Against the top/bottom dichotomy


cn: it’s about sex positions, but it is not graphic

I hate the top vs bottom dichotomy as it is used by gay/bi/queer (GBQ) men. If this is something that you like to use for yourself and to understand others, that’s well and good, and I will not deny it to you. But there’s a lot of stereotyping and politics that goes into it, and it’s obnoxious from the perspective of a person who prefers to opt out.

First, at the risk of overexplanation, I should make sure everyone is on the same page. “Top” and “bottom” refer to sex positions, with top being the penetrative position, and bottom being the penetrated position. They can also be used as verbs, or to people. A top is someone who prefers the top position or takes the top position, and a bottom is someone who prefers the bottom position or takes the bottom position. If someone swaps positions, or doesn’t have a preference, that’s called “versatile”, or “vers” for short.

The top/bottom dichotomy is primarily used in the context of men who have sex with men. However, it is occasionally used in other contexts, and the fandom context is of particular note. I mention this because I’ve found that some readers were only familiar with the fan context, and did not realize that I was talking about a real world concept. So, for the fandom folks, at the end I’ll include a discussion of the top/bottom dichotomy in a fan context.


A compulsory identity

“Top” and “bottom” don’t just refer to sex positions, but also refer to sexual and social identities. The top is seen as the more dominant, and more masculine partner, and the bottom is the more submissive and more feminine partner. There are other cultural markers and associations beyond that, but I believe the association with gender expression is the strongest component.

Some men will proudly say that they are bottoms, and there’s a sense of defiance of normative gender roles and normative sex roles. However, in my experience as a person who prefers to opt out of the dichotomy, I find that it is coercively applied to me. On many occasions people have directly asked me or my husband whether we are tops or bottoms, for the sole purpose of forcibly applying identities to us that we have not outwardly expressed any interest in. The underlying logic is that everyone is having sex or wants to have sex (even though that’s not true), and therefore everyone is either a top or a bottom (or vers, if anyone ever remembers that one) and therefore everyone exists in relation to these two personality archetypes.

Top vs bottom is a perpetual in-joke that GBQ men use to bond over, with many jokes presuming everyone fits into the dichotomy. I’ve been to social events where, as an icebreaker question, they ask everyone whether they’re a top or a bottom. A common joke is, after seeing a couple interact with one another, to say “Well we know who is the top and the bottom in this relationship”. Another one is to say that a relationship is dysfunctional because both partners are bottoms.

It’s also common to lament that there are too many bottoms, and not enough tops. Sometimes, people seem to believe that this is because tops are the sort of men who claim to be straight but still have hookups with men. Other times, this functions as a criticism of other gay men for being too feminine or submissive.

People treat it like a joke, but this covers for the fact that people actually believe this stuff. Attitudes towards the top/bottom dichotomy are well-studied in serious research. I reported on the latter study a few years ago, and found multiple quotes from men who adopted top or bottom identities because of where they fit in relation to the social roles.

It all comes back to gender

A lot of what makes top and bottom stereotypes so complicated, is that gender expression is huge issue in the internal politics of GBQ men.

Men with more feminine gender expression are more visible, and more stigmatized as well. For a long time, their enhanced visibility has caused them to dominate the public image of gay men. Men with more masculine expression sometimes express resentment at having to deal with an image so unlike themselves. Men with more feminine expression are angry that they are not only stigmatized by society, but also have to deal with the resentment of other GBQ men.

I’ve heard these narratives play out many times in the coming out stories of men around my age. Some of them, when they were teens, were widely thought to be gay because of their gender expression. Others have said that as teens they wanted to be disassociated with the “obviously gay” people. As they got older, they learned to live with and love each other, but we still have the collective trauma to deal with.

The particular way that this trauma plays out may differ depending on your age and social context. Before my time, there was the AIDS crisis, which led to anxieties that bottoming might be a particularly risky practice. I can only imagine how that screwed up people’s relationship to sex and gender expression.

I think the reason some people like making jokes about the top/bottom dichotomy, is that it’s kind of a tense topic, and humor is good for relieving tension. But given the tensions, we ought to appreciate that for some of us it isn’t very funny.

Are the fans alright?

