Let’s Talk About (Queer) Sex: Power Dynamics Are in the Eye of the Beholder

Queer women are always down to really get into it about what we *mean* when we talk about ‘topping’ or ‘bottoming’ — so are we! Which is why we did an entire comprehensive survey of y’all on the topic just a couple years ago, doing the analysis on what y’all mean when you talk about topsbottomsswitches, and more. As always seems to be the case with us, though, it felt like there was more to process here. No matter how much survey data we collect, it’s tough to get at the way that these ideas play out in our real lives, and how two people using the same words for themselves might embody them very differently. It felt like the only way to really explore how that plays out was to, you know, talk to each other — so here’s a series of conversations among AS staffers trying to get to the bottom of what queer sexual dynamics mean in our real lives. Last time we talked about what our various sexual identities “mean”!

This conversation was around exploring the question of:

What do we feel our sexual IDs “mean” about us as “people”, our personalities or emotional landscapes if we ID a certain way? Do they have overlaps with our sense of self outside of bed, or no? Do we tend to assume this about others (that a date might be a bottom if they’re coy, or a top if they pay for drinks)? Do we notice others assuming these things about us (or projecting them onto us)? Do these things seem like cultural shorthands, and if so are they annoying or helpful? Or do they get at authentic ways that our sexual dynamics are natural expressions of other parts of our personhood?

Malic: I’ve had people assume that I’m a top because I’m masc and I’ve had people assume that I’m a bottom because I’m physically small. This frustrates me to no end, so I don’t assume how others define their sexual roles. Claiming an identity word like “top” or “switch” feels overly simplistic, but sometimes those words help open up conversations about sex with people I’m dating. Sexual identity words have been especially useful when a partner feels self-conscious about receiving “too much” pleasure (wooow, patriarchy has really done a number on us) and I can reassure them by saying, “Remember, I’m a top!” (i.e. “I love doing this to you! This is my thing! Giving you pleasure gives me pleasure! Lay back and take it!”).

Rachel: Ugh Malic that’s so shitty when people assume something about you as a person based on your literal physical body!

Malic: If I could choose to be taller, I would (mostly so I could fit into menswear). But this is what I’ve got!

Rachel: I definitely try not to assume or guess anything based on external signifiers for those same reasons above, and because i think it can get essentialist in weird ways very fast (for instance, I am frequently referred to or assumed by new partners to be a “femme top,” or sought out by people primarily attracted to femme tops, which is so bizarre to me as I have never ID’d as femme in any forum, I just have… long hair?). But I feel ambivalent, because it also feels good & desirable for me to be perceived (correctly) as a top; I don’t think people in general should be trying to pigeonhole BUT it does feel good (to me) to get located correctly, in that it makes me feel hot & affirmed in my top-ness but also because it feels like I have been “successful” in some way in making important parts of myself legible — or more accurately, I guess that people I relate to are seeing me correctly.

Which I guess is a lot like queerness in general – there’s no way to “look” queer or straight and we probably shouldn’t try to guess, but also it feels great when I get successfully read as queer by other queers and bad when I get read as straight.

Shelli: What comes to me most when thinking of the assumptions that people have with me in bed, is that because I’m very feminine they assume that I am going to be submissive – which as we talked about last time, I have been in the past for particular women. Years ago (not so much anymore, which hopefully means people are learning) they thought because of my size, US 14-16, that I’m literally physically incapable of being very active during sex.

I’m probably a lot more flexible, active and energetic than some of the smallest people I know when it comes to fucking. If I’m sweaty and breathy during sex it means I’m having a great time; it has nothing to do with my size.

I’ve also experienced some women — and this includes non-black POC women — who are expecting some sort of exoticism because I’m black. Thinking automatically that the sex will be wild and crazy or that I’m going to strap them based on this highly sexualized version of black women that they have created in their heads and probably seen on film and TV.

Vanessa: I think once I learned I’m really a bottom, a lot of things clicked into place. It’s stereotypical to assume anyone likes what they like in bed because of looks or assumptions, of course, but learning about MYSELF how what I like in bed correlates to how I am in the rest of my life was a really fun revelation!

