I own a hoodie that says “It’s better on top” across the front of it. It was my high school senior sweatshirt, now it’s my stealthy queer-coded clothing item. Recently I explained to my mother what it means to be a lesbian “stone top.” Even though my mother is more like an annoying older sister, it was an awkward conversation to navigate, and not just because it’s about sex. It’s actually hard to explain what it means to me without falling back on stereotypes and sweeping generalizations.
Content Warning: This is all about sex, baby.
Most people can wrap their heads around what it means to be a “top.” The aggressive one in the bedroom, the initiator. The lesbian who leans in first to kiss the other queermo, tangling fingers together and pulling bodies closer. The one who makes more decisions, vocalizes more desires. There’s a misunderstanding that they are the braver one, the one less afraid of rejection. That’s not it, not quite. The fear coursing through my veins is the fear of not-doing, of not taking the chance. It would be harder to not try. Every romantic moment seems a maze of unlimited possibilities. I’m more often kept awake thinking about the risks I did not take than the failures I’ve suffered for taking those risks. I would always rather try to fill every moment of my life with happiness than to regret letting moments slip past me.
Two tops tumbling in bed together can even be considered with success. Think of two toy tops spinning closer and farther from one another. Two bosses in bed, a constant negotiation of who gets what when and finding the satisfying compromise between desires. To my mind both remain tops, though in the moment they are playing various roles.
Top is a personal identity, a filter through which I see the world. Two bottoms? Sure, I can imagine it, though I’ve never been there. For some, these labels mean less, slipping away as they slip between the sheets. How many butch babes in snapbacks have topped me in the streets, bottomed me in the sheets? It’s not just sex. There are asexual tops and asexual bottoms. I like to pick where we go on dates, to reach for her hand first, to open doors for her. It’s not posturing, it’s not taking on the “man’s” role, as my father has suggested. It has nothing to do with my masculinity. I like having these things done for me too, just not as much as I enjoy doing them. It’s what feels comfortable, it’s what fits.
[pullquote]Top is a personal identity, a filter through which I see the world. [/pullquote]What then of my modifier, what makes it harder to explain to others what I want when we’re together? Recently an older, wiser, genderqueer friend told me that “stone top” was an antiquated phrase, but I’ve yet to find a replacement. See, the difference between me and the average top is that I won’t tell you how to touch me. I’ll tell you not to touch me.
Some lesbian communities call people like me “touch-me-nots.” I imagine it as a complex dance with my partners, me in the lead, listening to their cues, and carrying them where they want to go.
I’ve been asked if this all comes from a place of trauma. I have experienced sexual trauma, what woman has not? But no, that’s not what makes me this way. Am I just uncomfortable with my body, afraid of my partner’s reaction? Yet, I love my curves, the thick weight of my being.
This label comes from a place of honesty and self-love.
What brings me to the edge is taking someone else there. What dips me into the realm of the eternal is seeing her toes curl, hearing her breath hitch. My own body will not do that for me. Hands doing their magical work on me make me want to do that on them. My need is wrapped up in the other.
There are those who despise the labels I use for myself, those words that I apply to my sexual partners. They just have sex, they tell me, they’re not a top or bottom. Just because we’re gay doesn’t mean we need special code, I’ve been told. But I love secrets. I love codes and labels and things that make it simpler to navigate complicated situations. My desire for this kind of clarity has little to do with my sexuality. I was a top long before I stopped sleeping with men. How many men told me I was bossy in bed? How many times did I keep all my clothing on while the man lay naked before me? It only made more sense when I stopped sleeping with men, when I found a few queers who understood what I meant when I called myself a stone top, a touch-me-not.
The most interesting misunderstanding is that this is an identity you can visually identify in others. There’s an assumption that femmes are bottoms, butches are tops, those in-between are a mixed bag. Yet, in my growing experience, this is quite the opposite. I’m a masculine of center lesbian with feminine tendencies. I’m attracted mainly to butch women. Every butch woman I’ve had the joy of sleeping with has been a “bottom,” or at least comfortable fitting that role. The more feminine women I’ve dated have been then ones to push my boundaries, to fight for their desire to touch me the way I touch them.
All of this is true, and yet none of it is constant. Sexuality for so many is so fluid. Desire is layered, complex, beautiful. People have so many wants and needs and beliefs about how to achieve those things. Sex is messy and strange, and it’s the complications that keep me coming back.