Roxy Bourdillon examines the ins, outs and in-agains of sapphic desire


Stone butch. Service top. Pillow princess. I used to think these words were relics of our queer lady past. I assumed that these days very few women-loving women ascribed to such rigid roles, that we had long ago ripped up the rumpy-pumpy rulebook and everyone was just doing whatever felt right in the heat of the moment. Then I found myself single and eager to mingle for the first time in a long time. I was ready to dip my toe, tush and titties right back into the dyke dating pool, and I was astonished by what I found there.

While filling out my shiny new profile on, I was confronted with an unfamiliar question. Was I a top, a bottom or versatile? Well that’s forward, I thought. At least buy me a drink first. I hedged my bets and ticked all three, hoping it would widen my potential matches. In the following weeks, I received messages from many beguiling characters in search of love, lust and kinky fun times online. One woman offered to be my daddy. Another wanted me to be her MILF. It was all getting quite Oedipal.

Then at a girl party in east London that was far hipper than I’ll ever be, I met a stunning woman, all cheekbones and tattoos, who flirtatiously informed me she was a stud. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded thrilling so I took her home to find out. It turned out her biggest turn on was turning me on. For a week, I floated around in a multiple-orgasm-induced haze. I felt like a celestial goddess. I called my gal pals for an emergency brunch to share the stupendous news that I had discovered some kind of mythical lesbian unicorn. But I couldn’t help worrying, was I being frightfully rude? Was this appalling sextiquette? After all, I had been brought up to take turns! Was I greedily stealing all the orgasms at the orgasm buffet? I was suffering from my first bout of PPG – Pillow Princess Guilt. FYI dear reader, eventually the amazing tattooed woman did let me have my way with her and I discovered two important laws of sexual science. One: labels aren’t always for life. And two: topping a top is hot.


Sexy stats

Despite my dalliances, I continued to imagine that those who were strongly attached to set sexual dynamics were a minority. I thought I was dealing in niche nookie, that is until I launched the DIVA Love Survey as a sneaky way to find out about other people’s sex lives. I was fascinated to find that 75% of the women who responded classified themselves somewhere on the relationship role spectrum. Only one in four said they didn’t like labels, which is fair enough. They probably prefer to just get on with getting it on. But even if you’d rather get busy in someone’s box than put yourself in one, chances are you still find the psychology of sex compelling. And what can I say? At school I was a nerd for iambic pentameter and now I get my geek on researching rutting.

Before we delve any deeper into the sensual waters of what we get up to in the sack, let’s take a moment to define a few things. Now this is tricky territory, because everyone seems to have their own idea of exactly what these slippery, saucy little words mean. There are, as the saying goes, 50 shades of gay.

Topping the velvet

Terms like top, bottom, dominant and submissive originated in the BDSM and gay male communities, but have since been adopted and adapted by queer women to describe our own sexual shenanigans, whether kinky or vanilla. Topping can mean being in charge, preferring to be the giver or the penetrator, or getting pleasure from giving pleasure. One reader, who described herself as a “stone butch” explained her own top energy: “I’m dominant, because I get aroused by turning someone else on. I’m attracted to strong, confident women – pillow queens, not pillow princesses. It’s not about me being in control; it’s about making her lose control.”

Being a top doesn’t necessarily mean you’re, as my friend calls herself, a “touch-me-not”, but my findings highlighted that trust is key. Some tops only feel comfortable letting their partner dominate them once they’ve built an emotional connection. One admitted, “I will only let my girlfriend do stuff to me if we’ve been together longer than six months.”

Confused? Let’s clarify by applying top theory to our shared spiritual text, The L Word. It’s pretty clear that Shane is the ultimate top, right? She exudes Big Dyke Energy, she’s almost always shown as the fucker rather than the fuckee, and if there’s a strap-on in the room, chances are it’s buckled to her hips and about to be plunged into Cherie Jaffe. Another quintessential top? Tennis pro and loveable goofball, Dana Fairbanks. Alice even told her, while they were at it like adorable, horny bunny rabbits, “You’re totally topping me again,” to which Dana replied, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you through the feathers, pillow queen!”


