Some people like to top and bottom when they have sex, but what is this, who does what and do you have to do it?
The simple explanation is that the top is who puts their penis, fingers, or sex toy in someone. The bottom is the person who has something put in them.
It is a lot more complicated though. Someone can be a top without putting anything inside anyone. This means that someone can be a top without having a dick. For example a woman could be a top or a bottom (or both).
It can also have a more literal meaning. Like who is ‘on top’ in a sexual position.
It can also be about what the dynamic is about who is deciding on what happens and taking the initiative. So someone who is more active is the top and someone who is more passive is the bottom.
It can also be about control. The top might have control over the other person about things like; what kind of sex that they have, how they do it, or the relationship as a whole. This can be done with consent and it’s a kind of kink. It can also be done without consent and so is just abusive.
Find out more about kink and how it can be done consensually and safely
Do you need to top and bottom?
You don’t have to do this top and bottom thing – I’m just explaining it. A lot of people really aren’t into this.
For many people sex is much more of a sharing kind of thing where they do lots of different kinds of things together rather than one person being ‘the top’. Many people find that they either do a little bit of topping or bottoming, or a bit of both or are a bit neutral. Some people like to say that they are are ‘versatile’ or a ‘switch’. Also it’s totally fine for this to change over time.
For a lot of people, sex isn’t really about the dynamic but just the kinds of sexual activities they may enjoy and working out what they do, when they do it and how they do it.
If being a top or bottom isn’t for you, fine, but if you’re interested please read on.
Who is the top and bottom
Sometimes I get asked about how people work out who is the top and who is the bottom. The answer is, it depends. I think the top and bottom thing is strongly linked to power and the power dynamic that is going on between the people having sex and the relationships in general.
Like I say in this post about power there are usually differences in power in relationships and one person has more of it than another.
This power comes from their identity: things like how old they are, their class, their abilities/disabilities, their race, their sexuality, their gender. For example it’s often just assumed that with a straight couple the man will be the top and the woman will be the bottom. Another example could be that with two women the more experienced woman might be the top (because she knows what to do).
A lot of this stuff is based on some pretty big assumptions and stereotypes that you might not agree with
Sometimes people also decide who is the top and bottom by thinking about their different personalities. Often people who are kind, caring, compassionate, quiet, a sharing type are seen as being ‘the feminine one’ and so the bottom. Often people who are active, a leader, opinionated, outgoing, loud, a provider are seen as being ‘the masculine one’ and so the top.
As you can see a lot of this stuff is based on some pretty big assumptions and stereotypes that you might not agree with. Me either, but I’m just explaining it. Don’t get cross at me!
Who ‘should’ top and bottom
So people often rely on stories for who ‘should’ be the top and who ‘should’ be the bottom. The man. Whoever is most masculine. Which person has a penis. The dominant one. Most confident one. The older one. Or the most experience ‘should’ be the top or will ‘top’. The woman. Whoever is most feminine. Which person doesn’t have a penis. The less confident one. Whoever is younger. Or the person with lesser experience ‘should be’ the bottom or will ‘bottom’.
This is based on a very heterosexual understanding of the world – we call that heteronormativity. But a lot of gay and lesbian sex partners might find themselves doing the same kind of things – which is homonormativity.
Some people actually find that this works out for them pretty well. Often people find that if they just follow this script then it’s easier because they don’t have to talk about it. Often people are just fine doing what is expected of them in this way, even if they are aware that they are relying on stereotypes. It can lead to them having the kinds of sex that they enjoy anyway and it can be spontaneous and exciting.
However, not everyone who ‘should top’ will want to or will enjoy it. Not everyone who ‘should bottom’ will want to or will enjoy that either. For example: a lot of men find that they don’t really enjoy ‘taking charge’ but find that this is just expected of them so they have no choice. So if people don’t check in that this is what they want then it may well be non-consensual sex. Even if the sex was consensual it may well just be rubbish sex because they were both not really doing the kinds of sex that they actually find hot.
“For the first few weeks of the relationship I was topping him and it was okay – it was his first time and didn’t really know what to do so I took the lead. When we got talking about it though I realised that actually that doesn’t even really do it for me and he’s not really getting a lot out of bottoming or even penetration at all. So we started to do other stuff like wanking, stroking and grinding which we’re both really enjoying and it’s much easier just to kind of take turns and switch around a lot.”
When people talk about top and bottom with sex it often just assumes that one person is going to be penetrating another person – even if this isn’t something that someone likes. There are, of course, lots of different kinds of sex that people find more enjoyable than (eg) penis in vagina sex.
Talking about who tops and who bottoms
Some people like to talk about who tops and who bottoms or even whether this is important for them at all. Like I was saying before – topping and bottoming can be about a particular activity
“Before we first had sex we had a quick chat via text about some of the things that we both like doing and how. For example I said that I really like f******g (vaginally) but that I like to be on top for that so I can control how deeply it goes in and how fast we go. He really liked that.”
Or it can be about the whole sexual experience:
“It’s a turn on for me that the other person really takes control. There was this one time when the other person stopped at the beginning and asked if everything was okay – I was just lying there and she was worried that I wasn’t into it. We had a quick chat to say that it’s specifically hot for me that the other person takes control. I said that I would tell her really clearly if I wasn’t into a thing and also that she will be able to tell if I’m enjoying it – I kinda make a lot of noise when things are going well.”
Or it can be about the whole dynamic of the relationship:
“In my relationships I really like to be the person who is making most of the decisions generally – just quite basic stuff about what we do, where we go, what we do around the house. It can be super hard to do because I have to be really aware of my partner’s needs at all times. Even though they specifically consent to this and are really really into it, I have to remember that they might find it harder to tell me if anything is wrong. So I constantly have to pay attention to them to make sure they’re cool with it. It’s weird because even though I’m making all the decisions I feel like they have more power than me – which is how it should be really. It’s called topping from the bottom.”
How to top and bottom consensually
So if you can talk about who tops and bottoms first then that is great. But even if you do it’s important to keep paying attention to consent – remember that consent in an on-going thing.
Even if you’ve talked about everything before hand, or if you’ve not really talked about it before it’s important to be constantly paying attention to what is happening. So like I explain in this post, it’s about looking for all the ways that people communicate throughout the whole experience. Look for facial expressions, eye contact, noises, words or phrases (OMG, mmmm, um, ugh etc), how their body reacts (or doesn’t react) to things, whether someone is tense or relaxed, or how you both respond to each other.
Thinking about on-going consent is super super important if you are the ‘top’. As I wrote in the example above (yeah, totally made those quotes up) if you have more power than another person in a relationship it’s harder for them to say what they want.
So if you are the top or have more power generally it’s on you to make sure. This means paying attention to them but also occasionally checking in “how are you feeling?” “need a minute?” It’s also about finding ways on neutral ground (ie, when you aren’t sexing) to ask open questions about how they are feeling about things and finding ways to keep that conversation open at all times.
Gender – how to work out your gender (it’s not just ‘man’ or ‘woman’)
How Consent Feels – and a simple way to practice it
Fifty Shades of Sex Ed – the sex ed guide to ‘that’ book
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.