So you think you’re kinky! Congratulations: you’ve joined a growing movement of folks who are expanding their sexual repertoire beyond Masters & Johnson. Kinky sexuality is an enormous field, filled with beautiful, spiky leather flowers, and it can take time and exploration to figure out what you’re into.
But there are three sets of words that “pop up” all the time: dominant/submissive, top/bottom, and sadist/masochist. These can seem like different versions of the same thing: it’s all about who’s getting tied up and smacked and who’s doing the tying and smacking, right?
Not so fast. A dominant is not the same as a top is not the same as a sadist, nor are bottoms, submissives, and masochists interchangeable.
- Dominant and submissive describe preferred power positions.
- Sadist and masochist are words for people who enjoy giving or receiving pain.
- And top and bottom – while sometimes used to mean the same thing as the other two sets of words – are about who is in the driver’s seat in a given activity.
Three different axes (of delicious evil)
Imagine two ends of a line. On one end is Tory the Top, who loves to tie people up. On the other is Bobbie the Bottom, who loves getting tied up. In the middle is someone who’s either not that interested in rope, or enjoys both ends of the spectrum equally.
Now imagine that these three sets of terms each has their own line, or axis. Each kinkster, in a given moment, may exist on a different point on any one of them: power, activity, and sensation. But how to tease all these terms apart, and which ones – if any – apply to you? Let’s take them two at a time (said the sensualist at the orgy).
The sensation axis: sadists and masochists
If you know nothing else about kinky sex, you probably know that some people get off on hurting people, and some people get off on being hurt. A sadist is someone who gets sexual enjoyment out of inflicting pain. In the kink world, this means giving pain to people who enjoy receiving pain – consent is everything. A masochist, who enjoys receiving pain, sits on the other end of this axis.
So how do sadism and masochism fit into the other axes? A common misconception is that sadists are always tops/dominants and masochists are always bottoms/submissives. It’s frequently true – but not always!
The activity axis: tops and bottoms
The terms top and bottom come from gay culture, and describe which partner is the “active” and which the “receptive.” In kink circles, it’s about who holds the tools, and who has the tools used on them. The one swinging the whip is the top; the one being hit with it is the bottom. The person tying ropes is the top; the person dangling from the rafters is the bottom.
This gets more complicated with switching and other dynamics where the active and passive partners are unclear or change. But for our purposes, the top is the do-er; the bottom is the do-ee.
But the third axis is the one that most often gets people tied into knots, if you will. (Terrible puns are an occupational hazard of kink communities. Welcome.) How do power dynamics play into the other two dimensions?
The power axis: dominants and submissives
Frequently, kinky people play with power. This means that one person willingly gives over control – submits – and the other dominates. This can be for the space of a scene, a weekend, or in some relationships, for life.
Domination and submission may involve whips and chains, but it may also involve playing with mind control, embarrassment or humiliation, rough sex, exhibitionism, or any number of other scenarios where one person calls the shots and the other follows the orders. There are endless ways to do power play, and for this reason alone, it has its own spectrum.
Who’s Who In This Sex Scene?
Let’s say a woman identifies as dominant, but is also a masochist. In a scene, she orders her partner to scratch and bite her – making her partner both the submissive in this scenario, and the top – the active partner.
Say another couple is into erotic hypnosis. The hypnotizing partner is both the top and the dominant in this case: they do the induction, watch over the scene, and get what they want from their partner. The bottom in the activity is also submissive, in the sense of being in their partner’s control. Neither of them is doing anything involving pain, so at the moment, they are hanging out in the neutral middle of that third axis. And perhaps the next time they play, they’ll switch places: these words aren’t always permanent identities.
Maybe a sadist wants to use his new whip because causing yelps and seeing the red skin turns him on. His partner, a masochist, wants to see what the whip feels like, but wants to be in charge of how she is hit. In this example, the bottom guides the scene, but the pair explore sensation together without a clear power dynamic.
Finally, some people color outside of all of these lines! A wrestling scene, for one example, may involve a power struggle, both partners being active, and both dishing out and taking some pain. Again, all of these dynamics are a small part of the total picture of kink, but the three axes together cover a wide range of things that kinksters get up to and sometimes identify with.
You know what that means: it’s time to get out there and do some science! Armed with this knowledge, you can bring some new dimensions to your experimentations in the world of kink. See which points on each axis feel right to you! Try out some of the wacky things you’ve been fantasizing about! Abuse some exclamation points! And remember: always get enthusiastic consent. And keep a fire extinguisher handy. (Don’t ask.)