But what the heck is bottoming?

Bottoming can be harder to pin down, which is ironic because bottoms often love to be pinned down. In her practical and inclusive manual, Girl Sex 101, Allison Moon offers this definition: “To bottom is to practice the great art of receiving. As a receiver, the giver is in service to you and your pleasure. It is your job to navigate. It’s her job to drive.”

Being a bottom doesn’t have to mean relinquishing all control. According to Allison, there are three different and delightful ways to navigate an encounter, whether you’re a top, a bottom or just want to get laid already. First up is “Contact Improv”, where you’re both in the zone and your bods are responding to each other intuitively. It’s a lot like interpretive dance, but with far raunchier facial expressions. Then there’s “The Conductor”, when one person is very much taking the lead, calling the shots and dishing out those big, symphonic Os. Lastly there’s “Topping From The Bottom”: the recipient is active and even bossy, telling or showing their partner precisely what they want and how they want it. And lez not forget, a single sesh can sometimes be a thoroughly enjoyable combo of all three!


Switch it up

Examining the survey results, I found that 11% of respondents identified as strictly top, with the same number being firmly in the bottom camp. The majority described themselves as versatile or switch, with just over half happy to take on different roles at different times. This group weren’t all slap bang in the middle of the switchy spectrum, though. One in 10 considered themselves versatile with bottom leanings and slightly less were versatile with top tendencies. As one reader astutely observed, “It totally depends on the relationship dynamics.” Another commented, “I can identify with many of these identities in subtle ways, but not one completely.”

So it’s clear that sexual roles can be fluid, depending on what or who you’re doing. Model, actor and owner of extremely impressive eyebrows, Cara Delevingne, recently went on RuPaul’s podcast What’s The Tee? and shared that her boudoir behaviour varies according to the gender of her partner. She divulged, “I’m always very submissive with men, always. But then with women, I’m the opposite. As a person generally, I’m really good at giving love and not receiving it, and I’m the same in bed. I find it quite difficult to receive pleasure. I like to give.”

Queer folk have been talking about this stuff for centuries, although our terminology has evolved. Back in the naughty 1940s, a switch was known as a kiki and slang for a lesbian bottom was a molly dyke. Over the years, we’ve had various linguistic and non-verbal ways of flagging our predilections to potential partners. The hanky code, or as I like to call it the hanky panky code, was popularised by gay and bi men in the 70s and subsequently adapted by queer people across the gender spectrum. Lesbian sex mag, On Our Backs, even printed a useful and highly specific guide: a white lace ‘kerchief worn on the right signalled a penchant for bottoming in Victorian role-play scenes, a red rag on your left side meant a devotion to the fine art of fisting, and a pink one artfully tucked into your right pocket indicated that all you really wanted was to have your boobies fondled. (Note to self: must Amazon Prime a fuchsia hanky STAT.) Oh and naturally, if someone’s adorned with a yellow handkerchief, odds are they’re fond of a golden shower.

Don’t assume in the bedroom

The final takeaway of the survey is that you really can’t tell what someone’s like between the sheets just by their gender presentation. Sexuality, like humanity, is complicated and nuanced. While it’s true that many of the respondents who considered themselves tops or versatile tops identified as butch, there were also several proud femme tops. One reader declared, “Despite what people might think from looking at me, I’m very much a top. There’s strength and power in my femininity. I like to wield that power over others and dominate them.” Meanwhile, a butch lesbian seized on the chance to sound off: “It annoys me when women think they can just lie back and enjoy and they don’t need to do anything to me. Just because I’m a butch in the streets, doesn’t mean I’m not a switch in the sheets!”

So what have we learned today, ladies? You can waft your rainbow hued hankies, use all the sapphic slang you want, and make educated gay guesstimates, but in reality every time you strip off with a new partner, it’s a (hopefully explosive) chemistry experiment. What will your particular dynamic be? You can never be quite sure, but my god, it’s fun finding out. 

This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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