Different ways the Dominant/submission dynamic can be imposed on others or used to smuggle sexist stereotypes
Top disease is a term once common in BDSM circles, but that I haven’t heard recently. However, I think it is quite useful to understand how some forms of bigotry are smuggled into BDSM, and the underlying attitudes that exist behind some violations of consent.
I would define top disease as behaving as a Dominant with people who have not agreed to enter a Dominant-submission dynamic, or treating people as submissives without their consent.
In its milder forms, top disease is quite common. It may just amount to people acting in arrogant and entitled ways, which may be just an annoyance. However, in its extreme forms it can lead to breaches of consent, abusive relationships, and the reinforcing of sexist stereotypes under the guise of BDSM.
The following is my personal inquiry into the different types of top disease and their causes.
The novice drunk with dominance
The experience of dominating another person for the first time can be intoxicating. The devotion of the submissive is so real, so authentic, that a novice Dom may fall into the illusion that she does it because of him, not because she desperately needs to submit to somebody.
A novice Dom may think that, if a woman submits to him, it’s because he has some magical power that he previously didn’t realize he had. So he may start prancing around and acting arrogant and bossy.
It happened to me a long, long time ago. I remember walking into a party with a girlfriend in a collar, or spanking her in public, and how people in the party treated me differently, with a new kind of respect. I was a Dominant, with capital D. And, somehow, this was a public role, not just something that my girlfriend bestowed on me.
But it all came crashing down the moment I decided to switch. Then I had to let go of that image to become a humble bottom. It felt like I was losing something. I feared that, once I was seen submitting, I will never get my Dominant badge back. Unfortunately, for many people in the BDSM scene, that’s the way it was.
It’s part of BDSM culture, I guess. The Dominant or the Dominatrix dresses in a certain way, moves in a certain way, claims honorifics not just from the submissives, but from everyone around them. And people comply, out of respect for them, for their submissives, and for the BDSM culture. We feel that it’s just part of being polite, of respecting the other person’s identity.
However, this attitude is at the root of the problem of Dominants treating people as their submissives, before they have consented to anything. Or them berating submissives for not “doing it right”, or for being “fake submissives” for not want to obey and pay their respects to them.
In the end, it is all an illusion. BDSM roles are conventions, agreements based on who does what to whom to satisfy complementary desires.
It is true that, for some people who see BDSM as a lifestyle, their role becomes an important part of who they are. Still, that role does not make sense outside a relationship or, at most, a close circle of like-minded people.
The natural-born Dominant
The natural-born Dominant - male or female - believes that dominance is something that emanates from their unique personality.
Some of them even believe that other people pretend to be Dominants by “playing” in “scenes” which, as their name indicates, are mere theater, temporary masks that when are shed reveal a dull vanilla core. But not them. They are authentically Dominant. They are endowed with a particular energy, an essence that makes submissives fall on their knees before them.
Of course, only true submissives would recognize them because, just as there are many pretend Dominants, there are many fake submissives who play games and cannot recognize the enormous depth of a life dedicated to Dominance and submission.
The belief in the natural-born Dominant probably comes from the politically correct idea that homosexuals are born that way. This idea has been debated by science for decades (Roselli, 2018), ending in an inconclusive stalemate in which a “gay gene” was never found; instead, there seem to be a multitude of genes that predispose to homosexuality, but do not determine it (Ganna et al., 2019).
If homosexuality can be determined from birth, then why not dominance and submission, which are other forms of sexual behavior?
There may be some truth to this. Just like some children know that they are homosexual from an early age, some people recall having BDSM fantasies well before puberty. I had my first fantasies about spanking when I was 5. In my opinion, kinky tendencies and fetishes are imprinted by erotic experiences during childhood. The same could happen with homosexuality. The susceptibility to be imprinted with an attraction to a particular gender, objects or actions may be driven by certain genes. Imprinting can be a force as powerful as the genes to drive behavior.
It makes no sense to be proud to be Dominant. There is nothing intrinsically good about beating people or ordering them around. It’s actually the opposite: these things can only be justified when people enthusiastically consent to explore them with you.
The idea that Dominants and submissives can be real or fake has been largely rejected by the BDSM community as bigoted and narcissistic. Just like the idea that there is a “true way” to do D/s, sadomasochism or bondage. There are many ways of doing BDSM, which evolve and come and go in fashions. Likewise, some people come into BDSM following a mysterious drive from early in their life. Others are initiated by their lovers. It doesn’t matter. Everything is authentic when you connect with it.
The BDSM expert
BDSM, in any of its facets, is not easy. It requires a set of skills that are as difficult to learn as any gear-intensive sport, like rock climbing, scuba diving or sailing. Ultimately, BDSM is an art and, like any art, it has its geniuses and its incompetents. Therefore, it’s just natural that people who are good at it accrue a certain amount of recognition. There are, indeed, experts in shibaru, flogging, caning, needle play, wax play, and the different types of D/s.
However, just like in any sport or art, recognition should come from others, not from calling yourself an expert. Unfortunately, there are no BDSM competitions; no art galleries or museums to anoint your art. There is just the testimony of your play partners. Hence, it is relatively easy for pretenders to engage in false advertisement. It is also easy to mistake arrogance and self-assuredness for domination. This leads to disappointments and, in the worse cases, abuse.
Male supremacists: “Men are naturally dominant”
Gender essentialism in BDSM is the belief that being Dominant or submissive are integral characteristics of a certain gender, and not roles freely chosen in a consensual agreement.