And also allowed me to be more vocal and honest with dates; I’m recalling one specific tinder date from a long time ago who I thought was a top from the way they were flirting with me, but I wasn’t 100% sure. They lived kind of far away and it definitely was going to be a commitment to make a date to see them, and I was putting off asking if they were a top because I was a little shy, but then my best friend was simply like “babe, it’s really not worth the energy to set this up if they’re not going to want to fuck the way you want to fuck,” and that was very clarifying! I’m by no means saying that all tops are compatible with all bottoms, that two bottoms can’t have a very nice time together, etc etc, but I am saying that when we’re dating I think we sometimes try so hard to force something when it’s just not going to happen, and being able to figure out earlier on if the potential for sexual compatibility is there has been helpful for me when making honest slutty connections with people.

I want to second Shelli that I think a lot of assumptions have been made about me in the past re: how flexible or active I’ll be because of my weight (I’m a small-to-medium fat person) but I’ve mostly solved that by only fucking other fat people now and it RULES.

I also find a lot of joy in just leaning into my bottom identity in the same way it’s fun to lean into my dyke identity, my queer identity, etc. It feels like another playground that we all get to play in, and tease each other, and really get comfortable in that is NOT accessible to straight people, and I like that. Like for example my girlfriend and I always joke that because I’m a Capricorn bottom I like being the #1 student, teacher’s pet, etc and because she’s a Capricorn top she likes to be the teacher. Do all Capricorn tops/bottoms feel that? Maybe not? But honestly seems like…yes? And that’s a fun joke to make about ourselves, and a way to find lightness and play in sexuality and desire. I’m not sure I’m 100% answering the question here but that’s how I feel!

Rachel: i think there’s something to that Vanessa for sure! Both in a playful way and a serious way – like obviously it’s FUN and funny to be able to joke about this with each other, and sex is supposed to be fun! I like having language for sex and also like when it doesn’t have to feel heavy, and I have room within labels to joke about it. and it feels like a trust-building intimate thing with a sexual partner to tease each other about being a top or a bottom or whatever (and can also be hot, and flirting!). Also though, I get hung up a little on that thing of like “She’s a capricorn so she’s a top, and I’m a Capricorn so i’m a bottom!” I used to talk about this with someone I was dating and whom I was very similar to – I was like ‘I feel like it’s natural for me to top because I’m such a control freak’ and they would be like ‘Right, it also feels natural for me to want to bottom and let go because I’m such a control freak!’ Like what makes that difference??

Malic: These astrology/ sex role jokes are deeply relatable. As an Aries top, I fuck to win.

Vanessa: “I fuck to win” oh my GOSH Malic sharing that with my Aries bff immediately. Rachel i think one of the hottest things about power dynamics in sex — which i think is what the top/bottom/switch roles are often about, and which i think leads very quickly to kink stuff which i didn’t even get into (also doesn’t always have to lead to kink! but is a gateway!) — is the way that similar personality traits can translate into wanting to fuck in very different ways because of other personality traits / trauma / experience / history / interest / etc

Malic: I was trying to come up something about different personality traits colliding, and Vanessa just nailed it.

Shelli: I’m a double Taurus with a rising in Pisces and idk how that plays into my identity but I accept any and all messages from the Astro queers in my DM’s telling me how it does (I am not joking – @AyoShelli on IG)

Vanessa: And I also want to delve into what Rachel brought up about the usefulness of having LANGUAGE to talk about what we like even when we’re not sure why we like it. To tackle the kinkier element of my identity a little bit, I think it’s really important to remember that communication in a scene is KEY, and if we don’t know how to talk about what we like and what we’re interested in and what our limits are then we’re actually doing a disservice to ourselves and our play partners and potentially not even being safe. I’m a little shy to say more but does that make sense?

Wow tysm Malic

Rachel: Omg Malic… I’m in awe

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  1. People always misread me as a bottom/sub and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m a) nice and b) fat.
    Being a top/Dom (leaning switch) is important to me though- having someone else trust my decision making so completely makes it easier for me to trust my own decisions in the rest of my life. D/s can be so healing.

  2. Rachel, I have the same experience of being read as femme without EVER identifying as such. It’s probably my long hair too… but I have long hair because I am too lazy to get it cut more than twice a year, just sayin.

  3. Love this! I thought I was just a top for so long but my last gf made me realize that I love to bottom too! It makes a lot of sense now because I’m a Gemini (rising, moon, all of it). This was a great conversation and it made me thin about a lot of things that I haven’t talked about before, so thank you!

  4. I have also been labeled as femme without deciding that for myself. I think for me it is due to how people have started saying “women and femmes” rather than “non-men.” Just because I have a vulva and I’m not a woman and not a man doesn’t mean I’m femme!

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