she wants satisfied, along with a list of hard limits that will be communicated beforehand. Whereas a true submissive may long to relinquish control of the agenda and can experience being pushed beyond his limits at times as a thrill, a bottom will consider his own wants and desires equally important as his top and will likely be upset if his limits aren’t respected.  

SWITCH – While most BDSM participants are likely to lean toward playing Top or bottom role during a scene, a large number (18 percent of both men and women on FetLife) find much to enjoy in playing both roles and will switch back and forth, depending on the context. It is open for debate whether “Switch” could be considered an essential identity in the way that Dominant and submissive is understood to be, it seems to me more of a simple description of willingness to change roles in BDSM scenes. It is, of course, possible to imagine that one’s essential “identity” in D/s is dependent on the context of the relationship with one’s partner, with a Dominant being able to elicit one’s submissive side, and a submissive partner being able to elicit one’s Dominant tendencies. But my own experience tells me that there is an inner compulsion toward one role or the other, and while as a submissive I can happily Top another, I can never truly switch to being a Dominant. Indeed, the attempt made me miserable.

Part of the great fun and benefit of BDSM is the journey of self-discovery in trying on different roles, and different degrees of commitment to each. One learns a lot about oneself while wielding a whip over another, or while tied up helpless before another. A couple can also learn a great deal about their relationship, its surprising strengths, or unexpected weaknesses. And of course, one is almost certain to experience some incredibly hot sex.

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