What Does It Mean to Be a “Bottom” or “Submissive” in Lesbian Sex?

Like so many elements of queer culture, nailing down the terms “top” and “bottom” are harder than you might think. Whether you’re perusing queer personals, swiping on Tinder or talking to your friends at an inappropriate volume in a public park; it seems like most LGBTQ women and trans folks are eager as beavers to identify as a bottom, top or switch.

via PERSONALS: A text-based dating & community app for queers, a kickstarter you should donate to

I remember these terms being a part of queer women’s discourse from the jump, which for me was the mid-aughts. I started out identifying as a top, decided I was wrong about my whole life and adopted bottoming, and have recently settled into being very much a switch. Who knows what will happen next! Besides the rapid death of democracy and the equally rapid rise of fascism! Life is a journey. Let’s start this one.

The Tops, Bottoms And Switches Sex Survey

Last week, I presented you with a survey about these slippery words, and over 3.6k people showed up to share their tops and bottoms with me. These are the demographics of the respondents:

Sex Survey Demographics = Age: Under 18 (1.2%) 18-24 (25%), 25-34 (56%), 35-44 (14%), 44+ (4.5%) // Sexual Orientation: Lesbian (43.4%), Queer (30%), Bi or Pansexual (19%), Gay (6.2%), Other (1%) // Gender Identity: Cisgender Woman (71.2%), Transgender Woman (3.4%), Non-Binary or Genderqueer Person (7.8%), Other (8.3%) // Relationship Status: Single or Dating, Not Having Sex Regularly (30.6%), Single or Dating, Having Sex Regularly (8.7%), In a Monogamous Relationship (32.6%), In a Non-Monogamous Relationship(s) (9.3%), Married & Monogamous (15.5%), Married & Non-Monogamous (3.2%)

(this graphic was made when only 3.4k people had responded, percentages have not changed significantly since then) // right-click to open and enlarge

I’ll be going through the data gradually over the next month — we’re starting at the bottom with bottoms and submissives, then about tops and doms, then switches as well as people who don’t employ those terms at all. We’ll also talk about sub-identities (bratty bottom, power bottom, service top, etc.) and look at the data as a whole and how it intersects with various identities. Each week’s data will build on last week’s and will be very satisfying for nerds and fans of sex. And isn’t that an identity we can all agree on!

How Many Bottoms Are Out There?

Tops: 12% // Bottoms: 14.3% // Switch: 51.6% // None of the Above: 13.4% // I’m Not Sure: 8.9%

Although these terms/identities seem popular and ubiquitous, our survey revealed that people who identify specifically as tops or bottoms are in the minority overall.

What Is Bottoming?

We’ll talk more about the history of these terms and lesbian sex discourse around top/bottom dynamics in a few weeks, but real quick: before queer women’s culture adopted top/bottom as terminology relevant to non-kinky sex, the terms were primarily used by gay men or in kink or BDSM contexts by both straight and LGBTQ+ people.

Survey responses suggested that there are three distinct approaches to these terms from queer women, trans men and non-binary people:

  1. “Bottom” as an identity relevant to non-kinky sex;
  2. “Bottom” as a concept relevant to kinky sex, distinct from “submissive”;
  3. “Bottom” and “submissive” as interchangeable concepts within kinky sex.

Now that we know there’s literally no way to define any of those words in a way that speaks to everybody’s experiences, let’s try!

What Do Bottoms Like To Do In Bed?

We asked survey-takers to indicate their passion for giving and receiving a variety of sexual acts, and also asked them to define what “bottom” means to them. We’ve included some of the most popular activities below. (Note that scissoring / dry-humping was not included on the survey as it has no clear giving/receiving dynamics.) The penetration-related activities mentioned in the below graphic involve fingers and strap-ons because they were the acts most statistically numerous in our survey results, but of course other kinds of penetrative sex exist, including with toys or with penises when some amab transfeminine people or trans women are having queer sex, and are enjoyed by many bottoms of all kinds. While bottoms expressed a similar level of interest in giving external stimulation as they are in getting it, there was a distinct preference for receiving when it came to all penetration-related activities.

