The problem with top or bottom

Restrictive sex roles for gay men need to be scrutinized.

James Castle

Traditional gender ideology demands that straight couples function in complementary and dichotomous ways. Straight men are expected to be dominant and strong, while straight women are expected to be submissive and soft, among other things. This ideological structure is also reflected in straight couples’ sexual activities, where men penetrate women’s bodies — though men are capable of being penetrated by women as well.

Over time, gay men have adopted these dominant and submissive roles, particularly with respect to sexual activity. Men who penetrate other men are “tops,” while men who get penetrated by other men are “bottoms.” Gay men grow up in heterosexual worlds and are taught in school and from friends about straight sex. They are socialized to believe that, in a two-person sexual encounter, one person should play the dominant-penetrating (male) role, while another person should play the submissive-receptive (female) role. But a problem exists when these men are stigmatized, as well as permanently and exclusively branded as one role or the other.

In a recent YouTube video gone viral, “Boy Is A Bottom,” a trio of drag queens parody an Alicia Keys song while calling out some young gay men on their perceived preference to be sexually receptive. Although the video is intended to be funny — albeit incredibly juvenile — it is nonetheless reflective of the problems that stem from the top-bottom binary in gay male culture.

First, the video is centered on humiliating gay men who enjoy being sexually receptive. The implication is that identifying as a bottom is something of which to be ashamed: that a gay man is somehow less of a man for engaging or desiring to engage in sexual activity that places him in a submissive and, thus, feminine role.

Second, the stigma associated with identifying as a “bottom” incentivizes many gay men to identify as “top” or “versatile,” regardless of whether they actually desire those roles. To be a top is to be more masculine because a gay man who tops is assuming the role analogous to that of a straight man, and, in our society straight men have a higher status than straight women.

Third, stigmatizing a bottom identity also is offensive to straight women. Women are not somehow lesser than their male partners for being sexually receptive. In shaming gay men who bottom, however, the suggestion is that straight women are also lesser than the men who penetrate their bodies. Indeed, gay men who bottom and straight women are often referred to as “bitches” and other like terms. To be a bottom is to play “the woman” in the relationship, and being the woman is a bad thing apparently.

Lastly, stigma aside, just because a gay man identifies as “top” or “bottom” at one point or engages in one act or the other at one point or from time to time does not mean the  identity or behavior is somehow static and can’t change. As the “Boy Is A Bottom” clip illustrates, when one is identified as one position, that man is forever a “bottom” or “top.” This simplistic and restrictive thinking limits gay men’s sexualities, which are complex and fluid. Just because a man desires to receive or penetrate at a given time with a given person in a given place does not mean  that same man is incapable of performing the other in the same place or in a different place with a different person(s) at a different time.

One source of this top-bottom problem is the way masculinity is constructed in our culture. We expect men to act masculine, to be strong, dominant, confident, rational, etc. Identifying as gay, however, is an inherently feminine act because gay men like other men, just like straight women do. In order to compensate for this feminine act and continue the effort to meet culturally dominant expectations for masculinity, there is an incentive for gay men to identify as “tops” because that is the more masculine role. The idea is that, while one has feminized himself by identifying as gay, he still maintains his masculinity by identifying as a top because a top performs the same sexual role that a straight male does when having straight sex. Furthermore, when a gay man identifies as a top, the assumption is often that he also possesses many of the other characteristics that straight men possess. The converse is true for assumptions about men who identify as bottoms.

The reality is that there’s nothing wrong with bottoming. There is nothing to be ashamed of about desiring to be sexually receptive; it’s just a sex role. It doesn’t make one less of a man, and it doesn’t make one less desirable. Indeed, one could even use ideas about traditional masculinity to argue that being sexually receptive in a gay male sexual encounter is in fact more masculine because receiving can often be less comfortable than penetrating, and capacity to deal with discomfort or pain is a traditionally masculine characteristic.

Gay male culture should work to purge the stigma associated with a bottom identity and to deconstruct the restrictive top-bottom binary. The same social and cultural forces that compel us to stigmatize bottoming are the same forces that compel homophobia. These forces demand men behave a certain way, and any man who doesn’t meet those expectations deserves to be shamed. Gay men have a responsibility to fight this stigma and these restrictions and to define for themselves what it means to be masculine, what it means to be a man.