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.

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!

The Four Stages of Topping

When I started topping, I was self-conscious, nervous, easily crushed, and full of bravado and swagger. (I’d like to think that all of that was somewhat subtle, and that I was being at least a little transparent and honest about all of it, though when I look back at my old writing I think there’s more nervousness than I’d like to think.)

Sometimes, some beautiful girl would come along and our chemistry would be so amazing and the whole evening would just … flow. Then, I felt like there was no game, it was all just authentic interaction, following my energy and hers. Those were the nights I grabbed on to and scrutinized (and often wrote up, play by play, as a way to study them), trying to learn what it was that went well and how I could harness that.

As I gained more confidence, the way that I topped shifted a bit. I started wanting to control more, to push more, to play with more edges. I started wondering why I was so drained after I’d had a scene, and realized I wasn’t getting fed energetically in a way that felt replenishing.

That was mostly my fault, for the record; I wasn’t open to receiving, I was too focused on (fueling my ego by) giving.

I’ve really opened up since then. My style is really different, and I’m a lot less delicate. I have more confidence and certainty in what I’m doing. This is at least in part because I started identifying the kind of topping I was doing, and playing with other styles of topping.

In trying to articulate my own journey from a nervous I-wanna-be-a-top to an actual top (and beyond), I’ve noticed some patterns, and come up with a list of some of the different kinds of topping that we can play with. If you want to become a better top, I’ve found that it’s really useful to identify the area you’re primarily playing in right now, and the areas you’re interested in exploring. That way, you can start to feel your way along the path from where you are to where you’d like to be, and start identifying the barriers to being where you want, the places you need to focus and explore, and the next steps to get you there.

This is box title

Please note!

I’m using the word “stages,” but they’re more like “flavors,” different kinds. The stages aren’t necessarily linear. My goal is to make the unconscious more known, so we can start actually deciding if we do want to do the topping (or dominating or daddying or mommying or parenting or mastering or whatever verb you want to use for the person-in-charge) more intentionally. This is not comprehensive.

The Stages of Topping

1. Service Topping from the Bottom’s Palette of Pleasure

In service topping, the bottom lays out the things they like (what I’m calling a “palette of pleasure”), and the top then does those things. The top is the person who is doing the action, and the bottom is receiving, but the bottom is the one basically in charge of the actions that are happening.

Sometimes the negotiations are very specific, like: “So now that you told me what you like, I’m thinking that in this scene, I’m going to spank you over my lap with my hand, then get out the cane, then start fingering you, and keep using my hand on you until you come. How’s that sound?”

Sometimes the palette is picked up through conversation, like: “I really like my hair pulled.” “I can’t wait to suck your cock.” “Please make sure to bruise me up before you get me off.”

Either way, all actions have a specific green light from the bottom for the top.

It’s not that the bottom dictates each move play-by-play: “Okay, now put your hand there. Now hit me this hard. Now flip me over and fuck me hard!” Some folks would call that “topping from the bottom,” which is often meant to be an insult. (More about that another day.)

Sometimes the palette is picked up through conversation, like: “I really like my hair pulled.” “I can’t wait to suck your cock.” “Please make sure to bruise me up before you get me off.”

It can be such a huge relief for a top to have a palette to work from. Topping can be nerve wracking as you’re getting the hang of it: we have to make split second decisions about what to do, when to change something, when to stop or when to keep going, and what else to add. Figuring out what actual things to do on top of all that other stuff can sometimes make us freeze up. Having a palette can help this!

When service topping, the top is not necessarily (and sometimes neglectfully) attending to what they are feeling or what pleasures their body would like. The bottom’s needs are being attended to and they are being played with, but sometimes, service tops crave … more. (I certainly did.)

When I work with new tops who are trying to up their game, this is most often the stage they’re stuck within.

