The idea of top shortage is not new within the queer community. As I scroll through a popular queer Facebook group, Queer Cruising, I find the majority of the posters declare themselves as either a switch or a bottom. But while there is rarely a top in sight as I scroll, I don’t believe that it’s because there is an actual extinction of tops. The issue at hand is much more nuanced and complex than that.
The sexual roles we take on are in many ways rooted in our desires, but when we put language to something as abstract as sexuality, we get muddled in our natural instinct to want to clarify who we are to the world. When we use language to reify these desires, we are giving life to so much more than the role we want to play during sex or kink. And even more so when done in a public setting like a Facebook group or social media post.
Let’s first do some etymology to better understand the language being used here. The terms “top” and “bottom” derive from the gay cis-men community, where top has been long been defined as the person giving anal sex and receiving oral sex, and bottom is defined as the person receiving anal sex and giving oral sex. Much of queer language as it relates to casual sex or cruising culture is delineated from the cis-gay male community.
“Top and bottom are alive and thriving, in all their fucked up ways, in the cis gay man community,” says Theo, a queer-identified trans man. “The definition of top/bottom through their lens informs ours. I’m disappointed by this, but that’s how it is at the moment.”
Taking these definitions and making them malleable to the experiences of queer women, trans folx, and gender nonbinary people is decidedly difficult. The ways in which our bodies can fuck and our own personal definitions for sex are endless — sex has the possibility to be so much more expansive than one person giving and the other receiving.
The terms top, bottom, and switch have evolved. In speaking with many queer and trans folx for this piece, I’ve found that top and bottom are more often used to define how power dynamics play a role in our sex than to portray sexual position identity. For the purposes of this article, top will be used to represent the person who’s running the fuck (which is an old school dyke term).
In the world of BDSM, all play should encompass three important components: it should be safe, sane, and consensual. Guy Baldwin brought to light the issue with bottom centered values in gay male circles in the ‘80s which he believes prompted this so-called top shortage. “In a rush to make the world safe for bottoms, Tops have been forgotten about, partly because the risk of physical, which is to say, obvious injury, has distracted most of us from the ‘other half’ of the SM equation,” Baldwin writes in The Ties That Bind. The desires and needs of tops were pushed aside decades ago in an attempt to ensure the safety of bottoms, with this lack of support even people who wanted to explore being tops felt it too overwhelming.
“Being a top/D[ominating] type requires so much labor and skill — it can be hard work and a fair amount of responsibility so I understand why, even if someone had some desire to top, they may not pursue it,” River, an ex-pro domme, tells INTO. “I think the possibility of making a mistake in a way that may hurt someone — psychologically or physically — can be quite a burden to bear. So ultimately I wonder/suspect that fear drives that trend.”
This phenomenon in BDSM life has seeped into everyday queer culture for those who may not participate in a kinky lifestyle. “Right now we are seeing a younger generation coming into BDSM in droves largely because it’s fashionable and thus more mainstream. It can take a very long time to figure out your kink identity,” says Cristine, a femme leatherdyke who is well-known by her Instagram handle @daemonumx. “Most people enter the scene as bottoms because it is a lower barrier to entry; out of the gate bottoming is less intimidating, less responsibility, and you don’t have to acquire hard skills. I think that the other part of this is not just understanding their own desires, but not understanding how to use BDSM as a vehicle for exploring your own darkness.”
One resounding truth that I found in my research of this queer aberration is that tops feel their desires are often not considered by bottoms — people are passively bottoming, asking to be flogged, snuggled, and then left alone without once asking the top what they want. “In this situation, what’s in it for the top?” Cristine says. “Especially in a cruising situation—who wants to perform this labor for a complete stranger who seems to be missing social cues and points? I have jokingly [called] this phenomenon #bottomgate.”
Everyone in a sexual encounter should be able to come to it by communicating about their desires, needs, and boundaries — and in turn, should want to listen to their play partners desires, needs, and boundaries. Most of us are “topping” in our lives at work or at home. We’re exhausted from constant decision making and navigating a world that was not built for the safety of queer and trans folx. It can feel good to just get fucked by someone, even if they’re a person you’ve never met from an app or Facebook group like Queer Cruising. But the best sex happens after communication and when mutual pleasure is negotiated.
“When I have ideas for scenes that feed my higher pervert, and I present them to a bottom, the usual response is excitement because I’m asking them to have a meaningful experience with me,” Cristine says “What I will never agree to is to tie someone up who I just met and who didn’t even ask my name.”
Domina Franco, a sex educator well-versed in all things BDSM, explains that “there is this caricature that Dominants command authority and get their needs met. Folks in the kink scene know different.” Tops have feelings, desires, and complexities that are often ignored, especially by novice bottoms, and this seems to be at the root of the top shortage. “Topping someone who wants you to be a two-dimensional fantasy makes you feel like that—flat and inhuman,” Franco says. This is what is coming across from passive bottoms complaining about a “top shortage,” when they’re unwilling to engage with their tops about what they also might want out of a scene.
However, delving into the nuances of what it means to be a queer top, bottom, or switch would be remiss without the mention of power dynamics. When discussing who is running the fuck, who is topping a BDSM scene — power exchange is at the root of that. While many energies are present in a sexual or kinky encounter and the responsibilities of the top/dominant and bottom/submission are to work together as an “erotic team” as Baldwin says — the ways in which we individually perceive power as queer and trans people often impacts our desires. While we may think we’re fucking the patriarchy thru our queer identity and sex — we’re in fact upholding it by the ways in which we allow the patriarchy to inform our views of tops and bottoms.
“We want sex to be this separate fun place we navigate outside the world, but it bleeds in there no matter what,” Theo tells INTO.
BDSM and kink can be used as a tool to explore our own darkness — to delve into the unconscious, the depths of our sexuality, the fantasies we may not want to speak out loud. An aspect of that is unpacking our relationship to power and aggression.
“I definitely think that a lot of people see topping as a traditionally aggressive and masculine identity and in the current social climate queers are not trying to be aggressive or particularly masculine right now,” Cristine says. And instead of working to redefine being a top, people who may have tendencies towards topping are simply switching to be bottoms (read: power bottoms).
“It’s easier to gain pleasure by switching to being a bottom than redefining being a top,” Theo says.
When queer and trans folx want to distance themselves from the power structures in everyday life that are becoming increasingly more visibly oppressive, it seems we’re allowing that to have a stronghold over our own sexual desires. When we don’t allow this implicit dynamic to impact our desires, queer sex is able to subvert the power dynamics we deal with in our daily lives as queer folx. That is far more powerful than everyone simply bequeathing to bottoming to absolve their relation to power.
Images via Getty