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!

2 thoughts on “10 Tips for Tops”

  1. DHK says:

    Phew. Such good advice, exactly when I need it most. 2, 4, 5, and 9 resonate in particular. It is challenging, difficult work to be a feminist and be a Dom, and it is taking time and worthwhile effort learning to incorporate this into my life. My grrl/sub is also a feminist, so it has become extremely important in knowing how and when to use the on/off switch appropriately for both our comfort.

    The hardest part for me at first was the guilt: how could I knowingly and deliberately hurt someone, even with their full consent and desire for pain? I am so protective of those I care about that it was a huge struggle at first, but in time as I came to understand that it was needed and wanted, I learned to compartmentalize dominance and relax fully into it.

    And it became an outlet for me, as well, a way to express the power inside me that I keep so carefully in check. In the rest of my life, I am always caring, gentle, and compassionate (I work in rehabbing traumatized large animals and I work caring for elementary school children) so I can express my protective nature in those realms, and it feels great.

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