Gay men are constantly referring to and defining themselves as “tops” or “bottoms.” When they consider dating or simply hooking up, gay men typically ask the other guy whether he’s a top, a bottom or “versatile.” It’s important to find this out as soon as possible, because if you are planning to date or get into a relationship, it’s vitally important that you and he be sexually compatible with each other.
The whole issue of tops and bottoms came up recently with the release of a new study that looked at whether or not people can determine whether a gay man is a top or a bottom just by looking at facial cues. The study revealed that judgments made about whether an individual is a top or a bottom are based on perceived masculine and feminine traits.
There’s so much talk and discussion about who gives and who receives. I’ve had straight people tell me that they assumed that most gay guys simply take turns. Yes, some do, but most don’t. But what if a guy isn’t a top, a bottom or even versatile? What about gay men who have never engaged in anal sex and never will, ever?
I think they deserve a name of their own. I call them “sides.”
Defining a Side
Sides prefer to kiss, hug and engage in oral sex, rimming, mutual masturbation and rubbing up and down on each other, to name just a few of the sexual activities they enjoy. These men enjoy practically every sexual practice aside from anal penetration of any kind. They may have tried it, and even performed it for some time, before they became aware that for them, it was simply not erotic and wasn’t getting any more so. Some may even enjoy receiving or giving anal stimulation with a finger, but nothing beyond that.
Sexual Shame and Masculinity
Sides typically struggle with tremendous feelings of shame. They secretly believe that they should be engaging in and enjoying anal sex, and that something must be wrong with them if they are not. Often they won’t publicly admit to not engaging in anal sex, because of the judgments that other gay men might (and most likely will) make about them. I have heard gay men (and even straight people) say that if they aren’t penetrating or being penetrated, they aren’t having “real” sex.
If a man has undergone prostate surgery that caused nerve damage to the penis or suffers from hemorrhoids or other issues that make anal penetration impossible, uncomfortable or unappealing, then that physiological or medical reason takes most of the shame out of being a side. These men may be genuine tops or bottoms but become sides out of necessity.
The gay male community has its own preferences that often slide into prejudices, and a great many look down on anyone who’s not a top. Bottoms get talked about, even dismissed, as if they were women. As the joke goes, “Who pays for a gay male wedding? The father of the bottom.” While that may be funny, it shows a cruel contempt for femininity. It makes the insensitive presumption that a man “takes the woman’s role” by receiving, and that there’s something wrong with him for it, namely that he’s not masculine.
Straight men labor under the same misconception. If they enjoy anal stimulation for pleasure, they often worry that they might be gay. In my office I’ve heard straight men admit that they enjoy receiving anal penetration from sex toys, or by having their female partners strap on a dildo and give it to them. The slang term for that is “pegging,” and many straight men love it. I jokingly tell the straight men who are insecure about enjoying anal play that, as a sex therapist, I am obliged to tell them that the human anus has no sexual orientation. The opportunity for anal pleasure exists in men and women alike, whether they are gay, bisexual, straight or of any orientation in between. Whether a man enjoys anal sex or not is no reflection on his sexual orientation, and if he’s gay, it doesn’t define whether or not he’s “really” having sex.
Historically, lesbians were told that with no vaginal penetration, they were not having “real” sex (and even today, some still are told this). These erroneous judgments come from a heterosexist and patriarchal definition of the only “right” way to enjoy sex.
One problem with this rigid model (pun intended) is that as males age and begin to lose their ability to achieve a full, strong erection on demand, they fear that they will never have “sex” again. They must learn other ways to satisfy their partners. But in order to do so, they must first work through the misconception that the only good sex is penetrative sex.
It’s OK to Be a Side!
It’s high time for sides to come out and feel proud and secure about their sexuality. Not being a top or a bottom doesn’t mean that one is less gay or less masculine. It doesn’t make anyone any less of a sexual human being.
The Internet is showing us that people get into a wide variety of sexual pleasures, and whatever you get into is exactly right for you.
Given the freedom to experiment and explore new techniques, being a side becomes equally hot and exciting as being a top, a bottom or an aficionado of any other position or practice.
Come out and be the side queen you were meant to be!
Joe Kort, Ph.D., LMSW
Certified Sex and Relationship Therapist