In a study originally published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers Konstantin O. Tskhay and Nicholas O. Rule reported findings from research with interesting implications for queer sexuality.
The paper, “Accurate Identification of a Preference for Insertive Versus Receptive Intercourse from Static Facial Cues of Gay Men,” detailed the results of two studies that aimed to see if casual observers could tell tops from bottoms.
Two hundred faces were culled from photographs found in the online dating profiles of gay men — evenly split between self-professed tops and bottoms — by research assistants who were hypothesis-blind (meaning they had no knowledge of the study as they gathered the images).
Each photo used was of a man who was looking straight into the camera, lacked any “facial adornments” such as facial hair or glasses, and clearly identified himself as either a top or a bottom. The men’s faces were cropped at the hair and chin, converted to gray scale, and shown to participants rendered at a standard size against a white background.
In the first test, participants were shown the 200 faces and asked to sort them into “top” and “bottom” categories, after being provided very clinical definitions of the two positions (“a person who penetrates” versus “one who receives penetration”).
In the second test, a fresh set of participants looked at the same set of 200 faces and were instructed to rate the masculinity of each face from zero (“not masculine at all”) to seven (“very masculine”). The results, when taken together, were fascinating.
The participants in Study 1 were able to correctly identify tops 73 percent of the time, an accuracy significantly higher than chance (50 percent). On the other hand, participants were able to correctly identify bottoms less than 40 percent of the time. This discrepancy was attributed to response bias, a tendency for judges to ascribe attributes that mesh with their worldview; participants were more likely to assign men the dominant role because they expect men to be dominant. When this bias was corrected for, the effective accuracy was 63 percent.
Interestingly, the judges in Study 2 rated those same bottoms as being far less masculine than the tops, even though the participants in the first study weren’t able to accurately identify the bottoms.
The researchers conclude that “not only do people infer sexual roles of gay men by basing their judgments on masculinity… but that these perceptions are somewhat accurate and communicated by a very rich, yet limited, source of static information: the human face. Furthermore, this work showed that our conceptions of stereotypical gender roles extend beyond the conceptual bounds of heterosexual relationships and may be applied by the mind to interpret other forms of relationships.”
Put more simply, there seems to be a clear correlation between an individual’s perceived masculinity and his professed sexual preference, clear enough that a casual observer could probably tell I’m a bottom just by looking at me.
But more interesting to me are the implications for queer sexual identity. In her book Gender Trouble, famed queer feminist philosopher Judith Butler argues that gender is “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” Gender isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.
Perhaps “top” and “bottom” (and “versatile” for that matter) can be thought as genders unto themselves.
“Accurate Identification of a Preference for Insertive Versus Receptive Intercourse from Static Facial Cues of Gay Men” By Konstantin O. Tskhay and Nicholas O. Rule, Archives of Sexual Behavior