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From Top To Bottom: The Meaning Behind The Most Common Sexual Identifiers

Learning how you identify is a first step to how you see yourself sexually.


Are you a “top,” “bottom,” “switch,” or “vers”? The way you self-identify sexually can help you understand how you see yourself, what you like and what your preferences are during sex. Learning how others identify can also help you understand who they are sexually and how you could potentially connect intimately. In that way, sexual identifiers can act as a roadmap to how you and a potential partner explore sexual compatibility. And while the aforementioned identifiers have roots in 1970s gay male culture, many queer people today have adopted the lingo and applied it to the community as a whole.

If you’re not quite sure what your sexual identifiers are, we’ve got you covered! xoNecole asked sex experts to break down the fundamentals of sexual identifiers, how to find your label, and why you shouldn’t feel pressured to limit how you identify yourself.

What It Means to Be a Top, a Bottom, a Switch, or a Vers

Although context can sometimes change, certified sex therapist Shadeen Francis tells xoNecole that “a top is the person doing or giving an action, to a bottom who is to receive or respond to an action,” she says. Sometimes, it’s all about energy or even the preferred power dynamics experienced between two or more people engaging in sex. But, as sex educator Jennifer Eden shares, “Top is not synonymous with dominant and bottom is not synonymous with submissive. You can be a service top or a bossy bottom. Top does not mean masculine and bottom does not mean feminine.”

In queer sex, penetration is not the end all be all when defining sex.

For example, a top can be someone who is doing the giving action of oral sex. A bottom can be someone who prefers to be submissive and on the surrendering side of sex acts. Those two examples aren’t necessarily centered on penetration. Therefore, top, bottom, switch, and vers aren’t labels that are inherently synonymous with sex positions or the act of sex itself.

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As previously stated, "switch" and "vers" are two other labels housed underneath the sexual self-identifiers umbrella. Short for "versatile," Francis explains that someone who is vers either prefers or is willing to maintain the "giver and receiver roles within or across experiences.” While some members of the community use the labels "switch" and "vers" interchangeably, there are some who feel that there are differences between the two.

For example, some feel that "vers" strictly relates to the top/bottom dynamic, meaning a person who is "vers" doesn't mind being either a top or a bottom during a sex act. Where being a "switch" can differ is the fact that there is room for more fluidity during a sexual exchange. An example of this would be, starting off a sex act in a bottom role and switching between the act of giver and receiver throughout the act. "Switch" is more commonly used in dynamics between people with vaginas.

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How to Find Your Sexual Identifier 

Learning how you identify sexually takes exploration. When finding the sexual identifier that speaks most to you, Francis recommends being curious and seeking information in conversation with others–in films, in books, and in music. “Your sexual identity isn’t just a response to your sexual experiences,” she explains, “but how you see yourself as a sexual person. What feels good to you? What would you like to learn more about? What resonates with you? How might you want to present yourself, and with whom?”

And what if top, bottom, vers, or switch feel a little limited to the way you feel sexually or the types of things you’re into? Have no fear, Eden assures that it's commonplace to not identify wholly as one or the other. Like sex, the language you choose to label yourself with has room to be fluid and expansive. “Some people are tops in certain types of play and bottoms in others. Some people are tops with certain partners and bottoms with others,” they share. “Don’t let yourself get locked into a label that doesn’t feel like a perfect fit for you. You may need more than a one-word descriptor and that’s absolutely fine.”

There are also subgenres for tops and bottoms that further clarify sexual preferences and likes. For further sexual self-exploration, Eden recommends the following reads:

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