“You’re at least vers?” another soggy night in London, another night searching for a reliably lustful encounter. The question, which was posed by a man in a stars-and-stripes tank top and sawn-off shorts, seemed a little pointed to me. Did I look like a hopeless bottom or an overassertive, inflexible top?
Such judgments, lacking in nuance, are unfortunately just the way we talk about sex. At least it is for the moment. It’s always been this way. As far back as the B.C. era we’ve described the roles men take when they have sex with other men. Back then, homosexuality was not as divergent from heterosexuality as it is today.
Unfortunately, as is true today, people have always thought better of the active partner — and seen the passive partner as weaker, less manly, or even “unnatural.” In fact, negative ideas of being passive during gay sex predate the derision of being gay itself. A text attributed to Aristotle humored the idea: Why is it some men can enjoy bottoming even without actually stimulating their genitals? It was the beginning of our love affair with the bipolarity of sexuality: men and women, tops and bottoms — we love complementarity even where it might not exist.
Research today is starting to warm to the idea that sex is not that simple. The subtleties of sex between gay men first took hold in scientists’ imagination during the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, when it was realized the risk of becoming infected related directly to what position men said they preferred. A dearth of research between then and now is being shaken up by a new interest in how this sexual dichotomy arose — how deep into our psychology does the pleasure go?
Classifying the sex lives of gay men has in the past betrayed the complexities of human sexuality. Jerzy Kowalski, a researcher at Poland's Sex Research Institute, recently penned a scientific paper on, essentially, the terms we use for topping and bottoming, and takes a look at the history of how we have sex as gay men. “The image of homoerotic behaviors as bipolar is oversimplified,” he says.
In his paper, Kowalski asserts that we need to look beyond “one or the other” versions of straight sex. The terms he uses are definitely not built for common usage (“anogenito,” for example, meaning “anal”) but as Kowalski says, his intention was not modest — he wants to change the way research looks at homosexual behavior. As he puts it: “To treat homosexuality as something belonging to general human sexual behaviors, simply some other aspect of it, which shares almost all their essential features, and not as a separate phenomenon from [heterosexual sex], with separate principles and rules.” To revise gay sex into something that exists as the broader human experience — because, stating the obvious, we are human — and not make it a quirk, possibly even reminiscent of its categorization as a mental illness.
It’s a new field, in which the science is sparse as far as the numbers are concerned, but there are some intriguing clues. In surveys, bottoms and tops fall distinctly into their stereotypes: Men who bottom tend to be more feminine and prefer older, more masculine (taller and more muscular) partners. Guys who prefer to be tops, meanwhile, prefer younger men with little body hair, and who are more feminine.
Anyone who finds this idea reductive will be glad to hear there are always more versatiles (albeit with preferences) than either tops or bottoms. One survey from 2002 found almost 70 percent of men reported they were versatile to some degree.
This is important, not just interesting. What we do in sex has very real implications on who we believe we are. We still disparage bottoms and hold a secret reverence for tops, who we regard as the real men, the real gold standard. There’s a historical precedent for this: As recent as a few hundred years ago, men were supposed to be assertive in a physical role (as a farmer, artisan, or soldier) or in an administrative role (as a politician, artist, or king). In a narrow perception of men and masculinity, we still conflate bottoming with being unassertive and nonmasculine.
However, why we adopt these roles is very much for us to guess, even if some researchers are willing to offer evidenced ideas. We don’t really know why we enjoy anal sex, for example. We have some understanding of the way the prostate is triggered, but the pleasure can also be largely psychological — for example, we enjoy being “overwhelmed” and conquered, as Kowalski mentions in his study.
Nikolaos Souvlakis, a psychotherapist from London, points out that the pleasure we get from the psychological sensations may not just be about playing up to a role and finding fulfillment in that, as Kowalski and many other researchers suggest, but also from the Freudian perspective that childhood “conflicts and [unconscious] choices” insist themselves upon what we prefer. These are guesses, though — it's hard to know whether gay French philosopher Michel Foucault would be frustrated or pleased to know the study of sex has yet to penetrate homosexual yearnings.
Foucault wrote extensively about sex roles among gay men, noting that the Greeks differentiated between preferences for sex roles sooner than they did between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Foucault says that homosexuality only became a phenomenon in itself when scientists classified Western sexual habits, a fact about which he bitches constantly in his work The History of Sexuality.
This is the repeated wisdom when we talk about sex: that the Focault's cool classification of relations is naïve about the truth. You cannot pin, not merely the sexuality of gay men, but of all people in simplistic jargon. Sexuality is diverse, and while tops and bottoms almost certainly do come from somewhere — they certainly don’t pop out of thin air — we’d do well to remember that they are not categories, but simply acts.