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Ask the Therapist: What Do I Do about a Dangerous Top?

February 1995

Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin
Posted with the author's permission

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Dr. William Henkin is the co-author of Consensual Sadomasochism, Bodywise, and The Psychic Healing Book, and editor of But I Know What You Want.

<Q> Recently I bottomed to a well-known, fairly high-profile member of the Bay Area's leather community, and I was very upset to find that in real play this person did not live up to the high standards of safety and consensuality I had been led to believe would be all but automatic by the person's public statements. I am unhappy and disappointed for myself, but I am also worried for the fates of less resilient bottoms than I am. Under the guise of being my Top this individual tried to play in a way I said I didn't want to, and pushed very hard to persuade me to change my mind even though I stated clearly that I felt doing so could jeopardize both my physical and my psychological safety. Apart from my anger and frustration, which I know how to handle, I wonder what to do with my information about this person in terms of community safety: do I accuse? do I hide what I know? How can I behave most responsibly?

<A> You had a distressing experience, and if your experience is typical the Top you played with may actually be a danger to him- or herself, to bottoms more easily seduced than you are, and to the community as a whole. On the other hand, everyone has a bad day now and then, so it is worthwhile to ascertain whether the Top you played with simply blew it in your scene, or if what you experienced in your scene was the Top's typical form.

We are a self-policing community, but policing is not the same as suppressing. In order to police ourselves responsibly we must know the truth of a situation as fully as we can. Therefore, the first step would seem to me to be to talk with the Top: tell the person you felt upset about your scene and would like a private, straight-time meeting to determine what worked and what didn't work when you were together. Express your feelings of anger and disappointment in context: that is, explain that you felt angry and disappointed not only because the Top played in an unsafe and nonconsensual way, which would be problematic by itself, but also, specifically, because in doing so the person failed, as you say, to live up to the high standards of safety and consensuality she or he espouses publicly.

Next, listen to the Top's response. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, and a person who can acknowledge his or her errors, can perhaps explain why they occurred without trying to avoid responsibility for them, and can even seek to amend them for the future, may prove to be a very good Top indeed. Depending on what you hear, as well as on the chemistry between you, you may still want to play with such a Top again. On the other hand, a person who is full of excuses, avoids responsibility for his or her actions, and has no interest in self-improvement, is probably just as unsafe and non-consensual as you suspect. Clearly, such a Top is not someone you want to play with again.

Whether the Top seems responsible or not in replying to your questions, you may want to talk with other people she or he has topped, to find out if your experience was unique or if this Top has a habit of exploiting his or her community standing as a way to indulge in unsafe, nonconsensual practices. The Top really shouldn't just give you the names of his or her playmates, since issues of confidentiality may be involved, but should be willing to pass your name on to a few people who can call you. If the Top plays a lot and cannot come up with several people for this communication, odds are your experience was not unique. If you do get names, ask to speak with each person individually and in confidence. Explain your experience and ask if the other person's experience was similar to or different from yours. Find out if the other person has continued to play with the Top, and why or why not. After you've talked with three or four people you should have a reasonable sense of whether you had a bad scene with a good player, or are one of many bottoms that Top has abused.

If you are alone call the Top and say that the two of you apparently had a miscommunication, and that you are satisfied that your anger and disappointment were not a sign of the Top's malfeasance. Make yourself available to play again if you want to, but not otherwise. But if you get a consistent picture of someone who plays dangerously, you may be able to save yourself, the individual, and the community a lot of grief by forming a small communications posse to confront the Top with many people's experiences. Encourage the individual to practice what he or she preaches, and to learn to turn good theory into good practice. Then further recalcitrance, or fresh reports about the Top's dangerous practices, might be reported to other bottoms who could be attracted to this Top before someone really does get hurt. While gossip and slander can ruin lives as well as reputations, and back-biting and back-stabbing have no place in any self-protecting community, failure to warn people of a genuine problem can equally well cause damage that could otherwise be avoided.

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Web Master's Notes

  1. The web master for this site encourages members of the BDSM community to report crimes such as rape, assault, and child abuse to the proper authorities. (See BDSM Gone Bad: Reporting Non-Consensual "Play" and Rape to the APD by Ambrosio)
  2. For more on the topic of safety, please see also Some Notes on Safety for Meeting On-line and Off by Ambrosio.

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William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

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