Dangling Objects: On Responsible Progression in Rope

By September 7, 2016Note

One of the core values of our local RVA Rope Study group is “Stewardship.” It includes concepts like: be responsible for the health of your community; don’t tolerate poor behavior around you; and, be especially mindful of the responsibility you have for those with less experience, whether playing with them or being watched by them. That concept is what drives me to speak up from time to time–more often in person, sometimes online–about trends I see in and around my local community that concern me.

One thing I’ve seen more than once lately is the tendency for tops in and around our community to start suspending new or relatively new bottoms in risky ties before those bottoms are likely to be ready for it … and sometimes before the tops are ready for it, as well.

Most people generally accept that tops shouldn’t pick up rope for the first time and try to suspend someone. In fact, most people with any real experience in rope bondage will suggest anywhere from 6 months to 2 years as the minimum time required before a top should suspend … and then only with the assistance of an experienced mentor and only using ties that are smoothly, confidently, competently, and solidly tied. Doesn’t mean people always listen to this advice, but at least it’s fairly commonly held.

Yet, for some reason, the same need for time, experience, education, and progression in rope doesn’t always seem to be expected or assumed of bottoms. It’s not that unusual to see a bottom who’s brand new to rope (from a few days to a few months) getting suspended in challenging ties.

I imagine the thinking goes something like: “That top looks like they know what they’re doing and they’ve got some cool photos on their profile, so they can tie me up and do the same things with me!” I suspect this happens because many tops and bottoms believe–whether they’re conscious of it or not–that there isn’t much for bottoms “to know” … they’re just “bodies to be tied.”

Bottoming Skills and “Top Trust”

Besides all of the philosophical problems with such a view (particularly when you overlay that with gender and identity issues), this places an extraordinary level of trust in the top. The average new bottom likely knows very little about how their body reacts in rope or responds to bondage and torsion and constriction, likely doesn’t know which warning signs to look for, what to monitor in themselves, and which things they can safely ignore, and almost certainly doesn’t know how to accurately evaluate the skill-level of a top with any degree of certainty.

Decision-Making Flow Chart for Rope Bottoms:

Rope-Stress-Decisions

For example, we put together a “Decision-Making Flow Chart for Bottoms.” In comments there and elsewhere, many people were concerned about the question “Is it damaging you?” and worried that many new bottoms wouldn’t be able to answer that question. And they’re probably right about that … which helps to prove the point I’m making here.

Part of our argument in the course from which that diagram is pulled is that if you aren’t able to answer that first question, and aren’t willing to accept responsibility if you answer it incorrectly, you are not yet ready for more challenging ties. We do spend a lot of time in the course helping bottoms to answer that question, but we also stress that learning to navigate that flow-chart is a process that takes time. Progression happens by slowly increasing the risk factors over time as the bottom gains greater body awareness and better ability to answer that question. And this is why taking a new bottom and immediately starting to do suspension with them is so dangerous in our view, regardless of the skill level of the top.

Similarly, the question “am I willing to be damaged” also tends to worry a lot of people, and we certainly do stress the need for both parties to have a negotiated agreement there. However, this is a decision that gets made all of the time by bottoms, whether they are conscious and explicit about it or not. The biggest danger we’ve found is with new bottoms who are so afraid of either appearing weak, or ruining the experience, or disappointing the top, or etc. that they make this decision non-consciously. This should further underscore the potential dangers of putting someone in a challenging, high-risk tie before they’re truly ready for it.

By making that decision about damage explicit, we hope to draw that out and prevent that decision from being made “beneath the surface.” In addition, we emphasize that nearly every time you do rope bondage at any but the most static, basic level, you are potentially damaging your body, though perhaps only in the “micro-damage” sense, yet those can be cumulative and result in noticeable damage at some future point. These are all things that a bottom should be able to consciously acknowledge before they start moving into more challenging ties.

(For more on this particular concept, unrelated to this discussion, I’ll direct you to Gorgone’s interview with Graydancer: start around 00:35:05 and go to at least 00:39:55.)

Responsibility and Consent

To come at this problem from another angle: doing challenging ties with an inexperienced bottom places an extraordinary amount of responsibility on the top, to a degree that I’m surprised anyone would knowingly accept. If you’re suspending someone who doesn’t have the education or experience to monitor themselves in rope or evaluate their partner’s skill and experience, then you are completely responsible for anything that happens. And you’ll be effectively tying blind, because you won’t be able to trust that bottom to communicate to you the essential things that help to mitigate the many risks of rope bondage suspension. Hopefully, the top in that situation is a mystical master at “mind and body reading.”

Furthermore–whether you recognize it or not–you’re tying without genuine negotiation and without informed consent. An inexperienced bottom without good rope bondage education doesn’t know what to negotiate and doesn’t have a genuine understanding of the risks they may be taking.

