This Is Us

What I Learned From Teaching My Straight Friends About Gay Sex

Being a bottom makes straight people uncomfortable. Let’s talk about that.

II recently visited my straight best friend and his wife back in West Virginia and somehow, as is bound to happen, the subject of poppers came up. My friends, being painfully straight, didn’t know what they were. After I patiently explained their purpose and why bottoms (and sometimes tops) use them, I let them in on a little secret: I’m a bottom.

My straight male friend took this is stride. He’s known me for years, and given the fact that I don’t perform masculinity particularly convincingly, I’m sure he, in his straight way, always assumed I was a bottom. His wife, however, was far less sanguine about this revelation.

“You’re a catcher?” she exclaimed with mixed revulsion and incredulity, as if it had never occurred to her that I would occupy such a position. Nor was she content to let the matter stop there. “Do you ever pitch?” she asked, pushing the tired sports metaphor ever further. “Geez, T.J., why aren’t you a pitcher?”

Now, I wasn’t content to simply sit there and let her cast aspersions on my performance as a bottom. In my own inimitable way, I informed her that it actually takes a lot of stamina and effort to perform as a bottom. After all, I said, tops just have to stick it in; we bottoms are the ones doing all the work. Bottoming, I emphasized, is not for the faint of heart.

Of course, I said all this in jest. My friends have always been incredibly supportive of my queerness; it’s become a point of humor between us. In fact, my friend and I frequently engage in lighthearted flirting. Given that he’s a red-blooded American male from small-town West Virginia, his openness is something of a miracle. To him, the fact that I was a bottom was just another aspect of my crazy gay personality — so, when I left their place, I wasn’t overly troubled by the whole thing. It was just another one of our freewheeling and sometimes wildly inappropriate conversations.

But something about the exchange stuck with me. Over the past few weeks, I’ve wrestled with what it revealed about myself, my friends, and how we make sense of gay sex, masculinity, and gender roles. It made me consider the ubiquity of certain heteronormative standards of behavior, even among those of us who consider ourselves queer and do our best to live a queer life.

To be honest, something about what my friend said really got under my skin. Perhaps it was the translation of sex acts into a sports metaphor (and a rather tired one, at that). Perhaps it was the fact that this dichotomy is both reductive and inaccurate. Either way, it made me think about the situation in a new light — and I can’t say I’m comfortable with what it revealed, either about me or my friend.

CClearly, my being a bottom troubled my friend’s wife’s idea of me as a man. It was easy, presumably, for her to accept my homosexuality so long as she could still convince herself that I was the one doing the penetrating (read: adequately performing masculinity). The thought that I would subject myself to the indignity of being a “catcher,” of being (gasp!) “passive” in sex, was just too much for her. At a deeper level, of course, the fact that both of us resorted to a sex position binary in the first place reveals the extent to which this model of thought exerts an almost hegemonic force on how even queer people conceive of their sexual identities.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that my status as a bottom was greeted with such antipathy. It’s no secret that even gay men shit on bottoms. We’re the butt (pun intended) of almost every gay joke. We’re scapegoats for the ambivalence so many gay and queer men still feel about their own gender identity. We’re the excuse “straight” and “questioning” men use to justify having gay sex without sullying their masculinity by being penetrated. Even among ourselves, we become more than a little ridiculous, lampooning ourselves in memes and online cleverness. In gay porn, bottoms are sneered at, treated as if their bodies are somehow ruined by routine penetration. To be a bottom, in other words, is to invite scorn from the very people who should be our supporters.

Gay men are no more immune to the toxic inheritances of ancient culture than their straight counterparts.

Of course, this has deep historical roots. Just read any one of numerous books on ancient sexuality to learn how Greeks and Romans believed being penetrated meant surrendering all of one’s male privileges. Unfortunately, we’ve inherited that cultural legacy. Judeo-Christian teachings express hostility toward same-sex relations (and, in the case of some Christian teachings, sexual desire of any kind). Gay men are no more immune to the toxic inheritances of ancient culture than their straight counterparts.

After a while, one rather gets used to bottom-shaming among one’s own peers. It just comes with the territory.

I’m not making an excuse for bottom-shaming among gay men, but I will say: It’s a hell of a lot easier to accept that sort of attitude among people you might sleep with than it is from a woman who’s never even heard of poppers.

