Thoughts on “The New Bottoming Book,” dipping my toes into BDSM05/18/2010 at 5:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
Tags: BDSM, books, experts, pain, sex, sex education, Sexuality
Ever since I first noticed some trouble afoot downstairs, I’ve been studying sex & sexuality above and beyond what I was granted access to in public school. I’ve learned a lot from different sources – journal articles, paperback books, websites, online support groups and blogs – and I’ve still got a long ways to go… and it’s going to take a lot of practice before I reach a point where I feel confident when it comes to sex.
Different sources try to sell you on different ideas, but I’ve been noticing a few common threads scattered throughout many (though not all) of the works by experts and advocates I’ve been reading. One of the common ideas I’ve come across in multiple sexuality books is that society (and many people in it) would benefit from a broader definition of sex, one which includes a wide variety of sexual activity beyond hetero PIV intercourse. And some of those books make a very interesting suggestion for exploration – BDSM. That is, bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism.
It sounds counter-intuitive at first – Isn’t BDSM painful? Doesn’t embracing and re-enacting power dynamics go against feminism? And to an outsider like myself, it can look scary. How can someone with a history of dyspareunia (painful sex) possibly incorporate pain and power dynamics into their sex life on purpose? Why would you do this? There are vocal critics of BDSM, including feminist critiques. How do you reconcile BDSM with feminist ideals, if at all?
Yet again and again and again in sex-positive communities I’ve been a part of (or at least watched from afar) and in the books I’ve read, I’ve seen arguments defending BDSM and kink, and opening the door for it as a healthy sexual activity.
Consider the following passages from some of the books I’ve read:
Returning once again to Sex is not a Natural Act,
The possibilities for pleasure include, for example, the capacity for eroticizing nongenital parts of the body through conditioning and symbolism. As Jeffrey Weeks (1985) points out, ‘In S/M,… the whole body becomes a seat of pleasure, and the cultivation of roles and exotic practices the key to the attainment of pleasure. A degenitalization of sex and of pleasure is taking place in these practices…” (p. 241) (Tiefer, location 2385, emphasis mine).
As someone struggling with sexual problems, I find this passage very interesting. In mainstream depictions of sex, there’s a very strong focus on genital activity & orgasm, but according to this, in BDSM you don’t even need to have genital contact to experience pleasure.
BDSM is explicitly stated as a possibility for couples to explore in Let Me Count the Ways,
“Just for fun, here’s a list – in no particular order – of outercourse activities that different people enjoy. Remember a self-accepting, nonpressured attitude make all the difference […] Dominance and submission: holding your partner down, being held down, using a blindfold, spanking, using wrist or ankle restraints, playact at “forcing” someone to do something. Remember, this is very intimate stuff, so clear communication is essential.” (Klein & Robbins, 114, emphasis mine).
This same list includes several other activities that might fall under a broad definition of BDSM as well.
But wait, there’s more – The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability includes a whole chapter about S/M, in which among other things the authors define terms and talk about the difficulty of navigating the BDSM community while disabled. (I’ve heard PWD discuss this topic of BDSM & accessibility in detail on blogs.) Anne Sprinkle asks the reader of Spectacular Sex whether or not she (Sprinke’s aim was mostly women readers) might be interested in exploring BDSM. Chapters 8 and 9 in Sex Toys 101 talks about BDSM toys and activities, illustrated with lots of bright colorful pictures.
So there’s five examples in print I have personally seen talk about BDSM in a positive way, and the list goes on in published books and online.
Huh. Again and again and again I see the same thing. Perhaps there is something to this BDSM after all. I am intrigued yet apprehensive, and would like to know more. These books listed above don’t all talk about how to do BDSM in step-by-step great detail, don’t talk about how to reconcile it with feminism or a history that may include painful sex, abuse, or PTSD. So where do I start? How do I use this? How do I play this game?
Somewhere along the line, I can’t remember how at this point, I stumbled upon or was directed to a pair of books about BDSM, The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. It would be awhile longer yet before I could purchase them with my own money, only because I had no safe place to hide them from prying eyes. Luckily the authors and publishers saw fit to make these books available as e-books. One slightly-used Kindle, $20 and a few clicks later, problem solved!
