Toronto
3 min

Typecast bum lovers

What I like isn't who I am, is it?

Credit: Xtra files

Tops and bottoms, bottoms and tops – they’re everywhere. They clog the classifieds and crop up at best chest contests where helpful drag queens invariably ask some suddenly shy exhibitionist about his anal identity. There’s a “submissive bottom” category on Cruiseline (the telepersonal service run by Pink Triangle Press, Xtra’s parent) and even the rival paper can’t resist headlines like, “Twinks are tops,” as though the idea that younger guys like to fuck was news.



Occasionally, you’ll even hear people say, “There’s a shortage of tops in this city,” as though Ikea had forgotten to ship a new line of pine furniture. “This item temporarily out of stock.”



Friends tell me the situation is even worse in US bars, where “Are you a top or a bottom?” has become a favourite form of introduction, right up there with such classic openers as “How old are you?” and “What do you do?”



Hard to believe that even 20 years ago these terms didn’t even exist, or at least not with their present set of meanings.



Versatility was the great goal until well into the 1980s and no one would even have thought of identifying themselves according to their anal inclinations. Saying you were gay was hard enough. Nowadays, however, people seem to want to type themselves.



It’s difficult to get a handle on the words and their origin. Like felching and rimming, tops and bottoms are not terms the otherwise useful Oxford Canadian Dictionary bothers to define.



But a quick tour of The Joy Of Gay Sex ( from 1977), suggests the words may have migrated from SM, where top man and bottom man had related but different connotations.



And they probably came into popular view about the same time as anal sex itself. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that fucking was considered slightly suspect. Don’t believe me? Check out A Not So Gay World, the first nonfiction book about gay life in Canada. Published in 1972, it contains interviews with a series of Canadian gay men and lesbians. One interviewee, a copy writer named “Eugene,” says that “many homosexuals who look only for anal intercourse are not really homosexuals. They’re using the anus as a substitute for the vagina.”



You still hear the occasional echo of that attitude. Only last spring, Sky Gilbert told Eye weekly readers that he wasn’t too thrilled by anal sex, in part because it reminded him of straight sex, which he’d always viewed as a bit of an “obligation.”



But for the most part, that attitude went by the wayside in the 1980s with the advent of AIDS and widely available porn. Suddenly anal sex was, if not more popular, then certainly more visible. The imperatives of safe sex education meant talking about anal sex with heretofore unimagined explicitness and in talking about it AIDS educators implicitly promoted it, sometimes to the point where it was possible to believe that the only kind of gay sex around was anal.



At the same time, the VCR revolution put more porn in more homes and gave fucking a whole new glamour. A visual medium, porn doesn’t do kissing or licking or touching very well. It can’t convey touch or smell or taste except by implication. But it loves action-oriented sports like fucking. So dramatic, all that pushing and pulling.



Small wonder then that today’s homos are more upfront about their anal desires. The only mystery is why they’ve turned a single sexual taste into something so rigid and comprehensive. There is a difference, after all, between saying you want to get fucked and saying you “are” a bottom. One is a desire, the other an identity.



For me, the top/bottom dichotomy is both too rigid and too exclusive. It implies you’re one or the other, when maybe the real answer is “neither” or “never” or “sometimes” or “not tonight.”



Still, I imagine we’re going to hear more about tops and bottoms, if only because the sexual economy demands it. It’s one thing to negotiate a sexual contract in the relatively slow-moving world of the bars or dinner or a date. There, you can try out subtle insinuations like, “So what do you like to do?”



But it’s quite another thing to market yourself and your desires in the laconic world of the Internet and phone chat lines. There you need short terse words to telegraph your desires and establish an identity. That demand is only going to grow as sex becomes more and more of a commodity, to be described and delimited in short quick strokes.



As modes of communication, tops and bottoms aren’t much fun. They go too quickly to the bottom line. Naked of nuance, they leave other subtler needs languishing in the dark.



But they’re certainly efficient. Which is to say, very American. And will almost certainly thrive in the brave new world of on-line sex shopping. Sooner or later, I’m sure, they’ll have their very own bar code.