Modern technology — sex sites and hookup apps — created “top,” “bottom,” and “versatile.” When sexual identities are codified — literally into code — sex roles become tags, filtering options, search parameters. This has resulted in the widespread misconception among queer men that everyone must fall into one category or another. It has reduced the richness of queer male sexuality into something simple. Online, I’m forced to be a top, bottom, or vers. I’m forced to be looking now or not, interested or not, partnered or not. There’s a nuanced gray area between all these that is sadly lost.
When public cruising and park sex were common features of gay life (the 70s, 80s), it was impossible to know if the hot guy you followed into the bushes was a top or bottom. As a result, many men who developed their sexuality in that time were naturally versatile — and still are (this is why it’s good to talk to your elders about sex). Bizarrely, in a time when gay and lesbian sexual identities have expanded into less labeled, more flexible terms — queer, fluid, and so on — sex roles have never been more rigid, thanks to apps. In the 70s, words like “top” and “bottom” existed, but they were synonymous with “dominant” and “submissive,” and many queer folks of a certain age still use these words this way.
All this is to say that no one is a total anything. As a sex worker, I don’t believe in total tops or total bottoms. Most queer men seem to grow versatile with age and experience as if at some point we realize how silly it is to stay closed off to the other side of sex. I can’t tell you how many “total tops” have asked me about bottoming — and how many “total bottoms” want to power fuck.
This post is for the ones ready to switch it up. Here are 15 tips for folks ready to change bunks.
These roles are invented — and before they existed, we just fucked. You may naturally enjoy differing degrees of dominance and submission, but — as I’ll cover — dominance and submission have little to do with being a top or bottom.
What I mean by this: You probably won’t top the same way you bottom (in the same circumstances or with the same people). For example, I can bottom for pretty much anyone, and the more anonymous, the better. But as a top, I need chemistry and connection — I need to genuinely like someone and know them a bit. I’m also attracted to different types of people when I top versus when I bottom. As a bottom, I prefer very rough sex, but as a top, not so much.
Treat your top and bottom sides as two separate selves. The process of learning the role you’re less familiar with can be a beautiful act of self-discovery — you will learn different preferences and turn-ons, new ways of being with people.
Many people force themselves to play for the other team because of relationships — because their partner decides they want to bottom, so they must become a top. I find that, in most cases, a one-sided push to make someone fit your needs doesn’t work. If you want to bottom and your partner has no desire to top, it’s time to consider non-monogamy. You can’t mold someone into being what you want — you have to take people you love as they are. Forced changes often lead to tension and separation.
Bottoming is hard. Not only can it feel uncomfortable and painful when you’re new, but every bottom has to contend with a fear of poop that most humans have, thanks to cultural cleanliness standards and thanks to human evolution.
Ancient humans, long before modern medicine, learned to fear foul smells, nature’s signs of rot and toxicity indicating things that could sicken and kill us if eaten. We likely fear poop for this reason, though we have not always been so private in our bathroom activities. Public defecation was common in some ancient societies. But modern plumbing made pooping a private thing, which has only added to our species-wide fear of excrement.
What this means for many bottoms, at least in the U.S., is that we try to avoid poop wherever possible. An entire cleanliness and douching industry has sprung up in the last forty years that has preyed heavily on these fears and exploited them — you can find many douching products marketed exclusively to gay men.
Not everyone fears shit equally. Anecdotally, it seems gay men in Europe are less shit-phobic than American guys, and gay men of a certain age (anyone who fucked around in the 70s and 80s) remember a time when gay men didn’t really douche often, so they care less about making a little mess, particularly if it means having lots of fun.
You’ll have to make your own decisions and gauge your comfort level with poop. If you want a clean butt for bottoming, you’ll need to find a preparation regimen that works for your body, which may include douching. You will only find that ideal regimen through trial and error, likely over many years, which means there will be accidents and messes. There will be fucks where you’re not fully clean. You will get shit on someone’s dick. You can let these instances mortify you and turn you off from the whole bottoming enterprise, or you can do what every proud bottom does: shrug, clean off, learn, try again next time, or just keep going, have fun, and clean up later.
