We’ve all seen that tall, masculine, muscled guy at our gay kickball league assumed to be an “aggressive top”, only to find out later from our gossipy teammate he’s actually a “big ol’ bottom”. Somehow, it becomes intriguing to us that he doesn’t fit the expected gender identification norms we usually associate with a certain sexual position, throwing us for a loop in our search for our next post-game conquest.
The fact that there isn’t a guaranteed code telling us where everyone…lands …in the bedroom keeps us on our toes, but it also poses a curious question. Why do certain guys identify the way that they do?
Gay men have been using sexual position as part of their identification for centuries. After all, unlike women, cis-men have the physical capabilities through their anatomy for both receptive insertion or external penetration, and you can’t always tell by looking at someone which they prefer (or can you???).
If you’re on the prowl and want a to guarantee your “needs” will be met, the necessity to identify sexual preference becomes essential. Hence, terms like “top”, “bottom”, and “versatile” (or “vers”) were born, becoming an all-too-important cultural norm in the gay world.
For a lot of guys, especially younger gays who have recently come out and entered the scene, this can feel like a lot of pressure. How are you supposed to know what you like, if you haven’t even been able to experiment yet?
Filling out your first Grindr profile can literally feel like filling out your application to be a gay man, including deciding right then and there what your gender identification is, and what your sexual position preferences are.
Luckily, in May of last year, the “dating” app finally recognized the limitations gay men have in categorizing themselves when creating their profile, and added in a new category called side, at least slightly lessening the obligation to fit neatly into one of it’s other buckets.
So what makes gay men identify as what? Is there any way to know?
A 2013 study based in China outlined in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found people often rely on gender stereotypes when trying to identify what sexual roles someone might have adopted in a same-sex relationship.
The question is…does the same thing apply when gay men are choosing their role and how they want to identify?
According to another 2015 study in China (why do they get to have all the fun??), the answer is, “yes.”
The study examined 509 gay men, and defined a “top” as someone who prefers the insertive role”, a “bottom” as “someone who prefers the receptive role”, and “versatile” as “someone who has no preferences regarding anal sex role.”
According to the results, gay men are choosing their sexual role identification more because of how they think they’re “supposed” to, based on how masculine or feminine they are, rather than even determining what their feelings are about the act of anal sex, and the levels of pleasure they receive from either role.
Although this makes us sad, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Society has a knack for wanting to box people in based on cultural expectations, verses allowing them to decide things for themselves, and gay culture is no different.
If a gay man leans on the more feminine side, he may feel that he needs to take on the more “womanly” role of receiving, instead of being the giver, reinforcing misogynistic stereotypes that go way back. On the other side of that coin, if a gay man is still wrestling with his own internalized homophobia, he may identify as a top just so as to not take on a role that makes him feel too feminine, which he may have fought against for years when being bullied as a kid on the playground. Again, more misogyny.
Other theories around how people choose their preference revolve less around gender, and more around dominance verses passivity. If you’re someone that views yourself as confident, aggressive, and in control, you may decide you’re more of a top. Conversely, if you’re more passive in your day-to-day life, and prefer to let others kind of take control and lead, you may enjoy the role of a bottom more. Once again, this theory has almost nothing to do with the levels of pleasure guys are receiving in the bedroom from the sexual acts themselves.
Of course, there are always variabilities that occur within these roles themselves. What about a “power bottom”, or a “passive top”? Are those types of variations available to those that realize sexuality isn’t so binary?
Author Gray Muranaga outlined a theory in 2019 he called the “The Tri-Top Theory”, which takes that concept of “nuance” even further.
He writes, “The roles we take on in our relationships are so much more than what we do in bed. Relationships are complicated and multifaceted. They often involve feelings, hard conversations, and romance. This leaves us with three basic roles in relationships: sexual, emotional, and romantic.”
According to his theory, you can be more of a top in one realm of relationship, while being vers or bottom in others. Makes sense.
Although, there may always be questions as to why gay men identify as they do, what’s clear is the pressure and limitations that come with having to pick our spot in the bedroom. Rather than feeling like people are going to expect something of us, wouldn’t it be great if we could just take time to figure out what we prefer, and even be allowed to evolve and change?
Now excuse us while we channel our inner top and demand Grindr add an “Undecided Position” category to their profile options.
What if you could have the perks of a romantic relationship, but without all the things that make them complicated?