Top? Bottom? Vers? Some combination of the above? Here’s how to figure out what’s right for you.
Legend would have you believe that once you’ve earned your gay card, a Harry Potter–like ceremony occurs where, instead of the Sorting Hat, a giant magical butt plug divides all gay men into two houses: tops or bottoms.
This is clearly not the case, especially for those people who consider themselves versatile (HIYA). But often, penetrative sex can feel divided into rigid binaries that make being a top or a bottom seem like a cult you’ve signed up to for life, and one that you have to declare as soon as two (or more) consenting men decide to take their clothes off and rub up against each other.
These two subdivisions have their own rules, stereotypes, and in-jokes, and can sometimes seem as if they’re at war with each other, rather than both working together for mutual sexual pleasure.
All of this can make trying different things daunting, especially if you’re a baby gay venturing into this world for the first time. But it ought not to be impossible to sexually switch things up.
Sure, people have a preference, but now could be the perfect time to escape the top or bottom prison you live in. So, with the help of some experts, let’s take a moment to dismantle what you think you know about topping and bottoming. It could open up a world of possibilities.
Human beings are very good at trying something once and deciding indefinitely that we don’t like it. In the case of anal sex, this is usually because of an experience from when we were young and hadn’t quite realized the importance of lube (USE LOTS OF LUBE). So how do you go about testing new waters?
“I believe in what I call taking your erotic temperature,” explains Woody Miller, the author of the books How to Bottom Like a Porn Star and How to Top Like a Stud, “which is basically having a conversation with yourself about what it is you like.”
Miller argues that gay men should examine their relationship with power. Where do you align when it comes to being dominant or submissive? One way to question this, he posits, is to approach something other than penetrative sex.
“Look at kissing,” he says. “If you initiated the kiss, you’re the dominant one. If you received the kiss, you’re the submissive one. There is no aspect of sex that doesn’t have, at its core, an aspect of power.
So part of the thing that you have to ask yourself is, ‘What am I comfortable with? Do I like initiating sex? Do I like telling my partner what to do, or do I like being told what to do?’ ”
What’s important is that there might not be a right or wrong answer to this. You might like taking your car for a service just as much as servicing it yourself. That’s part of the fun, right?Realize what’s stopping you from experimenting
Clearly, if you’ve tried topping and bottoming a few times and figured out which of them is for you, that’s great. But I believe that many gay men pick one side, stick to it, and that some of those individuals choose topping—you’ll have seen their profiles marking them as “masc dom tops” on the apps—because of its ties to traditional masculinity.
As Miller explains, there are outside forces that, dating back to the ancient Greeks, have prevented gay men from truly digging into what sexual behaviors we might actually enjoy. “What I mean by that,” he says, “is that cultural forces within the gay community prize topping over bottoming.”
The ongoing fetishization of masculinity means that the traditionally submissive role of the bottom is associated with effeminacy. “With bottoming there is the perception that you’re giving up your masculinity because receiving a penis is something that women do,” Miller adds.
Dr. Chris White, an expert in health promotion and the director and principal investigator of the Safe and Supportive Schools Project at the Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco, takes this one step further. “If you’re a bottom, you’re sometimes seen as a slut,” he says.
“You don’t ever hear tops being called sluts, just bottoms. So there’s some shaming there. And it’s feminine type shaming, as well. Not only are you saying that it’s more masculine to be a top, but you’re saying that you should be ashamed to be a bottom.”
Basically, it could be time to seriously check yourself and ask exactly why you don’t like bottoming (or topping, TBH). If you believe that topping is preferable because it doesn’t threaten your masculinity, then have a strong word with yourself. Similarly, if you’re a bottom-only queen, ask yourself why. Not getting fucked doesn’t make you any less gay.Your sexual position isn’t your identity
Let’s call bullshit on the concept that if two people are tops they’re incompatible, because the positions that you enjoy don’t define who you are. “I think that’s part of the problem. We’ve literally made identities out of sexual positions,” Miller says. “It’s a sexual thought prison.”