I wrote about the top/bottom dichotomy a little while ago, and I found that some readers were confused, because they were only aware of the topic as it appeared in a fandom context. I do not have much experience in fandoms, but apparently some of my readers do, so let’s talk about it.

In slash fanfic, it’s common for one partner to be the “top”, and the other to be the “bottom”. This not only describes the positions they take in sex, but also their personality archetypes, with the top being more dominant and the bottom being more submissive. To my understanding, this is not necessarily explicit within the fiction itself, but is a widely recognized trope commonly discussed outside of the fiction.

Who is the top and who is the bottom is sometimes the subject of shipping wars. A notorious shipping war in recent memory was about whether BBC’s Sherlock Holmes was a top.

In the fandom context, characters who alternate top or bottom are sometimes called switches rather than vers. It’s an interesting choice. It appears to borrow from the dominant/submissive dichotomy in BDSM, where “switch” refers to a person who switches between the two roles. If you look up “top/bottom vs dom/sub”, you’ll find many articles explaining the distinction, as if it were a common misconception to confuse the two. But in fandom spaces, conflating top/bottom with dom/sub seems to be the norm. I feel this goes beyond misconception.

It’s really hard to see fandoms in a positive light on the subject of tops and bottoms. When GBQ men identify as tops or bottoms, that’s just whatever they personally find useful. But when fans try to classify characters as tops or bottoms based on their personalities, it feels like inventing a fictional world where the stereotypes are all true. And there’s a lack of awareness that tops and bottoms are even a thing in the real world, judging by the number of readers who were surprised by that. A quote on the Fanlore page reflects this viewpoint:

And after all, the whole top/bottom thing is a fantasy, really, when you’re talking about it like it’s an orientation. Mostly, human beings navigate their sexual encounters based on what sounds fun and pleasurable to them that day, and furthermore there are lots of sexual activities that render the entire debate irrelevant.

I’m not a fandom participant, so it’s hard to say anything conclusive on the subject. Some readers may have their own opinions, and well there’s a comment section down there for you. All I can say is, it feels exploitative, and makes me want to avoid fanfic. If tops and bottoms are just a fantasy to you, then you could take the basic step of calling it something else.

Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve come across the term “power bottom” now and then, which seems to mean “bottom and dominant”?

  2. says

    Fanfic communities are extremely off-putting to me. A lot of these people are utterly blind to their own sexuality. I feel like there’d be a good opportunity for AMAB and AFAB people to bridge some misunderstanding about what we have in common if the 99% AFAB fanficcers writing 99% M/M ships realized they’re doing the exact same thing as AMAB gynephilic types fetishizing lesbians. (Of course I’m not saying these have the exact same cultural impact or potential for harm since the genders don’t have equal social position, just that this is screamingly obviously the same instinct.)

    If you know what your problematic sexual interests are because you are aware that they *are* sexual interests, you can regulate them. A lot of those ficcers are basically in a 24-7 horny-on-main circle-jerk, but don’t acknowledge the behavior as sexual, and end up hurting people.

    That’s mostly each other, because having your sexuality judged hurts and when they discourse it gets fueled by those bent and sublimated feelings. They’re triple upset and they don’t understand why so they come up with reasons that barely make sense. What they’re really feeling is the same thing any of us feel when sexually teased by other kids in elementary school.

    I’d just like to see more self-awareness from them, at least. And for them, recognizing that it mostly *is* sexual, to be appropriately circumspect about it in mixed company.

  3. says

    @Rob Grigjanis #1,
    Yes there are terms for people who don’t line up with the norms, “power bottom” is the one I’ve heard most. The fact that people need to label this just goes to show.

    @sonofrojblake #2,

    Your phrasing here seems to imply you’re sceptical that it’s a common misconception, even as you point out the multiple articles explaining it. Not only is it common, I’d go so far as to say it’s not even a misconception – it’s another, slightly distinct usage.

    Yes, I am skeptical that conflating the top/bottom and dom/sub dichotomy is a “misconception” exactly. As you say, it seems to just be a distinct usage.

    Wait nevermind I decided to block your comment based on the rest of it.

  4. sable says

    The vast majority of people reading and writing fanfiction are cis women or afab enbies. For reasons that probably boil down to lust, misogyny and gender ratios in the source material, a really substantial proportion is m/m.

