[WARNING: IRENE ADLER MEANS ADULT CONTENT AHEAD]
One of the things that really bothers me in fanfiction is something as simple as arguing over who is the “top” and “bottom” in a pairing. If magically there are somehow no arguments about who’s on top, then I notice that one person in a pairing is constantly seen as the bottom because they are “weaker and more stereotypically feminine.”
I should stress that I feel this is mostly a slash fanfiction problem, but het pairings and femslash pairings are not exempt in any way. Het pairings simply delegate the women to the role of a “bottom,” but femslash tends to avoid top and bottom debates, though there are some exceptions, such as if a female character tends to be more “stereotypically masculine,” then she will more than likely be on “top.”
Have you seen the key factor here? Hint: it’s a penis.
Yes, top and bottom debates tend to center around who is getting a penis shoved into them; the person who is being fucked is considered a bottom, while the person doing the fucking is the top.
And yes, I’m using very scientific terms here.
There are a lot of problems with this. One key problem tends to be basic knowledge of sex. You can be on top and still have a penis being inserted into you. The positions affectionately known as “cowgirl” and “reverse cowgirl” demonstrate this pretty admirably.
So what makes someone a bottom since it can’t just be that they have a penis inserted into their person. So what else can it be? Wait, I got it! It’s that they are more submissive in bed. That makes them the “bottom.”
Well, that’s problematic too. One of the biggest problems with debates about tops and bottoms is that they get confused for the BDSM terms, dom and sub (or dominant and submissive). I have never heard anyone in the BDSM community use the terms top and bottom interchangeably with sub and dom. In fact, in BDSM fanfic—though most BDSM fanfic is actually a poor representation of BDSM—warnings for the fic will say this character is the sub and this character is the dom. They never use the term top and bottom, because it would be confusing. You could be physically on the bottom and still be the dom. But yet, fanfics that have very basic, vanilla, missionary position type sex, will warn that a certain character is a top and another is a bottom. Whole fandom communities have formed together to only write, let’s say, bottom!Draco fanfiction, and will become violently pissed at you posting or recommending a fic that has Draco on top even briefly.
Why do people argue so passionately over tops and bottoms? Why is this distinction so important? I have often heard that it is better for partners to switch who is on top and who is on bottom, if only because you get to try multiple positions that way.
So why all the fuss?
Well, many feminists have discussed how much of lesbian porn is not very indicative of actually lesbian sex, because it’s written and performed with heterosexual males in mind. The same thing can be argued with fanfiction. Most fanfiction is written by heterosexual women, which would explain the debate a little bit.
Despite, as I mentioned before, the fact that you can be on top and still be penetrated there is this idea that because in heterosexual sex the women is penetrated she is the “bottom.” One of the biggest questions asked of gay men is, “how do you decide who is on the bottom?” In other words, who gets penetrated? Lesbians on the other hand get asked, “How do you have sex? Do you use dildos or just scissor?” This probably at least somewhat explains the debates or lack thereof in fanfiction. Slash fanfiction debates rage over who gets penetrated and why, while femslash barely has the discussion at all. Either because I’m assuming people just don’t know as much about lesbian sex, or because actual lesbians are writing the fanfic and the top/bottom question isn’t important for them.
How fandom decides who is on top and who is on the bottom is also often incredibly heterosexist. The bottom is always the weaker, more submissive, more emotional, and more stereotypically feminine one. While the top is the more aggressive, violent, powerful one. Not only is this heterosexist, but also paints a pretty bad picture of heterosexual sex when applied to het pairings. It makes all heterosexual sex seem inherently violent and sexist—that’s a bit strange.
The best fandom pairings, in my opinion, tend to show the partners as equals and who is on top or bottom switches, not just from author to author, but from sex scene to sex scene in one story. Sadly, even in the best pairing this debate still arises, but thankfully occurs less than it does with other pairings.
So next time you write a fic remember that the top/bottom question is a silly one for any type of fic, whether slash, femslash, or het.
Talking about Doms and Subs in BDSM, on the other hand, is a whole different question for a later post.