And after chugging through Sex is not a Natural Act, I needed a break from tough brain work. Something a little lighter & friendlier with some positive affirmations in it. And so here we are… For an alternate review to supplement your reading of The New Bottoming Book this one is quite detailed, NSFW.
The New Bottoming Book is a revision of an earlier, shorter incarnation with the same name (minus the “New” part.) After the success of the first printing in the mid-1990s and growth in the kink community (especially online,) the authors went back and built upon their original work. Dossie and Janet (they refer to each other by first names so I hope they don’t mind if I do too,) are writing from the perspectives of a Bottom and a Top, respectively – although both authors have switched roles. It’s a nice, short, easy read, especially compared to some of the more theoretical books I’ve been slogging through. It only took a few days to finish cover to cover and about 1 single day to re-read.The Kindle version has 1656 locations, which translates to about 200 pages in print. I rarely used the highlighter & note taking features of the Kindle this time, although I did toy with the text-to-speech feature at a few juicy passages… While talking via webcam with my boyfriend. Mostly though, I simply went “With the flow” while I was reading.
The primary audience of The New Bottoming Book is bottoms, and anyone who is thinking about bottoming. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry – the authors define many BDSM terms throughout, which is great because I’d be lost otherwise. Dossie and Janet have a liberal definition of what they consider BDSM. “If the people directly involved in any given scene or activity agree that what they’re doing is BDSM, it is” (location 212.) That means that no one can tell you that what you’re doing isn’t “Real” – you and your partner get to decide. It doesn’t necessarily have to look like anything – this is a valuable lesson for anyone who’s struggling with the rigid rules of what mainstream sex is “Supposed” to look like. And whenever you perform BDSM, that’s a “Scene.” BDSM is synonymous with leathersex, and leathersex is “An activity in which one partner consciously, consensually relinquishes control to another in at least one of four areas: movement, behavior, sensation or emotion” (location 108). This exchange of power & control is temporary and all parties involved may set limits by mutual agreement. Dossie and Janet talk about the concept of “Power-with” vs. “Power-over.”
“Most of our culture’s systems run on power-over, with sexism, racism and militarism being some ugly examples. Power-over means that a person sees his or her power as the ability to control others, and thus always sees this power as relative, either greater or lesser than other people’s power” (location 266) … “Power-with is based on the idea that we can all become more powerful by supporting each other in being more powerful” (location 274)
So one of the main themes to understand about BDSM is that it’s about playing with power. The toys and roles used by participants are tools to feeling powerful, which is a reward in and of itself. (Gives new meaning to the old slogan for the Super Nintendo… “Now you’re playing with power. Super power.” Remember that? Best damn console ever…)
A bottom is “Someone who has the ability to eroticize or otherwise enjoy some sensations or emotions – such as pain, helplessness, powerlessness and humiliation – that would be unpleasant in another context” (location 89). Bottoms and the verb form “To bottom” have many synonyms, and you can perform bottoming roles without identifying exclusively as a bottom. Bottoms are the focus of the book, but I have no doubt that Tops – counterparts to bottoms – would benefit from reading as well. Tops “Can eroticize giving someone an experience that would be unpleasant in real-world interactions” (location 98) and likewise have many synonyms.
Speaking of synonyms and language – I noticed that several negative terms were used in reclaimatory fashion, particularly “Pervert.” The authors switch back & forth between masculine & feminine gender pronouns all the time. However there is also some ablist language re: mental illness – “Crazy” is explicitly used twice (not reclaimatory.)
