Why I Prefer Side-by-Side to 'Top' or 'Bottom'

WARNING: This post contains sexually explicit language. Please read on at your own discretion.


It's not every day that a friend emails me a link to a video of two naked men getting physical, but there it was, daring me to look. What I saw when I clicked "play" wasn't a reenactment of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed's nude wrestling scene in the 1969 film Women in Love but a bit of, er, performance art. In the montage of clips that followed, a couple alternated between kissing tenderly and passionately and having fast and furious intercourse.

As I sat there, transfixed by the action onscreen and wondering why my friend would share such a thing with someone who generally doesn't like to watch, I had an "aha!" moment. During the kissing sequences the focus of each man was clearly on his partner, and there was an overall emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between giving and receiving erotic pleasure. In the intercourse sequences it was all "me, me, me." If the guys hadn't been attached to each other, I might have sworn they were both alone. It was almost like watching masturbation for two.

The way I interpreted it, the montage was meant to represent the two sides of intimate relations: "making love" and "having sex." One emphasizes emotional connection, while the other, particularly in the absence of any emotional connection, revolves around pure physical sensation. Although the theme of the video was stating the obvious -- "making love" is about emotion, whereas "having sex" is all action -- the way it depicted both, one after the other, in continuous, alternating succession, brought to my mind some of my hangups about sex, and why I generally prefer the anticipation and the aftermath (foreplay and afterglow) to what comes between them.

Sure, in making its point, the video may have inadvertently oversimplified the stages of sex -- where there is love, intercourse, specifically anal sex, can be as much an expression of it as what comes before and after -- but it nailed an uncomfortable truth about my personal experience. For me there's little love and affection and tenderness in the screams of passion, the grunting and moaning, the glazed-over eyes, and the porn-ready script during anal intercourse.

Regardless of how I've felt about the other person and how he's felt about me, it has rarely seemed to go beyond the physical, leading me to subconsciously identify it with action, not with emotion. I'm no expert on gay porn, having watched very little of it in my lifetime. But I don't believe I've ever seen two gay-porn characters kissing while one is inside the other, which, for me, underscores the apparent emotional detachment in those moments of ultimate physical attachment.

One thing (physical attachment) doesn't necessarily lead to another (emotional connection), despite the insightfulness of a quotation my sister once shared with me: "Men need to make love to feel love. Women need to feel love to make love." What that quotation doesn't mention is that so many men -- not all of them, so hold those angry comments -- need to have intercourse to feel like they're making love. In their eyes, by the time I hit my mid-30s, I probably would have been practically like a virgin. I'd lived in New York City for 15 years and traveled all over Europe, and, somehow, I had escaped that dreaded "top or bottom?" question. I had no idea what I wasn't missing.

Most of the guys I met (including all but one of the men I dated seriously or semi-seriously) didn't seem to be any more interested in it than I was. For me it was too painful as a "bottom" (my reaction to an enema I had at age 8 might have been an excruciating bit of foreshadowing) and too boring as a "top." I certainly wasn't going to initiate it, and the majority of the men I went out with didn't either. Maybe the fear of HIV and AIDS and the still-somewhat-primitive treatments discouraged them from pursuing it with the wild abandon of some of the men still to come.

It wasn't until I moved to Buenos Aires in the mid-'00s that I would fully realize how crucial intercourse and roles are to the sex lives of gay men (though, naturally, to a lesser degree than they are to heterosesxuals). So many of the horny guys I met in Argentina, especially the 20-something ones who came of age during the era of HIV drug therapies, when being HIV-positive was no longer seen as a death sentence, were nothing if not forthcoming and sometimes reckless in bed.

The gay world in Buenos Aires seemed to be divided into two types: "activos" and "pasivos" ("tops" and "bottoms"), especially for the latter. The "bottoms" appeared to be the overwhelming majority, one that was interested mostly in what I could give them. The blacker, the bigger, according to that old urban myth, which many of them embraced with lustful gusto. The bigger, the better!

The pressure was on, but who wants to associate pleasure with pressure? Once I was aware of the expectations, they became almost impossible to avoid in any city, country or continent, even occasionally popping up during platonic conversations.

Like the one I recently had with a friend who implied that my indifference to intercourse might somehow be tied to my character, prompting an impassioned negative response from me. Gay sex and anal sex are not synonymous, I insisted. A man is not gay because he likes anal sex. There are straight men who enjoy it (and some who like being on the receiving end too), but those who don't are never seen as being different or defective, so why should a gay man? The last thing I needed in my head was the idea that my feelings about it made me eligible for armchair psychoanalysis.

After some discussion my friend and I eventually found a lot of common ground, particularly in the idea that in the "top"/"bottom" scheme, the "top" generally has to do most of the heavy lifting, while the "bottom," after the initial discomfort, gets to lie back, so to speak, and enjoy the ride. (We both, by the way, reject the notion that to "bottom" -- in the verbal sense of the term -- is to be feminine. Such thinking begets the offensive "top"-equals-husband-and-"bottom"-equals-wife analogy, which recently made me cringe when I saw it expressed by a straight character in a scene from the 2005 film Monster-in-Law.) Then my friend made a pretty brilliant "top"-vs.-"bottom" observation:

[Topping] is about catering to the bottom in a way that will get him off while engendering a physical trust by respecting his limits and preferences -- so much to think about while you're trying to do something primal! It's as though some bottoms can get addicted to having pleasure handed to them on a plate.

Can't I cater to my partner's pleasure without so much (often) unreciprocated effort, or without having to be so focused on mechanics and technique? In my experience as a "top" by default because I literally can't bear the alternative, the answer has usually been no, though a kiss, a smile, an "I love you" and/or a forefinger on my nipple would be a far greater motivator than "Yes!" or "Harder! Faster! Deeper!"

Too much information? Well, how about this?

Once I was talking to another friend, and he was telling me about all the hot guys he'd missed out on because a good "top" is so hard to find. I offered a scenario in which he met the perfect man who happened to be a "bottom" like him. Would that be a deal breaker? My friend looked at me like I had three heads -- or as if I'd just announced that I'm straight. Of course it would be!

"Well, what else is there to do, then?" he asked me by way of responding.

And in just eight words he nailed one of my biggest problems with "Top or bottom?" and the obsession with sex roles and, therefore, with intercourse: those self-imposed limitations, both physical and mental. If he's rushing through foreplay, overeager to get to what he considers to be the main event, does it become all about the instant of his gratification? If he thinks that's all there is to sex, he's missing out on so much, for there is so much more -- at least there should be!

That's when I realized that my preferring not to go there might be less about a distaste for the actual act (or pain, or boredom) than it is about the way in which too many guys approach it, not just as the endgame but as the only way to truly score. I'm not saying that this is the prevalent perspective among gay men, or that one person's experiences (mine) fit all. But the only experiences I bring into my bedroom are my own.

In that bedroom great sex, like a great Hollywood-movie romance, begins and ends with a kiss. Unlike on the big screen, though, what happens in the middle should be about so much more than the roles we're playing.