In Praise of 'Service Tops'
Editor's note: Some of the sources for this article requested their full names and locations not be used.
When JJ, 26, of New York, has sex with his partners, their pleasure is his sole priority. Rather than assuming the macho, dominant role so often expected of service tops, JJ treats penetration as an intimate act of care. It's about more than just being a considerate lover; it's about deriving tremendous sexual pleasure from serving the needs of his bottoms.
'I like giving my partner exactly what she wants, even though I'm technically the one calling all the shots.'
"I've dabbled in dominant/submissive role play throughout my 20s," he said. "That's when it really hit home for me how much getting other guys off gets me off."
There's a name for guys like JJ, but it's not exactly well-known outside of kink communities. JJ is what's known as a "service top," a humble servant eager to take care of his bottoming partner.
Topping doesn't always mean penetrating
Depending on the context, the meaning of a service top varies slightly. Generally speaking, service tops act according to what the bottom wants, explained Gigi Engle, a certified sex educator and author based in London.
"They take pleasure from doing things to the bottom based on explicit instructions," Engle said. "It's about being in control, so it's still a dominant/submissive dynamic, but it's about pleasuring the bottom in a loving way as opposed to dishing out explicit punishment."
"Service top" is often considered gay sex slang, but this isn't strictly accurate. Topping isn't always about penetration, especially within kink communities; it's just shorthand for playing the more active role or actively pleasuring a partner.
It's also a term that can be claimed by anyone of any gender, as evidenced in a 2018 survey of more than 3,500 queer women conducted by queer media site Autostraddle. A handful of women self-identified as service tops, and it meant slightly different things to each of them.
"I like giving my partner exactly what she wants, even though I'm technically the one calling all the shots," explained one unnamed "soft butch lesbian." Another participant described it as a "submissive service role in position of giving sexual acts."
Subverting old-school sexual scripts
Although service tops still largely operate within the dominant/submissive binary, their existence subverts the old-school idea that bottoms are submissive and tops are dominant.
The world has made huge strides in queer visibility over the past few decades, but when we talk about sex, we still speak in ways that replicate straight sex. Tops are stereotyped as masculine, and bottoms as their feminine counterparts. This cliché ties into wider sexual implications that penetration is the holy grail of sex and our sexual preferences can be boxed into binaries.
In 2018, researchers at the Kinsey Institute studied 115 different-sex couples in Canada to learn more about sexual communication. Participants were asked to engage in two different conflict discussions: one sexual, one nonsexual. Although the couples were largely warmer and more responsive to each other when discussing sex, they were also more hesitant and anxious. Whether they realized it or not, these couples saw sex as a comparatively high-stakes issue.
This reluctance to talk about sex can make a serious long-term dent in our sexual fulfillment. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, researchers discovered that couples who communicated clearly had more frequent orgasms and greater sexual satisfaction.
The findings are clear: If you want to have good sex, it helps to be specific about what that looks like for you. Terms such as "service top" and "power bottom" are pretty useful in that sense; they're quick, to-the-point ways to speak about sexual desire.
The more verbal, the better
Lean into the kinkiest aspects of this dynamic and you'll likely find yourself throwing out some serious dirty talk. After all, good service requires clear instruction. Want to be rimmed? Spanked? Service tops want to know all the filthiest details.
Throughout his years of practicing this dynamic, JJ has fine-tuned his formula.
"You've got to be able to communicate both verbally and via body language to know when something is working," he explained.
Variety is the spice of life, too. Mix things up to keep your bottom on their toes.
"Alternate speeds, depth and rhythm, paying attention to their responses so you know what's getting them off," JJ continued.
The broader service of service tops
"All couples can benefit from the communication required in this dynamic," Engle said. "You have to talk about exactly what the bottom wants and what will bring them pleasure. There's a lot of trust involved, and it's a wonderful way to engage sexually. It should be the gold standard for all couples/triads/polycules. After all, communication is lubrication."
Plenty of us see penetration as a means to an end, and the pleasure of the top almost always takes priority. Arguably, this is why tops are often stereotyped as sloppy and selfish––think of the straight, cis men jackhammering away without caring that most women don't orgasm through vaginal penetration alone, or the "have sex and leave" tops so often parodied in gay memes.
I asked gay Reddit users if they've had the good fortune of coming across a service top in their time. Most respondents didn't know the meaning of the phrase "service top". A handful of benevolent tops were even shocked there's a specific term being used to describe what they see as basic sexual etiquette.
Perhaps, in an ideal world, the concept of a service top wouldn't need to exist. If we prioritized our bottoms' needs by default, there'd be no need for a whole new word to describe sex where both people actually stand a chance of coming. But this isn't the current reality.
In the meantime, service tops like JJ are doing the Lord's work by viewing penetration as an act of care.
"It's pretty hot to see a guy squirm under you with delight and reach a big, hands-free orgasm," he concluded. "It's an amazing feeling to know it was you that helped them get there."