When it comes to positional preferences, versatility is largely regarded as the most progressive option for queer men. Sticking to the binary of “top” and “bottom” can limit what one does in the bedroom, and queer folks should feel empowered to fuck whoever and however they want.
In theory, this thinking tracks, but it doesn’t always hold up in practice. After speaking with many gay, bisexual, and queer men who identify as “total tops” or “total bottoms” (meaning they have no desire to diversify their positional preference), I’ve learned about a number of legitimate reasons one may have no interest in switching positions.
Anthony, a 35-year-old gay man and “coming out coach,” identifies as a total top. He has only bottomed once in his life, and although it wasn’t bad, he has “no interest” in being versatile. “I’m strictly a top because bottoming is painful, easy as that,” he tells Logo.
Anthony also says bottoming is “tied to submission” for him, a common association among queer men rooted in toxic masculinity. In fact, one study found tops are most likely to manifest higher levels of internalized homophobia and more likely to reject a gay self-identity.
“Research does show that tops are more likely to identify as traditionally masculine or dominant, so topping may be a part of that masculine or dominant identity,” Dr. Trevor Hart, a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist focusing on the sexual and mental health of men who have sex with men, tells Logo.
For self-described “career bottom” Rolando, 29, confidence plays a large part in his rigid positional preference. “I did top one time with my then-boyfriend, but it’s not what I like or excel at,” he says. “That, in turn, has created a bit of inertia, where because it’s what I’ve done the most, I feel most confident bottoming.”
Rolando explains that even with a partner he loved, he still experienced challenges like staying hard and finding a position that worked for both him and his partner. “I’d essentially have to find someone who is willing to deal with a beginner-top, with my performance anxiety and staying hard, and all for something that ultimately doesn’t even feel that good to me? I’d rather just bottom.”
Dr. Hart’s research, which polled 205 gay male participants on subjects like self-labels and sexual behavior, was published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2003. He uncovered a number of interesting correlations, including that versatiles seem to enjoy better psychological health, which could be due to their greater sexual sensation-seeking, reduced fears around sex, and greater comfort with a variety of roles and activities.
“On the other hand, total bottoms might perceive topping to be too dominant or uncomfortable, or that they believe that they will not be able to perform, to have an orgasm, or to pleasure their partner while topping,” Hart says.
Shame associated with penis size or shape was another prevailing factor among the men I interviewed. “The main reason I don’t top is because my dick isn’t really shaped in a way that makes it comfortable,” Bruno, a 23-year-old who has only topped once, shares. “It’s almost straight up and doesn’t like to bend outward or forward when fully hard. I also don’t experience as much sensation as I think most people do, so it’s just uncomfortable.”
Then comes the pressure from size queens. Research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2010 found that the smaller somebody perceived the size of their penis, the more likely they were to identify as a bottom. After surveying 1,065 gay and bisexual men, only 29.2% of tops fall under “below average” in penis size, compared to 32% of versatiles and 39% of bottoms. Conversely, the bigger their perceived penis size, the more likely subjects were to identify as tops.
Researchers concluded masculinity was yet again a potential factor since one’s penis size is often inaccurately regarded as a symbol of one’s degree of masculinity, and judgement from sexual partners might make someone with an average or smaller-than-average penis less confident in topping.
Inflexible positional preferences can also stem from traumatic sexual experiences. Ingo, 50, was in an abusive relationship for 18 months and says he was sexually assaulted throughout. He now identifies as a total top.
“It was a mix of coercion, threats to throw me out and call my grandfather to spill all the details of our sex life,” he tells Logo. “The kicker was that he himself was a bottom most of his life, so in retrospect, I assume that was an early example of an identity crisis bordering on false ideas of masculinity on his end.”
Ingo has tried bottoming in the 30 years since that abusive relationship, but he wasn’t able to enjoy it even with another past partner he trusted. “I sometimes wonder if there was something taken away from me,” he admits after a pause. “But the curiosity and the wish to experiment went up in smoke.”
These are just a few of the many messages I received from total tops and bottoms who were gracious with their vulnerability. And while one might logically assume that someone’s sexual preference is determined by their likes and dislikes in the bedroom, research and testimony suggests it is not that simple. Even among the relatively small sampling of total tops and bottoms I interviewed, most confessed they’d only tried the opposing position once or a few times.
Intrigued, I asked Hart if he thinks social pressures might eclipse one’s actual enjoyment in their identities. He says it is likely true for a lot of men. “If a guy has concerns about keeping erections or about pleasuring his partner as a top, he is unlikely to top. This is also the case for guys who’ve been told they aren’t great at bottoming.”
Stripped of all nuance, conventional ideas of what is “masculine” appear to play a large role in how queer men have sex. Whether this manifests in our confidence, our perception of size, or the repercussions of a past partner’s own internalized biases, it seems most of us are willing and open to be more versatile. We just lack the self-assurance to act on it.
At the end of the day, sex is best when you do what makes you most comfortable, so set boundaries and do you. But perhaps the information above will make some reconsider why they aren’t open to experiencing a fuller spectrum of pleasure.