identity politics

Reconciling the Identities of Feminist & Butch Top

I received quite a few questions about my recent post, Kristen’s Homework, especially around how the power imbalance asymmetric balance of power works when adding our gender dynamics into the mix. It’s really hard to explain, and sometimes hard for me to feel like what I’m doing is in question. I do want to keep writing about how my relationship with Kristen is evolving, and this is precisely one of the reasons I haven’t been writing about the sex we’ve been having as much as I used to – because we have entered into some domination and submission in lots of aspects of our relationship, and I’m just not sure how to express that well, yet.

But I would like to try. I’m working on an introduction to what we do, and our basic relationship assumptions, as we explore d/s more and more, so hopefully that will fill in some gaps.

Meanwhile, here’s some more back story to how I got to where I am.

I wrote this piece for Shira Tarrant‘s recent Feminist Sex reading for her book Men & Feminism (Seal Press, part of Seal Studies) at Bluestockings radical activist bookstore here in New York City. In brainstorming about the concept of “feminist sex,” most of what came up for me was the conflict around being a feminist and being someone kinky, specifically someone masculine, a top, and a sadist. This piece begins to try to explain how I’ve reconciled those identities. I do feel like I’ve made peace with their coexistence in me, but I am still struggling with how to articulate how that happened and what it means now.

Feminist Sex: Reconciling the Identities of Feminist & Butch Top

A few years ago, a girl I dated wanted me to slap her. To hit her face. She asked for it specifically, I still remember the conversation on the subway and the precise way that she looked over at me and said, I want you to hit me. Something big swelled in me and I wanted to, I wanted to feel the sting of impact on my palm and see her recoil, to do it again before she was ready, to push something so sensational onto her experience that she was jolted to the edges of her skin and had to feel, to feel herself, to feel me, to be fully present.

This girl and I had already done some other light percussion play, using my hand, or even a paddle, me hitting her ass and thighs, the fleshy parts that I couldn’t possibly do damage to beyond some light bruising. She liked it, we both did. It made sense to escalate, at the time, to something new; we were deepening both our romantic relationship – our trust in each other – and our power dynamic, and it was time to push a little, to see where we could go.

I was terrified. After she asked, after we talked about it extensively, I even tried, a few times, when we were in bed and she said, hit me, now, please, and I couldn’t, I’d bring my hand up and chicken out.

I was terrified of what it would mean for me, as a masculine person, as a butch, to be more dominating in bed. To like it. To like to cause someone pain. To like to cause a woman pain. To hit someone in the face. To hit a woman in the face, to sexualize that act and that power dynamic specifically.

I was paralyzed by that terror – I wanted to do it, the idea, the very thought of it, the discussions with her, turned me on, the girl I was dating wanted me to do it, but I couldn’t.

Beyond wanting to do it, this was the kind of sex act that was in the sex life I was dreaming of having. This was what haunted my fantasies and what I looked for in porn that I watched and erotica that I read. And I was on a very serious quest to figure out how to have the sex that I wanted. I’d just gotten out of a bed-death relationship; I felt like I barely escaped a noose. I was committed to studying sex hard, to figuring out: what I wanted, how to get what I wanted, how to build a relationship with that as an element, how to maintain something sane and hot over a long period of time. That’s precisely why I started this site, Sugarbutch.

I’m a sadist, and a top. That means I like to dominate. And already there are conclusions being drawn by those of you out there who think well of course you like to dominate, you’re masculine, and that’s prescribed for you or in other words you misogynistic asshole, I already knew you were one of “those” butches who needs to make up for your inadequacies by dominating women. Because that’s what we think, isn’t it? Maybe not consciously, but a little bit, somewhere in our brains, we associate these particular identity alignments – butch equals masculine equals top equals dominating equals men’s prescribed gender role. We’re relieved when they line up how we think they will, or maybe we are challenged and uncomfortable – though perhaps in a stimulated way – when they misalign.

There’s something supposedly anti-feminist about wanting to dominate. There’s something in the feminist rhetoric which says we are all equal especially in bed, so that means I-do-you-you-do-me, or that means we have sex neither above nor below each other, and with no reproduced heteronormative misogynistic patriarchal power dynamic.

