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 tops, bottoms, switches, 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.
This conversation was around exploring the question of:
How have you defined (or not) your role over time? Has it changed, did you at first think you “were” one thing and now you ID differently? How did that feel and what did it bring up? How do you ID now, and where do you see it as part of that ~ journey ~?
Rachel: I think while i knew what topping and bottoming was pretty early on in “being queer,” it didn’t occur to me to even ID as one until after I got divorced at 28 and committed to casual dating with women and trans folks of varying genders – before then it felt like since I was dating both women and cis men and was usually in long-term relationships it didn’t feel as relevant — more like I just did whatever worked in that relationship. I think it also had a lot to do with youth and insecurity, though, because I think I’d ID mostly the same (as a top) now regardless of relationship status.
I’m also realizing upon thinking about it that while I now almost exclusively top and ID as such, for a long long time I described myself to others as a ‘top-leaning switch’ – I think a top identity felt so big and impressive and intimidating to me that it felt like something I had to earn, or like if I claimed it then I would disappoint sexual partners. Not sure what Ii thought made me more of a “real” top or “only” a top – did I think I needed more experience? That tops should be more masc-presenting? That I should only be having sex in specific ways? Unclear to me now! But to be honest, what made me more confident in calling myself a top definitely was having more sex – noticing that I pretty much exclusively wanted to top when I did have sex, and had better sex with more compatible partners when I was clear about that — and also that my partners seemed to feel like i was more than good enough at it.
Drew: I often write in ways that can be perceived as vulnerable, but writing about this feels vulnerable in a way I actually tend to avoid. So I considered not participating! But then I decided that maybe some people would find what I have to say relatable and I’m a goddamn hero so here we go.
I really struggle with this question and these labels. Last year when I was newly single and dating in the queer community for the first time I felt really committed to figuring out which label fit me. I agonized over it a lot. I know topping and bottoming outside cis gay male spaces isn’t necessarily about specific acts, but I felt — and feel — like my identity is complicated as a trans woman with a penis who would not have that penis if I had more money. And that’s really only one of the issues. There’s also the fact that before transitioning I was topping because as a cishet male that was what was expected of me. So last year I thought well okay then maybe I’m a bottom. But that never felt right either. But did it not feel right because I don’t have a pussy? Did it not feel right because I’m just not used to it? Or am I just a top? But what’s expected of a trans woman top? I feel like the assumption is — and has been— I would be fucking someone with my penis which is not something I want to do except for very rare circumstances. I feel like most trans women I know are very loudly and proudly bottoms or tops and have such clarity with what that means to them regardless of their relationship to their genitalia. And it always makes me so jealous! Ultimately I gave up on this journey and decided to just call myself a switch. But even that feels wrong, because when I have sex I’m not necessarily conscious of topping or bottoming unless the person I’m having sex with is very clearly one or the other.
My best sexual experiences have varied so widely re: sex acts and dynamics. I think with each new person — and really each new time with each person! — I just want to meet as two bodies seeking pleasure and connection with each other? And I don’t say that to mean like I’m above these labels or anything. In fact, whether it’s after surgery or even before I fully plan to be like “lol remember when I was young and stupid and didn’t realize I was a BLANK.” I just don’t know what that blank is. Is there a test I can take? A Buzzfeed quiz? Would be helpful. tysm!
Rachel, if you don’t mind sharing, what DOES being a top mean to you? Even settled in that identity and dynamic does it mean different things to you depending on your partner?
Rachel: I can try to, yeah! With the same caveat that like, this doesn’t feel fixed and it feels really possible i could read back on this in a year and feel/say something different? I think right now it means most concretely that i feel most comfortable and interested in ‘doing to’ my sex partners rather than having anything done to me, and often even when my sexual partners really want to fuck me or go down on me or etc etc, I feel at best only medium interested in receiving that, and most of the time not really at all interested. In a more meaningful sense that gets more at like, what I actually get out of sex or what it ~ means to me ~, I think what feels really key to me about sex right now and what gets me off most is creating a space and facilitating someone else’s experience in being really vulnerable and feeling intense things, like orgasms or intense sensory stuff or being in a particular vulnerable headspace related to bottoming. But I don’t really have a desire to be in that vulnerable space myself or feel a lot of intense things (at least on a physical level). Most of my hottest sex has been defined by giving intense experiences to other people, and it feels really hot and good to me to sort of be in charge of a sexual experience such that it’s possible for the other person to get to that place, if that makes sense.
