Etiquette: Why Asking “Are You a Top or Bottom?” Might Not Be the Greatest Move You’ll Ever Make (Unless of course you lead a very sad little life)

A person with a penis* has sex with another PWAP and the next day it’s casually brought up in conversation. “Oh, are you the top or the bottom?”, someone asks.  And then I begin to cry with anger. I was originally going to write this post about how straight people sometimes ask really intimate questions to queer people as if it’s not intimate because we’re different. “Who’s carrying the child?” “How do you masturbate?” “Are you on testosterone? ” “Were you abandoned by your father/mother as a child?” Yes, not every straight person thinks that they can ask anyone who isn’t straight and/or cis-gendered intensely intimate questions about their bodies/sex lives/history/mental-health/life-in-general, but which queer reading this can say that they’ve never had a question like this asked at them by a straight person?

You, put your hand down, you’re lying.

Sorry, maybe you’re not lying and maybe this is only prevalent among the various communities I’ve lived in.

This post was going to be about straight people asking PWAPs who have sex with other PWAPs if they’re the “top” (the penetrator) or the “bottom” (the penetratee). After writing the title of this post and saving it as an empty draft I meditated on the idea for a few days** and realized that I had more to say than just that. The subject I wanted to tackle was more than a nosy question, it was the whole TOP-BOTTOM-NO GREY AREA dichotomy that I was annoyed with.

Asking someone if they’re the giver or receiver in the sack is a pretty personal question. If your relationship with someone is close enough that you two talk about your sex lives then this question could be fine. If you’re co-workers, or casual acquaintances or friends who aren’t at the Let’s-Share-Every-Detail-Of-Our-Sex-Lives-And-Bowel-Movements stage then maybe let this question rest. By also run the risk of getting a very confusing sports answer when asking an acquaintance, “Are you the pitcher or the catcher?”

Moving on from the Appropriateness-Of-Questions issue I’d like to address why the question in general bothers me. It’s a really fucking presumptive question. Think about it for a minute. The question isn’t, “If you were going to engage in anal sex would you have a strong preference for one role or the other and please explain,” it isn’t even, “Did you have anal sex and if you did than which role did you preform?”, it’s “YOU ENGAGE IN ANAL SEX AND DID YOU TAKE IT UP THE BUM OR DID YOU GIVE IT UP THE BUM. AND BY IT I MEAN THE PENIS.”***

Not every PWAP who has sex with a PWAP is going to do anal. According to a study put out by the Center for Disease Control 2.9 percent (with a standard deviation of .3 percent) of the 61,865 men, aged 15-44, who “sexual activity with same-sex partners in lifetime”**** between 2006 and 2008 engaged in anal-sex. If I’m interpreting this correctly (And someone please let me know if I’m not. I’m not a professional statistician or professional CDC report reader.) then the majority of men (using the CDC’s definition) would respond with, “Neither,” when asked if they bottomed or topped. As a society we seem convinced that PWAP who have sex with other PWAP are going to do so anally. The idea of an effeminate twink bottoming enthusiastically for a straight-passing dude is super ingrained in our cultural mind. What about frot? Or is it frotting? I don’t really know. Frot is a form of sex that can happen between two PWAP but it doesn’t include anal penetration (Don’t worry, that link takes you to the Wikipedia entry on “frot”.)

And why do we have to have such a cemented idea on roles in anal sex? What about “switches”? Some people find joy in both giving and receiving penetration, ya know. To say that you must be one or the other really limits people’s creativity when it comes to exploring what makes them feel good. This idea that PWAP only have anal sex and only get to have position their entire sexual lives must be rolled back, if only because it’s limiting for those engaged in sex.

Also, don’t ask questions that are too intimate. Let other people bring up the topic before you start asking them if they’d rather have their Tricky Dick up someone’s Watergate or if they’d want someone’s (or some people’s) Prince Philip going into their Buckingham Palace.

*Maybe this penis is a biological one that this friend was born with, or maybe it’s a plastic one purchased from a shop, or maybe it’s a different type of penis. Maybe this friend identifies as male and maybe they don’t. That’s really not important right now. For the sake of brevity I’ll be using the acronym PWAP in place of “person with a penis”.

**Reality television, job hunting, West Wing watching, walking around town lost all count as meditating, got it?

***Maybe it isn’t that aggressive but I’ve got a scenario in my head where the person asking is a highly confused woolly mammoth who speaks loudly and in broken sentences when confused.

****Trust me, I’m really not thrilled with how the CDC presented their information. The section regarding anal sex in same-sex female couples? There isn’t one. And how are they defining “male” and “female”? There doesn’t seem to be anything about intersex individuals or different gender identities. If I could find data that wasn’t so… traditional, is that the word I want?, then I would have used that data. Anyone who has a report that’s more inclusive should send it along to me, please and thank you.

4 responses to “Etiquette: Why Asking “Are You a Top or Bottom?” Might Not Be the Greatest Move You’ll Ever Make (Unless of course you lead a very sad little life)

  1. How do they define male and female?? If a person is born with a penis, he is a male. If a person is born with a vagina, she is female. Plain and simple. Why do people insist on making more of a simple fact? Do with your organs as you wish, but call it like it is.

    • The issue is that we’re dealing with is a complex and not so plain or simple. Your definition tosses out the entire legitimacy of transgender/transsexual identities. What about people whose brains don’t fit within our cultural male/female binary?

      I’d also like to bring up the point of intersex individuals. Their genitalia may not match the exact definition of penis or vagina.

      As to your first question of “how do they define male and female?” I believe we can agree upon the differences of biological sex and gender. I’d highly recommend various other readings on this subject and can recommend some for you if you want.

      And for “call it like it is” the thing is that the terms and names that we use are not static. They are defined culturally and are shaped as we take new understandings of these complex topics.

  2. The issue brought up is ettiquette, and I strongly agree that asking about someones private sexual activities is quite rude and intrusive. Regardless of how one defines himself; straight,gay,etc.; to put it bluntly, it is nobody’s business! That said, I will admit to limited knowledge about transgender/identity issues.What I do believe, however, is one’s sexual behavior is a matter of choice. We all have free will. I will gladly accept your offer of suggested readings on this topic.

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