Myths abound. You must be hung to please someone. You must fuck hard for hours. Guys only want a big dick. If you’re Black, you must be XXL and dominant. If you can’t stay hard, you’re not a good top. And so on.
All this is bullshit, and you’ll have to contend with it. If you’re not especially hung, or if keeping an erection is not your easiest task (it isn’t for most penis-bearers over a certain age), you might feel left out and inadequate, especially if you make the mistake of believing that porn — amateur and otherwise — is an accurate depiction of how your sex life should be. Porn is great, but it’s entertainment, not truth.
There are no easy ways to work through all the myths and body/performance issues tops deal with, so your journey will be the same as that of any top: you must find playmates who enjoy and enforce you, make you feel sexy and powerful. Let go of those who don’t.
I’ve been a hooker for ten years and have learned something incredibly valuable: a person can be their most honest self to someone they’ll only know for an hour. I’ve had clients who might be CEOs, famous composers, politicians, and film directors, but they don’t share these details and I don’t ask — that’s the professional agreement we make, something I consider an automatic courtesy in this business — and under cover of anonymity, they are free to be whoever they want to be. They are able to completely reinvent their sexual identity: a total top can be a total bottom and vice versa.
I enjoy anonymous sex in my personal life for this reason. I can be a total top to a stranger on a dance floor — he doesn’t know anything about me. Anonymity can give you the chance to try a new role with no risk, only reward, and can be very freeing. People we know — partners and playmates — have more info on us and therefore these relationships can, somewhat counterintuitively, be less comfortable for us to explore new roles in. I owe my greatest sexual self-discoveries to men I’ll never meet again.
Being partnered is great, but as most folks in relationships know, sex tends to cool and fall into routine and expectation — or stop entirely. (Most queer men I know in long-term relationships have branched into non-monogamy to satisfy their sexual sides.) Regardless if you and your partner are currently having sex, it’s important to check in and discuss where you are in your sex life and tell them that you’ve been wanting to switch roles — from top to bottom or vice versa.
Not only is it healthy and necessary to do regular, honest check-ins with the person you’re with, but this talk can lead to good dialogue and can actually reignite the sex between you. What if your partner has long been harboring the same desires and has not been brave enough to tell you? What if your total top husband wants to be a total bottom? What if you both are tops and want to be bottoms or vice versa? This can be a discussion that leads to a healthy baby step into non-monogamy if you’re not already there, or it can prompt a whole new form of sexual exploration between the two of you. Either way, it’s a great conversation to have.
For some of us, this is easier said than done. The truth is, it’s hard to find people, and the search can be exhausting. Some of us live in rural and isolated places (though the densest of cities can feel just as lonely). Some of us have very demanding jobs and don’t have the time. Most of us suffer from body image and confidence issues that make us give up the search before we start.
Whole books could be written about how to find the confidence, energy, and time for sex, and all would fail a bit: the search is a deeply personal thing, one area of life where platitudes and general good advice are only so effective.
Make time. Ground your confidence in something internal, or perhaps in your nature or ability, if you can’t always ground it in your looks (I talk about “pillars” next). Whatever you do, you must do something, because the human endeavor is to connect. Without new people to play with, our sex lives wither and our creativity and adventurousness taper off. You need new playmates in order to grow in a new direction. I firmly believe that relationships are meant to be outgrown — in fact, they can often keep us from growing. It can be painful to leave someone you love because you need to be different, but it is almost always the right course.
We all have pillars, things we ground our identities on. Sometimes my body doesn’t look as I want it to, and when that happens I say, “Ok, that pillar’s down.” I have to prop myself up on something else, on my inner self — my talents, tastes, adventurousness, kindness — or on my writing, or on my ability to communicate in bed. I just need one pillar to keep going. There are days when all my pillars are standing strong, when I feel sexy, accomplished, and so much more. Then there are days when I don’t feel that way at all (breakups, sicknesses, hospital stays), and sometimes all I have to hang onto is the fact that I can write a decent poem — something that will never leave me. You need to know your pillars — a great exercise is writing them down.