2. Topping from the Top’s Palette of Pleasure

Shifting the focus from the bottom’s palette of pleasure to what the top specifically wants to do right in the moment can be a big mind-fuck for the top. It seems simple, but having to make decisions or be in touch with what we want while also Being In Charge can cause our minds to lock up. If you’re the kind of top who goes along just fine and then when your bottom says, “I’ll do whatever you want; what do you want?” and you draw a total blank, this one might be for you to play in.

Step one here is to start brainstorming about what’s on your “palette of pleasure.” What acts do you totally love and would be thrilled to bust out to do at any given moment—assuming, of course, that you have the permission to do so? You need more than “blow job” on the list, buddy. See if you can come up with 10 things, then see if you can come up with 10 more. These might be things you love having done to your body, or things you love doing to the bottom’s body.

The more comfortable you are with a broad list of options, the more likely you are to come up with the exact right thing to do in the moment, based on consent and what tools you might have with you and the energy between you both.

Even when pulling from all those beautiful favorite things that the top loves, you still has to practice making decisions about what to do in the moment, which can be incredibly hard when there’s a lot of pressure on us, and especially hard when all of the blood is flowing in places other than our brains.

What’s on your “palette of pleasure”? What acts do you totally love and would be thrilled to bust out to do at any given moment—assuming, of course, that you have the permission to do so?
This is still a negotiated, consensual palette of sex acts and kinky explorations, and the bottom is explicitly involved in determining what’s on the palette. But the difference is that the top generates the ideas, and the bottom gives consent (or crosses them off the list).

Of course, a top’s and the bottom’s palettes of pleasure might completely overlap. On the one hand, that’s amazing and you’re very compatible. On the other hand, it makes exploring more complicated power dynamics a little harder. Some power dynamics and authority-based play revolves around being “forced” to do something one doesn’t want to do, but will do because it’s what the top wants.

So let’s talk about playing with edges.

3. Topping the Bottom’s Edges

Once you’ve built some trust, you’ve had lots of sexytimes, you are consenting to each other, you’re both dirty kinky folks who just want to do all sorts of things together, and you’ve done all the things on the top’s palette and the bottom’s palette—twice—but you still have some domination hunger … where do you go from there?

Here’s where edges come in. Find some edges to work. Identify some places where you’re curious. Have your bottom make a list of the 10 most favorite times he ever had sex, and talk about it, see if you can make any connections. Then have the bottom you’ve been playing with make a list of 10 things he’s never tried, but is curious to try. Talk about those, too. Delve into them with your smarty brains and see what is nervous but exciting about them. Read up on those kinks. Learn how to wield a flogger or a cane or a knife or whatever object they’re curious about. Learn how to punch with a roll of quarters in your fist for a deeper hit. Find a topping mentor to show you how. Have some threesomes. Go to a play party. Go to a kink retreat conference.

Whatever those edges might be, take it upon yourself to gently push them, making it a safe experience—emotionally and physically.

This takes a lot of trust, and a lot of ability to tell each other what’s going on between you, verbally and non-verbally. Always be more aware and cautious when playing in new arenas of play that are more unfamiliar. Cultivate impeccable aftercare skills.

When I’m playing with someone else’s edges, by which I mean when they are edges that the bottom has handed to me and asked me to play with, I think about it like this: I have consent to go this far, so I slowly approach that edge, and then back off. Then I do it again. And again. Each time I approach the edge, there is an opportunity for something new to open up, for that place to become a little less edgy and for it instead to be more fun and interesting and playful. Or maybe it doesn’t ever get easier, it stays hard, but it becomes a little less scary just by actually being there with it.

Cultivate impeccable aftercare skills.
I think of that process as somewhat like making an orgasm more intense. If I get out my vibrator and start going at it, I’ll slowly raise energy and pleasure in my body until eventually, most likely, I will come. It’ll be fine, but probably won’t last very long or be particularly memorable. But if I get close to coming, but pause just before I actually do, and then get myself close to coming again—if I edge a few times before I actually let myself get off—my orgasm will be longer lasting and more intense. I’ve inflated my capacity to hold energy and pleasure just a little more, so I end up with a bigger experience.

