Top or Bottom?
May 9, 2004 11:54 PM   Subscribe

A question for any male gay mefi members -- or those in the know. It's my understanding that a good percentage of gay men are either exclusively "tops" or "bottoms". My question is this: how can you tell? Are the stereotypical gay mannerisms in fact just a subtle form of communicating this preference? Do you come straight out and ask? Or do you wait until the moment is upon you and hope for the best?

Just one of those things I've always wondered about, like how do blind people know what floor to get off in the elevator.
posted by Civil_Disobedient to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
How can you tell the hetero guys who like their ladies to ream them with small vegetables? Is it the way they dress? Their facial hair?

Really, there's no system for you to tell. Mannerisms, machismo vs. femininity, may anecdotally correlate sometimes but being a top or bottom isn't always a core identity issue. It's a sexual preference. Many men are versatile, and some are oral-only. I don't think you'll be able to sniff them out by their taste in shoes, pitch of voice, etc.

I have known a couple comprised of two bottoms and it did present a problem (mostly just a lot of drama and neurosis). But no, few of the gay men I've known wear their preferences on their name tags at parties.
posted by scarabic at 12:47 AM on May 10, 2004


...with the possible exception of cruise spots or other hookup context where people do use various codes/signals to broadcast what they're looking for. These vary from region to region, and they're usually something basic involving clothing or perhaps hair, but not a "mannerism" per se.
posted by scarabic at 12:50 AM on May 10, 2004


call me.

wait no.

don't.
posted by fishfucker at 2:11 AM on May 10, 2004


This strikes me as totally preposterous.

There are supposed to be various signals, including hankerchiefs hung out of your back pocket in a particular way, but it strikes me that with homosexuality so widely accepted in society the need for such furtive symbols must be receding.

Yes there are all sorts of "clone" images that people can pick for themselves - stereotypically of course the biker look - but why should they exclusively favour one sexual practice any more than straight people do?

Your message almost implies that gay men are no more than the sum of their sexual preferences. Maybe having relationships, socialising, having fights, going to the supermarket are also important factors in their lives - not just whether they give or receive anal sex.
posted by skylar at 3:21 AM on May 10, 2004


what scarabic said.
posted by matteo at 3:46 AM on May 10, 2004


Your message almost implies that gay men are no more than the sum of their sexual preferences.

No, my message was an honest attempt to try and understand someone that is different that myself, a different perspective if you will, and your response is just the sort of unhelpful shit that makes me regret asking. Thanks for being a dick.

Notice the word stereotype? These stereotypes exist, whether you like them or not. I'm not condoning them. I used the word stereotype as a way of communicating to you the fact that I understand it's not necessarily applicable to everyone (or even anyone); but in my meager understanding of the way things work in the gay world, I have only so much to work with. The fact is, I don't know how gay guys communicate this rather important issue to each other. Way to open a dialog, jerk.

scarabic, thank you for not flying off the handle. But I still don't understand. If I go into a bar, I might not know that a woman likes to have vegetables shoved up her, but I know at least what my (traditional) role in the sex act (if I were lucky enough to ever get to that point) would be. It just seems like if there's no way to communicate preference without being completely overt about it (which may be the case, I don't know) you could end up with an uncomfortable situation at the end of the night when you're back at their flat.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:29 AM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]


And I guess I have to say this lest some idiots think otherwise: I know gay men are more than the sum of their sexual preference, I know that gay men have hearts and souls, dimensions, senses, affections and passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, and if they are pricked, do bleed. (Sorry, bad pun.)

My point is, I understand the parts that we share in common. I'm asking about one specific aspect that we don't in an effort to understand.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:47 AM on May 10, 2004


Having lived Diane Fossey-like among Boston's gay population for five years, I've noticed that on "big event" days (parades, the marathon, etc.) people seem to be communicating something with bandannas in their back pockets or tied on their upper arms.

It might not be sexual-- it could be a gay/Illuminati/UN/reptilian conspiracy for all I know. But them bandannas mean something.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:06 AM on May 10, 2004


If they say they're "versatile" they're exclusive bottoms. :-)
posted by WolfDaddy at 6:52 AM on May 10, 2004


People still hook up in bars these days?
In my experience and amongst my friends, most of the information sharing is happening first on the internet. There are tons of dating, hookup and fetish-specific sites where people post their information, including their t/b/v preferences.

