The eggplant and peach emoji on a pink background, representing gay sex.
Credit: Sudowoodo/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Sex
6 min

Getting to the bottom of topping stereotypes

How gay sex became vulnerable to outdated hetero gender roles

No one ever really taught me how to have gay sex. When I first started doing it, I was never entirely sure if I was doing it right. Sure, I understood the basics, I grasped the concept. What eluded me was the execution—who did what, where.

I picked a side and stuck to it, and that side was “top.” That’s the casual name for the penetrative partner in gay sex, whereas bottoms prefer to be penetrated, and versatile (vers) partners play either part. When I first started having gay sex, that role was my one fixed point. I told myself that I would never bottom—in much the same way that I told myself that I would inevitably marry a woman, that I would never do drag, that I would never want to transition. This, obviously, was before I began identifying as trans and was still experimenting with labels in my late teens and early twenties.

I didn’t know it then, but the problem was gender all along. Constantly striving for masculinity, and uncomfortable whenever I achieved it, I was afraid of so much in those early years of my sexual life—most of all myself. My body felt alien. I never thought to ask myself what I liked, and certainly no one ever asked me. I was committed to my role as the stereotypical top, which meant it didn’t matter what I wanted. I went to strange men’s apartments, laid pipe and left.

Seven years have passed and times have changed: I have a new body and a new outlook. I’m less rigid in my thinking, less dissociated from my body, less scared about sticking to one side. Part of that is simple practice. But another part was beginning my transition, which allowed me to feel present in my body for the first time. Changing genders makes you question other arbitrary categories, “top” and “bottom” included. I became a better top, but I also stopped seeing myself as only ever a “top” or a “bottom.”

I was thinking about this when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on an Instagram meme page called @versfirst. The page has more than 8,000 followers and a simple thesis: Tops are bad, bottoms are good, but being versatile is best.

As these memes and others floating around social media suggest, one’s sexual position says something about your social role, and tops represent everything bad about the gay community. According to stereotype: Tops take forever to text back, they are inconsiderate enough to flake at a moment’s notice, they are traditionally masculine and often heteronormative in their presentation and desires and they refuse to expand their sexual and social horizons. In contrast, bottoms are often framed as effeminate, prissy, dutiful, caring—the paragons of feminized labour. The character of these conversations is always weird to witness; it’s like feminism without women.

I’m generalizing, of course. The internet is a big, wild place, and I can only speak to what wanders into my own little echo chamber. Still, there’s no dearth of shareable gay content, so the penetration of this theme, even among straight people, is maybe unsurprising.

Most of the content I’ve seen centres on anal sex. It’s a common half-joke that the act of cleaning oneself in preparation for anal sex is a tremendous and undervalued sacrifice that tops simply could never understand—sort of like how cis women talk to me about their periods. The subject is so fully saturated that the most recent season of Netflix’s Sex Education had an entire episode devoted to the ethics and mechanics of pre-sex anal cleaning. A recent TikTok meme literally called douching “power washing,” which, compounded with the current toilet paper hoarding panic, makes me wonder if anyone knows what goes on back there or has access to any fibrous foods. And sure enough, for every bottom who believes they need to flush out their entire systems for the benefit of 15 minutes of anal sex, there are tops who insist upon it, convinced—whether by peers, porn or product advertising—that the ideal sex partner is hairless, spotless and ready to take a dick anywhere at any time. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of selfless bottoms and selfish tops. In this arrangement, to quote reality TV star Remy Duran, vers people are a myth.

@pbnjonnyThe lifelong and eternal debate. We’re bringing it back 😂😂 ##bottoms ##tops ##gay ##funny ##comedy ##lipsync ##fyp ##foryoupage♬ Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better) – Ethel Merman

It’s not surprising, though it’s certainly disappointing, that gay sex is so vulnerable to such a binarized representation, such a lazy repetition of what we hate and mock about straight people and straight sex. Despite so many gay men’s insistence that gay sex is entirely different and better from what straights do, here they are gendering each other according to heterosexual stereotypes. The whole thing, as Twitter oracle @dril once said, smacks of gender.

