Once upon a time, this writer met a tall, handsome stranger — or, to be blunt, a ‘total top’ online — and discovered just how far from a fairy-tale gay sex can be.
“Will you be ready to go again soon?” I asked. “I didn’t finish…”
That’s right: he came without warning. Then rolled over, put his hands behind his head and smiled smugly. ‘That’s hot,’ you might be thinking. Or ‘Arrogance is sexy.’ I did, too, a bit. But I also thought: ‘Who does this selfish bastard think he is?’ I’d douched. Travelled across a city to meet him. Endured physical pain to please him. I needed to ejaculate and could have wanked at home. What about my needs?
Turns out, he not only did not care about those, but felt an antagonistic disregard for them. “Get dressed and get out,” he instructed, eyes radiating fury.
I respectfully complied. When someone asks you to leave their home, you do it. But rather than trouser-up in silence, I tried reasoning with him. (“I’m not saying it was bad…”) Then, he stood up and straightened his back, making it clear just how much taller than me he really was.
‘THE POWER, YEAH (MOTORBIKE)’
A toxic, vaguely threatening top. A (perceived) bottom dismissed and demeaned. An uncommonly extreme example of power imbalance it may be, and one aggravated by a lack of prior communication on both sides, but the experience nevertheless opened my eyes to a trend in queer sex that I can’t unsee: a pervasive form of gay politics and distribution in sexual authority. Since when does bottoming in a casual sex scenario automatically mean being a mere receptacle? And I’m not referring to sub-dom roleplay, which happens overtly in pre-agreed circumstances. I’m talking about the almost subconscious rank and file that occurs when men penetrate men; the organisation of who’s hotter, who’s got higher status, who’s manlier, who’s more straight-passing, who’s in control, who’s got the power. I think it’s all rubbish, of course — but I can’t escape it. So, whenever I hear the words “You represent the tops and bottoms of the week…” on Drag Race, I want to scream.
I feel like an unwilling participant in the world’s worst pyramid scheme. I’m not as naïve as I sound. I’ve been sexually active since 15, but back then, I couldn’t comprehend sexual preferences, let alone articulate them. As teens, we tried everything (hand jobs: seismic!) without branding ourselves this or that. In all of my sexually satisfying LTRs of my 20s — in one, I took dick; in others, I gave — we all occasionally switched but, generally, on finding our groove, stayed there. Crucially, we were all equals regardless. These were conversations of the body: the terms ‘top’, ‘bottom’ and ‘vers’ rarely entered the bedroom. They were instead used by prying strangers (“Who’s the woman?”) and savage gay friends: one used to call me “Big nellie bottom Ja’mie!”, perhaps in reference to my love of short shorts, soya milk and washing my hair every day. (I still love my feminising Private School Girl-inspired nickname.) Such jokes are less funny in my 30s: my peers are impatient, less open to experimentation and going with the flow. They want what they want, NOW. And so, I get the same question over and over.
“Top or bottom?”
The answer is: it’s complicated. “Aren’t we all on a spectrum?” I want to say.
But I know exactly how that translates for most: “Big nellie bottom.”
VERS KINGS AND FLIP-FLOPPING
Jason, a gay guy in his 20s, recently started switching after years of bottoming: an identity he was aggressively open about online, attracting myriad inaccurate assumptions.
“One person assumed, because of my position, that I was short,” he remembers. (He’s six foot two.) “Labels can definitely help when it comes to organising sex and managing expectations, but they’re also loaded with ill-fitting stereotypes. You can be a dominant bottom or a submissive top. When bottoming, I’m bossy: I don’t like giving up control, pain or being dominated. But I’ve had people assume I want to be degraded.”
In response to his new vers identity, Jason’s friends are “chill. But I sometimes get sarcasm. They assume I still prefer bottoming — which I sometimes do! — and act surprised when I say I’ve topped a guy. I imagine the response would be different if I went from vers to bottom. People would assume I was bottom all along.”
Jason’s identity is actually the least surprising.
“Versatility is so prevalent that this [top and bottom] culture is subject to change depending on many variables”
“Every study I’ve read has found that the vast majority of guys are vers,” says journalist and Slate sex advice columnist Rich Juzwiak. (For the record, a 2017 tally of 55,464 US gay.com users found that 26 per cent were top and 32 per cent bottom. Meanwhile, 42 per cent versatile.)
