The Black Leather Space Suit and The Oft Forgotten Top

Going Deep: Topspace, Bottomspace, and Sado-erotic Ecstacy Part Eight

Author: Chris M © 1998-2002

Used With Author(s) Permission


Maintain Courage!

Five years ago I had the lucky break of being offered a one man show of my artwork at the legendary Playhouse Studios in Baltimore Maryland. It was my first show and as an added bonus it was to be held in a centaurlike establishment that held a gallery on the first floor and SM dungeon space on the top two. As you can imagine the invite list for the opening was pretty far down the priority list, but when I got there I had to wrestle with the question of which vanilla friends I could invite to a event that was half appolonian art appreciation and half Dionysian bacchanal. I ended up inviting my closest six vanilla friends and hoped for the best. The event went well, and it was good that my non-scene friends had a vanilla peer group. At one point I ran across a clutch of them in watching a scene on the third floor. "So what do you make of this?" I asked. "Chris," Began Wendy a very smart, and very vanilla attorney. "Were at a sex party, and no one is having sex. What's going on?"

I didn't have a very good answer. Why isn't there more fucking at "pansexual" scene functions. There is plenty at gay leather events. As strange as it sounds, pleasure is not always the top priority in the teaching and practice of SM. SM training typically addresses technological questions of "how" to brandish various tools and techniques, often ignoring the more emotional, spiritual questions of "what" we are hoping to get out of it. As Tops operating in the mixed SM scene of today, we often find ourselves evaluated on how well we avoid scaring the local horses, and how effectively we regurgitate the writings of SM authors. And the joy we create for our partners and ourselves (a harder thing to gauge) becomes a secondary pursuit. This leads to a simple but widespread problem: An overemphasis on safety over joy, technique over pure emotion, and SM that is far less hot than it could be. SM scenes crafted purely to demonstrate technical skill can be just as frosty and mechanical, as writing or music designed for that purpose. Instead of "Sane", you get "tepid". Instead of "Safe" you get "routine". Instead of "Consensual" you get play that's overly determined, unsurprising and anal in all the wrong ways. Look around a busy dungeon on Saturday night and notice how many tops seem distracted, not "there", merely going through the motions. Bottoms can sense this, feel they are doing something wrong, fear the top is bored, and loose their confidence and focus in the scene: the opposite of what we want.

The traditional role of top is the culprit here. Truth is, we haven't always done the best job in teaching how domination is done. It is woefully easy to perform a technically excellent scene in such a way that the tops feel next to nothing, and thus gets little more than a satisfied partner and target practice with their flail. You see it in the attire of many Doms who appear to be attempting a sort of Black leather space suit, with only face and hands exposed, sealed off from any physical sensation of the scene they are involved in. For many this separation IS the SM experience: a gulf between two intrinsic opposites: bottom and top, one defenseless and exposed, the other impervious, unfeeling and stoic. Two different, unconnected things in separate places, above and below, with empty space between them. Only the power exchange connects them, fleetingly, like a lightening bolt briefly uniting land and sky. And in this asymmetrical situation, the bottoms - scantily clad, and subject of the tops ministrations- are the only ones who tactilely "feel" the SM play, and enjoy the chemical cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine.

This brings up the unfortunate concept of the "service top", for whom a good night's topping means only a happy bottom, or at best, a happy bottom whose limits have been nudged forward. In this paradigm, the top serves as a sort of leather clad bellhop, whose success or failure is determined solely by the bottoms satisfaction. The tops pleasure, meanwhile, is reduced to that of a voyeuristic observer. Many bottoms raised in our current climate of safewords, SSC, and rubrics like "bottom sets the limits" see the tops they allow to "play" with them as mere functionaries with no needs of their own. Ready and eager to do exactly what the bottoms say they want.

Truth is, very few bottoms really want to be calling all the shots. And allowing them to do it can lead to weak, shallow play. A scene that is technically flawless, but leaves you cold is almost as bad as a hot scene that accidentally flies off the rails. A weak scene is like sitting down to a nine-course banquet only to discover cheese puffs under every covered dish. You leave the table irritable, hungry, unsatisfied, and ill nourished. Over time, shallow play can lead to other problems. Folks accustomed to leaving the dungeon frustrated may not be as eager to rush back in again soon. At a Black Rose discussion group a startling number of couples, many of them identifying as 24/7, reported, "never finding the time" for SM play. This is not happy news. Play starvation can strain relationships running the risk of hurt feelings and perceived rejection. I believe weak play contributes to the scene's rudeness epidemic. Denied the central pleasure offered by our lifestyle, many find solace in less defensible pursuits: gossip, self-aggrandizement, slander, etc, making the community much less pleasant than it could be. Before long, community organizers find volunteers hard to come by. Everyone feels slightly overdrawn in the good will department, and even when things seem fine on the surface, many good people feel rubbed raw, and are just one more insult away from quitting.


