May 17, 2011

Bottoms, Tops, Versatiles! Gay and Bi Men’s Positional Identities

In recent years, the labels gay and bisexual men use to describe their preferred position during anal sex has gained quite a bit of attention.

Print More

We talk a lot about identity here at Kinsey Confidential, especially the labels people take on to describe their sexual orientation and gender expression.  There is also another set of sexual identities — those self-labels people take on to describe their interest in and desire for particular sexual behaviors.

Gay And Bisexual Men’s Positional Identities

In recent years, the labels gay and bisexual men use to describe their preferred position during anal sex has gained quite a bit of attention by researchers and in the media.  Some researchers, including sociologist Trevor Hoppe, refer to these as positional identities.  There are three of such labels.

  • Bottoms are men who prefer to be the partner whom is penetrated (the “insertee”) during anal sex.
  • Tops are men who prefer to penetrate their partners during anal sex (the “inserter”).
  • And, there’s another group of men, versatiles (or “vers”) who either prefer both or do not have a preference.

However, it is important to note that some gay and bisexual men do not engage in anal sex, and that there are numerous other sexual activities besides anal sex.

Is It More Than Just Sex?

Unlike the sexual roles used by individuals who participate in BDSM (bondage, domination, and sadomasochism), gay and bisexual men’s versatile, bottom, and top positional identities do not necessarily translate into being more or less dominant or submissive.  However, some initial research that has attempted to assess how many vers, bottom, and top men there are, where they are, and what determines these positional identities, has hinted that there may be something more about these labels than sexual tastes.

A new study by David Moskowitz and Trevor Hart examined whether men’s physical body traits differ among tops, versatiles, and bottoms.  Using a sample of 400 men who posted personal ads (seeking a sexual partner) on, they found that tops’ and bottoms’ labels correspond with their actual usual sex role during anal sex; however, only half of the versatile men reported behavior that corresponded with their vers positional identity.  Although these three groups of men did not differ in reported hariness, weight, and height, tops reported being more masculine and having larger penises than bottoms — versatile men fell somewhere between the two.  Other researchers have found that tops may be less likely to identify as gay or bisexual, and more likely to also have sexual relationships with women.

The Beauty Of Gay Sex, Right?

When sex advice columnist Dan Savage spoke at Indiana University for Sexploration in 2009, he joked that the sex lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people have is a lot freer than the sex heterosexuals have because there is little emphasis on predetermined sex roles and behaviors.  This is true, in part, because gender cannot be used to decide sex roles if both partners are the same gender.

However, some have noted that there is stigma attached to the bottom role among bisexual and gay men, leading some who prefer to bottom to identify as tops or versatiles.  Some scholars and advocates have noted that this stigma is the result of stereotyping bottoms as submissive and feminine.  This is similar to the activo (top)-passivo (bottom) dichotomy found in parts of Latin America, where activo men are not considered gay, rather they are “real” men.  However, besides self-reports, there is no evidence that suggests that bottom, versatile, and top men differ in terms of masculinity and femininity.

  • Sonya

    As always Eric, I appreciate your ability to nuance issues around sexuality and identity that we often essentialize and conflate. On the one hand, what one wants to do with his penis is in many ways just a matter of pleasure. But on the other, to deny the layers and layers of cultural conditioning and meaning that we attach to our body parts and how we experience those in the world is to flatten how sex is really DONE. You inspire me, as usual!