Dangerous Compassions

the difference between a service top and a service sub

enby Asian with ice cream

I’ve been thinking about the difference between a service top and a service sub.  I thought they were kind of opposite–now I think they’re kind of the same, just with a different attitude.

Yes, in some ways, I’m a service sub.  I want to help, be petted, and be told I’m a good pumpkin.  I want praise for how I…

  • tend community
  • cook delicious foods
  • track emotional needs
  • track logistical needs
  • celebrate birthdays
  • write
  • make art and zines
  • ask for what I need
  • model liberation
  • nurture plants
  • give
  • care
  • show up for love

In contrast, service tops want to help, look cool, and do it all on their terms.  But we’re both getting off on helping other people, inordinately.


It all started with tea.  I told my housemate friend that I make tea for other people, but I realized that I never make tea for myself.

“Why is that?” my housemate asked.

“Hmm, good question.  I think it’s not for me,” I answered.  “Tea is for the good people.”

I decided that wasn’t fair–I should be nicer to myself.  Of course I deserve tea too.  I vowed to make myself tea sometimes.

But I usually don’t have the energy.  It feels like a pain in the ass, making tea for myself.  Making tea for other people feels like an honor, sacred, and beautiful.  I get joy from it.


Then I was picking flowers to take over to some activists.  I used old mayo jars and tahini jars, picked wildflowers, herbs, and flowering weeds, and brought cute arrangements over to this site where bright anarchist activists are trying to do good for the world.

I thought the cheerfulness would bring joy to the rent strikers.  They can stay motivated to help.  We need bread, but roses too.  It was fun, but I noticed something.

“Hmm, why don’t I ever pick flowers for myself?” I wondered.

Then I realized maybe I’m a service sub.  I’m not motivated to do it for myself.  But for others, it’s worth it.

service tops

What is the psychology of a service top?  I don’t have much experience with them.  But they might be missing something inside.  The few I’ve known get off on making someone orgasm a lot, tying people up, or helping with some non-sex tasks that use their expertise and make them feel like a badass.

The two I’ve been close to don’t seem to love, not in a way that I understand.  They’re not motivated by love–they’re motivated by something else…  Maybe it’s their ego getting stroked?  I’m not sure.

Or maybe they have a reward pathway I don’t even know about.  Some service pathway has nothing to do with day to day caring for other people and meeting them halfway.

They want to help, but not with the whole person, collaboratively.  Their help is confined to one or two areas, and don’t you dare ask for anything outside of that.


Seems partly about vulnerability.   Engaged collaborative care is too vulnerable.  If everything is on their terms, they can’t fuck it up as badly.  They will do this tiny sliver of relationship, not the whole thing.

They prefer to be clear about it, not to hurt anyone.  But few people want just that sliver.  And few service tops have the communication skills and honesty to admit their limitations and be real about the lack.  They may or may not understand themselves and how limited they are.

Love is huge.  My friend tells me I can see colors that other people can’t see.  A service top who wants to give only certain types of care, in specific ways and on a particular timeline, might not even understand what love is.  They don’t know what they don’t know.

If they experience love as pressure, expectation, co-dependence, or being trapped, and they shut down when they encounter that, they’re missing out.  They’re missing out on huge swaths of the human experience.  Their misread of the behavior of others means huge messes.

If they can only see blues and greens, of course the people who experience reds and oranges are crazy or wrong.  So many people are living in a world where someone has to be bad, and it’s not them.

not bad

I would rather live in a world with less blame.  Few people need to be bad–we can just admit we have mismatched capacities and needs, and move on.

But honesty is important, and self-awareness is no joke.  Honesty is necessary for consent.  But what if you lack the self-awareness to be honest about what you’re doing?

Or if you live in a whole other world, where love is a whole different thing.  What if you don’t even have shared language to tell the truth in?


I don’t think all service tops and service subs are autistic.  But we do often have whole different ways of relating socially.  Kink appeals to us as a way to connect without the usual social rules.

I see the kind autistic people who feel intense compassion with outlier care and can’t turn it off, like me.  And then on the other hand, there’s autistic people who are lost about feelings, seem cold, lack sensitivity, and lack understanding of their own cluelessness.  Wow, there are whole dimensions they’re missing.

Both autism types can be disabling, or components to disability.  Some people have these difficulties swirled together.  Big social differences are hard to live with.

Probably service sub and service top is a bad combination.  The service sub’s care will go partly unwanted, and the service sub will cry a river of tears that their love is misunderstood.

The service top will think they’re being clear about what they offer while being unclear, and feel confused when the service sub is crying a river of tears.  Yes, best we stay out of each other’s way.

thank you

Thank you for pondering with me the difference between a service top and a service sub.  Not sure I have it quite right, but this is a start.  Maybe a service sub wants to give in a wide way, while a service top wants to give in a way that’s narrow.

Here are some questions for discussion.

  • What do you think is the difference between a service top and a service sub?
  • What kink roles are a good match?
  • If you could be any role, what would you be?
  • Do you feel the role you’re in is within your control?
  • Should we try to increase the communication skills of service tops?
  • Should service subs learn to reel in our gifts, impulses, and needs?
  • How do we build a culture of consent?
  • How do we build a culture with less wrong vs right, bad vs good, and more chill honest direct realness?
new idea

What if the difference between a service top and a service sub is a couple of drinks?  Maybe if you scratch a service top, you’ll find a service sub who’s been abused one too many times.

Or testosterone might be at play.  More whiskery people are needing to maintain an illusion of control for safety in power.

Maybe service tops are looking tough to get strength from that, while service subs are trying to get strength from our vulnerability.  But otherwise we’re the same.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

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