Power Play: The Differences Between Tops, Bottoms, and Switches
Regardless of how you identify, it's all about enjoying yourself and actively participating with your partner(s).
As I write this article, a naked man is cleaning my house. His kink is providing service simply for the pleasure of doing so. Yet, that’s not what this article is about. I mention it because he and I often talk kink while he cleans. This time, it came up that he doesn’t mention his kinks to the women he dates.
"To bring it up displays weakness in a man," he said, lending me the perfect example of how much of our identity gets tied up in our kink or sexual roles. Let’s back up and cover some basic definitions that are important in the kinky community:
Bottom: In a scene, a bottom is the person who gives up control or who receives physical sensation from a top.
Top: A top is the person in control during a scene or play. A top may or may not be a Dominant.
Switch: A switch is a person who may switch between feeling Dominant/sadistic or submissive/masochistic depending on the partner they're with or their mood. They may play as a Top or a bottom. They may not feel either Dominant or submissive.
Sounds fairly simple, right? Yet, there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Even these definitions hint at the common conflation of top/bottom with dominant/submissive. Plus, although power exchange can be a lot of fun, it’s absolutely not required in kink or sexual activities.
Where Does This Confusion Come From?
In my experience, the root of this confusion comes in part from the shame my house cleaner alludes to in his comment. Different cultures and social groups place value judgments on these roles to varying degrees. Being a top is often considered more masculine and being a bottom is often considered more feminine. Now, consider the way masculine activities are valued and feminine activities and ways of being are devalued, and you start to get some idea of how charged these roles can be.
When we blend the bottom role with the worst stereotypes of what it means to be feminine, i.e. receptive and therefore weak, we devalue and misunderstand what it means to be a bottom.
Being a bottom is about more than receiving sensation. It’s also about taking the leap to trust your partner, and putting yourself in a vulnerable position. The degree of vulnerability might vary, but one thing remains true: to make yourself vulnerable to another person takes great strength.
Not only that, but the best experiences are a give and take, and occur when all parties involved are actively engaged and contributing to the experience. Just because you’re receiving some kind of sensation, whether it’s being flogged or being penetrated, doesn’t mean you’re a passive recipient.
When you are receiving sensation, you may be reacting - whether through words or through other vocalizations - through the movement of your body, or in some other way. These reactions and responses can guide the person providing sensation. You can get into a delicious feedback loop of sensation and reaction. This leads to a richer and more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Another way that both tops and bottoms are active participants is that they both play a valuable and necessary role in negotiation. Both parties have a responsibility to state their needs, wants, and limits when it comes to negotiating kink or sexual play. It’s not all about the top wanting or doing and the bottom accepting. In fact, there’s no guarantee that the top is the one calling the shots.
We tend to assume that the top is in control, but it’s just as likely that the bottom has requested an activity, and the top is providing the requested sensation. You can’t tell from the outside who is in control or whose idea a scene was.
When it comes to the role of switch, confusion and misunderstanding often takes place. I identify as a switch, so I’ve experienced people’s biases first hand. In some ways, it’s similar to the prejudice and misunderstanding I experience around being bisexual. People seem very uncomfortable when they can’t pigeonhole you into one role. It's as if doing or enjoying more than one thing makes you "less than" in either role.
Within certain segments of the kink scene, people are eager to tell you what a "real" this or that is, and their conception of being a switch somehow means that any role you take on is less authentic because it’s not the only role you ever play.
Statistically, I think switches are under-represented. Much as bisexual invisibility is talked about in the queer community, I think there is an element of switch invisibility in the kink community.
Ultimately, the perceptions of other people don't matter very much. When it comes to people exploring sexuality and kink, I always say the same thing: figure out what feels right to you, what brings you (and your partners) the most pleasure and enjoyment, and do those things without worrying about what other people will say or think. Despite all the confusion around defining tops, bottoms and switches, it really doesn't get any simpler than that.
- Stella Harris