‘Topping from the bottom’ is bollocks!

‘Topping from the bottom’ (TFTB – yes, truly, I am that much of an acronym geek!) is a term used to describe a situation where a submissive attempts to control the play, the dynamic or the relationship from their submissive position.

It’s a common phrase that has been, and continues to be, abused by all and sundry. It has essentially become a term to cover anything and everything that falls under the umbrella of ‘the submissive is doin’ it wrong’. It is even used to describe a submissive’s behaviour when the Domme and sub aren’t even in a relationship yet!

For example, it’s used when:

  • The sub asks for something – Tsk tsk… he’s topping from the bottom
  • The sub turns up late – Oh dear… topping from the bottom
  • The sub angles for what he wants – … topping from the bottom
  • The sub sulks – …topping from the bottom
  • The sub answers back – …topping from the bottom
  • The sub questions a decision – …topping from the bottom
  • The sub negotiates boundaries – …topping from the bottom
  • The sub discusses their fantasies – … topping from the bottom
  • The sub disobeys – … really do I have to go on?!
  • Etc etc…

The use of the term as a convenient ‘coverall’ annoys me no end (that’s point 1, by the way).

Point 2 is that even if it’s used in the way I’ve defined it in my first paragraph above, I don’t believe in it.

It’s a myth, a made up thing… like fairy dust and unicorns. Worse than a myth, it’s a cop out. For TFTB to work, to be a ‘real’ thing, the Domme has to allow it. If the Domme allows it, they are doing it together, it’s not something *he* does, it’s something *they* do, so the term TFTB doesn’t make any sense.

That’s it.

I know quite a few of you are reading this and going… ‘… but but… what if…’

Bah. There are no ‘buts’, no ‘what ifs’.

The phrase ‘topping from the bottom’ is a convenient way to blame the submissive for a problem in the relationship, thereby eschewing all responsibility for it as a relationship issue.

Cue a scenario where the phrase is trotted out, and you will see lots of sage nodding and universal agreement that “Yes, yes… well he was topping from the bottom, what can you do with those sorts?!” If it’s typical to form, the next part of that conversation is likely to head into a discussion of his lack of trueness, but I digress…

Submissive_dude suggested in a comment on a previous post where this came up that “perhaps you don’t believe in topping from the bottom because you are immune to it.” He also made a perfectly valid point in that perhaps “it’s simply not possible to top from the bottom when you are at the behest of an experienced top”.

Both of those are true, but my wider point is that as an issue, TFTB is not a meaningful description of what is going on regardless of immunity or experience of the dominant. TFTB can’t happen unless the Domme allows it.

If she allows it, she is complicit in it, so you could just as equally put the blame on her for ‘bottoming from the top’ as on him for ‘topping from the bottom’. Why don’t we have that term? ‘Bottoming from the top’? Oh, right, because TFTB is a nice way to lay the fault at the feet of that pesky submissive. Gah!!!

The reason I dismiss TFTB as a ‘thing’ is because if a Domme thinks she is having a problem because a submissive is ‘topping from the bottom’, she isn’t. She is having a control problem, an obedience problem, a communication problem, a relationship problem, a compatibility problem or some combination of those that they need to address. Labelling it as ‘topping from the bottom’ is truly not helpful because he can’t do that on his own… they both *must* contribute to it to make it real…

TFTB is simply a term that assigns blame and confuses the real issue.

If he’s not behaving in a way that I like, I tell him to stop it and he stops it. If there’s something to figure out, discuss, resolve, we do all that, come up with a solution and then, well, he stops it.

See? Easy.

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49 Comments

  1. The greatest challenge I faced in the process of encouraging my partner to develop a female-led relationship with me was developing the patience needed for it to flourish. Once I developed the patience, my ability to focus on her needs improved, my kinks and fetishes moved to the back burner, and her dominance had room to grow. Fortunately, she got into a discussion forum led by women and most of the posts in the forum focused on re-directing the submissive male's attention away from his “laundry list” so that her dominance had room to grow. It was challenging for me because while I wanted the leadership and authority, I thought I knew more about what the “scene” entailed so I was always suggesting. Argh. Looking back that was stupid and naive, but I did learn, and wonderful things have come our way as a result.

