I remember a Tumblr post that changed my view of vaginas forever, as Tumblr posts are wont to do when you’re 16 years old and on the family computer late at night. The user was analyzing the semantics of how we talk about sex. Why, they wanted to know, is sex always considered to be a penis penetrating a vagina? Why are penises always dominant but vaginas always submissive? What if we flip the narrative? What if the vagina envelops or engulfs the phallus? What if the penis is the submissive one of the pair?
This heteronormative example can be easily applied to queer relationships, too. The one who receives is the 'bottom,' the one who gives is the 'top.' The language lends itself to the stereotypes that the former is the submissive and the latter is the dominant. Indeed, the labels 'top' and 'bottom' are often used interchangeably with the labels 'dom' and 'sub' — but is this always true? And is it a fair assumption?
In 2018, an Autostraddle survey discovered that 47.4% of lesbian bottoms prefer not to be actively 'in control' during intercourse and only 41% of bottoms identified themselves as kinky.
Nate, a trans man who identifies as a switch, contributed to the survey with an important clarification: "Bottoming definitely doesn’t automatically mean anything kinky (same for topping), while submissive (and dominant) mean something more specifically related to kink and power play."
I think what tops do — give rather than receive — can definitely be more submissive than bottoming.
Fran, 25, a submissive queer woman from London, believes this distinction is incredibly important not just for shagging purposes but also on a queer liberation front. "Top and bottom are umbrella terms for giving and receiving," she tells me. "But I feel these terms stem from attempts of fitting WLW (women-loving-women) relationships into a heteronormative stereotype. I strongly oppose this so I prefer to call myself submissive instead of a bottom."
Once again the stereotype is that receiving is a traditionally female act in heterosexual relationships and, in turn, being the 'woman' of the relationship is an inherently submissive role. This conflation stinks of sexism of a bygone era where woman is seen as lesser than man and so to receive is to be weaker, too.
Lucy Rowett, a UK-based clinical sexologist working with sexual wellness brand Pleasy Play, asks us to reconsider the act of bottoming and submissiveness in general as a rebellion against outdated gender roles. "Remember that if you are in a lesbian relationship or you are a queer woman, you are already defying gender roles and expectations. What if you could embrace being a bottom as another form of defiance against this and being true to yourself?" she says.
"Regardless of sexuality or gender, of whether kink such as BDSM is involved, the more bottoms or submissives you speak to, you'll find a commonality: they share a feeling of freedom," she adds.
In short, she says, by embracing acts that only bring us pleasure, that bring us freedom, we can find a subversive kind of liberation and power in being a submissive or a bottom.
But it isn’t always true that a woman is the 'receiver' in a heteronormative relationship. It is possible for two cis straight or bisexual people to be in a relationship where the man prefers to receive and the woman prefers to give (see: pegging).
So what to do? The problem with dismissing these labels as 'heterosexual' reminds me of the 1970s lesbian feminists who rallied against 'butch' and 'femme' monickers, arguing that they mimicked straight relationship roles. That’s a discourse that remains controversial today but is an outdated way of looking at queerness. The identities of femme and butch remain important to our community, our history, and our identities. Dismissing the labels 'top' and 'bottom' from queer language altogether feels, to me, like a repetition of these past mistakes.
"I think the act of giving is more submissive," says Bethan, a 26 year old based in London, who is submissive and bisexual. "What tops do — give, rather than receive — can definitely be more submissive... Like if a woman is sitting on your face and using you for her pleasure, that feels like a dominant act."
Again, the language we use to describe our sexual gratification plays an important role. Does a bottom 'receive' or do they 'take'? To push this idea further, the submissive in a kink relationship has the ultimate power over the sexual play taking place. They are the one setting boundaries, expressing what they want, and having a safe word. When all is said and done, they are the decision-maker in the bedroom. The fun comes from pretending that they are not in charge at all.
You’ll find this idea in the pop culture that is developing around pegging, too. Pegging memes suggest that there are a lot more men who adore penetration than our limited secondary school sex education allowed us to imagine. Traditionally, there has been a lot of stigma surrounding pegging too. The same problem that lesbians describe with the 'top' and 'bottom' dynamic is repeated here: assuming that being penetrated equals submission implies that taking on the 'female' role is automatically a submissive act. This not only couches submissiveness as a negative but implies that being female is a negative, too. The reality is that submission and being a woman do not necessarily go hand in hand; otherwise, as Fran puts it, "you would never see female doms."
Jessica*, a 28-year-old submissive woman from Manchester who also likes to don strap-ons, explains that pegging does not have to be a part of power play at all. "I have always been submissive in bed, to the point where being dominant makes me feel extremely uncomfortable," she tells me. "That said, I really loved pegging my ex-boyfriend — who was also my dom — and it didn’t take away from my submissiveness at all."
"As our relationship dynamic was already firmly set, it felt natural and even submissive in a certain sense to be the one giving him pleasure in such an intimate way," she continues. "Although many people who want to be pegged may be submissive, I think it is important to recognize that it is possible to peg without giving up those subby feelings."
Ness Cooper, a sexologist who works as a sex and relationship coach at The Sex Consultant, confirms that decisions about who tops, who bottoms, who doms and who subs can only be made by those within the relationship. "If you’re both into power play consensually then sure, use the terms 'top' and 'bottom' freely if you prefer them to 'dom' and 'sub,'" she says.
Cooper continues to highlight the importance of looking within your relationship and deciding what works for you. "Remember we are influenced greatly by what we see and read outside in the world when it comes to sexuality," she continues, "but taking time to learn about yourself can be helpful as no one else knows fully about your world when it comes to how you see sexuality and sex."
What's more, the only people who need to know how you describe your sexuality and how you interact with sex are the ones you are being intimate with. A label is far from a cause to force yourself into participating in a dynamic you might not be enjoying or even comfortable with. As long as the sex you’re having is consensual and pleasurable, titles can mean whatever you want them to mean.
As Jessica and Cooper lay out, the dynamic between a couple — be that top and bottom, dom and sub or any other kind of role you like to take on — is as unique as the relationship. Lumping labels together only diminishes the highly personal nature of each connection and can lead to invalidating those who don’t fit in with strict definitions of sex and kink roles.
*Name changed to protect identities.