The party was going quite well – until it happened; and I really should have seen it coming. There was a cute guy was sitting in the corner, having retreated there around half an hour earlier with a look of utter despondency on his face – a look which, as the evening wore on and the drink flowed, was slowly turning to outright rage. By midnight, he’d withdrawn from the others in the room and was scrolling – in an increasingly frenzied state – through his Grindr. I took a seat next to him. “What’s the matter?” I ventured. “You don’t look very happy.” He glared at me and thrust the phone in my face. “Would you be happy?” he snapped, pointing at one gleaming torso shot after another. “Bottom! Bottom! Bottom!” He threw the phone into his pocket and stood to his full height (a five foot five pocket monster if ever there was one), and proceeded to point at the other occupants in the room. “Bottom! Bottom! Bottom! Not a top among them!” he yelled, before marching to the front door and slamming it behind him.
The guy in question did have a point. Merely a cursory look at any hookup app would suggest that there is a disproportionate ratio of tops to bottoms in any given city. More men than not, it seems, operate what can, for a better term, be called an “open door policy”; indeed, for some (the self-confessed “power bottoms”) it’s less “open door” and more “revolving door” at a major department store during the January sales. Gay men – unlike any other group – are in the peculiar position of often having to spell out their sexual preferences. To put it bluntly: with heterosexuals, it is obvious what is going to fit where when the time comes to have sex. They are spared the potentially awkward conversations which gay men have to have – a dialogue which, thanks to the apps with their proliferation of “gaping hole” pics, has admittedly been somewhat short circuited. But the facts remain the same: two tops or two bottoms together are not usually considered sexually incompatible – or, as a dear old friend loves to put it: “Two Marys in Bed does not a marriage make.” In short, for gay men a sexual role can be a complete deal breaker.
When then – presuming we’re not using apps to spam strangers with pictures of pulsating orifices – is it best to have that vital discussion on who does what to whom? How do we best avoid the embarrassment – and, let’s face it, wasted time – of finding out that two guys are not going to get it on in the sack? This is a problem which some dating sites (initially created for heterosexuals, and then branching out to capture the Pink Pound) fail to address. Few have drop down menus in which you can indicate whether you’re active or passive. The solution, therefore, is perhaps to divulge this information – sooner rather than later – in an exchange of private messages. Better that, one may suggest, than waiting further down the dating line, for inevitable disappointment.
But how else can we deal with this “problem”. The obvious answer is to become “versatile” (yet another label, which the same dear old friend of mine – a lifelong bottom – derisively refers to as “lousy both ways.”). Sexual roles – like so many aspects of life – can evolve through the years. A guy who is a total top when single, may choose to become a bottom when in a relationship – once trust and love are established stranger things have certainly happened. Being versatile is perhaps therefore the ultimate “selling point” – but also one which not all men – for whatever reason - are willing to buy into. Some guys simply have no inclination to bottom. They’re perfectly happy being top – and, indeed, with the apparently large numbers of bottoms out there, are, one could argue, in a privileged minority. Either that, or they can begin to feel like they’re part of an overworked service industry. But are we actually placing far too much emphasis on anal sex – helped in no small part by sections of the gay media and, of course, porn? If you’re not doing it – and not doing it like a 24 hour horse-hung sex machine – then you can often feel like you’re not a fully paid up member of the gay male community. You’re an outsider; you’re missing out on something amazing. But this loses sights of the fact that some gay men can take or leave anal sex. There are, after all, plenty of other ways of giving and receiving pleasure – and the joy is surely experimenting and discovering these with a partner – or, indeed, many different partners.
But perhaps the more important discussion we should all be having is not so much about who does what to whom, but what this obsession with tops and bottoms suggests about the ways in which gay men relate to one another (no pun intended) on a deeper level – namely, how we treat one another. How quick we are to label and judge based merely on the mechanics of sexual roles. Too often we fall into stereotyping based on looks: the camp hairdresser is the insatiable bottom who could comfortably swallow a traffic cone; the soldier the aggressive top with a power drill between his legs. The assumption is frequently that the bottom is somehow feminine – or emasculating himself by being “dominated”; that in being penetrated he is losing some part of himself – surrendering (like some fragile heroine in a lousy romance novel) to the top – to the “real man”. The sad reality is not – as the disenchanted party boy thought – that there is a bottom surplus, but rather that we’re too caught up in judging, pigeon holing and dismissing would be partners based on what they may or may not like to do in and out of bed. Perhaps only by challenging this will be able to adopt a healthier outlook to the types of sex and the relationships we have.
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