WHAT BOTTOMS LIKE TO DO IN BED: Fingering (Vaginal Penetration): 68.6% like giving, 81% like receiving // Oral Sex (Genital): 77.8% like giving, 78% like receiving // Strap-on Penetration (Vaginal): 20% like giving, 68% like receiving // Vaginal Fisting: 9% like giving, 21% like receiving // Fingering (External Genital Touch): 81% like giving, 87.6% like receiving // Nipple Play: 70% like giving, 76.5% like receiving // Anal Penetration: 12.5% like giving, 37% like receiving.

So, “Bottoming” Can Mean…

Getting Penetrated Exclusively or More Often

For gay men, tops penetrate and bottoms get penetrated. In lesbian sexual culture, the only word that absolutely means “I don’t get penetrated” is “stone,” but many bottoms defined their role like this one bottom did: “the one being fingered, the one being fucked by the strap on, etc.” 30% of bottoms said digital penetration was one of their favorite things to receive and 32% said the same for strap-on penetration, compared to 9.5% of tops and 5% of tops, respectively.

“I think being a bottom typically just means you like getting fucked,” Al, the non-binary writer who got real deep into bottoming for you in their Autostraddle column “Bottoms Up,” told me, “and tbh that usually just means you like being fucked first, since people (hopefully) tend to reciprocate.”

One blissful bottom on our survey described bottoming as “one who follows the lead of a more dominant partner during sex and/or the partner who is usually on the receiving end of sex acts, although since queer/lesbian sex is so varied, that can be more the feeling of being the one getting fucked than a specific role in a specific sex act.” Oral sex, for example, can truly go either way — going down on somebody can feel super toppy or super bottomy, depending on the context, the power dynamic, the dirty talk around it, and other physical actions and cues.

Letting Someone Else Take Control Of The Sexual Experience

On our survey, only 10% of bottoms said they liked “being in control” in bed, and a whopping 47.4% said they actively don’t like being in control. This came up a lot in respondents’ own definitions too, with one blissful bottom defining their persuasion as: “Someone who is happiest letting other people take the lead in a bedroom situation.”

“Bottoming is an act,” says Al, “which to me means choosing to let someone sort of determine the direction our sexy time will take.”

“To me, being a bottom means I like to cede control in bed,” wrote one boutinful bottom on our survey. “I am kind of a control freak normally, so letting someone else take control can be very liberating.”

“It’s not a literal physical stance/position for me,” said another brilliant bottom, “but related to a lack of comfort in initiating the situation, taking control, etc.”

We asked about initiation on the survey, too — 32% of bottoms (not an insignificant number!) like initiating sex, compared to 76% of tops and 65% of switches.

Preferring To Be Pursued

Oftentimes top/bottom identities play a role in how a person identifies potential partners and subsequently make suggestive connections with them, regardless of what happens when they actually get into bed, remove their clothing, and begin rolling around naked while sticking things inside each other. Of bottoms, 29% enjoy pursuing a new partner (and 28.5% don’t like it), but 64% — over twice as many — enjoy being pursued.

Receiving… Something

Allison Moon, in her excellent book Girl Sex 101, says “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.”

“It took me a while to figure out I was mostly a bottom,” says Casey, a passionate lesbrarian. “I think at first I thought top and bottom were only for gay guys? I only really realized because it dawned on me that for my partners it was an absolute must to be doing things to me for them to be excited and for me it was like, oh that’s fun but not strictly necessary for me to be turned on.”