Lets examine some common obstacles tops face in getting into scenes. The first of these is Stoic Dom Syndrome: The first hurdle facing many doms is the fallacy that doms must conform to a stereotype of domhood: aloof, cool, strutting, arrogant, impervious. Armored to the neck in layers of denim and leather, boots, caps, sometimes even gauntlets and gloves, a play emphasizing the technical, and a outlook and bearing that is remote and detached.

Oh, there are sound reasons for the top to retain distance and mystery. Too much familiarity and accessibility can ruin it for bottoms who want a dominant that is mysterious, unknowable, dangerous and powerful. Godlike, in short. And by introducing distance, through deportment or attire the Top can inspire mystery and fear, feeding the bottom's submissive awe, and submissive awe is a delectable thing for all. But sometimes this can separate the top from the action. Like traditional stereotypes of masculinity, the clichéd image of "the true dominant" is helpful mainly as a warning about what not to do. Stereotypes of any sort pressure us to behave artificially, to lay aside our own personalities and desire in the effort to conform. And in SM play, the costs of this impersonation are high: "Dom Arrogance" encourages us to think we already understand what we probably don't. "Dom Heaviness" pushes us to more intense play than is necessary, appropriate, within the top's skills or the bottom's limits. And "Dom Stoicism" discourages us from feeling and expressing the very pleasure we seek from SM in the first place. And a clarification: a dominant who cannot feel is not being strong; he is gelded, paralyzed, not "there". And a dom who seen by his partner as "not present" may be sending the message that he is bored, unsatisfied, uninterested, or preoccupied with something or someone else. And a dom or domme who feels their pleasure is of secondary importance to the scene is well on their way to the career of a "service top". Let's examine some factors that can make this happen:

  • Many tops and bottoms alike have lived entire lives fearful or ashamed of their own desires and needs. Some fear their SM interests might be viewed as silly or trivial (puppy training, tickle torture, infantilism), brutal (rape scenes, humiliation scenes, skin breakage, torture scenes) or disgusting (scat, piss). Self-acceptance is hard won in our world, but to be part of the scene and still afraid of perusing your heart's desire is not much better off than not having leather in their life at all. It is dubious progress to reject an inauthentic "vanilla" identity only to replace it with a different but equally false "leather" one.
  • Ludicrous folk myths persist (mostly among beginners, net weenies, and people who practice in isolation from the community at large) saying the real doms never bottom. Many doms don't like bottoming and that's fine. But those who profess that no doms should are simply trying to "spin" their own meekness as strength. Switches and Tops who never switch alike come in all levels of ability: solid players, exemplars, and mediocrity. The myth of the "true dominant" who has never bottomed may be a hot fantasy but fails as a practical reality.
  • The ironic truth is that it is far easier, particularly for beginners, to be an unfeeling, detached observer than to be a living, questing, participant.


Fear Of A Drunk Dom Syndrome: There has always been an odd resistance to the idea of doms getting a buzz during play. Some of this stems from the standard scene motherhood stating that doms should always have their wits about them while a potentially helpless submissive is in their clutches. It says getting high, emotionally or otherwise, can cloud your judgment, raising the risk of mistakes being made in the heat of passion. It says that doms, to control a scene must be in control of themselves. These points are often discussed, rigorously adhered to by some, and absolutely valid as a concern.

But it can get silly, can't it? I recently attended a planning meeting with fellow Black Rose board officers and upon twisting the top off a tall frosty beverage I had brought along, found myself chided by some preposterous individual who asked me not to drink it, explaining that it "sent the wrong message" and "everyone had been upset" the last time I did it. I was a bit puzzled at what message was being perceived beyond "Chris M is having a beer." The moral is this: The problem is not grown adults drinking, or even intoxication, but the clouded judgment that can lead to a dangerous, scarring screw ups, or damage to the fragile fabric of our community. Grown adults are entitled to monk like abstinence if that's what they want for themselves, but I draw the line where people aspire to impose their personal views on others. Self appointed school marms, (of either gender) wagging their fingers and devoting overwrought attention to non-issues like whether it is possible for an adult to enjoy a beer safely, often do more harm than good, making everyone paranoid, irritable and draining time and focus away from real issues. And in truth, both the heaviest play, and most technically exquisite play I've ever witnessed was in dungeons like those at Delta, where poppers, grass, alcoholic enemas and free flowing beer were all just facts of life. There is a big difference between inebriation (being incapacitated) and intoxication (being exhilarated).

