What Does Top and Bottom Mean?

Some people like to top and bottom when they have sex, but what is this, who does what and do you have to do it?

Okay, so this is complicated. The simple explanation often found on that internet is that this is a term used by gay men to determine who is going to put their penis (the top) inside the anus of the other (the bottom). Buuuut it can also be a term that people use about different kinds of sex too and this doesn’t just apply to gay men (who often don’t like anal sex actually).

It can mean who is ‘on top’ in a sexual position (confusingly the person ‘on top’ could also be penetrated from the person on ‘the bottom’). It can also be about who is more active or passive – either for one specific bit of sex, for the whole sexual encounter or for the whole relationship.

It can also be about control, where one person is consensually given power from the other person over things like what kind of sex that they have, how they do it or the relationship as a whole. So here the person making all the decisions, like ‘the one who drives’, is the top and the other person might be the bottom here. This can be done with consent and can be totally fine, obviously it can also be done without consent and so not fine.

Do you need to top and bottom

You don’t have to do this top and bottom thing – I’m just explaining it. A lot of people really aren’t into this dynamic. For many people sex is much more of a sharing kind of thing where they do lots of different kinds of things together rather than one person taking charge for a bit. Even for some people who have penetrative sex it’s not clear that the person being penetrated is the bottom (see the example below) and it’s just not about that. Many people find that they either do a little bit of topping or bottoming, or a bit of both or are a bit neutral – this is known as being ‘versatile’ or a ‘switch’. Also it’s totally fine for this to change over time.

For a lot of people, sex isn’t really about the dynamic but just the kinds of sexual activities they may enjoy and working out what they do, when they do it and how they do it.

If being a top or bottom isn’t for you, fine, but if you’re interested please read on.

Who is the top and bottom

Sometimes I get asked about how people work out who is the top and who is the bottom. The answer is, it depends. I think the top and bottom thing is strongly linked to power and the power dynamic that is going on between the people having sex and the relationships in general. Like I say in this post about power (it’s great, more people should read it 💅) there are usually differences in power in relationships and one person has more of it than another.

This power comes from their identity: things like how old they are, their class, their abilities/disabilities, their race, their sexuality, their gender. For example it’s often just assumed that with a straight couple the man will be the top and the woman will be the bottom.

However there are also other things that cause a difference in power too. Like how confident someone is, how sexually experienced they are, if they are seen as being super attractive, what they’ve been taught about sex, what they believe about sex, why they want to have sex, how much money they have, how independent they are, their living situation etc.

Sometimes people also decide who is the top and bottom by thinking about their different personalities. Often people who are kind, caring, compassionate, quiet, a sharing type are seen as being ‘the feminine one’ and so the bottom. Often people who are active, a leader, opinionated, outgoing, loud, a provider are seen as being ‘the masculine one’ and so the top.

As you can see a lot of this stuff is based on some pretty big assumptions and stereotypes that you might not agree with. Me either, but I’m just explaining it. Don’t get cross at me!

The script of who tops and who bottoms

So people often rely on stories for who ‘should’ be the top and who ‘should’ be the bottom. The man, the most masculine, the person with the penis, the dominant one, the more confident one or the one who has done it before will be the top or will ‘top’. The woman, the most feminine, the person without a penis, the less confident one, the person with lesser experience will be the bottom or will ‘bottom’.

Some people actually find that this works out for them pretty well. Often people find that if they just follow this script then it’s easier because they don’t have to talk about it. Often people are just fine doing what is expected of them in this way, even if they are aware that they are relying on stereotypes. It can lead to them having the kinds of sex that they enjoy anyway and it can be spontaneous and exciting.

However, not everyone who is supposed to top will want to or will enjoy it and not everyone who is supposed to bottom will want to or will enjoy that either. For example: a lot of men find that they don’t really enjoy ‘taking charge’ but find that this is just expected of them so they have no choice. So if people don’t check in that this is what they want then it may well be non-consensual sex. Even if the sex was consensual it may well just be rubbish sex because they were both not really doing the kinds of sex that they actually find hot.

