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Gay "Sides": How Language Frees Us to be Ourselves

Welcome to the "sideverse," in which gay men don't engage in penetration.

Key points

  • Not all gay men engage in penetration.
  • Gay sides—or men who don't identify as "tops" or "bottoms"—are not “virgins” and are indeed having real sex.
  • Grindr, the gay dating app, recently started including "side" as a new position in addition to top and bottom.
  • Research finds that of all sexual behaviors that occurred during gay men's last sexual event, those involving the anus were the least common.
 Diy13
Source: Istock by Getty Images Credit: Diy13

The gay male dating app, Grindr, recently added the sexual preference I created beyond just top, bottom, and vers when it comes to gay men engaging in intercourse: "side." People often ask me why I created a new term. Here is why.

We humans are funny about naming stuff, aren’t we? It’s almost as though something doesn’t exist unless we name it. When we don’t give a name or title to some type of behavior, it only exists in the shadows, spoken about in whispers, if at all. But when we name it, we bring it into the light, into our conversations, and it becomes real.

That’s what happened in 2013 when, in an article I wrote for the Huffington Post, “Guys on the Side,” I created the term “side” for gay men who aren’t into being a “top” or a “bottom” or practicing anal penetration. The top is the one who penetrates, and the bottom is the one who receives it. Why? Because up until that time in the gay community, having “real sex” was only about penetration. And in most gay male circles, this is still the case. It is a cultural norm. There is no acknowledgment of another way in which we expressed our erotic desires and had satisfying sex. Anything else wasn’t considered “normal.”

The term “Side” was created when in 2010, I was talking with some colleagues about “tops” (gay men who prefer the insertive role during penetration) and “bottoms” (gay men who prefer the receptive role during penetration) and outed myself for being a gay man who doesn’t engage in anal intercourse at all. I joked, “Boxes have a bottom and a top—why can’t men like me be sides? Why don’t we have sides in this discussion?”

We all laughed, but I got to thinking about this later and realized I was tired of feeling guilty, as though I was an oddball because I’ve never had penetrative sex. People even called me a “virgin” because I wasn’t into anal, and it felt to me like an insult. Being a “top,” “bottom,” or “vers” (short for "versatile," or someone who could go either way) were the only acceptable models in the gay community, and I felt dissed for not fitting into the mold. But as I’ve said and taught for many years, sex is what you think sex is, not what some outside person says it is.

Before writing the 2013 article I searched everywhere I could, but never found anyone else using the term “side.” Then when the article started to get spread around, I was amazed at the hundreds of emails I was getting from guys telling me how grateful they were that someone validated their sexual behavior, and how it made them feel empowered. About a year and a half ago I formed a Facebook group called “Side Guys” and some of the guys in the group started a petition to Grindr, the gay dating app, to add “side” to their list of preferred positions and filters. And now that Grindr has updated its settings, gay men are adding it as a sexual position to their app self-identifying as a side.

Terms are even being created in Spanish, French, and in Asian languages. Mike Henry, a comedian and sex educator, recently created a humorous short video around the theme of “Sides.” I couldn’t be prouder.

History of Individuals and Couples Not Engaging in Penetration

“Side” behavior isn’t something new. It’s been around forever—but we just didn’t have a snappy term to describe it in the gay community.

By the 1980s the term “outercourse” began being used to describe sexual activity between people that doesn’t involve vaginal or anal penetration. The practice of outercourse largely gained popularity due to the growing awareness that people needed to practice safe sex and was mostly applied to heterosexual couplings.

Back in 2011, an article was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in which researchers surveyed 25,000 gay and bisexual men in America about their most recent sexual encounters, and only 36 percent said they had bottomed, and 34 percent said they had topped. Nearly 65 percent of gay and bisexual men didn’t have intercourse as part of their most recent sexual experience at all. The lead author of the study, Joshua Rosenberger, said: “Of all sexual behaviors that men reported occurring during their last sexual event, those involving the anus were the least common.” According to this research, “sides” appear to be the majority.

I can practically hear the groans out there—people saying, “What? Another name? This is getting out of hand!” But think about it. Terminology always evolves as we discover more. We wouldn’t use a medical manual from the 1950s or before when researching how to treat a problem. (Leeches, anyone?) The more we discover, the more we come up with new names for things, and this is true of sexuality as well.

Since “sides” has been acknowledged out there, people have added to the definition and naming many sub-varieties in the category. A side can be a cisgender male, a transgender male (transman), or an intersex male. In addition, a side can be a masculine male, a feminine male, a nonbinary male, or an androgynous male.

Furthermore, a side can be a gay male, a bisexual male, a pansexual male, or fall under the ace umbrella (asexual male/graysexual male/demisexual male, etc.). It is not true that sides are automatically asexual. While they can be, the misconception is that sides are not having sex because they are not engaging in intercourse—however, they are engaging in everything else sexual with other people.

Welcome to the "Sideverse"

A side can have multiple sub-descriptions, including:

  • 100% Side: A side who may have engaged in anal sex or anal play in the past, but now prefers to exclusively engage in non-penetrative sex. This may be due to pain associated with anal sex called Anodyspareunia, or severe and frequent painful receptive sex (PRAI)
  • Power Side: A side who likes taking charge of a sexual situation.
  • Passive Side: A side who likes someone else to take charge in a sexual situation.
  • Dom Side: A side who prefers to be dominant during sex.
  • Sub Side: A side who prefers to submit, i.e., to be dominated.
  • Switch Side: A side who may be a Dom with one partner, and a Sub with another (or even with the same partner).
  • Frot Side: A side who likes to engage in frottage, a male-to-male sexual activity that usually involves direct penis-to-penis contact. It can involve one’s hand, trying to bring the two together for pleasure, but isn’t always a necessity in the act.
  • Top Side: A side who prefers the insertive role in occasional anal play or anal sex. In addition, he can even be a Dom (dominant) Top Side, a Sub (submissive) Top Side, or a Switch Top Side (switching between being dominant and submissive).
  • Bottom Side: A side who prefers the receptive role in occasional anal play or anal sex. In addition, he can even be a Sub (submissive) Bottom Side, a Dom (dominant) Bottom Side, or a Switch Bottom Side (switching between being dominant and submissive).
  • Vers Side: A side who has no preferences regarding anal sex role in occasional anal play or anal sex.
  • Side-ish//Sometimes a Side/Mostly a Side: A side who occasionally engages in anal sex or anal play.
  • Oral Side: A side who likes oral sex. This can include blowjobs (fellatio), rimjobs (analingus), and/or cunnilingus (in the case of pre-op or no-op transmen, or sides who are bisexual/pansexual).
  • Gold Star/Orthodox Side: A side who has never engaged in anal sex or anal play in the past. And if and when he does, the “gold star” won’t apply anymore.

It is important to remember that in all these categories, side is the main preference. So, all you “sides” out there, take a victory lap and stand tall (or lie down) for who you are. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re a “virgin” or aren’t having “real” sex. You’re a “side guy.”

References

Joshua G. Rosenberger PhD, MPH, Michael Reece PhD, MPH, Vanessa Schick PhD, Debby Herbenick PhD, David S. Novak MSW, Barbara Van Der Pol PhD, MPH, J. Dennis Fortenberry MD, MS Sexual Behaviors and Situational Characteristics of Most Recent Male-Partnered Sexual Event among Gay and Bisexually Identified Men in the United States. Journal of Sexual Medicine. Volume 8, Issue 11, November 2011, Pages 3040-3050

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