There’s More to Sex than Penetration
Every day, we teach our patients to take the hierarchy out of sex. For example, it’s not accurate to think of foreplay and sex as two distinct events. Kissing, mutual masturbation, and oral stimulation are all types of sex. They are just as “good” or “important” as vaginal and anal penetration. It’s all sex! Sex does not require penetration with a penis, and yet we are socially conditioned to think about some sex acts as inherently better than others. (Remember learning about first, second, and third base on the playground in grade school?) Let personal pleasure and erotic connection with your partner be the guiding principles, and you’ll find far more satisfaction outside of the sexual hierarchy. While this is critical learning for people of all genders and sexual orientations, it takes on special significance for men who have sex with men. (I use the term men to refer to men who have sex with men throughout this article. These men may or may not identify as gay, bisexual, pansexual or other non-heterosexual orientations.)
In sexual spaces, typically online, men often ask one another to disclose their preferred sexual position within minutes of meeting each other. Tops are men who prefer to be the insertive partner in anal intercourse and bottoms take pleasure from being the receptive partner during anal intercourse. Versatile men (often abbreviated as verse) are comfortable with both roles. You list your preferred position in your profile on hook up apps. In the non-digital world, other men may make false assumptions about your preferred position based on your demeanor, muscle mass, age, and other largely irrelevant attributes. Bottoms are often stigmatized and assumed to be more feminine than tops because the receptive role during sex is associated with women. While they may be stigmatized, at least a bottom is still participating in the highest ranking sex act on the problematic hierarchy. Tops are viewed as stronger, in charge, more masculine and are therefore experience the more social privilege than bottoms. Where does that leave gay men who love many different types of sex, but don’t get pleasure from topping or bottoming in anal sex?
Enter the term “sides.” Sides are men who are sexual with other men in a host of ways (oral sex, mutual masturbation, kissing, massage, etc.), but who do not participate in anal sex as they do not get pleasure from either role. The term sides was first coined by Dr. Joe Kort in an article he wrote for Huff Post in 2013. While the term has been around for almost a decade, it has only entered into the gay vernacular in the past year or so, as Dr. Kort has gone viral on TikTok. Simultaneously, Grindr (a gay hook-up app with about 13 million monthly users worldwide) added side to the options in user profiles in June 2022. Previously, the only choices were top, bottom, or verse, which meant sides were forced to misrepresent themselves if they wanted to participate in the largest sexual marketplace available for men seeking men.
We encourage men to not be rigid in their thinking about preferred sexual position as an identity label. You are a bottom when you are the receptive partner during anal sex. That does not mean you are more feminine, less assertive, have less muscle mass, or are a “bottom” in any way when you’re not having sex. This way of thinking holds true for tops and sides as well. Men may be sides out of genuine personal preference or medical necessity. They may have anxiety related to unpredictable erections or conditions that make receptive anal sex painful or unappealing such as chronic hemorrhoids or anal fissures. (We can help you manage any of those conditions!) They may simply just enjoy other types of sex more. While some men have a clear preference, the labels of top, bottom, verse, and side define roles during sex and do not define your identity or personality outside of sexual encounters.
Whatever sexual position you prefer, embrace it. It is not a statement on your masculinity or a reflection of not having “the best” type of sex. While stigma persists in communities of men who have sex with men, the term “sides” is growing in popularity. It allows for more men to be represented accurately in communities of men who have sex with men. At Maze, our goal is to support people in having the best sex they can and that includes celebrating men who may not want to have penetrative sex at all. Whether you are a top, bottom, verse, or side, we can help you reach your sexual goals.