Sex

Side Guys: Thinking Beyond Gay Male "Tops" and "Bottoms"

It's still sex even if you don't have intercourse.

Posted May 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

 Imply By Design Creator Brett Rogers
Gay men who identify as a "side"
Source: Imply By Design Creator Brett Rogers

When it comes to sex, whether you’re gay, bi, or straight, we’ve all been a little brainwashed into believing that there is this thing called “normal.” Here are just a few of the narrow preconceptions that fall into the “normal sex” category:

  • “Having sex” only means penetration. Thus, Bill Clinton famously said, “I did not have sex with that woman” (whether he actually believed that or was simply lying). 
  • Penetration is the “gold standard” of sex. Everything else is just foreplay.
  • You’re not having real sex if you don’t have an orgasm.
  • In the gay male community, usually, you’re either considered to be a “top,” the penetrator, or a “bottom,” the penetrated, or you’re versatile (can go either way). No other options. 
  • If you’re a “top,” you’re seen as the masculine one, and if you’re the “bottom,” you’re seen as the more feminine one. 
  • Lesbians don’t really have “sex,” because there’s no penile penetration. 
  • You’re only really masculine if you’re the one doing the penetration. 

After 35 years of being a therapist, I can say with utter confidence that there is no “normal” when it comes to sex. The range of our erotic desires, styles, and tastes appears to be endless, and yet as a culture, we’ve come to accept as normal some rather limited rules and roles.

For instance, think about dating apps for gay men. On most, you have only three choices—top, bottom, or vers (short for versatile, either/or). But what if you’re a gay man who doesn’t enjoy anal sex or finds anal penetration painful, doesn’t like the feeling or the troublesome amount of preparation and cleaning up needed for it to be a pleasurable experience, or simply doesn’t experience anal sex as erotic? 

Validating “Sides” 

That’s why in a 2013 article I wrote for Huffington Post, "Guys on the ‘Side’: Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms," I began working on popularizing the term “side” in order for these gay men to have the language to express their sexual and erotic preference. Sides often suffer the accusations of other gay men, such as:

“What? You don’t like getting anal?” 

“What’s wrong with you?” 

“Were you traumatized or something?” 

“What do you do then?” 

It’s so difficult for some people to conceive that you don’t engage in anal penetration, they can’t even hear it without pathologizing it.  

I’ve seen gay male clients who carry a load of shame about not liking or wanting to get or give anal sex. They wonder if something is wrong with them, why they can’t be “normal.” They’ve tried, maybe early on in a romantic relationship, in order to please their new love, but the deception of them being turned on by it is unsustainable. Some sides were afraid to say these things in public for fear of judgment and shaming, so they could find no one to talk with about it. 

Let’s try to knock “normal” off of its pedestal, shall we? The anus doesn’t have a sexual orientation. There are straight men who like having anal sex and/or being penetrated with a dildo, and there are gay men who don’t. There are as many ways to have sex as there are imaginations. “Real sex” isn’t only about penetration. It can be touching, fondling, masturbating either alone or with someone else, giving head, cunnilingus, rimming, frottage (humping while clothed), simultaneous oral play, nipple play, naked and sweaty contact, and... well, you get the idea. Any of these can easily be as erotic, as pleasurable, and as much of a turn-on as anal sex. 

Since I started talking about sides publicly, I’ve had hundreds of people get in touch to tell me how grateful they have someone who understands what they’ve been going through and who can help to rid them of the shame and judgment about not wanting to have anal sex. 

Evolving Sexual Desire

Like the person who did anal only because he was in love and gradually got real and admitted that he didn’t like doing it anymore, our eroticism evolves. What we may have found exciting or even naughtily rebellious at age 20 can change to something different years later.

Humans are adventurers by nature. We can easily become bored playing the same games, walking the same paths, engaging in the same old style of sex. We’re not likely to sit at a table full of delicious breakfast dishes and just eat oatmeal. We crave new tastes and different smells. Our sexuality is like that, too. 

Consider the aging man or one who has had prostate troubles and no longer can or will do anal even if he wants to. His sex life may even be richer and more enjoyable by engaging in the thousand other available erotic activities. What about the person who fears anal sex because of the AIDS virus? Does he have to give up having sex because anything else isn’t “real?” 

Side Guys 

I’ve been surprised and pleased at how many men have reached out to me to share their stories of being a side. In fact, I’ve started a new private Facebook group called “Side Guys” where sides can find relief from their shame and misconceptions and realize that sex is sex, and the culturally defined roles and rules that have made us feel less-than need to be thrown out. 

When you’re a minority or have an interest that isn’t in the “norm” of cultural standards, you need community. That’s what “Side Guys” provides. There’s a site called Fetlife.com for those who enjoy kink and fetishes. These people are also told that their erotic interests are wrong and must be the result of some type of trauma or pathology. Don’t entertain these thoughts. What you’re into is what you’re into, as long as it’s consensual and explicitly agreed upon by two adults. 

It’s also true that some heterosexual men and women don’t enjoy vaginal or anal penetration. Again, if this describes you, then there’s nothing wrong with you. Nothing. So be out and proud about being a side! 

References

Guys on the ‘Side’: Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms, 2013: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/guys-on-the-side-looking-beyond-gay-tops-and-bottoms_b_3082484?guccounter=1

Gay Men and Sex: Tops, Bottoms and Sides, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw9ZN6NOFLI&feature=youtu.be

What is a side? Guys who just who aren’t into bottoming or topping?, 2018: https://www.thegayuk.com/what-is-a-side-guys-who-just-who-arent-into-bottoming-or-topping/

Not a Top, Bottom, or Vers. Are You a Side?, 2018: https://thebeastlyexboyfriend.com/2018/09/21/not-a-top-bottom-or-vers-are-you-a-side/