In real life, if someone comes up to me at the bar and says I have a nice ass, I kind of assume he's a top.
posted by FreezBoy at 7:20 AM on May 10, 2004


people seem to be communicating something with bandannas in their back pockets or tied on their upper arms.

Arms = tops, pockets = bottoms.
posted by falconred at 8:30 AM on May 10, 2004


Arms = tops, pockets = bottoms
I can only guess what one tied around the head means.
posted by mischief at 9:25 AM on May 10, 2004 [2 favorites]


In real life, if someone comes up to me at the bar and says I have a nice ass, I kind of assume he's a top.

Braggart. ;-)

For those interested: The Compleat Hanky Code.
posted by stonerose at 9:31 AM on May 10, 2004


Wow. As a bisexual female, I find the need to signal t/b/v preference totally bizarre. I mean, it's not like two 'tops' together is a problem - you just figure it out, right? Switch around, see what works best with the types of bodies you have, figure out who has the strongest preference etc and take it from there. What happened to being attracted to someone for something other than their body? And even if all you're after is a hook-up, would you really pass someone up because they're not a bottom to your top?

This must be one of those areas where gay men and gay women totally differ.
posted by widdershins at 9:43 AM on May 10, 2004


The idea of an exclusive top/bottom may seem bizarre (disclosure: I don't subscribe to it), but you have to bear in mind the physical/psycho-social baggage associated with topping and bottoming. Some relevant factors include: fear of physical pain, fear of being 'dirty', reluctance (or desire) to assume what is often viewed as a submissive/feminine role, fear of HIV infection, the desire to 'save' bottoming for someone with whom one feels physically and/or emotionally safe, etc., etc. And as with any preference, there are cultural, class, and experiential factors to take into account: In some cultural milieux, topping isn't seen as gay - it's just "making do" - whereas bottoming means you're a fag. There are some guys who have been sexually abused - in this context, bottoming and topping can take on loaded meanings. There are people who are (IMHO) uncritical and uncreative about what it means to be gay: for some folks, adopting a role (e.g., top, bottom, leather queen) is an easier way to feel safe/accepted/more sure of the 'rules' of social conduct. I could drone on - but suffice it to say that the top/bottom issue is more complex than it might seem.

As far as differences between gay men/women: well, there is the whole lipstick lesbian vs. bull-dyke dichotomy. There are lesbians who like to include dildos/penetration in there sex activities. There are others for whom penetration is anathema: some women see it as a disgusting, politically fraught simulacrum of male dominance. Wheee! Again: there is a lot of complexity out there.
posted by stonerose at 10:05 AM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]


Great answer, stonerose, thx. I certainly agree that there's a lot of complexity out there - though I have to say that in my experience gay women don't signal messages like t/b/v. Yes, you have bull-dykes and vanilla lesbians, but you wouldn't make any assumptions about preferences of top/bottom or penetration/none based on that. Ultimately, it seems like these preferences matter less in homosexual female relationships, for many reasons we don't need to get into here.

Very interesting!
posted by widdershins at 11:21 AM on May 10, 2004


Wow, thank you stonerose.

As for the hankey thing... I honestly never noticed that before.

A friend of a friend of mine was a preferential bottom, and once mentioned that he thought 4/5 gay men were as well. That's what kinda got this whole question started in my mind. Naturally two people in love will "find a way" but this ignores the fact that there are preferences. If I couldn't have sex for some reason, I'd certainly "make due", but this wouldn't change my desires.

Anyway, the 4/5 comment blew my mind, and I started wondering just how gay guys figure this stuff out (beforehand); clearly it's an issue, (how big an issue obviously depends). I appreciate all the candor in this thread, it has been educational. Thank you.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:27 AM on May 10, 2004


It's easier to diagnose post-facto. You talk to someone and of course it makes sense he was a {top|bottom}.