I can roll my eyes, and I do. However, as American literary theorist Leo Bersani argued, “Being on top can never be just a question of a physical position—either for the person on top or for the one on the bottom.” He’s not wrong; just as often as I see tops cast as irredeemably brutish and mannish, the inverse is used to defame their counterparts. There are probably just as many memes depicting bottoms as submissive, even disposable, an object, whereas topping (top shaming aside) seems more often associated with masculine agency. Penetration entails a degree of control, where the top is the person doing sex while the bottom is the one having sex done to them. In memes, they wait for a text back while crying to Lana Del Rey, literally starving for dick. In gay porn, the title usually says it all: One star “fucks” while the other “gets fucked,” all dressed up in passive voice. Spanish, to its credit, does away with pretense entirely, rendering top and bottom as activo and pasivo, respectively.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Other factors, such as race or class, frequently play a role in determining who and how different people are perceived as objects rather than agents in the bedroom. There’s a lot more happening between two people than the simple negotiation of position, and a binary model doesn’t account for it with any measure of care or complexity.

For that reason, among others, I think the traditional view of top as agent and bottom as object is reductive, and the attempt to politicize it through reversal feels clumsy. The model is hardly universalizable. And I’ve never actually experienced it in the wild (nor would I want to). Good sex is a group project, a joint effort, a team sport, one best played without its players forced into such crude, constrictive boxes.

All of this is to say that I can understand the resentment of tops. Bottoming is difficult, and it is often underappreciated; there are many bad tops, and as long as masculinity is considered socially desirable, it’s perfectly reasonable to resent those who manage to hold onto it at another person’s expense. But the resentment lying at the heart of the discourse that politicizes tops and bottoms is not a substitute for genuine political criticism. As both allegory and program, it obscures more than it reveals.

Bottoming or topping is not a subjectivity; it’s a thing you do. Once it’s over, it’s over—literally. Yes, it might mean something to penetrate or be penetrated, and it’s impossible to excise gender and heteronormativity from our sexual and social worlds. But top is not to bottom the way man is to woman: There is no legal and political apparatus enshrining tops’ power over bottoms, no cultural system that grooms bottoms to serve tops from childhood to death, no complicated tradition of wealth distribution with bottoms at the centre, passed from family top to family top. Tops and bottoms do not play roles in capitalist production or the reproduction of labour, even among the most normatively gay-married couples.

Speaking personally, undoing that conflation of gender and position has been surprisingly transformative. For years, I didn’t really actually enjoy the sex I was having—I was just filling a hole in the market. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I could never live up to that masculine role; as long as I was meant to be the man in the room, the whole process felt dissociative and unsettling. Freeing oneself from those gendered expectations and assumptions opens up space to explore desires, sensations and relations that might otherwise be foreclosed. To continually reiterate that false, patriarchal gendered dynamic, even in an attempt to undermine it, feels counterproductive—not only to good politics, but (perhaps more importantly) to good sex.

As a woman who tops, it feels strange to see my gay male contemporaries bemoan their tops with the language of feminism, even of “bottom’s rights.” Sure, bottoming may be “feminizing,” in its way. But speaking as someone who’s been thoroughly feminized, there’s something laughable about cis men’s adherence to their feminism-without-women. At the end of the day, as trans drag performer Gia Gunn once said, you’re all still dudes.

The idea that tops are men and bottoms are women is obviously persuasive—the anatomical comparisons are right there for any cis person to grasp, and they do. Still, I’d encourage people—especially cis men—to allow themselves a moment of reprieve from fearing womanhood, seeing any one act as bigger than itself or taking their own cisgender embodiment as universal.

Topping or bottoming (or being vers for that matter) is not an identity; it’s a thing you do until it’s done. Yes, it’s impossible to extricate sex and sexual politics. But a person is more than their preferred position, and that position tells you much less than you think about who they are and their social worlds. And more importantly, so much exists beyond the spectral fear of feminization. Our bodies are gendered, often whether we’d like them to be or not. But that doesn’t mean we should accept and internalize gendering without a fight. After all, to become a good top, I had to become a woman.