Posted at 23:44 on 19 Jun 2011 by Pandora / Blake
I found myself nodding as I read this post by Not Just Bitchy, on the reasons why she dislikes the BDSM convention of capitalising the start of names, pronouns and nouns relating to tops, and using lower case for names, pronouns and nouns relating to bottoms. Her case rests on three points: it's hard to read, it drags others into a scene space without their consent (if used in public - people doing this in private emails to each other is their own business), and:
It puts all dominant identified people above all submissive identified people, which Im really uncomfortable with. Dominant people as a group are absolutely not better, more worthy of respect, than submissive people as a group. Outside of silly capitalization rules, pronouns in English are only capitalized when referring to God. Equating dominant people to a supreme being like that is ridiculous.
I first started reading about BDSM online at the age of 15, and I was very attracted to the formal structures and protocol which people used. My first relationship with Tom employed a lot of protocol, which aligned neatly with the verbal conventions I encountered online. I've always got annoyed by people capitalising My, Your, His, Her - I find it disrupts the flow of a sentence and always comes across as pretentious and arrogant, particularly when tops use it to refer to themselves. But in blogging about my relationships I got into the habit of capitalising Sir, my Lord/s, Dominant. Even once I started thinking more critically about sexual politics, some of these habits persisted.
Some of that thinking has crystallised recently with various things I've read online. A note on terminology at the start of this excellent article on sexism and intersectionality in the San Francisco BDSM scene really clarified something for me:
Some people use dominant and submissive to include top and bottom because theyre more intuitive for new readers, which is a choice I understand but bristle at. Some people use dominant and submissive to include or replace top and bottom because they think that dominance and submission are better or more real, and what I really think is that these ideas should die in a fire and be buried under a headstone that reads Total Power Exchange. These prejudices towards power exchange are part of the problematic dynamics Im describing, but since Im talking about belief systems that operate around dominance and submission and prefer to ignore or devalue mere topping and bottoming, Ill frequently use dominant and submissive as my operative terms below. Ill add that for myself, I dont use the term submissive as a noun, but sometimes as an adjective to describe my bottoming style.
I have always gone along with the convention of describing myself as "a submissive", but actually, I've known that it wasn't accurate phraseology for some time. A sentence I tend to use in online profiles puts it succinctly: "I'm submissive to my dominant partners, but rarely to anyone else". It's been an understood part of my self-identity for some time now that I am not submissive by nature, socially submissive, or submissive by default. Since I grew out of my adolescent insecurities and into my adult self I've realised that I am, in fact, hyper-responsible, a bit of a control freak, fiercely territorial, proud, loud, independent and disinclined to take any shit from anyone. And yet these facts don't compromise the truth or power of what takes place when I surrender control to my lover.
I like the idea of "top" and "bottom" describing behaviour, rather than identity. I like the idea that it might be considered normal for a person to top in one situation and bottom in another without having to rethink their self-identity. I certainly believe that sexuality is fluid and inclined to change over time, and I include kinks and preferred power orientation in that as well as gender. It was no great wrench to stop thinking of myself as "a submissive" - it hadn't felt right for a while anyway. Claiming "bottom" as an identity was a bit more of a stretch. I suspect it's prejudice on my part, but I've always thought of "bottoming" as the sort of playful engagement in a scene that doesn't involve any power exchange; and power exchange is still very important to my ability to enjoy play (although it's no longer the only way I can enjoy it). Still. If I'm not a submissive, then I'm a kinky person who submits to my romantic partners, and bottoms to nearly everyone else I play with. I'm comfortable with that, and I'm coming around to the idea that that "bottom" might be a convenient shorthand in kinky social spaces.
When talking to Tom and D about this, though, I realised that one thing was still very important to me (and it clearly was to them, as well); I may not be a submissive, but I am still theirs. Hearing one of them call me "my sub" makes me feel glowy and loved, rather than twitchy and uncomfortable. I'm happy to think of that as being short for "my submissive partner", just as they are my dominant partners. Which is useful, because I do still think of them jointly as my doms. I'm just training myself out of the habit of capitalising it.
Submissive and dominant are, in fact, the two greatest hangovers of those pretentious BDSM conventions I picked up all those years ago. It wasn't until reading that Not Just Bitchy post today, and nodding vigorously, that it occurred to me that I still had a blog category titled "D/s". Old habits die hard. So hard, in fact, that I had to consult Twitter before having it pointed out to me that the acronym still means the same thing spelled d/s or D/S. (I'm still not quite sure which I prefer. All-caps is standard for acronyms, I guess, but the lowercase one feels a little more familiar.)
Which leaves the question - what about the convention 'M/m', 'F/f', etc to describe the orientation of players in a scene? (This in itself is fairly old-fashioned, and seems conspicuously binary to a modern eye. I haven't encountered a similar shorthand suited to people of other genders, but I'd be interested in discovering one). In a two person scene, capitalisation doesn't matter as long it is understood that the top is always named first. But in a scene with three or more players, the capitalisation provides a visual aid to help convey sense. I find, say, FM/m - to describe a scene with one male top, one female top and one male bottom - more instantly legible than fm/m or FM/M, but it's not like the latter is incomprehensible. And putting all letters in the same case would remove the ambiguity of trying to describe a switch role. In a scene with, say, one top, one bottom and one person who plays both a top and bottom role, would the S/slashy convention use F/F/f or M/m/m? Both are misleading.
A convention in which letters before the slash describe players topping, letters after the slash describe players bottoming, and any letters between two slashes describe players switching seems like a perfectly comprehensible system. This is me stating my intention to use it unless you can convince me there's a better one, and to root out any other residual, unwanted capitalisation habits while I'm at it.
Oh, but there's one exception. If I'm in a scene and I call someone Sir, it'll always have a mental capital letter (or Miss, Ma'am, Milord or whatever else my top prefers to be called); and it'll keep that capital if I'm quoting what I said in text. In English, a capital on Sir is a gesture accorded to rank. I don't extend the same to all tops, or even my tops in all contexts, but if I'm addressing them directly in a scene space, the capitalised honorific seems appropriate. I don't know if that means my approach is inconsistent, but right now it feels like it makes sense to me.