Ask any gay man, and he'll tell you that the world is full of bottoms. "Bottom, bottom, bottom, bottom, bottom," my friend Chris said to peels of laughter in reference to everyone at a recent (and very gay) dinner party. They'll tell you that "New York is a bottom town," as claimed one subject of a New York Magazine piece from 2003, or that "maybe there are like five tops in the universe," as the author of a Thought Catalog post about the perils of bottoming had it. Similar anecdotes abound, which prompts the question: How are gay men getting any D in the B if everyone throws their ankles up in the air as soon as they get within three feet of the nearest mattress? Are there really more bottoms than tops in the world? And just how many bottoms and tops are out there, really?
Statistics, at least, don't seem to bear these assumptions out. Grindr added the option to list one's preferred position in their profile for the first time this September. Since then, 6 percent of daily users have identified themselves as tops and only four percent as bottoms, according to a representative; 28 percent of remaining men identify as versatile. Similarly, on Scruff, a dating app for the more hirsute gay men among us, more users identify as versatile than anything else. According to chief product officer Jason Marchant, 35 percent of US users identify as versatile, while 21 percent identify as bottoms and 19 percent as tops.
It would seem then that more guys want to present themselves as liking it both ways than exclusively preferring one position over another. It's like what Woody Allen once said about bisexuality: "It immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night."
But only 40 percent of Grindr users and 44 percent of Scruff users list any preference at all—many prefer not to broadcast their bedroom preferences in the first place. Others still may choose not to use the apps' designated profile fields to tip off potential suitors about bedroom needs; many choose to designate their preferences using emojis in their screen names (an arrow pointing down, for example). They aren't counted in those statistics.
These statistics are skewed by a more obvious factor: This is what guys say their preferred position is when they're putting that information out in the world. That means a whole host of human behavior and social stigma comes into play—guys will fib in order to get laid, or because of what others might assume about them based on their preferences. And that might be driving the anecdotal perception that the queer world is rife with bottoms. Lots of guys claim to be tops or versatile, but at least some of them are faking it.
In a 2011 paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers Trevor Hart and David Moskowitz surveyed over 400 men recruited via Craigslist's personal ad section to uncover factors that lead one to think of themselves as a top, bottom or versatile. They found a similar breakdown as Grindr and Scruff—about half of those surveyed identified as versatile, and a quarter each as tops or bottoms.
However, they also followed up to see what kinds of behavior guys reported engaging in during sex, and discovered that while those who self-reported as tops or bottoms actually consistently topped and bottomed in bed, only about half of versatile guys actually switched things up. That means that when it gets down to getting down, the versatile guys surveyed weren't nearly as open minded as their claimed preference would lead you to believe; 48 percent of self-reported versatile men were, in fact, bottoms, while 52 percent were tops.
So, all things being equal—which these statistics would seem to bear out; gay guys, all told, fall pretty evenly on the divide between top and bottom—why do we love to accuse each other (and the rest of the world) of being rife with bottoms? As it turns out, it may be a way for gay men to encourage each other to butch it up. In his cleverly titled Top or Bottom: A Position Paper, published last year in the journal Psychology & Sexuality, psychologist Dr. Andrew Reilly wrote that gay men use the word "bottom" as a way to criticize those with feminine traits—in so doing, bullying them into conforming with heteronormative gender expectations.
And so you have it—by lending tops a position of privilege in our gay hierarchies (by remarking upon their supposed rarity, or by accusing each other of being bottoms,) we reinforce the same misogynist and patriarchal tendencies of our straight brethren. All too often, we accuse each other of being bottoms by way of criticizing perceived feminine traits within other gay men. Sure, we do it as a joke, but one with a nasty undertone.
Interestingly enough, bottom shaming may have its provenance in the AIDS crisis, when, during the 80s, bottoms began to hide out. "Top and bottom became forbidden categories in the 80s, because [being a bottom] was a death sentence," said William Leap, an anthropologist currently writing a book about gay slang before Stonewall. "If you said you were a bottom, it meant you had a disease."
Those attitudes are still prevalent today. And because bottoms are maligned within our community, we may never get a truly accurate picture of just how many there are. Bottom shame is real, and less innocuous than an innocent-seeming joke might suggest. Besides, bottoms should man up and embrace who they are—after all, tops would be mighty lonely without them.
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