Of course, if someone knows that they only really enjoy one aspect of penetration, then let’s not discount that. But as with everything sexual, these things are usually on a spectrum that is often contextual. “It can change depending on where you are in your life, how old you are, how fit you’re feeling, and what you’re in the mood for,”
White says. “If you think about people’s everyday behaviors, I don’t know if there’s a difference between someone who acts or comes across as more masculine and the role that they play in sex. We like to pretend that there are, but they’re not necessarily true.”
Sure, declaring a preference if you’re on the hunt for a quickie will save time and energy, but don’t get all caught up in labels. There’s really not an eternal sparkling scarlet letter marking you with a “T” or a “B.”To be (fucked) or not to be (fucked) shouldn’t always be the question
According to a 2011 study by The Journal of Sexual Medicine that surveyed 25,000 gay men in America about their last sexual encounters, only 36 percent said they had bottomed and 34 percent said they had topped.
So, in reality, we’re not actually fucking all that much. It makes turning someone down if they don’t match your preference, especially if it’s just for a one-off, even more preposterous.
“We seem to place more psychological importance on anal sex than physical importance, because we’re not doing it that often,” Miller says. “So why are we making such a big deal out of it?”
When I interviewed Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander last year for NME, we bonded over bottoming jokes—specifically, how tedious they’ve become. “It’s an obsession with a sexual dynamic that feels pointless,” the singer told me. “Just get over it, get past it.
Our notion of who’s a bottom and who’s a top is rooted in notions of gender and masculinity and femininity that are really outdated as fuck.
Say what you want among friends, but I’m a bit bored of the online discourse being, like, ‘bottom energy!’ or ‘top me daddy!’ or ‘that’s not gonna work—two bottoms don’t make a top.’ It’s super-reductive.”
Some fans are so keen to pigeonhole male idols as tops and bottoms that even cishet celebrities, such as Shawn Mendes, Timothée Chalamet, and the members of One Direction, have these sexual roles (which are most readily associated with gay men) applied to them.
But the desire to categorize guys based on what they might do in bed isn’t just part of stan culture; it’s a reductive part of gay culture—especially on dating apps. “On Grindr, I find it exhausting that ‘top or bottom?’ is the first question you’re asked if you haven’t specified a role on your profile,” 31-year-old London resident Jon says.
“I find explaining that I’m not really one or the other, or strictly vers [versatile] either, a lot of effort to make straight away. After all, this is someone I may not even want to chat to beyond that initial small talk, let alone sleep with.”
Jon also says that being asked “top or bottom?” as a conversation starter can feel exclusionary. “It describes acts more than people, and it doesn’t leave a lot of space for gay guys who are vers, or gay guys like me who don’t really ever have anal sex.
And what about MSM [men seeking men] on dating apps who don’t identify as gay or bi? You know, I think it would be super-useful to educate people about the side identity, and the fact that many gay guys do not often, or indeed ever, have anal sex.”
David, a 35-year-old gay man from London who doesn’t identify as top or bottom, says he worries that “some guys can start to define their lives” by their sexual role. “I fully understand the need to give yourself an identity, and when the only thing we all have in common [as gay men] is sex, it’s the easiest one to lean on,” he says.
“But I also think it leans too heavily into heteronormativity, because I think it can be seen in terms of the bottom being ‘the woman’ and the top being ‘the man.’ Is there no rule book for relationships that hasn’t been written by straight people?”
In recent years, in some gay circles, “bottom” has become a sneering synonym for “camp” or “femme-presenting.” Court, a 37-year-old gay guy from Denver, tells me that “bottom-shaming is definitely a thing.
People feel like bottoming makes you the submissive or ‘the woman,’ which is ridiculous,” he says. “But some gay guys out there feel so threatened in their masculinity that they don’t want anyone to perceive them as even being capable of ‘taking it.’”
Court playfully defines himself as an “equal opportunity fuck,” but adds that “in a nutshell, vers would be an accurate description” for his bedroom preferences.
“Personally, I think that anyone who’s going to top needs to learn to bottom, because until he’s been on the bottom, a top has no idea what he’s doing,” he argues.
“And you know, I think some gay guys out there maybe had one really bad experience bottoming and never allowed themselves to try again because they were afraid it would be bad again.”