“For the first few weeks of the relationship I was topping him and it was okay – it was his first time and didn’t really know what to do so I took the lead. When we got talking about it though I realised that actually that doesn’t even really do it for me and he’s not really getting a lot out of bottoming or even penetration at all. So we started to do other stuff like wanking, stroking and grinding which we’re both really enjoying and it’s much easier just to kind of take turns and switch around a lot.”

When people talk about top and bottom with sex it often just assumes that one person is going to be penetrating another person – even if this isn’t something that someone likes. There are, of course, lots of different kinds of sex that people find more enjoyable – more about this here.

Talking about who tops and who bottoms

Some people like to talk about who tops and who bottoms or even whether this is important for them at all. Like I was saying before – topping and bottoming can be about a particular activity

“Before we first had sex we had a quick chat via text about some of the things that we both like doing and how. For example I said that I really like f******g (vaginally) but that I like to be on top for that so I can control how deeply it goes in and how fast we go. He really liked that.”

Or it can be about the whole sexual experience:

“It’s a turn on for me that the other person really takes control. There was this one time when the other person stopped at the beginning and asked if everything was okay – I was just lying there and she was worried that I wasn’t into it. We had a quick chat to say that it’s specifically hot for me that the other person takes control. I said that I would tell her really clearly if I wasn’t into a thing and also that she will be able to tell if I’m enjoying it – I kinda make a lot of noise when things are going well.”

Or it can be about the whole dynamic of the relationship:

“In my relationships I really like to be the person who is making most of the decisions generally – just quite basic stuff about what we do, where we go, what we do around the house. It can be super hard to do because I have to be really aware of my partner’s needs at all times. Even though they specifically consent to this and are really really into it, I have to remember that they might find it harder to tell me if anything is wrong. So I constantly have to pay attention to them to make sure they’re cool with it. It’s weird because even though I’m making all the decisions I feel like they have more power than me – which is how it should be really. It’s called topping from the bottom.”

How to top and bottom consensually

As you can see above there are a couple of approaches to how people work out how topping or bottoming might work for them. One way to work out who tops and who bottoms is to follow the script of what it is that you are ‘supposed’ to do based on who you are and your experiences. As I covered before, if we just follow the script and make assumptions it might not always be what people want and so could lead to rubbish experiences or non-consensual sex.

The other way is to find ways of talking to each other about how they organise who does what when and what the general dynamic is going to be. Finding ways to do this means that it can be more consensual, more mutual and a more comfortable way of going about things. It’s really important to be able to have these conversations and in an ideal world everyone would be able to do this.

However the reality is that a lot of people find talking about what they want from sex before they do it to be really difficult. Also people often don’t really know what they do or don’t like from sex before they do it. For this reason a lot of people rely on the script to begin with and then perhaps try to find ways of working out what works for them both.

The key to doing this consensually though is to remember that consent in an on-going thing. Even if you’ve talked about everything before hand, or if you’ve not really talked about it before it’s important to be constantly paying attention to what is happening. So like I explain in this post, it’s about looking for all the ways that people communicate throughout the whole experience. Look for facial expressions, eye contact, noises, words or phrases (OMG, mmmm, um, ugh etc), how their body reacts (or doesn’t react) to things, whether someone is tense or relaxed, or how you both respond to each other.

Thinking about on-going consent is super super important if you are the ‘top’. As I wrote in the example above (yeah, totally made those quotes up) if you have more power than another person in a relationship it’s harder for them to say what they want. So if you are the top or have more power generally it’s on you to make sure. This means paying attention to them but also occasionally checking in “how are you feeling?” “need a minute?” It’s also about finding ways on neutral ground (ie, when you aren’t sexing) to ask open questions about how they are feeling about things and finding ways to keep that conversation open at all times.

Want more?

Consent, Innit – read more about consent and why it can be difficult

How Consent Feels – and a simple way to practice it

Fifty Shades of Sex Ed – the sex ed guide to ‘that’ book

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