My identity as a bottom was a pillar until I started having bad GI issues some years ago. I’ve mostly figured out what the issue was, but even with lifestyle changes, I still have a very sensitive tummy — not great for a fisting bottom. I went through severe depression and thought I was losing everything about my life that I loved. “If I can’t get fucked, I’m not sure I want to keep living,” I said to my partner on a particularly dark day. And that day he reminded me of something I’ve reminded many other people: sex is a long buffet table of different experiences, all of equal value. Sex is so much more than topping or bottoming. If I was willing to throw away all that over a narrow vision of what my sex life was, I wasn’t the person he believed I was.
It takes a proverbial kick in the teeth sometimes to be reminded of a powerful truth. If your sex role is a pillar of your identity, it can be painful to let it go, particularly if it’s because of a medical issue. But I encourage you to switch your pillar from “bottoming” or “topping” to the sexual buffet table in its entirety — a journey on which you can try everything. What an adventure! I’ve witnessed some beautiful sexualities develop because of surgeries, cancers, injuries, and chronic medical issues. Almost everyone mourns — but not everyone rethinks their pillars so they can discover sex again. For all you know, a better sex life could be waiting for you.
I’ve written in The Advocate and elsewhere about bottoming and how to get better at it. You don’t get better at bottoming by having more sex; sex toys exist for a reason — they are training tools. I recommend starting with a very small rocket-shaped butt plug and working your way up — many toymakers make anal training kits. At first, a plug might not feel especially good, but it trains your anal sphincter — your butthole, a muscular valve that will make sex uncomfortable for everyone involved when it’s gripped tight. Mentally explore the feeling of your hole opening around a rounded object and closing again — try doing body squats and literally lifting the plug off the ground with your butt muscles. Training with plugs will make you a better bottom and will make sex more enjoyable.
The sign of a novice top is someone who enters too fast and immediately starts jackhammering. You have to start slow, help the bottom relax and open up, and slowly build speed as they grow comfortable. If you’re not sure when to speed up, ask them to tell you. Ask for feedback, ask what feels good, and be receptive and attentive.
No one is good at sex in the beginning. Sex, like any other skill, requires practice and has a long learning curve. (This curve is exacerbated by sex stigma and an absence of competent sex education, particularly for queer folks, which is why I do what I do.) It might take years before you grow comfortable bottoming — nearly five years passed from the time I first started bottoming to the first time getting fucked felt great. I had to practice.
There are some things you can’t change about yourself. You can’t change your dick size (though hardcore cock-pumpers disagree). If you, like me, are someone living with a disability, you can’t change that, either. But you can change and control the skills and traits that really matter in a lover: attentiveness, adventurousness, honesty, and the ability to communicate and share wants and desires. Most everyone knows the unfortunate experience of having sex with someone physically breathtaking but sexually inattentive — these non-physical traits are so much more valuable in bed than a hot body or big dick. Nurture and cultivate them in you.
In my life, the word “switching” more commonly refers to kinksters (kinky people) who like to switch — who play both dominant and submissive roles in kinky sex. These folks are called “switches.” But switching roles for someone who is not automatically a switch can be challenging. If you’re a dominant top, it can feel odd to switch to submissive bottom — odd and unnecessary. There’s a wonderful world of dominant bottoms and submissive tops out there, and these roles can be nice halfway steps on the way to heavier submission or domination if that’s your end goal. A dominant bottom (or “power bottom” as they’re more commonly referred to) is someone who takes over sex — who rides, instructs, or otherwise steers the action. A submissive top is someone who does as they are told, even though they are the penetrating partner.
In anonymous sex, there’s no need to discuss anything — one of the joys of anon play is the “no talking” rule. But anon and NSA (no strings attached) are not for everyone — and if you’re wanting to take, say, a very big dick or you’re talking to a hardcore bottom who wants to fuck all night, the “no talking” rule is actually a bad idea.
It serves no one to be dishonest about your experience — honesty always serves a person well, especially when they’re new to a particular area of sex. It can be very helpful to tell a potential playmate that you’re new to this — and if that’s a turn-off for them, move on. It can be hot to fuck or get fucked by someone new to bottoming or topping. If your potential playmate doesn’t think so, they’re not for you. There are better playmates out there.