But I didn’t want that. I’d had that, in early girlfriends, but it didn’t keep things hot enough to sustain a relationship. And secretly, I want to dominate. In bed. I wanted to top and control and hit and demean and humiliate.

Power dynamic theory has many similarities to gender theory. Like the gender identities of butch and femme are not reproductions but pastiche copies at best of prescribed societal gender roles, putting on and taking off power roles in power sex play is a pastiche reproduction of power in our lives, of which there are thousands of examples of interaction on a daily basis. And when we can put on and take off these roles intentionally, the act of adopting becomes further proof that the power positioning in our lives is not inherent, or “real,” or immobile, or prescribed, or “normal,” but part of a hierarchical society of social power that can be deconstructed.

As in my experience with coming to a butch gender identity, when I finally came to a power identity that really deeply aligned with something inside me that just clicked and make sense, I felt like I was coming home to myself in a way I hadn’t experienced previously. Through my personality and tendencies and psychology I have my own set of quirks and workings and functions, and for whatever reason, it makes a lot of sense to me to let out some of my power and control issues in the bedroom by being dominating. It is deeply satisfying the way a glorious meal or a delicious book is satisfying, one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I’m not sure I understand why I like what I like, but what I like does not harm others, and is consensual, and I know myself well enough to accept what I like as what I like – and to let that be a simple truth.

How did this change for me? What happened between the time when I was terrified to slap a girl in the face and today, now, where I am fairly comfortable in my identity as a top, and even as a sadist, as someone who enjoys hurting someone else?

Little by little, I had lovers who pushed me, lovers who were more experienced as bottoms than I was as a top, lovers who wanted more from me and who could take more than I was able to give who made enough space for me to walk into a bigger version of myself and occupy it, try it on.

I did come to a reconciliation with my feminist self and my top self. Phrases – like men should not hurt women or rather masculine people should not hurt feminine people, or even more broadly that people should not hit each other and violence is bad bad bad – I had accepted those phrases as Ultimate Truths, and I started to understand deeper the ways that sensation was not violence, and hitting was a way to be sparked into the present moment, to release whatever our musculature was holding onto, and to deepen trust between people and in a relationship.

I didn’t realize how little trust I had in others until I started playing deeper with BDSM. Because I would tell myself, it’s okay, she wants to do it, but then I would think, does she really? Maybe she wants to because I want to. Maybe she wants to because society tells her she should want to. Maybe she wants to for fucked-up reasons, like she thinks it’s okay for her to feel humiliated and less than me because of her own internal misogyny … but that was me not trusting that what she said was true. That she wanted me to hit her face. And that was me, further controlling both myself, her, and our relationship, in unhealthy ways, because I didn’t trust her.

When I started playing out my control issues in BDSM, in the bedroom, in sex play, the control issues I had in my relationships began to heal.

This was an issue of agency, in feminist terms – my not trusting my lover to communicate with me what she wanted, to explain to me how far I could go, and my not trusting that she would let me know if I was going too far or too hard, either with her physical communication or her words or both, was me not trusting in the agency of my lover. I have to trust that she will tell me, she will let me know, if I am going too far. And I have to listen, apologize, understand what I did, and trust that she will accept that it was an accident, a mistake, and that I’ll do whatever she needs to feel safe again.

In learning my way into being a top, I had many, many conversations about consent and intention and communication, I talked to my lovers when things broke down or didn’t seem to work and I learned more about my own tendencies when things went well. I figured out that sometimes, it was really hard for me to be with someone who bottomed so well, and who I trusted so deeply, that I did harder, scarier, bigger things with them that took me even deeper into my topping and dominance and sadism and power, and sometimes that meant I needed to be comforted afterward, to be told I liked that, and that wasn’t too much, and you didn’t hurt me, and that was what I wanted and thank you. Hearing those things is always a relief.

(I give good aftercare too, of course. But top aftercare is less common in the BDSM world – we don’t usually talk about the toll it takes for the dominant to dominate.)

