The first man I ever dated identified as a “total top.” He was 20 years my senior, had a reputation for fucking guys in gym showers, and, fittingly, broke up with me because I was keeping him from the gym.
Fresh out of the closet, I was eager and terrified to explore all aspects of my newly realized sexuality with him. However, due to various factors, we never had penetrative sex, which ultimately led him to stray. In addition, he inexplicably never wanted to frequent queer spaces, insisting the community was toxic while assuring me I “wasn’t missing anything.” He was a man of mystery and that is what initially drew me to him.
But there was one thing about him that I knew for certain.
I deduced that his absolute refusal to bottom—paired with always paying, driving, and doing handy-work around my house (despite expressing that I’d like to do these things, too)—was a complex of sorts. For him, being a total top contributed deeply to his character. Like the muscles, the gruff voice, the body hair, and all the other trimmings of a traditionally masculine persona, being a total top made him feel “manly.”
Of course, I know there are other practical and preferential reasons as to why some queer men top that don’t have to do with performative masculinity. But I want to know if masculinity’s influence is so strong that it prevents total tops from opening their minds (and bodies) to different sexual experiences.
The short answer is yes. According to Kyle Shupe, a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Cincinnati, who researches queer men’s sexual practices, identities, and communities, total tops are characterized more by their sense of masculinity than their actual sexual position.
“Oftentimes, topping is used by these men to assert their masculinity in relation to another—in their minds—more effeminate gay men and anyone who bottoms,” he tells me, explaining men who claim they’re total tops are really saying: “I’m gay, and also masculine,” or the ever-popular, “I’m not like those other gays.”
Say what you will, but this perception is not always misplaced. Some research confirms tops are considered “more masculine” and, as such, not bottoming helps them maintain masculinity in their gay identity. “The association of topping with masculinity and bottoming with femininity is ingrained in much of gay men’s culture,” Shupe says, for which he cites two reasons.
First, because we draw on heteronormative sexual scripts when framing gay sex; we’re taught that straight sex is characterized by a dominant, masculine male who penetrates a submissive, feminine female. “Gay men use a similar framework with tops and bottoms, where the bottom is assuming the woman’s role as the receptive partner,” Shupe explains.
Shupe’s second estimation is that, because research has shown that masculine men are socially, politically, economically, and culturally advantaged in North America (the gender pay gap, representation in Congress, and depictions in film are a few examples), they receive greater social benefits compared to men who display traits associated with femininity.
Connell argues that, in patriarchal societies, gay men are seen as lacking masculinity compared to straight men, so—like women and nonbinary folks—gay men have fewer opportunities and advantages in life.
“However, this isn’t totalizing as gay men can perform masculinity to access some of these benefits, which is what total tops are tapping into,” Shupe says. Research shows gay men, in particular, perform masculinity for a number of reasons, including appearing more attractive to other men and maintaining family relationships.
“In the U.S., gay men are culturally stereotyped as effeminate, so we’re socially devalued compared to straight men,” Shupe explains. “Therefore, gay men who desire these social benefits may position themselves as more masculine than other gay men.”
To my surprise, in speaking with many self-professed total tops, none seemed too concerned with being perceived as masculine. However, Andrew, 25, doesn’t deny its influence either. “I think that the projection of masculinity is so deeply rooted in us—even throughout our youth—that we don’t know how deeply ingrained it is in us.”
Andrew has bottomed in the past, but only with those he was in a committed relationship with (a common exception among total tops). “For me, it takes a lot of time and patience to be able to bottom—and I’m not a patient person.”
Dylan, 27, hasn’t bottomed in over five years because being submissive doesn’t come natural to him. While he doesn’t generally regard bottoms as feminine, he says something in our conversation that suggests otherwise: “Most tops tend to be fairly masculine-acting.” He went on to explain how bottoms tend to encompass a more diverse sample of gay men, whereas most strict tops are “fairly typical,” which he failed to explain further.
For some, the masculine connotation has its disadvantages. “I think bottoms regard tops the same way straight men regard women: We’re a conquest, a sexual prize, but not really anything else—just dick,” Meecham, 32, says. As a black man and total top, he witnesses this fetishization tenfold. “It’s exciting at first, but when it happens a thousand times, it’s not a great feeling at all. I have feelings, too.” Meecham doesn’t think being a total top is influenced by masculinity, but notes that he prefers taller bottoms. “Maybe there is an underlying element of masculinity there,” he confesses.
“I think that, as a broad statement, tops are the de facto ‘group in power,’ to use power dynamic terminology,” Ryan, a 32-year-old total top, says. “A top would generally be described as more masculine and empowered—all of which I disagree with.” To Meecham’s point, Ryan says he’s received ridicule in the past, with bottoms saying insensitive things like, “Really? You’re a top? You can’t be. How would the bottom feel anything?”
While most tops I spoke to were insistent that their positional preference is not tied to masculinity, nearly all of their testimonies contained slips that hinted otherwise. “In general, I don’t think we’ve loosened the association between topping and masculinity,” Shupe says. “That said, this connection isn’t universal among gay men, nor has it ever been. It’s just common.”
Since we’ve come such a long way in queer acceptance, I was curious if this prevalence of performative masculinity among gay men is more of a generational issue.
Shupe is skeptical. “I’m not sure if there’s a difference in how older or younger gay men understand topping and bottoming as gendered,” he says. “In my own work, I see plenty of older men willing to top and younger men unwilling to bottom. So, I’m not sure if age is a factor here.” Rather, he thinks our struggle to perform or establish masculinity has always plagued our community; it just manifests in different ways.
“In the 1970s, clones [“a muscle-bound, sexually free, hard-living Marlboro man”] asserted their masculinity against nelly queens; today, bears assert their masculinity against twinks,” Shupe says. “Total tops asserting their masculinity against gay men who bottom are just another incarnation of gay men claiming masculinity by contrasting themselves against other, more feminine, gay men.”
Still, I remain hopeful. With a notable increase in LGBTQ representation of all sorts in media, and bottoms, fems, etc., proudly gathering in social spaces (I see you, Gay Twitter!), there seems to be a celebration of people who may deviate from what’s been culturally considered attractive in the queer community.
This is not only being reflected in our own community, but among straight folks, as well. The concept of what’s masculine was a popular topic in mainstream media last year. Notably, GQ—a cultural Bible for straight men—published its “New Masculinity” issue, featuring Pharrell Williams, where the award-winning musician and producer described masculinity as a “spiritual war” with oneself—as expected, the implication was met with criticism from more conservative outlets.
While the masculine gay male holds certain reign in the zeitgeist, we’re chipping away at the facade, encouraging men to embrace what’s natural, not expected. In this regard, I say to tops: If you top because it’s the position you enjoy, do you—keep pounding ass. But if you limit yourself due to societal perception, do yourself a favor and give bottoming a chance—because it takes a real man to take a dick.