Define: “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets”

I ran across the phrase “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets” (again) the other day, and it bothered me (again, still). So I started thinking:

It generally means – and correct me if I’m wrong – that this supposed “butch in the streets,” once taken to bed, liked to or wanted to get fucked.

This is operating on an identity alignment assumption: that butches are tops.

This notion comes from old-fashioned sexism: that if you are a man – or masculine – that therefore you are dominant. Period always end of story.

But come on – we know this is not always the case. We know butches can be – gasp! – bottoms.

It may be statistically most likely (even if by a small margin) that masculine folks are tops, it may be a stereotype (which, let’s be honest, often exist for a reason), it may be quite possible. But it is an assumption based on identity and presentation, not based on an individual’s personality and interests and unique manifestation in this body, on this planet, at this time, in this life.

Don’t let sexist stereotypes dictate how you see another person. Can we please move beyond that? Can we please work a little harder to obliterate these sexist assumptions in our own radical, progressive communities?

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

20 thoughts on “Define: “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets””

  1. Amber says:

    Hear hear. My boi and I are switches, but she mostly bottoms and loves it. We are always met with surprise even among members of the BDSM crowd when they find out I'm the more dominant half of our duo. Sure, people of alternative lifestyles tend to be a little more open-minded than most, but many still have some growing to do!

  2. see, this is my issue with identifiers in the first place – they create boxes, which sometimes can be useful, but mostly can be limiting. i know we need words to communicate our needs, our preferences, to sometimes create community and understanding, but inherent in the doing of these things is the sure backside replete with Jargonism, the new religion i just created that worships the Identifier more than that which (or whom) is identified. all hail the The Definer!

    my point, if i have one, is that in naming things & people & parts, we will always have a set of people more keen on interacting with the name more than the thing, person or part because that is faster & easier.

  3. Emily says:

    I was never comfortable with that phrase because it felt like a lie, at the same time describing me. I dress like a man, talk like a man, and I love gender play in general. But inside I am wholly femme and am considering the ohrase tomboy femme to describe me. Not that I need a label. But that phrase always made me feel like I was going back and forth and coudln' decide and it has caused me significant stress. Thanks for clearing that up for other people, and thank you for helping me feel like I'm not just going crazy!

  4. I agree!

    I think it does go past just the label you might wrap yourself under. This is why some of my friends looked oddly at me when I showed them the woman I was talking with. She's a femme but I can see in her eyes that she is a top. They expected I'd be talking to butch/boi considering my preferences but it really isn't about that at all. It's about gender fluidity and that base energy that turns me on.

    I don't take that phrase to seriously at all. (put i'm sure some do) Actually when I think about it, it can be a turn on. I for one love to watch as my own preconceived programmed notions on gender and identity melt before my eyes as the butch/boi in front of me lets me take charge. There is something about watching preconceived notions smash apart before my eyes that is very attractive. Maybe that's why I like "non traditional" beauty. Women that skirt the borders. You can not label them. They can be everything….or not. It's up to them.

    Looking at me, one would say I was a femme but it's not where I identify and only when I want do I turn into a "girly girl". I'm aggressive and can be quite the opposite of what many see on the outside including playing with my own gender.

    It really is about the person's spirit and not the view of their body or the label they maintain.

  5. Janet says:

    We could dump all the labels – goodness how terrifying and liberating – then there would be very little to define beyond…

    I'm human and nothing less.

  6. Case in point *points at self* mostly-femme who tops my two FTM lovers with much enjoyment.

    I also have gay male friends who complain about being pigeonholed as tops or bottoms… one was quite small and slight but a definite top and had a hard time of it because everyone always assumed slightness = bottom.

    I sincerely hope we're heading towards a future that's more accepting of category-defiance, in gender/sexuality roles among other things :|

  7. Also – a friend from Turkey complained to me once that the annoying thing about Americans was that to deal with the label problem… they create more labels. Like – oh, you don't fit into any of our boxes? Let's make a new box for you to fit into.

  8. Gold says:

    From a butch (or close, anyway; if I were to call myself a butch, a bunch of real butches shooting pool in a sports bar somewhere would simultaneously roll their eyes and start complaining about how they don't make 'em like they used to) who fucks butches perspective: if all butches were tops, how would we ever have sex together? We'd have to arm wrestle for who gets to top or something.

