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Tops and Bottoms: The Limitations and Dangers of Using Hetero-normative Labels for Men Who Have Se

The labels “Top” and “Bottom” within the men who have sex with men (MSM) community may be a great filtering tool for hook ups, and anonymous sex. However, the limits and dangers of using those labels outweigh the benefits. These outdated heteronormative concepts value “Tops” over “Bottoms”, limits the definition of sex to only value penetration, encourage assumptions and discourage communication, supports sexual assault and rape and can lead to violence. Increasing one’s identity to more than just a “Top” or “Bottom” can teach men who have sex with men to value all people regardless of their sexual desires, communicate better with their sex partners, thus decreasing sexual assault, rape and other violence, and increase their own sexual gratification.

Top, Bottom, and Versatile, Oh My!

In 1948, Alfred Kinsey studied human sexuality and postulated that the missionary position was coined by the people of the South Pacific. There, missionaries tried to convert the natives to Christianity and wanted them to also adopt a way of having sex. The preferred way, according to the missionaries included inserting the penis into the vagina with the man on top and the women on the bottom. The man on top allowed him to have more control or power over his female partner and it was assumed that he would initiate the sexual encounter. The locals thought it strange to be prescribed only one way to have intercourse between a man and a woman and named this position after the missionaries.

It is now 2018 and although most people regardless of sexual orientation have sex in many different positions, it seems like many men who have sex with men still use hetero-normative concepts, including the missionary position to relate to sex and sexuality. Scanning through personal profiles on Grindr, Mister, Jack’d, or Adam4Adam, common apps or websites for men who have sex with men to meet potential partners, one can easily find guys declaring their sexual position as Top, Bottom or Versatile.

Although it may be helpful for a man to find a willing partner to be the inserter or the insertee, the terms Top or Bottom is a misnomer. One does not have to be on top to be the inserter, or on the bottom to be the insertee. Also, these hetero-normative terms describe more than a physical position; it generally assumes the characteristics of that man. For instance, the “Top” may be viewed as in control and aggressive. It can also be assumed that he would be the one in control, similar to the hetero-normative structure. However, the man who is interested in penetrating his partner may not be, or want to be, the one in control. Furthermore, the “Top” may not even initiate the sexual encounter. And of course, the reverse is true for the “Bottom.” Someone who is interested in being penetrated could be sitting on top of their partner, might be aggressive, as well as initiate sex. Assumptions about tops and bottoms are made with these terms, and they could confuse the sex partners if they aren’t clear about what they expect or want from their partner aside from penetrating or getting penetrated.

Similar to hetero-normative structures about being a man and a woman, assumptions about tops and bottoms are active in more than just the bedroom. They are vibrant in the culture as well. Many men who have sex with men will value tops, much like the larger culture values men. Bottoms, are related to females and are therefore deemed less valuable, yet more plentiful. Evidence for this can be seen in the evolution of these terms. Someone who enjoys being penetrated and is masculine, aggressive, and physically on top might be referred to as a “power bottom.” Bottoms are also wrongly assumed to be more financially dependent on their partners, whereas tops are wrongly assumed to be more financially stable.

Aside from borrowing the hetero-normative concept of top and bottom from our missionary ancestors, there are three other issues with these labels. First, it is generally assumed that two tops and two bottoms cannot have sex with each other, nor be in a relationship together. This “filtering” mechanism that helps men find potential sex partners, actually does more than filter. It limits. So many men will pass up the opportunity to meet another man due to their listed sexual preference: Top or Bottom. This is problematic as sex between two or more people is not just about penetration.

This leads us to the second issue. The second issue is that many men who have sex with other men may choose to have sex without penetration. Men can engage in mutual masturbation with their sex partner where they both masturbate themselves. They can also masturbate each other, engage in oral sex, and enjoy each other’s bodies in many other ways without penetration. The binary labels of tops and bottoms assume that men only want to and must have anal penetration in order to have sex. This is another self-imposed limitation. It can be quite fun and sexually arousing to engage in various sex acts that don’t include anal penetration. Claiming to be a top or a bottom values penetration as the ultimate goal, and that if the two or more people don’t get to insert something, then something has gone terribly wrong.

The third issue about using Tops and Bottoms as labels is that they can lead to assumptions. Sex is a physically intimate activity and is linked to our emotions as well. It might be easier to speak less about sex and simply use these labels to assume what our sex partner wants. But the truth is that no one really fully knows what their sex partner wants without some sort of communication.

Knowing whether or not he is a top or bottom is only the first step to knowing him. Some men, at various sometimes, like it slow, fast, rough, gentle, and sometimes all of those in one romp! How can the labels top and bottom convey all of that? They don’t. That is why some men have reported that they have had bad sex. They say their partners were clueless in the bedroom. And although that might be the case, it is possible to clue them in by communicating with each other with more than asking if he is a top or bottom.

And finally, just because a man has labeled himself as a top or bottom doesn’t mean that he would want to top or bottom in every encounter. Communication with each other is vital, not only for being good in bed, but also to gain sexual consent. Many men who are attracted to men have reported going along with a sexual encounter even when they didn’t really want to because they were afraid or embarrassed to express how they were feeling. Communication between sex partners can open the door to more sexual gratification as well as stop men from going further than their partner actually wants them to.

But there is hope. Many men who are having sex with men are declaring themselves as versatile, meaning they are willing, able and interested in having sex as the insertive partner or the insertee, or with no anal penetration at all! The versatile label allows more sexual freedom between the two or more people who are interested in having sex. Some men subscribe to the, “If there is chemistry and consent, then trying different and new things is a go.” Many men who have sex with men who declare themselves as versatile will not assume that their partner wants anything, and will tend to ask more questions. This allows for more communication and sexual gratification.

The labels top and bottom may be a great filtering tool for hook ups, and anonymous sex, but the dangers of using those labels outweigh the benefits. This hetero-normative concept values one over the other, limit the definition of sex to only include penetration, encourage assumptions and discourage communication, and supports sexual assault and rape. Using less of the archaic concepts borrowed from the missionaries of 1948 that spread hetero-normative propaganda may allow all people, including heterosexual Christian missionaries of today, to be open to trying different and new things, value all people regardless of their sexual desires, communicate with their sex partners, and increase their sexual gratification.

What do you think? Do you use these labels? If so, in what ways do they work for you? In what ways do they limit your experience? Please post your comments. We'd love to hear from you.

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