A few weekends ago, a straight male friend and I were discussing the straight world's squeamishness about gay sex. I told him something I find myself saying a lot these days: hearing about sex that differs from the kind you have shouldn't be a traumatic experience and furthermore, such information is not a threat to your sexuality (a generation of gay guys who grew up watching depictions of sex through the hetero-male gaze of Cinemax can confirm this).
He was more or less on board. But he did express something like disdain for gay guys "who talk about gay sex like it's the best sex in the world—as though they are superlative!"
I understand why that's annoying (as expressions of superiority tend to be). I think everyone should think that he or she is having the absolute best sex possible. And yet, I am one of those people my friend was decrying. Belief in the implicit supremacy of man-on-man sex is the closest thing I have to faith.
The reason I believe this is simple: versatility.
Gay sexual roles are roughly divided into three categories, specifically pertaining to anal sex: tops (those who do the fucking or, speaking clinically, provide "insertive anal intercourse"), bottoms (those who get fucked or experience "receptive anal intercourse"), and versatiles (those who do both).
Every study I've read that asks men who sleep with men to self-label their role finds that the majority of respondents identify as versatile. This has also been true in my personal experience. It is, in my opinion, the way to be. It is the way to take advantage of the breadth of pleasure that you are offered as a man who sleeps with men.
Versatility, as the term is used here, is what sets gay sex apart from the rest of the world. We can debate differences and similarities between heteros and queers until all of us are wiped off the planet, but the objective fact is that men who sleep with me are the only kind of lovers who can both genitally penetrate and be penetrated without outside assistance like non-erogenous body parts (fingers, toes), sex toys, or a third partner. Variable mutual pleasure is our gift. That is our X-Men power.
And yet, it is so misunderstood. Every time you hear someone ask a gay man, "Who's the man? Who's the woman?" you are hearing from a person who just doesn't get it. More and more I've been feeling like even the question "Are you a top or a bottom?" is passé.
Versatility is about choice. While most of us queers would agree that same-sex attraction is an ineffable force, something that just is, versatility is a product of decision-making: what do you want for yourself, what do you want from the other guy(s), and how are you going to get it?
If you think of sexuality as a body you are born into, versatility is how you outfit it. It can change by the relationship, by the day, by the hour. It builds up and tears down notions of power associated with sexual roles, and through that arrives at an ambiguity that is honest and complicated. (I'm more submissive in the morning, and much less so at night, although if I'm voraciously bottoming and sucking cock, just how submissive am I actually being? Ask The Duke of Burgundy.)
For me, becoming versatile meant learning how to bottom. I am a simple man with a fondness for the obvious. Seeking sexual pleasure, then, has long meant seeking to get my dick wet. Anal sex was initially intimidating to me when I started having sex with men, and bottoming was even more intimidating. But curiosity kept creeping up on me, tempting me to try what makes many a guy's eyes roll back in his head uncontrollably, per a lot of porn that I've seen.
The first guy who ever fucked me I met via gay.com; I don't remember his name. He lived on the inland of South Jersey, so that's probably for the best. He was a terrible top. He knew that I was inexperienced, but told me that I just needed to relax to enjoy the experience. I felt the white heat of pain in my butt the entire time. That did not dissuade me from trying again. It did not keep me from embarking on a years-long quest of getting to the bottom of bottoming. An almost decade-long relationship in which I was almost always the top also didn't dissuade me.
In 2012, when I found myself single for the first time in almost a decade, I started to explore more. Bottoming remained a crapshoot (pun intended). It could be great; it could be massively painful; it could be uncomfortable enough to feel like a big waste of time.
In 2013, I went to a urologist because my cum was a weird consistency and I tested negative for all STDs. While he was examining my prostate, he asked me, "Has anyone ever told you that you're a real tight ass?" "Isn't that a good thing?" I joked back. No, he told me: I'd never enjoy the full extent of my sexuality if I didn't learn to relax, and furthermore that my cum issue could be related to my up-/tightness. Relaxing turned out to be an active process for me, something I had to, somewhat counter-intuitively, concentrate on. It's been worth it. (That doctor also recommended poppers to help me relax. He was a wild urologist.)
One of the greatest things about being versatile is that you are potentially sexually compatible with anyone. No holds—or holes—are barred. I've lost count of the amount of sexual encounters I had arranged to go one way (either via an app or in person) that ended up playing out another way once actually in bed. his has been particularly true on occasions when I had arranged to get fucked and ended up doing the fucking. I'd say I've topped in 75 percent of my casual encounters in the past two-and-a-half years. I was also in a relationship where I bottomed exclusively.
That's fine with me. I've never much related to the narrative that I've heard gay guys repeat too often: "Oh they're both tops/bottoms so it could never work out…" Versatility fosters flexibility—they come hand in hand.