AsAs I reflected on the conversation, I realized something else: I was, and am, disturbed by the terms with which I defended my status as a bottom. At the time, I thought I was merely employing the most rhetorically effective strategy: persuading my straight friends that being a bottom was the more physically demanding sexual role (again, read: masculine). I thought this would somehow redeem bottoming in their eyes. Looking back, I realize that in doing so I was buying into the very system I was trying to criticize. In stressing the masculine aspects of bottoming, I suggested that I was a man just like the rest of them, that I was still holding onto masculinity’s privileges and toxic baggage.

Because, for me, part of the pleasure of being a bottom — both in sex and in the world — is exactly the opposite. I derive a curiously abject pleasure from rendering my body vulnerable to another man, letting him enter me and gain his pleasure from my body. Being a bottom, for me, is about embracing what literary theorist Leo Bersani once termed the “suicidal ecstasy” of having one’s legs high in the air, letting go of all the hang-ups that attend being a man in our culture.

Being a bottom is as much about how we act in the world as it is about pleasure.

Outside of the bedroom, I don’t put a lot of investment in my performance of masculinity. In fact, I self-consciously adopt all the campy mannerisms that being gay affords (at least for those who aren’t “masc”). I wouldn’t go so far as to say all of my mannerisms are performative, but I do like to believe I bring being a bottom out of the bedroom and into the real world. In fact, after meeting me for the first time, one friend later admitted knowing at once that I was a bottom. (Needless to say, I was flattered.) In keeping with the argument articulated by queer scholar Nguyen Tan Hoang in A View From the Bottom, being a bottom is as much about how we act in the world as it is about pleasure.

Hearing my friend’s wife’s antipathy toward me bottoming — and my own indulgence in a rather toxic form of masculine performance — has opened my eyes to my own complicity. It’s reinforced my need to perform my queerness in my everyday life. If, as I believe, bottoming is a complex political and sexual practice, I must find new ways of articulating it that don’t fall into the toxic thought patterns that dominate the psyche of almost any man born and raised in America. I need to let go of the intellectual and emotional baggage I still carry.

SSince that encounter in West Virginia, conversations with other straight friends have reinforced just how far apart our lives remain — and how radically different queer sex is from its straight counterpart. For example, my partner and I recently decided to experiment with having an open relationship. When, during a trip abroad, I hooked up with a man who wasn’t my partner, a friend of mine — my best friend, in fact — expressed some skepticism. She didn’t judge me, but she did frame her discomfort around the fact that my open relationship conflicted with her own morality and sexuality (and, yes, she put those two things together). To her, gay sex was acceptable and morally supportable so long as it occurred within the bounds of monogamy.

This conversation was at once playful but also deeply meaningful, in that it revealed how truly different our ways of being in the world remain. For many — though certainly not all — straight (and gay) people, monogamy is the be-all, end-all means of organizing romantic relationships. Anything that dares to stray from that norm is a risk.

Some queer folks are wedded to monogamy, of course. While perusing Scruff one night, I came across someone who, in their rambling way (it honestly read more like a political treatise than a dating profile), chided those in open relationships. They argued we were giving Republicans a weapon with which they’d bludgeon us. I was tempted to message that person. I wanted to find out why they were so willing to force their own hegemonic view about sexual relationships onto others. Ultimately, I decided against it.

I’ll be honest: For a long time, I too was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being in an open relationship. I was uncomfortable for a host of reasons. I never thought of open relationships as strange or unpleasant — I just couldn’t see myself in one. Now, though, I finally understand. There’s something exciting about exploring the world outside the bonds of monogamy. I suppose to some it might seem a little like trying to have your cake and eat it, too. Yet if the work of scholars and activists over the past 50 years has earned us queers anything, it’s the right to explore our sexuality beyond the bounds of straight culture.

I like to think that I might at some point revisit this discussion with my West Virginian friends. I like to think I’ll be able to engage them in a richer, more meaningful discussion about my identity as a bottom and how that shapes my way of being in the world. I hope I do — both for my sake and for theirs.

Ph.D. in English | Film and TV geek | Lover of fantasy and history | Full-time writer | Feminist and queer | Liberal scold and gadfly

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