In BDSM, a top or dominant is the partner in a BDSM relationship or in a BDSM scene who takes the active or controlling role over that of the bottom or submissive partner(s).
A person who submits control of a large percentage of his or her day-to-day life to a dominant partner, or who submits within a formal set of rules and rituals, is the slave, and the person who assumes power over the slave is the master or mistress.
Agreement on the exact meanings of the following terms is far from universal. For example, the function of tops and dominants is similar, and, in many cases, overlaps, but while the terms are used interchangeably in some discussions, there are differences between the two.
The top is the actor within the BDSM context who applies to the bottom partner(s) the techniques of a sexual, sensual, and psychological activity: flogging, bondage, servitude, or humiliation. The dominant controls the BDSM scene or relationship, exercising authority over the submissive partner(s). A dominant who exercises control over a large percentage of a submissive's day-to-day life, or within a formal framework of rules and rituals, is a master or mistress.
The functions of top and dominant often intersect, where the top is the dominant, but this is not always the case. Someone who is "topping" may be doing so at the request, or even the direction, of a bottom partner; in this case, the bottom is the dominant partner. A top who acts within this kind of relationship dynamic is sometimes called a service top. A bottom who has dominance over the activities or the relationship is said to be topping from the bottom, even though he or she is really exercising dominance from the bottom. Another possibility is that the top and bottom are acting at the direction of a third, directing person.
Within communities of lifestyle BDSM devotees, there exists a widespread prejudice against both those who act as service tops and those who top from the bottom. Both are considered by many to be failing to achieve a proper BDSM relationship dynamic, especially, if the partners are purported to be trying to achieve a dominant-top/submissive-bottom relationship.
While it is possible that a dominant would not act as a top and thus have no expression of his or her control through kink- or fetish-based activities, it may be argued that such a relationship, lacking any erotic aspect to the exercise of control, would fall outside of the BDSM context.
Tops or dominants who also assume a bottom or submissive role are referred to as switches.
The control of the dominant over a partner is seldom absolute and often operates within a set of defined limits.
A safeword is a signal that a submissive uses to signal that his or her limit is being neared or has been crossed. Accepting more risk, he or she may agree to forgo this option if he or she consents to an extreme form of submission or the practice of edgeplay.
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