    …Which might be pretty hot, actually. I'll have to try that.

  9. Calico says:

    Hell, yes:

    Also, I think it’s really important to draw distinctions, that just because one acts as a “Top” in a BDSM sense doesn’t mean one does not like to/always get fucked. And just because one is getting fucked one is therefore a bottom.

    …which I am sure Sinclair implied, but it's still satisfying to type it out. The whole tops-don't-get-fucked thing is clearly not true. I'm not always submissive, and I always get fucked. Rule.

    Also… Oy! Saying "butch in the streets, femme in the sheets" is not insulting to… who exactly? It's like insulting a man by calling him a "pussy" — in the end, everybody loses.

  10. Jane says:

    Gold, I'm with you on this. And I do think that the arm wrestling might be pretty hot.

    Back when I first came out in the queer community (I'd been a stealth queer for decades, but not in the closet…long story), I knew I was attracted to more masculine appearing women, and that seemed to mean butches. So I hooked up with a butch woman who tried to fit me into a femme slot. This was pretty uncomfortable, and not very successful. In addition, she identified as a top, yet spent several months trying to convince me that I was a top. It was confusing as all hell, but my point is that as a butch woman, she was very uncomfortable coming out and saying that she wanted to be topped. She needed to make me into a top (which I am mostly not) in order to become my compliment…..a bottom.

    And Blevin and Calico, I agree wholeheartedly that topping and not getting fucked are not synonymous (as are bottoming and getting fucked.)

  11. claude cahun says:

    Great post, um, except the "stereotypes exist for a reason" part. Yes they do- that reason is bigotry. That's why they are called stereotypes: they are untrue purely ideological framings of the characteristics of groups of people. So, I'll be "honest" and politely disagree- and point out the very dangerous (and racist!) consequences of this erroneous claim. Indeed, from within your own argument (regarding identitarian assumptions) you must be able to see that stereotypes are just that: stereotypes unhinged from the truth.

    [I fully agree that stereotypes can be completely harmful, damaging, dangerous. But some stereotypes aren't, necessarily … and some are based in truth, aren't they? Perhaps I should use another word for this, rather than stereotype, like "tendency" or "likelihood"? I suppose regardless, stereotypes are limitations placed upon identities, and I definitely disagree with that. So, perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to reproduce ideas like "stereotypes exist for a reason." Thanks for the polite disagreement! – ss]

  12. meara says:

    Also… Oy! Saying “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets” is not insulting to… who exactly? It’s like insulting a man by calling him a “pussy” — in the end, everybody loses.

    THIS. Because one of the things that super bothers me about that phrase is the way it is supposed to sound insulting somehow. As if both being femme and/or being a bottom (because, of course, being femme is being bottom) are somehow bad/insulting/pathetic/uncool things to be. It's just another way to further denigrate femininity. Within our own damn community. Which I get enough of in larger society thanks. And I struggle enough to find a nice line between loving and supporting and stroking my butch friends and lovers' egos in a way that is supportive WITHOUT putting down femininity. Just cause you don't want it, bois (and lately, many of you are all into that boi on boi action, and that's fine), doesn't mean you have to shit all over it. But it's something that really squirms into your subconscious, from society at large, and it's hard to avoid. Sigh. (And the whole being a bottom=less cool thing is all tied up in that too. No pun intended. :)

  13. Pugs says:

    This is why I don't like labels. I know we need them sometimes but why can't we all just be "lesbian" and let that be label enough? Some days I'm a top, some nights I'm a bottom. That's more a reflection of the mood I'm in than the way I live my life or how I see myself.

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  14. j says:

    i think there is a much greater stigma around butches interested in other butches than butches who wanna get topped. as a butch, i feel like it is assumed that i want to be with a femme, or at least someone girlier than i am. but it is the queering of gender, the ambiguity, that attracts me….

    (perhaps that's different in different circles, the butch/femme assumption?)

    [Yeah, I agree that there is a great stigma around butches wanting to be with other butches – whether it's a 'greater' stigma than butches who bottom? I don't know, there's no way to really gauge that I think. Either way, both are stigmatized based on some basic heterosexism! And I call bullshit. – ss]

  15. Having just, a few days ago, experienced people judging my own sexual / gender alignment, I have to say that this phrase has always bothered me. Similar to the commenter who said their slight gay friend was considered a "bottom", I had some folks assume the same about me because I wasn't giving off "top vibes."

