Sex Questions from the Twittersphere: Top & Bottom?

Question: What is “Top and “Bottom? Does it apply to any kind of sex?

Topping and Bottoming Book Kit

Great question! The terms “top and bottom refer, most broadly, to the “do-er and “do-ee of an erotic experience involving at least two people. Most people have never learned to use the words this generally, though; most often they’re used in one of two ways. One, to refer to a BDSM scene, in which the top is the dominant and the bottom the submissive (or the sadist and the masochist, if sensation games are being played rather than dominant/submissive ones). The other common use of the term is among men who have sex with men; in that community the insertive partner (in anal intercourse or oral sex) would be called the top, and the receptive partner the bottom.

Most people who aren’t part of these erotic worlds don’t use these terms, but increasingly, people have learned about them and use them in other contexts: to describe heterosexual penetrative sex, for example (and remember, if there’s a strap-on involved, the guy might be the bottom even here!).

One more fun wrinkle in all this: It’s possible for someone into top/bottom sex to have an open-minded idea about which role or act they prefer, so, especially in the BDSM scene, many people also refer to themselves as “switches “ that is, they switch roles. (Another slightly different term is “middle, though it’s not used as frequently as “switch.) A number of people familiar with that scene actually believe the BDSM world is comprised of more people who switch than who want to only top, or only bottom.

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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at

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