Labels! Do we really need them?
Straight people tend to get a little hung up on titles and roles in queer relationships. When it comes to gay sex, many people tend to think rigidly and a little too heteronormatively for their own good: one person is the top (aka the giver or the more dominant partner during sex), and one is the bottom (the receiver or the submissive partner).
It’s sort of a more prying version of the other severely reductive and incredibly problematic question queer people hear all the time: “Who’s the man in the relationship? Who’s the woman?”
Of course, as with anything related to sex, the binary relationship between tops and bottoms is a lot more complicated than that. Sure, there are plenty of queer folks who almost exclusively bottom or top during sex, but there’s just as many who consider themselves versatile or switch (And hey, sometimes, just like with straight sex, there’s no penetration at all. Sex is fluid!)
To dig a little deeper, we asked queer men about topping and bottoming, the stereotypes associated with both and how they choose to use (or not!) the terms in their own lives.
Let’s start with some quick and dirty definitions for tops and bottoms. (And switches and sides, too.)
Though everyone is different, tops (or dominants) prefer penetrating and/or being in control in bed. A bottom (or submissive) is usually the receptive partner during penetrative sex or the individual who cedes control.
“The bottom’s duties is to explain how he likes to be penetrated and how much control he wants or doesn’t want,” said Joe Kort, a sex and relationship therapist who works with LGBTQ+ clients. “And the bottom also makes sure he’s prepped and ‘cleaned out’ before sex ― my pet peeve about LGBTQ now being shown in non-porn movies is that they make anal sex look seamless and it’s not!”
Prepping for anal sex might include douching, meaning using water and an enema or syringe to flush out the rectal cavity before you get down to business. (That said, you don’t need to douche to have an enjoyable experience with anal sex, and some doctors even advise against it.)
And then there are power bottoms: A power bottom bucks “top-bottom” tradition by controlling the thrusting and rhythm below or in front of their partner. Think of it like topping from the bottom.
If you’re into both bottoming and topping, you would probably be considered versatile or switch. If you’re not into penetration at all, you might identify as a “side,” which is someone who doesn’t enjoy anal sex but is down for other things (oral sex, rimming, mutual masturbation).
Men who have sex with men who don’t regularly engage with penetration are actually quite common. In a study of men who have sex with men published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2011, more than 60% of respondents had not engaged in anal intercourse during their last sexual event.
While this wide breadth of terminology can make finding partners easier on dating and hookup apps for some people, the hyper-focus on labeling or types is a problem for many in the queer community.
“I always cringe at the labels of tops or bottoms,” said Davey Wavey, a YouTuber and creator of the adult film site himeros.tv. “As gay people, we’re already working with a pretty small dating pool. To further restrict the pool to only tops or only bottoms isn’t doing yourself any favors. Labeling our identity on the basis of a sexual position feels limiting.”
Queer women identify as tops and bottoms, too.
While top-bottom terminology is mostly associated with gay men, queer women employ the terms, too. (Though a survey by queer site Autostraddle found that most queer women identify as switches rather than tops or bottoms.)
What does it mean to top as a queer woman? It could involve fingering, performing oral sex, or using a strap-on for penetration, among many other fun sexy time things.
Some people just naturally prefer bottoming or topping.
More times than not, you can usually figure out if you identify more as a bottom, top or switch by thinking about what turns you on general.
“The way my clients have said they figured out if they are a top or bottom is by what they fantasized about during masturbation and also by engaging in both to see what worked best for them and what aroused them the most,” Kortsaid.
And obviously, depending on the circumstance and the chemistry you feel with a partner, you might be game to switch. Bottom shaming is an issue in the queer community.
We live in a patriarchal society that prizes masculinity, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that bottoms get shamed for doing something associated with what women are expected to do during sex. Topping is seen as preferable by some men who have sex with men because it doesn’t threaten their masculinity.
“The problem is that tops are almost always seen as more manly, virile and aggressive, whereas bottoms are usually linked to effeminacy because we think they have a subservient position,” Madison Moore, a cultural critic and queer studies professor wrote on Thought Catalog in 2014.
“This attitude is wholly cultural and deeply rooted in how we think about gender,” Moore wrote. “Like, men are supposed to be men. Like, men don’t take dicks up the ass.”