Versatility means freedom from the traditional binary narratives that I suspect most people, regardless of sexuality, can't relate to, but cling to because of the comfort in familiarity. Most people who've cared enough to locate its origins tend to place the advent of sexual role fluidity amongst gay men around the time of gay liberation. In 2012's How To Be Gay, queer theorist David M. Halperin wrote:
…Post-Stonewall gay male life was defined by the emergence of a new masculine, non-role-specific practice of gender and sex, which gave rise to a new style and a new form of life, embodied by the gay clone or butch gay man.
Though gay acceptance is at an all-time high, gay relationships are not particularly well understood by straight people. Hence the enduring which-one-is-the-man question. Understanding the fundamental nebulousness of traditional gender roles in gay sex is key to understanding gay people and their relatively relaxed attitudes about sex.
All of the studies I read for this piece involving gay men's self-labeling reflected what I suspected: the majority of gay men are versatile. Keep in mind that these are all based on self-reporting, so they're faulty by nature, but when it comes to identity, we have no other choice than to trust its possessors. This study of Australian men ages 40 and up found 62 percent of respondents identifying as versatile. This study in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes on versatility's relationship to HIV transmission found 63 percent versatility. This Yale Law Journal study of what penetrative preferences could mean for sexuality claims under Price Waterhouse found 54 percent versatility. This independent study of gay.com profiles in 2002 found 69.3 percent versatility. Someone else who searched gay.com profiles and found almost 42 percent identified as versatile. This study attempting to find the association between penis size and role found 56 percent of its respondents identified as versatile. Wikipedia cites a 2009 Austrian study of gay porn that found 82.4 percent of performers are versatile—that is, the overwhelming majority of gay porn stars have both bottomed and topped on camera, at least once.
Despite its prevalence, sexual versatility repulses straight people, at least according to one study. The aforementioned 2013 Yale Law Journal study by Ian Ayres and Richard Luedeman found distaste across the board when it presented heterosexual test subjects with a narrative about a fictional character named Tom. Tom's nonsexual interests were outlined (and consciously balanced between "masculine" and "feminine" traits—Tom was described as a doctor from the South who liked to barbecue and kept his apartment "as clean as possible").
And then his penetrative preference was specified as top, bottom, or versatile (or not at all). The participants were then asked if they would attend a barbecue festival with Tom, and whether they would visit his house alongside friends for cocktails. The finding was an "overall pattern of feeling most comfortable with unspecified-Tom, followed by top-Tom, then bottom-Tom, then versatile-Tom" to both questions. Another question, which wondered how likely they thought Tom could pass as straight found the same progression—that unspecified Tom seemed the least gay, versatile Tom seemed the most.
In the discussion section of their paper, Ayres and Luedeman write:
That a versatile person, and not a top or bottom, was most often disfavored adds another layer to our analysis. We often think of "gender stereotyping" as an expectation that biological males will possess other male traits and biological females will possess other female traits, with little or no crossover. The basic way of violating that expectation is what we term "trait opposition"—that is, when a trait on one side of the masculine-feminine gender divide is adopted by a person thought to belong on the other side (e.g., a boy who paints his room pink).
And then, further down:
That the respondents found penetrative versatility to be particularly troubling also suggests that other intermediate groups such as bisexual and transgender people face deep attitudinal hurdles due to the nature of their gender violations.
The idea that not identifying firmly with one side bespeaks a failure to know oneself or an inability to be honest about what you know is perpetuated even by Halperin in the aforementioned How To Be Gay. Quoting the song "Versatile" on queercore band Pansy Division's 1993 debut album Undressed ("We trade off getting boned / 'Cause we're versatile"), Halperin, maybe cheekily, decides that "versatile" is code, similar to the way many insist that a bisexual-identifying man must be gay but not yet ready to admit it:
"Versatility," in other words, is not an unambiguously virile boast, not at least as it is used here. It functions as a transparent cover for the continuing practice and enjoyment of 'one-sided,' 'unliberated,' passive role-playing. Contrary to what Robert Ferro had implied with his language of batting and hitting, being versatile consists in politely waiting to take one's turn at being a bottom.
I understand the wariness that arises from assessing others' self-labels. Too often do tops end up being less rigid than they initially announce themselves as—even the ones who didn't end up bending over for me almost all admitted to having bottomed in the past ("for a boyfriend") and being open to it in the future ("for the right guy").
Because topping is associated with masculinity and that is something gay culture is obsessed with, it behooves a man to outwardly identify as a top, regardless of actual practice. It's simply good marketing. Because of the prevailing idea that topping is somehow "less gay" than bottoming, you could see how someone who's less than 100 percent comfortable with his sexuality would deny the truth to others or even deny himself the potential pleasure in getting fucked.