For someone already experienced in BDSM, I’m sure much of the information in The New Bottoming Book will be basic 101-level review – an experienced person will already know about many of the principles and terms the authors talk about. It’s possible that experienced players will have already read The Bottoming Book. As someone who has basically zero real-world experience with BDSM though, I genuinely need that 101 level introduction and found it helpful. I’m so vanilla, I like to eat vanilla frosting straight out of the can and pour Kahlua French Vanilla over vanilla ice cream while listening to Vanilla Ice & Milli Vanilli. But I can be open minded…
Early on in the book, the authors state that The New Bottoming Book is not meant to be used as a step-by-step manual for how to be a good bottom in BDSM. This surprised me, since I had seen it recommended elsewhere – I expected it to be a how-to book. And there are sections and chapters that talk about how to do BDSM – almost the entire second half of the book is dedicated to describing various scenes. But the how-to descriptions are brief. It’s great for generating ideas and helpful pointers but there aren’t any diagrams of how to tie someone up in rope bondage, for example. In fact there are no illustrations save for a small Phil Foglio-esque happy person on the cover. (It’s not actually by Phil Foglio. I think… it’s copyright “Fish.” I don’t know who Fish is.)
Nonetheless, some of the ideas in the book go over my head. It’s not because of technical jargon or academic ivory towers I have to scale. I think the writing overall is accessible to almost everyone, and peppered throughout with plenty of positive affirmation. While not heavily technical nor theoretical, the writing style is nonetheless very philosophical. The book talks about the philosophy of bottoming, the motives behind it, the mindset, the rewards. If you do not understand why someone would choose to bottom, this book may help fill in the gaps in your knowledge. The New Bottoming Book talks a lot about why people bottom (and top,) but there’s not a lot of concrete hard facts, scientific laws or statistics provided. (A quick PubMed search reveals that there are some BDSM peer-reviewed studies… There were probably fewer at the time of printing though.)
For example, the authors discuss the rush of endorphins that probably comes from careful use of intense sensations, including pain. I say “Probably” because Dossie and Janet disclose, “At least, that’s what we think happens: this is a theory that fits our experience, and the medical establishment is very unlikely to subject this to scientific research, so we just have to believe in our own sensations” (location 1126).
I feel that sometimes Dossie and Janet were writing as though the reader already knew what the authors were talking about. Although the authors make it clear that all are welcome to join the BDSM community of their own free will, I sometimes felt left out for my lack of experience. I get the impression that The New Bottoming Book was written mostly for those who already had an draw to BDSM and who have already established what might be considered BDSM fantasies. But I don’t know where “Bottom space” (location 217) and “The forever place” (location 935) are and I’ve never been put in a trance. You had to have been there…
I’ve never been there before. For example, the authors sometimes compare their bottoming experience to flight. And they do not mean flying while seated in coach on a long plane trip cross-country – they mean mentally, the feeling of free flight as in a dream.
What was that Sandman line? Anybody else here read that series? Dream is talking and he goes, “If you do not climb, you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall?” Todd Farber replies, “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”
I remain earthbound. For now…
I’m coming from a position where BDSM is not an intrinsic drive for me – it’s something that I was told about later in life and am curious of now. I think I could get into this. My only other exposure to written BDSM material was the Claiming of Sleeping Beauty – an erotic BDSM novel that bored me to tears. I remember reading it years ago (I was still in high school and all my goth friends had read it) and being sorely disappointed. I was expecting literary pornography and got something else. I never bothered reading the other two novels in the series, not wanting to waste more money on something that didn’t do anything for me sexually.
In contrast, I’ve heard some activists talk about how their attraction to BDSM and kink is a variation of sexual orientation. This is something I’m actively building an interest in.
Yet I am not too worried about whether my newly budding interest in BDSM will make me any better or worse at it than anyone else. I’m new so of course it’ll take time & practice to figure out how, if and where BDSM will fit into my sex life. And I can understand why some of those sexuality activists and experts mentioned above offered BDSM as a suggestion in the first place – the way it’s described by Dossie and Janet makes it sound relaxed and flexible, yet ethical. Consent and choice are very important concepts to good BDSM players, as they should be to any good lovers. BDSM is a means to lowering physical and emotional barriers and thus experiencing intense intimacy. The trade-off is increased vulnerability and risk for the duration of the scene. That’s why it’s so important to negotiate limits and duration before starting a scene.