But also a layer of this is that I would say I haven’t had totally vanilla sex for…. years now? And so there is maybe always some level of intentional power dynamic or kink dynamic around that, and I don’t really know how much of a difference that makes! I would love to hear thoughts on that from other people!
Drew: That definitely makes sense! I’m curious to hear from you or anyone else who identifies as a top how you decided that that was okay? I guess I feel this pressure or idea that sexual trauma or dysphoria or just good ol’ fashion emotional walls are the reasons to want to focus on doing to instead of being done to and therefore are things to work through. But maybe those things can be the reason and that doesn’t mean they need to be overcome? Not to immediately bring the conversation to a potentially dark place, but I guess I feel a certain guilt or something when I enjoy topping. Like I wonder if there’s this whole other world I could also enjoy or would enjoy more if I just worked through my shit like some sort of bottom FOMO. But maybe that’s not true? Maybe the shit I need to work through is just preconceived notions about what sex is supposed to mean. Very curious everyone’s thoughts!
Rachel: Haha I wish I knew! I was just thinking like, “I should really come back and qualify this by explaining that I went through a soul-crushing divorce and overall personal crucible and it’s really impossible to say whether this is some immutable trait of mine or like an obvious deficit in terms of being able to engage authentically with vulnerability.”
But maybe you’re right and it doesn’t matter? Or maybe the distinction between “real desire for Good Reasons” and “fake desire for the Wrong Reasons” isn’t real, more specifically.
Shelli: I always knew that I wanted to have the most control in any sexual situation; it’s when I felt happiest and most turned on. I wanted to be the one to approach, initiate and more — I wasn’t aware that was going to coincide with a certain sexual title until later.
In my last relationship it started with me topping but then switched more to bottoming. I look on it and think because I was her first wlw relationship, I wanted her to feel safe in her queerness and I thought that giving her more control sexually was one way to do that. When that relationship ended I realized I could have found better ways to encourage her rather than sacrificing my sexual identify, even if it was still gratifying.
That being said, I identify as a Femme Top Leaning Switch – these days light on the switch, and I think my journey in figuring out what I identify as is over. In my most recent casual affairs (wow I sound like an early 90s lifetime movie) I’ve been top in all except one and it all felt comfortable and dope.
Carolyn: Sometimes I talk about my early sexual history like, “well I thought I was a top and turns out…,” and while that’s not precisely true because there wasn’t that type of power dynamic present, I was often the person doing more of the things to partners’ bodies. I also didn’t know I liked penetration, don’t get off from manual stimulation, and have never enjoyed receiving oral because of an early sexual assault, so me doing things to others just made more sense than the reverse. But even though there weren’t explicit power dynamics like I now associate with kink, there were always power imbalances in the other person’s favor – they were more experienced, or they were ten years older – and I eroticized the shit out of that.
Then I had my first real bottoming experiences and it felt like a whole world opened up. The idea of anything else ever again felt inconceivable.
I was a submissive in a lifestyle kink dynamic that began as the truest relationship I’ve ever experienced and quickly became extremely muddled with very real power imbalances and mechanisms of control in ways which I thought were so obvious they went without saying and which that ex did not, I think, realize existed. Giving away power is only hot — for everyone — if you have power to give away. Things would go wrong or I would notice inconsistencies or lies and think, “Well if I give away even MORE power and we agree on protocols for this then that will fix everything!” Which is why I got my divorce papers on my 30th birthday.
In that relationship, which was D/s heavily featuring age play, I was a little girl. The end of that dynamic left me not only not feeling safe being little any more, but also not feeling safe being a girl anymore even as I’ve turned “hard femme” up to 10. With some distance, it’s easier to see that I had gender feelings long before I ever met that ex and that ex had nothing to do whatsoever with me figuring it out (another one did but they don’t deserve the screen time), but the situation did leave me feeling alienated from the kink identity that had felt most true.