Please do not infer from this that I condone drunkenness in scene. I believe that the senses should always be keen and sharp; DWI is never okay for dungeon work. But it is a prohibitionist falsehood to claim that alcohol or high spirits equates to unsafe behavior. Someone drunk on their own moralizing judgment can be as dangerous as a drunk who is blotto on cheap red wine. Inebriation, not intoxication is the real enemy of responsible, hot SM.

Puritanical Play: A third reason is almost never discussed. America "sweet land of liberty" was also the "pilgrim's pride" and still is in many respects. America has a longstanding puritanical distrust of pleasure and the senses, and a propensity to moralize and judge: a skewed sense that Sunday school values should determine our behavior as adults. This is the same kind of censorious thought that commands curse words be deleted from literature and film before they are fit for family viewing, and that the nude body of God's greatest creation is indecent and obscene. It tells us that alcohol and other intoxicants should be rigorously controlled, even among responsible adults. I tells us that play among adults is childish and indicative of immaturity unless its organized into the ritualized warfare of team sports. It tells us that delight in the senses and in the arts or literature or poetry is "womanly," fey, or frivolous. Our European neighbors don't know what to make of it. They never had prohibition in France. Many European leaders attend state functions accompanied by their mistresses.

And although we scenefolk like to think of ourselves as sensualists, sexual outlaws and members of the sexual avant-garde, the Puritanical piss they put in the water outside seeps in, and runs throughout our community and customs. We all grew up in the society described above. American stereotypes of masculinity, which virtually forbid the open delight in beauty and the senses, are obediently adhered to in the behavior of many doms. For all their domly power most tops (in the het world anyway) are surprisingly timid about our own nude bodies; you see more skin at the beach, than at most SM functions, especially among tops. Many of our otherwise excellent guidebooks admonish us never to play while "angry or in a highly emotional state", a catechism echoed, and elaborated on in lectures and demos. First timers at BDSM "sex parties" are often stunned to learn there will be no sex tonight. And we've already discussed the many "diversity loving scene folk" who are fanatical that no one should ever touch alcohol at an SM function whether they plan to play or not, a trend which, though often well intended, can become a problem of its own.

This puritanical bent, an overwrought sense of judgment, (and a perfectly reasonable fear of the harsh judgment of others) can and does undermine the confidence of players, particularly the doms who bear the primary responsibility for managing and pacing their scenes, and will generally be blamed if things go awry.

SM (as in Safety Mavens):

For a community like ours to function effectively, safely and in a way that doesn't frighten newcomers, some oversight is clearly appropriate. There are many reasons for this: to keep events from running into legal problems, to promulgate safety standards, and to protect our friends and loved ones from bumblers, sociopaths and predators on-the-make. We have taken valuable steps to establish practices and standards to make the social scene welcoming and safe, dungeon monitors to keep our club spaces safe, legal, and insurable, and a growing body of educational literature, and guidelines like SSC to help newcomers find their way.

But sometimes it goes too far. As long as I've been around we've had a small but vocal minority of leatherfolk who seem fixated on judging, condemning and often fabricating lies about the behavior of others. (I deal with this in depth in the Leather Ethics chapter). Unlike the hidden Puritanism operating beneath the surfaces of our larger American culture, safety mavens are a recognized scourge, sometimes lovingly refereed to as the "scene police", or "safety nazis". They are a national level phenomenon, and SSC is the banner they invariably wave.

But SSC was not developed with the aim of holding others in judgment nor is that what SSC does best. As the principal author of the Black Rose's first Dungeon Monitors Guide, I am vividly aware of how hard it is to legislate ethics on a dungeon floor. The best one can do is to tabulate what is and is not allowed, and ask that the rules be enforced in a fair and civil manner. But this doesn't come close to evaluating the "sanity" of someone else's play. Even "consent" can be hard to spot unless a safeword is recognized by an alert third party. Edgeplay scenes are even harder to assess, especially those involving punishment, apparent nonconsensuality, screaming, crying, or heavier play than normal (whatever normal means). Using SSC as a tool for judging others also leads to collision with other equally important principals of: 1) acceptance of different tastes; 2) care and concern for the confidentiality of fellow SM folk;. And 3) not doing harm to the fragile fabric of our community by attempting to push others around. I don't mean we should turn a blind eye to reckless play, particularly when it has hurt people in the past. But safety gaffs and violations of consent are rare when compared to the wounds inflicted by bitchy gossip and ugly innuendo, routinely perpetrated under the pretense of keeping things safe. For those familiar with SSC's history it is a bitterly ironic twist; Originally, our bid to be left alone by the prying eyes of the church the law and the state, SSC was a battle cry for independence and privacy. Today it is often expressed by our own leather brethren in statements like this:

