Exiles Workshop: Bottoming 101

On Friday night, a friend and I went to check out the monthly workshop held by The Exiles, a primarily queer women’s BDSM group. I’d actually thought it was an exclusively lesbian organization, which is why I’d never checked it out before—I suppose it’s more “women who play with women” focused.

The presentation was preceded by about a half hour of announcements and administrative business: upcoming parties and workshops, several appeals for volunteers, announcements of different members leaving or taking new positions within the administrative heirarchy. Like I’ve said before, it’s been both a relief and a source of some amusement to me that like any club or hobbyist’s group, some elements of the dark, nasty world of BDSM can be rather mundane. I certainly had not expected a business meeting as a warm-up to watching our presenter strip and get whipped with canes.

The first half of the presentation was very, very basic. Audience members helped contribute to lists of what we get out of bottoming (why we enjoy it), and when we have to stop (or when we don’t enjoy it). The third list was more interesting: why do we continue even when we want to stop? The list included some pretty awful stuff, including “fear of being ridiculed,” and some that I’ve experienced, such as “afraid the scene will end completely,” “not wanting to hurt the top’s feelings,” and, perhaps most disturbingly, “unable to break out of deep bottom/subspace.” One top shared a story of a bottom she used to play with who had once gotten so deep into her masochistic headspace that she failed to safeword even when her physical safety was being jeopardized, and by the time a third party had intervened, she’d received several cracked ribs. Stories like that are terrifying for me, because I’ve definitely reached points where it was extremely difficult for me to determine my limits or to remember to say “stop.”

That point in particular raised a discussion of the importance of communicating your limits and your common reactions to things with your top beforehand—because once you’re in the scene, it can become extremely difficult for either of you to tell what’s okay and what’s not okay without ending things completely. Crying, for example, is a reaction that some bottoms are completely fine with, and even something that they want to get to; in others, it’s a sign that things are going terribly wrong, and they need a break. But unless you’ve let your top know that, one way or the other, they might misinterpret your reactions as the opposite of what they mean to you, what you think they signify.

The “demo scene” was really, really interesting to me, for a few reasons. First, it really helped me to understand the whole “bottom vs. submissive” debate better—Rae, the presenter, was most definitely bottoming, not submitting. There was very little, if any, D/S dynamic present in the scene, which involved clothespins (part one) and caning/booting (part two). I think that because bottoming has been pretty inseparable from submission, for me, it was hard for to me to imagine a scene like this.

The second point of interest for me was Rae’s limits, and seeing how much the top gave her. Having only seriously played with one person (and not being much of a porn watcher), I’ve wondered, sometimes, how my limits compare to other people. And yes (I’m embarassed to say), in part that’s a pride thing—am I a good sub? Am I a good masochist?

After the presentation, we stood around for a bit, and talked about the awkwardness we both feel in identity-based groups like this, where we fit in based on one aspect of our lives (our submissive sexual identity) but probably have very little in common with most of the women there, otherwise. Besides being relatively young (I’d say the bulk of the women there were over 40; we’re both in our 20s), our lives and desires are structured around an opposition to a lot of the stuff that’s very normal for most people, and by extension most people involved in the BDSM scene. And a lot of the stuff that’s normal for us might seem alien to them. If most of my identity was based on my sexuality, I would feel right at home at things like this—but it isn’t, and I don’t. And a lot of other aspects of my life can make it seem very far away from home: the preponderance of leather, for example, is a little off-putting for me as a vegan; the fact that the room applauded when someone mentioned that the Folsom Street Fair is endorsed by the mayor is a little weird for me as an anarchist.

And I guess that’s a longer topic for another time…

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