essays, kink

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.

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.

19 thoughts on “To All the Tops Who Are Afraid to Make a Move”

  1. I’m decidedly not a top, but I do try to remember to ask for things instead of just biting my lip and batting my lashes. It takes some of the pressure off the person I’m with, and sets a precedent for verbalizing desire, which is awesome! On the flip side, I *love* hearing what the other person wants, even if it’s not something I’m into doing at that moment. And when they growl their desires in my ear without laying a finger on me – whew, instant turn on. I’m turned on just thinking about that.

    1. Sinclair says:

      Thanks Miss A! Good point—it’s on the bottom, too, not just the top. And I love setting a precedent for verbalizing desire.

  2. Tracy says:

    Great post, Sinclair.

    I think as a top, that having an expectation is much more important than the opposite as a receiver? We are given a “list” or “expectation”. The sub is simply waiting.

    What we expect to give is our sexual experience. It’s ours to own.

    Just as the receivers experience is theirs to own- & to mark with what they expect.

    Communication- 1st & foremost.

    Plus, it’s hot if done right- ;)

    1. Sinclair says:

      I definitely value communication very highly! I’m trying to parse out just what I *mean* by that, too. And totally agree, it’s soooo hot if done right. Thanks Tracy!

  3. rexicon says:

    christ, what a great post. it’s too often as a bottom you forget how subtle your signals are.. how someone may misinterpret.. how important it is to be clear and direct with those topping you, especially outlining boundaries for outside the bedroom. love how you illustrate how to be, in my interpretation, soft and thoughtful and respectful and save that power for when it’s mutually agreed upon. biting my lip may be a super clear signal for me, but it can’t stop there. i love when my partner verbalizes what they want from me, consent is sexy and when incorporated into play it can be even hotter.

    1. Sinclair says:

      Thanks rexicon! I think it is also true that some tops are reeeeeally good at interpreting subtle signals of consent, ESPECIALLY after they (we) get to know somebody well and have some ongoing consent agreements.

      I mean, I’m sure plenty of folks have gotten the memo that biting your lip is a clear sign. But, articulation is never bad, I think. And, especially when playing with somebody new, who doesn’t know your body language, the articulation might override whatever they think they know about your signals. Ya know?

  4. Kaymartin says:

    I would love to read a similar article from a more submissive perspective. I think consent is sexy and want to be clear and give less than ambiguous green lights. I sometimes feel its more difficult to express what i want when my full on desire is to be desired by you and told what you want to do with me or what i can do for you. Im extremely turned on by you telling me to slip my underwear off but im turned on in some large part by it being your idea and your desire. I guess thats where talking and sharing what we want before the moment comes in (im happy to talk intellectually about liking ropes etc over tea- but i have a hard time getting lost in the power play when im suggesting you tie me up now). Does anyone have thoughts on how to express clear consent to ‘move forward’ verbally when someone else hasnt laid out exactly what youre consenting to? Something more encouraging and verbally explicit than batting eyes but less directing than a tops approach might be.

    1. anonymous says:

      Hey Kaymartin, I’d love to see something like this as well! For me (and I’m still working on it) I have found a lot of success with a clear go-ahead right at the beginning before any play starts, often when I can tell the person is grappling with the sort of things discussed in this article. Sometimes I like to see them grapple with it a little! But then, if I am consenting and I trust the other person, I try and say something that expresses my consent clearly and broadly, and lets them know basically, to go ahead and top and dominate and do whatever you want to me, because I can and will tell you to stop if you start anything that I don’t want.

      This might look like something said mid lip-bite like “I want you to take me now” or even just “go ahead” (with an attempted cute coy nod). Or something a little more clear and serious (still sexy) that states boundaries, like whispering “please take me, just don’t put it in my ass or choke me” (insert whatever boundaries you have). For me, I’ve found that I can say pretty clear statements of consent/limits first in femme-whisper-sexy-voice and still feel totally in to my play partner being in change. The benefit too, is that when I’ve done this, instead of just batting lashes, my go-ahead has brought out way more “topiness” in my partners who might otherwise be holding back some out of concern over my consent.

    2. ouch says:

      This is something I feel like I navigate a lot (relatively).

      When you’re thinking “ok do a thing now,” like sitting on their couch after a date, I make big eyes and shyly ask “So . . . do you ever . . . like to spank?” And again, listen for their response, which could be “uh . . . I guess sometimes” or could be leaning toward you and sexy-growling “Is that what you want?”

      For stuff that’s out of the blue, like the underwear, I’m not sure if this will work for you, but I also really, really get off on surprising and delighting my partner. So I might take their free hand under the table and quietly show them how wet my panties are. Or if I’m feeling super bold, I might lean over and tell them, and shyly ask “Wanna see?” It’s different than just being ordered to, but I love the “???!!!!!?!?!!!!!!” I see in their eyes and how turned on they often suddenly get.

      In general, especially with new partners, I do a lot of “yes” and “please,” sexily, in situations where they might not be sure if they’re welcome to keep going or escalate. Lots of sexy sounds, sticking my butt out for another swat, etc. A lot of it comes naturally, but it’s just not a mystery if I’m turned on and having fun.

