“At dinner recently, a female friend mentioned how shocked she was to discover that our mutual gay acquaintance was a top. After all, this guy is quite effeminate—he works in fashion and is so light in his loafers that he’s practically hovering above them.” This is the anecdote that starts Brian Moylan’s 2016 piece, “How Easy Is It to Tell Tops from Bottoms?”.
To be fair, his article isn’t a Cosmopolitan-esque guide to stereotyping tops and bottoms. But the article does cover research that reveals how stereotypes help us correctly differentiate between tops and bottoms before we enter the bedroom. Not to mention, the web is filled with a slew of articles offering ways to spot a top or bottom on the dance floor, by his facial features, or by assessing his mannerisms.
When it comes to sexual role stereotypes, bottoms tend to get the short end of the stick. By societal standards, they’re saddled with the less desirable traits like femininity, promiscuity, and spread of disease. However, tops are characterized as manly, muscular, dominant, and aggressive. As we all know, these stereotypes are just that—stereotypes. Just as a jacked bodybuilder can be a bottom, a femme queen can be a top. The first thing to know about topping is that anyone can do it, regardless of how “masculine” they are.
And these misconceptions go beyond the profile of a top. There’s a lot that most gay men don’t know about the art of topping.
Let’s get the science out of the way. The Advocate defines a top as: “The insertive partner in anal sex between cisgender gay men (biological who identify as men), or transgender gay men, or frontal, vaginal sex with transgender gay men.” Who the top is and what he does is pretty self-explanatory. But what’s not easily understood is the top’s role in intercourse.
It’s widely believed that the top is the director. That he’s the one who determines the flow of events. But as we learned in The Wellfellow Guide to Bottoming, it’s the bottom who’s really in control of things. So, where does that leave the top? Is he totally at the mercy of the bottom? Not exactly. While he has a lot less prep ahead of time, there are still some things he needs to keep in mind to ensure a great experience.
Before we talk about technique, let’s talk about the psychology behind topping. There are lots of men out there who feel that topping makes them less gay. (Some believe they aren’t gay at all. These are the dudes that scientists refer to as MSM—men who have sex with men.) According to Scientific American, tops are more likely to reject identifying as gay, as though actual intercourse is the only determining factor. And thus, they’re often the insertive partner in other sexual activities like oral sex, and they have weaker psychological health.
This isn’t to say that all tops are in denial about their sexuality, or that all tops are mentally unstable. That’s not at all the truth. However, there is a tendency to equate topping with being more masculine. So, some tops are driven strictly by pleasure while others incorporate it into their social identity.
The first-time top
For the first-time bottom, there’s a full routine involved in prepping for sex. However, for the top, it’s more about knowledge, skill, and technique. The more open you are to learning about good topping and working in tandem with your sexual partner, the more likely you are to have a memorable experience.
Help Him Relax: There’s a natural tendency for a bottom to clench when you first enter. But you can avoid this partially or completely by helping him relax. Start out above the belt. Be sensual and engage in foreplay. Show your partner that he’s desired, and get him in the mood. This experience is as much about him as it is about you.
Prep Your Bottom: You can’t just dive in there and start plowing away. The anus is not naturally prepared for insertion. So, you need to take your time and get your bottom warmed up for full-on intercourse. This could involve fingering or slow, playful insertion first. You want to loosen him up, and you want to ensure his comfort.
Listen and Feel for Cues: As you go along, you’ll know whether things are working. Listen to his breathing, look at his facial expression, and pay attention to how his body tenses and relaxes. If he’s in pain, he’s clenching, or he’s pushing your body away, these are signs that you need to adjust your style.
Let Him Take the Lead: It’s easy to think that you should control the speed. Surely, the faster you thrust, the closer you’ll get to orgasm. But you need the cooperation of your bottom. Let him guide your rhythm and follow his lead. He’ll let you know what works and when it’s okay to speed up.
Lube, Lube, Lube: If there was any doubt, you need lubrication. It makes for a more pleasurable experience on both ends. Condoms may be part of the picture, too. (More on protection in a bit.)
Being a better top
If you’ve been topping for a while, there are some great ways to step up your game.
Do Your Research: When you’re having sex, the last thing you want to think about is anatomy. But having a better understanding of the anus could lead to better sex for you and your partner. Once you understand what’s happening, you can adjust and respond accordingly.
Have an Open Mind: First, stop being afraid of a dirty bum. The hope is that your bottom is as clean as a whistle. But bottoming takes preparation, and impromptu sex doesn’t allow for that. If there’s an accident, don’t freak out. Think about how you’d feel if the roles were reversed. Second, change your perception about “loose bottoms.” The sphincter is a muscle that can be contracted and retracted. Guys who feel “looser” just know how to control it better.
Throw in a Rim Job: Some foreplay can happen below the belt. A good rim job can serve as a pleasurable precursor to sex. Just be sure to get creative with your tongue, so the experience stays interesting.
Mix It Up: You are not a robot. Don’t head into sex thinking you can go at the same speed with the same thrusts for the entire experience. This gets boring. Plus, if you want the sex to last more than a few minutes, you have a better chance of lasting longer with a little variation. The same goes for experimenting with positions.
Take a Break: If you feel like you’re going to orgasm too fast or you’ve just been going at it for an extended period, take a break. It’s beneficial for both of you. You can check to make sure everything’s in order (i.e. no blood, no pain), and you can rev up to continue.
Ultimately, the decision to use condoms is yours. But be sure to have an open discussion with your partner to make sure it’s a mutual choice. Also, understand the facts about your risk. Many tops believe they have no risk for HIV or other STDs simply because they’re the insertive partner. This isn’t true. Your risk is less than the bottom’s, but you can still get HIV through small cuts or sores on your penis. And your risk increases if you have any other STDs.
It’s also important to note that sex with condoms can be a bit more uncomfortable for the bottom. If you wrap it up, be sure to check in periodically and make sure everything feels okay on both ends.
Topping, while less nuanced than bottoming, involves a lot more collaboration and trust. It’s truly about partnership. If you’re willing to work together with your bottom, you can have an enjoyable experience every time.
Don’t miss the Wellfellow Guide to Bottoming. Check it out!