What Does Being A Top Mean When You’re A Lesbian?

A sex educator explains the ins and outs of tops in a lesbian relationship.

by Emma McGowan
Originally Published: 
What is a top? Here's what the identifier means for lesbians.
MoMo Productions/DigitalVision/Getty Images

In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about what it means to be a lesbian top.

Q: I’m a woman in my first relationship with another woman. She told me that she’s a “top,” which I didn’t even know was a thing for lesbians? What is a top?

Welcome to the world of same-sex dating! Every new relationship can be fun and exciting, but a new relationship with someone whose gender you’ve never dated before can come with its own set of questions — and this is a great one. The very first thing I recommend you do in order to answer this question is ask your girlfriend. If she used the term “top,” she probably has a very clear understanding of what that means for her. It’s an identifier — it’s her identifier — and she chose it for a reason. So find out what that reason is!

But I understand that it can be tricky to ask those questions, especially if you’re in a new relationship, and double-especially if you’re also dating a person of a different gender from what you’re used to.

It sounds like you’ve heard the term “top” before, just not when applied to lesbian relationships. It’s usually used in two sexual contexts: when referring to gay men and BDSM. Understanding how it’s used in both of those settings can make figuring out what “top” means for lesbians a little easier.

For gay men, a “top” is a person who penetrates their partner. It’s usually in reference to anal sex, but can also generally mean the person is more “in charge” of a sexual encounter. In BDSM, the “top” is the person who controls the action. If it’s a dominant/submissive relationship, for example, the top would be the dominant — the person taking charge. Or if there’s bondage involved, the top may tie up their partner, but likely won’t be tied up themselves.

When talking about lesbian tops, we’re usually talking about a person who prefers to take a more “active” role in sex — someone who gets off on getting someone else off. That means she’s probably going to want to lead the action, whether that’s initiating the first kiss or being the one to perform oral sex rather than receive it.

According to a 2018 survey of more than 3,600 people by the queer publication Autostraddle, lesbian tops greatly prefer to be on the “giving” end of sex acts rather than the “receiving” end, with almost twice as many tops as bottoms preferring to “give” rather than “receive” seven different sex acts.

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Another finding of the same survey was that while a minority of tops never want to be on the receiving end of sex acts (they’re called “stone tops”), most are down for it sometimes. Autostraddle defines “top” as a person who prefers to being on the giving or penetrating side. But the biggest self-identified category Autostraddle found (more than 51% of everyone surveyed) was “switch” — which means someone who enjoys being both a top and a bottom. The term “verse” can be used interchangeably with “switch.”

While the terms “top” and “bottom” have specific meaning in same-sex relationships, people of all genders and sexualities can and do identify as one or the other. Identifying as a top or a bottom isn't correlated with any one gender expression or sexual orientation.

And that note brings us full circle back to your original question. Ideally, you should ask what being a top means to her during a non-sexual moment, like over breakfast. Doing so is as easy as saying something like, “Hey, remember when you told me you’re a top? What exactly did you mean by that?” As your relationship progresses and you two have more sex, it might also become self-evident — but it's still worth having the conversation in the interest of keeping an open dialogue about what you both like during sex.

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