      And one last thing, it definitely isn’t the top’s business to lay out what you’re consenting to and for you to accept/decline. It’s totally fine and normal, and makes you no less of a bottom, for you to lay out what you want and consent to and for the top to accept/decline.

  5. Clarkeroyale says:

    I’m really enjoying this conversation as I’ve recently had a strange experience with a partner who has brought out my most submissive version of myself. It had felt good and empowering knowing how much she enjoyed it and also as we had great communication before, during and after. A series of events occurred to bring out my “active feminist” – you know the one that actually does something about the sexism rather than letting it slide (essentially I was photographed without my permission and the picture ended up on a Facebook Group called women who eat on tubes (the tube being the London Underground)). At this point she turns to me and seriously asks if I’m a feminist and bases her question on my preferences in bed with her. Since then what we do no longer feels fun erotic and empowering. It’s been a revelatory journey finding my submissive power and I’m learning that it’s really linked to my (perceived) connection with the other person and that submission itself is powerful but only when honoured by he dominant. Sinclair it’s been great to read your journey to reconcile your dominant side wih your feminist principles. To others who are more submissive could you share how you reconcile your erotic and feminist energies?

    1. ouch says:

      I have no trouble reconciling my sexual and feminist sides, as it sounds like you don’t. I would not be able to reconcile my sexual and feminist sides with a nonfeminist or sex-negative partner believing I wasn’t really a feminist because I liked getting tied up (etc.). Your problem isn’t within yourself, it’s with your partner.

  6. Claire says:

    Firstly, going to try and figure out ways to use the phrase “sad trombone”, with the sound effect, in daily conversation now.

    Secondly, I have found that as an aggressive switch that my issue is not communicating my desire to be topped but that the way that I make those desires known seems to sometimes freak toppy people out. I’m going to be ALL KINDS OF CLEAR when I want you to throw me on the bed and have your way, but the forwardness that I communicate this with tends to lead people to thinking that I’m only interested in topping, despite that I might be verbally saying otherwise. I would love to be better versed in the subtle signs of sexy, but I’m not the most patient person in the world, so unless I think you are drawing it out as a form of power and control, I’m likely to try and find my way into your lap and tell you exactly what I want.

    Clarkeroyale: Because I am a little loud and brassy, being an “aggressive bottom” tends to be how I reconcile the two. I have don’t mind being demure, and shy, and coy but I’m the type of person who has to tune down and not up; so when those traits are wanted by my partner it comes through communication. I also try and remind my feminist side that she has the right to go after her desires, and sometimes that is being smacked around, thrown down, tied up, and fucked hard. This doesn’t make me weak, it makes me a woman who knows what she wants and is willing to go out and get it. We have to start reconstructing the way we look at and define “power”, especially feminist power, and understand that there are an infinite number of ways that it can manifest itself.

  7. xMech says:

    As a switchy individual who is both intensely shy and also huge on enthusiastic consent, those two mix into a lovvely pool of people never knowing if I’m interested. Partly that’s intentional, as I tend to be interested women more often than other genders, and women get more than enough unwanted desire put onto them already. But I wanted to throw this in there:

    A reaction of “Uhh, but… grass stains!” with huge eyes might be a GIANT no, and might be a not right now. Because maybe that person is in a pair of pants they reeeeally don’t want stained, so they’re eyes are big with interest but their brain is focusing in on the thing that makes that interest not okay in this specific situation. But not a no in general. On the other hand, individuals who have a hard time saying no to things .

    I have been both of these people. I have dated both of these people. My current method, “So, I wait until I have clear consent to touch / kiss / whatever. If that is something you’d be interested in let me know.” In a way that is not the sexiest, but is always at least incredibly clear. I haven’t figured out my style of doing that so it’s more “sexy”, but it fits with my priorities… I care more about consent then being sexy.

  8. Dylan says:

    Fantastic post about consent, topping & avoiding being an asshole. I couldn’t agree more. Consent is sexy; boundaries are sexy. I’m completely willing and to be as toppy as someone wants, as long as we’re on the same page and consent & communication are clear.

    That being said, a lover and I have talked a lot recently about non-verbal consent. Sure, things can be pre-negotiated, there can be norms established between lovers who are familiar to one another…. Yet my feelings on it still mirror those in the post: hesitance, hyper awareness of body language… and still a fair amount of “not wanting to fuck up” and cause some sort of emotional/physical harm.
    Sex & power dynamics can be slippery, (fun slippery- yay! hazardous slippery- not so fun); even with verbal communication, boundaries can be pushed consensually & intentionally, or unexpectedly & uncomfortably.

    Can you say more about how nonverbal consent can be safely expressed or negotiated? Do you know of any good guidelines?

  9. ElegantElephant says:

    Very interesting article! There is also this general assumption that the masculine and/or toppy person should “start” (explicitly) the seduction process. I’m very shy and not good at reading non-verbal seduction / flirting ; also i generally assume no-one is interested in me unless clearly shown otherwise, so i never make the first “move” (that includes asking).

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