I’m nibbling on a grocery-store cheese plate in a spacious home in East L.A. with a handful of gay men who have sworn off anal sex for good. They call themselves “sides,” a term coined in 2013 by Joe Kort, a Detroit-based clinical therapist who’s been counseling such men for nearly 30 years. In a HuffPo article, Kort presented an alternative to the binary classification employed by most gay men to note their preferred sexual position — i.e., “top,” the penetrator in bed, or “bottom,” the penetratee — by introducing the term “sides” to indicate one’s affinity for neither — and maybe more importantly, disdain for both. He explained that sides enjoy practically every sexual practice aside from anal penetration and choose to be sexually peripheral, so to speak, rather than on the top or the bottom.
“I wanted people to understand that it’s okay if you don’t like anal intercourse,” Kort tells me, adding that when people say “sex,” they usually think of “penile penetration,” especially gay guys. After receiving dozens of calls from ashamed and upset gay clients, many who used the term “broken” to describe their sexual proclivities, Kort (who also identifies as a side) would talk them off the ledge. “Men have been conditioned to think that penetrating a vagina or an anus with their dicks is everything,” he says, which he thinks has become inextricably linked to masculinity, particularly in the U.S. “I wanted vanilla people to understand that being a side is just as masculine as someone having penetrative sex.”
But as gay apps and hookup sites don’t allow users to identify as such — Grindr, for example, only offers “top,” “bottom” and “versatile” (indicating a willingness to go both ways) — sides have struggled to connect with like-minded gay men, leading to the formation of Meetup groups like the one I recently joined in L.A.
Yes, I’m a side too.
Well, kinda. Despite identifying as a top my whole life (and even working with a bottom coach to learn how to effectively take a D earlier this year), the older I get, the less interested in anal penetration I’ve become. It’s a lot of work, frankly, and I’m a lazy guy; and so, I’m perfectly happy with the oral, digital and frottage alternatives. Or as my friend Daniel Villarreal, a freelance writer in Portland, OR, puts it: Anal sex “is a fuck ton of work.”
“If you’re the bottom, I hope you have 30 minutes to an hour free before you even get started because you have to douche and deal with the poop wherever you are. Then there’s lots of extra wiping, then a shower and then making sure your butt doesn’t…,” he trails off. “Prepare to get lube stains all over your sheets and likely some poo even if you did a good job douching. It’s like a goddamn spaceship launch.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that a 2011 study by researchers at Indiana University and George Mason University revealed that less than 40 percent of men interacting with other men for sex actually had anal intercourse in their most recent sexual event. “I’d say it’s probably in the low to mid-30s,” says Michael Reece, a professor in the School of Health at Indiana University who co-authored the study. They’re much more likely to include what most consider to be foreplay, he tells me — i.e., mutual masturbation, kissing, cuddling, massage, fingering and oral interaction — with anal intercourse “probably only happening in about a third of gay sexual events.”
While Reece’s study was conducted more than seven years ago, his team continues to undertake nationally represented studies of the U.S. population and says intercourse is down across the board in both gay and straight couples. “While vaginal intercourse remains relatively common, that trend looks very much like the anal sex behavior in gay men,” he notes, adding that straight couples’ sexual events involve penis-in-vagina penetration only slightly more than half of the time. “There’s a misconception about what sex means,” he says. “People just aren’t as focused on intercourse every time anymore, particularly in the kink community. Gay people are part of that mix.” Indeed, as Kort notes in his HuffPo article, lesbians are often told that they aren’t having “real” sex.
And yet, I can’t help but internalize some of that aforementioned shame in bypassing anal sex. After all, what self-respecting gay man doesn’t like butt-fucking? That’s why I’m pleased to connect with Jim, the organizer of the L.A.-based sides Meetup group who promises me that it doesn’t make me any less masculine because I don’t fuck. “I don’t care what society says a man is supposed to be,” he explains. “A man is supposed to be straight, too. We’re not.”
Jim attempts to further reassure me by explaining what led him to become a side. After losing his receptive anal virginity in college, which he found to be “utterly and prohibitively painful,” the 58-year-old commercial real estate developer vowed that if he were ever to attempt it again, it would only be with someone he cared for deeply, proudly noting the “moral compass” he developed growing up in the Midwest. After college, while living in San Diego, Jim met such a man, whom he says “fucked the shit” out of him. He put up with it, despite it being “really fucking painful,” which never improved. He even went to a gay doctor who explained that he was a big guy with a small pelvis whose rectum “isn’t really built for this.”