  2. The phrase ‘topping from the bottom’ is a convenient way to blame the submissive for a problem in the relationship, thereby eschewing all responsibility for it as a relationship issue.

    This.

    Whenever I hear a relational phrase, I try to determine its usefulness, or its truth by using the reverse terms.

    For example, we “know” what TFTB means, but can we reverse this to Bottoming from the Top”? Does it sound as silly, or do the situations still hold up?

    My fave example is when somebody gives me “constructive criticism”, I as them how often they give “destructive praise.”

  3. ServingB: “The greatest challenge I faced in the process of encouraging my partner to develop a female-led relationship with me was developing the patience needed for it to flourish.”

    You are a hero to submissive men everywhere if you have achieved the holy grail of converting your vanilla partner into your Domme. In terms of developing a working dynamic, you have both navigated the most difficult scenario, which is no small feat.

    “…I thought I knew more about what the “scene” entailed so I was always suggesting. Argh.”

    I can imagine that you making 'helpful suggestions' because you 'knew more' would have been exceedingly irritating!

    Was it topping from the bottom? I still say no because the phrase minimises what was going on while you were both working out your dynamic… there were things each of you had to sort out to get there and if we are using those terms, you had to stop TFTB and she had to stop 'bottoming from the top'. Does using those terms actually help at all in explaining the complexity of what was going on, or help either of you to get there? Nope, not a bit.

    “Looking back that was stupid and naive, but I did learn, and wonderful things have come our way as a result.”

    *smile* Congratulations to you both!

    Ferns

  4. Tom: “For example, we “know” what TFTB means, but can we reverse this to Bottoming from the Top”? Does it sound as silly, or do the situations still hold up?”

    Well exactly – to my mind, one can't exist without the other… so why does no-one talk about BFTP? Strange, right?

    Ferns

  5. We *do* have the concept of BFTT–we call them “service tops”. It's not used as a pejorative as often, true.

    I believe there are unfair ways to manipulate people to get what you want. When people succeed with these methods, yes, there is weakness on the part of the manipulatee–but that doesn't absolve the manipulator of fault.

    TFTB overused–yes! Nonexistent–I respectfully disagree.

    Respectfully disagreeable, Étienne

  6. Étienne: “We *do* have the concept of BFTT–we call them “service tops”. It's not used as a pejorative as often, true.”

    Yes, but the equivalent is not TFTB as we are talking about here in the context of D/s. The complement in this example is a bottom.

    “I believe there are unfair ways to manipulate people to get what you want. When people succeed with these methods, yes, there is weakness on the part of the manipulatee–but that doesn't absolve the manipulator of fault.”

    But using the phrase implies that TFTB is the problem and it's all his fault. That's a fallacy. If his behaviour is manipulative, I'm not at all saying that behaviour doesn't exist and should be absolved. What I am saying is that TFTB doesn't *mean* anything… if he is behaving that way, then the truth is that they have a problem and what you are seeing in his behaviour is a symptom. TFTB is a label used to point a finger at him for undesirable behaviour and make it into a 'thing'. It simply makes no sense.

    If there is a problem with his behaviour caused by some issue in the relationship, then address it. Done.

    *smile* And you can disagree all you like. Even if it is topping from the bottom…

    Ferns

  7. Ahh, yes, now I see what you mean! I'll have to think on it some more, but I am inclined to agree. I understand now why the term frustrates you, as well: its use is not conducive to learning and growing as partners. It's a loaded phrase, like “boyfriend.” Everyone has a different definition, and it even changes moment to moment!

    Simply saying “You are topping from the bottom” is as useless as saying “You are now my boyfriend.” Ok… but what does that mean? What are the expectations? What needs to change, if anything?

