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Top and bottom are two terms used to describe different roles that partners can take on during a sexual experience.

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Emily Morse Teaches Sex and CommunicationEmily Morse Teaches Sex and Communication

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What Is a Top?

In human sexuality, top is a term that refers to a person who performs penetration during sexual intercourse, especially during anal sex. Top is most often used within the LGBTQ+ community to describe intercourse between gay men, though anyone of any sexual orientation or gender identity can be a top or bottom.

The term top is used in various other sexual contexts. Top and bottom sometimes refer to particular mindsets that people adopt during a sexual encounter or relationship. The top is typically more assertive or aggressive, and the bottom being more passive. In BDSM, top and bottom may be used as synonyms for dom (dominant) and sub (submissive). Top and bottom can sometimes also refer to the particular position of a partner during intercourse, whether beneath or above the other.

How to Top

Here’s a step-by-step guide for giving penetration during intercourse, whether with a penis, your fingers, a strap-on, or a hand toy:

  • Begin with foreplay. For the receiving partner to experience pleasurable penetration (whether vaginal or anal), their body will need to be adequately aroused, which increases blood flow to their groin and helps relax pelvic floor muscles, vaginal muscles, and the sphincter muscles. Take the time to stimulate each other’s bodies—whether through kissing, touching, fingering, blow jobs, sex toys like butt plugs, mutual masturbation, or watching pornography—before beginning any penetration.
  • Start penetration gently. To reduce the chance of causing discomfort or pain in your partner, start penetration gradually to help their muscles stretch and relax. You might start with a single finger or a small butt plug—using lots of lube—or other toy to help open up their vaginal or anal canal. If you notice the bottom’s body tensing, go even slower and ask them if they want to take a break. Take your time with gentle penetration, and only move on to larger objects (like a penis or a full-sized dildo) when you’re sure they’re feeling comfortable and ready.
  • Vary your speed. If you and your partner are both comfortably enjoying penetrative intercourse, you can begin to change the pace to match their energy level. If your partner enjoys slow, sensual intercourse, use long, slow, deliberate thrusts; if your partner wants rougher intercourse, alternate your slower strokes with harder, deeper thrusts. Read your partner’s body language to determine their ideal pace and position. Try to avoid one single speed, depth, or angle for too long—this can cause chafing or discomfort for your partner.
  • Check in with your partner. Periodically during intercourse, check in with your partner to ensure they’re receiving pleasurable sensations and aren’t feeling any pain. You may need to change angles or take a break for a while before continuing.
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5 Tips for Topping

Whether it’s your first time or your hundredth, here are some helpful tips for topping:

  1. Prioritize safe sex. Penetration can carry high levels of risk for sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs/STDs), especially in the case of anal sex, since stretching the anus can cause small tears or fissures in the rectal walls. If you’re engaging in penetrative sex with a new partner with an unknown sexual history, it’s essential to take steps to protect yourself. Consider condoms and preventative medications like PrEP or “Pre-exposure prophylaxis,” a daily prescription pill that reduces the risk of HIV infection.
  2. Pay attention to your partner. It may be hard for the penetrative partner to determine what feels good for the receiving partner or when a particular movement or angle causes discomfort or pain. During intercourse, a great top will pay close attention to their partner, to their words and body language, to ensure that the sexual experience is mutually pleasurable. Ask your partner what feels good, pay attention to their cues (for instance, if they beg you to go harder or grab your hips to pull you closer), and check in periodically to ensure everyone is having a good time.
  3. Experiment with different positions. Being a top doesn’t mean you have to be physically above your partner during intercourse. Some positions (like cowgirl/cowperson) put the receiving partner on the top. These positions better suit some bottoms since they allow the receiver to control the speed, angle, and penetration depth. They can also be especially arousing for tops who want to relinquish control or watch the bottom receive pleasure. When serving in the top role, avoid limiting yourself to positions based on location—experiment to determine what you (and your partner) like best.
  4. Use lots of lube. Using lube can help prevent discomfort, make you more aroused, and keep vaginal and anal tissue soft. You may need extra lube for anal play, since the anus does not self-lubricate like the vagina. It's important that you not only put lube in the anus, but also on the outside of the condom, body part, or sex toy that you plan to use. (Silicone lube can wear down silicone toys, so use water-based lube instead.)
  5. Avoid getting hung up on the labels. The terms top and bottom are helpful descriptors when talking about sexual intercourse—not official labels that determine what you should like or who you are as a person. Feel free to explore and experiment with topping and bottoming—learning to be a good top means knowing how to be a good bottom, and vice versa. If you enjoy both roles, feel free to change it up between sexual sessions or even in the middle of a particular sexual encounter—people who enjoy topping and bottoming are called “versatile,” “vers,” or “switches.”

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