I practiced, a lot, to be bold and trusting through my topping. I tried scary things and it turned out they weren’t so scary, they were in fact incredibly hot. I got to know myself, and I learned more about the things I wanted to play with, and I talked to smart people whose experiences were similar to what I was going through and who assured me it was possible to come out the other side of it a masculine, queer, butch, sadistic top feminist.

And whatdayaknow, here I am.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

50 thoughts on “Reconciling the Identities of Feminist & Butch Top”

  1. This is such a great post Sin!

    "I’ll do whatever she needs to feel safe again." This line speaks volumes to what d/s is all about and at the same time shows that there is compassion involved as well as a whole sleuth of other things.

    I loved hearing how you got to where your at and I'd be interesting to hear Kristen side of "how I got here". Just saying, as a bottom/sub, I know it's no easy road as well.

    Kuddos Stud.

  2. "putting on and taking off power roles in power sex play is a pastiche reproduction of power in our lives" – so well put!!!

    You get all of the kudos, and then you get extra because you wrapped it with gender theory.

  3. laura says:

    i've been stalking this topic for a while, and dealing with it myself, so i figured i might as well post.

    i think this addresses a really important question that comes up a lot in terms of feminism and non-egalitarian power dynamics, and in my exploration of similar issues in my current relationship, i just wanted to add or emphasize one more thing: context is important. especially when explaining the situation to other people. the misogyny and the sexism and the cruelty that some bdsm may seem to be perpetuating, on the surface, actually takes place in a context of deep empathy, compassion, and mutual care (if it's being done right). and recognizing this is essential; because the violence against feminine people that we see all around us, in every aspect of pop culture, is done without any consideration for what that feminine person may be feeling, how she's reacting, whether she wants it.

    feminist bdsm allows room for submissives to have agency. they even have agency in their choice to give over their power to a dominant whom they trust and respect. as you mentioned, you've spent many hours negotiating and discussing and rehashing things that went well, or went wrong. that consideration for your partner, and the consideration your partner has for you, is what makes the dynamic feminist.

    and, really, who knows why some of us like power play? many people who don't know a whole lot about it suggest it's pathological, or that it has a root. maybe it does, maybe it doesn't; who comes out of this life unscathed? i think the real question is not why it happens, but what the consequences are. so, regardless of your reasons, it seems like largely a happy, healthy way of maintaining excitement and deepening intimacy with your partner.

    and who wouldn't want or support something that does that?

  4. md says:

    Sin, this post is amazingly well articulated. Thank you so much for writing this. I struggle with how to explain my role as a sub masochist when asked, and I think your post here has already helped me to begin form an effective reply for myself. My last long term relationship ended because I had no way to express these needs to my partner. I knew the kind of sex I wanted, but I was embarrassed to name it, and as my partner was a second-wave lesbian feminist, I was pretty sure she would not be in any way comfortable with exploring these things with me. I should have asked her though. I should have given her the choice to say yes or no, and the chance to understand what was going on for me. But instead I just bolted. I bolted on a decade-long relationship, and an entire life we had built together. If I had been able to articulate my needs and desires as you have here, things would have been very different. The relationship probably would have still ended, but on very different terms, and for my ex-partner especially, I think things would have been far easier. I am usually an excellent communicator, but this tsuff gets me tongue-tied. Thank you so much for writing this post.

  5. femme in butch cloth says:

    Keep it coming! If anybody can get me to the a-ha moment w/ this topic it's you & your commenters, I just know it. I'm not suspicious or untrusting about d/s like some folks are; I have known &/or read enough smart & kinky feminists so I sort of just *assume* that it works, but on a personal, gut level I have never really *understood* it per se, & I really would like to understand.

  6. I think where you describe having been a few years ago — afraid to take control, "paralyzed by terror" of what it would mean — is about where I find myself now. But in the other role. I've always been *more* comfortable, I think, with having control than with relinquishing it (though having control has certainly had its share of terrors for me too, which I've written about some). I have a very, very hard time with trust, and I'm pretty guarded, so learning how to make myself vulnerable to being dominated is something I both crave/yearn for AND am terrified of. Though, I've done enough reading about it (on your site and elsewhere) to have gotten over the fears related to anti-feminism, I'm still stuck on the fear of opening up and trusting. (I wonder if that has to do with my history of sexual assault, and I'm sure it does, at least minimally, but that makes me want to push through it even MORE. I don't want to live my life giving someone else–perpetrators of sexual assault–the power to dictate MY sex life.)

