When a gay man identifies as a "top," we assume he enjoys penetrative sex. But like most generalizations, this is not always the case. Some tops don’t like anal sex at all.
A month ago, I wrote an article for NewNowNext about bottoms who don’t enjoy receptive anal intercourse. As someone who, admittedly, did not love anal sex for a considerable time, I could empathize with these men, who cited pain, preparation, and shame for their preference. Despite not enjoying the act of bottoming, these men still identify as bottoms because they favor submissive roles, alpha men, and being cared for, and when aroused, they fantasize about being the receptive partner.
When the article went live, I received a number messages from tops who related to the topic because they don’t enjoy penetrative sex, either. However, they feel that people rarely speak to a top’s point-of-view since penetrative pain isn’t a factor, and tops have everyday privileges that bottoms don’t (the luxury of eating more than ice chips and chicken broth before punching a ticket to pound-town, for example).
In a tweet responding to my article, Jesus, 30, wrote: “I relate to these stories, only I consider myself a top that doesn't care for penetration. It took me a while to be okay with saying no to anal because it seems like everyone wants it, and it's the end goal for pleasure. But not for me. I'd rather do literally anything else.”
Curious to better understand the other side of this sexual stress, I reached out to Jesus. “When I would hook up in my 20s, I'd always feel like I wanted to explore the other guy's body more with my hands and my mouth; all they wanted was for me to stick it in and fuck them,” Jesus tells NewNowNext. So, he’d do as he was told, zip up, and walk away from the encounter dissatisfied.
This apathy for anal sex has proven an issue in all of Jesus’s past relationships except for one, where he and his ex partner never once had penetrative sex.
“It was probably the most fulfilled I’ve ever felt in a relationship,” he says. “He never asked for it because we were both comfortable with everything else, and it satisfied our need for physical affection.”
Since that relationship ended, Jesus has sought something similar, but he says it’s been difficult. He often feels used during penetrative sex, as if his identity is removed from the act. “I like pleasing the other guy a lot, and part of that comes from conversation and a willingness to be vulnerable,” he says. “I want to talk and get to know somebody beforehand. It doesn't sound sexy, but it's an important part of foreplay for me, and jumping in with an expectation of a quick hookup is just not appealing anymore.”
This aversion to penetrative sex combined with in-app scrutiny has caused Jesus to question his positional preference. “If I were to be with a man and we had some intense chemistry and he wanted to have anal sex, I would play the role of the top,” he explains. “But because I actively search for someone who wants to have non-penetrative sexual intercourse with me, I consider myself neither a top nor a bottom.”
Frank, 41, feels similar to Jesus, identifying as a “side,” which is a positional preference coined by therapist and leading expert on queer sex and relationships, Joe Kort. He created the term back in 2013 as an alternative to indicate one’s disinterest in the traditional acts of topping and bottoming. Generally speaking, sides enjoy every sexual practice aside from anal penetration.
“While the intimacy of the act is appealing to me, the sensation isn't particularly worth it no matter the partner or the position,” Frank tells NewNowNext. “Finishing generally takes forever if I can even get there, and the entire time I'm thinking of anything else I’d rather be doing. Ultimately, I just have a hard time letting go and enjoying myself which doesn't really make penetration worthwhile.”
Frank is in an open relationship with his husband and boyfriend, so identifying as a side has never been an issue. As a dom and avid kinkster, he has a bevy of acts he prefers to anal sex. “Beyond that, I don't think I would enjoy sex with someone who only understands sex as strictly penetrative,” he says. “There is so much more I like and want to do than that.”
Jared, 29, says he is a “nominal top,” meaning “in name only.” He tells NewNowNext he identifies as such because he does not perform the “primary duty” of a top in his relationship, referring to penetrative sex.
Still, he identifies as a top, and his partner of five years identifies as a bottom. “I am the more dominant one, and I take on more of a provider role as opposed to a nurturer role,” Jared explains, acknowledging that associating terms like ‘dominant’ and ‘nurturer’ to these roles is a fraught exercise. “I don't know… I guess I feel like I give off top energy.”
Speaking to NewNowNext, Kort argues that “top” can be more of an identity than an act, though he notes that some gay men protest this conception as they believe it waters down the definition. “This judgment doesn’t recognize nor understand that gay men are seen only as a sexual act,” he says, explaining how tops generally identify as “more dominant, aggressive, in control, and like taking on the role of caretaker.”
While it is no issue in his current relationship, Jared admits his sexual interests were a problem as a single gay on Grindr. Like Jesus, he felt that most men viewed penetrative sex as the “ultimate goal,” and he couldn’t relate. Because of his sexual aversion, he’s only hooked up twice in his life.
“I definitely felt like I was alone,” he recalls. “In hindsight, I wonder if part of me was reluctant to get out there more because I knew I would be expected to engage in penetrative sex if I [wanted] to meet someone's expectations of what a hookup should entail.”
Kort says the pressure to perform is a common reason some tops avoid penetrative sex. For many, it can be difficult to maintain an erection. Some need the angle to be “just right,” which can be especially challenging with a new or one-time sexual partner.
Kort also says he’s had particularly well-hung clients who are hesitant because they don’t want to hurt the bottom—or, similarly, that the bottom is too tight, and they lose their erection while trying to comfort the bottom. Other times, it has to do with factors like one’s age or medication.
Jared’s aversion to anal sex is more internal. He traces it back to age 13, when he was taught that the act is “dirty,” referring to both the shame and, well, the poop. “I've only attempted having penetrative sex twice, both times as a top," he shares, "and both times it ended very quickly because I couldn't stay aroused.”
His sexual preferences even play a role in the porn he watches: “I know a lot of people skip through the foreplay scenes in a video to get to the ‘action,’ but for me, the foreplay is the action."
More than anything, Jesus wants our community to dispel the notion that if a man is gay, he has to enjoy or participate in anal sex or label himself as a top, bottom, or vers.
“I quote-tweeted your article and had guys reach out to me saying that they feel the same as I do,” he recalls. “One said that his husband relates, and another said that he felt like an outlier for not liking what he was supposed to like. I hope this helps create a dialogue. … Visibility is key.”
Like Jesus, Kort also believes we place too much emphasis on what we do in the bedroom. “Gay men are always talking about topping and bottoming, and those who don’t participate in these acts, like sides and asexuals, feel invisible,” he says. “We need to value our bedroom categories but lessen the power of what it means. We are so much more.”