Beyond Anal Sex: Why Some Gay Men Call Themselves ‘Sides’

While the term is gaining traction on dating apps, it also faces stigma from within the gay community.
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Until recently, if you were looking to hook up on a gay dating app like Grindr, you’d enter your sexual preferences as “top” or “bottom.” In a sexual context, bottoming is the act of taking a dick (or a dick-shaped object) in your ass whereas topping implies doing the penetration. When it comes to gay and bi men, a lot of people seem kind of obsessed with working out who's a top/giver and who's a bottom/receiver, but in reality, MSM (men who have sex with men) may do both or neither. If you’re comfortable doing both, then you’re “versatile.” 


However, if you didn’t prefer anal sex, the option on Grindr used to be: “no anal.” As dismissive as that sounds, there simply was no other way to convey that you didn’t want to have penetrative sex but that that wasn’t all there was to sex. But earlier this month, Grindr – a dating app for queer people – officially introduced “side” as a sexual option on the app, making it easier for many men to finally put a term to what they enjoy in bed.

Coined in 2013 by sex and relationship therapist Joe Kort, who himself is queer and identifies as a side, the term has gained steam only recently. On paper, a side in bed is someone who doesn’t want to perform the act of anal sex. And although that would make many conservative Indians including my mom happy, there’s so much more to being a side that is generally dismissed. That’s mostly because gay men who confess to preferring the position are often met with judgement from their own ilk. 

“The first reaction I often get from other queer men is, ‘What’s a side?’ and after I tell them, their next statement is, ‘Oh you're just a bottom who doesn't want to admit it,’ or ‘If you haven't tried anal, how can you call yourself a side?’” said Akash, a 36-year-old communications designer who preferred to withhold his last name for privacy reasons. Akash feels only a side can truly empathise with another side.


For many queer men, anal is the end-all-be-all activity, the ultimate peak of sexual gratification that helps them get off. But for sides, orgasms are merely the destination and it’s the journey that really makes the experience interesting. 

We need to take a second here to address that anal sex, although pleasure-inducing when done right, can be a nightmare when it’s not backed up with a strict regimen. I’ve personally never enjoyed getting fingered. A medical condition that lead to anal fissures – a tissue tear that makes eating spicy food a near impossible task – made taking a dick out of the question for me. So, over time, if I meet a fellow “versatile top,” we don’t mind just cuddling, making out, rimming, handjobs, blowjobs, 69ing – things that would otherwise be considered foreplay and not as much fun as “fucking each other’s brains out.”

When it does come down to anal sex, though, it’s unfair that the onus is on the bottoms mostly, wherein they have to starve themselves, douche, clean, and wait until the moment arrives. On the other hand, the tops have to just show up. You also better pray that the top is into eating ass, because if not, he’s entering the field on a rather dry pitch, and no amount of lubrication can help your sphincter ease into the onslaught of a cock. 

Rahul Arora, a 39-year-old chef based in Kolkata in eastern India, believes that when compared to tops and bottoms, the bond between two sides is much stronger. “With tops or bottoms, it’s about insertion, but sides will mostly prefer cuddling and foreplay,” he said. “For me, it is not only about the health scare aspect, but also the fact that I prefer oral and bodyplay more.” 


Bodyplay is when someone runs their fingers sensually over your body and genitalia, discovers the erogenous zones that can set you off, and caresses and feels your skin in a sensual manner. This way, inhibitions are often broken down and the two (or more) people can find more comfort in each other’s company. Sides also often indulge in frottage, or dry humping as it’s more commonly known. “I’d rather trust someone I cuddle over someone I have penetrated. I’d even want to be friends with them after,” said Arora.

While queer men are getting familiarised with the term on a global scale and trying to adapt it into their own settings, there are still those judging them for not being in a clearly pre-determined bracket of gay sex. There are times when people on dating apps are scared to refer to themselves as sides, fearing rejection and isolation. “I know a lot of people in the queer community who don’t enjoy topping or bottoming but refrain from using the word side,” said Badal, a 32-year-old architect and drag designer based in New York and Jabalpur. “They think that the fear is that you’re already in a marginalised community. By telling someone about not wanting anal sex, you run the risk of marginalising yourself further. I’ve received an occasional, ‘Oh, then how does it work?’ As if sex without penetration is unfathomable.”

Indrajeet Ghorpade, the founder of YesweexistIndia – an Instagram page that focuses on queer issues and raising awareness about transphobia in popular media – believes that the society at large only sees penetrative sexual activity as “real” sex. “Due to this, people who do not enjoy or prefer not to engage in penetrative anal sex have been shamed, or dismissed by many within the gay community itself.” 

Ghorpade noted that the pressure to have anal sex can be so intense that many have forced themselves into painful sexual experiences. “But now that the term side is getting more visibility with apps like Grindr adding them, I hope that there is more awareness and acceptance, and less shaming. We must accept, embrace and celebrate this diversity,” he said.

Slowly but surely now, when you log onto Grindr, amidst the barrage of “top or bottom?” messages, you can find an odd side who is willing to indulge in a conversation, spend time learning your kinks and desires, ask you about yourself, and treat your body like a temple for a change and not a disposal unit. In a sea of cum dump fantasies, sides could just be the fresh breath of intimacy that gay sexual encounters needed.

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