Spoiler alert: If your recent right swipe has the word “top” or “bottom” in their profile, they aren’t referring to their bunk bed preference—they’re giving you insights on their sexual preferences.
Indeed, “top” and “bottom” are sexual shorthands used to help an individual name their pleasure proclivities. Primarily, these terms—alongside a third, “vers”—are used to help a person quickly determine if they are sexually compatible with someone. But they can also help remind someone that their tastes are normal and common, as well as help them feel part of a larger sexual community.
But what do they mean exactly? Read on for a complete breakdown of these common sexual labels. Plus, a little history on where the terms came from, how they have evolved in recent decades, and how to figure out which term best fits you.
What’s the Short Answer?
At their most distilled, “top,” “bottom,” and “vers” are terms to describe an individual's sexuality. Or, more specifically, their sexual preferences around penetrative sex acts (typically, anal) and power play.
Generally, someone who is a top prefers to be in charge during sex, which they usually embody by being the penetrating partner. Meanwhile, someone who is a bottom prefers to hand over control during sex, which they typically do by offering up their hole(s) to penetration. And a vers is someone who finds both positions and dynamics pleasurable.
A Quick History Lesson
Historically, the terms “top” and “bottom” were used by gay men and other men who slept with men. The terms started being used prominently in the gay leather scene in the 1950s, but were adopted by a greater swath of gay men in the decades that followed. At the time, the terms described a binary set of preferences to either give anal penetration (top) or to receive anal penetration (bottom).
These days, the terms have become far less rigid in their definitions. This is due, in equal parts, to the fact that less binaristic terms like “vers” and “side” have gotten added into the mix, and to the fact that they are now used by people across the gender, sexuality, and kink spectrums. (Though, which of these two reasons came first is a chicken-or-egg situation).
Nowadays, the terms are still primarily used by LGBTQ+ folks, though they are sometimes also used within kink communities as an alternative to “dominant” and “submissive.” And occasionally, they are used by cisgender, heterosexual men who enjoy pegging (maybe with SHARE LITE?) or other receptive anal acts. In short, despite their slightly more widespread use as compared to past decades, these terms are primarily used by sexual minorities.
An In-Depth Look
Given how much these terms have evolved over the last 70-plus years, you probably still have questions about what they mean. That’s particularly true if you’ve caught on to the fact that dating apps are littered with these terms, or are simply looking for a way to explain your own sexual proclivities to recent matches.
As you read the definitions below, remember that all identifiers mean different things to different people, based on factors like who they are, their age, cultural context, and more.
What Is a Top?
The top is to sex what the director is to a porn shoot: the person calling the shots. “They’re the person in charge of the action,” says sex educator Searah Deysach, owner of Early to Bed, a pleasure product store in Chicago.
Most commonly, a person identifies as a top because they enjoy doing the penetration during anal sex, she notes. But it is also possible to top during other types of sex and sexual play, too. “Not all sex involves the anus and/or penetration, and yet it is still possible to top during them,” she says. Someone who is a top might also be the one doing the fingering, internally or externally pleasuring someone with a sex toy, penetrating someone vaginally with a store-bought or attached phallus, giving oral sex, or teasing nipples with their teeth, apt fingers, or clamps.
During a kink scene, the top might be the person who is orchestrating the scene, telling the other person (or people) what to do, delivering pain, or otherwise dictating what acts deserve punishment or reward.
To be clear: A top does not have to physically be on top in order to, well, top. The top can be positioned under their partner and still earn the title of top, if they are the one calling the sexual shots. If a top, for instance, orders their partner to go down on them in the missionary position, they may be receiving the pleasure, but they are still the top.
Okay, So What Is a Bottom?
Put simply, the bottom is the consenting receiver of the top's touch, actions, or commands, says Deysach.
While sexual preferences will vary bottom to bottom, in general, the bottom is the one that receives—be it penetrative pleasure, or another form of manual, oral, toy-driven, or psychological pleasure, she says.
“A bottom can also prefer to be told what to do, or submitting, rather than being the one giving directions or dominating,” she says.
Here’s where it gets a little complicated: For the sake of easy explanation, the top is generally defined as the powerful one who is penetrative, while the bottom is defined as the submissive one who receives penetration. But this is actually an oversimplification of human sexuality and a diminution of the rich possibilities of pleasure.
Fact is, there are people who enjoy orchestrating exactly how and when they are penetrated during sex. These folks are known as power bottoms. Similarly, there is another subcategory of folks who experience an extra jolt of pleasure when they play verbal hockey with, belittle, or create push-back against their top during sex. These folks are known as bratty bottoms.
There are also people known as pillow princesses, who exclusively receive pleasure, and stone tops, who exclusively give it.
And Does “Vers” Mean?
“‘Vers’ is a pretty open term,” says Deysach. “But typically, it refers to someone who can enjoy topping or bottoming,” she says. Also known as a switch, a vers can identify with the labels “top” and “bottom” in equal parts, or identify with neither.