Bottoms are nonetheless easier to spot. They really are more submissive, and will display it if you so much as aggressively walk through a door. And-- speaking of that term-- the aggressive bottoms are a curious and seemingly contradictory subgenre that are more goddamned trouble than they're worth. If I wanted someone else giving me backtalk all night, I'd talk to myself in the mirror.
posted by joeclark at 11:32 AM on May 10, 2004


...yeah, but your reflection would be facing the wrong way.
posted by bingo at 11:44 AM on May 10, 2004


joeclark, speaking of aggressive, why is your book cover giving me the creeps in the context of this discussion? ;-)
posted by stonerose at 12:14 PM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]


"A friend of a friend of mine was a preferential bottom, and once mentioned that he thought 4/5 gay men were as well."

wow - all but one of my gay friends that I can discuss such intimacies with say that they dislike anal sex, whether top or bottom. So that's 9 no-anal, only 1 for anal sex (ane he is top).
posted by Pericles at 12:54 PM on May 10, 2004


Where I live there seems to be a sizable contingent of oral-only; and top/bottom doesn't seem overarchingly important. College town.
posted by Tlogmer at 12:57 PM on May 10, 2004


So that's 9 no-anal, only 1 for anal sex (ane he is top).

I guess it was just the crowd he hung around with... funny how perspective is so easily warped by your surroundings and the company you keep.

Damn, stonerose, I just clicked that link.

Talk about goatse.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:50 PM on May 10, 2004


It's easier to diagnose post-facto. You talk to someone and of course it makes sense he was a {top|bottom}.

Yeah, hindsight is 20/20. As in, once you know, you pick out "signals" that make it all make sense. But if you didn't sense them at first, were they really there? I think this is about as relevant as astrology. "Omigawd, naturally! He is SUCH a Leo!" Some people have 20/20 hindsight for that stuff, too.

scarabic, thank you for not flying off the handle. But I still don't understand. If I go into a bar, I might not know that a woman likes to have vegetables shoved up her, but I know at least what my (traditional) role in the sex act (if I were lucky enough to ever get to that point) would be.

Right, but there's still so much you don't know. Is she a slob? Does she want children someday? Is she religious? These are all make-or-break questions that you will have to face someday. Does she have Herpes? You'll have to face that one tonight! How, how do you make it through the average date without having a blinking neon sign spelling all these things out for you from square one?

I hope you see what I mean. It's just that top-ness and bottom-ness are no more or less important or vague or difficult to figure out, or disappointing or complicated than all these other issues. How do people get together when it's not dirt-easy to do so? I don't know, but they do.

Look at the hetero personal ads sometime and you'll see people who want - up front - a man who will pay for everything or a woman who will stay at home and raise the kids or a woman who likes sex in public or a Jewish man who likes to dance, or any number of possible requirements. Some people really, really want their requirements checked off the list up front. Other people are more flexible and approach people on a one-by-one basis. But people overall are all the same, including gay tops and bottoms. Like I said, I think the only reason to broadcast your sexual preference is that sex is all you're looking for.

I took your question to be a genuine point of curiosity. But I think if you really want an answer, you need to widen your perspective a bit, and remember that gay people are just like everyone else, and the intricacies of their lives take time, sensitivity, and communication to work out.
Just like everyone else. I don't think you're a bigot or a moron for asking, not at all. But there is some narrowness of perspective implicit in the question.

In other words, it's not that you don't know, it's just that you're looking at it the wrong way. Still, if you don't have opportunities in your everyday life to learn about this stuff, then good on ya for asking. Better to ask than wonder forever.
posted by scarabic at 2:18 PM on May 10, 2004


The hankie code stuff, (FYI) is something that comes from the gay men's leather/BDSM subculture, and shouldn't be thought of as common among gays & lesbians in general. Walk up to your average gay guy on the street and ask him about it and if he even knows such a thing exists in the first place, most likely he won't know what color means what.

In fact, in general a lot of the clothing/visual signals as to top/bottom roles originate in the leather world, where the roles at least used to be much more restrictive. (Besides hanky colors, others include keys worn on the hip, and armbands. In all cases left=top, right=bottom - though long ago in some places it was the opposite.)

