A lot of gay men identify with a specific anal sex position: “top” or “bottom.” These position labels are so self-defining that some guys put them in their profile headlines on Grindr, and others go as far as to wear them on t-shirts so that there’s no mistaking what they’re into.
Research suggests that the vast majority of gay men define themselves in terms of one of these two position labels. For example, one study found that 43% of gay men identified as bottoms while 26% identified as tops; the remaining third said they were versatile.
So why is that? How come most gay men self-segregate into a top-bottom binary? Also, what are the implications—if any—for their sex lives? I’m going to answer those questions for you in this article.
Let’s start with why most gay men come to identify as either tops or bottoms. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is because gay men, as a community, tend to define sex pretty narrowly. For the most part, they agree that anal sex is sex, but they don’t think most other activities “count.”
If sex by definition means anal, this is necessarily going to create pressure on you to figure out what your role is going to be. It’s also going to create pressure on you to determine what other people’s roles are as well.
Once people are sorted into these sexual roles, they start treating each other in ways that are consistent with them. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in. For example, you might not have the opportunity to explore other sexual roles because people are already expecting something of you sexually.
So how do you figure out your role in the first place? That depends on a number of factors. For example, it can be influenced by cultural attitudes, such as the popular (but inaccurate) stereotype that topping is inherently “masculine,” whereas bottoming is inherently “feminine.” People who live in areas where there’s more pressure to be butch might allow these stereotypes to dictate what they do sexually and how they identify.
Sex roles are also influenced by our early sexual experiences and the partners we are with. For instance, if your first boyfriend was a total top and you weren’t very sexually experienced, you might find yourself taking on a bottom role—a role that’s likely to persist in future relationships because it has become part of your sexual identity.
Regardless of where this initial sex role identification comes from, adopting strict position labels has a limiting effect on our sex lives.
For one thing, it might limit who you select for sex or relationship partners. A lot of people think that two tops or two bottoms can never make a go of it because, well, what are they going to do in bed? If you take this narrow view of sex and subscribe to the idea that position labels are what they are and never change, you might very well pass up on some great sexual and romantic opportunities.
For another, it can limit your sexual skills. People who have experience both topping and bottoming are likely to have a better sense of what feels good to someone in each position and, therefore, will probably end up being better in bed.
Rigid position labels can also limit your sex life by making sex feel scripted and predictable because it’s the same thing every time. It can also prevent you from exploring your own body and figuring out what feels good to you. In other words, you might be missing out on a lot of pleasure because you’ve been confined by a label.
If you’re someone who identifies as a strict top or bottom, what I hope you take away from this is that all of the pressure we put on ourselves to fit into these neat little boxes that define our sexual roles might be limiting not just sexual pleasure, but also opportunities for love.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that when it comes to sex between men, despite all of the emphasis put on anal sex, most gay men say that anal sex didn’t even take place during their most recent sexual encounter. Remember that sex is so much more than just anal play.
Not only that, but research finds that people who mix it up and keep doing different things sexually have the most orgasms, which is yet another reason to continue trying new things.
So don’t let some arbitrary position label dictate the direction of your sex life. You’re so much more than just a sexual position.