“Anecdotally, for me,” continues Juzwiak, “versatility is so prevalent that this [top and bottom] culture is subject to change depending on many variables, the most important being chemistry. [People] say: ‘We’re going to do this.’ And end up doing an entirely different thing!” Nevertheless, he finds the polarising pull of ‘Top or bottom?’ to have “absolutely long been a thing”, pointing to “cultural influences affecting this stuff, including porn access — I would say flip-flopping is pretty uncommon in gay porn — and geolocation apps.”
Furthermore, Attitude.co.uk has reported on Grindr data which revealed the countries with the highest percentage of tops (Philippines, Colombia, Argentina, Israel and India), bottoms (Vietnam, South Africa, China, Peru and Poland) and vers users (Costa Rica, Romania, Czech Republic, Russia and Venezuela). The traffic to the story was huge.
NATURE OR NURTURE?
David A. Moskowitz, PhD is an associate instructional professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at The University of Chicago. He has been studying top and bottom orientation since 2008. He says such terms have been around for a very long time.
“‘Activo’ and ‘passivo’: those words are there in literature from the 60s and 70s in South America,” he states. Further back, there’s the ‘erômenos’ and ‘erastês’ of ancient Greece. His research “absolutely” supports the idea that most men who have sex with men (MSM) are vers. “When I started these studies, I’d only use a triangular model: top, vers, bottom. I moved to five categories: top, vers-top, and so on. I think there are even finer distinctions that are very situational and contextually based and dependent on the partner. But at the same time, I believe people have a resting state.”
Having twice collected data into how masculinity, femininity and penis size influences anal sex roles in gay and bi adult men, Moskowitz found “evidence to show that, on average, bottoms rate themselves as comparatively more feminine, tops more masculine, vers in the middle. Tops: larger penises on average, bottoms: smaller penises on average, vers: in the middle.”
He continues: “I most recently ran this study with adolescents — 15-to-18-year-old gay and bisexual boys — and found the same exact [thing]. Across three samples, consistent findings: thousands of people at this point.”
Fascinatingly, though, of the teens, “about a quarter of the sample hadn’t had anal sex yet. So, my first question was, do you label as ‘top’, ‘bottom’ or ‘versatile’? The answer was ‘yes.’”
So are such preferences innate? Or are they societally conditioned (for instance, by porn)? Or is it both? For me, it’s essential to question which of our desires and preferences are natural and predetermined, and which aren’t. But conclusive answers are hard to find.
“I do believe there’s a biological predisposition that exists,” Moskowitz tells me. “But I also agree there are social factors that push people on different paths.”
WILL BOTTOMS SURVIVE?
“It’s the number one question any time there’s a Q&A,” says Rob Anderson, a gay influencer with 370k Instagram followers. “You see it in the chats: ‘Top or bottom? Top or bottom?’ I’ll do a movie review and it’s: ‘Top or bottom?’ It’s not just me who gets it, it’s any queer person on the internet.”
Anderson, who’s “super open” about his sex life (his Alaskan king-sized gay orgy bed is legendary), admits to finding the question “annoying… but expected. I tell people I’m both, but then see comments like: ‘Oh, I heard he’s just a bottom…’”
To wit, the LA-based star amused and triggered vers guys in equal measure with his 2020 ‘Gay Science’ comedy video, Are Vers Bottoms Going Extinct? It might be a parody, but the commentary is almost painfully on the nose. For example: “To many, topping a top sounds hot. Bottoming for a bottom sounds disgusting. It’s a double standard. So vers bottoms have shifted to self-identifying as bottom or vers. So, with so few vers bottoms left, most scientists agree the sub-type will die out by 2025. Leading the way to further divide the gay order into increasingly strict roles. Leading us to the eventual reality of a gay Matrix.”
