You may have been asked at one time or another whether you were a top, bottom, or versatile. Some gay men use these labels to identify themselves or to find partners that match their preferences. Others prefer a more loose interpretation of their sexual roles.
It is not unusual for gay men to define themselves this way. Whether you’re considering dating or simply hooking up, as a gay man you’ll typically ask the other guy whether he’s a top, a bottom, or a versatile. It’s important to find this out as soon as possible because if you intend to date, or become seriously involved in a relationship, it’s vitally important that you and he be sexually compatible with each other.
The whole issue of top versus versatile hit the gay community big time in 2016 with the release of a survey published in the “Archives of Sexual Behavior,” entitled Gay Top and Bottom Roles Generalized by Stereotypes. The study revealed that judgments made about whether an individual is a top, a bottom, or a versatile are simply based on perceived (not actual) masculine and feminine traits.
What do these labels mean?
Let’s get clinical for a moment: top and versatile are sex positions taken during sexual activity. While the term can reference females, the labels have commonly come to identify positions preferred by gay men while engaging in sexual activity. A top is a male who prefers penetrating and a versatile is typically a man who is open to either being a top or a bottom (i.e., the male who “receives”).
One gay man had this to say about position labeling:
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 am tired of all the labeling.
Another gay man (a financial consultant) who relocated to New York City says that the already complex dating world became even more difficult to navigate with all the chatter about positions.
“New York is a bottom town,” says Jason. “When you’re on manhunt.net and the profile says ‘versatile,’ you know that guy is really a bottom. It means he will top but doesn’t like to. I’m a bottom, and my profile says versatile.”
Why Are You Being Asked To Label Yourself In the First Place?
In straight male-female relationships, there are traditional generalizations one makes about sexual compatibility—although I am underscoring the word “generalizations.” However, when two men are involved it is difficult to determine sexual compatibility before the two parties meet. Especially in today’s swipe right, swipe left app dating world, one needs to put some thought into it so they can be clear from the start.
Positions and Sexual Identity
A person’s sexual role/position has more to do with personal preference than with how masculine or feminine they are or how masculine or feminine they appear to be/look. In other words, it has more to do with one’s unique personality than the fact that they are straight, gay, dominant, or submissive in nature
There are no absolutes when it comes to an individual’s sexual preferences. Some men use these terms as a guide, while others see them as a necessary protocol to follow. Either way, it’s an important conversation to have before sex or dating.
Top, Bottom, and Versatile Anal Sex Roles in Same-Sex Male Relationships: Implications for Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction
Across much of the gay and bisexual male research on sexual position self-label (i.e., calling oneself a top, bottom, or versatile), there exist two commonalities: (1) studies tend to focus almost entirely on individual, relationally single androphilic men; (2) studies rarely account for relationships and relationship dynamics. In response, we explored the role of self-label over sexual and relationship satisfaction among gay and bisexual partnered men. Specifically, we looked at whether adopted sexual position identities were consonant or dissonant (i.e., matching or mismatching) with enacted behavior in relationships and how that impacted men’s attitudes toward different relational attributes.
Through an online survey, we sampled 169 men in same-sex relationships, asking them questions about their ideal penetrative role identities and their reality penetrative roles with their partner. We then asked them to rate their relationship on 10 sexual and interpersonal attributes. Multiple regression modeling suggested ideal-reality penetrative role dissonance was predictive of sexual dissatisfaction among tops who bottomed in their relationships and, to a lesser extent, bottoms who topped. In contrast, penetrative role dissonance was predictive of relationship satisfaction among tops who bottomed in their relationship, but not bottoms who topped. We conclude that a potential reason for this paradox among tops who bottom may be sexual altruism. That is, men may be satisfied with other aspects within their relationships, understand their partner’s anal sex preferences, and accommodate that position in response to their initial relationship satisfaction.
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It’s Time to Take Your Temperature on Topping and Bottoming
By Alim Kheraj
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.
It’s time to discover what works for you
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?”