    Thank you for explaining your views on this. I feel like everyone should be patient enough to dig a level deeper when someone rolls out the phrase “topping from the bottom,” because I think you are correct: It tends to get used as a catch-all for, “The submissive is doing something that I, the dominant, find undesireable, or threatens my dominance in some way.”

    We shouldn't hear “Stop topping from the bottom,” but instead, “Stop wheedling me for a task,” or “You may sulk all you want, but it will not get you anything.”

  8. I think TFTB is a useful concept when both of you are learning the ropes, and the male sub has what ServingB refers to as a laundry list, which he pushes so hard that she has no time to explore her power.

    However, I often the term used to imply that a real sub/slave/bottom should have no say in the kind of relationship he submits to.

  9. “But using the phrase implies that TFTB is the problem and it's all his fault.”

    I don't view blame as unitary. Almost any time two people are having an issue, they both contribute to it; but just because both contribute doesn't mean that each isn't separately at fault. In this particular case, the bottom's fault has a name; TFTB. It does not to me imply it is all the bottom's fault; it's just a name for the bottom's contribution to the problem.

    Respectfully, Étienne

  10. I find that the phrase TFTB gets trotted out for really stupid stuff very often.

    Its not topping from the bottom if my boy asks for a certain kind of play. Its not topping from the bottoms if I ask him his opinion on something, or stop if he's feeling weird, or if I adjust a rope because it hurts. If my bottom is communicating with me, and I respond, that isn't topping from the bottom and THAT is the sort of thing I always hear about.

    Its also not wrong to want something, and, as a bottom, ask for that. I hear THAT called topping from the bottom too. Pff.

  11. Well put!

    It's much like when I over hear a manager complaining about employee behavior, behavior that's gone on for months in some cases. I ask the manager, “Have you corrected the employee and coached them on the right way to do it?”

    The answer is invariably, “No, why should I have to do that?”

    Managing, dominating, teaching…it's all about setting the expectations, and assuming the person being managed/dominated/taught should know better is a dangerous brain flaw.

  12. Looking back up thread, I wonder if TFTB is most useful in non-lifestyle situations, where there is a clear distinction between play relationship and real relationship.

    Outside play, if there's no power diffential, then it's not up to the top to manage the bottom, and it's really a bad idea to mentally crowd an inexperienced top, or one that's playing for the perks rather than because she wants to be in charge.

    During play, the scenario usually assumes that the bottom does *not* actually crave all the punishment and mistreatment. If he starts suggesting particular punishments, then he collapses the make-believe and turns what should be her pretend power-trip into a kind of service.

    So, for us part-timers, TFTB really is a useful concept.

  13. submissive dude: “Ahh, yes, now I see what you mean!”

    Good! Otherwise I would have to start again…

    “It's a loaded phrase…”

    Yes, that's exactly it.

    “Simply saying “You are topping from the bottom” is as useless as saying “You are now my boyfriend.” Ok… but what does that mean? What are the expectations? What needs to change, if anything?”

    I agree, though I'd state it a little differently. I am not assuming that people use the phrase and don't then dig any further, but to me, as soon as it's out it's a judgement. It's not trying to explain the behaviour, it's laying blame with a vague and broad label.

    I don't think that the problem is *inherent* in the phrase, but the phrase has become, as you say, loaded. It is *always* used as a pejorative and not as a descriptor to begin a discussion.

    “We shouldn't hear “Stop topping from the bottom,” but instead, “Stop wheedling me for a task,” or “You may sulk all you want, but it will not get you anything.””

    Exactly. Be specific and address the problem.

    Ferns

  14. Giles English (great name!): “I think TFTB is a useful concept when both of you are learning the ropes, and the male sub has what ServingB refers to as a laundry list, which he pushes so hard that she has no time to explore her power.”

    But *why* do you think it's useful? Why would she just not say 'put away the list and stop trying to manipulate me'? I don't see that the term at all helps them to resolve any problem, to understand it better, or to articulate the problem in a way that helps lead to a solution.

