From the moment I met Casey*, it was clear that they were a powerhouse. They ran a non-profit, were involved with leather community events, managed a Facebook group for queer survivors that had thousands of members, and kept up an amazing vegetable garden. I saw them work a room at a kinky happy hour, and I was impressed. They were charming, funny, generous, and so welcoming — and it wasn’t even their event. Casey just naturally exudes confidence and ease, and it’s infectious.
I immediately thought they were a top.
“Everybody always thinks that,” Casey told me later that night, sitting next to me at the bar, both of us waiting for another drink. “I can’t tell you how many times bottoms have tried to pick me up. But I’m not. I’m submissive. But people don’t see that in me, because they expect submissives to be cowering in the corner waiting for a dominant to tell them what to do.”
Casey was so eloquent, speaking about their desires for submission. (And you know me, I’m a sucker for somebody who can use words to articulate what they want and how they work. Yum.) But still, I went away from that thinking, Casey is absolutely right … there is a huge difference between having a submissive personality and having the desire to submit to someone in bed. And I played into those social expectations, too, by assuming their outgoing behavior meant that they were a top.
(I try really hard not to assume people’s power orientation, though it’s pretty much human nature to speculate and put others into categories we understand. I try to lead with questions, rather than assumptions, and to keep any surprise to myself, as best as I can.)
I’ve heard this complaint about being assumed to have passive personalities from lots of other submissive folks, too: from leather girls who are worried that their job is too high-powered, that daddies are all scared off by it. From subs who are convinced that no one can ever tell they are submissive, because they are in charge of too many social groups. From bois who believe deeply that their masculinity will always be read as dominance, and that they will always have to explain that they’re not a top.
I call it …
The Bad-Ass/Bottom Paradox
Based on kinky stereotypes, it seems like being a bad-ass and being a bottom are contradictory. But they’re not — just like being a sweetheart and being a top are not contradictory. Having a core of concern and emotional care for someone else makes that person even better qualified to be a top, just like having a strong sense of self, direction, and desire makes someone an even better bottom.
Submissives are often seen as weak, passive little creatures who don’t have a brain of their own, and whose head gets filled with their dominant’s every whim. Or, perhaps worse, as doormats who are being taken advantage of, controlled, and manipulated.
While this might be true for some folks — toxic relationship behavior and abuse can and does happen in D/s relationships, just like any other — most submissives I know are actually bad-asses. They aren’t empty vessels; their heads are full of managing their own lives — car payments, asking for vacation time off, calendaring the next social events, keeping up with knitting trends on Pinterest (and often, parts of their dominant’s lives, too).
On the other hand, I heard from Jake*, a queer boy who took Submissive Playground, that he was pretty sure he was submissive, but he’d never done much psychological play, though he craved it, because he thought he’d have to give up parts of himself, or make himself smaller in order to be “good” at it.
No. On the contrary.
I actually think submission can help make someone even more of a bad-ass than they already are. Healthy, functional submission requires knowing oneself, holding boundaries, communication, being vulnerable about desires, having good recovery skills when things go wrong — and so many more advanced communication skills. Folks who do have submissive personalities can find themselves gaining inner strength, self-worth, and fortitude after exploring submission deeper.
Submission does not require someone to make yourself small, to turn off your desires, to cater to someone else’s every whim (you know, not unless you negotiate that — but that’s way down the line. Or, way up the power escalator**). It really is possible to be a total bad-ass, and turn your ass up to get spanked, or turn over authority to someone you trust and love. In fact, it’s not only possible — it’ll give you a leg up.
* Not their real names
** As related to the relationship escalator, I use the term “power escalator” to mean that in relationships based on authority exchange or power play that often, both parties assume that as trust builds, they will play with more and more power exchange, but that is not always what the people ultimately want. Stopping anywhere along the ‘power escalator’ is valid, and going all the way to total power exchange 24/7 M/s is not the most “real”, or better, or any more valid than any other place.