If you’re first exploring queer sex — or kink — it can be intimidating enough already; it’s easy to feel as if you’re starting all over again, and everyone else knows things you don’t. It can be even more confusing to see terms you don’t recognize floating around, like “top” or “bottom.” You may feel like you can never catch up, or will always be seen as inexperienced if you don’t feel an immediate connection to these terms. It doesn’t have to be that way! You can get situated and learn some key context quickly and easily. Here’s what I think you need to know about what it means to be a top.
What a “top” means in vanilla sex
If we’re talking about tops or bottoms in the context of having “normal,” or penetrative, sex, first of all, we are generally talking about queer sex. Although, of course, there are many ways to have sex for people of all genders, and sex doesn’t have to involve penetration, sex between people of different genders doesn’t necessarily involve a top and a bottom. In queer sex — sex between people of the same gender or with the same set of genitalia — people often choose to take on different roles within the sex act: a top is someone who takes on the role of doing or performing sexual actions to the other person. If the sex they’re having involves penetration, the top is generally the one penetrating. (If you’re having lesbian sex between two people with vulvas, a top might wear a strap-on, although they certainly don’t have to.) In very broad and oversimplified terms, the top is someone who does in sex, and the bottom is someone who is done to.
That’s the simplest definition of a top in logistical terms, but in a more felt human sense, the top is somebody whose sexual interest and gratification is in doing rather than being done to. This generally means that, in addition to the physical satisfaction or pleasure that you get from sex, part of the appeal of sex for you is taking that more active role.
It’s important to remember, however, that while some people experience these terms as identity in that it forms a large part of their self-concept, for many of us, it’s more useful to think of these as roles. That is to say, things that you do rather than things that you are. Just because you like having sex a certain way now or have had sex a certain way in the past doesn’t mean that’s what you might always like. It’s totally possible that while you generally prefer to do rather than be done to right now, you might want to try something different in the future, and that doesn’t have to mean anything significant about your identity or personhood. Remember that top can also be a verb; it’s okay to just think through what you like or feel interested in right now, rather than getting hung up on who or what you are.
What a “top” means in kink
Tops — and bottoms — have a related but unique meaning in kink contexts for both straight and queer people. While a top in gay sex is someone who takes on a general active role, kink involves a specific power dynamic: someone who willingly gives up some control, and someone who willingly takes on a role of controlling the interaction — that second person is the “top.” This power dynamic can look like a lot of things depending on what kind of kink dynamic is at play – dominance and submission, sadism, discipline, role-playing, etc. The role remains consistent in that all of the actions in this dynamic are “done” by the top — if there’s spanking, they’re the ones doing the spanking; if there’s restraint, they’re the ones tying someone up, etc.
But there’s also a nuanced psychological component that’s different than topping in vanilla sex; being a kinky top is also a kind of persona that one chooses to take on as part of the power dynamic agreed upon during a kink scene. Depending on the top’s preferences and that of their partner(s), they could be authoritative, cold and aloof, sarcastic, kind and motherly, or a dozen other things — the point is that they’re doing some level of reciprocal role play, taking on a position of power at the invitation of the other person. In addition to sex acts, they might direct the other person to do something, make or enforce rules, or challenge/reassure their partner from their position of the roleplay, telling them they’re being bad/naughty or good. Crucially, unless the people involved in the kink dynamic have agreed otherwise (which does sometimes happen!) this roleplay is only for the duration of the scene/sexual encounter; being a top, even a kinky top, doesn’t mean you’re in charge of your partner 24/7, or that you have control over them in the relationship itself.
Tops also sometimes call themselves “dominants” or a “Dom/me” — this is related to being a top, and generally someone who describes themselves in this way also fits all the characteristics we would see in a top. However, someone involved in Dominance/submission as a dominant may have more investment in and get more satisfaction from the psychological elements listed above than the literal sex acts — to them, topping is mainly about embodying their role as a figure with power in their dynamic and expressing that power in their dynamic with their partner. Giving instructions, making rules or enforcing rules with consensual punishments might be more of a priority over literal sex acts.
Are there different types of tops?
There are! Although the term itself has a rich and nuanced history and connotation in queer and kink spaces, people might use newer, evolving terminology to articulate what “kind” of top they are. For instance, many people (correctly or not) associate topping with masculinity; someone may identify as a “femme top” to make clear that they present femininely and at the same time take a dominant role in sex. A “soft top” might be someone who does take control during sex, but in a kind and loving way, and may treat their sex partner as someone to care for and nurture during sex scenes rather than someone who follows orders.
These terms are constantly in flux, and evolving with time; you may find terminology that either resonates with you or resonates with what you’re looking for in a partner, or it may not feel important to you to drill down on specific labels. Both are fine!
How do I know if I’m a top?
Again, it’s important to emphasize that you don’t necessarily have to think of being a top or bottom as a fixed, immutable identity that you discover about yourself or can be right or wrong about. However, if you’re wondering whether you’d like to explore topping or an identity as a top, here are some things to think about.
When you fantasize about sex, what are you usually doing in these fantasies? Is it especially powerful in fantasies when you’re “doing to” someone else? If you don’t figure as the main character in your own fantasies, or you’re imagining a more removed scenario, do you feel especially aroused by the person taking action or “in control?” When you think back to sexual experiences you’ve had in real life, are there any trends or throughlines between the specific parts that are most thrilling to you?
Remember that these are questions that can remain open, and you can continue thinking about this (and experimenting with it in your sex life) indefinitely!