‘Gay Twitter’ has proved a fertile space for ‘bottom culture’ humour. “Bottom culture is repeating the last letter of a word on texttttt” is one memorable example. Or “listening to Lana Del Rey on vinyl while douching for a guy who doesn’t deserve you”. Whether such jokes ‘reclaim’ the idea of bottoms as an object of ridicule, or somehow worthless, is subjective. I remember being greatly amused by an old video of Ann Widdecombe trying to use hair straighteners on Celebrity Big Brother, captioned ‘when two bottoms try to top’. But in the same breath, the idea that two bottoms can’t have extremely hot fun together — as if they’re literally too gay to function! — is absurd.
“Sick” of such “easy and obvious” humour, Anderson put an empowering spin on bottoming cliches in his 2022 video: Will Bottoms Survive the Apocalypse?, suggesting “resilient” bottoms will endure as they “overpack and bring unnecessary things”, and “rehearse soft choreography from music videos in their homes” — the Dua Lipa twist, the Jessica Simpson arm toss — that “works specific muscle groups that are perfect in a doomsday scenario”. Some have accused the videos of being “homophobic” and “reinforcing stereotypes” but Anderson responds: “They’re missing the point. It’s taking a stereotype that already exists and proving it true or not true with fake science. It’s ridiculous. But I don’t spell it out … I get a lot of messages from people in the Middle East saying: ‘I love these videos.’ It gives people a taste of — obviously, we’re still fighting a lot of battles, especially with the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill — when there is more equality and you’re able to make videos that make fun of things, because we’re in a better place to do that.” Will Bottoms Survive the Apocalypse? “took it to the extreme, making fun of how much we make fun of it, to the point it’s defining someone’s existence. The tone I strike is ridiculous because defining people based on sexual roles is ridiculous — but we do it a lot.”
He defines ‘no bottoms’ on dating apps as “almost the new ‘no femmes’ because we’ve written that off as offensive, homophobic. [But] when you tell someone you’re a bottom, or are bottoming, or they know you are, there’s this dismissal. That’s what I’ve experienced.”
‘I BLOOM JUST FOR YOU’
Anderson is not the only gay public figure challenging the top and bottom discourse. When Troye Sivan’s 2018 hit ‘Bloom’ prompted a New Zealand-based gay magazine to ask him “Top or bottom?”, he publicly condemned the inquiry as “wildly invasive, strange, and inappropriate”. In a previous interview, he called his ‘bottom icon’ status “completely reductive. Without getting into [details], that was a song I wrote about a particular experience. I’m not branding that as myself forever. It was definitely just writing a song.” Last year, he described his new song ‘Angel Baby’ as a “surprise gushy juicy doting adoring power b^tt^m [sic] gay ballad”.
“It’s an obsession with a sexual dynamic that feels pointless,” Years & Years’ Olly Alexander told NME in 2018. “Just get over it, get past it. Our notion of who’s a bottom and who’s a top is rooted in notions of gender and masculinity and femininity that are outdated as fuck. Say what you want among friends, but I’m a bit bored of the online discourse being, like, ‘Bottom energy!’ or ‘Top me, daddy!’ or ‘That’s not gonna work — two bottoms don’t make a top.’ It’s super-reductive.”
Meanwhile Lil Nas X said on social media last year: “I get this question a lot. I’ve never been a bunk-bed kinda guy, I like king-sized beds, I like queen-sized beds. But for real, all jokes aside, with this top and bottom shit in the gay community, it has become a huge form of misogyny, and it’s like how you n*****s misogynists? You’re all gay, you’re faggots. We’re all faggots.”
Anderson shares this view that the top or bottom debate is influenced by the belief that women and femininity are inferior to men and masculinity. “It reflects misogyny, I think: the receptive partner is made to feel ‘less than’ because it’s a submissive role. I’m not an expert with this stuff, it’s just things that I notice. And it is serious in that it affects our self-worth and how we’re viewed in our own community.”
Adds Jason: “There is a misogynistic assumption that bottoms are submissive or just holes to be used.” (It’s true — another ‘total top’ once told me he could “fuck a different bottom in Vauxhall every night of the week” if he wanted to. “No questions asked, no names exchanged. They don’t care about cumming.” Or so he assumes.) “Don’t get me wrong — bottoms like that of course exist, and they should,” Jason opines. “But the problem is the assumption.”