Rope bondage should be a partnership. Like dancing: you don’t try an Argentine Tango with someone on the first day of dance class. Like sex: informed consent is a must; experienced, educated consent is something you’d want in a sex partner before you bound, blindfolded, and gagged them.

Informed and Uninformed Risk Taking

From a purely selfish perspective, it’s in the top’s best interest to only practice high-risk rope with informed, educated, experienced bottoms. The ties will likely be more enjoyable and less problematic. And if something does go wrong, the bottom will likely be more able to help … and will probably be the one to warn of a potential problem before it becomes an actual problem. And if injuries do occur, both are more likely to take equal responsibility and respond appropriately.

I know some bottoms may be thinking something like: “I’m an adult, and I know my body, and I’m an experienced X, Y and Z. Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” Fair enough: adults can take whatever risks they want. The fact remains that, unless you have good rope education and experience, your risk-taking is uninformed. You may be willing to play with uninformed risks. I’m not, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. But sure, go ahead, if you’re both fine with that. However, tops who take risks with bottoms who don’t fully realize those risks are–in my opinion–being irresponsible and dangerous.

I’d also argue that uninformed risk-taking removes agency from the bottom and reduces them to objects: things to which rope happens. Or, to use another metaphor, reduces them to children: only a child turns over complete trust to another in a potentially dangerous situation, or trusts another to know what’s best for them or to tell them how best to act in a situation. Neither metaphor should be desirable for bottoms or tops.

(Note that I’m not talking D/s, etc., dynamics here. Those elements can certainly play a role in rope bondage. But to practice those dynamics in a risk-aware context still requires awareness, informed decision-making … agency.)

The Heart of My Concern

While it’s possible that someone brand new to rope can get tied in a challenging suspension by an experienced rope top and not have anything bad happen, such action adds unnecessary risk, is an irresponsible act for both parties, and does a disservice to the larger rope community by normalizing that level of risk and irresponsibility.

For all of these reasons, I argue that tops and bottoms should not tie beyond their experience level (in play or performance mode) unless it’s in manageable steps for the purpose of helping one or the other learn in practice mode.

Furthermore, rope bottoms have an equal responsibility to be educated and should progress in rope in a manner similar to tops so that they can enter into a rope interaction with informed consent and genuine agency.

If you’re a bottom and new to rope and someone offers to tie you and immediately start suspending you, I would question the experience level and motives of that top. If you’re an experienced top and you don’t see a problem with suspending brand new rope bottoms, I question your intent and your understanding of what it is you’re practicing.

Making Progress

Are there degrees of risk in suspension? Sure. Hammock-style suspensions aren’t risk-free, but they’re certainly lower risk than many other types of suspension. But that’s exactly what I’m arguing for: a progression in rope. Start with floor work. Gain experience and awareness there. Move slowly into partial suspension … easy leg lifts, then lower-body lifts, then upper-body lifts, then multi-point lifts, etc. Move into low-risk full suspensions, then add one challenging element, then add another, etc. Give this process time (months at least, not weeks or days). During that process, both top and bottom are learning about how they work together in rope, respond together in rope, communicate together in rope. (And hopefully also learning more about the practice of rope bondage in general.)

Plus … I don’t know about you, but that process sounds like a lot more fun (floor work has all the best groping) and is more likely to be sustainable. If you put that new bottom into a challenging suspension right away and they get injured, chances are they won’t be back. Do that a few times, and chances are you’ll only ever be able to work with new bottoms who don’t know any better, and then only a few times … because the word about how you operate will spread.

On Pick-Up Play

To those who might counter with the question: “What about pick-up play?” I have two responses. First, you shouldn’t be doing challenging pick-up play with someone inexperienced. See above. Second, if the participants are experienced and well-informed, then they should (hopefully) realize the greater risks they’re taking. I’ve got no problem with informed risk-taking … though, I’d encourage people who take those risks to consider how and when they do so, with an eye toward stewardship towards their community (“be especially mindful of the responsibility you have for those with less experience, whether playing with them or being watched by them”).

Practicing Stewardship

This writing is mostly meant as a clarification of my position and as a caution, not as a reproach. I’d like to make clear that I’m not trying to “blame” new bottoms for jumping into things before they’re ready. I think it’s a natural impulse when you’re new to something that excites you to move more quickly than is probably wise. Likewise for new tops who move too quickly into things.

However, I do think the more experienced partner in any dynamic has to also accept the greater responsibility …

On the other hand, no one has to listen to me. This is just what I currently believe about approaching rope in a responsible manner. I only share it out of a sense of obligation to my community … an attempt to practice stewardship. I hope this writing doesn’t fail that intent too badly.

TL;DR (too late): My advice to bottoms: become informed, risk-aware, responsible, active agents … don’t let others turn you into dangling objects. To tops: stop trying to turn other people into dangling objects.

Help each other find a manageable progression in rope. Take your time. Enjoy that time.

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