BDSM (Bondage, Dominance-Submission, Sadism and Masochism) is an erotic activity practiced by millions of people. Many books have been written about its different facets. As in the case of homosexuality and other alternative sexual practices, scientific research is dispelling the belief that it’s unhealthy, done by sick or traumatized people, or that it leads to abuse.

What makes a good BDSM top?

For many, the answer to this question is to master technical skills: knowing how to perform elaborate bondage, or how to use a flogger, a riding crop, a paddle, a single tail whip, etc.

All that is good, but over the years I have found that what really makes a good top is something entirely different: the ability to read and manipulate the mental state of the bottom. The top has to trip the bottom out of her ordinary mental state by frighten her with pain, lure her with pleasure, make her feel helpless and humble, until she reaches a magical place of here-and-now, pure sensation, and ultimate fantasy.

At the same time, the top has to be careful not to be left behind. Only by hooking deeply into the mind of the bottom can he achieve a comparable experience. When the bottom reaches that magical place, he wants to be there with her.

What makes a good BDSM bottom?

Here, technical skills obviously do not count. Sure, a bottom has to be submissive but, for me, pure submission can be boring. I order, you obey… end of the story.

Resistance makes it more interesting, because it gives the top a chance to use all the tricks in his repertoire. However, when both the top and the bottom are experienced, a conundrum arises: the bottom can resist as much as she wants and, when she finally submits, it is only out of her own volition, rather than because she has been forced by the top. This dynamic may end up feeling a bit fake.

It may be better to pursue a different goal in the scene: to get the sub into a particular mental state. Submission, then, becomes a mean and not an end. The bottom submits to the top because she cannot achieve that mental state by herself. The same way that a good top is one that is able to take the bottom to that state, a good sub is one that engages the top in the dance that leads there. That requires a certain amount of surrender, and more: lowering the defenses, making herself vulnerable, releasing the emotions, letting go of the ego.

What does that magical state feel like?

For me, it feels like liberation from old psychological bonds. Shame, guilt, fear and anger fade away. Pain loses its power over us. There is a surrender that feels not like an obliteration of the self, but a harmony of feeling and purpose between the partners.

How do we achieve that magical state?

The key here is the ability of the top to read the bottom. This is called empathy. We have special areas in our brain that let us feel the mental states of others.

For example, when the top strikes the bottom, empathy lets him feels the pain that she experiences. This is the key of the pleasure of the sadist: it is only by becoming conscious of the pain he is inflicting that he can truly feel the power of his action and fulfill his kinky desires. Ideally, however, the top should be able to experience the pain as the bottom experiences it, not as he would experience it if the same things was done to him. So the bottom has a job to do, too: she has to allow herself to be read. She has to be true in her reaction. A sub that does not flinch, or one that fakes her reactions, is unhelpful.

This applies to other emotions as well, besides pain. The top has to be able to feel the humiliation, resistance and surrender of the bottom. All this requires focus and skill. He has to become exquisitely aware of every change in expression in the face of the bottom, every nuance in her voice, in her cries, every bit of tension in her body.

Managing negative emotions

Some emotions are undesirable in a scene, and the top needs to know how to direct the bottom away from them.

The main one is anger, an emotion that if is left to run its course is guaranteed to ruin any scene. The best thing is to nip it in the bud. If the bottom (or the top!) has become overtly angry, it may be best to take a break and work things out. Anger is so powerful that it can exclude any other emotions. And no, you cannot beat anger out of a sub.

Other negative emotions, like fear and shame, can be okay as long as they don’t become overpowering. Keep them under control.

Compassion

As the top deepens his empathy for the bottom, he may realize that the emotions he is evoking were there before the scene. There is old shame, old guilt, old anger, old self-hatred. Even the real pain we feel right now reproduces the pain of old wounds, physical or mental.

At this stage, the scene can become something transformative for the bottom, a healing experience. Empathy opens the door to sharing deeper suffering. In a less clear way, the suffering of the top may come to the surface to be recognized and healed.

We have now gone beyond empathy, and the scene has become alive with something even more profound and meaningful: compassion. Compassion is the deep understanding of our own suffering and the suffering of others, accompanied by a desire to heal it. In BDSM, we immerse ourselves in pain to understand it better and become able to liberate ourselves from suffering.

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