With a little observation, the very first thing you will notice about kink in the public communities these days is that it’s all about what you can do or have done to you. It’s about skills, abilities, and stamina. It’s a sport when played in public. And, just like sports, there are winners and there are losers.

How do you win at the sport of kink? What do you have to do to get the prizes? Your two options are very straightforward: become very competent at the requisite skills, or make people think you are very competent at these skills. They both work, even though I think one is abhorrent.

In point of fact, there’s very little I think is wrong about the necessity of competence. Competence is a good thing. It is so necessary a thing, in fact, that it’s probably the main reason why I have so relatively few play partners—more common a reason than the supposed Femdom Demographic Issue or submissive-male-phobia, for instance. I judge most of the people I meet to be incompetent, and I have very little interest in playing with people who don’t prove their skills to me.

I’m a competence snob, but I think I should be. I think everyone should be, and it should be (at least partly) obvious why: I don’t want to be harmed, physically, legally, or emotionally—regardless of whether I am bottoming or topping. I think of myself as too important to me to risk my well-being in acts of recklessness or irresponsibility even as I strongly desire to be hurt and to suffer. I feel as though this is obvious; I would need but to hold up a mirror to you to show you why such an attitude might be important.

I wish competence were recognized by people as being one of the most important factors in choosing a partner for a scene, or for a relationship. (They recognize the importance when choosing a doctor, yet when it comes to sex and education otherwise smart people behave in very dumb ways.) It’s clear that being competent makes you attractive because it gives you some value that you can provide to your partners. However, it’s also clear that most people are constantly fumbling about trying to discern what this value they are seeking actually is. They don’t know what it looks like or how to find it. I don’t think most of them are even aware of their own search for it in the first place (at least not concretely).

Classes and workshops present so thin a slice of the big picture with such frequent repetition that after attending them for a while you may quickly assume you have seen all there is to see. A Martian (or a naive young newbie) using such resources to learn about BDSM might assume all there is to kinky sex is ropes, chains, whips, and sharp objects, with the occasional actual sex act thrown into the mix. In such an atmosphere, it’s no wonder that the skills deemed most necessary to win this sport are those such as how accurately you throw your singletail whip, how securely and prettily you can tie a bottom up in ropes, or how much attention you pay to the safety best practices during a needle-play scene.

Yet not everyone attends classes and workshops. Those who don’t typically engage in kinky sex blissfully unaware of their own ignorance. Few “bedroom kinky” people I have heard of have ever shown a concerted effort to pick up an anatomy book with a mind towards safer rougher sex—though it’s obvious, even to them, why they might want to consider it. These are the kinds of people I have never found attractive. They never take the time to analyze their own successes or their failures, and consequently sentence themselves to lives of mediocre experiences at best or, more commonly, continuous bewildered failure.

I am very specific about what I consider to be factors of competence, and about how I value these various things. I am also utterly ruthless in my appraisal of the things I see. I have a similar reaction to badly executed rope bondage as I do to bad web sites. It thus behooves me to say that I find consistently executed safety best practices, exceptionally functional and simultaneously aesthetically pleasing rope-work, and accurately administered whippings all to be valid and useful earmarks of competence, and I use such criteria as part of a standard barometer for a certain kind of competence all the time.

Similarly, it also behooves me to make explicit mention of the fact that it is one thing to preach these things and quite another to practice them. I find nothing impressive about intentions alone; intentions can not be competent.

It is for that reason why I have never been interested in listening to such sermons as the proper disposal of bloodied needles given by people who keep no sharps container in sight when they play. They are only proving themselves charlatans to me, because I know how to spot such a fraud. If I did not know how to do this, as was the case for me and for everyone else at one point in life, then I have always been better served by withholding final judgement as well as trust until I became better educated in the skill and the person both.

In other words, to trust without knowing shows me your ineptness. That’s one way I evaluate the competency of other bottoms. Incompetent bottoms act before they think; little wonder so many of them end up in situations they later regret.

It bugs me, viscerally, when I see people who are clearly not skilled (or not any more skilled than an average fellow is, anyway) being misrepresented or, worse, misrepresenting themselves as having a level of competence that they clearly do not have. What bugs me most of all, however, is that this sort of false aggrandizement is something that is accepted, unquestioningly, when dominants do it (by either dominant female asshats or dominant male assholes) and is allowed to proceed unabated, but is instantly recognized and rightfully shot down when submissive people do the same.

I know of more than a handful of male tops who have a quite sizable number of (typically young, usually naive, almost always seriously troubled) groupies for reasons I can not even begin to fathom. These men are almost always significantly older than their groupies, and though not necessarily ill-intentioned or malicious, they are so unremarkable to me that I would blithely ignore their existence for the most part. They have no great skills as far as I can tell, they are not strikingly physically attractive, they speak of no rare or enthralling things, and I can find no particular intelligence, empathic ability, or other quality that makes them deserving of such long-lasting attention.

What seems most unusual to me is that, had these people not been dominants or tops, everyone else would and does think of these people the way I just described that I do. The submissive or bottom men—the older, not necessarily ill-intentioned or malicious, remarkably unremarkable men—are blithely ignored, by pretty much everyone. I imagine, with no experiencial evidence, that the same is true for women in complimentary roles, though finding evidence one way or another would certainly prove additionally enlightening.

I can’t help but find this odd, and my theories as to why this is so center around my observations of the simplistic notion most people have about competence. Most bluntly, that competence is something to be admired without analysis, that it’s something only tops have, and that it can be displayed merely with intention. How ignorant, and dangerous, I find this to be.

Competency is gained through experience, practice, and questioning. It’s something that’s acquired not through some spontaneous or uncontrollable happenstance of luck and fate but by very deliberate efforts. In other words, you have to care about having it, or you won’t.

In this entire discussion I have tried to refrain from using examples or language that were orientation-specific. That’s because competence is not a one-way street. I have seen just as many, if not more, incompetent bottoms as I have seen incompetent tops. This is possibly because as a bottom it’s far easier to get away with being woefully incompetent at just about everything you do than it is for a top. Alternately, perhaps this is because of the unfortunate misconception that bottoming is inherently a passive act and that the entirety of a valid kinky encounter involves a purely active top and a purely receptive bottom.

In some competencies, this makes obvious sense. When you’re on the tail end of the whip as opposed to the handle, you don’t need the dexterity to be able to throw the whip perfectly. But you do need to understand what is happening. You should know how to breathe, how to move, how to scream (if it’s good), and how to communicate what you need, if you need something. Your top is not a mindreader. (And they probably like the screaming.)

The point is clear: competence in bottoms is just as attractive as it is in tops, and vice versa. Competence is sexy. What does a competent bottom look like? I think competent bottoms are self-reliant, emotionally hardy individuals who have a discerning eye, and have the presence of mind to act responsibly—to be willing to get things wrong and make things right again—and to act with empathy and generosity towards their partners. In other words, the same exact qualities that competent tops share. Try that on for size.

Thanks to the wonderful comments, I’ve since expanded on this quite a bit in an epilogue to this post.

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