View From The Top: Topping While Butch

I ran my hands through the row of floggers hanging at Mr. S Leather in San Francisco: cow, deer, elk, buffalo, rubber. I pulled a long, solid black deerskin flogger off its hook and balanced the weight of it in my hand, pulled it back to feel the way it fell when I swung my arm. Deer is so incredibly soft, much softer than the other kinds of leather, and my personal favorite to play with. It can create such a wide range of sensations — from the thud from using the midpoint of the leather on the thick of someone’s back, to the sting from just the tips.

One of the salesmen (and they are all men) asked if I needed help. He was wearing tiny leather shorts, a thick chain collar with a lock, and tall laced-up leather boots with ringed athletic socks sticking out of the top. I shrugged, unselfconscious, and we chatted a little, until the salesman went off to flirt with someone more promising.

My boy came back from looking through the wrestling singlets. “Find anything interesting?” I asked, still playing with the floggers.


I eyed the flogger in my hand, and then eyed him. “Turn around,” I said, and he did. I threw the flogger a few times toward his upper back, missing his body by a few inches, but getting closer with each throw, feeling into its length and power. He made a few grunts as it started to make contact with his body, the sensation dulled through his clothes. Explicit, rough porn featuring muscled cis gay men played on a TV mounted on the wall in front of him.

I don’t think about being read as a “woman,” as butch; I don’t think about coming in with a trans boy. It doesn’t concern me what they think. I wasn’t explicitly looking to buy a new flogger, but I played with them anyway, totally at ease in the space.

When I purchased my first flogger, it was an entirely different situation. I spent weeks thinking about it — maybe months. The one hundred-plus dollars price tag was a month’s disposable income then, when I was 23 and struggling to put myself through school on scholarships and a personal assistant job that paid ten dollars an hour.

I would go to my local feminist queer women-centric sex toy shop, Babeland, in Seattle, and pet the dozen or so floggers they had in stock, dreaming about bringing one home, and dreaming further of actually using one on someone else. Though I’d tried them at workshops, and practiced a little with friends, I had no real idea how to ask a girl if I could flog her. I couldn’t just come out and say it, right?

Aside from that, I was having serious doubts about topping. Or maybe it was that I was having serious doubts about presenting more masculine, which I’d been exploring more and more strongly over a few years. My growing butchness felt exciting and comfortable in that liberating way that shedding societally enforced gender roles does, but now that I was pursuing topping, the combination of the two was tying my brain up in knots.

For a while, topping and masculinity felt like two separate paths that I was going after simultaneously, but as both matured and I became more confident in each, they of course had so many places of overlap. And, being mired in lesbian feminist women’s studies as I was, I looked at everything through the lens of social construction.

Do I just want to top because I think that’s what butches do? Do I want to be butch because of societal expectations that the more masculine person is the top? Have I internalized this expectation that these two things line up? Am I just doing it because that’s the way it had to be? Would I be more accepted, and seen as a “real” butch, if I was a top, rather than a bottom? Would I be seen as a “real” top if I was masculine, rather than feminine? And what about some sort of in-between thing — neither butch nor femme, top nor bottom, but gender-fabulous and switchy and excited to play with whomever, however. But does that really fit me?

Or am I really these things that, deep down, I know that I am?

It’s not that the topping and masculinity are intrinsically related — one of my main topping mentors was a femme top, and the combination of femininity and power is potent. But society equates these things, showing endless examples of men, maleness, masculinity as in charge, the sexual aggressor, the hunter.

I continued to mull it over. I talked to friends, to mentors. I read as many books as I could. I went to workshops. I talked about it in chat rooms online with strangers. I journalled furiously.

Still, it took me years to settle into the idea that masculinity and topping were actually, authentically my identities. Just as there’s nothing wrong with them being unlinked, there’s nothing wrong with them being linked, either. Ideally, all possible options are available, and we get to go along with whatever fits for us — gender, sexuality, power, and every other identity category. Because both butch and top carry privilege, the time I spent examining them felt crucial.

And perhaps that’s exactly it — that the examination, much more than its outcome, is the key. I went in to deeply explore all options, all possibilities available to me, and to consider each one with equal weight. They are all valid, after all. But some of them, when I tried them on, fit better than others. Some of them felt like something inside me clicked, like I breathed a sigh of relief and some locked-down place deep in my belly finally relaxed.

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Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is “the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queer women” (AfterEllen), who “is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places” (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Sinclair identifies as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor and an introvert. Follow their writings at Sugarbutch Chronicles.

Sinclair has written 43 articles for us.


  1. “Some of them felt like something inside me clicked, like I breathed a sigh of relief and some locked-down place deep in my belly finally relaxed.” ??????

  2. I can totally relate to this, though my experience is opposite: when I top/dom I feel intensely feminine. In fact, as I’ve been tentatively identifying as non-binary over the past few months, and exploring what that might mean, I’ve realised that the only times I’ve truly felt like a woman are when I’ve been topping. So there’s a link there, and it’s definitely socially conditioned in some sense (the “perversity” of it?) but that doesn’t make it less genuine.

    Can also totally see how the intersection of butchness/masculinity and topping would cause a whole different set of worries – nicely articulated.

  3. Interesting read. When I first got to know her Mistress was very butch and not very Domme, and although we got on there was no way were going to have a relationship (not because of her butchness but some other personal issues that I won’t go into).

    As time has gone by, and after the personal issues were resolved, she’s gradually moved to be less butch, far, far more confident as a Domme and more assertive in every day life. (We’ve obviously moved into a relationship too.)

    So fascinating to see it go the other way for you.

  4. “And perhaps that’s exactly it — that the examination, much more than its outcome, is the key.”

    This. This is why I love reading your work, Sinclair. Thanks!

  5. Hi. You asked for suggestions. In most of your posts you show a place of vulnerability where you’ve qustioned yourself as Top/Dom and/or Butch/Masculine. Has there ever been a time when you explored with riff and had no self doubt 2) how do you handle it in public if/when you are questioned? Is it part of your protocol to be as vocal at, let’s say a restaurant. Is your boy required to ask in a loub voice to use the chair at the table or the restaurant? Do you display that showy side of dominance, making him feed you perhaps, in front of the world?

  6. I remember a similar struggle. Was really a woman born with a penis? Was I a gay male? Was a lesbian? What I was was truly confused and it took time to sort it all out, after all there were pressures from all sides and most of all from within. Gender and sexuality can be so confusing when they are not aligned along a straight path. All I knew at the time was that I was far from straight and thought myself not a male/man and wondered why I needed to be a woman.

    As you say I had to try things on to see how they fit; sex with men as a man, sex with women as a man, sex with men as a woman and sex as a woman with a woman. I had learned that sex as man in any shape was wrong for me. I found I liked sex with both men and women as a woman and living as a made me profoundly happy and at peace. I had also discovered that for me men were like horses, fun to ride once an awhile but a real pain in the ass to feed, water and clean up after every day. I also discovered that I am far from vanilla in my exploits. I have my kinks, I’m intrigued by bondage and I’m submissive on the whole of it. In time I fell in love with a woman, transitioned and that my friends is a heartbreaking tale for another time.

    Sinclair thanks for reminding us its not always the destination but the journey of self discovery we should be mindful of.

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