feature art: Autostraddle
Welcome to The Gay B C’s of Sex! Each month I’m defining a different sex-related term that’s used within the queer community. I’m crafting these definitions with help from queer archives, pop culture, interviews, and more. Keep in mind that terminology — especially when it comes to sex — varies widely across communities, and no single definition or article can encapsulate every individual’s experience with these terms. Use this column as a jumping off point for your own reflection and conversation in the comments.
What’s a power bottom, or rather, who is a power bottom? Is a power bottom someone who’s bossy in the bedroom? Is a power bottom someone who just really likes to get railed? Is a power bottom one of those superhumans with a superhole who can ride a dildo that’s approximately the girth of a coffee can? Depending on whom you ask, a power bottom might be any or all of the above and more.
When it comes to sexual roles in the queer community, the terminology can get a little slippery (pun intended), so let’s keep this particular definition as broad as possible:
power bottom (n.) — a person who finds power in receiving sexual pleasure from a partner
“You know what else? He’s a power bottom — he LOVES it.” — Patrick in Season 1, Episode 4 of American Horror Story
Before we get into the “power” part, let’s talk about bottoms.
According to most writing on queer sexual roles, the terms “top” and “bottom” emerged from the gay leather subculture of the 1950s as a means of describing power dynamics between partners during sex or S/M play. The “top” was considered the aggressor or penetrator during sex, whereas the “bottom” was considered the more “submissive” partner and/ or the person being penetrated. With the popularization of the hanky code in the 1970s, the use of these terms became even more common.
These days, “top” and “bottom” are used throughout the queer community, and the definitions are broader than they used to be. While everyone has different opinions on what exactly makes someone a bottom, most people use the word “bottom” to refer to a person who receives sexual pleasure (not necessarily penetration — any kind of sexual pleasure) from a partner in one specific instance (“I hooked up with that hot femme farmer yesterday and I was the bottom”) or in general (“I’m a bottom”).
“Bottom” can also be a verb (“Why am I walking like I just dismounted a horse? Oh, I bottomed last night”). Here’s how Allison Moon uses “bottom” as a verb in Girl Sex 101: “to bottom is to practice the great art of receiving…as a receiver, the giver is in service to you and your pleasure. It is your job to navigate. It’s her job to drive.”
So when and where did the term “power bottom” arise? Well, remember when I investigated the origins of “lesbian bed death” last month and those origins turned out to be a mystery? Seeking the earliest uses of “power bottom” has led me down a similar path into the Great Gay Abyss.
In a NewNowNext article, sex therapist Dr. Joe Kort said the term “power bottom” originated in the gay male community sometime in the 1990s…and that’s all I’ve got. Who was the first brave soul to declare themself a power bottom? Buddy, I wish I knew, because if they’re still around, I’d like to shake their hand and take them out to brunch.
Now let’s get into the definition of “power bottom.” According to Dr. Kort, a power bottom is “someone who knows what he wants and takes control of the penetration.”
Bisexual writer Zachary Zane offers a similar definition.”They’re the kind of sex partner who doesn’t just lie there; they’re controlling the tempo of sex along with the depth of penetration,” he writes. “They’re telling their partner to switch positions; no way do they wait for the top to tell them what to do. They know there’s a difference between being penetrated and being submissive, and that even when you’re getting on the receiving end of intercourse, you can still be the more dominant partner.”
After reading about power bottoms from the perspectives of gay and bi men, I wanted to get a better handle on who is/ what makes a power bottom according to queer women and trans folks. I asked around — and the power bottoms of the internet were VERY eager to share their thoughts. Here’s what they said:
“I call myself a power bottom because exactly and literally as the term implies: I like to have all the power, and I also like to receive.” — Anonymous
“I was having sex with a partner one time and I had been on top of her teasing and touching her for a while. And then I took her and flipped her on top of me, then pulled her into me to finally let her touch me. She started laughing and said, ‘That is the definition of a power bottom.’” — Maddie
“…I feel like there are kind of two definitions. One is a bottom that runs the show and is more dommy while receiving, and the other definition is the one I’ve always used and that applies to me — a bottom that can take pretty much anything. I’m a size queen, a masochist, always ready for new kinks, you name it. I’ve been called a power bottom because I’m enthusiastic and proud about how much I can take, plus I can keep going and going (and going and going…) forever.” — Rachel
“I’ve been called and call myself a power bottom because I’m most comfortable being in a position of perceived weakness. I enjoy being controlled, being used. Being someone’s toy is an incredibly hot dynamic to me, but only for so long — I get bored easy.” — Blair
“A power bottom is someone who bottoms with power! A person who owns who they are, loves their sexual experience and how they move through the world, and enjoys riding dick (real or silicone).” — Sean E
“In one sense, it’s as simple as being an active participant in your own bottoming. Controlling direction, speed, and intensity with your own movements, not just ‘taking it.’ It’s also a mental thing — like you are psychologically in charge of the fucking as the receiver.” — Kaitlin
Here’s what all of these power bottoms have in common: they find power in receiving pleasure. Sometimes their power comes in the form of dominance (“I took her flipped her on top of me”), but sometimes it comes from submission (“I enjoy being controlled”) or from having pride in their sexuality (“A person who owns who they are”). And unlike the definitions of “power bottom” from queer men, most of these the definitions from queer women and trans folks don’t mention penetration. Sure, being a power bottom might involve some finger-fucking or phallus-riding, but according to most these folks, you don’t have to be penetrated in order to claim the Power Bottom title. Given the variation in these definitions, I’ve come to the conclusion that the power bottom is in the eye of the be(hole)der.
So do you get to call yourself a power bottom? Well, do you feel like one? Then go for it! If a term like “power bottom” helps you feel proud of what you’re into or if it helps you efficiently communicate something about your sexual interests to potential partners, then grab that term and use it. Just make sure you’re sharing your personal definition of “power bottom” with your partners since, as we’ve just learned, definitions vary from person to person.
If you’d like to learn more about bottoming in general, check out Ari’s “Bottoms Up” column, Ryan’s “You Need Help” article about bottom4bottom dating, our readers’ definitions of bottoming, our readers’ thoughts on sexual roles, our team convo about sexual roles and power dynamics, and our latest episode of Wait, Is This A Date?!.