    I have no doubt that the top/bottom distinction was intended as a stab at authenticity by fans wanting to be respectful and then others adopted the terms with less research, but being so separate from the mlm community, appropriation was fairly inevitable.

    “But when fans try to classify characters as tops or bottoms based on their personalities, it feels like inventing a fictional world where the stereotypes are all true.”
    This is really accurate. Fandom loves taking an established system and seeing how unrelated characters look in it, which is mostly fun and harmless.
    There are a handful of world-building systems in fic that vaguely resembled or were associated with old fashioned gender norms, which were adapted to further resemble extreme gender norms and spread virally. While some people do use this to comment on gender norms and feminism, for a lot of people the appeal seems to be that once the less masculine man is shoved into a feminine role they can play out a “he’s a boy, he’s pretty much a girl, …”
    Top/bottom is one of the earliest ones of these, which means that it is a lot less disturbing in regard to consent and very narrow roles, but also unusually widespread and possible for fans to fight about.

    (I can’t comment as much on fandom as a whole. Fandom is massive and split into a great many communities.

    I mostly read fanfiction on AO3, because the labelling and search systems are very good and the authors tend to be a little older. But it also has a lot of explicit works and slash works compared to other sites. (You get different systematic issues in het and femslash.) Fanfiction.net has similar trends in slash, but with vastly more top/bottom stuff, especially in anime. However, reading fanfiction on Sufficient Velocity, a male-dominated sff forum, is a massively different experience.

    Fan music and wiki fandoms are also very different and have very different cultures. There is a lot of fandom.)

  5. lumipuna says

    Thanks for writing this. I know the top/bottom distinction mainly from BDSM usage. I was vaguely aware that it originally started with gay men, but I didn’t know it’s still a thing in mlm scene.

    Likewise, I was aware that both gay men and lesbians are often stereotyped as either masculine or feminine type, but didn’t realize this stereotyping is also commonly done within the queer community.

    I sometimes intuitively use top/bottom to describe any kind of active/passive role in sex, kinky and vanilla, because it seems logical to me. One time I did this in an online discussion with various queer or otherwise sex positive people. A gay trans woman then asked me, “BTW do cishets ever identify as top/bottom?”

    My first thought was that many kinksters do, because we use these terms. On second thought, I’m not so sure about this. Many people in the kink community seriously identify as dom/sub/switch, but it could be that people mainly regard top/bottom as just technical descriptions of sexual activity (and nobody seems to use the word vers in kink). It could be that people usually identify in terms of dom/sub/switch, or if they aren’t at all into d/s play they may have some specific fetish identity or no particular sexual identity. Personally, I have interest in both topping and bottoming in fetish play, generally without d/s aspect, and it doesn’t feel much like an identity for me.

  6. says

    @Lumipuna #4
    At least one article I found claimed that top/bottom originated in gay leather culture and BDSM culture in the 50s and 60s.

    I suspect that the distinction between top/bottom and dom/sub is a more recent invention. And the conflation between the two isn’t so much a misconception, as it’s just following the original meaning. But I didn’t do the historical research, so that’s just speculation on my part.

    Top/bottom is sometimes used in a het context or f/f context. But when possible, I try to speak narrowly to my own experience, so I can’t speak for other contexts.

  7. lumipuna says

    I recently saw someone claim that the whole BDSM scene started as an outgrowth of gay leather culture. However, others in that thread claimed that the BDSM/kink culture as a whole has “many roots”, as they put it. Now, it seems faintly possible to me that top/bottom and dom/sub originated in different subcultures (the former almost certainly in gay leather scene) as attempts to describe essentially the same thing. Then the two systems came to be used more universally and somewhat differently from each other.

  8. says

    Gay erotica written by female fanfic writers can be fascinating if you feel like facepalming. In the weird fictional worlds they create, taller men must prefer to penetrate and shorter men must prefer to get penetrated during anal sex. Same goes for dudes who have either stereotypically masculine or feminine personality traits/hobbies. And somehow there are no fictional male characters capable of enjoying both options during anal sex.

