So is there a place for them in your sexual lexicon, or have they become an exclusionary tool for pigeonholing how people operate sexually? It's complicated, to be sure, but according to experts, it's possible to use sexual identifiers like top and bottom in a positive way.
Back to basics: What tops, bottoms, switches, vers, and sides mean, sexually speaking
The exact definition of these identifiers will vary depending on the context of the specific sexual situation and the community in which it's being used. For people in leather, kink, or BDSM communities, for example, the terms describe someone’s desired role within a power exchange.
“‘Top’ is the word for the more aggressive or dominant partner, while ‘bottom’ is the term for the more submissive partner,” says Texas-based sex educator Goody Howard, MSW, MPH. A "switch" is someone who would derive equal amounts of pleasure from either role, depending on the situation. When consensual impact play (any sexual scenario in which physical impact—like spanking, for instance—is used to provide pleasure) is involved, the bottom tends to be the more masochistic partner while the top tends to be more sadist. Meaning, the bottom typically derives pleasure from receiving pain, punishment, or humiliation, while the top may enjoy inflicting said pains.
In the broad queer community, these terms are usually used to explain who is physically on the top or bottom. In missionary-style intercourse, fingering, or oral sex, for example, the partner literally on their back is the bottom, while the partner face-down is the top. Here, the identifiers "switch" and "vers" are used interchangeably to describe a person who enjoys both positions.
However, in the community of gay penis-havers, the terms "top" and "bottom" are used to signal whether someone is penetrating, being penetrated, or both (regardless of who is physically on the top or bottom). “The top is a person who enjoys penetrating, the bottom is a person who enjoys receiving penetration, and a vers or switch is a person who enjoys both,” says Tanner. And "side," coined by clinical sexologist Joe Kort, PhD, in 2013, describes queer men who neither enjoy receiving nor giving penetrative anal sex, and instead prefer other sex acts like mutual masturbation, hand sex, rimming, and kissing.
“Typically, tops are thought to be more dominant, while bottoms are thought to be more submissive.” —Casey Tanner, certified sex therapist
“In addition to actual sexual behaviors, these labels often come with certain social roles or scripts as well,” Tanner adds. “Typically, tops are thought to be more dominant, while bottoms are thought to be more submissive.” And we’re not necessarily talking about how someone is in bed. “These labels are sometimes used within the queer community to describe 'energy' or personality, rather than just sexual behavior or a preferred sexual position.” For example, someone might be described as having “top energy” if they appear dominant, have a strong personality, or radiate confidence, she says.
Benefits of using identifiers like tops and bottoms in sex
Whether shared in a dating bio or in conversation with a potential partner, these sexual identifiers may make it easier to find lovers, especially in the queer community. “Being forthright about a top, bottom, or vers label may increase the likelihood of finding someone who’s sexually compatible with you earlier on in a social interaction,” says Tanner.
Publicizing the label you identify with may also help you find your sexual subculture, which researchers define as a group of people that shares a set of norms, values, beliefs, and sexual preferences or desires that are considered deviant by the dominant culture. Someone interested in having sex that is different from that dominant majority (queer, kinky, gender-explorative, etc.) may publicly signpost their sexual modifiers on social media, for example, in order to connect with other folks—sexually or platonically—who share their proclivities.
Doing so can help a person cultivate a sense of community, which can in turn help folks shed a sense of shame. The mere existence of the label and reality that many people use it means these folks are all in good company, says Tanner. And since strength can come with numbers, that alone can be shame-extinguishing.
Limitations of using sexual identifiers
While sexual identifiers can be helpful for dating and finding a sense of community, they're certainly not the final word on compatibility of any sort. "Compatibility is based on a number of factors," says Tanner, citing examples like aligned values, morals, a shared sense of humor, and common intellect. And when it comes to the sexual stuff? Compromise is generally a fruitful tool to facilitate compatibility among folks who have supposed misaligned identifiers in sex, like multiple tops or multiple bottoms, says sex educator Searah Deysach, owner of pleasure-product company Early to Bed.
And, it's worth pointing out, not all tops are sexually compatible with all bottoms, just as not all sides are compatible with all sides. Likewise, socially, not all people who are interested in similar sex acts are destined to be friends.
Beyond compatibility among friends and potential partners, sexual identifiers are, at best, a single marker of a person's preferences (or even personality)—but they're just one marker of many. Giving too much credence to that single marker—which can, by the way, evolve and change over time—can have an isolating effect. Just as any other label (mom, Catholic, lawyer, etc.) can feel limiting or prescriptive in certain situations and over time, the same is true sexual identifiers. “Because these labels often come with certain expectations and stereotypes, someone may begin to feel like they can’t explore anything outside of the expectations of that label,” says Tanner.
Consider the top, for example, who meets a partner they do want to bottom for. Does that top allow themselves the freedom to switch roles, or do they let their attachment to a top identity keep them from lying? on their back? “If identifying as a top stops you from exploring that desire, you may be missing out on new sexual pleasure,” says Deysach.
How to use the sexual identifiers in a positive, additive way
“If these [terms] interest you and you want to explore using them, start with a personal inventory of what you like and what kind of sex you want to have,” says Deysach. Make a list of your best sexual experiences, noting the sex acts you tried, the physical location of your body during the sessions, and energetic exchange.
If you don’t have an inventory of sexual experiences to draw from, Tanner recommends fantasizing. “When you fantasize, notice what acts or roles your mind wanders to that feel most sexy,” she says.
And during partnered play, explore, explore, and explore some more, Tanner adds. “Viewing these labels as descriptive, rather than prescriptive, allows you to live them out in whatever way feels most authentic," she says. "The experiences that you find most pleasurable may or may not align with a certain label, and that’s okay. The most meaningful practice is to maintain an ongoing curiosity about your sexual desires.” And that stands whether you use these labels or not.
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