“Sometimes a vers does have a preference for topping or bottoming, but can enjoy switching it up from time to time,” says Deysach. In other words, a vers does not necessarily desire to be a bottom 50 percent of the time and a top 50 percent of the time. Someone can be vers and enjoy a 70/30, 20/80, or any other split.
Someone who is a vers may also enjoy topping in different scenarios than they enjoy bottoming in, says Deysach. “Someone who is a vers might prefer to top with casual partners, for example, but love bottoming for people they are in a committed relationship with,” she says. Similarly, another vers might like to bottom with one night stands, but feel confident enough with their primary partner to tap into their inner top.
A Quick Note On Sides
There is a fourth term, sometimes listed alongside the aforementioned big three, that’s worth mentioning: “side.”
First coined in 2013 by sex and relationship therapist Dr. Joe Kort when he wrote an article for Huffington Post called “Guys on the ‘Side’: Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms,” a side is someone who does not enjoy penetrative intercourse—more specifically, penetrative anal intercourse.
“It is used mostly among queer men who identify themselves as folks who are not into anal intercourse,” says Deysach. These folks aren’t asexual, though. “Typically, people actively enjoy other forms of sexual contact that don’t include anal penetration,” she says. A side, for example, may love oral sex, outercourse, kissing, nipple stimulation, and mutual masturbation, to name a few other things.
“The term differs from ‘vers’ insomuch as a person would usually refer to themself as a vers if they like both giving and receiving anal intercourse,” while a person would refer to themselves as a side if they don’t like either, explains Deysach.
Remember: Labels Are Optional
Dating apps, especially those used for quick hits, can make it seem like identifying with one of the above labels is a prerequisite for sexual play, and that forgoing a label would be sacrilegious to your sexual persona, fantasies, and dating life. But it’s actually not this black-and-white!
Sure, labels can be helpful. For one thing, they can help an individual understand how normal and common their sexual tastes are, which can be especially affirming and anxiety-easing for sexual minorities (queers, kinksters, etc.) who have been taught that their sexual preferences are deviant or wrong, says Deysach. “They can make you feel like you’re part of a broader community.” And for another thing, “these terms can be really helpful when trying to find a sexual partner that you are sexually compatible with,” she says.
But labels can also be limiting. After all, they reduce your sexual desires to a single word, which can be incredibly diminutive of your sexperiences and desires. Plus, because labels mean slightly different things to the people who use them, there is always a risk that potential partners do not correctly interpret what the label means to you. (That's why, whether you use one of these sexual labels or not, Deysach recommends talking to potential partners about your likes and dislikes in depth before crawling into bed with them).
If you fall in the latter camp of people who find labels diminutive or unreliable, Deysach says that’s A-OK. You do not need to assign any labels to yourself that you do not feel comfortable with, she says. “Your sexuality is valid and worth celebrating, regardless of whether or not it fits neatly into labels or subcategories,” she says. So if one of these labels fits? Cheers to that! And if they don’t? Well, cheers to that, too.
Can someone be both a top and a bottom?
Yes, absolutely. Plenty of people enjoy doing both equally, or might prefer topping in some situations and bottoming in others. Some of these people might call themselves a “vers” or “switch.” Others might opt to use the term that most applies in the moment that they are self-describing.
It’s also important to note that human sexuality is constantly evolving. That means that while someone may have preferred to top when they were younger, they might prefer to bottom in this current decade.
Remember: If none of these terms feels right to you, that’s also okay! You only need to describe yourself with sexuality labels if they’re helpful for you—if they’re not, then forget ‘em.
Do tops have to be dominant in bed?
No. Someone can be physically on top of their partner without calling the shots in a sexual session. In these instances, the top is typically sleeping with someone who might identify as a power bottom.
Of course, there are times when the person on top also enjoys being dominant, and the bottom enjoys being submissive. Depending on the context, the two (or more) people might co-create a BDSM scene to play out these power roles.
There’s plenty of room for interpretation in these terms, which is why it’s so important to communicate with your partner about what you want.
Do bottoms have to be submissive in bed?
They do not, for all the same reasons that tops do not have to be dominant.
How important is communication between tops and bottoms?
In one word: very. No matter the labels sexual partners use (or don’t use), communication is the most important ingredient in pleasurable play. After all, it’s the only way to get on the same page about what you’re doing, want to do, and don’t want to do.
Can someone be both a top and a bottom and still be considered vers?
Yes! Actually, the term “vers” exists to describe someone who likes both topping and bottoming. “Switch” means the same thing.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a sex and wellness writer and pleasure-advocate who is currently training to become a certified sex educator. In addition to Fun Factory, her work has appeared in publications such as Cosmopolitan, SELF, Well & Good, Health, Shape, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more. In her free time, Gabrielle can be found reading romance novels, bench-pressing, sexting, or yep, reviewing pleasure products. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @gabriellekassel.
This post was written by a guest blogger, and all opinions and ideas expressed are that of the author. All ideas included are for educational and entertainment value, and do not constitute medical advice.