I understand that being a total top exists within the realm of possible human behavior, but I'm always a little skeptical when I hear a guy call himself that—much more skeptical, that is, than when a guy tells me he's a total bottom—for at least he is at peace with his faggotry. Hetero patriarchy is a motherfucker. It takes years of undoing sometimes.
To a certain extent, I understand when guys half-heartedly bottom, trying out this taboo practice that culture suggests is emasculating, only to give up while shrugging, "Not for me." It is also true that one can identify as versatile but lean so much to one side that the designation barely matters. In their paper " The Influence of Physical Body Traits and Masculinity on Anal Sex Roles in Gay and Bisexual Men," David A. Moskowitz and Trevor A. Hart report the following study findings regarding identity versus actual practice:
Though there was excellent agreement between ideal and commonly enacted bottoms (78.4%) and ideal and commonly enacted tops (81.0%), versatiles showed far more discrepancy between their ideal orientation and commonly enacted orientations (51.0% discrepancy rate). Such discrepant versatiles reported a commonly enacted role of bottom in 48% of cases and top in 52% of cases.
It's not specified outright in the paper, but "commonly enacted orientations" for those identifying as versatile seems to suggest versatility within the sex act (or "flipping") as opposed to how things usually go in my experience, when the turns are taken over time. (I'm topping today, you top tomorrow. You top me this morning, I get you back tonight. You fuck me a half dozen times on Fire Island; come visit me in Brooklyn and it's my turn.)
Flipping is great, but it's intense, advanced, and it sometimes creates a sensation overload. Being anally penetrated can affect your erection, too, so if things are moving in the direction where I'm going to be topping, I'd rather you stay away from my ass. It doesn't mean I won't want it worked out tomorrow; it means I like to choose within the moment. I love Cap'n Crunch, but that doesn't mean I want it for dinner every night. Or even one night.
Versatility is progressive. Progression is good. We are watching sexuality evolve into something complicated beyond common understanding—and with more potential for satisfaction. With versatility come options, and options allow you to tailor your sexuality to your partner or mood or curiosity. The agency that versatility fosters is a powerful thing. You can pinpoint pleasure within the wide (but not limitless so as to be paralyzing) array.
And with power comes great responsibility. One study suggests that versatility has been a key factor in the prevalence of new HIV infections. It makes sense—it's much easier for a bottom to contract HIV through sex than it is a top (the UCSF Alliance Health Project reports the risk is 1 in 50 for a bottom having sex with an HIV positive top versus 1 in 500 for a top having sex with an HIV positive bottom). Common sense dictates as much, given the equipment involved. In a world of strict tops and bottoms, a natural serosorting would take place with the bottoms being a sort of "dead end" for HIV.
Versatility confounds those easy confines. Bryan Kutner, an HIV counselor who's my go-to expert on all matters HIV, warns against placing all of the blame on versatility for the proliferation of HIV. In an email to me, he wrote:
I'm skeptical of attributing the rise of the epidemic to sexual behavior in this way. HIV became an epidemic under a political system that disenfranchised those most vulnerable to infection. We might be able to attribute the spread of HIV to versatility - and this makes sense, because you most likely have to bottom in order to get infected, and then fuck someone else in order to infect that person. There have been recent studies or maybe just one study modeling this mathematically - though I think it's just theorizing, not actually measuring this in a population but by extrapolation. Still, portraying versatility as the "problem" seems mislaid (!). It's like saying that the cause of the flu is people not washing their hands. True, that's the proximal cause of a flu epidemic, but there are more distal causes further upstream that can really prevent an epidemic: free flu vaccination, public access to toilets with sinks so people can wash their hands, hand sanitizers in public spaces, universal health care that ensures an economic incentive to prevent rather than treat infection, etc. In the case of HIV, it's probably true that versatile men were likely the conduit for the virus. But we could've prevented the epidemic from exploding among gay men by responding further upstream in a different way, say like they did in Australia.
You can see how versatility creates an entirely unique set of complications for gay men, from a health and psychological perspective. The gift may sometimes feel like a curse. Most of us would agree that our sexual orientation is not a matter of choice (not that it should matter, anyway, or that any monolithic idea about a culture isn't going to have its exceptions).
Finding your preferred sexual role is an even hazier concept that's subject to change given the relationship or life phase. It requires a deep level of introspection about something generally regarded as carnal. It requires work and experimentation to get it right.
But that work, clearly, is loads of fun, and all of that thinking is only going to make you understand yourself and ultimately your people better. We're all so many things— even particles are many things—and those of us who call ourselves versatile instantly engrave some of our multitudes into our identity. The authors of one study went so far as to claim "versatiles may also experience better psychological health" for experiencing "less anxiety than the no label group, and less internalized homophobia than tops."
It's worth the effort. It's worth feeling your way through.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]