"She was screaming and yelling and still he didn't stop. She even said please, please, please. I've never heard her yell like that, and am certain he was going past her limits. Everybody else was freaked out too, and Master Domford was frowning and he was trained in Japan. Therefore the scene was not consensual."

"I didn't see a first aid kit and slave mervel said he had a beer with him in the dungeon (she peaked into his glass!). Everybody knows you can't play while drunk, therefore the scene wasn't safe."

"She did stuff I don't know how to do, that I don't like, or that I could easily imagine going wrong (even though it didn't). I can't imagine anyone liking it and I think its weird that she does. Therefore the scene was not sane."

In a better world, the scene would be well served by these hall monitor types. But in the ten years I have been involved with the Washington scene, I have observed that the scolds and gossips do strikingly little good. When I think of the biggest scene-scolds I know, I am struck by how many prefer to talk about, rather than to the alleged SSC transgressors that occupy so much of their thoughts. Sometimes it seems they are hoping for injury or accident so they'll have something to kvetch about and a scapegoat to pick on. This negative peer pressure throws a wet blanket on the spontaneity and freedom that SM folk came to this lifestyle to find. One woman I know, a mature and magnificent dom and not at all a risky player, once said that she feels coerced into "having to be a good girl." when certain inquisitive types are lurking nearby. Even critics of SSC who play light and risk little in their SM can find themselves branded unsafe purely on the basis of not pledging allegiance to the SSC creed. I will not go into the reasons why this happens, I beat that horse pretty much to death in the chapter on leather ethics. But the final irony is that many of these "law and order " types exaggerate the faults of people they don't like while cutting great leeway for their friends, and often, themselves. They preach, but do not practice, uniform moderation.


Occasionally I hear "experienced" players instructing newcomers that their first goal is to define themselves on the grid of pre-established roles: DS, SM, Leather, Fetishist, Straight, Gay, Top, Bottom, Master, Slave, Dominant, Submissive, Sadist, Masochist. The first task for the scene novice, according to this logic, is to find the slot that best suits you and strive to fit in.

Hidden behind such rhetoric is the idea that SM community, with all its infinitely rich and deeply personal tastes, passions and practices is really a trifle too chaotic and unruly. That SM needs organizing into a grid of labeled boxes. Like the slots in an egg carton.

First a bit of SM History. In old days the rules were less free wheeling, and the roles were less flexible than they are today. In some parts of our community, switches were regarded as unstable, not serious, or just plane green. Bisexuals, were often judged even more harshly, as virtual traitors to their queer brethren, particularly as the specter of AIDS emerged in the mid nineteen eighties. And the transgendered, while certainly more welcome than in other parts of society, were not always greeted with open arms, particularly those in pre-op status. Other even more arbitrary stigmas were commonplace: People who played too heavy, people who didn’t play heavy enough, people who enjoyed a drink while playing, people who did or didn’t mix sex with their SM activities. Such folk were often stamped as edge dwellers, gossiped about, ostracized, omitted from party invite lists. And this, frankly, sucks.

Today at the dawn of a new millennia, the scene is far less intractable than it was even ten years ago. Switches, Bis, and fetishists are no longer regarded as troublemakers particularly among our younger members. Dykes are part and parcel of today’s pansexual scene. We have masters and mistresses with dominants of their own. Cross dressers blend in comfortably whether they have SM interests or not. The vocabulary of the SM artform has expanded to include liquid latex, saran wrapping, massage, Tantra and many other non-traditional techniques. In short the reality of our community has outgrown the scope of our rhetoric. At least the rhetoric of old.

The first thing that’s wrong with the old generic labels is that they assign generic attributes, where most real world relationships tend to be directional and not generic at all. If you submit to Ann, will you submit to Stan? Generally not! And with someone else you may not be able to imagine yourself doing anything but wailing the snot out of them. The submissive wife who loves getting the daylights fucked out of her, might recoil with horror at the idea of sharing that scene with anyone but her husband. The world is full of married men who absolutely, positively, do not see themselves as even a teeny bit bi, even as they loiter around a public head cruising for pickups. What generic, one-word-label do we assign to them?