While almost all our survey-takers don’t not like receiving pleasure, 93% of bottoms and 93% of switches actively like it, compared to 65% of tops. However, the vast majority of tops and bottoms were into pleasuring their partner — but that could mean so many things! Although many assume that fucking someone with your hand or a toy can’t possibly be the same turn-on that it is for a cis man fucking someone with a penis, it very often is. For one thing, so much of sex for women is psychological. For another, there are lots of ways to stimulate your clit if you have one while fucking, and many toys and strap-ons are designed with that in mind. As one switch put it, “I’m a giver, 90% of sex for me is enthusiastic giving until my partner is satisfied. That’s what feels good to me and turns me on, by the time they’re done i’m ready to pop and it takes about 10 seconds to finish.”

We didn’t ask about orgasm on this survey (we should have), but in Autostraddle’s 2015 Ultimate Lesbian Sex Survey open to queer women and anyone who identifies with that experience, in which only kink-identified people were asked if they were tops or bottoms, both tops and bottoms reported orgasming during partner sex at pretty much identical rates.

Kinky Bottoms and Submissives

Within a kink context, “bottom” can mean something different. According to BDSM-focused The New Bottoming Book, a “bottom” is “someone who has the ability to eroticize or otherwise enjoy some sensations or emotions — such as pain, helplessness, powerlessness and humiliation — that would be unpleasant in another context.” It does seem that most survey-takers who adopt “top” or “bottom” identities have some interest in kink, too — and bottoms were actually more likely to be kinky than tops or switches. 41% of bottoms identify as kinky and 44.6% said they don’t identify as kinky but sometimes enjoy kinky sex.

What Do Kinky Bottoms Like?

WHAT KINKY BOTTOMS LIKE // Being In Control: 11% like it, 51% don’t like it, 38% are neutral. // Not Being In Control: 91% like it, 2.5% don’t like it, 6.5% are neutral. // Receiving Pain: 65% like it, 15% don’t like it, 17% are neutral. // Inflicting Pain: 60% don’t like it, 10% don’t like it, 27% like it // Consensually being used for someone else’s pleasure without regard for mine: 60% like it, 13% are neutral, 21% don’t like it // Consensually using someone else for my pleasure without regard for theirs: 62% don’t like it, 9.6% like it, 18.6% are neutral

Three activities on our list of “elements of a sexual experience” were distinctly favored by self-declared kinky bottoms than non-kinksters, included on the chart below.

In comparison to the above data, 14% of non-kinky bottoms like receiving pain, 62% like not being in control, and 22% like being used for someone else’s pleasure with no regard for theirs.

But within the context of kink, what separates the concept of “bottom” from “submissive”? In consultation with Carolyn, we decided to separate “bottoms” and “submissives” on our survey. Only kink-identified survey-takers were subjected to an additional survey page with questions about dominants/submissives and sub-identities therein, and now we’re gonna talk about those results.

How Many Submissives Are Out There?

Well, ladies and otherwise-identified people, while rumors of a Top Shortage may be overstated, the queer kink community may indeed be suffering from a Dom Shortage.

Doms / Subs / Switches: 16.2% Dominant, 35% Submissive, 41% Switches, 4.9% none of the above, 2.9% I’m Not Sure

Of all kink-identified bottoms, 90% identified as submissives.

The Difference Between Bottoms And Submissives

“A bottom likes to be directed because it’s easier to please those who know what they want,” said the only bottom to identify as a switch in kink play. “A submissive gets off on the command and obey pattern and tension.”

Nate, a trans guy and a switch in his twenties, explained the difference this way: “Bottoming definitely doesn’t automatically mean anything kinky (same for topping), while submissive (and dominant) mean something more specifically related to kink and power play.”

In a group chat on the topic, Al pointed out: “Submission is a fucking GIFT: just because I’m bottoming for you doesn’t mean I’m your submissive.”

Carolyn, who identifies as submissive, added: “Also, just because someone is submissive doesn’t mean they’re bottoming!”

Many survey submissives didn’t consider there to be a difference between the two terms, but most did. All that’s clear is that these words, like so many things, are fluid as fuck.

“I identify as both a sub and a bottom, but subbing means something more specific for me — choosing to temporarily give power and control in a situation to another person(s) and letting them determine the course of events based on our negotiations,” Quinn, a non-binary person in their late twenties, told me. “It often comes with an implication of a particular high level of intensity in that power exchange. When I say I am a bottom, I am referring to this as well as more broadly being on the receiving end in less power-heavy sex.”

