We might not like to admit it, but sexual positions within the Gay community, whether declared or perceived, can act as a currency used to navigate the Gay world. Whether it be sharp quips about tops being toxic thanks to their alleged take-no-prisoners sexual attitude, or barbs at the gworls, or the bottoms who stand accused of being messy and in constant need of drama, sexual position stereotypes are as prevalent as they are numerous. But what makes us be one or the other, or neither or all at the same time? Why do some of us feel naturally inclined to be one thing and stick there, while others buck the trend and explore? In this series, Queer Sexual Economics, we seek to answer some of these age-old questions.
This is the second installment in the series.
Sensational Black Tv show P-Valley, now in its second season, has been anything but a subtle jolt to the psyche of global viewers. With racy depictions of stripers sliding down the pole, and the archetype of the “whore with a heart of gold” to the ne’er-do-well characters replete with this supposedly seedy underworld of strip-club management. But nothing has quite so captured the viewing public’s attention than scenes of Gay men – men loving men in different configurations. Be it one of the virile, sexy, archetypical male leads hooking up with the stereotypical femme male protagonist, or two bro-type, “straight-passing” men finally giving in to each other and tenderly consummating their long-burning passion, or, indeed, the femme male protagonist flipping the heartthrob who the audience have baptized the resident stallion.
It has been a rollercoaster of same-sex affairs. But the interchangeability of roles has left a bad taste in many an audience’s mouths. Including a large fay fan base – one would assume of those who identify as pure tops – who soon took to social media to show their displeasure. Overnight, a myriad of memes flooded social media platforms, to decisively, albeit comically express discomfort at best, and a stern repudiation at worst, of an audience’s favorite man’s man bottoming on screen, a character that until then had been adopted by said audience as one of their own. It begs the question, who it that dictates what truly goes on between two consenting same-sex adults in the privacy of their own home, or indeed wherever they decide to engage in consensual sex?
Uncle Clifford, the main femme male protagonist, tops Lil Murda, who had until then only depicted sexual acts as a top. A macho man like him falling for the ways of femme and seductive Uncle Cliff is all well and good until Lil Murda utters the words, “ I want you inside me,” after a casual exchange known all too well by Gay men the world over about whether someone is “clean” as confirmation that one’s partner hasn’t engaged in risky sexual activity or has tested negative for HIV. Uncle Cliff’s first thrust into Lil Murda is the first salvo in the “pure tops” vs. “pure bottom” war – the shame harbored by those who hide the desire to be penetrated, the fervent belief that those who harbor such desires should belong to a select subsect of the Gay world, and what makes our positions as Gay men what they are.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel and Dr. Peter Kellett have, in the past decade or so, been instrumental in spearheading research into gender identity, and especially in the examination of masculinity. Kimmel, the author of the book Angry White Men coined the term “aggrieved entitlement,” while Kellett, author, and co-author of numerous research papers on masculinity in relation to various facets of society, coined the term “aggrieved masculinity,” both of which sought to describe the discontent among a certain demographic of men – mostly young, white, and heterosexual – in western societies and largely in the US, as a result of factors they feel are outside of their control. Their research also sought to explain the spate of mass shootings seen across the US and beyond mostly committed by this group of men, and their findings often concluded that the perpetrations felt powerlessness due to the erosion of promises made by hegemonic masculinity as it is understood today. And while these two terms and their similar findings were initially designed to determine the causal link between mass shooters and their actions, they could also go some way to explaining how men and especially Gay men relate through a socially constructed binary that can be a source of shame and shaming within the Gay community.
Hegemonic masculinity is defined as a construct a historically constructed, produced, and reinforced societal by expectations and meanings, with several different masculinities existing at any given time, but one ultimately winning out as being dominant, inadvertently marginalizing, and subordinating other forms. As it is understood, gender isn’t static, and its performance is supported by society, not necessarily by consensus but by different forms of coercion. There is very little those who don’t fall neatly into what is considered hegemonic masculinity, which in modern times has been understood to be White, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian, can do to change this hegemonic status quo. Most importantly, this idealized form of masculinity thrives under the premise that it is beneficial to everybody, including men and women. This form of masculinity is characterized by aggression, toughness, hardness, ableness, and competitiveness, and can also be determined by physical size and appearance.
