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Top, bottom and versatile

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The man on the right is the "top" and the man on the left is the "bottom"

In human sexuality, top, bottom, and versatile are sex positions or roles during sexual activity, especially between two men. A top is usually a person who penetrates, a bottom is usually one who receives penetration, and someone who is versatile engages in either or both roles. These terms may be elements of self-identity that indicate an individual's usual preference and habits, but might also describe broader sexual identities and social roles.[1]

The terms top and bottom are often used as verbs for the person's actions. The terms do not refer to the literal physical position during sex.


19th-century erotic painting depicting Hadrian "topping" Antinous (detail), by Paul Avril

A top is usually a person who engages in the penetrative role during sexual activity; for men who have sex with men (MSMs), this often involves penetration using the penis during anal or oral sex.[1] Top is also used as a verb meaning "to penetrate another". Top may also describe a broader personal identity involving dominance in a romantic or sexual relationship; however, this stipulation is not a requisite element of being a top.

Several related terms exist. With regard to gay male sexuality, a total top is one who assumes an exclusively penetrative role for sex.[2] A power top is one noted for their great skill or aggressiveness in topping. A service top is "one who tops under the direction of an eager bottom".[3] A versatile top is one who prefers to top but who bottoms occasionally.[4] The terms penetrative partner[5] or giver are synonyms of top, created to describe the act of penetrating without implying non-egalitarian relations among participants.[citation needed]

Trevor Hart of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that self-identified tops were more likely to act as the penetrative partner in other sexual activities (besides anal intercourse), including oral sex and sex toy play.[6]


A bottom is usually the receptive partner during sexual penetration. This frequently refers to MSMs who are penetrated via the anus during anal sex.[1] Bottom is also used as a verb meaning "to be penetrated by another, whether anally or orally". Bottom may also describe a wider social context of submission within a romantic or sexual relationship, though this element does not apply to all people who prefer to bottom.

In gay male sexuality, a total bottom is someone who assumes an exclusively receptive role during anal or oral intercourse. A power bottom is someone who aggressively enjoys being the receptive partner. A versatile bottom is one who prefers to bottom but who tops occasionally.[7] The term receiver or receptive partner may be preferred by some. An oral bottom is the exclusively receptive partner in oral sex, providing the penetrative partner, or oral top, with unreciprocated fellatio and irrumatio.


Versatile refers to a person who enjoys both topping and bottoming, or being dominant and submissive, and may alternate between the two in sexual situations.[1][8][9] Flip-flop or flip fuck commonly describes switching from top to bottom during one sexual encounter between two men.[10] Each participant penetrates the other and is penetrated in his turn.

Versatility is a concept of lifestyle.[11] Versatility, though, is not limited to the simple acts of anal, oral, or vaginal penetration, but also includes the splitting of duties and responsibilities in the relationship.[12]

The reciprocal scenario, where both men take turns fucking each other, is often exercised as a celebration of equality. What sets this scenario apart from the others is the versatility of the men involved. Versatility is a unique and important feature of male anal sex. Some men consider it liberating; ... Versatility to them is akin to speaking two different languages. It requires a special kind of playfulness, creativity, curiosity, and coordination.

— Steven G. Underwood, Gay Men and anal eroticism: tops, bottoms, and versatiles, Harrington Park Press 2003

According to some, living a versatile lifestyle implies a certain openness to new things and an opposition to labels, stereotypes and generalizations. Therefore, this concept differs from heterosexual relationships where sexual compatibility does not begin with guessing who will end up as top or bottom.[1] In self descriptions of men seeking sex with other men, they may refer to themselves as a versatile top or versatile bottom in addition to other commonly used terms.

A 2009 Austrian study on gay pornography has shown that at least 82.4% of all men performing in the male porn industry are versatile at some point during their career. In this study, the performances of 5,556 actors were considered. 10.8% performed only in the top role, 6.8% only as bottoms. The study also found that the actor with the larger penis was more likely to act as the top.[13]


No extensive scientific study has ever been conducted as to firmly determine what percentage of the gay and bisexual male population prefers any given role. A tally of 55,464 profiles on from the United States showed that 26.46% preferred top, while 31.92% preferred bottom, and the largest group (41.62%) preferred versatile. The preferences seemed to vary by state, however. In Wyoming, for example, 16% preferred top, 44% preferred bottom, and 40% preferred versatile. In West Virginia, tops outnumbered bottoms by a slim margin (32% top, 29% bottom, and 39% versatile). In Oregon, "versatile" profiles made up nearly half (48.42%).[14]



In the hanky code, a person flagging the top or active role would wear the hanky in the left pocket, the bottom or passive role on the right. Acts which were not divisible into distinct roles however, such as "69" or "anything" followed a pattern where one flagged interest by wearing the hanky on the right, uninterest by wearing it on the left, and preferences that did not relate to sexual mechanics, such as uniform fetishism or prostitution, followed a pattern where the seeker flagged on the left and the object of desire flagged on the right.[15]

The term side has been proposed by Huffington Post contributor Joe Kort[16] for gay men who are not interested in anal sex.

