LGBTQ

A Brief History of Bottoming

Here's how being a gay bottom went from a simple preference during anal sex to a whole new set of cultural signifiers (Lana Del Rey included).

by James Greig; illustrated by Marta Parszinew
17 March 2020, 7:17am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Wearing oversized sweatshirts that go past your hands. Listening to Lana del Rey on vinyl while douching for a guy who doesn’t deserve you. Your phone always dying. Being confused for a woman when on the phone. Wanting someone to come and rescue you. According to people on Twitter, these alternately depressing and banal attributes constitute "bottom culture".

"Bottom" (the person who performs the receptive role during gay sex) has never been stronger as an identity category than it is today. But what does this identity actually consist of? If online jokes are anything to go by, there’s a vein of sadness running through bottomhood, a boundless capacity for abjection. Sometimes, bottom culture is just the hyper-specific situation of the person making the joke: “bottom culture is crying to Kim Petras because a man who has successfully rebranded themselves as a few notches more masculine than you (despite the fact they also got bullied in school for being gay) ignored the pathetic voice-note you sent them eight hours earlier,” for example.

Sometimes bottom culture is jokes about spicy food and/or the fact that people excrete faeces out of their anuses. Contrary to the stereotype that all gay men are urbane sophisticates with a tendency to reel off epigrams about the deceptive nature of appearances, gay humour today is mostly comprised of jokes about burrito-induced diarrhoea.

This idea of "bottom" as being a fully-fledged identity category is, for the most, part tongue in cheek – which is why it’s so fun swapping the word "women" for "bottom" in famous phrases. "Well-behaved bottoms rarely make history." "One is not born, but rather becomes, a bottom." "If you want something said, ask a top; if you want something done, ask a bottom." "A bottom without a top is like a fish without a bicycle." Doing this is funny (it is!) precisely because it’s stupid – the comparison doesn’t line up, and bottoms aren't oppressed in the same ways as women. But there is also something satisfying in inhabiting any identity; whether such an identity is “real” or not is beside the point.

So how did we arrive at a place where being a "bottom" doesn’t just refer to a preference for being the passive partner during anal sex, and comes with a whole set of cultural signifiers? It’s pretty complicated, given that sodomy has existed in some form or another since time immemorial (which suggests that it’s a "natural" human behaviour… @ the homophobes). There’s also always been some level of stigma attached to being the person getting fucked, which makes sense given how misogynistic the history of civilisation has been.

“The shame has always been there, to be honest, since the time of the Greeks, when the role of the bottom was always taken by a boy or a slave, and as such a noncitizen,” says Dr Jonathan Kemp, author of The Penetrated Male, a literary and historic study of bottoming. “For the ancient Greeks, to be a citizen meant being a top and if an adult male persisted in being fucked he was considered unfit for his civic role.”

When two men of the same social class in Ancient Greece fucked, the sex they had was likelier to be intercrural (sex between the thighs). To this day, you still see lame gay men like Stephen Fry supposedly “owning” homophobes by insisting that, actually, we don’t have much anal sex at all and that intercrural is more popular. This is stupid: gay men are absolutely having an inordinate amount of anal and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise to appease people who find that distasteful, because they’re probably not going to find the thought of you jamming your dick into someone’s lubed-up thighs anymore palatable. So the term "bottom shaming" might sound like it was invented by a Brooklyn media gay with a podcast about queer issues called, like, The Tea Spill, but it is to some extent a real phenomenon which has occurred throughout history and is observable today.

The genealogy of the "feminine bottom" stereotype, however, is slightly complicated by the fact that it wasn’t until the trial of “celebrity pedophile” Oscar Wilde that we began to see a widespread conflation of homosexuality itself and femininity (according to queer theorist Alan Sinfield’s book The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment.) Before Wilde was jailed, an "effeminate" man was someone who was basically too straight –a horned-up studmuffin who spent so much time chasing tail that he ended up adopting the mannerisms of the women he lusted over. (You can witness a similar logic in play in every school report card I received which scolded me, a gay boy with an all-female friendship group, for “spending too much time flirting with the ladies”.)

