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‘It Takes a Man to Put Me on the Bottom’

A new study challenges our perceptions of masculinity and gay sex

As a questioning gay teen clinging to his perceived alpha-masculinity, I resolved to never get fucked in the ass. After all, I had an image to uphold: I was the rush chair at my fraternity; a Division I college athlete (granted, I played squash, but still); and could down a pitcher of beer in under 10 seconds. I figured that if I were the one doing the penetrating — like my straight friends bragged about doing with those Kappa chicks! — I could preserve what remained of my fleeting manhood.

That all changed when my third boyfriend — who lived at the gym and had pecs like cantaloupes — made it abundantly clear that he was going to be doing the fucking, thank you very much. Thus began my “versatile” career in the sack, meaning I vacillate between topping and bottoming based on the predilection of my mate.

Or put another way, “It Takes a Man to Put Me on the Bottom,” which also happens to be the title of a recently published paper from Dr. James Ravenhill and Dr. Richard de Visser, researchers in sexuality and masculinity at the University of Sussex.

“It’s argued by some that over the past two decades, traditional heteronormative masculinity has softened,” Ravenhill tells me. “This would suggest that gay men need no longer be concerned with enacting a particular masculine identity that’s intended to avoid hostility and subordination.

“Gay masculinities could then be a site of social change, because as much as gay men may be influenced by social expectations of what it takes to be a real man, they’re also active in deconstructing these expectations and producing novel configurations of masculinity that aren’t concerned with dominating and marginalizing others.”

Particularly, Ravenhill was interested in the extent to which masculine capital is lost and accrued through anal intercourse these days. That is, if gay men are concerned with being perceived as masculine (as I was), would self-labelling as a top (or actually being a top) increase their perception as a man? And more largely, are commonly held beliefs — i.e., tops are alpha males; bottoms are femme queens — weakening in the era of sex positivity?

So he interviewed 21 self-identified gay men in the U.K. about their position preference and which they adopted most frequently. I asked Ravenhill to share with me what these men told him and offer his explanation as to which role made them feel like a real man — and why.

Pete, 30 (preference: vers; typically: top): There seems to be this societal thing of taking it up the bum is somehow less manly. [But it] doesn’t get more manly than getting fucked by a man!

Explains Ravenhill: Bottoming shows that a man can “take” another man’s penis, and can withstand penetration, something that other gay men may not be able to do. Therefore, bottoming might be considered masculine in the hegemonic sense — bottoms can be positioned as more resilient, more impervious to pain, more apt to take risks. Some people argue that the anus is active in penetrative sex, because it “consumes” the penis, and has power over the penis’ pleasure, which could be another reason why Pete saw bottoming as the epitome of masculinity.

Ben, 24 (preference: vers; typically: bottom): Most of the time I’ll be, like, “Yeah, I want to bottom.” I just love the feeling that someone is in control.

Explains Ravenhill: Powerlessness turned Ben on. He liked the feeling of relinquishing control over his body and handing it to someone else. Other research has shown that some gay men enjoy being passive as bottoms because in other aspects of their lives (e.g., at work), they have a lot of power and control over others. Temporarily giving up that power may offer some gay men an escape from a masculine “performance” in their daily lives. Interestingly, Ben also was turned on by the knowledge that he had the power over the top’s pleasure.

Craig, 33 (preference: bottom; typically: bottom): I’d probably use “active bottom” [to describe myself] ’cause I’m quite keen on portraying myself as not just being a lying-on-your-back kind of bottom.

Explains Ravenhill: In Craig’s eyes, a regular bottom couldn’t be masculine because he was passive to penetration by a penis, but an active bottom could, because an active bottom could have the power over their partner. (Craig “bottomed-on-top,” meaning he could control the pace of the intercourse and had greater control over his partner’s ability to thrust.) Overall, Craig was masculine, and describing himself as an “active bottom” was a strategy he used to maintain his masculine identity while doing something that he understood (and he thought others understood) to be a non-masculine activity.

Ben, 24 (preference: vers; typically: bottom): Knowing [that I’m] a hairless twink who’s not butch [but who can] make a bear feel the way he feels when being bottomed just makes me want to do it even more. I just love the feeling of a twink overpowering a bear instead of the other way round. I think it’s a fetish personally.

Explains Ravenhill: Ben described enjoying his experiences of topping a bear because it challenged what he believed was normative, accepted sexual behavior between men. For a twink to top a bear was experienced as a fetish like other less normative sexual practices (for example, BDSM, fisting, etc.). This may suggest that some gay men have internalized expectations relating to relative masculinity (i.e., differences in masculinity between sexual partners) and sexual positioning, but are very happy to confront and overturn these expectations.

Andy, 23 (preference: vers; typically: vers): I definitely feel the stronger I can be and the most dominant I can be, the most manly I’d feel [when topping]. ’Cause I guess it would be the closest thing to having sex with a woman.

Explains Ravenhill: The association between topping and heteronormative masculinity may be tied up with how people understand the concept of penetration. We’re taught from an early age that, in a sexual context, penetration refers to a penis entering a vagina. For Andy, it was irresistible to conflate penetrating another man with his penis with the heterosexual act of a penis penetrating a vagina — hence why he felt so masculine when he was engaged in topping. And to him, being masculine meant being straight.

Rob, 35 (preference: vers, typically: vers): They can be the biggest, most muscular manly guy, but if they’re not man enough to put me on the bottom then I don’t care what position they are, they’re going on the bottom. It takes a man to put me on the bottom.

Explains Ravenhill: Rob was an alpha male, a rugby lad with a strong sense of masculine identity and a strong desire for other people (in particular gay men) to perceive him as masculine. In most sexual encounters, it was Rob who took control and allocated the sexual positions. On these occasions, he would put his partner on the bottom, the partner’s insufficient “manliness” evidenced by the very fact that Rob was able to take control. The only circumstances under which Rob would bottom would be if his partner was sufficiently dominant to seize Rob’s alpha-male status, and take control of the encounter.