The terms top and bottom emerged as descriptors of a sexual binary in the gay leather culture of the 1950s and the bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM) culture of the 1960s. Originally, the top-bottom binary signified both sexual positions and power relationships in which a top was a sexual aggressor and penetrator who often acted as the more forceful and dominant partner; the bottom represented the more submissive, typically penetrated, and often "punished" partner.
DEFINITION AND USE OF THE TERMS
In the BDSM community the term top indicates the dominant partner who inflicts pain on, enacts control over, or otherwise subjects his or her partner to acts associated with bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism. The term bottom indicates the receiver of such treatment. In these cases the terms are not gender-specific: A male or a female may act as a top or a bottom. Although the top is the dominant partner, the bottom often still has control. For example, a top who takes direction from the bottom's explicitly expressed wishes often is called a service top.
These terms evolved in the 1970s and 1980s as they were adapted by the gay community. In that community they are used most often among gay men as indicators of preferences for sexual position; however, the terms also have been adapted by the lesbian community. A top acts as a sexual penetrator, or the inserter during sexual (vaginal or anal) intercourse, and a bottom acts as the penetrated partner, or the receiver. The term versatile is used commonly to indicate a preference to act as either top or bottom.
During the 1970s and 1980s various methods of signifying top and bottom preferences emerged, ranging from tattoos to body piercing to color-coded handkerchiefs. A visual signifier of sexual practice, whether a tattoo, piercing, or another signifier, denotes the top-bottom or dominant-submissive preference through its placement on either side of the body. In this bilateral signification system a tattoo or piercing on the left side of the body indicates that the wearer identifies as a top, whereas a visual cue worn on the right side of the body indicates that the wearer prefers to act as a bottom. For example, a gay man with a tattooed armband on his left arm or a piercing in his left ear or nipple visually signifies his preference to act as a sexual penetrator or top, whereas a man wearing similar visual cues on the right side signifies a preference to be sexually penetrated, or to bottom.
The terms top and bottom still are used among both gay and straight men and women, particularly as transitive verbs that indicate the performance of sexual penetration or dominance-submission. A homosexual male who prefers to penetrate his partner during anal intercourse "tops" his partner. In the case of a heterosexual couple in which the male partner acts as the submissive partner the male "bottoms" during sexual activity. Common slang terms that are used primarily among gay men are pitcher (top), catcher (bottom), and switch hitter (versatile).
The top-bottom binary has been criticized for imitating the heterosexual binary. Although there continue to be large factions of gay men who identify as either top or bottom, more and more are starting to claim a more versatile status. Moreover, phrases such as versatile top and versatile bottom are being used to indicate a greater range of sexual adaptability. On the surface the top-bottom dynamic would seem to indicate a power relationship that spills over into a couple's extrasexual relationship; however, this is not always the case. New York City, for example, often is cited as a bottom city, and the popular assumption is that because most New Yorkers lead fast paced, high-stress lives, they prefer to balance their aggressive public life with a more submissive sexual one. Whether or not this is the case, it is becoming evident that the top-bottom binary parallels neither a masculine-feminine binary nor an aggressive-submissive binary.
Even among heterosexual couples the top-bottom dynamic is being destabilized. The practice of "pegging," for example, exemplifies the ways in which that dynamic is being challenged. Pegging often is viewed as a heterosexual activity (although it may occur between two women) in which a woman anally penetrates a male partner by using a strap-on dildo, a double-ended dildo (for simultaneous anal and vaginal penetration), or some form of penile prosthetic. This practice is becoming increasingly common.
Powles, Andrew. 2003. "Dance of the Dedicated Bottom." Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 15(3-4): 109-117.
Savage, Dan. 2001. "Savage Love: We Have a Winner!" The Stranger, June 21-27. Available from http://www.thestranger.com.
Sohn, Amy. 2006. "Who's on Top?" New York Magazine, June 2. Available from http://www.newyorkmetro.com.
Wegesin, D. J., and H. F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg. 2000. "Top/Bottom Self-Label, Anal Sex Practices, HIV Risk and Gender Role Identity in Gay Men in New York City." Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality 12(3): 43-62.
Jeremy C. Justus