Top, bottom and versatile
The terms top, bottom and versatile are used to describe roles for the duration of a sexual act, or may be used more broadly as a psychological, social, and sexual identity, as well as indicating one's usual preference.
Top is a relatively broad term, which can include adopting the penetrative role in a sexual act, a partner who adopts the dominant role in a sexual act and even physically on top of the other partner, though this is not always the case. The top is also not necessarily the dominant partner, or the partner in control; in this instance a top who is performing the action at the request or under direction of the bottom is sometimes referred to as a 'service top'. Top can also be used as a transitive or intransitive verb meaning to sexually penetrate (someone). 'Giver' may sometimes be synonymous with 'top'. Power top refers to a "top" in a sexual relationship. The "power" in the term refers to the great stamina or special topping skills. The term total top is used to describe one who exclusively tops, while the term versatile top describes someone who sometimes bottoms.
Bottom is a relatively broad term, which can include being a partner who adopts the receptive role in a sexual act (i.e. the partner who is penetrated) and adopting a submissive role in a sexual act. Bottom can also be used as an intransitive verb meaning to be sexually penetrated by: to bottom for someone. 'Receiver' may sometimes be synonymous with 'bottom'. Power bottom refers to someone (usually a gay male) who during anal intercourse truly enjoys being the receptive partner, to the point of 'wanting it' more aggressively and dominantly than the top. Some dislike bottom as they feel it has negative connotations, and prefer not to use that term or top. In ancient Roman civilization, pathic was used to describe a bottom, and had weak / feminine connotations.
Main article: Versatile (sex)
A person who enjoys both topping and bottoming, or being dominant and submissive, and may alternate between the two is often called versatile or switch. Flip-flops are very common; partners may switch roles based on mood, desire, or to allow each partner to experience their preferred activity. It is also common for people to switch with different partners, such as when a person acts exclusively as a top with one partner and exclusively as a bottom with another.
A 2009 Austrian study on pornography has shown that at least 82.4% of all men performing in the male porn industry are versatile at one point or the other during their career. Usually the one with the bigger penis or the one with the harder erection will be on top. Many notable tops have performed as bottoms in oral sex, and some notable bottoms have performed as tops.
Active and passive
These are not necessarily the same as "top" and "bottom" —a bottom is not necessarily inactive, or less active than the top. For example, a top may direct a bottom to perform the majority of actions in a given encounter (making the bottom the active).
In some languages, including Spanish, Hebrew, Polish, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian, British English, Portuguese, Danish and Italian, it is still common to use the term "active" and "passive" to refer to "top" and "bottom" respectively; this is however a rare usage in modern U.S. English.
Common slang terms in some gay communities include: pitcher (top), catcher (bottom), and switch-hitter or flip (versatile). In some languages "passive" and "active" are also used, rather than "bottom" or "top".
The terms top, bottom and switch are also used in BDSM, with slightly different meanings.
While popular media portrays a larger number of submissive males than dominant males, studies have disputed this. Businesses catering to BDSM culture show there is a strong and growing market for submissives and dominants of all genders and orientations and a diversity in BDSM communities, both recreational and professional. Professional dominants provide stimulatory services (which may or may not include sex) for submissives.
Beginning in the 1970s, in some American contexts, people would identify their interests by wearing a set of keys on the side of their belt or a color-coded handkerchief in their rear pockets. This practice, called flagging, began in the gay male subculture.
Main article: Top (BDSM)
In BDSM, top means:
- a dominant partner in sexual play (such as flogging, binding, being master, and humiliating)
- a partner who applies stimulation to another, and who may or may not be dominant
Main article: Bottom (BDSM)
In BDSM, bottom means:
- a submissive partner in sexual play (such as in being flogged, tied, humiliated, or made to serve)
- a partner who enjoys submission on a temporary, limited basis
- a partner who receives stimulation from another
A bottom in BDSM does not have to be the receptive partner; for example, a female dominant may command her submissive to penetrate her.
