Can you really be a bottom if you don’t enjoy receptive anal intercourse?
When I initially requested to speak with bottoms on this topic, I wasn’t expecting many bites (this kind of information is sensitive!). But I couldn’t have been more wrong. A few hours after posting my request, messages poured in.
“I find anal sex more painful than enjoyable,” Chris, 23, says. “I know it’s only supposed to hurt for a bit, but even when it starts to feel good it’s still not satisfying. I find myself thinking: Okay, hurry up and finish so this can end.”
Though he doesn’t enjoy receiving anal sex, Chris still identifies as a bottom because he’s submissive, prefers giving oral sex rather than receiving, likes feeling protected, and his sexual fantasies often—if not always—depict him as the receptive partner. “It’s that stereotypical big burly guy doing what he wants to me and taking control,” he explains.
Chris blames this fantasy on the porn industry, which, in his opinion, romanticizes the ease of receptive anal intercourse. “The bottoms always look like they’re having the time of their lives and everything just slips in with no struggle at all,” he says. “The fantasy appeals to me more than the reality.”
Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, New York University professor of human sexuality, empathizes with men like Chris, and believes bottoms exist far beyond the dichotomy of anal sex. “A bottom’s identity can certainly be more about a state of mind—of receptivity and/or submission—than a specific physical act," she says.
Besides the pain, douching is another popular reason bottoms don’t enjoy receptive anal intercourse. Apart from it being inconvenient and clinical, douching can rob bottoms of sexual spontaneity. “It’s annoying because I have to plan for sex and my sexual appetite doesn’t work that way,” Gerry, 25, says. “And if I skipped douching, I would feel insecure about my encounter.”
“I’m dealing with it right now,” he divulges. “My partner and I, who are both versatile but prefer bottoming, have good sex and I don't have anything negative to say about our relationship. But I get super frustrated because there’s a part of me that would love to get railed. My mind wants it, but my body doesn’t allow me.”
Chris echoes this frustration, sharing that this same pain and discomfort was an issue in his previous long-term relationship. No matter what they tried in the bedroom—more lube, more foreplay, less force—pain would always prevail. “Most of the time I’d have to tell him to stop when we were having sex,” he says. “It’s not that he was huge or didn’t know what he was doing, it just rarely felt good, and this eventually caused tension in and out of the bedroom.”
According to sex and relationship therapist Joe Kort, who regularly works with gay men, Gerry and Chris’ issues are not uncommon. “Many identify as bottoms because they like to be more submissive and passive, so they seek an alpha-top type of guy,” he says. “There is no shame in identifying as a bottom who doesn’t engage in nor enjoy anal sex.”
Kort says men also identify as bottoms because they like to feel protected and taken care of. “This isn’t to be confused with being feminine,” he clarifies. “It is just a relationship and sexual style of the person and not gender-based.”
Kort adds that, in some cases, not enjoying bottoming is not even physical, and can be the result of internalized homophobia, or even the fear of HIV (bottoms are more susceptible to the virus when engaging in penetrative anal sex). Others won’t do it for religious reasons because they feel that every other sexual act is less punishable in their religion than anal sex.
When speaking with these clients, Kort encourages them to be open about their response to receptive anal intercourse, as it can cause a very valid problem in a relationship if a top wants to engage in penetrative anal sex.
Kort shares that many bottoms enjoy anal sex in the beginning of their relationship, but when the honeymoon period comes to an end, their enthusiasm for receptive anal intercourse does as well. According to Kort, this is because people are more willing to venture out of their comfort zone in order to appease their partner during the honeymoon phase. For instance, trying new foods, meeting new friends, watching a new show, or taking a big dick.
“I have had countless clients tell me that they were more versatile and open-minded during their six-month honeymoon period,” he says. “But once the honeymoon is over, people often return to their regular interests, which, in this case, can be problematic in a relationship because the top might feel tricked. If this happens, the couple often decides to part ways or open their relationship.”
Before it gets to that, Kort says many clients will practice with toys and stretch their holes in an attempt to enjoy receptive anal sex. For some, that enjoyment never comes.
Gerry has tried stretching his hole to accommodate his partner’s large penis, but says anything bigger than two fingers hurts too much, no matter how many times he tries. He says the enjoyment he experiences with smaller toys is completely different from when he’s having sex with his partner.
Alex, 25, has deduced that he will never enjoy receptive anal sex, so he uses CBD to ease the pain. “Through my desire to please, I've learned to sacrifice my own pain to appease my partner,” he says. “I've learned to live with it, and I've learned to please my guy even though I hate it.”
For some of these men, their distaste stems from traumatic past sexual experiences. Gerry dated a man for a month and a half before they were ready to get intimate. When it finally happened, his ex ate his ass for “a pathetic 20 seconds,” laid back, then told him to sit on his dick.
Gerry, an admitted late bloomer who was still discovering his sexuality, experienced intense pain and asked if he could stop. Instead of empathizing, his ex got mad and went to bed. “I completely shut down,” he said. “This whole thing might be the result of bad partners who were just clueless.”
Painful bottoming weighs on Gerry, but he’s reluctant to tell his current boyfriend. To offer comfort, I tell him he’s not alone and that only 35 to 40% of gay male sexual encounters include anal intercourse, according to research.
Many of the people I spoke to felt that answering these kinds of questions was a therapeutic exercise of sorts.
“I’ve just finished talking with my boyfriend, and we’re going to try different things,” Gerry messaged me after our interview. “I’m far from unhappy in my relationship, but I had a lot of questions and doubts that I wanted to talk about with him without even realizing it. Your questions helped me recognize that my feelings are valid.”