I think of it that way around kink and top/bottom edginess, too. If I work an edge by approaching it and then letting it dissipate, I can build it up again and again, and get to a greater capacity.


Illustration by rife

4. Topping the Top’s Edges

It might be easier to work your own edges than to work your bottom’s, or it might be easier to work your bottom’s—just depends on who you are and what your style is like. For me, it was much easier to work someone else’s edges (hello, control issues plus stone identity).

Regardless of the order you’re playing with, another palette to play with when you’re enhancing your own topping skills is with your own edges. Make the same lists: make a list of the 10 most favorite times you ever had sex, and see if you can make any connections. Make a list of 10 things you’ve never tried, but would like to. Make a list of areas of topping and sex and kink that are challenging for you, but that you’d like to be better at.

This is a place where your bottom gets to hold and witness some of your vulnerability with you. It takes more trust and transparency than some of the other stages. But to quote Sini Anderson: “Ask yourself how well you really know them. If someone you know really well asks you to trust them, try to trust them.” The best way to work your own edges is to have other folks there who are willing to support you while you’re taking small or big leaps toward what you want to be doing.

Say, for example, that you want to get better at humiliative dirty talk. Your partner has been asking for it for a while, and loves it whenever you can squeak out something diminutive, but it’s so hard for you to channel that kind of talk because you’re a nice person and you don’t necessarily like to say those kinds of mean things. But, since your partner is super into it, you’ve noticed that it makes you really, really hot to play with it. And it makes your partner hot. So you want to get better at it. But … it’s so scary and hard and edgy.

Make a list of the 10 most favorite times you ever had sex, and see if you can make any connections. Make a list of 10 things you’ve never tried, but would like to.
So maybe you co-create a scene with the bottom you’re playing with and they give you a list of ten different things you could say that are dirty and humiliating. You might even keep the list by your bed or on a post-it so you can reference it if you get stuck. They know that you are trying to get better at this one skill, so they are going to give you lots of positive feedback whenever it shows up in the play. And they are going to wear just the right outfit and say just the right things to encourage you to play your part.

Then after, they cuddle you and assure you that they loved it when you said those things, and that they know you are actually really nice and didn’t mean them and are very good and loving.

Really, we should all cultivate impeccable aftercare skills, tops and bottoms alike.

That’s just one example, but bringing in the bottom’s support and aftercare and ideas is a really good way for a top’s edge to be worked.

Working with your own edges can often be a place to seek if you want more satisfaction in your topping.

There are dozens of styles of topping

Of course, and there’s no one right or wrong way. I don’t mean to say that any of these are better or worse than the others, just that they’re different, and for the most part, we call all of them “topping.” Where are you at in your topping journey? Where would you like to be? Which are really easy for you, which are really challenging? Hopefully by identifying and talking about it, we can identify some of the places where we might be stuck or unsatisfied, and get to a stronger, more conscious, and more fun place to play and explore.

Dear Tops: Say Thank You


Dear tops,

When someone corrects your technique while fucking, set your ego aside and say thank you.

Thanks for telling me.
Thanks for making that clearer.
I like knowing your body better, thanks.

You are lucky that she* spoke up—it is a good thing. It means she is capable of communicating about what feels good for her body during sex! I assume—I hope—we can agree that that is an important foundation of good sexytimes.

It also means that she knows what feels good on her body. Believe it or not, this is not a given. Many folks have not had the trust in a relationship (or their own body, or their gender) that it takes to really be able to show up fully feeling their bodies and just play, just explore. It’s rare.

But it doesn’t always feel like a good thing at the time, does it?

It feels like you were doing something wrong. Or it feels like you were being careless or unobservant. Maybe it was your best move, and now it feels like your mad skillz don’t work on this person, so what if the rest of your mad skillz don’t work either?