Just now I read Rachel’s response that begins “I think right now it means most concretely that I feel most comfortable and interested in ‘doing to’ my sex partners rather than having anything done to me,” and had a moment of, “Wait am I a top???” Because that’s exactly me right now. I don’t want to or feel safe being particularly vulnerable with people most of the time, and while I know and have practice with empowered bottoming, I don’t feel interested in it or in subspace right now. And yet. I also want partners to use my body like a fucktoy just for them. I don’t want to be vulnerable, and I don’t want my body particularly involved in anything we’re doing, but within whatever space they’ve created as a top I want them to use me to fuck and beat the shit out of them and make them clean their come off my floor on their knees afterwards.
I still want to get railed, but mostly I want to think about that on my own time, you know?
Another piece of everything is I also have an additional set of kinks that require a high skillset and knowledge base to practice in a risk-aware sort of way, and I don’t have any doms in my life with those skills and knowledge, so especially in quarantine they’re just somewhat shelved.
Shelli: Ok but Rachel I agreed with so many things that you said.
+ The fact that the ID “top” was at first so intimidating, even though it was something that I was already doing.
+ I agree with enjoying creating a space for the person I’m with to feel, be guided, learn and truly get off is a big factor in me getting off. To be the one in control of taking them to that place is satisfying.
One of the people I was fucking pre-covid though did that for me and it made me switch for her and I think it felt so good to bottom because I didn’t have to “teach” her anything and it was some of the best sex I ever had.
I was hella fulfilled but my natural inclination to top was starting to arise but it wasn’t something I wanted to do with her.
Carolyn: Wow tops you don’t have to teach first? What’s that like lol
(kidding but also not)
Carolyn: Actually, I am curious about the role that experience plays in everyone’s identity or actions, either standalone or relative to any given sexual partner. Shelli your story about bottoming to someone who was in a first wlw relationship was really interesting to me, because often narratives are the opposite
Shelli: I was shocked but the dynamic was immediate. I kinda fought for the control but then stopped. It was great and in that moment in my life what I wanted/needed sexually but I also felt my natural wants starting to rise up so it would have been time for a conversation. Thinking back too, I honestly don’t even think she knew I identified as a top.
Rachel: Carolyn i’m so interested that that resonates for you in terms of bottoming – this is so helpful to me because I think in a lot of my personal experiences it’s worked out such that people bottoming for me has definitely been embodied by them like, allowing me access to their body, but of course that isn’t a requirement or what bottoming inherently “is”! I would love to hear more about what bottoming might look or feel like for you when it doesn’t necessarily include being vulnerable or having your body be ‘done to’ if you’re open to talking about it.
I think in terms of experience like, I’m thinking about what Shelli you’re saying about not having to teach someone (lol) but also about creating a space; I think it was in retrospect a real game changer to me to learn that like ‘technique’ or ‘how’ to fuck someone or get someone off was not really the key skill for topping someone well, and most of that changes person to person anyway; the skill that I really needed most to be a good top was that sort of relational skill of making someone feel safe but also making it clear to both of you that you’re in control — but also opening up space for them to do or feel or be in a vulnerable, uninhibited way. And that that skill was something I already had experience with and actually practice in every part of my life already (like even editing, lmao). And so once I connected more with that and leaned into it more, “experience” per se didn’t feel as important, and topping felt so much more comfortable and natural and people who bottomed to me responded to it so fully. And I guess that’s also the part for me that feels like it bridges “vanilla” sex and kink – is if i’m bringing that sort of relational stance to the encounter, that’s what lets the power dynamic develop, regardless of what “kind of sex we’re having.”
Malic: Yes! I 100% agree with you, Rachel. For me, topping is about curating a sexual experience. “Technique” has its place, but power dynamics, words and creating space for vulnerability are so much more important when you’re getting someone off.
My earliest sexual fantasies (and later, my earliest sexual experiences) involved me topping. Maybe this had something to do with all the straight women I dated as a young person. Maybe I was #bornthisway?
These days I describe myself as a “top-leaning switch.” For me, that means: 1. I consistently enjoy giving pleasure, 2. I enjoy receiving pleasure from specific people in specific situations and 3. I can top from a place of dominance OR can I top from a place of submission.