Likewise, in the 18th century you could be a dandy cavorting around London in pursuit of Georgian twinks and, as long as you were the active partner, you wouldn’t be considered "gay" – the identity didn’t exist. Buggery was frowned upon, sure, but so was anything other than missionary heterosexual sex between a husband and wife. Homosexuality was viewed as a bad behaviour rather than a bad identity.

Today, Oscar Wilde is still an icon of homosexual effeminacy, and yet Wilde scholars believe he was the active partner during sex (that said, he went in for intercrural over anal – bo-ring!) At the other end of the spectrum, you have Jean Genet, a man who was pretty masc and yet capable of being such a slavish sub bottom that he wrote an entire book called Funeral Rites about getting dommed by Nazis (he also spent time with the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Revolution so, let’s not rush to cancel him).

“Genet writes that it is false to believe that ‘a male that fucks another male is a double male’,” Dr Kemp tells me. “For him, neither position is any guarantee of virility or masculinity. The performance of gender is always unstable, always about to crumble.”

The terms "bottom" and "top" accrued a new significance during the 1970s and 1980s. “These categories became particularly entrenched during and after the AIDS crisis when there were anxieties about certain practices being more risky,” says Ben Weil, a PHD candidate researching blood donor activism and HIV/AIDS policy. “In particular, bottoming was considered a much riskier practice than topping. Many individuals disavowed bottoming entirely in order to identify as a top and therefore be relatively safer during the crisis. The logical outcome of this is that you had people identifying as bottoms as a counterpoint. So, that kind of HIV/AIDS risk discourse really helped to crystallise top and bottom as identity categories.”

Moreover, Dr Kemp believes texts like Edmund White’s seminal The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) began to connect bottoming with qualities beyond sex itself – like "wanting to be cared for". This era also saw the beginning of apparel-based gay semiotics, such as wearing a left-earring to signify you were a bottom, or a red handkerchief on the right hand side to indicate that you liked getting fisted. It’s hard to overstate what an extraordinary shift it is that you can now just write all this stuff outright on a Grindr profile. You’d think this would make redundant having extra visual cues or cultural markers to signify you’re a bottom completely redundant, but this hasn’t been the case at all.

Today, "bottom" as an identity category has been crystallised even further, both through social media and hook-up apps. “On social media there’s a drive towards identity and branding which goes way beyond bottoming but includes it,” says Sean, a 24-year-old gay man who lives in London. “People are getting more keen to find ways to understand how they live within a moniker.” What’s interesting is the possibility that this cultural identity can exist separate to the act of actually getting fucked. “To be a bottom without bottoming is definitely a thing,” says Sean. “Whether you’re getting fucked or not, the idea of bottom culture can be read as an attempt to bring to the surface some of the things which are thought of as the most abject and shameful about being gay.” I would be inclined to agree with this and, however boring and repetitive most bottom-related humour is, I still think it’s broadly a good thing that it exists.

While the stereotype of the femme bottom may still reign supreme, certain well-established assumptions about our preferred sexual positions are beginning to be challenged. We can see this through emerging categories like "blouse" (a femme top) or "power bottom" (someone who takes the passive role during anal sex but in an assertive, perhaps even dominant way). The latter term is described by Dr Kemp as “refuting the idea that to be fucked is somehow emasculating or effeminising.” Which is fair enough, with the crucial caveat that sometimes getting fucked is emasculating – and that’s kind of hot!

Maybe one day we’ll be able to talk about bottoming with more nuance and less cliche than we do now, without lazily transplanting heterosexual dynamics, without making so many jokes about bowel movements. Until that point, hope is a dangerous thing for a bottom like me to have… but I have it.

@jamesdgreig