  7. Jack M. says:

    I think sex is the ultimate, physical expression of what the couple values. I am struggling to reconcile my relationship values [peace, equality, & non-violence] with my interest in BDSM [which I've had since I was 14 or 15].

    What is the difference between consensual and non consensual violence, apart from the consent? Is the end result not the same – pain and humiliation? Can you really love someone and still want to do that to them? I don't know.

    Like alphafemme I have experienced sexual assaults and I wonder if that has something to do with this confusion.

  8. Ashley says:

    I was lucky enough to hear you read this piece in person and it was amazing. I'm glad you posted it so others could gain insight from your perspective.

    I think that there is bound to be some confusion and misunderstanding among your readers about Kristen posts as you post less about your relationship with her. Or as the postings become more sporadic. I am sure that there is so much happening IRL between you two that to convey its true depth here is nearly impossible. Of course we're eager to know and excited for you that you've found someone so right for you right now. I see the potential for confusion though as new readers come along and aren't fully aware of the intricacies of your relationship or the reasons you're not writing more about it.

  9. Birdie says:

    Thank you for this piece. I have a tendency not to verbally analyze personal philosophical and ethical issues, but to analyze them using painted and poetic imagery. I appreciate your ability to clearly, verbally articulate what I often flounder through using art and poetry. This piece has given me much to think about, and I plan on printing it out to read over.

    I am some flavor of masculine/queer, have spent the past year becoming more and more ecstatic with my masochistic sexual self, and now am interested in discovering and honing my sadistic sexual self. The self-censorship that occurs when I want to slap someone or dominate them is visceral; I am frozen, and feel compelled to flee.

    It is immensely encouraging to hear about the process you took to grow into your sadism and dominance, and gives me much hope. Here is to amazing sexual expansion in 2010!

  10. North says:

    Jack M., when you ask, "Is the end result not the same – pain and humiliation?" I encourage you to think about the different ways that people react to exactly the same sensation – maybe call it the post-sensation sensation. Usually, under most circumstances, pain and humiliation lead to suffering. But for a kinky person who wants to be hurt/humiliated/whatever (i.e. many people who identify as submissive), in the right circumstances (i.e. the exact right kind of pain and humiliation, with the right person) the result isn't suffering – it's really hot sex, and sometimes a break from the internalized desire for control. That's more or less what Kristen was saying in the comment thread about "Kristen's homework," and what Sinclair is expressing here is a desire to do that to someone. In the right way, in the right circumstances, so that it doesn't result in suffering. Instead it results in hot sex, hot smut, greater self-knowledge, and happy people.

    None of this is to say that whatever desires people have immediately on the surface shouldn't be interrogated. There's a lot of really gross bdsm out there that's full of incredibly sexist ideas about the naturalness of female/femme/feminine submission, stuff that justifies sexual assault, etc; but that's not Sinclair, and it doesn't have to be you. If you value peace, equality, and non-violence, but you want to have kinky sex and smack your partner around and whatever, you totally can. It's not always an easy road (and I really value Sinclair's candor about how hard it is to come to terms with, and how important it is to do that work of coming to terms with your own desires) but there's no inherent contradiction there.

  11. J. says:

    Thank you so much for this post. This has helped me a lot. I'm especially glad you discussed the fact that not trusting your lover to know what she wanted was actually just controlling her in an unhealthy way. I think one of the most important aspects of feminism is the assertion of the agency of women, and I'm so glad you brought up how that works in d/s play.

    Recently, my partner and I have been experimenting with some new things in bed and I was constantly asking her if she was okay with what we were doing. I was so worried that I asked her several times in a row, not taking her first yes for what it was. She told me that if I'm going to trust when she says no, I also have to trust when she says yes. It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of thing you're talking about.

