Straight people tend to get a little hung up on titles and roles in queer relationships. When it comes to gay sex, many people tend to think rigidly and a little too heteronormatively for their own good: one person is the top (aka the giver or the more dominant partner during sex), and one is the bottom (the receiver or the submissive partner).
It’s sort of a more prying version of the other severely reductive and incredibly problematic question queer people hear all the time: “Who’s the man in the relationship? Who’s the woman?”
Of course, as with anything related to sex, the binary relationship between tops and bottoms is a lot more complicated than that. Sure, there are plenty of queer folks who almost exclusively bottom or top during sex, but there’s just as many who consider themselves versatile or switch (And hey, sometimes, just like with straight sex, there’s no penetration at all. Sex is fluid!)
To dig a little deeper, we asked queer men about topping and bottoming, the stereotypes associated with both and how they choose to use (or not!) the terms in their own lives.
Let’s start with some quick and dirty definitions for tops and bottoms. (And switches and sides, too.)
Though everyone is different, tops (or dominants) prefer penetrating and/or being in control in bed. A bottom (or submissive) is usually the receptive partner during penetrative sex or the individual who cedes control.
“The bottom’s duties is to explain how he likes to be penetrated and how much control he wants or doesn’t want,” said Joe Kort, a sex and relationship therapist who works with LGBTQ+ clients. “And the bottom also makes sure he’s prepped and ‘cleaned out’ before sex ― my pet peeve about LGBTQ now being shown in non-porn movies is that they make anal sex look seamless and it’s not!”
Prepping for anal sex might include douching, meaning using water and an enema or syringe to flush out the rectal cavity before you get down to business. (That said, you don’t need to douche to have an enjoyable experience with anal sex, and some doctors even advise against it.)
And then there are power bottoms: A power bottom bucks “top-bottom” tradition by controlling the thrusting and rhythm below or in front of their partner. Think of it like topping from the bottom.
If you’re into both bottoming and topping, you would probably be considered versatile or switch. If you’re not into penetration at all, you might identify as a “side,” which is someone who doesn’t enjoy anal sex but is down for other things (oral sex, rimming, mutual masturbation).
Men who have sex with men who don’t regularly engage with penetration are actually quite common. In a study of men who have sex with men published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2011, more than 60% of respondents had not engaged in anal intercourse during their last sexual event.
While this wide breadth of terminology can make finding partners easier on dating and hookup apps for some people, the hyper-focus on labeling or types is a problem for many in the queer community.
“I always cringe at the labels of tops or bottoms,” said Davey Wavey, a YouTuber and creator of the adult film site himeros.tv. “As gay people, we’re already working with a pretty small dating pool. To further restrict the pool to only tops or only bottoms isn’t doing yourself any favors. Labeling our identity on the basis of a sexual position feels limiting.”
Queer women identify as tops and bottoms, too.
While top-bottom terminology is mostly associated with gay men, queer women employ the terms, too. (Though a survey by queer site Autostraddle found that most queer women identify as switches rather than tops or bottoms.)
What does it mean to top as a queer woman? It could involve fingering, performing oral sex, or using a strap-on for penetration, among many other fun sexy time things.
Some people just naturally prefer bottoming or topping.
More times than not, you can usually figure out if you identify more as a bottom, top or switch by thinking about what turns you on general.
“The way my clients have said they figured out if they are a top or bottom is by what they fantasized about during masturbation and also by engaging in both to see what worked best for them and what aroused them the most,” Kort said.
And obviously, depending on the circumstance and the chemistry you feel with a partner, you might be game to switch.
Bottom shaming is an issue in the queer community.
We live in a patriarchal society that prizes masculinity, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that bottoms get shamed for doing something associated with what women are expected to do during sex. Topping is seen as preferable by some men who have sex with men because it doesn’t threaten their masculinity.
“The problem is that tops are almost always seen as more manly, virile and aggressive, whereas bottoms are usually linked to effeminacy because we think they have a subservient position,” Madison Moore, a cultural critic and queer studies professor wrote on Thought Catalog in 2014.
“This attitude is wholly cultural and deeply rooted in how we think about gender,” Moore wrote. “Like, men are supposed to be men. Like, men don’t take dicks up the ass.”
The issue speaks to a larger problem of discrimination of men demonstrating more femme traits in gay culture.
No, you can’t tell if someone is a top or bottom based on their personality or physical build.
Don’t fall into the trap of assuming someone’s preferred sexual position based on how they present.
There are plenty of men who like to bottom. (And plenty of guys who are assertive at work or in public life who relish the opportunity to cede some of that control in the bedroom and play the submissive.) There are also femme gay men who love topping.
“It’s absolute nonsense, not to mention degrading, to be put into a box based on your expression or physique,” said Bradley Birkholz, a YouTube creator and gay rights activist.
“Anytime somebody assumes you want something done to you in bed, there’s danger associated with it, regardless of your sexuality or gender,” he said. “I think we have a culture that tells people that the way we talk, act, and dress means we want certain things done to us in bed ― which simply isn’t true.”
As with any sexual encounter, communication is key. You have to ask and find out what your partner is into, not just assume.
“You can be gay and not like anal sex at all, and that’s absolutely fine; and you can use the labels of top or bottom, and that’s fine, too,” Birkholz said. “There’s nothing wrong with those labels — just don’t apply them to other people because you assume they identify with it.”
Sex Ed for Grown-Ups is a series tackling everything you didn’t learn about sex in school — beyond the birds and the bees. Keep checking back for more expert-based articles and personal stories.