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How Easy Is It to Tell Tops from Bottoms?

A number of studies have found that stereotypes about gay guys may predict their sexual behavior.
Illustration by Taylor Lewis

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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. And yes, not only does he prefer the insertive end of anal intercourse, he's what we in the industry call a "total top," meaning that his butthole, in the crude parlance of homophobes everywhere, is a one-way street.


But why was she so shocked, exactly? Why is it that we usually imagine the swishier men among us as bottoms and reserve our conception of tops for guys who look like G.I. Joe? "It's all about stereotypes," said Dr. Andrew Reilly, a psychologist who has written several studies on tops, bottoms, and what our perception of them does to individual psychology. "And people think that if you're a stereotype in one area, then you're a stereotype in another."

In other words, we still haven't evolved enough in 2016 to separate sexual preferences from looks and personality. But there's some research to back up the idea that masculinity and effeminacy might correlate with those preferences: In particular, a 2013 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found that "people rely on perceptions of characteristics relevant to stereotypical male–female gender roles and heterosexual relationships to accurately infer sexual roles in same-sex relationships."

For those of us who have forgotten their college psych, that means that people can pick out tops just by scanning their faces. In the study, 23 participants (seven of whom were female) were shown online dating profile pictures of 200 gay men—100 who unambiguously self-identified as tops, 100 as bottoms, zero as versatile—and asked to identify the role they preferred based solely on their appearance. Each featured a man free of facial adornments, like glasses or beards, looking directly into the camera; their faces were standardized in size, cropped from their original background, and converted to grayscale.


Based on facial attributes alone, participants were able to pick out tops an average of 64.56 percent of the time, but bottoms only 38.82 percent of the time (overall guesses were correct an average of 51.69 percent of the time.) That means participants may have shown bias toward "heterosexually-inspired stereotypes about men," as the study conceded, in picking out tops from the crowd; when the study was released, co-author Dr. Nicholas O. Rule said the results had everything to do with biological indicators of masculinity (such as hairiness or a square jaw), not behavioral indicators. That means that just because a top looks like a top doesn't mean he can't act like Paul Lynde at a Judy Garland concert.

But a 2011 paper by Chinese and Canadian researchers Lijun Zheng, Trevor Adam Hart, and Yong Zheng found that some correlation does exist between one's preferred position and how likely they are to flame out, at least among the Chinese gay men they studied. "Sexual self-labels appear not only to distinguish sexual behavior patterns but may also suggest gender role differences among Chinese gay men," it said. That means that guys who self-identified as tops in the study also identified their own behavior as more masculine and tended more toward "gender-related interests"; bottoms self-identified as more expressive and as adhering to female gender roles. (In other words: Tops are from Mars, bottoms are from Venus.)


A separate study by the same researchers found that bottoms were more interested in faces considered to be traditionally masculine, while tops showed more interest in traditionally feminine faces.

But it shouldn't take this much research to figure out that tops want to have sex with bottoms—that's like saying carnivores enjoy eating meat. When asked why it appears feminine guys might be more inclined toward bottoming and masculine guys toward topping, Hart, the Canadian researcher, has a few theories. "One hypothesis is there are biological differences between tops and bottoms, and that's a possibility, but we don't have any evidence to support it," he says. "Guys who are feminine are being pushed into feminine roles, and we construct roles in heterosexist ways. That's as likely as an answer, and I think there is more evidence [for it]."

So our stereotypes beget behavior that begets identity that begets behavior that begets stereotypes. It's just a spiral of topping and bottoming, like a snake eating its own tail—or, rather, like a gay dude trying to stick his own dick in his own ass.

However, some men know just what those stereotypes are, and because of the stigma attached to bottoming—a byproduct of a patriarchal society that tells us everything that is feminine is wrong—they seek physical ways to keep other people from spotting them as a bottom. In a 2011 paper, researchers Andrew Reilly, Danielle Young, and Loriena Yancura looked at "sexual position identity" (if a guy says he's a top or a bottom) along with body image and levels of internalized homophobia. "Gay men with a higher degree of internalized homophobia and who identify as bottoms are more likely to work out to get muscular, so that would negate the idea of being a bottom," Reilly said. "Once you have your muscles, you're viewed as straight, even though they have created this other stereotype: the muscular power bottom."

At the end of the day, Hart and all the other researchers I talked to said that it's nearly impossible to tell if a guy is a top or bottom just by looking at how he looks, dresses, and behaves.

Hart said that you might begin to see similarities between tops and the bottoms "if you [studied] 400 tops and 400 bottoms," he says. "But that doesn't account for individuals. There are a lot of tops that are feminine and bottoms that are masculine. But there is no data on individuals. We shouldn't exaggerate the importance of a label." Hart said if we actually tabulated the number of times guys had insertive or receptive anal sex, it would show they aren't as exclusively one position or another as they think they are.

Hey, and if you're getting close enough to a guy where it's really going to matter, you might have to figure it out the old fashioned way: Ask.

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter.