We are divided into three sex roles — top, bottom, and versatile. Any person of any gender can be a top or bottom — just ask all the dominant women in the world. But there are internet whisperings of a fourth sex role for queer men, or at least some queer writers trying to establish one. “Sides” enjoy sex but for various reasons do not enjoy anal sex. They may be into mutual masturbation, oral sex, and countless non-penetrative kinks and fetishes, but topping and bottoming aren’t on the list.
Being a queer man doesn’t automatically make you a fan of anal sex. Anal sex is difficult, painful, and sometimes makes a mess. Some men have medical reasons that make anal sex impossible — others simply don’t enjoy it. I’ve known many guys who are total tops not because they love topping, but because they find bottoming too painful and unpleasant. If you don’t like either, you might be a side.
Bottoming is a pain. It’s a lot of work, preparation, diet managing, and trial and error to find a cleaning routine that works for you. A lot of messes, failed attempts, and fissures happen before you get good at it. And while many bottoms probably envy the perceived ease of being a top, tops have troubles too. We glorify large cock size and create a culture idealizing hypermasculine, aggressive, ultra-confident tops, making average men (most of us) feel inadequate and leaving feminine and submissive tops out in the cold. Despite these issues, anal sex is widely considered the standard way queer men connect.
I lean bottom because, despite all the work that goes into it, I love getting fucked. When it’s good, it’s great, it’s worth it. If I didn’t love the end result so much, I’d say anal sex is a headache and one that queer men are rather obsessed with. If I didn’t love the feeling of topping or bottoming, I’d likely feel ashamed and shut out from the fun. So much of our culture, from eggplant emojis to butt shorts, codes anal sex into our everyday lives. In all this, I imagine sides feel overlooked and left out.
I’m sure I’ve contributed to their feelings of isolation. In my writing, I’ve certainly been guilty of reducing sex between men to one single experience. Sides remind me of all the countless kinks (bondage, nipple play, CBT, impact play, tickling, edging) and virtually endless role-play scenarios that don’t involve anal penetration, and how much fun some of them are. I could definitely date a side guy.
If “side” became a widely recognized sexual identity, it would break up this heteronormative top-bottom binary queer men still labor under. I’m tired of bottom-shaming, top-worship, and the common complaint that there are “more bottoms than tops” in a given area, but I know where these things come from. Top-bottom jokes abound because we’re still reinforcing the idea that every queer man is one or the other (like bisexuals, versatile guys get erased and forgotten).
Beneath all these words and terms is a truth we’re just barely scratching at — that human sexuality can’t be reduced to single-word identities. Sexuality is a complex, fluid, ever-evolving thing. But single-word identities are helpful for dating and building communities, so we keep them. We should welcome sides the same way we should welcome new words to our ever-expanding LGBT acronym. Queer elders tend to bemoan the expanded acronym (along with the use of the word “queer”) as a millennial snowflake invention, and I’m sure it sometimes looks like we’re composing identities and labels out of thin air. But even if someone doesn’t understand the new terms or see the need for them, it’s not hard to understand the intention behind their creation.
Finding names for who we are and how we feel is perhaps the oldest human struggle. Sexual and gender identity are difficult, complex, intensely personal concepts that resist simple, one-word labels — I’m sure “transgender” feels oversimplified to some trans folks as much as “gay” feels oversimplified to me. Sex is such an important part of my life, and words like “bottom” and “versatile” barely do justice to what I am and what I like in bed, and I can think of many words that describe me better. But these oversimplified terms help us find others — people we identify with and people we want to fuck. While most of us can admit that they fail to capture our complexity, we can also admit the power in finding others who connect with us via the words we use.
Adding new identities to our self-identifying vocabulary is part of our ongoing attempt to answer our most ancient human question. From modern space exploration to our first carvings of gods, we asked ourselves, “What am I?” This is a roundabout way of saying that we shouldn’t roll our eyes at “side.” The word might not roll off the tongue as much as “top” and “bottom,” words we’re accustomed to, and talking about being a side might seem awkward. But I think there’s a lot of queer men out there who could benefit from learning they have a name, community, and dating pool — one that doesn’t glorify anal sex as the baseline form of intimacy, eroticism, and pleasure.
Are you a side? If so, tell others. I’ve received many emails from gay and bi men struggling with both sides of gay sex, men who feel like they missed a memo that everyone else received — men who feel defeated and alone as a result. My brothers, your word has come.