    “However, I often the term used to imply that a real sub/slave/bottom should have no say in the kind of relationship he submits to.”

    Yes, well it is used for pretty much everything, which is part of the problem with it.

    Ferns

  15. Étienne: “I don't view blame as unitary. Almost any time two people are having an issue, they both contribute to it”

    Of course.

    “In this particular case, the bottom's fault has a name; TFTB.”

    Then to the point before, why doesn't the dominant's fault have the name BFTT? It only makes sense if they share the blame in this issue.

    “It does not to me imply it is all the bottom's fault; it's just a name for the bottom's contribution to the problem.”

    Then you are one of the very very few. I don't think I have ever seen it used in a way where it wasn't about blaming the submissive for being 'a bad submissive' and that's why it bothers me. It is a poor descriptor of a problem that could cover any number of issues.

    Ferns

  16. C.S. Blogger: “Well put!”

    Thanks, I can do a rant with the best of 'em!

    “Managing, dominating, teaching…it's all about setting the expectations, and assuming the person being managed/dominated/taught should know better is a dangerous brain flaw.”

    That's true, and with your analogy, it is the equivalent of putting the employee on report for 'being a bad employee' instead of identifying the specifics of their poor performance and addressing it first.

    I should point out that I am not implying that those that use the term don't address the problem – that's simply not true. But I think the term itself creates a barrier to doing that because it pigeonholes him as 'the bad submissive' before you have even started working on the problem.

    Ferns

  17. Giles English: “Looking back up thread, I wonder if TFTB is most useful in non-lifestyle situations, where there is a clear distinction between play relationship and real relationship.

    I had quite a lot of trouble understanding your point here. Let me try to paraphrase…

    Your play is primarily role playing ‘mean bitch Domme’ and ‘reluctant punished submissive’. To keep the fantasy, he has to play his part, and for him to pipe up with a ‘why don’t you hit me with the crop now!’ spoils the role play? You would call that TFTB and would find the term useful in that context?

    If I assume that’s correct, I would shrug and say it’s still the same thing. Calling it TFTB is not helpful in addressing the problem. “You are telling me what to do in the scene, stop it” will do a better job than “You are TFTB, stop it”. The former is clear and direct. The latter is vague and open to interpretation.

    To take it a step further, if you are playing with someone else and your Domme warned her “He tends to top from the bottom”… again, it’s not at all useful… the implication is that you are a particular type of bottom (an annoying pushy one who in some general way tries to take control). Much more useful, accurate and less loaded if she was to say “He tends to want to tell you what to do in the scene”.

    Ferns

  18. I think that TFTB is silly. It doesn't matter what role the ppl are in the relationship, we are all Still ppl. If the bottom/sub isn't getting what they need or even what they want once in a while, it isn't going to work.

    Now, if the bottom/sub is being passive-aggressive about some actions because they aren't getting their wants (read wants not needs) all the time, that, to me, is TFTB.

    I think it can be accomplished for a very short period of time w/o the Doms knowledge. Sometimes it takes a bit of time for the light bulb to go off and recognize what is going on. After that point, it is up to the dom to correct the behavior by whatever means is w/i that relationship.

    I don't consider suggesting types of play or fulfilling some fantasy for my sub as him topping from the bottom. I see that as communication and bonding.

    Faith

  19. Well said. But presumably there's a time and a place for such communication, and an appropriate manner.

    To draw an analogy: It's one thing to say, “Let's go to Jamaica and have a beach holiday” and another to continue, “And you'll have the goat curry and like it and then etc etc.”

  20. I believe that TFTB is not something both sides in a D/s relationship have to agree with. IMHO it's something that only one part does, namely the submissive. TFTB for me is when subs try to manipulate the Dom/me to do what they want, without directly asking for it, in a disrespectful way. This does in no way cover the Dom/me's reaction to it. All of the things on your list are not TFTB for me. TFTB begins when the sub starts to manipulate the Dom/me, mostly this happens subtly (what a pun). E.g. disobeying openly in order to get punished… does that make any sense to you? It's kinda hard to put in words.