In a research paper titled ““Butch Tops and Femme Bottoms”?: Sexual Roles, Sexual Decision-Making, and Ideas of Gender among Young Gay Men” the researchers sort to find the link between the importance of considering gender and the formulation of messaging aimed at young men who have sex with men (YMSM) in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The research team however stumbled upon a noteworthy pattern within the sample group they interviewed, as a clear divide seemed to form between respondents who identified as tops and those who identified as bottoms. Participants associated the terms top and bottom with highly gendered roles in society, reflecting what the paper termed as “essentialist, heterosexual construction of inserting and receiving during a given sexual encounter.”
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One of the participants was quoted as saying, “The bottoms are the softer ones, the feminine ones. They’re the real fags. […] It’s one thing to be gay, but to be a fag—you don’t want to do that.” The tone of disapproval, to put it mildly, is hard to miss, and the paper goes some way to explain this phenomenon of a YMSM showing such disdain for those with whom he has sex. The paper posits that a conflation of gender and sexual identity results in some distancing themselves from those whose roles they deem “countercultural” in terms of how these men are perceived to perform gender.
The quoted participant’s use of the word “fag” shows his level of disdain for bottoms, “othering” them in his dislike. Through this, and many more interviews contained in the paper, a clear tug-of-war emerges between tops who feel that bottoming is performing femininity which is entirely undesirable, to bottoms who feel their preferred role is not an affront to their masculinity.
But could it be as easy as “you’re a sissy therefore I shall shame you?” when it comes to bottom shaming? And what of a phenomenon some might consider recent which is the shaming of tops within the Gay and larger Queer community? And in what other ways do these forms of shame manifest within the Gay community?
The Shame Game
As a marginalized community that’s been the source of ridicule from the mainstream for centuries if not millennia, Gay men are also not above shaming each other, whatever the justification. However, shame, a useful tool in the larger society meant to be a behavior modification and correction tool, is often misused and even abused within this group of men, who some argue, while demanding their uniqueness and agency be recognized, create boundaries of operation for others, and cajole them to behaving in ways that suit them, and not the shamed in question.
This too goes hand in hand with roles, preferred or ascribed. When it comes to positions, Gay men seem to operate from an unwritten set of rules: Mainly that if you are femme, short, thin, or of a certain race, then you cannot be a top, and those who fall in this category and claim this position, are a joke unto themselves and the entire Gay community. “I have not in my recent years felt shame about my preference for being vers. I have been shamed for it when I was in the states. Some people prefer to only have sex with strict tops because vers. Men aren’t as good at topping as strict tops,” Ryan said of his experience with Gay shaming which he also ascribes to internalized homophobia and the belief that “strict tops” have a monopoly on masculinity.
Paul’s experience with shaming is more based on his being Versatile and option to enjoy one aspect of his versatility with his partner and the other in casual encounters. With his partner, Paul prefers to bottom, but this isn’t a decision that goes down well with others at times, as he will attest. “I tend to find some people try to pressure me into bottoming when I don’t want to. I have found that people don’t respect that dynamic and have tried to shame me into bottoming, ostensibly just for their own gratification,” said Paul.
This sort of entitlement to others’ sexuality and preferences can perfectly be explained, according to David, a White European also based in Beijing. “Gay men’s need for taxonomy is unnecessary, to say nothing of how it is ultimately part of their need to sexualize every single man around them so they know who/will be a potential sexual partner,” David laments adding, “because of how everything Gay men do, without them admitting or sometimes realizing it, is conflating sexual acts with human connection of a meaningful kind (not that sex isn’t meaningful).” With this scathing indictment, we are forced to ask whether there is a kernel of truth and whether our obsession with each other’s positions is ultimately a classification tool separate potential sexual partners from non-viable sexual connections and what purpose this classification serves.
It is no secret that Gay men are sexually prolific, but the types of sex had by Gay men are not only for pleasure but also transactional. Whether it be trading sexual pleasure for the potential of a relationship, or social status, it would seem that the precarious nature of being Gay, depending on the society, and depending on how one presents, and how far away one falls from the idea of hegemonic masculinity, so too is the person likely to try to “trade up” or secure some sort of social security with the kind of currency widely accepted in the Gay world – sex.
Is it of any collective importance to be so “taxonomical” within the Gay community, and what are some of the long-term effects on our social connections within and without the community? As David puts it, “It’s never a wonder gay men struggle to make meaningful friends when the first thing they want to know is essential “can I get sex from you?” This leads us to a line of conversation that would sooner be avoided by many. How do race, nationality, and cultural backgrounds affect the viability of one as a “product” in the Gay sexual market, and how do these factors ultimately affect positions?
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