The issue speaks to a larger problem of discrimination of men demonstrating more femme traits in gay culture. No, you can’t tell if someone is a top or bottom based on their personality or physical build.
Don’t fall into the trap of assuming someone’s preferred sexual position based on how they present.
There are plenty of men who like to bottom. (And plenty of guys who are assertive at work or in public life who relish the opportunity to cede some of that control in the bedroom and play the submissive.) There are also femme gay men who love topping.
“It’s absolute nonsense, not to mention degrading, to be put into a box based on your expression or physique,” said Bradley Birkholz, a YouTube creator and gay rights activist.
“Anytime somebody assumes you want something done to you in bed, there’s danger associated with it, regardless of your sexuality or gender,” he said. “I think we have a culture that tells people that the way we talk, act, and dress means we want certain things done to us in bed ― which simply isn’t true.”
As with any sexual encounter, communication is key. You have to ask and find out what your partner is into, not just assume.
“You can be gay and not like anal sex at all, and that’s absolutely fine; and you can use the labels of top or bottom, and that’s fine, too,” Birkholz said. “There’s nothing wrong with those labels — just don’t apply them to other people because you assume they identify with it.”
Amongst gay men, the self-label – top, bottom or versatile – reflects the sexual role preference during anal intercourse. This study explored whether this label could predict preferences for other sexual behaviors and the roles within those behaviors. First, the accuracy of the sexual self-label was tested.
We confirmed that tops strongly preferred insertive anal intercourse; bottoms, receptive anal intercourse; and versatiles, both behaviors. Further tests showed that sexual self-label was indeed correlated with corresponding roles within sexual behaviors aside from intercourse, e.g. insertive urination or receptive fisting.
About 75% of these sexual behaviors followed posited trends: tops being insertive; bottoms, receptive; and versatiles, between the two.
Finally, within groups, tops were found to strongly prefer playing insertive rather than receptive roles; bottoms strongly prefer playing receptive to insertive roles; and versatiles were found to have an equal preference for playing both.
“It Takes a Man to Put Me on the Bottom”: Gay Men’s Experiences of Masculinity and Anal Intercourse
In anal intercourse between gay men, men who are typically insertive (“tops”) are often perceived as, and may identify as, more masculine than those who are typically receptive (“bottoms”).
“Versatile” men, who may adopt either position, may be perceived as more gender balanced and may transcend the gender-role stereotypes associated with self-labeling as top or bottom.
The aim of this study was to explore how gay men’s beliefs about masculinity were associated with their beliefs about the gendered nature of sexual self-labels and their behavior in anal intercourse.
Individual semistructured interviews were undertaken with 17 UK-based gay men. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) identified that perceptions of tops and bottoms as gendered social identities varied depending on the extent to which gay men subscribed to the mandates of hegemonic masculinity, the dominant masculinity in Western society.
The findings also suggested that some gay men differentiated between top and bottom as social identities and topping and bottoming as gendered behaviors. This had implications for gay men’s behaviors in anal intercourse.
It is suggested that future efforts to engage with gay men about their sexual behavior should account for their beliefs regarding the gender-role stereotypes associated with gay sexual self-labels.
Top or bottom: a position paper
This paper builds on prior research that establishes the connection between femininity and gay men by adding sexual position identity, or one’s sexual role as a top, bottom or versatile, to the argument.
Using concepts of hegemonic masculinity and censure, the paper examines the historic link between feminine pursuits of fashion and aesthetics and gay identity as well as contemporary views of ‘gayness’ to argue that gay men are censured by other gay men in order to conform to heteronormative expectations of gender.
The mechanism for the censure is invoking the word ‘bottom’ to criticise gay men who have feminine traits. Data were gathered from casual interviews, conversations, blogs and vlogs and demonstrate the underlying tension between masculinity and femininity within the gay, male community and how the community has co-opted heteronormative concepts of gender
Genetics May Determine if Gay Men Are Tops or Bottoms
A lot of people think that homosexuality is a simple matter of genetics—if you have the so-called "gay gene," well, you know the rest. In other words, gays and lesbians are just "born that way" and that's that.
While this explanation is intuitively appealing, the reality is that things are far more complex. Increasingly, scientific research suggests there are multiple factors that might contribute to homosexual orientation—and they're very different from one person to the next.