Or, if you’re doing some sort of power play thing, perhaps it can feel like she is “topping from the bottom,” trying to instruct you on what to do?

Being corrected or given even a little instruction can cause us tops to spin out in our heads with fear and anxiety so easily.

But it doesn’t have to.

It used to happen to me, more often than I care to admit. And even now, when I’m touching someone and they express some request for something to change or for me to stop, sometimes I feel hurt. But I guess I kind of set that aside (and perhaps, if I need it, request some (top) aftercare later), because in the moment, I remember my rule about it: To say thank you.

Even if I don’t say it aloud, I say it in my head. Thank you for telling me. I can relax in the script of what I’m supposed to say and how I’m supposed to react—based on my own morals, not on some imposed social code. That one little “thank you” can sometimes be a stand in for things like: of course, you know your body the very best and only you are feeling what it’s like to feel that, so I would be honored to know more about what works best for you.

I want it to be okay in sex play situations for everyone to speak up and request some sort of change if they need it. Faster, slower, harder, deeper, shallower, not so much on the nipples, you’re pulling my hair too hard, ow your knee is digging into my thigh, ease off the slapping please—whatever it is, I want to know, and I do not want to be so blinded by my sore ego that I make it seem like they shouldn’t say those things.

So I say an enthusiastic thank you, and I mean it.

Any questions? …

But what if you have some sort of power play in place?

So, in a dom/sub situation where the sub is just supposed to “take it” and you, the dom, are doing whatever you want to them, perhaps it’s a little different. But her discomfort isn’t any less important, and it isn’t running the scene any less: The entire point is that she is going to be uncomfortable.

(Some people are into that, myself included. It’s a game of trust and body literacy and self-knowledge and communication, and I find it exhilarating and fun and sexy as fuck. Not everybody’s into this, of course. And if you’re playing with power like this, play safe—negotiate, use safewords, play with folks you trust, check in after, and make sure everyone goes away from the experience feeling good.)

Why would a sub want to just “take it”? Maybe because they want to really play the part of being a good sub, or a good boy, or slave, or pet, or girl, or fucktoy, or kitty, right? Maybe she loves to feel overwhelmed with sensation and needs that kind of push to get her there. Or maybe because she’s trying to earn jerk off rights for the week, or maybe she wants to encourage you in your own edgy dominant territory.

I’m sure there are some other reasons, too. Feel free to leave them in the comments. What’s hot and sexy about “taking it” from your perspective?

From a dominant’s point of view, especially doms who are still getting their sea legs under them, causing someone else deliberate discomfort, for one’s own pleasure, with the disregard for that other person’s feelings or, gasp, physical pain … that can be so incredibly edgy. And some submissives love to play in edgy dominant territory. Still, it is a hurdle that is so hard to reconcile for many dominants and tops. (I’m not going to go too much into reconciliation here, but it’s related.)

So your job as the top in a “take it” discomfort scene (or at least one possible job—there are dozens of ways to do this, I’m sure!), is to find that edge of discomfort and ride it. And what better way to do that than by listening? Start by finding the places where there is so much pleasure, do all those things that you know her body just adores, and then do them just a little too much, or just a little too hard. Ride that edge and play with it, go from the pleasure into the discomfort and back, see how far you can push the discomfort while still bringing them back into the pleasure.

If you enter into the discomfort slowly, each time you cross back into it, you can explore farther, and then you can both get off on how much she is “taking it” just for you.

So when she expresses some sort of discomfort or makes a request—assuming she’s not saying, “Okay stop this, I want out of this scenario now,” or red or yellow or other some such safeword, of course, because you’re not a jerk—you aren’t obligated to do the change she is requesting, but it is always good to have the information about her body and how she expresses. This is a sensitive place for a very careful, calculated move, however, and it takes a lot of confidence and trust in each other to play with this edge. If I’m in a D/s scene and they make a specific request or correction, I usually ask myself, is there still pleasure going on with what I’m doing? If I lose track of the pleasure, most of the time I have basically kinda sorta I have lost the scene. It’s not ruined, but it needs some mending.

