I've had The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, on my to-read list for years, and sometime in the recent past, I bought both of them, and I finally got around to reading them.
I need to put a disclaimer on this review so you know where I'm coming from: I have an interest in kink - I read these partly out of personal interest and partly for writing research - but I'm not part of the kink community and I've never actually done anything kinky.
I read The New Bottoming Book first, and I sped through it. If you know anything about my interest in kink, that shouldn't be surprising. The New Topping Book took longer to read, and I found myself more and more annoyed with Easton and Hardy as the book went on. I'm not sure if that's because I was reading it with a more analytical eye or if that's because their biases really are more obvious in The New Topping Book than in The New Bottoming Book.
I think there's a lot of good information in both books, and there's a lot of opportunity for you to notice things you might like or dislike. (For example, they mention earplugs at one point, and I had a very visceral hell no reaction to that, which isn't something I ever would have thought of as a limit.) The books are complementary - each book covers different things, and each perspective would be useful to people whose interest lies with the other side of things - and I would suggest reading both if you're going to read one. The books are also very much from Easton and Hardy's perspective, and, despite their disclaimers that different people do kink differently, seem to be about their idea of what kink is. Some examples:
They give lip service to playing without sex, but they ultimately dismiss nonsexual play. Their solution for a scene that doesn't include sex is to have sex after it or to masturbate to the memory of the scene later. Near the end of The New Topping Book, they say, "While many people play without genital sex, we're strong advocates for having as much sex as possible."
They seem to put a lot of emphasis on the psychological aspects of kink. Both Easton and Hardy are abuse survivors, and they talk a fair amount about kink as a way to process trauma (while also noting that it's not a substitute for therapy). What about people who don't have that kind of trauma? They say, "But we think all players are edge players. ... The player whose play seems so light that you wouldn't even define it as S/M is an edge player when she is in her own way doing something difficult or scary or painful, in an attempt to turn the unacceptable into the erotic: playing at his or her edge." And, "We believe that if you never ever ever have a scene go haywire, with unexpected physical or emotional consequences, you may not be taking enough risks. After all, the reason most of us do S/M is to explore territories that we find a little risky and challenging; if you're sticking so close to the center of the trail that you never get lost in the woods, you may want to reconsider your pathway." They also seem to put a lot of emphasis on the kinds of scenes where tops get to be mean/vicious/hardcore in ways that aren't acceptable outside of negotiated scenes. What about people who just want to get tied up because they think that's fun? Does that not "count"? I understand that the darker/scarier stuff might get more space because it's the place where people are more likely to need reassurance/guidance, but the emphasis on it bothered me.
They also seem to think everyone will want to play in mostly the same ways. I thought their list of basic toys for tops ("In cookbooks, kitchen equipment is known as the batterie de cuisine: a beginning cook is given a list of tools and supplies to start with, and a supplementary list of stuff to acquire later on for the master chef. We will do the same.") lays out a very specific way of playing: rope, restraints, blindfold, collar, clamps, candles, soft flogger, slapper or jockey bat, sex toys, safer sex toys, emergency supplies. They say of collars, "If you're really not interested in dominance & submission or role-playing, you can skip this one," which strongly implies you can't skip the others.
There's a brief section in The New Topping Book where they mention finding out about your partner's limits, including physical limits, when you play the first time, but they don't talk much about what to do with the physical limits. A lot of their examples seem to assume able-bodied people, and even though the books aren't how-to guides, I think I would have liked more consideration of physical limits than just the occasional clause reminding tops to respect those limits.
This is possibly a smaller quibble, but I was annoyed by their emphasis on costume. I fully admit that I'm lazy about clothes (I wear the exact same thing every single day, and I'm comfortable that way), and I find the thought of having to do something else to be a part of a community ("There are practical reasons for dressing up. For example, some of the better parties and clubs in San Francisco won't let you in the door in normal clothes, thus helping keep vanilla gawkers out and maintaining a festively pervy atmosphere.") exhausting.
It's also worth noting that the books are several years old - The New Bottoming Book was published in 2001 and The New Topping Book in 2003 - and that means some of their information, particularly concerning the internet, is quite out of date just because the world has changed so much in the intervening years. I found myself laughing at their explanation of websites: "These sites resemble magazines in many ways; they may feature pictures, text, and sometimes even video and audio, and they allow you to move from one page to another as your interests dictate."
Like I said, there is good information in both these books, but I'm not sure I'm glad I read them. I've occasionally thought about seeking out the local kink community, but by the time I finished The New Topping Book, I thought that if Easton and Hardy really are representative of the kink community at large, then finding that community is the last thing I want to do.
- Dewey Decimal Project: 306.775