  21. Anonymous: “Ah, did I ever mention I like you a lot Ferns?”

    Oh, Anonymous, you say so many sweet things to me, it is hard to keep track of them all… But I swear, you are my absolute favourite of all of the anonymouses…

    Ferns

  22. Giles English: “TFTB describes a common problem that can manifest in lots of ways. So, why not have a label for it? (As long as you bear in mind the limitations of labels.)”

    We will have to agree to disagree. To me a label becomes meaningless and serves against purpose when it is no longer clearly defined and has become loaded with implied meaning.

    I know that many many labels are open to interpretation (for example 'dominant' and 'submissive'!), but most of the time, the label is the beginning of a discussion about what that means. In this case, I think that term brings with it a judgement and blocks communication.

    Ferns

  23. N: “I believe that TFTB is not something both sides in a D/s relationship have to agree with. IMHO it's something that only one part does, namely the submissive.”

    Yes, I understand what you were saying in your overall comment, though I think you kind of missed my point.

    “All of the things on your list are not TFTB for me.”

    *laugh* They aren't for me either, especially since I don't believe in it! But I see people use the term in reference to any or all of those things *all the time*! That's one of the reasons the term has become devoid of any real meaning.

    “TFTB begins when the sub starts to manipulate the Dom/me, mostly this happens subtly (what a pun). E.g. disobeying openly in order to get punished…”

    *shrug* If this happens, it seems to me that he is trying to get your attention (though I would hardly call open disobedience subtle!). It implies that he is having an issue that needs to be sorted out. I just see no value in calling it TFTB as if it's a 'thing' that needs special handling. What I see is a submissive who is behaving badly, and I would deal with it. Simple. No special labels required.

    Ferns

  24. Sin Search: “And don't forget: “Hogging the TV Remote” ~~ Topping from the bottom”

    I don't know how I missed that one…!! It's a glaring error on my part!!

    Ferns

  25. You’re wonderful. I think the same as you, but there’s a strange resistance from the community to the – I don’t even know. It sounds like a facile catchphrase, you know, and you nailed that perfectly. You’re a hell of a writer, too. But really – you’re the only person I’ve seen who’s come out and said it’s crap! Courageous and different drummer, and stuff. Just because we’re an alternative community doesn’t mean that we don’t have our little biased …um, things we say? *searches for mot juste*
    Anyway, thank you!

    1. “I think the same as you, but there’s a strange resistance from the community to the – I don’t even know.”

      I think part of it is the convenience of the phrase, and newbies learn it very quickly (and apply it liberally everywhere), so it gets widely perpetuated.

      “But really – you’re the only person I’ve seen who’s come out and said it’s crap!”

      *laugh* It’s SO crap! But on the plus side, I do see (often heated) discussions about it fairly frequently, so you and I aren’t the only ones!

      “You’re a hell of a writer, too.”

      Thank you!! And thanks for your comment, my older posts get lonely!

      Ferns

  26. Men are SUCH a waste of time. Either he does what he’s told or not. Any patience is totally HER domain. If you want your partner to be more dominant . . . START DOING WHAT YOU’RE TOLD, idiot. Pick up your socks. And if that makes you horny, start doing what you’re told in bed, pillow-biter.

    1. I don’t quite understand the vehemence of your response in terms of the negativity towards men or what it has to do with the topic.

      If the men you meet are a waste of time and make you so angry, then perhaps you should make better choices.

      Ferns

  27. She’s probably one o’ them that lesbeanns I expect Ferns I wouldn’t trust one of ’em meself

    *nods wisely*

    Coug

  28. I shared this post with my Dom and asked him for his thoughts. I was interested to see if he felt the same as I. His response was… I agree TFTB is actually communication. If I am not listening to you then I am not doing my job. That doesn’t mean I will jump when you tell me too but it does mean that I want to hear you. How can I understand you if I don’t listen and if I let you lead then that is my choice too and so I am compliant and therefore TFTB doesn’t exist in the way that many Dom’s would like it to.