Femme-phobic bottom clichés went meta in 2015 when a San Francisco-based social media maverick known as Rich caused waves online with his “I’d bottom for Hilary [Clinton]!” social media campaign. He’d perhaps hoped to flip antiquated power dynamics by metaphorically offering his ass to a powerful, liberal woman. But most interpreted it as cementing harmful stereotypes: that women need to be dominant and ‘like men’ to get ahead, and that bottoms are servile.
Speaking of politics, writer Dale Peck hit the headlines when he made assumptions about Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg’s sexual preferences in 2019. In an op-ed published by The New Republic and then taken down, he reportedly wrote [as per a news story by The Advocate]: “I get a definite top-by-default vibe from [Buttigieg]. Which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but is too uptight to do it.”
“At least for me, when there’s an expectation you’re going to top, it brings an entire layer of pressure which can cloud the experience”
Sidestepping the strangeness of speculating about a politician’s sex life, I was struck by the term ‘top-by-default’. This ‘discordance’ is also present in Moskowitz’s data, revealing the disconnect of what men want from what they’re doing. (“What’s the ‘ideal’ label and what’s the ‘in reality’ label?”) Sure enough, in researching this piece, I spoke to several men who, unlike Jason, had involuntarily adopted new identities.
A tall bottom with a big dick, for example, who often gives in to demands to top. (Guys apparently ask him: “If you can, why wouldn’t you?”). Also, tops who’d given up bottoming due to digestive health issues or haemorrhoids. Then there are guys who are vers in spirit but tend to bottom because of problems like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation and size queens not taking them seriously as an active partner. Said one: “I often say I’m a bottom because I suffer from performance anxiety. But I top when the opportunity presents itself, and it feels right. But it’s a catch-22: how can I expect the other person to be clean down there unless I let them know in advance I want to fuck them?”
Juzwiak also prefers to top on impulse. “At least for me, when there’s an expectation you’re going to top, it brings an entire layer of pressure which can cloud the experience,” he explains. “So much of the time, not going into an encounter saying ‘I’m going to top’ is a good way to get me to top. The expectations are low and I’m comfortable.”
A BULLSHIT BINARY
Moskowitz doesn’t see words like ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ going anywhere soon. “There’s utility to them. They help you sort through things quickly and efficiently to have the sex you want — for a while, or just that night.” He expects to see finer categorisation to come, as per sexuality and gender. “Look at sexual orientation in the 60s. You were either straight or homosexual. Fast-forward to now: pansexual, queer and, getting into the genders, gender-fluid, non-binary, trans. And from a socio-political point, it helps them find community and support.”
I’m open and supportive of all identities — but it’s not always easy. It was a struggle, for instance, to get my head round the ‘extreme vers’ guy who rejected me because he only sleeps with guys he perceives as total tops and total bottoms.
I have a theory: that ‘top and bottom’ is a mostly bullshit binary, like ‘straight and gay’, ‘man and woman’, ‘masculine and feminine’, and one turbocharged by femme-phobia and HIV/Aids-stigma: the fact that receptive anal sex is riskier than insertive.
“Use logic to call BS on stuff and not let it in,” advises Juzwiak. “The gift of queerness is the ability to have your essence exist outside the prevailing culture, to choose your own path. If we’re getting into a system that’s as dogmatic as heterosexual society, we’re kind of dumbing ourselves down as a people.”
Ultimately, I know from experience how malleable sex is — we’re all unique and want something different. I’ve known straight guys who are into women pegging them; lesbians who adopt top and bottom roles; gay men who ‘side’ because they don’t like anal full stop… But going full ‘dom top’ with this knowledge, and denying others the right to self-identify, is perhaps just another form of intolerance.
Labels, boxes: we all know where Harry Styles stands on them, but within the LGBTQ+ community, there’s dissonance, and we need to learn to live with that.
“If I were a gambling man,” says Moskowitz, “I’d say people who want to label as top, bottom, and versatile like it because it’s quick and easy. People who don’t understand they’re a more complex person with less need for order, [more] tolerance for ambiguity and individuality. It’s just completely different people.”
Both are valid. “In general, we need to be more tolerant of each other’s tendencies,” says Moskowitz. “It’s fine if you want to [fit into] a box, it’s fine if you don’t — but don’t you expect me to [do the same].’”
Perhaps accepting this — the need to coexist — is the true meaning of versatility.
This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Attitude.