By Anthony J. Williams.
No fats, no femmes; Masc4Masc; sane only; clean only; no Blacks; Latin papis++; discreet; daddies; bears; twinks; PnP; top; bottom; vers.
If you’ve frequented #TheApps—geosocial networking applications often used for men to find partners to have sex with—like Grindr, Jack’d, Scruff, you may be familiar with the phrases I listed. However, in a world where “yasss kween” is appropriated by everyone and #TheApps are featured on primetime television (see: How to Get Away with Murder), terms like “top,” “bottom,” and “versatile” are gaining mainstream notoriety. Vocabulary that was once shared among the queer community has now taken on broader recognition.
While there are many distinctions, the three standard sexual positions that gay men refer to are top, bottom, and vers/versatile. The gay community does not maintain exclusive ownership over these words, nor are they only used to refer to anal sex. Additionally, these terms can be modified for more nuance, such as a “power bottom” or a “vers top.” But to gain a basic understanding:
- “Tops” are typically the insertive partners during anal sex
- “Bottoms” are typically the receptive partners during anal sex
- “Vers” are typically both insertive and/or receptive during anal sex
Now let’s try an exercise. What comes to mind when you think of a romantic and sexual relationship between two men? (Hint: “who’s the woman,” “who is the quarterback and who is the receiver?,” and “who pays the bills?” are all inappropriate questions). Many people first think of the default man-woman sexual script and apply those same standards—and therefore gender roles—to a relationship between two men. However this line of thinking is not exclusive to heterosexual folks or cisgender folks or. This binary way of thinking is across various sexual and gender identities.
When we think of the sexual scripts that are most represented in all forms of media, they are often rooted in the socially accepted norms that we take for granted. Due to a highly cisheteronormative social conditioning, the word “couple” is associated with a cisgender heterosexual romantic couple that is most often monogamous. This fictional couple maintains a relationship dynamic rooted in strict gender norms where one person is “the man” and the other is “the woman.” Individual relationship dynamics rooted in the gender identities of each person are at their discretion, but we must also consider how these norms now shape not just a heteronormative standard, but a parallel homonormative standard in response.
Just like there are hegemonic standards of performing straightness, so too is there a standard way of performing queerness. Queer masculinities in the 21st century still maintain a very tenuous relationship with sexual position. After all, queer men are still men, meaning that the masculinities of queer men are just as easy to challenge as those of heterosexual men. Sexual position and notions of passivity or activity define “masculinity” among and outside of queer men. Regardless of the physical build, intelligence, achievements, or gender expression, the act of bottoming is seen as passive. People strip men of their masculinity because of the way we construct the sexual role of bottom as passive. Further, passivity often translates negatively to femininity, and femininity often translates to weakness, despite the falsehood.
In a society that hates women for their femininity and extends that hate to queer and gay men for their proximity to femininity, straight men are not the only ones who police the criteria of “real men.” In the past I personally even considered the act of bottoming “feminine,” as if being anally receptive translated to a loss of power not just in the bedroom, but also in the relationship. This could not be further from the truth, however this toxic belief is common among queer men. Phrases like “don’t listen to him, he’s just a bottom” are insults that place less value on men who bottom. This narrative furthers the patriarchal and sexist notion that women, femmes, and bottoms are more dependent and less capable than their more “masculine” counterparts.
Another example of the way queer men police one another’s masculinities and sexual positions is through bottom shaming. (If you’re interested, Looking has a whole episode around bottom shaming). I have encountered swaths of queer men who will not bottom, not because they do not enjoy it, but because it is a challenge to their masculinity, whether they recognize it as such or not. Some men take it a step further by only engaging in anally insertive sex, opting out of performing oral sex on a partner and forbidding their partners from performing analinus (rimming) on them. These sorts of masculinities rely on always being in power and receiving more acts of sexual service in return for a job well done during anal sex. The same logic that allows many heterosexual men to feel entitled to oral sex without reciprocation applies to queer men, unfortunately.
Moving forward we must think about how to practice healthier masculinities as queer men. Masculinities should not be rooted in our sexual behaviors or our gender expression. This kind of thinking serves as a duplication of sexist power dynamics most commonly discussed in the context of heterosexual people. And honestly? Such rigid definitions of masculinity stifle the opportunity for sexual exploration, sexual gratification, and all around fulfillment in life.
Anthony J. Williams is a writer, Editor-in-Chief of the Afrikan Black Coalition, a recent sociology alumnus of UC Berkeley, and a frequent twitter user (@anthoknees).