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.