    I get that some people in real life have strong preferences for what they enjoy or don’t enjoy during sex, but it would make more sense for majority of people to enjoy various different things (or at least be willing to experiment with various things). Not in the fictional literary worlds though. There is no way a writer will allow her top fictional character to get anally penetrated even once in his lifetime before he firmly decides that he cannot possibly enjoy it.

    I also loathe the weird expectation that the more sexually experienced person must be the top. Somehow that’s another of the literary rules. Yet here I am thinking that during anal sex it is beneficial for the person who gets penetrated to direct the pace (as in “my butt muscles are sufficiently relaxed now, you can proceed”), otherwise things can get painful.

    And I strongly disagree with writers who seem to imagine that feeling sore for days after anal sex is somehow sexy and nice. I sometimes get the impression that many of those women who write gay erotica have never had anal sex. Or maybe even no sex at all. Search for literary erotica and you will find loads of anatomically impossible weirdness! For example, just how did so many literary characters get self-lubricating buttholes?!

    I feel like this whole stereotype-laden and imaginary construct is just some remnant of patriarchal gender roles, which tries to emulate “male” and “female” roles in same-sex relationships. But why would you even want one person to fulfill the male role and the other to perform the female role among gay and lesbian couples? More importantly, why do you even want these stereotypical male and female roles among heterosexual couples? Nobody except misogynistic conservative assholes should want to enforce these outdated, silly, and prescriptive norms in a relationship among two people both of whom are unique individuals who would be better off just being themselves. And if among some couple neither person fulfills the imaginary and artificially constructed masculine or feminine role, that’s fine.

  9. cartomancer says

    I have noticed that the top/bottom dichotomy seems to be overlaid with far more of this heteronormative gender nonsense by US gay men than it is in other parts of the world. In my experience UK gay men tend to see it as purely a description of preferred sexual position, and don’t make any assumptions about the personality or behaviour of the individual so described. Indeed, when we did have an American gay man among us at university he was quite puzzled that his assumptions on the subject didn’t travel very well. We still have certain issues where it comes to stereotyping of gay men as “feminine” or “masculine”, but generally this isn’t conflated with top or bottom identification. I would say that it is about as significant as whether you are left or right handed to us – people ask about it on hook-up apps because it affects whether they will be compatible, but don’t really flaunt it as an element of personal identity beyond that context.

    Also, we tend to see it much less as an either/or thing and more as a ratio. It is quite common over here to describe oneself as, say, 70% top, 30% bottom, or some such thing. Though people who identify as completely top or completely bottom are not uncommon (I myself fall into this category).

  10. says

    As someone who reads a decent amount of both original and fan content centered around men having sex with men but targeted at female audiences, one of the things I actually find interesting is the *lack* of use of the terms in a lot of the original content itself, where despite the strictness of the tropes around it it’s often vanishingly rare for it to be explicitly acknowledged or discussed (at least in contrast with both it’s frequency in actual gay male culture, and it’s indeed often-problematic presence as a term in meta discussions among fans). It feels like it’s almost taboo in certain corners of the genre because that would require characters 1. Actually identifying as gay and interacting with gay culture and 2. Having actual previous sexual histories and preferences, instead of just being a fantasy of “two men who just happened to fall in love~”.

  11. says

    What actually weirds me out the most lately is not necessarily the fandom thing (where it’s annoying but at least it’s usually still in the context of actually talking about having sex) but the way that joking about analyzing things like who has “top energy” and “bottom energy” has become popular as like, the vaguely queer equivalent of the Hogwarts sorting hat quizzes that were all the rage when I was in middle school. It was already awkward when it came up in lgbt spaces but it’s even more ??? when it’s out in the wild. Like, this is actually just gender roles all over again!

  12. Prax says

    Ah, yes. Mi-aoi.

    I have had many a conversation with people who were like “Why is it always men objectifying women?” and I was like “well actually” and they were like “isn’t that gay men doing it to each other?” and I was like. oh hon.ey no.

    .

    I have taken to shouting “A penis is just a tongue! A secondary, somewhat lower, reinforced, tongue! You can experience through it, you can be experienced through it, you can even make another you!

    “But ask first!

    “Anyway! You can even hold it, and/or let it hold its peace. All things are possible through the unHoly P! Just don’t bother people with, or use it to bother the holders thereof.”

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