By Carl Colberts
Photos By Russell Applemoor
So much of the BDSM world is defined by and individual’s label — Dominant, Submissive, Fetishist, Slave, Bottom or Top.
These tags, titles, or definitions help members of the BDSM community to relate appropriately to their counterparts. Although some individuals present as either naturally dominant or naturally submissive, others lean more towards both or neither, switching roles according to whim.
To give an idea of the comparative popularity of switching, FetLife.com boasts a switches’ group of more than 6,000 members worldwide, compared with more than 13,000 in the biggest dominant group and more than 8,000 in the biggest submissive group. For this article’s purposes, a “switch” will refer to someone who participates in BDSM activities sometimes as a top and other times as a bottom or in the case of dominance and submission sometimes as a dominant and other times as a submissive.
Still, that basic definition takes in a variety of situations. Someone just beginning in the lifestyle may switch until he or she finds the right role. In less ridgd relationships, partners may switch roles based on mood or desire or to allow each partner to experience his or her preferred activity. For example, a switch may be in a relationship with someone of the same primary BDSM orientation and switching provides each partner with an opportunity to realize his or her BDSM needs. It is also common for people to assume different roles with different partners. Switching may also refer to a spontaneous reversal of roles, initiated by either the bottom or the top. Even a person who engages in self-bondage can be viewed as taking both roles simultaneously.
Like bisexuality, identification as a switch is sometimes erroneously construed as “sitting on the fence,” or being indecisive about one’s kink orientation. One need only explore any number of kink-related social networking sites to see that there are many people who enjoy satisfying both the dominant and submissive facets of their personal make-up, and who refuse to sacrifice one for the other.
“Sometimes, I still feel the need to be dominated, even though I’ve been in control,” said Kendra Denimore, an SL citizen with 25 years of real life BDSM experience. ”Sometimes I need to let someone else take control and take care of me. Most Mistresses started as a bottom, the good ones anyway, and ALL of the RL ones; we have had the experience of being the sub/slave before.”
“How can I, as a Mistress, know how you feel or your needs if I’ve NEVER been there myself?” she continued. Although she admitted to having negative reactions from some quarters, she said they were “usually from Dom/mes that either have never had RL experience as a sub/slave, or in some cases have NO experience at all.”
Kendra has switched for the last 5 years, after about 20 years of sub/slave experience, receiving training in both RL and SL.
“It seems unfortunate to me that many of the most hardcore ‘haters’ of the switch lifestyle never let themselves go and experience it,” she said. ”My bet is that they secretly want to, but are so full of either ego or fear of enjoying it, that they feel they need to do all they can to push down or suppress those of us who understand it and are willing to express both sides of our nature.”
Jovial Denimore, outspoken Second Life BDSM educator from the Adult Community Education Society, agreed that switches can find themselves in the middle of controversy.
“Well, ’switches’ have a bad rep in BDSM, not just in SL, but in RL too. They are seen as more gamey and less willing to commit because they do not adhere to one role, Dominant or sub,” she said.
BDSM’s cultural aspect, the language and terms of it, allow us to communicate with each other, but are “simply operational definitions” according to Jovial. People in the community need to understand the terms and speak the same language, but once everyone is educated, they need to move beyond terms.
“The thing that people don’t get is that the world is not black and white, its not all or nothing,” she said. ”BDSM is the same way; it is beautifully complex and diverse. There is no one right way or one right formula that says what is a perfect sub or perfect Domme. You see people trying to fit in one role, being Domme all the time for example, but this is unrealistic and it’s a stereotype.”
She explained that while “dominant” and “submissive” describe actual roles people assume, “top” and “bottom” can describe actions they take.
“For example, a dominant who is acting as the bottom can direct the sub, who is acting as the top to tie [her] up, spank, flog, slap, etc. . . how hard, how fast, how much. The dominant is still the dominant because she is directing the sub, yet the dominant is a bottom because she is receiving the action,” Jovial explained. “Complex, no? Plus, the dominant does not consider herself a ’switch’ because she is not submitting to the sub, she is simply bottoming to the sub top. So as you can see it is not black and white; it’s not all or nothing.”
Jovial stressed that BDSM’s strength is in its flexibility.
“We are human and not meant to fit in neat little boxes,” she said. “It’s unrealistic and unhealthy to live like that. BDSM is flexible and dynamic, so the people who want to explore BDSM must be the same. If they are not they will never be happy or satisfied living in some fantasy stereotype.”
Jovial’s general description proved true in conversations among switches. Mdmullis, the member of a switch group on Fetlife.com, complained of some of the difficulties that face switches in these terms:
“Being a switch definitely has its upsides (like indulging both sides of my personality) but it sure has its downsides, as well (i.e., finding a dom or sub that wants to deal with my ’switchy’ ways, dealing with a dom when I feel Domme-like or vice versa with a sub when I feel a little sub-like). Sometimes I feel as if I chose one side or the other I would have more success in my relationships, but at the same time I feel as if I would be denying part of me.”
This dualism seems to be the distinct and challenging feature for switches and the partners.
On the same group, Johnstorm9 elaborated, “Being a switch can be complicated now and then. When you long to be dominated, your mood can change to a desire to be dominant yourself. Some switches are dominant or submissive only with a specific partner. In that case you need to control the switch feeling the moment it comes because there is no room for it with that specific partner. If you can’t deal with this then you have only one option left: Choose a switch partner who can switch roles with the same person!”
Other switches, however, have reported that it takes care not to have a frustrating relationship between two switches and such a pairing works best only with two already highly compatible people who switch at different times, for different reasons.
Wmimswitch identifies himself as a switch, but doesn’t find on side of his personality constantly struggling to emerge over the other.
“I find that when I with a strong woman, I am naturally inclined to be the sub,” he said. ”And likewise, when I am exposed to a submissive woman, I can very willingly take the reins. It’s not a difficult transition for me to make. But that’s just me”.
Firevilsub, however, doesn’t find the balance as clear and easy to achieve.
“Just the other day I told my husband/Dom that I’d almost wish I could be just one or the other and be satisfied. But the simple fact is, I can’t,” she said. “For me, it’s hard to find balance right now. I went for a long time being only submissive, then remembered that I love dominant headspace too. Now the pendulum is almost swung too much that way. I have a hard time accessing my subspace when I want it. I’m working on it, and seeing a little movement toward it anyway.”
With all the controversy and confusion, the casual observer would have to wonder why anyone switches at all. A descriptionof a game in switch group on Fetlife.com published by Johnstorm9 might sum it up. Johnstorm9 wrote essentially of a spanking duel and exlained that the game had four rounds:
“The first was over the knee with bare hand on bare bottom for five minutes. Second round involved my favourite implement which is a leather-soled slipper. Also over the knee. I must confess that after this round my bottom was already very sore. Third round was twenty swats with a carpet beater bending over a table holding the other side with your hands. Fortunately because of the fact we turned the tables, every time you are the spanker your bottom has time to cool off a little. Last round was the toughest: Twenty swats with a large wooden paddle. Pure agony!”
Sound hot to you? Whether a spanking duel is your thing or not, most would admit that switches know how to have fun, even while being confronted with their challenges within the lifestyle. Whilst their numbers may not be as large as Doms or subs, they are a significant proportion of the community.