The end result of all this variability is that different "kinds" or "types" of homosexuality probably exist. In other words, being gay isn't just one thing, and not everyone who is gay is gay for the same reasons.
A fascinating new study supporting this idea was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE. This study focused specifically on exploring the potential origins of male homosexuality, but did so in a way that was very different from almost all previous studies on this topic.
Whereas most research in this area has treated gay men as a homogeneous group, the researchers leading this study instead looked at subgroups of gay men who differed based on their preferred anal sex role: "tops" (the insertive partner), "bottoms" (the receptive partner), and "versatile" (those who are open to switching roles).
Preferred anal sex role has been linked to gay men's degree of gender non-conformity: research has found that tops tend to score higher in masculine personality traits, whereas bottoms tend to score higher in feminine personality traits.
This is by no means a universal difference—there are certainly feminine tops and masculine bottoms in the world. The point here is simply that there's a correlation between preferred sexual role and gender non-conformity.
What the researchers leading this study wanted to look at was how preferred anal sex role and gender non-conformity are linked to one specific biological factor previously shown to be associated with elevated rates of homosexuality in general: being non-right handed.
Study after study has found that homosexuality—as well as gender non-conformity—are linked to being non-right handed.
This has been taken as evidence in favor of a biological basis for homosexuality, given that handedness is something that is determined in the womb by biological factors. As such, scientists have concluded that whatever it is that's affecting handedness is also affecting sexual orientation.
In this study, 333 men (some gay, some straight) were recruited online and at a Canadian Pride festival to complete a survey. They were asked about their sexual orientation, their recalled degree of gender non-conformity in childhood, the extent to which their right vs. left hand is dominant, and (for gay men only) their anal sex role preference.
Overall, 43 percent of these gay men said they preferred bottoming, 31 percent reported being versatile, and 26 percent preferred topping. The bottom and versatile men were grouped together for analyses because it turned out they were extremely similar to one another in handedness and gender non-conformity.
The results replicated previous studies in that gay men demonstrated more non-right handedness and reported higher levels of childhood gender non-conformity than straight men.
The findings were also consistent with earlier research reporting personality differences between tops and bottoms in that bottom/versatile men were more gender non-conforming than tops. Tops were still more gender non-conforming on average than straight men, though.
This is where things get really interesting: Gay men with a bottom/versatile preference were less likely to be right-handed than tops—but tops and straight men did not differ when it came to which hand was dominant.
This suggests that gay men's anal sex role preferences are rooted, to some degree, in their biology. In other words, although tops and bottoms both have the same sexual orientation, they may arrive at that orientation via very different biological pathways.
Further, the results also suggested that this difference in handedness between tops and bottoms partially explains why they differed in gender non-conformity. The data were consistent with the idea that bottom/versatile guys are more gender non-conforming than tops because they're less likely to be right-handed.
Though fascinating, this study (like any study) has its limitations, including the fact that the sample wasn't representative (among other things, the vast majority of participants were white).
In addition, it doesn't answer the why question: while this research may give us a glimpse into which biological processes might contribute to variations in sexual orientation, it doesn't tell us why that happens in the first place.
Also, even if it is true that biology predisposes gay men to preferences for different sexual roles, it's not necessarily the case that everyone will act consistent with those predispositions.
Some might adopt a role that's inconsistent with their preference because their preferred role is socially stigmatized. For example, all the femiphobia in the gay community probably leads some gay men to avoid bottoming (or admitting to it). It's also important to note that people's actual sexual behaviors are constrained, in part, by their partner's sexual preferences.
There's also just a heck of a lot of individual variability. You can be gay and a bottom, but still be right-handed and extremely masculine.
It's easy to point to exceptions to the pattern reported in this study, but that doesn't necessarily undermine it. Remember that this research is still very preliminary and that the handedness part may be just one small piece of the puzzle.
What all of this tells us is that understanding the origin of sexual orientation is a very complicated matter. While there's still a lot we don't know, what the research suggests is that there seem to be different kinds of homosexuality that have different causes.
It also suggests that the search for a simple answer to the question of why some people are gay—like the elusive "gay gene"—is one that's likely to prove futile.
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