So I’ll follow the pleasure, and possibly go back to what I know is very pleasurable for us both. Or, I might keep doing what I’m doing for a couple more blows or heartbeats, just to prove that I can, and throw some dirty talk in to make remind her that she’s mine and I get to do what I want, at least for right now. Y’know, if that’s the dynamic. But I can’t not hear what she said, still. And I do care what it was. So I often still say “thank you,” if only in my mind.

Because see, you don’t just want her to “take it” from you, you also want her to trust you. Building trust is probably the most important thing in a D/s relationship. All that power we’re playing with is based on trust.

But regardless of whether it’s D/s or a one night stand, when she is expressing discomfort or has a request to do something different … set aside your ego, and say thank you.

To All the Tops Who Are Afraid to Make a Move

One of my biggest challenges as a top—and as a feminist dominant, and as someone who is well versed in and vehemently requires agency and consent in my sexytime play—is making assertions of what I want. This is especially hard if I’m meeting or playing with somebody new. I want to be bold, domineering (in good ways), bossy (also in good ways), sexy—toppy. I want to demand and take and get just a little more rough than expected.

But: I won’t do that, until I have consent. Until I have a very, very clear green light that my advances—my dominance, my toppy-ness—is wanted and desired.

Nothing wrong with that, right? I want to do dirty things with the people I date and play with, and I want them to want me to do those things, otherwise I don’t want those things. In fact, one could argue (and I do) that my wanting to do those things is contingent upon them wanting me to do them. I won’t get it up for somebody who doesn’t want me.

But see, sometimes because I am not making big bold moves, or acting with brassy ballsy swagger, people think I am not flirting with them, or don’t like them, or aren’t interested, or am “not that dominant.”

(Well, in terms of that last one, they can suck it—I believe in consensual dominance, and I don’t believe doms (or anybody) has a right to go around spewing their swagger on anybody they come across. I take up my space, you take up yours. Unless we’re in a explicit power dynamic, I don’t assume that I get to be dominant with you. I guess that’s called boundaries.)

But those other things … that depends. Sometimes I really, really, really, like somebody, and I want to do things with them to them for them, but I am not getting a clear green light, so I do nothing.

And this can be crippling! This can mean that a perfectly good top wrings their hands and wonders, wonders, wonders, whether or not they should make a move, but that the other person is simultaneously thinking, I thought they were a top? Aren’t they going to do something?

That sucks, right? Here’s a few ideas.

1. Make it clear you are (kinda sorta completely) inclined to topping

Talk about it. Bring it up. “I tend to like to be in charge in bed.” Talk about topping and bottoming. Talk about the kind of things you like to do. Do you like rough sex? Extensive amounts of bondage? Strap-on sex nine times out of ten? Always being the one who orders at a restaurant? Opening doors? Holding someone down while they struggle?

And … ask them what they like. Talk about it. Get their Fetlife fetish list from their own expressive mouth. Ask again. Ask about specific things. Be fascinated by their answers. Listen closely.

This might be elementary for you, but I find that just about everybody doesn’t talk or communicate about their own desires enough. ‘Cause here’s the thing: They change constantly. Most of us don’t want the same thing all day every day. So it is a constant practice to be in the moment, figure out what we want, and communicate it clearly.

2. Make it clear you are waiting for a green light

Or, explicitly ask for a green light. Many people who are inclined to bottoming or submission, or, often, those who would be into going out with a top, are frequently waiting for the top to make the move. Perhaps they think that the way they’re batting their eyelashes, or the way they shined their leathers, or the way they are rubbing their thighs together, is so fucking obvious that of course you know they want you. But still, you are waiting for that green light.

So tell them that.