The cowboy position is anal sex in which the bottom straddles the top.[17] The position is often cited as being advantageous for bottoms who are new to anal sex, as it allows the receiving partner to lower himself on to the other's penis at his own pace.[18]

Alternative terminology

Other terms for top/bottom include active/passive and pitcher/catcher.[19][20][5] The intended meanings of active vs. passive in reference to oral sex vs. anal sex can be unclear, however.[21] Switch is sometimes used for versatile.[22]

Role vs. position among sexualities

The terms top, bottom and versatile do not necessarily refer literally to physical position during sex.[23] For example, if the inserting partner lies on his back and the receptive partner straddles him, the inserting partner is still considered the top, and the receptive partner the bottom, despite their reverse physical arrangement. However, when used in reference to heterosexual and lesbian sex, the terms top, bottom and versatile usually refer only to position and not to the penetrative role.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Steven Gregory Underwood (2003). Gay men and anal eroticism: tops, bottoms, and versatiles. Psychology Press. ISBN 1-56023-375-3. Retrieved 2011-12-02.
  2. ^ Gremore, Graham (4 May 2015). "What Do You Do When Your Total Top Boyfriend Refuses To Bottom?". Queerty. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  3. ^ Rodriguez, Carissa (13 May 2015). "It's Symptomatic". Document Journal. Retrieved September 5, 2015.
  4. ^ Versatile Top. (2012-01-01). Retrieved on 2012-01-09.
  5. ^ a b Peter M. Davies; Ford C. I. Hickson; Peter Weatherburn; Andrew J. Hunt (31 October 2013). Sex Gay Men & AIDS. Routledge. p. 120. ISBN 978-1-135-72249-4.
  6. ^ Bering, Jesse. "Top Scientists Get to the Bottom of Gay Male Sex Role Preferences". Scientific American. Archived from the original on 2011-03-19. Retrieved 2011-01-20.
  7. ^ Versatile Bottom. (2012-01-01). Retrieved on 2012-01-09.
  8. ^ Goodreau, SM; Peinado, J; Goicochea, P; Vergara, J; Ojeda, N; Casapia, M; Ortiz, A; Zamalloa, V; et al. (2007). "Role versatility among men who have sex with men in urban Peru". Journal of Sex Research. 44 (3): 233–9. doi:10.1080/00224490701443676. PMID 17879166. S2CID 13334957.
  9. ^ "Männer, die sowohl passiven als auch aktiven Analsex praktizieren, nennt man versatile." Georg Pfau, Präventionsmedizin für den Mann, Linz 2009
  10. ^ Michael D. Smith, David W. Seal; Seal (2008). "Motivational Influences on the Safer Sex Behavior of Agency-based Male Sex Workers". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 37 (5): 845–53. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9341-1. PMC 5454495. PMID 18288599.
  11. ^ Levine, Martin P.; Kimmel, Michael S. (1998). Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the homosexual Clone. New York: New York University Press.
  12. ^ Jay, Karla; Young, Allen (1979). The gay report: Lesbians and gay men speak out about sexual experiences and lifestyles. New York: Summit. ISBN 0-671-40013-4.
  13. ^ Michelides, Christian: Männlichkeitskonstruktionen der Pornografie zur Jahrtausendwende, Wien 2009
  14. ^ Best states for tops, bottoms, versatiles. Retrieved on 2012-01-09.
  15. ^ "Gay Hanky Codes".
  16. ^ Guys on the 'Side': Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms Retrieved 2014-10-02
  17. ^ The Vada Guide to Anal Sex for Men Vada Magazine. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  18. ^ Pink News Explainer: The Best Gay Sex Positions Pink News. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  19. ^ Bering, Jesse. "Top scientists get to the bottom of gay male sex role preferences". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  20. ^ "Neither here nor there: breaking free of gay stereotypes". The Bryant Archway. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  21. ^ Bell, Robin (1999-02-13). "Homosexual men and women". BMJ : British Medical Journal. 318 (7181): 452–455. doi:10.1136/bmj.318.7181.452. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 1114912. PMID 9974466.
  22. ^ "What Does It Mean to Be a "Bottom" or "Submissive" in Lesbian Sex?". Autostraddle. 2018-07-10. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  23. ^ Topping or Bottoming – How To Know If You're A Top Or Bottom. (2012-01-01). Retrieved on 2012-01-09.
  • 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)