What Does Top and Bottom Mean?

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.

What’s the best sex position for you?

On top sex 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.

See all the posts about how to have more enjoyable and consensual sex

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!

This is one of the leading sex and relationships education websites and I need your support to keep it free and ad free. Find out how you can support what I’m doing here.

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.

If you want to learn more about this kind of thing you could take my free Teach Yourself Sex Ed course and do the activities about masculinity and femininity in lesson 3.

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.

Want more?

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

Please leave a (nice) comment below if you like or ask me a question here.

© Justin Hancock, 2024 Find out more about me and BISH here.

See what else you can find out about today!

Or search by category

Or search by tags

A-Z of Porn About You Abuse Arousal Ask Bish Body Image Clitoris Communication Condoms Consent Contraception Coronavirus Dry Humping Ejaculation Erection Feelings Friendships Gender Kissing Law Love Masturbation Oral Sex Orgasm Parents Penis Pleasure Porn Positions Pregnancy Pressure Relationships Safer Sex Saying No Self Care Self Esteem Services Sex Education Sexting STIs Teach yourself Team Bish The Right Time Trust Vagina

If you have a question that I’ve not already answered you can contact me here

Did you find my advice helpful? How would you make it better? Please let me know in this quick survey. It would really help me a lot and it’s also really nice to hear to hear from you!

Most of my readers like to stay updated via email. So sign up here and get an automatic email every time I post a new resource on here.

And you can also keep up with me via social medias (I’m not very active but I try to post when I’ve done a new thing). TikTok. Insta. Twitter. YouTube.

Did I mention that I’ve written a book? If you buy it via my Bookshop then I earn more money and that helps me keep this website running.

This website is free and free of adverts and thousands of people visit it every day. To keep it that way it relies on your support. Here are all of the ways you can support BISH and keep us going.

I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

If you’re over 18 and would like an advanced version of BISH check out my podcast Culture Sex Relationships. Also I’ve written a sex advice book for adults with Meg-John Barker called A Practical Guide to Sex available wherever you get books. We also did some zines to help you to figure out what you want from sex and relationships. They are at our website.

If you are an educator please don’t just show this website in class, they aren’t designed to be used as teaching resources. Instead, facilitate your own really great RSE with my resources at bishtraining.com.

14 thoughts on “What Does Top and Bottom Mean?

  1. My GF is Trans, but she is the top in our relationship. And we came to this naturally, we didn’t really speak much about it early on.

    1. Yeah sometimes these roles just emerge. It might be something that you want to check in on from time to time because it’s easy to write our own scripts. Like ‘this is what we usually do’ or ‘this is how we do sex’. But it sounds like it’s going great, so yay!

  2. I’ve been questioning feelings I’ve been having, I’m in a committed hetro relationship (I am male) but I find myself being attracted to gay pornography and fantasies, however, I have no interest in being a bottom at all, in fact the thought is a turn off. Am I bisexual or something completely different and is my stance an accepted one in the gay community or will I be shunned?

  3. I’ve been questioning feelings I’ve been having, I’m in a committed hetro relationship (I am male) but I find myself being attracted to gay pornography and fantasies, however, I have no interest in being a bottom at all, in fact the thought is a turn off. Am I bisexual or something completely different and is my stance an accepted one in the gay community or will I be shunned?

    1. Great question! If I get time I might try and answer this in a full article. For a start you might want to read my article called What’s Your Sexuality which might help you. Sexualities aren’t fixed, they are a constant process of becoming. We learn our sexual selves from asking ourselves questions like the ones you have asked me, by having relationships, exploring fantasies, and chatting with other people. If this is something you want and feel able to explore, you could just pay attention to it. It doesn’t mean that you’re relationship is wrong, or that you don’t fancy the person you’re with, or that you have to do anything about anything. Fantasies can just remain fantasies, but they are more likely to be enjoyable if they are something which you can gently allow yourself to experience rather than shutting them down (easier said than done of course). Also fantasies might not mean what you think they mean, they don’t necessarily reveal our ‘truth’. Our ‘truth’ is the act of becoming that I was talking about just now. It’s partly something we make happen and it’s partly something that happens to us.

      As for your question about not bottoming. There are loads and loads of gay and bi men who are just not into bottoming. There are also loads and loads who aren’t into topping or bottoming. As I’ve explained in the above article, there’s a bit of a ‘should story’ about how when people have sex there is a top and there is a bottom. There might be, but that doesn’t mean there should always be. Many sexual relationships don’t involve roles in this way at all and are instead a ‘flow’ of sexual energies which come and go, and move around, and involve constant change and movement in many different directions. I wrote a bit more about that when I talked about sexual assemblages in this module of my Teach Yourself Sex Ed course Hope that helps!

  4. My guy finds it uncomfortable to be top during sex. I, the female in the hetero relationship, don’t care if I’m either or. But I wonder why the guy doesn’t like topping.

    1. That’s a really great question. There are loads of reasons why guys don’t like to top during sex, some of which I’ve explained above. I guess it also depends on which kind of topping you’re talking about – being ‘on top’, being the person inserting a part of their body (eg penis) inside the other person, or being the active one, or being the dominant one in a kink scene. He could have a bad back or find ‘being on top’ uncomfortable – in which case you could talk about your needs from sex How to Meet Our Needs Perhaps he’s really not into fucking, which I know a lot of guys aren’t, in which case you could talk about different kinds of sex that you might both like more OMG Yes, No, Hmm: work out what kind of sex you like. Maybe he’s someone who prefers sex to be really mutual, with an interchanging of who is active and passive at any given moment. Think of the way that a snog can be really mutual because you are doing something with each other at the same time. Maybe he also just isn’t into the ‘big man thing’ of taking charge and is wanting to give you space to ask for what you want – which sounds pretty good to me. How To Be A Man. Perhaps if it’s that you want to be a sub he doesn’t want to be a dom? As you can see the rules and should stories about men and women in heterosexual couples can be really narrow and restrictive.

      So my advice would be to try to open up conversations with him about this. Don’t say ‘why won’t you top me’ but instead try to have a series of open conversations about all of the things that you might like. Try to chat about your wants and needs as well as his. I know that it can be hard to talk about what you want and to have those conversations, but that is only because you have probably had really bad sex education. There are loads of resources on here to help you to figure this out between you. If you want to give me more detail you can message me via the Ask Bish section

  5. Usually I don’t write comments but I just must tell you that I’m really impressed about how you reacted to this in my opinion very rude comment. I mean most people would just be mad about the comment and be also unpolite theirself but you even offered to explain it again for this person. And I think that you already did a pretty good job with this article.
    It’s very interesting

    1. I did say it was complicated because it has several meanings (which I cover at the beginning). I can give you an answer more relevant to your situation if you want to give me a bit more info?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.