Top/Bottom/Versatile: What’s There to Talk About?
via San Francisco Bay Times, by Tim Vollmer
After I graduated from college in the Bay Area in 1982, I moved to New York City and got a job at the Rawhide, a rough and tumble, heavy cruising gay bar in Chelsea. I was surprised to find that one of the first things the bar manager told me to do was wear my keys on the left, which would signal that I was the active partner in sex. “Tops get more tips,” he said as he reached over and jangled my keys which at that moment were hanging on my right.
I did as he said but I don’t think I fooled anyone, nor did I really want to. At 22 I was lean, had no facial hair and was generally shy in most social interactions, all of which did not give off a particularly toppish vibe, especially in the cut throat New York gay scene of the early 80s. I didn’t last long at the Rawhide, or for that matter in New York, but I’ve never forgotten the admonishment that “tops get more tips” and all that it implied. In the years that followed I’ve learned that the advice is common in the bar world and a similar attitude persists in the porn world.
I’ve wondered in the years since why most people outside the bar or porn business rarely talk about the various aspects of the top/bottom dynamic that pervades nearly all the gay world. It may get discussed among friends as they evaluate their encounters with their latest sex partner, or online as people negotiate hookups, or sometimes in jokes or comedy routines in gay theater, but rarely in a thoughtful or deliberate manner and almost never as a community issue.
To anyone who gives it a second thought, it’s pretty clear that the whole top/bottom dynamic in gay culture, or what Europeans call active/passive, is a reworking in a gay context of the male/female dynamic found in heterosexual relations and in the heterosexually dominated mainstream culture. To put it bluntly, the top role in gay culture is at root based on the traditionally defined male role, the active penetrator in sex, just as the bottom is based on the traditional female role as the penetrated. As the terms themselves suggest, this reworking of heterosexual roles comes at least in part with sexist assumptions that underlie those roles.
The implications of value-weighted terms like “top” and “bottom” and advice that “tops get more tips” indicate that the experience of people who prefer or identify with one role or the other might be significantly different. It’s been clear for a while that prejudices like sexism or racism damage all sides and all participants, often in extremely subtle and indirect ways. We’ve been talking about how sexism can warp heterosexual relations for decades now, but an analogous discussion among gays has been mostly lacking in recent years.
This lack of discussion hasn’t always been the case. I’ve always thought myself lucky that right when I was becoming sexually aware in the 1970s, a fully articulated gay liberation perspective was becoming more popular, especially in places like the San Francisco Bay Area where I was growing up. I particularly liked the feminist perspective that argued that things related to women didn’t necessarily have to denigrated and that the world might be better off if the genders were more equally valued. Simple as it might sound, the politically-charged atmosphere of the 70s and early 80 gave me and others permission and support to experiment sexually and find where we fit in the top/bottom dynamic. By the time I got that job in New York at the Rawhide, I knew where to wear my keys.
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