I don’t love hiking, but I’ll go if a cute girl asks me to. I’m no better than the rest of us, never more than one Carhartt dungaree away from tying the knot — or better yet, escaping to some isolated permaculture operation to eat vegetables and fuck, raise a bunch of communal babies. Or something like that. Now, halfway through month five of hanging out in the house, far from the possibility of dating, I find myself nostalgic for the parts of lesbian culture I’ve long rolled my eyes at. Which self-described urban farmer will break my heart next? I ask, the question no longer a lamentation, but a plea.
I bring up hiking (and lustful nostalgia) if only because these cliche phenomena are at the material root of my memories around the acquisition of sexual self-knowledge. I was with my first girlfriend on a camping trip when I first asked her to hold me down. This is an ultimately vanilla request, but at the time, it felt profound to articulate. Not because it seemed risque to me, but because having clear language for what I wanted felt novel. Knowing myself (or more accurately, my body) well enough to make a request toward pleasure was startling.
Knowing most anything about myself usually feels distant, and difficult. Depression and dissociation are always present for me –– I’ve written about each before, as they are recurring difficulties in my life. My body is, most often, something I cannot control: I hang out inside myself, occupying some form I did not choose. I’m just here, in it. On a day-to-day basis, this alienation manifests primarily through the rather immature (or undertherapized) need to control my environment and everything in it: I spent a great deal of elementary school being punished for excessive bossiness; I make my roommates’ beds and organize their things against their liking; I write myself obsessively long lists of mundane tasks. I’m not delusional enough to believe this compulsive assertiveness comes from anything more than insecurity, but control is — above all else — what keeps me stable. If my actions can have an effect, materially, on the landscape, I have reason to believe I am real. The body I’m acting through must, by this logic, be mine.
Sex is the exception to all of this. On that camping trip with my first girlfriend, kissing in the tent after subjecting myself to an overly arduous hike — the dyke penance for love, I suppose — I didn’t want to control anything. I wanted to be, in a way I had never entertained for myself, without power.
I am acutely aware that my feelings on this topic might reinforce lazy stereotypes about the femme-er among us: Controlling people (women) turn submissive in bed. This isn’t true, obviously — not across the board. There’s no necessary universal link between the kind of person you are and the kind of sex you like to have. That should, at this point, go without saying. If we are to truly do justice to the inestimable spectrum of ways to fuck and feel good about it, however, the inverse of this must also be true. Your tics and traumas and beliefs can, of course, inform the kind of sex you most enjoy. Mine do, even if they play into a trope. Like I said, I’m no better than the rest of us — I want a Brooklyn-based microfarmer to top me too. I get it.
For me, bottoming is about giving up control more than it is about giving-versus-receiving dynamics. Being made to experience pleasure, and knowing that such pleasure can only be felt through my body, proves my body’s presence; I am able to imagine I am a conduit, rather than a space for holding something else. In any other situation, the absence of a say would mean some prolonged, OCD-incited panic attack. In bed, though, it takes me elsewhere. Beyond the gap between myself and my body. I am allowed, for a moment, to forget their divide. Maybe there’s something powerful in knowing I can give it up. Power in forgoing power.
I realize that my assessment of bottoming as being without say on the sub’s part is subject to some critique, at least by way of its oversimplification. Consent is still present in the sexual encounter I’m describing (if it weren’t, the encounter wouldn’t be sexual to begin with). And I realize some bottoms feel that they are, in fact, entirely in control. All of these things can be mutually true. I don’t really feel like writing about definitions or interpretations, mostly because the information is already out there in great and graphic quantities.
I don’t know how much any of these words really mean to me (bottom, sub, dom) or how accurately they can describe the reality of having sex. I don’t think I’ve ever had sex that was just one thing, in one way, and I’m thankful for that. But what I do gain from thinking with this terminology is a greater capacity for the language of desire. Bottoming is a word that enables me to see something I want written down, and within reach.
Now, years after my first verbal articulation that yes, I would generally prefer to sub, it’s only just recently felt OK to admit my bottom status. It actually still kind of hurts to say it. It takes everything I have not to write that “all sex is reciprocal” and “roles are tough to define.” While I actually do, in fact, believe these statements to be accurate, I’ve done enough reckoning to face the truth: There’s no behavior more bottom-y than arguing sex is a radically equal endeavor. In my efforts toward denial, I see my true form. Underneath some girl, still panting from the “secret lookout” she made us scramble up a mountain to see.
Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]