Main article: Switch (BDSM)
A switch is someone who participates in BDSM activities sometimes as a top and other times as a bottom or (in the case of dominance and submission) sometimes as a dominant and other times as a submissive.
Dominant and submissive
Those who take the superior position in dominance and submission scenes and relationships are called dominants, doms (male) or dommes (female), while those who take the subordinate position are called submissives or subs (male or female). A top filling the dominant role is not necessarily a dominant, and vice versa, and a bottom is not necessarily submissive.
The main difference between a dominant and a top is that the dominant ostensibly does not follow instructions, although they are limited by what the submissive is willing to do. The top may sometimes even be the partner who is following instructions, i.e., they top when, and in the manner, requested by the bottom. Contrast this with the pure dominant, who might give orders to a submissive, or otherwise employ physical or psychological techniques of control, but might instruct the submissive to perform the act on them.
The main difference between a submissive and a bottom is that the submissive ostensibly does not give instructions, although they do set limits on what the dominant can do. A bottom is not necessarily a submissive; they may enjoy intense physical and psychological stimulation but not submit to the person delivering it. Similarly, a submissive might not be a bottom; they may enjoy taking orders from a dominant without receiving any physical stimulation. It should be noted that for bottoms who are not submissive, the bottom is most often the partner who is giving instructions—the top typically tops when, and in the manner, requested by the bottom.
Many distinguish top/bottom from dominant/submissive by seeing top/bottom as an expression of physical power, while dominant/submissive is an expression of psychological power. In many cases, the dominant/submissive relationship involves the dominant party psychologically tearing down and denigrating the submissive (consensually, meeting the submissive's expressed needs and respecting hard limits). In contrast, the top/bottom relationship is more commonly marked by mutual respect and support.
Sadist and masochist
The terms sadism and masochism, while reflecting a "do" vs. "done to" distinction similar to top and bottom, are more narrowly defined as the giving and receiving of pain.
History of positions
As the position of a man in intercourse symbolizes also his power and social status in society, it was – for a very long time – considered inappropriate for a free man, as well in ancient Greece, as well in the Victorian age, to be penetrated. According to the rules of heterosexual standards, homosexuals were officially and strictly divided into two groups, the givers and the receivers. Richard von Krafft-Ebing and other authors, even Freud, saw the givers as confused men, while the receivers were the real perverts.
In the 1970s, gay men began using handkerchief code to indicate whether they were tops or bottoms, and what kind of sex they were seeking.
The sexual revolution after 1968 brought a common practice to the limelight and to acceptance - the concept of versatility. One of the early portrayers of this concept was Tom of Finland, who depicted very masculine men enjoying both positions, even at the same time. At the beginning of the 21st century, gay pornography began to show both straight and gay men enjoying anal penetration.
- Underwood, Steven G. (2003). Gay Men and anal eroticism: tops, bottoms, and versatiles. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press. ISBN 1-56023-375-3.
- Michelides, Christian: Männlichkeitskonstruktionen der Pornografie zur Jahrtausendwende, Wien 2009
- Michael D. Smith, David W. Seal: Motivational Influences on the Safer Sex Behavior of Agency-based Male Sex Workers. In: Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 37, Number 5, October 2008
- Dossie Easton, Janet W. Hardy. The New Topping Book. Greenery Press, 2003. ISBN 1-890159-36-0.
- Person, Ethel S. / Terestman, Nettie / Myers, Wayne A. / Goldberg, Eugene L. / Salvadori, Carol: Gender differences in sexual behaviors and fantasies in a college population, 1989, erschienen in: Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Bd. 15, Nr. 3, 1989, P. 187–198
- Janus, Samuel S. / Janus, Cynthia L., 1993 The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior, Wiley, New York
- Charles Moser, in Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality 1988, (7;1, P.43–56)
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