If you’ve spent any amount of time on TikTok lately, or just social media in general, you’ve probably seen the prevalence of jokes about being a top, bottom, or switch. Most are pretty harmless and poke fun at sexual stereotypes, but if you’ve never heard those terms, you may be wondering: just what is a top, bottom, or switch?
As part of our ongoing series about communication and consent in intimacy, we wanted to break these terms down and talk a bit about the culture and history behind them. We’ll also talk about ways you can explore each role with ongoing consent, regardless of orientation or sexuality.
Who can be a top, bottom, or switch?
These terms are most often associated with queer culture and the LGBTQ+ community, and more specifically with cis gay men, according to Huffington Post. However, lots of queer people use these terms, and they’re especially popular among teens on TikTok and social media.
The jokes are so prevalent that people of all orientations often use them in the kink community, too. In BDSM play, partners often set up scenes using props, toys, and roles for each person to play. It’s not uncommon for a femme dom, or a feminine-presenting dominant (think dominatrix vibes) to describe themselves as a “top,” especially if they’re pegging someone or generally using dominating sex positions. We love this kind of play, by the way, because stepping outside gender norms and comfort zones is a great way to make intimacy in a relationship fresh again. Just make sure all partners are consenting and discuss the play and kink that’s going to be happening beforehand!
We’d like to mention that some queer people may not like it when people outside the LGBTQ+ community use these terms, because “top, bottom, and switch” were so specifically created for them. Many times, queer people will respond differently to the usage of words or reclaimed terms; some don’t like to use the word “queer,” while others have reclaimed terms that were previously slurs. We won’t repeat those here, but just know that like any marginalized group, it’s important to respect each person’s preferences if they don’t want a word applied to them or prefer not to hear a certain term.
Top, bottom, and switch are not slurs, but be cognizant and gentle about using them for yourself and others if you’re not LGBTQ+. And never, ever assume someone is a top or a bottom based on their physical appearance or style. Judgment is never cool, plus it gets in the way of healthy partner communication.
What is a top or dominant?
Okay, so what IS a top exactly? According to Huffington Post, “tops (or dominants) prefer penetrating and/or being in control in bed.” This means the top is usually the person doing the penetrating during anal sex, or in couples where one or both partners has a vagina, penetration during vaginal intercourse.
And, of course, penetration isn’t always done with a penis. Lots of couples use strap-ons and dildos, which is part of what makes the term relevant for BDSM play! Topping for queer women or any couple where a partner has a vagina can also include fingering or oral sex, among many other fun, sexy activities.
It’s really important for tops to continue communicating with the person receiving sexual attention and stimulation throughout play. “Does this feel good? Do you want more? Is this okay?” are great questions to ask to ensure enthusiasm. If your partner isn’t able to communicate verbally (we’ll let your imagination take hold there), check for body language and have a safe word or movement beforehand.
What is a bottom in a relationship?
As you’ve probably already guessed, a bottom is someone who receives penetration and prefers being the one penetrated, versus giving it. Again, this could apply to cis men who enjoy anal play, queer women using a strap-on, or any person of any orientation or gender who likes anal or vaginal penetration.
By the way, pegging, anal play, and receiving sexual attention do not make you gay. We love straight cis couples who explore pegging or using anal plugs to create new sensations.
According to Huffington Post, though, bottom-shaming is a real problem among cis gay men. Even LGBTQ+ communities are still affected by the patriarchy. Madison Moore, a cultural critic and queer studies professor, wrote on Thought Catalog in 2014 that “this attitude is wholly cultural and deeply rooted in how we think about gender.” Moore wrote that the stereotype is that “men are supposed to be men. Like, men don’t take dicks up the ass.”
We would never support bottom shaming of any kind and encourage everyone to explore. Variety is the spice of life, and sex!
What is a switch in roleplay?
Simply put, a switch enjoys taking on both roles from time to time. And it’s more common than you think. An Autostraddle survey found that more than 50% of queer folks identify as a switch, and that people identifying as top or bottom were actually in the minority!
According to that survey, switches most often enjoy:
- Doing a little bit of both, like enjoying both giving and receiving in the same play session
- Preferring one, but being down for both
- Doing one or the other based on their partner’s preference, or even how they feel that day. As one survey respondent wrote to Autostraddle, “sometimes I’m in a more dominant mood and sometimes more submissive.”
So hey, don’t feel left out if you fall into the switch category. You're in good company, and you’ll find yourself with people of all gender identities and orientations. Also, as any good switch knows, you’re allowed to change your mind! Don’t like bottoming or topping in a particular moment? Switch it up and let your partner know you’d like to try something else. Ongoing communication is key!
How can I try something new?
Alright, so you’ve learned a bit about bottoms, tops, and switches. But how do you decide which you are, and how do you communicate it with a partner?
The simple truth is that the only way to find out is by trying. We encourage tons of self-pleasure and masturbation, which is a safe space to find out about your desires and how you like being stimulated. We have a range of warming toys that can soothe you while you explore, like Sway, the vibrator that features a tip for G-spot stimulation and a tip for P-spot stimulation. Perfect for straight, cis partners to explore new sensations! Or consider Tilt, a vibrating, warming anal plug. Both toys reach just above body temp for a really relaxing, orgasmic experience.
Once you’ve tried new types of play and orgasms alone, it’s much easier to chat with your partner. These conversations can still feel vulnerable, especially if this concept is new to you or you’re nervous about stepping outside gender roles. Still, the payoff is so worth it. Couples in all relationships deserve to try new things together, and each partner deserves full expression of their desires.
So which are you? We hope you consider challenging yourself to rethink whether you’re a top, bottom, or switch. And hey, the journey and pleasurable exploration is the real destination after all. Go forth, pleasure seekers!