Tuesday, April 5, 2011

what's in a name: tops, bottoms, and versatiles?

There is one question in the gay scene that can make or break that one hot passionate encounter or that one possible romantic relationship. The question is:

“Are you a top or a bottom?”

To the heterosexual scene, some might interpret this as who is the dominant or the submissive partner, the king or the queen. But for people like us, we know that tops are those people who get more pleasure (or perhaps suffer less anxiety or discomfort) from acting as the insertive partner during anal intercourse whereas bottoms are those who get more satisfaction from acting as the receptive partner. Versatiles, on the other hand, have no strong preference for either the insertive or the receptive role since they derive pleasure in doing both.

In my mind, I often answer, “Does it matter?” 

Jesse Bering, an evolutionary psychologist and a writer for Scientific American, said in his article “Top scientists get to the bottom of gay male sex role preferences” that there are logistical problems when two tops or two bottoms are in a monogamous relationship and they are most likely to encounter conflict than those who have complementary sexual roles.

I was surprised how scientists have already studied the top-bottom-versatile self-labels and their meaningful correlates on sexual fantasy, behaviors, sexual satisfaction, physical preferences of partners, and personality. So I have summarized some interesting results here:

1. Self-labels meaningfully predict sexual fantasies and overall sexual patterns (i.e., oral and anal sex). It means that those who identify as tops fantasize and are indeed more likely to act as the insertive partner, bottoms are more likely to fantasize and engage to be the receptive partner, and versatiles occupy an intermediate status in sexual fantasy and behavior (Hart et al., 2003; Wegison & Meyer-Bahlburg, 2000, Damon, 2000; Moskowitz, Rieger, & Roloff, 2008).

2. But even if one identifies as top or bottom, their sexual behaviors are not mutually exclusive to being insertive or receptive. Among the 205 participants of the study by Hart et al. (2003), 41% of tops have engaged in receptive anal intercourse and 39% of bottoms have engaged in insertive anal intercourse at least once in the last three months. But when it comes to oral sex, majority reported engaging in receptive oral intercourse despite of their sexual self-label.

3. Tops reported that insertive anal sex was significantly more sexually pleasurable than did bottoms whereas bottoms reported finding receptive anal sex significantly more pleasurable than did tops. With regards to oral sex, bottoms reported finding receptive oral sex significantly more pleasurable than did tops but there was no significant difference between groups on their assessment of the sexual pleasure involved in insertive oral sex (Damon, 2000).

4. If age, height, weight, hairiness, and penis size are indicators of masculinity, tops seek out sexual partners with less masculine features -- younger, smoother, shorter,  lighter, and less endowed penis while bottoms seek out sexual partners with more masculine features -- older, hairier, taller, more solid, and more endowed penis (Yee, 2002; Damon, 2000). 

5. Tops desired sex where they were dominant and in control whereas bottoms desired sex where they were overpowered or "taken" in their narratives (Damon, 2000) and more likely to prefer rough sex than the other categories (Yee, 2002). (More of this here.)

6. Tops, compared to bottoms, were significantly more likely to want to "show off", be "worshipped", and display their bodies by their partners during sex, and they were significantly more likely to desire a sex partner that looked up to them as a guide or mentor (Damon, 2000).

7. Tops were less likely than bottoms or versatiles to identify themselves as gay and are more likely to have had sex with a woman in the past three months (Hart et al., 2003; Carrier, 1989; Doll & Beeker, 1996).

8. Tops manifested higher internalized homophobia— the degree of discomfort about one’s homosexuality, than versatiles and bottoms (Hart et al., 2003; Ross & Rosser, 1996).

9. Bottoms report childhood feminine behavior and gender nonconformity and may choose to engage in sexual behavior that is more consistent with traditional feminine gender norms in adulthood (Weinrich et al., 1992; Damon 2000).

10. Versatiles pursue higher levels of sexual excitement and engage in novel sexual experiences and, thus, are more flexible in their sexual activity. They seem to enjoy better psychological health with lesser anxiety than the group who does not want to put a sexual label on themselves and lesser internalized homophobia than tops (Hart et al, 2003). 

So I throw the question back to you, “Are you a top or a bottom?”

Call me romantic and naive, but I thought love will solve that problem. =)


Carrier, J. M. (1989). Sexual behavior and spread of AIDS in Mexico. Medical Anthropology, 10, 129-142.
Damon, W (2001). The relations of power and intimacy motives to genitoerotic role preferences in gay men: A pilot study. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 9(1) 15-30.
Doll, L.S., & Beekr, C. (1996). Male bisexual behavior and HIV risk in the United States: Synthesis of research with implications for behavioral interventions. AIDS Education and Prevention, 8, 205-208
Hart, T., Wolitski, R.,  Purcell, D., Gomez, C., & Halkiti, P (2003). Sexual behavior among HIV-positive men who have sex with me: What’s in a label? The Journal of Sex Research, 40(2), 178-188
Moskowitz, D. A., Rieger, G., & Roloff, M. E. (2008). Tops, bottoms, and versatiles. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 23, 191-202.
Ross, M. W., & Rosser, B. R. S. (1996). Measures and correlates of internalized homophobia: A factor analytic study. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 52, 15-21.
Wegison, D., & Myer-Bahlburg, H. F. L. (2000). Top/bottom self label, anal sex practices, HIV risk and gender role identity in gay men in New York City. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 12, 43-62. 
Weinrich, J., Grant, I., Jacobson, D., Robinson, R., & McCutchan, J. (1992). Effects of recalled childhood gender nonconformity on adult genitoerotic role and AIDS exposure. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 21(6) 559-585.
Yee, N. (2002). Beyond tops and bottoms: Correlations between sex-role preference and physical preferences for partners among gay men. Retrieved [April 4, 2011] from http://www.nickyee.com/ponder/topbottom.pdf


Anonymous said...

being the penetrator or the penetrated is not an issue that can be viewed solely in gay sexual relations. historically, anal and oral sexual penetration by men WITH men did not carry any gay connotations. in fact, there was a more militaristic flavor to the endeavor. to penetrate is to conquer and to be penetrated is to be demasculinized. it was how victors further humiliated and de-empowered their captors, a sort of psychological attack to their selfhood as being totally under the victor's power. it was only after patriarchal religions arose that any penetrations other than vaginal-penile were considered taboo, and were relegated to the outcasted minorities (e.g., gays) of the times. across time, these same minorities internalized generations of religious and conservative moral programming. on the bright side, these "programmes" have been accepted as they are and owned by this population and celebrated as a variant of sexuality. an example of such celebration is the fact that many authors of the gay religious experience declare that the indigenous form of a truly gay religion cannot exist without the dynamics between the fascination with the male body and how sex is approached...sorry wala koy elaborate references, just typed out what i thought.---tyler

Anonymous said...

Is there such a thing as a versa-top?

Anonymous said...

just another thought, there has been recent (well, not THAT recent, but recent in terms of scholarly work) findings showing the rise of the phenomena of the power-bottom and the femme-top/submissive top. interesting summary of results, niel. ---tyler

Jpy Dee said...

i agree. love solve will solve the problem. :)

Spiral Prince said...

good going teban :)