When I initially learned about sexual roles, I developed some pretty rigid (boring) ideas about who should be doing what during sex. Now I appreciate sexual experiences that challenge traditional scripts of topping and bottoming and/or dominance and submission. If I find myself wondering, “Wait, who’s the top here?” or if a partner surprises me by suddenly changing the power dynamic, then I know we’re compatible.
Rachel: Malic i think this is the first time I’ve heard someone say ‘topping from a place of submission!’ I would love to hear more about what that means to you if you’re interested in talking about it,
Malic: I’m struggling to answer this without providing specific examples. Here’s the best I can do: “topping from a place of submission” would be giving my partner pleasure when they’re completely in charge of what’s happening/ what I’m doing.
Rachel: Yes, that makes sense to me!
Shelli: Ok but Malic this was so expertly explained: “These days I describe myself as a “top-leaning switch.” For me, that means: 1. I consistently enjoy giving pleasure, 2. I enjoy receiving pleasure from specific people in specific situations and 3. I can top from a place of dominance OR can I top from a place of submission.” I wanna cry reading that because it’s so perfect lol I would love your permission to memorize that and explain it to all my future partners. I also agree so much about technique having it’s place vs curating an experience.
I also would like to say that many queer women I have had sex with defined topping being directly correlated with penetration – and that a top is the one who is giving said penetration. I have had to explain to them how untrue that is. A lot of my sexual partners though, I’d say 60 percent, mostly had cis male sexual experiences OR I was the first queer woman that they had sexual experiences with. So perhaps it’s because of the trash way our world has set gender roles that they feel that way? That may be a stretch of a thought but thought it might be worth saying.
Malic: Ah! Thank you, Shelli!
Carmen: This conversation has moved FAAAR beyond this point, but for the official record when Shelli wrote out the words “Femme Top Leaning Switch” (which I’m just reading right now) a calm of recognition washed over me in ways that I did not expect. Ok, as yall were. Also Malic! ““top-leaning switch.” For me, that means: 1. I consistently enjoy giving pleasure, 2. I enjoy receiving pleasure from specific people in specific situations and 3. I can top from a place of dominance OR can I top from a place of submission.”
I obviously have very little to add to this conversation at the moment that hasn’t already been said (which I suppose happens when you join late), but I’m nodding along and agreeing deeply.
Carolyn: Re what bottoming might look or feel like for me when it doesn’t include being vulnerable or having my body receive sensations –
The shortest way to answer this is that while there are a set of actions people normally associate with topping or bottoming, I don’t think any given action or set of actions has to be associated with any particular role, and for me they’re less associated with a given role than ever. The main thing that I do associate with a certain role is the energy or intention behind it – for example, fisting someone as a top has an “oh yeah, take it” energy behind it, while fisting someone as a bottom has an “my fists are your sex toy to use as you want” energy.
I’m realizing that I’m using “submissive” and “bottom” as synonyms when they’re not, but for me the experience is much the flip side of what Rachel describes (“the skill that i really needed most to be a good top was that sort of relational skill of making someone feel safe but also making it clear to both of you that you’re in control but also opening up space for them to do or feel or be in a vulnerable, uninhibited way”), inasmuch as my top is still creating that space and holding it and saying what happens when and how within it, and they are still using my body for their pleasure and we’re both getting something out of it, but the actions involved aren’t the ones people would naturally assume. It’s less about “who’s fucking/hitting/etc. who?” and more about “who has the real power in this moment?”
Malic’s “topping from a place of submission” comes pretty close for me (and is a really perfect, far more succinct way to talk about this), except I in no way identify as a top.
Rachel: Ahh thank you for sharing this Carolyn, this is really generous and also helps me understand a lot better the headspace and sort of dialogic space that defines this dynamic for you, which is so hard to communicate! Thank you everyone, I feel so much smarter and more connected to what we’re all doing here!
What’s your experience been with how you define your role in queer sex (or choose not to)? How have you noticed those things change for you over time, and what possibilities might there be in the future for where your ID can grow? How do you decide what you like or what you do ~means~? We want to know!