Often even the words we choose for ourselves are woefully out of step with the reality. It takes years for most people to figure out how SM fits into their lives. And it is tempting to pursue shortcuts. It isn’t necessarily a step foreword to trade a false vanilla identity for a new, but equally false, leather one. And it isn’t necessarily progress to discover a new you that is authentic in the most superficial of ways. Many submissive women will tell you about submissive men who assume the false social identity of tops because... Sheesh I don’t know! Perhaps because they would feel too vulnerable and exposed to come right out about what they are and what they really want.

The egg carton model misses all this. It also ignores the fact that people change over time. One of the best pro dommes I know began her scene tenure as the purest, heaviest submissive in the DC community. Her transition to the dominant role was so glacially slow that it took years to even notice a change was underway. She began to explore, kept exploring, and eventually wound up in a completely different place. Today no one who has known her for less than five years has any memory of her as anything other than a shit hot sadist. So at what point did she hop from what category to another? Please...

And lastly, I feel that external labels are predicated on the flawed idea that externalities matter most, that surface traits tell the whole story. Bigotry is an exaggerated faith in the power of labels: the belief that labels like "black", "jew", "fag", "cracker", tell all there is to know about an individual human being. And reliance on stereotypes and hypothetical surface traits isolates us from the genuine experience of others. Instead of interacting with the individual you interact with preconceived stereotypes, with traits that obfuscate rather than illuminate reality.

Whenever I need an antidote for this label-mania I think of Hilde of Black Rose. To call Hilde a character is putting it mildly. His slender frame is usually clad in women’s lingerie atop tottery high heels, a look complicated by his thick handlebar mustache. He often has a large black dildo he sucks like a lolly pop, and occasionally carries a blow up fuck doll under his arm like a surfboard. I’ve asked him what he gets out of it but his answers fail to convince. "I love the humiliation of it" he tells me, grinning wolfishly, not looking the least bit humbled. What box does Hilde go in? Submissive? Not really, if he’s getting off by knocking everyone’s eyeballs out. Dominant? Only in that he blows minds almost anywhere he goes. Who knows what label to put on him? Am I glad he’s doing it? Yes. Because it sends a message: Leatherspace is where we express what’s within us, with few reservations.

The SM scene, at its best, is like America in miniature: a promised land of opportunity and freedom that often succeeds (and often fails) in living up to its lofty ideals. Like America, the scene is an immigrant nation of people of all places, religions, and ages, genders, and heritages. The fabled melting pot, in which we all melt together into a uniform color, consistency, and taste, has long been replaced with a far more accurate model embracing diversity. Call it the Jambalaya model. Shimp, sausage, crayfish, veggies and seasoning all go in the pot together. But the ingredients cease to be what they were. If you scoop up a ladle of broth you find that the shrimp is still a shrimp, and the crawfish is still a crawfish. But everything is flavored by the presence of everything else. Everything adds something: flavor, color, texture. And if any ingredient were removed, it would still be jambalaya, but we would all be a little less tasty.

Bottom line: A leatherbar or dungeon party is not a super market where everything comes in neatly labeled packages. Nor should it be. Wise people who’ve been around awhile approach virtually every new experience and person with an open mind.


While it is good to take practical considerations into account the factors discussed in this section dom stereotypes, pleasure-fear, subliminal Puritanism, all detract from the SM experience without contributing anything of value. While an overwrought fixation on safety can definitely detract, it is at least defensible. But at the risk of stating the obvious, we don't put on our black leather, hang around the Playhouse, Bound, and the DC Eagle, luring lovely victims into our home dungeons to demonstrate how dainty and obedient we are. You can't dive halfway into a swimming pool. For me, the essence of SM is flirting with the edge and returning to the still safe, but more adventurous spirit of our gay "older brothers" in the scene. My goal is fusion between my partner and I, shedding the black leather space suit and taking the plunge. Dominants can, and should, really play to get off. Bottoms generally want to see their tops getting caught up in the drama and excitement of the scene. An excited dominant is an exciting dom. It tells your partner their beautiful and hot. So never mind the posers and lookie lews; get hot and get wet! A sure way to create submissive rapture is through dominant rapture.

Shallow play is like shallow friendship; it doesn't fulfill its purpose. Deep waters cannot be found at the shallow end. You have to swim out to them.

Return: Ritual

Next: Going Deep; Topspace, Bottomspace, and Sado-erotic Ecstacy

Back to: Going Deep; Topspace, Bottomspace, and Sado-erotic Ecstacy Introduction

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