The authors make recommendations to stay safe and minimize your risk of getting hurt physically and emotionally. You don’t have to surrender all of your power over to a top all at once and certainly you don’t have to do so permanently. It’s okay to take small steps. And it’s very important to communicate candidly and frequently. And if something does go wrong during a scene, it’s okay to stop what you’re doing, usually by speaking a safeword. A violation after a safewording isn’t an extension of a BDSM scene – it’s abuse.
And, unless you want to, you don’t even need to have sex as part of a BDSM scene. It’s possible to keep genital stimulation off the table completely and still experience pleasure in a BDSM scene. This is very important to me, as right now I would definitely need to keep any and all vaginal penetration/insertion off the table when engaged in BDSM.
Speaking of what you want, the authors make it clear that you should want to get something out of BDSM. You’re not doing this just to please a top, unless pleasing that top is what pleases you most. What you want may be something obvious like an orgasm or something more intangible, like to explore negative emotions. Or you may want to be praised for doing a good job, or to feel an endorphin rush. And it’s okay to stop mid-scene if you’re having a problem. If the problem can be easily resolved, then you can pick up where you left off or take a break if it cannot be readily addressed.
So once you know what you want in the end, how do you go about getting it? The authors talk about making a BDSM checklist. This is a list of any and all kinky activity you can think of and deciding whether you have any interest in doing such activities. You can write it down from the top of your head, but there premade checklists lists ready for use online. (I still find it amusing that one of those lists includes vaginal dilators, since dilators are so hum-drum and clinical to me.) You can then compare lists with other people and come to mutual agreement on what you’d both enjoy. If you and your partner do not have much in common on those lists, you’re allowed to decline playing with them at all.
The authors strongly recommend joining the BDSM community, but it’s not clear to me from this book whether it’s sufficent to partake solely of the online community. One shortcoming of the book is that the authors don’t talk about is the risks of coming “Out” as kinky publicly. If you get caught doing BDSM, it can be a whole big stink especially if you’re a politician, for example. Another risk not touched upon is that, although the authors mention at several points that some issues would be better worked out in a professional therapeutic environment, not all licensed therapists are kink-friendly.
One chapter talks all about meeting new people, checking their references and using the internet; unfortunately this section of the book feels so outdated it’s almost quaint. That’s not the author’s fault though – technology just kept on chuggin’ along after the book was published. Luckily for me, I don’t think I need to look very far to find a good top.My partner has an interest in topping, and I’m fine with that – but I told him the only way I’m going to play with him is if he reads the companion, The New Topping Book! I did my homework, now you do yours!
At the end of the book, I understand why other authors and bloggers have placed BDSM on the table as an option for sexual activity, but questions remain. I have a better understanding of bottoming but not topping or switching – which is fine since I can read the companion Topping Book for that. But I still lack real-world experience, and it’s going to take practice to make perfect. The New Topping Book does not explicitly address feminist critiques of BDSM. Since I still lack that real-world experience, overall I have to give The New Bottoming Book a final grade of, “Middle.” Yeah we’re not using a number or grade letter scale today. It just feels middle to me. I’ll have a better idea of what the authors are talking about after I see it in person.
So who might benefit from reading The New Bottoming Book? I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in or currently involved with BDSM. I would suggest to anyone who is not necessarily interested in BDSM but nonetheless curious about it. I would suggest it to people experiencing sexual difficulties – maybe not so much for every single activity but for the sense of acceptance and creativity throughout the book, and for the frequent, consistent affirmations that yes, it’s okay to do this thing that you want (so long as you take steps to do so safely,) and yes it’s okay to not match a mainstream definition of sex.
One caveat though is that, some folks are triggered by descriptions of BDSM from having experienced abuse. People with a history of abuse may still be able to take something positive away from The New Bottoming Book, but should proceed with caution. If you are not getting a benefit from it at all, then in the spirit of the book, I would say it’s okay to put it down and do something else.
But you know what, I’m not sure a book alone is the only place I can get BDSM knowledge from… this is the whole wide internet. Maybe before I dive headfirst into the BDSM pool, I should check in with some more experienced advocates. I have a lot of questions left to ask.