Male supremacy is the ancient belief that men are better than women - stronger, braver, more intelligent, etc. The idea that a gender is better than the other has been debunked by science. Although there are differences between the sexes, they are relatively minor, obscured by differences between individuals, and easily overcome by training.
One particular idea that comes from male supremacy is that men are - or must be - dominant over women, who should obey and serve them. A variant of this is the belief found in fundamentalist religions - Christianity, Islam and others - that God has ordered that wives obey and serve their husbands, each adopting stereotypical gender roles. The presence of these beliefs, even in developed countries like the USA and Europe, should not be underestimated.
Most BDSM communities exist in progressive cities where these ideas are soundly rejected as sexist. However, they appear in some forms of domestic discipline in which the husband is entitled to sexual service from his wife, to her obedience and, most important, to punish her with spankings and other old-fashion corporal disciplines.
If the reason a wife submits to domestic discipline is a religious belief, this brings into question whether she is consenting to it. In regular BDSM, consent is based on an erotic desire. If a wife obeys her husband and allows him to punish her not out of a kinky desire, but because of her religious beliefs, we could still say that she is consenting, I guess. But the situation starts to look uncomfortably real - it is no longer an erotic fantasy. If there are any elements of coercion or pressure from the religious community around her, then her consent starts to look problematic.
Female supremacists: “Women should dominate men”
There is also the converse gender essentialism: female supremacism.
Some people who are into femdom (women dominating men) believe that men should serve and obey women. In a mirror reflection of male chauvinism, they believe that women are naturally superior to men, or that they deserve a privileged treatment. This supposed superiority often feeds on the fantasy that many submissive men have of the ideal Dominatrix: smart, conniving, cruel, selfish and amoral.
However, there is a pseudo-feminist version of this belief. It goes like this: since men have been oppressing women for so long, it is only fair that now women should be empowered and start being served by men. This idea is so pervasive that it has started to infiltrate feminism, promoting attitudes of disrespect, exclusion and even hatred towards men. Women who adopt this attitude believe that the only way men can be tolerated is by accepting their place as inferior and subservient. Unfortunately, some submissive men eagerly adopt this attitude, and try to impose it on other men under the guise of defending feminism.
“Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, [is] a London-based, balaclava-clad, gun-wielding and skateboard-riding femdom who runs a fetish site called Urban Chick Supremacy Cell. […] Urrutia and her team berate men for their complicity in capitalist patriarchy, while restraining, pegging, and bleeding them (consensually, and for a fee, or “femdom tax”). Sometimes the men are made to recite feminists texts. In most femdom fetish porn, men are humiliated for failing to meet the demands of heteromasculinity: for being “sissies.” In Urrutia’s pornworld, men who are rich, successful and dominant are object of contempt; the sissies may be saved.”
Likewise, the late and beloved Mistress Velvet of Chicago “began introducing black feminist theory into her sessions with clients,” making them read feminist texts as homework.
All is good in BDSM as long as it is safe, sane and consensual, and there are no reasons to believe that the work of Urrutia and Mistress Velvet did not fulfill these requisites. However, there are two ways to view these practices. One is that these women considered these female supremacist ideas as universally valid, and they that used femdom to indoctrinate men about them. But this would impose these ideas on men outside their scene, denying their right to be vanilla (not submissive) or dominant. It would also contradict the basic claim of feminism of advocating equality between women and men. Alternatively, these female supremacy ideas could just be a fantasy shared between the Mistresses and their submissive men. In this case, they are not serious and could be viewed as a parody of real feminism.
There is a certain danger in BDSM when we start to blur the boundary between fantasy and reality. Gender and racial oppression, and the fight against them, should be kept separated from erotic fantasies about sexual submission. Otherwise, we risk that they would not be taken seriously by general society.
Besides, sub-space is a state of great psychological vulnerability that could be easily misused for ideological indoctrination. We would certainly be alarmed if a male Dominant tried to inculcate on his female submissives the idea that women are naturally subservient - as it often happens in Christian domestic discipline. Why should we have a different standard for femdom?
Needless to say, being Dominant or submissive is not intrinsic to any gender, but chosen roles that manifest themselves in the presence of people who adopt the complementary role. Absent that, the default should be equality: treating others with respect as equals, and not infringing on their personal autonomy.
Ethical, experienced practitioners of D/s know when to be in role and when to be out of role. Needing the adoration of strangers is not dominance, it is narcissism. A Dominant needs the surrender of just one person: the one he has chosen as submissive.
Dominating somebody requires a huge investment of energy and skill. It requires knowing the submissive intimately. Dominating is a gift, and good Dominants don’t squander it.
So, if you see somebody prancing around, bragging about how good a Dominant they are, and demanding obedience from strangers, they probably suffer from some form of Top disease. I advise you to give them a wide berth.
Ganna A, Verweij KJH, Nivard MG, Maier R, Wedow R, Busch AS, Abdellaoui A, Guo S, Sathirapongsasuti JF, Lichtenstein P, Lundström S, Långström N, Auton A, Harris KM, Beecham GW, Martin ER, Sanders AR, Perry JRB, Neale BM, Zietsch BP (2019) Large-scale GWAS reveals insights into the genetic architecture of same-sex sexual behavior. Science 365:eaat7693.
Roselli CE (2018) Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation. Journal of neuroendocrinology 30:e12562-e12562.