    I really admire the amount of communication you and Kristen have. And again, I'm sorry for questioning your motives and Kristen's agency. As she said in her response, it was a little demeaning. I didn't mean it to be, but it was. I didn't understand the amount of discussion that went on behind the scenes.

    I hope to see more posts like this. I really think this has helped me understand your posts better and it's given me a lot to think about in regards to my own sex life.

  12. wow, this is a beautiful piece of writing and thought.

    i especially love the distinction that causing pain is not always an act of violence. it sounds ridiculous to describe such an act of love and trust as violent.

    this is really thoughtful and lovely, and something i want to show off to people.

  13. zingrrl says:

    Wow. I've struggled with my S/M fascination and alternating desire to top/bottom for years. I been a silent reader of your posts, soaking in the theory, eroticism, and raw honesty…and now feel compelled to comment. This sentence got me: to do it again before she was ready, to push something so sensational onto her experience that she was jolted to the edges of her skin and had to feel, to feel herself, to feel me, to be fully present.

    That's what I am looking for. Fully present. I will work for that and invite my partner along on the journey. I want to be fully present for me and for her – wherever that takes us. Thank you for taking your journey in public so others can benefit.

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  15. hyper says:

    "But top aftercare is less common in the BDSM world – we don’t usually talk about the toll it takes for the dominant to dominate."

    request… please elaborate on that?

  16. Sascha says:

    I know *so* many tops and doms who have gone through similar experiences. You beautifully conveyed that struggle between one's desires and conceptions of behavior and violence.

    I found your comment that being dominant is antifeminist fascinating.

    As someone who mostly bottoms/submits, I've come across my own conflicts with my feminism. After all, feminism is about empowerment and women taking control of their own lives.

    What feminist worth their salt would willingly relinquish control?

    On the other hand, feminism is about choice, and the ability for all female born people to choose the path that feels right to them. As backwards as this sounds, I find great power in submission. It sounds like you've found something similar in your butch top identity. Isn't power through choice what generations of feminists fought for to begin with?

    It's a difficult and complicated identity to reconcile. For me, I choose to find power in myself and facilitate a similar journey for others. And if the manner of my approach ruffles a few feminist feathers, so be it.

    Thank you for this piece.

  17. Tara says:

    I don’t know if anyone is still reading this thread, but I’m looking for some opinions.

    You all seem pretty clear about what position you wanted to be in during sex. Did you ever encounter a relationship where you loved each other, but what you wanted sexually was at odds?

    I haven’t been in too many sexually active lesbian relationships, but I’ve always felt more comfortable on the receiving end of things, and I’m not sure if that is just my personality or a result of some childhood trauma that I experienced, or maybe habit from all the straight relationships I was in when I was younger.

    The other two women I’ve been sexual with have been fine with mostly dominating during sex, but my current girlfriend wants me to be a top more often. I think she’s comfortable in either role, but she seems to equate receiving with having value in our relationship, you know what I mean? I do make her come, and I’ve even pushed myself to go down on her (which I had never done with anyone before) and I’ve found that I enjoy being dominant quite a bit, but it doesn’t turn me on as much as being on the bottom does. But anytime she senses that I’m not really turned on by it, her feelings are hurt.

    Part of it could be that she senses that I’m not as physically attracted to her as she is by me. I don’t think that’s reason to break up with her because there is so much more than physical attraction between us, but I feel guilty about it, and she feels unloved I think.

    So what do we do? She wants me to try harder, and I want her to take it less personally. Is it possible for two people to make a relationship work when their sexual personalities don’t quite fit?

  18. Kelly says:

    Help. I hope this finds its way since this is an older post and I cannot find any help.

    My soft butch seems to be a top because she is expected to be. She has shame about her masculinity. She is a solid lover but she gives zero feedback about how I love her and is sooooooo silent during sex unless she is growling on top of me.

    Easily frustrated by questions and always says “you know what I like”. I don’t because the the things I try do not seem to arouse her at all.

    We went a year without six because I was over feeling like shit. I have never had this type of issue. We are 3asing back into this and I am getting same response.

    Besides my own arousal how do I arouse her.

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