“I would so love to kiss you, but I’m waiting for the right sign / you to ask me / the perfect moment.” “I know I said I’m a top, but the only way I get all … toppy with somebody is if I am clear they want me to. Are you into that?” “I have this thing about consent—it’s super important to me. So I tend to wait until I get a really really clear green light to make any sorts of moves. But after I get the green light … ”

(Then do that sexy-ass sly top grin you practice in the mirror. Come on, I know you do.)

And then, pay attention to their reaction.

So if you growl, “I really want to throw you down, right now,” and their eyes get all huge and they start thinking about all the grass stains they’ll get, and they say, “Uhhh…” you will know that is not consent. But when they take a step closer to you and say, “I have a really good mattress at my house,” you’ll know they are at least interested.

I hesitate to talk about how consent can be expressed non-verbally, through physical communication, though I do believe that it can be. It’s just harder to pinpoint and talk about, and much easier to misconstrue, miscommunicate, or mistake. For the sake of nervousness or fear or making big bold topping moves, it is always, always safer to get enthusiastic verbal consent specifically.

Regardless of how much explicit consent they give you, always be paying attention for hesitation in their body language or speech. That probably means it’s time to back up, and slow down, and check in.

This can be used when escalating all sorts of play, by the way, not just the first kiss. It could be useful for that moment when you want to get your strap-on out, or when you want to put them in spread eagle bondage, or when you want to hold them down and rough them up, or when you want to ask them—tell them, demand them—to go into the bathroom and take their panties off and give them to you. Sometimes you just don’t know if it’s the right time to do something new, or to escalate, and you don’t know if you have their consent for it. So ask. Make it clear what you’re looking for, so they can give it to you (or not). They just might not know that’s what you’re waiting for.

Sometimes, when I start getting the feeling that it’s time to move in for a kiss or to escalate physical touch with somebody, I make a move kinda like I’m about to do the thing I want to do, but then I catch myself, and say, “Oh, sorry—I really want to kiss you / put my hands on your stockings / grab your belt / take you down right now. That okay?” (Sometimes I say this in a sexy growly voice near their neck or ear while I decidedly do not touch or kiss them because I don’t know if that’s okay—yet.)

And I wait. For their reaction, response, and enthusiastic consent made clear.

3. Still afraid you’re being an asshole?

Here’s the thing: Asking somebody for something, or asserting a decision or a preference, is not being an asshole. You’re not being an asshole when you say, “I’d love to take you out. How about we meet at this great cafe I love on Sunday for brunch?” You’re not being an asshole when you’re on a wandering-around-the-park date and you say, “I’d love a coffee. Want to duck into this coffee shop for a bit?” You’re not being an asshole when you point at a shady spot under a tree and say, “Let’s go sit there.” You’re not being an asshole when you get back to your place and they are on your couch all sexy and biting their lips and you say, “I can’t wait to play with you.”

You absolutely are being an asshole when you don’t honor their response to your suggestion or offer or preference.

If you say, “Let’s go to this great steakhouse!” And they say, “I’m a vegetarian …” When you say, “Great! Meet you there at 7,” you are being an asshole.

Wah waaaaah. Sad trombone. Don’t do that.

But making the offer? Not an asshole. Suggesting a change in place? Great! Shows your flexibility and thoughtfulness. Requesting a date at a particular place? Not too much (until, you know, they tell you otherwise).

Sometimes, being assertive and suggesting things is a relief to the other person. We often defer to each other (especially people we like), saying, “Whatever is fine!” And we mean it! But when someone drives the social decisions, it can be very useful. What’s not useful (have I made this clear yet?), and is firmly in asshole territory, is overriding what someone else expresses they want or don’t want.

So make suggestions. Request—and get—the green light, so you can be confident that your glorious toppy-ness is fully desired and wanted.

PS: I hope this is clear, but just in case it isn’t: This has absolutely nothing to do with getting someone to do what they don’t want to do. Fuck that. This has to do with communicating enthusiastic consent. Okay, clear? Cool.