Shortly after moving to Chicago for a new job, Jim got a call from his ex informing him that he’d tested positive for HIV. “I was certain that I was infected,” he recalls, adding that he didn’t get tested because he knew he’d learn that he was HIV-positive and there weren’t yet retroviral drugs available at the time (this was the mid-1980s). As such, for years during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Jim assumed he was HIV-positive while remaining sexually active, always stopping short of anal sex. Five years later, he had a blood test that revealed him to be, in fact, negative. But as he says with a deep sigh, “I kept a list of friends and acquaintances I lost to AIDS but stopped counting at 200. And yet, I kind of viewed the AIDS crisis as a relief because now there was a good reason why I wasn’t going to fuck. That was the start of my being a side.”
The same goes for Scott, a 50-year-old performer who joins me for wine and cheese at the gathering of sides at Jim’s home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A. Like Jim, Scott says AIDS definitely had an effect on his avoiding anal sex. “It just seemed so dangerous,” he recalls. “Even if they weren’t HIV-positive, I acted like they were. I do like the romanticism of anal sex — it’s as close as you can get to another person — except I could fucking die, you know? Luckily, I give an amazing blow job.”
“My falling out of love with anal sex also has a lot to do with fear of HIV,” agrees James, a 38-year-old civil servant from Toronto, who explains that being a side allowed him to have “a lot of great sex with multiple partners” in the pre-PrEP era. (When taken daily PrEP, aka Truvada, offers 99.9 percent protection from contracting HIV.)
While concern about contracting HIV is the most common reason gay men of a certain age offer for being a side — even with the advent of PrEP (old fears are tough to overcome) — they’re hardly the only ones avoiding anal. I spoke with dozens of younger men on the r/askgaybros subreddit who provided a variety of reasons why they prefer to be sides. For Jake, a 32-year-old massage therapist in Texas, first and foremost it’s about cleanliness. “I can’t stand the smell of dirty ass or poop, and I’ve been ‘painted’ a good percentage of the times I’ve topped,” he explains, referring to his penis being covered in shit upon withdrawal. Instead of penetration, he prefers pretty much any other sex act you can imagine — e.g., oral, role play, cock worship, glory holes, licking balls, nipple play and “manly, sweaty body contact,” all of which he says is “very satisfying to me and my partners.”
Another redditor, a transportation technician in Columbus, Ohio, says it wasn’t painful to receive anal sex but rather an unpleasant feeling of “fullness and urgency,” like he had just swallowed a bottle of MiraLAX and was desperate to find a toilet. “It was a woefully uncomfortable experience,” he tells me, and one he neither enjoyed nor plans to experience again.
Back at the sides wine-and-cheese happy hour, I poll the room on the last time everyone had anal sex. Scott can’t remember (that’s how long ago it was), while Jim estimates at least five years since it “holds no intrigue.” “A decade,” adds Jack, a 50-year-old from Pennsylvania who says he even skips through anal sex while masturbating to porn. Jack’s especially frustrated by the lack of options for sides on hookup apps, believing Grindr addresses gender identification more carefully than it does gay sexual identity. “So it’s up to us to explain ourselves, and they can take it or leave it. They usually leave it.”
Which seamlessly transitions into a discussion about the discrimination these men say they feel within the gay community for being sides after spending the first part of their lives being discriminated against by the straight community for being gay. “We can forget about Grindr because as soon as we mention we’re not into anal it’s an automatic rejection,” says Roy, a 28-year-old African-American journalist who adds that it’s hard enough being black in the gay community and even worse to be black and picky about sexual preferences. “Black men are always seen as masculine, well-endowed power tops. But if you’re a black gay guy who’s a little flamboyant and identifies neither as a top nor a bottom, like me, it makes for a lonely life.”
Scott can relate as he feels he’s missed out on a certain kind of intimacy — “real intimacy,” as he calls it — and sometimes feels incomplete sexually, which has resulted in a fair amount of lingering guilt. “That’s why I’m hoping a [Meetup] group like this will spark a conversation that sheds some light on this issue,” Jack says, noting he’d never heard his preferences described so perfectly and has done a lot of introspection to figure out where his identity came from.
“Maybe I’m just a bad gay,” he says defeatedly.
“I can’t imagine it’s any of that stuff,” Jim replies warmly, encouraging Jack to stop viewing himself as broken. “This is just who you are.”