Who’s On Top?

Photo: Zohar Lazar

The surge in Internet dating has enabled straight singles to delineate their romantic requirements in no uncertain terms—religion, income, smoking policy—but in gay men’s personals, there’s another category in the mix: top or bottom. (For those not in the know, the bottom is, sexually speaking, the one on the receiving, or “catching,” end of things.) In a city where it’s hard enough to figure out how to get sex, gay men must also figure out how to have it. The wrong position in the right guy can be an automatic deal breaker, making an already complex dating world even more difficult to navigate. “I’ll be online,” says Jason, 33, a financial consultant, “chatting with some guy, we’ll be getting along really well, and then I’ll say I’m a bottom and he’ll say, ‘Me too. Okay. Good-bye,’ and sign off.”

Though many men despise being labeled, offering up their versatility as a selling point, like a six-figure income or well-defined lats, others say a versatile’s just a bottom in denial. “New York is a bottom town,” says Jason. “When you’re on manhunt.net and the profile says ‘versatile,’ you know that guy’s a bottom. It means he will top but doesn’t like to. I’m a bottom, and my profile says versatile.”

Jason will top on occasion, when he loses the game known as “Race to the Bottom,” but he doesn’t enjoy it as much. “One of the reasons I don’t top as much is because I don’t have to do as much work—not that I’m a lazy bottom who just lays there.” When he finds himself being asked to top by a guy he likes, he takes Viagra. “That way, there’s not as much potential for it to fall through if I’m not totally into it. There’s not as much riding on the erection factor, and I can just enjoy the sex.”

Some surmise that the Big Apple’s bottom surplus is a reaction to the daily grind of making it in the city. “I have to be on all day,” Jason says. “At night, I don’t want to have all the responsibility on me. And the responsibility is on the top because he has to have an erection in order for sex to happen.” Other men say it’s only natural to want to be a bottom when it’s the bottom who has the most fun. Contrary to what many straight people assume, bottoms are not necessarily submissive or masochistic; any man who’s done some exploring knows the pleasures of the prostate.

Some bottoms call themselves “power bottoms,” which means they take pride in bottoming and are extraordinarily picky about the anatomical endowments of their partners. “A power bottom,” says Stan, 38, a literary agent, “is somebody who can take it pretty easily and likes it a lot. I know a guy like that who’s only topped four guys in his life. I said to him, ‘That’s one per decade!’ ”

With so many proud bottoms in this town, it’s enough to make even the most committed tops question themselves. “My best friend and I are both active tops,” says Dennis, 26, a stylist, “and we’re always talking about how unsophisticated and tacky and eighties we feel, like we’re missing out on all this pleasure. We feel like we’re in the service industry. The bottom gets the good end of the deal.”

Dennis has been thinking a lot about position lately because he keeps getting bait-and-switched: He meets a guy he’s certain is a bottom only to take him home and find that he’s a top. “It’s made it hard to get in a relationship because it seems like every time someone seems right for me on other levels, he turns out to be a top. We’ll try switching, and it’s not satisfying, then fast-forward a month and we’re talking about the other guys we’re dating.”

Some gay men are reluctant to define themselves as top or bottom. Stan fell for his boyfriend when the subject of position came up on their first date. “He said, ‘Are you top or bottom?’ I said, ‘Both,’ and he said, ‘Yay!’ I would never date someone who said he was one or the other.”

Bill, a 36-year-old journalist, spent time in Amsterdam, where he found that most gay men were versatile, then moved to New York, where everyone was obsessed with top/bottom. “It’s very American to have to decide, like ‘McDonald’s or Burger King?’ Why should you limit yourself that way?” Versatility benefits everyone, he says. “The best tops are also bottoms because they know what it feels like.”

The issue is made more complex by that fact that looks are no indication of proclivity. Gone are the handkerchief codes of the seventies, where a hankie in the left pocket indicated a guy was a top, and the right indicated a bottom.

Some say there’s a reverse correlation between appearance and position—many short guys and drag queens are strict tops, while steroidal gym rats can be devoted bottoms. “All those Chelsea boys are bottoms!” cries Adrian, 28, a filmmaker. “I remember being at Barracuda one night, and this drag queen was going around to different guys saying, ‘Bottom, bottom, bottom,’ but no one was willing to admit it.”

Some men are tops when they’re single but become bottoms once they fall in love. Adrian considered himself a top when he met his current boyfriend, Mike, who had never bottomed. “He had issues about it,” Adrian says. “But he was willing to be a bottom with me because of the emotional connection.”

The first time, Mike was nervous, so they joked about it to make things more comfortable. “I said, ‘Honey, it’s going to hurt me as much as it’s going to hurt you.’ We were laughing hysterically. He speaks five or six languages, and he was going back and forth between them, saying, ‘Why do you gay people do this?’ ”

Since then, they’ve been jockeying for position. Adrian now calls himself “a bottom who’s not willing to give it up.” “I’m a white boy with a Puerto Rican butt,” he says, “so Mike’s always saying, ‘Look at your butt! You have to be the bottom!’ We’re always chasing each other around the apartment, these two 145-pound guys trying to pin each other down.”

For gay men who haven’t yet found their Mr. Right, the difficulty in New York may have less to do with position than competition. “I do yoga four times a week and have 7 percent body fat,” says Stan, “and I still can’t get guys to say hi to me. The real challenge in New York has nothing to do with being a top or bottom. It’s getting a second date.”

Who’s On Top?