On our survey, there were as many different definitions of this distinction as there are bountiful bottoms in this pure earth, but aside from the eroticization of power play, the majority drew the line around kink (“a submissive is a kinky bottom”) or between a physical position versus a state of mind. Those who fell into the latter camp were also more likely to define bottom as being more logistical than psychological. Other interesting comments included:

  • “A submissive can be dominated into GIVING. In my opinion a bottom can be dominant but receiving, giving but submissive, receiving and submissive, but NOT dominant and receiving.”
  • “I would argue that bottom isn’t always a D/s term, while submissive is very very rooted in D/s. Bottom feels inherently queer, whereas submissive can be un-queer.”
  • “Submissive refers to power play, whereas bottom refers to sensation play.”
  • “A bottom /might/ give up power to their top. A submissive /will/ give up power to their dominant.”
  • “Subbing isn’t about whether you’re the top or bottom, it’s about the power in the dynamic. you could be the person flogging somebody else, but if it’s happening bc somebody else told you to, that’s topping and subbing.”
  • “Bottom doesn’t have the same power exchange connotation. Bottoms may get fucked but don’t necessarily enjoy pain or humiliation. Submissives get of on doing what their partner says, which can include fun subversive things like topping from the bottom (the inverse of service topping)”

The concept of “submissive” as a lifestyle came up a lot, too. “The submissive yields/gifts control to the dominant,” wrote one sub, “and sometimes that’s for a scene, and sometimes that is 24/7 depending on the individuals.”

Carolyn explained her relationship to the terms this way: “To me, being submissive informs my whole way of interacting with the world and succeeding at it and being my best most powerful self, and bottoming is part of that but not a huge part. ”

One of my favorite Bottoms Up posts is Al’s piece on being submissive 24/7, in which they articulate this glorious possibility:

Beyond relationships, and most excitingly, thinking about myself as a person who is submissive 24/7 means that I can approach different areas of my life submissively. It’s an exciting challenge for me to think about how in my everyday interactions I’m able to submit to and serve my communities, my colleagues, even my students — I’m not being kinky with them, but I’m thinking kinky. In general, it means I’m thinking more critically as well — I’m running less and less on autopilot and thinking through the lens of submission instead. For me that means I focus less on perfection and more on working my hardest.

There are many more deviations within: power bottom, bossy bottom, little girl/baby girl, masochist, that we’ll talk about in a future column.

Finally: Don’t Assume Anything

Is it true that femmes were more likely than mascs to identify as bottoms? You bet! Does that mean all femmes are bottoms? Absolutely not! Making assumptions about somebody’s bedroom behavior based on gender presentation is never a safe bet.

Nor is it safe to assume bottoms prefer certain sex acts or dynamics. Bottoming can mean so many different things, all at once or independent of each other: proudly showing what you can “take,” being ravaged for somebody else’s pleasure, having all the focus entirely on you, being bossed around, or just a slight preference for having a dildo inside you instead of looped into a leather harness around your waist. However you bottom — if it’s consensual and you’re having fun, keep it up.

C U Next Tuesday to talk about tops!

Lesbian Sex 101 is Autostraddle’s series on how to have lesbian sex for queer women and anyone who finds this information applicable to their bodies or sexual activities. Employment of the term “lesbian sex” in this post uses “lesbian” as an adjective to describe sex between two women or people who identify with that experience, regardless of the sexual orientation of the two people involved.

Sex ed almost never includes queer women or our experiences, so we’re exploring pleasure, safety, relationships and more to make that information more accessible.

A lot of the language in these posts is intended to make them easy to find on search engines.Some of the body parts we talk about will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Some of the pronouns will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Some of the sexualities will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Some of the language will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Take what you want and what applies to you or what you can make apply to you and your partners and your experiences, and leave the rest!

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.


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