The longer that you’ve been a member of the gay community the more likely you are to have heard this phrase. More than likely the subject is brought up as the result of some conflict between two gay men in their attempt to navigate their sexual relationship. Yeah, I know what some are thinking right now as they read this. Their thoughts are that the answer for to that phrase immediately is absolutely not. There is no middle ground. It is the way it is and there should be no further discussion about it. It’s personal and it’s about individual preference.
Of course we all know that I’m referring to sexual roles assigned by the community. But let’s be honest with how contentious this concept of these roles are in our community The question of whether you’re a top/bottom/versatile is one of the first things we assess in other gay men so it’s something we should at least talk about. These labels are at times received with pride while with others it can lead to anxiety, frustration, anger, or a complete shutdown emotionally thereby leaving a person unable to give an answer.
For a moment I hesitated writing this because it’s almost taboo to discuss in this objective format, unless it’s designated by some anonymous chat room or forum. Yet I’m so tired of us not talking about topics like this for whatever reasons that exist. And before I go any further, let me make it clear that under no uncertain terms am I trying to sway anyone into my mode of thinking. I am merely trying to open dialogue into why these sexual roles we assign are due to more than just the obvious result of biology, physiology, and organismic processes.
We can take on these roles for a number of different reasons. It could be because of what we observed growing up, what others tell us what they think we are, and even us wanting to just wanting to fit in to this ideal of what we think is better. And whether it be during our search for a life partner or a one night stand we should still survey those different causes so that we can discuss them. By doing so we can determine if they should or shouldn’t be a factor in said roles. So I’m not trying to change these roles, just question their dynamic and how we look at these roles.
We have a generation entering into the gay community that seems to know less and less about making up their own minds about what defines them. Too many of them just automatically believe how everyone else perceives them. It’s ignored in sexual education courses and empowerment seminars. We live in a time where my own home state is again trying to pass legislation where students can’t even say the word gay serves as more proof that we need to talk about sexual roles. We need to look at why at times they are seen a hierarchy or status within our community. Taking a quick glance at Wikipedia and a quick Google search that either a lot of chatrooms or vague blogposts is not enough. It’s no secret how much I loathe labels because my race showed me how derogatory and derisive they can be, Any kind label eventually leads to a breakdown of a concept and turns into a hierarchy rather than a category.
Often resembling some type of pageantry these labels become more about a hierarchy than a classification for sex. There’s sometimes immense hostility if you guess someone’s preferred sexual role incorrectly and that’s for a multitude of reasons. Probably the biggest reason is because one is seen as better than the other. Even when the word power is a known subtype of a bottom a top is still seen as more desirable or even more physically attractive. This type of inference or guessing leads to assumptions about certain behaviors and maybe the reason why we don’t talk enough about the roles we assign ourselves is the negative stigma surrounding them. As sexualized as our antagonists claim the gay community is, we shy away from this subject. But like all things, we have to talk about the issues that can arise from them.
So where does this frustration begin? Is it because we don’t like labels or is it because of some subconscious internalized homophobia, or because these labels fail at truly defining who we are? Is there validity to the claim a group of researchers made saying our lack of conversation on this leads to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases? Of course not. And I would never even attempt to make such a declarative statement, but I understand how researchers would even speculate such a theory. Because we already know that. we know that a broad confounded claim like that doesn’t even begin to describe us. We just don’t say that enough.
So we know being a top is more than just being the giver, being a bottom is more than being the receiver and versatile is more than being both a giver and receiver. Because we believe that certain behaviors accompany these sexual roles. Top is always seen as the masculine role and bottom the feminine role. There’s even a study that theorizes on whether or not you’re a top or bottom by the distance between your index finger and your ring finger. They hypothesize that the longer the distance between those two fingers the more likely you are to be a top and the shorter the distance the more likely you are to be a bottom. So the topic is discussed, only that is in such a sterilized, stoic manner. We know that there’s more to it than that. So even though we look for reasons why we are the way we are we can’t have that same detached approach.
Another fair speculation of this hierarchy is from the media we watched growing up. Think about it, what were the types of gay characters in movies/sitcoms did you see? If like me you grew up during the 80s/90s we only saw two very distinct and very concrete representations. Either we were presented an over enthusiastic about wardrobe, hair, makeup; only there to make snide commentary on gorgeous men all the while being the moral compass for the female protagonist. And the other example we see is an overly masculine male, heavily into sports and we discover his sexuality as an afterthought in the plot, yet he outwardly maintains all the same shallow stereotypical caricatures of an alpha male. Both overly dramatic.