    Unlike my gender identity, which can be interpreted, to a large degree, by my public gender performance, my sexual preferences are, I think, only discovered when I reveal them, either by flirtation or sexual activity. I find it presumptuous to assume that social roles = sexual roles, and that "top behavior" has to carry into all fields of life.

    I think that's part of the "butch in the streets" dichotomy. Sex is so central to who we are that some people are confused when attitudes between the sheets, so to speak, aren't extrapolated everywhere. Combine that with the assumption that top = masculine and masculine = butch, there you go. But if sexual roles (say, to distinguish between sexual identity, qua "hetero" and "homo" and "bi" etc) are constructed like gender, I think they're constructed between partners, not in public. And so while you have every right to make some assumptions about my gender based on my presentation (though not perhaps, about preferred pronouns), I don't think the same extends for sexual roles unless you happen to be in bed with me!

  16. kyle says:

    That phrase can be insulting, demeaning or even misused, true. It is the phrase that my wife has used in the past to describe us: she is feminine presenting and sexually aggressive and I am butch with switchy sexual tastes. It’s short hand and doesn’t completely describe us, but it’s a way to get people closer to understanding quickly.

    Labels can be useful in that way: to get us closer to the truth more quickly. Sometimes, if the people you’re talking to agree closely on what those labels mean, they can stand alone. Other times, labels really just confuse things or lead to arguments or worse. In order for labels to be useful, you’ve got to know how each party will define them, and we don’t always take the time for that kind of careful communication.

    I’m more and more of the philosophy that I want to self-label as I see fit, but not feel constrained by the labels I choose. I don’t like to be controlled, constrained, put in a box or the closet at all if I can help it. So I’ll call myself a butch dyke, but I’m not going to let other people’s understanding of those labels dictate with whom and how I have sex, or how I live my life.

  17. zoe says:

    i'm all for the mix-and-match of labels or using some labels and not others, and I can see how this phrase could be used as an insult. It seems like this phrase is mainly used about other people, which sure points to it being an insult or a short hand for something other than what it actually means (which i'm still unclear on…thought it seems the rough consensus here is that femme is shorthand for bottom which just seems weird to me as I know some femmes with all kinds of topping energy).

    However, it seems like we're being too quick here to sever public and private expressions of sexuality.

    Sure, how you dress may have no bearing on how you are in bed, but when I think "butch in the streets" I don't think just of clothes…i think also of courtship, which certainly has a more direct line of communication with bedroom behavior than does the question of whether you wear the bow at your throat or in your hair, or neither. After all, sometimes courtship seems like pre-foreplay. I have actually never heard this phrase outside of the context of this blog, which is, perhaps, why i think of it as having to do more with chivalry than top/bottom. And there seems to me to be no contradiction in a chivalrous butch bottom or any other combo.

  18. nikki says:

    “bottom” is often synonymous with “weak,” and people forget that bottoming is one of the toughest things one can do.

    & “weak is often synonymous with “femme,” and once again people forget that femmes are some of the toughest people you’ll ever meet.

    [Definitely agree. There is a big difference between “weak” and “vulnerable” – and it takes great, great strength to be vulnerable. – ss]

  19. ephraim says:

    i don't know about that whole chivalry argument. it could be because i'm a queer, bottom-oriented guy, but chivalry has always struck me as tinged with fem(me)dom dynamic. if we take a cue from the D/s world, chivalry is associated with service and service is associated with bottoming. so if holding open doors and carrying packages, etc. is what you mean by 'butch in the streets' in terms of behavior rather than dress, then to my perverse mind it's either signifying 'please fuck me' or 'please make me fuck you' – probably more of the latter.

  20. keruviel says:

    Statistically, everyone is a bottom — butches, femmes, tombois, straights, gays — even Lesbian Connection readers. People become tops because they can't believe that anyone can top them as well as they top others.

    Okay, okay … that's not 100% true, I'm being flippant. But it's more true than many people care to admit.

    Quoting this phrase is just an annoying way of asking "Are you *really* a top?" The speaker is just afraid she's going to get home and have her fantasies turned upside down.

    If you're interested, the best response I can think of would be to pull her close and say "If you want to know what I'm like between the sheets, I'm afraid you're going to have to ask a more direct and specific question."

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