Lowdown: Tops & Bottoms
Guys: Edgar Diaz-Machado
Girls: Anna North
“So…which one of you is the man and which one of you is the woman?”
I hate this question so much, I invariably want to snap back with something catty:
“We’re both men, so…?”
The former question has dogged us gay boys since Liberation. For those out there unfamiliar with the intricacies of gay male sexuality, especially when it comes to anal sex, it is easy to boil down our roles in bed to something more familiar. However, mapping the male-female binary onto the differences between gay tops and bottoms is problematic.
First of all, we’re not men and women, males and females. We’re always both men who like men — that’s why we’re gay! The assumption that pairings of lovers must mirror the heteronormative ideal of a man and woman supports the idea that vaginal intercourse is the only way for people to have sex. It also supports the unfair assumption that maleness and masculinity are necessarily dominant in relationships.
Let’s run through the vocabulary used when we talk about gay men’s sex. A “top” is the penetrative partner and the “bottom” is the receptive partner. Like other aspects of gender and sexuality, many gay men fall all over this spectrum — these are the “versatile” guys. There are some men, so-called “strict tops” and “power bottoms,” who are very much happy on either end of the spectrum. But it’s dangerous to assume there are only two types of gay men.
That assumption reflects a politics of power equating penetration with masculinity and dominance. It is not uncommon to hear gay men hurl insults at each other based on their bottoming proclivities. Calling someone a “power bottom” or a “bossy bottom” as a slur implies bottoms are somehow less-than. No one’s ever offended when they’re called “such a top.” The fear of being “treated like a woman” is what fuels hatred of what gay men do. It’s as if being “treated like a woman” is the worst thing imaginable.
Underpinning this top-bottom hierarchy is the reality that gay men’s sex lives are much too informed by heterosexual norms. Take, for example, thoughts around the idea of virginity. A bottom, like a woman, “loses” his virginity, while a top “takes” it. (And given our “promiscuity,” surely straight society would never think of a gay man who never bottoms as a model of chastity.)
Heteronormative discourse has tainted how gay men talk about themselves and their sex lives. By borrowing a model of heterosexual relationships that upholds the man as the dominant, penetrative partner, we’re simply recycling tools that have held down women for centuries. It is as if for some gay men the ideal man is not gay at all, but a straight man who happens to fuck them. The internalized homophobia around this reflects a society that stigmatizes our effeminacy. Like it or not, in upholding the masculine, “straight-acting” strict top as an ideal of what it means to be a real man and who is attractive, we set ourselves up against a model of masculinity that has oppressed us for generations.
Centuries of gender policing have held us down even when we’re pressed up against another naked man. This thinking needs to end. Why should heteronormative ideas of who has the power in bed or what constitutes a “real” man govern our sex lives? I challenge my fellow gay men to rethink sex. Rethink if you only want to top or bottom. Explore new ways of attaining pleasure through roles. Never topped? Try it, my friend. Never bottomed? Hop on — it’s a radical, beautiful thing.
When asked about tops and bottoms in relationships between two women, the majority of students around campus replied with confused statements like, “So she’s the boy and you’re the girl?”
Usually “top” means the dominant, penetrative partner to the submissive, receptive “bottom.” Of course, these definitions get a bit more complicated for woman-woman relationships, which don’t depend on one exclusively penetrative partner.
Roles in relationships between women don’t necessarily rely on a butch-femme dynamic. In fact, such a distinction only serves to affirm maleness as the penetrative, and therefore dominant, ideal. Women can and should define their relationships independent of men.
Some of us forego the desire for roles altogether, claiming they limit the flexibility and scope of queer. Rather than a self-affirming identification, labels can become prescriptive. And the lack of specificity is precisely queer’s appeal: queer emphasizes individual desire over sex- and gender-specific descriptions. But it is equally close-minded to suggest all of us are totally versatile, when so many of us happily recognize the preferences in our play.
Many girls do identify with roles in relationships — maybe, the “big spoon” or the one with the arm around her shoulder — which help us understand ourselves in different situations without assigning ourselves to fixed categories. But, when we talk about our sex lives, those who say simply, “I’m a top” or “I’m a bottom” are in the minority. You’re much more likely to hear, “I’m a power bottom,” “I’m a soft top,” or “It really depends on the partner.” Perhaps this is truer for us than for anyone. For us there is not necessarily a penetrative partner — unless one of us straps it on — so we are free to define top and bottom in any way we please.
While most people assume “tops” and “bottoms” signal distinct roles, in reality the terms reflect a personality in bed more than an essential identity. We don’t have sex thinking, “This is what I’m supposed to do, and this is what she’s supposed to do” or “This is who I am.” We do what feels good in the moment.
Sex roles are merely one way we navigate pleasure and power in our relationships. Pleasure is having another girl’s tongue between your legs, licking you until you come. It’s tasting another girl, getting turned on as you turn her on. Power is controlling her body, pinning her down and sensing her respond to your every touch. It is directing her to go down on you, knowing she wants you. Pleasure is having control — and the will to lose it completely.
The roles, “top” and “bottom,” merely explain this dynamism in our sex lives. They don’t reflect our core. They change depending on the partner, our levels of experience, even the night. We don’t need a penis or a hard definition to know what someone means when they describe a hook-up as “super toppy.” But that doesn’t make her a dude either.