Completely superficial, vague gay characters. But we still accepted those figures as role models because they were the only ones we had. We carry a lot of what we see growing up into our adult lives and this is one of those causes that we need to talk about in gay sexual roles. So we often just assumed as adults that the bottom was this overtly feminine and the top was overcompensating and masculine. And just like those movies and tv sitcoms, we praise and hold the top in high esteem while the bottom is seen as dramatic and delicate. When we keep archaic representations like that relevant we miss the opportunity to know a person. We begin to only see people as the labels we as a community are inherently against.We begin to see them as characters and not diverse, complex people. We don’t want a few degrading, insulting pejoratives to define what gay means to rest of the world so what’s the sense in doing it to other gay men.
Sometimes when we carry the ideals society has of what man/woman are, we lose how those constructs are different for us and how they should be for everyone else. Even with all the advances that women have made in our society they are still treated differently than men. Unfortunately, some in our society still see women as weaker than men even though we know that has never been farther from the truth. Are we sometimes responsible for placating the same, inaccurate assumptions to certain sexual roles? Because at times a man that prefers being a bottom is referred to as weak or that it’s a detriment to their character. Masculinity is still seen as the most effective example of power.
Roles that are seen as submissive are sometimes made fun of or joked about and minimized and perceived differently and has that greatly resembles how women can sometimes be perceived. But we know that isn’t the case either. We see strong women from politics to sports, music and in all other arenas of life and replicate that persona of strength. You could go as far to say that often it is likely to find a woman as a source of strength to any gay man because of perseverance.
So why is one sometimes considered less than the other. We need to be aware and not treat those that prefer this role in those negative and demeaning ways. Even though our sexual roles mirror heterosexual sex roles does not mean we have to mirror some of the oppressive behaviors as well. And that’s what happens sometimes when we issue these labels. Most of the issues we have, regardless of the community we belong to, is a result of us not talking about it and it shouldn’t be that way. i’m not saying if you like sports or New York Fashion Week to change those behaviors because that’s asinine. I’m saying whatever someone identifies; as top, bottom, versatile, a mixture or none of the above to not only see them as that sexual role.
No matter how it appears on the outside the gay community is far more diverse than we give credit. And we change with each relationship so why not the sexual roles that we assign ourselves. And even if those preferred sexual roles don’t change, the way you have these sexual relationships change (at least I hope they do for everyone else. Who wants to have sex the exact same way with everyone they encounter). It is not about how many muscles a guy has or how many sparkly pink encrusted gemstones a guy has on his clothes (yeah I know no one wears that anymore but just go with it). Outward appearance isn’t enough so the assumptions we make about what certain roles and labels look like aren’t reliable.
It’s all about what we know about ourselves. Throughout the time I’ve been in any sexual relationship my own understanding of these sexual roles changed. Because I changed along with the sexual relationships I had. See, I went from one way of thinking to being able to have varying levels of dialogue when it came to sex and how I wanted to enact upon it. When I was once closed off to a different sexual role, I at least attempted to try another. That was due to the chemistry, love and trust I had with that particular ex that allowed me to think of being open with myself. I began to see how we see ourselves different sexually in different points of our lives. Preferences may not always change but the reasoning and understanding of them do change.
And when I reviewed my past for this article, it led me to think once again about what gay means. It makes me think of when I write about our personalities and behaviors and how we interact with each other. I began to think about how we as gay men are the balance of both feminine and masculine concepts. We are still as physical as our heterosexual male counterparts with varying levels of concrete thinking. We are about what we see and respond accordingly. But we are sensitive and embrace our sensuality. While we notice the angular strong features of a man we also take note of how fluent his steps are and how his touch feels. So when we think of this balance, this yin and yang, it makes the solid argument of how versatile we really are.
Sexual roles can sometimes just be about preference with no outside influence. we like what we like and that’s it. Some people really are just one way or another. And that is perfectly fine if anyone chooses that route. I actively encourage every adult to have sex in whatever fashion they see fit (safely). But we need to make sure these roles and labels are not indicative than more than a certain position. That these sexual roles aren’t relative to currency, status, and even power within the gay community that some profess to the contrary.
If it feels like an empowerment speech, then yes it is but that is my ideal is for everyone, no matter what position or role you choose to take because we are that perfect blend of masculinity and femininity. What I’m saying simply is to not let these roles we assign ourselves limit our outlook. That we change because of the different relationships we encounter. And to not take them so seriously and put as much emphasis into these roles as some choose to do. We are not just tops or bottoms or verses. We’re a diverse group of people and we are more than just a label.