These sorts of signals probably spread into the more "vanilla" non-BDSM gay world in the 70's with the growth of bathhouses and sexclubs - places where one went looking only for sex, therefore having a "shorthand" helped things along.

While you say "It's my understanding that a good percentage of gay men are either exclusively "tops" or "bottoms"." - I must say, I do not find that to be true. Many may be more one than the other, and some may do certain things only from one side. Only in the BDSM world do I know of truly exclusive tops or bottoms.
posted by dnash at 2:42 PM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]


But there is some narrowness of perspective implicit in the question.

Not narrowness exactly; perhaps I'm just thinking about sex too much lately. I have known a number of gay people in my lifetime, but never had the opportunity to ask them questions that would most likely take them off guard and perhaps piss them off. Kind of like, "Why do black people talk like that?" You're just asking for trouble, even if your intention is sincere.

I get what you're saying about all the other "make-or-break" issues that can arise over the course of a relationship (however long or short it may be), I guess gay men who are particular about being a top or bottom just have one extra "thing-to-find-out". As a heterosexual, I'm used to thinking in terms of roles, since they're pretty much drummed into your head at birth, and because these roles happen to fit so well with my desires. I suppose I'm guilty of binary thinking -- either a gay guy gets off by giving, or gets off by receiving. It's interesting to learn just how much grey area there is.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:27 PM on May 10, 2004


The hankie code stuff, (FYI) is something that comes from the gay men's leather/BDSM subculture, and shouldn't be thought of as common among gays & lesbians in general.

Yes. Thank you.

I hear ya, CD. And, as a heterosexual, I share your relief that we don't have that "one more thing" to think about. Although... the more I think about it, the more analogies I see.

Like: who "initiates" sex in a hetero relationship, issues surrounding orgasms for him as well as her, who gets off first and when, questions of position/duration/pain threshold, trying to cater to one another's fetishes and/or compensating for one another's dysfunctions, differences in sexual appetite, preferences for oral sex that may or may not meet with talent/enthusiasm.... I think men and women have a lot to work through, too.

Finding an excellent sexual partner is a matter of chemistry, communication, and luck, I daresay for *all* of us.
posted by scarabic at 5:01 PM on May 10, 2004


Like: who "initiates" sex in a hetero relationship, issues surrounding orgasms for him as well as her, who gets off first and when, questions of position/duration/pain threshold, trying to cater to one another's fetishes and/or compensating for one another's dysfunctions, differences in sexual appetite, preferences for oral sex that may or may not meet with talent/enthusiasm.... I think men and women have a lot to work through, too.

I don't think it's so uncommon for straight couples who are first hooking up to intuit a lot of that about their partners even before the first kiss...before even deciding to go ahead with the first kiss, even. Sure, it's not by any means foolproof, but it happens...most of my relationships have started that way. So I don't find any "narrowness" in the question. I think it's perfectly reasonable to wonder whether there is a sort of subset of "gaydar" that works the same way a lot of straight people's own drives-to-couple work.
posted by bingo at 5:30 PM on May 10, 2004


Maybe it's a geography thing, but I've known quite a few women (lesbians) that were exclusively tops or bottoms. Many women who are known as "stone butches" for instance, are tops, no negotiation permitted.
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:05 PM on May 10, 2004


I don't know if "topping" and "bottoming" is just taking things to a cookie cutter extreme or not. When I think of the terms I think of them in an S&M way, not a gay way. I think with sex there are preferences and levels of intimacy involved and for gay men one of those levels (like with straight sex) is whether or not you allow someone to put their you know what you know where. Some people are more comfortable with it than others and I don't think it is necessarily a gay exclusive.

Gay women also have a stereotype of the "stone butch" who will not let their lovers put anything inside them and like other people I think it has alot less to do with their homosexual status and alot more to do with their own sexuality and comfort levels.

While yes, I do believe roles play a part, I think once you become a mature sexual being you come to the realization that your sexuality is less about roles and more about your own comfort and preference.

Gay men, like all other couplings find out each others preferences and comfort levels the same way everyone else does, through the development of intimacy with the other.
posted by jopreacher at 1:59 AM on May 11, 2004


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