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“Are you a top or a bottom?”
It’s a question I’m asked on a near-daily basis – by potential partners on dating apps, drunken strangers in nightclubs, and even random passers-by on the street. Sometimes, it’s understandable: clear communication is the key to good sex after all, so I’m always happy to answer if the person asking actually wants to get in my pants.
But this is rarely the case. Gay sex has been mystified for decades, largely because a combination of criminalisation and prejudice forced it to happen in private. Thankfully, we’ve moved on from that time, yet even in today’s age of increased visibility, the endless popularity of the “top or bottom?” binary says a lot – not just about how gay sex is understood culturally, but also about LGBTQ+ people are treated.
For me, the answer is tricky. I’m neither. I first had oral sex in a car park at 16 years old, and within a few months I had racked up a string of similarly underwhelming and fleeting sexual encounters, usually with total strangers. At 19, I finally met someone I thought I could trust. We dated for three months, during which time he consistently pushed me to have anal sex. I always said no, but reasoned that I had a ‘three-month rule’; that I wanted to ensure the first person I agreed to it with was worth sticking around for.
“I had grown up being told that the only ‘legitimate’ way to have sex was penetrative, so my lack of experience made me feel ashamed.”
The truth was that I was terrified. I had toyed with the idea of anal play before, but the few experiences I did have under my belt were painful and uncomfortable. I know now that this was partly due to a lack of sex education and a reluctance to speak openly about sex (which has clearly disappeared over the years!) but I didn’t feel comfortable telling him any of this. I had grown up being told that the only ‘legitimate’ way to have sex was penetrative, so my lack of experience made me feel ashamed.
After two-and-a-half months, my then-boyfriend picked a huge fight during foreplay. I caved and, furious, told him to “just get it over with”. He did, with no lube and little warning. I begged him to stop, in tears from the pain. He refused, and he finished. A few days later, so did our relationship.
I spent years repressing this experience and forgoing anal completely, relying on casual hook-ups with guys who wouldn’t ask questions or make demands. When I entered a long-term relationship, I tried to bottle my fears, yet still found myself unable to have anal. Even when I occasionally topped – because my partner desperately wanted penetration and I desperately wanted to please him – I would be consumed with memories of the pain I had felt years earlier. To say it wasn’t enjoyable would be an understatement.
Last year, the trauma fully resurfaced. Another long-term partner wanted sex but pushed a little too hard; I burst into tears and opened up for the first time about what had happened. He was kind, apologetic and understanding, but months later the relationship ended – and again, a lack of anal sex was one of the reasons.
My experiences are obviously unique, especially now I identify as non-binary and present as pretty femme. Femme-shaming in the LGBTQ+ community is notorious, and it’s a problem that persists.
But my femininity means that guys make assumptions: that I’m a submissive ‘bottom’, basically. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that (honestly, who doesn’t like to be consensually dominated from time to time?) but it does become a problem when those assumptions mean a guy thinks he can open a conversation by saying he wants to ‘destroy’ me. Not because I’m a prude – far from it – but because the mental image of a guy ‘tearing me apart’ brings up painful memories that I’d rather forget.
“Not only does the question reduce LGBTQ+ people like me to nothing other than our sex lives, it props up a boring, binary framework.”
I haven’t dated since that last break-up, and have no intentions of doing so before therapy. But my social media timelines are always flooded with gay culture jokes and memes, which often make admittedly hilarious jokes about ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’. Although light-hearted and well-meaning, this endless stream of viral content usually filters onto the radar of straight people, who see these memes and use them as justification for asking weird, intrusive questions to gay strangers.
Not only does the question reduce LGBTQ+ people like me to nothing other than our sex lives, it props up a boring, binary framework, and reminds queer people that we’re only palatable when we can be read through an either/or lens. It’s not just gay men, either – anecdotally, I have friends across the LGBTQ+ spectrum who get asked dumb questions like ’which of you is the man in the relationship?’, and ’so…how does it, you know, work between you?’
Let’s be clear: prioritising penetration does straight people no favours, either. It’s a well-known fact that plenty of straight guys can’t (or won’t) bring their female partner to orgasm, and that’s partly because they prefer to pound them into oblivion rather than focusing on their needs. In a society still reluctant to speak about the specificities of good sex, de-centring the ’top or bottom’ binary should be on all of our agendas – it’s basically public service!
That’s not to say the ‘top/bottom’ memes shouldn’t exist – far from it! Ironically, memes and humour more generally helped me to cope with talking about sexual assault. But we need to understand that gay sex is about so much more than just anal, and that throwaway ‘top or bottom’ talk does add to the existing pressure to have penetrative sex, which can be damaging and triggering for sexual assault survivors like me.
I dream of a world where I can get laid without having to explain why I won’t have anal, or where actual honesty doesn’t hinder my chances of having casual sex. That world doesn’t yet exist – because trust me, nothing kills a potential hook-up’s boner faster than a conversation about being raped.
Jake Hall is a freelance journalist, fashion features editor and author. Their debut book ‘The Art of Drag’ is out in May. Follow them on Twitter at @jake2103