Roles in BDSM

After looking for a good article on BDSM roles and not being entirely satisfied with what I found, I decided to write my own. What annoyed me most about other articles was that many of the authors didn’t really take into account what other people’s perceptions about the roles might be, or that S&M need not involve D/s. While I have my own ideas about what the terms mean, I try to describe other interpretations I have come across. I encourage you to comment if you have a different interpretation of a role.

If you are new to BDSM or haven’t decided on a role yet, please do not feel pressured to choose. It is perfectly ok to identify with something not listed here, or to not identify with any role at all. You may also find that you identify with more than one role. Roles that are considered to go together are top, dominant and sadist, and bottom, submissive and masochist.This is the stereotype and certainly not the case for everyone.

Top/Bottom: Refers to who is giving and receiving pain, orders, sensation, or humiliation/psychological play, and/or who has the “active” role in the scene. Tops do things, and bottoms have things done to them. Tops are not necessarily dominant, nor are bottoms necessarily submissive. Often used to describe the roles in a particular scene, though some identify as either a top or bottom (the terms are particularly popular gay men, where they may also be used to indicate the penetrative partner during sex). Some consider topping/bottoming to be terms that exclude the practice of D/s, but I see them as umbrella terms for roles that may or may not include it. Sometimes prefaced with the word “rope” among rope bondage enthusiasts to refer to who does the tying and who is being tied up. Can be applied to other activities too (sensation top/bottom).

Dominant/Submissive: Refers to power exchange. Dominants take on a role of authority or control over submissives, who allow this to occur. May or may not involve the infliction of pain or intense sensations. The dominant may decide on such as things as what the submissive should wear and how he/she should act. Submissives may or may not engage in acts of non-sexual service, such as cooking and cleaning. Punishment may occur when the submissive goes against the orders of the dominant. A person may take on the role of dominant or submissive for a specified amount of time, or may be in role all the time.

A female dominant is usually called a domme (same pronunciation) or a mistress (though this is sometimes used as the female equivalent to master). Keep in mind that dominant is the noun, not dominate. You dominate someone – you are not a dominate.

Master/Slave: Also refers to power exchange. What differentiates the two is a matter of opinion. Some consider D/s to be scene based and M/s to be something that is practiced 24/7. Some consider the signing of a contract, stricter rules/greater control or ownership over the person to signify the difference between a sub and a slave. Some may just feel that the M/s labels better suit their relationship. Regardless, M/s is usually seen to be a more “extreme” or intense form of power exchange.

The term master is also used in the BDSM world to signify a person who is thought to have contributed a lot to the community and to be highly experienced. As such, younger  and less experienced people who identify publicly as master are commonly looked down upon.

Sadist/Masochist: Refers to one’s enjoyment (sexual or not) of giving or receiving pain (and/or intense sensations, depending on who you ask), respectively. People who enjoy both the giving and receiving pain are typically referred to as sadomasochists. Pain can be inflicted for its own sake (with no one in charge) or may be a part of or an addition to D/s. When a bottom’s enjoyment of pain comes primarily from the fact that they are submitting to the top’s wish to inflict pain upon them, this isn’t usually considered masochism. A top who does not enjoy inflicting pain for its own sake, instead seeing it as purely a method of asserting control, isn’t usually considered a sadist.

Context is important. Masochists do not typically find pain outside of an erotically charged scene enjoyable.

The terms emotional sadist and masochist are used as to refer to people who enjoy humiliation and degradation, in contrast to physical pain.

Switch: General term for someone who enjoys playing two roles that are considered opposite. The term versatile is more commonly used among gay men. Generally perceived to be someone who enjoys both dominance and submission, but may refer to someone who enjoys both topping and bottoming instead. May also enjoy more than two roles.

Fetishist: Someone who finds an inanimate object or body part that is “not typically associated with sex” arousing. By some definitions, fetishists require said object for sexual arousal or orgasm to occur. Fetishism isn’t technically a part of BDSM, but many BDSM practitioners are fetishists. May or may not engage in other activities typically associated with BDSM, or associate with any other role. Some BDSM practitioners wear materials popular among fetishists (leather, latex, fur etc.) for reasons other than fetishism. I don’t consider physical acts to be fetishes, but some do.

Kinkster: General term for someone with BDSM interests.

But how can you do S&M without D/s? Someone inflicts pain on someone else. The person inflicting pain doesn’t give orders to the receiver or vice versa. He/she may instead ask “What do you feel like being hit with today, Sexy?”. The receiver may say “I’m really not sure. You pick something, but not the silicone flogger… that thing is evil”. They may use it anyway, because they are an evil meanie head know that you secretly want it. Letting the top decide what to do because you have no strong preference or you want to be surprised does not constitute D/s. For people who see S&M and D/s as being closely entwined, separating the two may seem difficult. When you remember that D/s is about power and S&M is about inflicting pain, it’s really quite simple.

Submissive Sadists and Dominant Masochists: It is possible to be a submissive sadist or a dominant masochist. In the first case, the person would enjoy being controlled/directed and inflicting pain. In a scene where they flogged someone under direction, they would be topping as they are the person performing the action. In the second case, the person would enjoy having control and receiving pain. If they were directing someone on how to cane them, they would be bottoming because they are the person receiving the action.

What about service tops/bottoms? Some people are not naturally inclined towards a certain role, and/or are primarily aroused by their partner’s enjoyment of a scene. If their partner expresses interest in them acting out said role, they chose to do so in the interest of pleasing their partner. The partner may be very directive, may give a few suggestions, or may leave most of the scene up to the other person. Identifying as a service top or bottom is fine, and does not mean that you are not a “true kinkster”. Some use the terms service top and bottom in a negative way, to signify that someone isn’t a “real” dominant or submissive. This nonsense is just people projecting their opinions about roles onto others.

Topping from the bottom?
This post by Zenocrate on Fetlife explains why this term is stupid (you’ll need an account to access it).

Other roles:
You can see brief descriptions of all the roles on Fetlife (though many identify as something other than these) here. My knowledge of Gor, age play and pet play is limited, so I will leave those descriptions to someone with a greater understanding.

The bottom line: Choose how you want to identify if and when it feels right. Be aware that your perceptions of a role may differ from what other’s think.

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