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Top vs. Bottom: What Are These Anyway?

Like we've said before, straight couples can learn from gay couples. From foreplay to navigating communication--we could all learn from different relationship styles. In the context of gay relationships, the 'top' and 'bottom' refer to the orientation of sexual activity within the couple. But 'topping' and 'bottoming' goes farther than that. GetLusy staff writer Kevin Kern is here to demystify one of the most commonly asked questions in the gay community: "Top, bottom or versatile?".

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Like any minority group, the queer community has a litany of terms unassociated with the culture at large. So among all the bears, bulldykes, twinks, lipstick lesbians and whatever other seemingly mythical creatures that come to mind, the unremarkable designations “top” and “bottom”—most commonly used in describing male-on-male sex—sound relatively quaint. But because it’s human nature to complicate things, inquiring minds may want to know if the yin and yang of gay sex suggest more about a partner than whether they would rather give or get.

The answer? Inconclusive. In my case, it’s a simple matter of physical pleasure. I’m versatile when it comes to oral sex, but I’m happy to forgo anal intercourse altogether. I’ve fucked and been fucked back there, and neither really does it for me. But some, like my friend Peter, maintain that a person’s top/bottom/vers status is a strong indicator of their personality.

“You can definitely tell based on his behavior,” he says, referring to a potential sex partner’s interactions outside the bedroom. Indeed, there is something exciting about guessing someone’s preference based on their actions. I immediately envision some sort of sex detective attuned to any number of mannerisms that might reveal what position he’ll assume later that evening. But Peter rejects this notion, claiming that it is more useful to interpret a person’s personality traits as opposed to their body language: “In general, tops are more controlling, while bottoms act more passive. That’s been a rule of thumb for me for a while.”

However, he is willing to turn this rule of thumb into a guideline, conceding that someone’s identification with one or the other might be purely physical. “On a simpler level, I’d say tops just don’t want to experience that much pain. Bottoming can hurt!” Personally, Peter is open to trying both with his partners, as he admits the dynamic can change. “Basically, it just boils down to whatever feels the most comfortable.”

Peter’s willingness to explore is a positive stance that many couples would likely agree with. Calling yourself a devout bottom without having very much experience topping (or vice-versa) is akin to deciding you don’t like hamburgers when you’ve only eaten a Big Mac. Often when I’ve skirted the topic of sex with perfect gay strangers, one of the first questions asked is, “Top, bottom or vers?” And although I’ve never been offended by the question, it typically comes across as dull. Instead of having a definite answer, it might be more fun to do some further research.

Ultimately, the greater social implications of topping and bottoming are well worth exploring, but the true meaning of “top vs. bottom” will vary depending on who fucks whom. Some people view their top-bottom roles as a measure of how their relationship works outside the bedroom, whereas others might not even think to consider the subject in that light. Sometimes, it just feels better to give than to receive.

Kevin Kern is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago. Although he's a film buff, Kevin considers the movie theater a less than ideal date spot. Someday he'll move to warmer climes, as the Midwestern winters dull both his sex drive and romantic side. He typically remains an eligible bachelor. If for whatever reason you wish to know more about Kevin, know that he has very little shame and would probably be willing to share personal information with strangers. Comments, questions or concerns? E-mail
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