    I think at this point I should write… he is my Dom for a reason!

    Mollyxxx

    1. Thank you for coming back to share your discussion with your Dom. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

      “I think at this point I should write… he is my Dom for a reason!”

      *smile* Yes!

      Ferns

  29. Very suprising and helpful article.

    I feel that this is a good example of a greater trend which leaves most relationship problems of an SM theme squarely at the sub’s feet. Although given that’s not suprising given the dynamics of an SM relationship, any problem in any relationship of any type are two-sided (with a very sparse set of exceptions).

    Anyway, Rambling aside I wanted to thank you for your article – It set my head straight about something important to me.

    As a side note, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a comment board with so many intelligent people saying so much common sense.

    1. I’m glad you found it useful, Foobles (cute nick!), and thank you for your comment.

      “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a comment board with so many intelligent people saying so much common sense.”

      *smile* Aren’t they amazing?!! I consider myself very lucky with the calibre of wonderful folk who read and comment here.

      Ferns

    1. If you mean a dominant bottom, I don’t think that’s so uncommon, but I think there are probably *many* ways to ‘bottom from the top’ (some fine, some not so great). I have no idea why that isn’t a common term in BDSM.

      Ferns

  30. While I completely agree with the assessment that it can be used to offload relationship dynamic problems on the sub, I also think it can be fairly used against subs who hypocritically claim to be about the Domme, but are really trying to get what they want.

    You have to consider different situations. People can be manipulative without being so overt about it. A lot of submissive men aren’t really submissive; they are kinky, and want to be on the bottom, without actually submitting, but they pretend to be submissive because they think it will help get them what they want. Obviously, if a Domme allows this to happen, they are contributing to the problem, and maybe we should change the term, but these men do need to be called out for their bullshit.

    I should know, because I’m a real submissive; even saying that makes me afraid that I am coming off as holier than thou, but I have met too many submissive men who simply weren’t. Here’s a tip for those men – be honest; just tell them what you want, and if they give it to you, then at least everything is on fair terms.

    1. “these men do need to be called out for their bullshit.”

      Agreed.

      My point is not that some submissive men don’t behave poorly, attempt to manipulate their dominant, over step boundaries (and ditto on the other side, by the way), my point is that giving it a vague blamey name isn’t at all useful.

      My dad’s 80. He rings me and says “My computer doesn’t work.” It’s completely useless information: it doesn’t help me figure out what’s going on, it doesn’t describe the problem, it doesn’t give me any context, it’s useless.

      So THAT’S really my point.

      “Here’s a tip for those men – be honest; just tell them what you want, and if they give it to you, then at least everything is on fair terms.”

      Yes, exactly.

      I think many men believe they won’t be able to find what they want with honesty, so they have to pretend that they are super subby sub subsub when all they want is a bit of play. But I know some wonderful men who’ve run personal ads that just said they wanted casual play. And you know what? The good ones, the lovely ones, the safe and honest and fun and interesting ones – they will have women knocking on their doors to get a bit of that!

      “I should know, because I’m a real submissive; even saying that makes me afraid that I am coming off as holier than thou”

      *laugh* And yeah, I suggest you stay away from ‘real’ and ‘true’ as descriptors unless you want to get your arse handed to you on a plate *smile*. Better to say you know what you want and can articulate it well and with honesty (assuming you do and can, of course… heh).

      Ferns

  31. I always viewed topping from the bottom as a physical thing ie. A submissive man if fucking his domme is physically in control but he’s still following her orders.

    I’m new to all this though.

    1. You are 100% right, new or not *smile*.

      I think way back when that was the intent of the phrase: to describe someone bottoming, but controlling the play in an agreed scenario. And it is sometimes still used that way.

      But MOSTLY it’s now used in the way I’ve described: as a way to complain about something a submissive is doing that the dominant doesn’t like.

      Ferns

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