How Do I Know if I’m a Bottom?

Bottoming 101: Navigating shame, fear, curiosity, and — of course — pleasure.


What does being a “bottom” mean to you? Well, first of all, you don’t have to “be” anything. You don’t have to make something you enjoy sexually part of your identity.

I love bottoming and want people I’m sexually interested in to know that. Calling myself a bottom has pros and cons. On one hand, I have an easier time finding tops — guys who enjoy taking the active role in sex. On the other hand, putting myself in a box is frustrating when I want to top. (In my experience, most people are versatile in the right situation, or with the right person — I am.)

These labels make finding sex partners easier. That’s all they do. They don’t define an essential part of you unless you want them to. Before hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff established these words as standard sex vocabulary, queer men used discreet street coding — colored hankies, certain types of clothing — to discreetly tell each other what kind of sex they were looking for and which role (top or bottom, dominant or submissive) they wanted to take.

These words help sex happen. They are not cages you have to live your life in.

How do I know if I will enjoy bottoming?

Bottoming is usually not extremely fun on its first attempts. For many, bottoming is uncomfortable in the beginning. All sex is awkward when you don’t know what you’re doing.

But don’t give up. With practice comes pleasure. Once you get the hang of it, bottoming feels great.

Is bottoming safe?

Anal sex has just as much risk as vaginal sex for unwanted sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea, and since HIV is more common among certain populations (transgender women of color and men who have sex with men), anal sex poses a higher risk of HIV transmission for these people.

I’m a man who has sex with men, including trans men, and I see transgender women and queer people of color as essential members of my LGBTQ+ family. I am also HIV-positive. In cultural discourse, HIV is widely associated with my community — so much so that many beginners who want to try bottoming refrain from doing so because they think it’s an extremely dangerous, high-risk activity.

That’s not true. All sex — bottoming, topping, sucking, handjobs — involves risk. Learning about those risks and taking the necessary steps to minimize them (protecting yourself and playing smartly) gives you the freedom to enjoy bottoming without fear.

I discuss these risks and how to protect yourself in part two of this guide.

Can two bottoms be in a relationship?

Yes they can. My boyfriend leans bottom, and so do I. I love fucking him, and he loves fucking me, but sometimes (often) we both prefer to get fucked — and we do, by other guys.

The concept of non-monogamy might not be something you’re ready to think about right now, but at some point you will discover an awesome part of gay male culture: We are masters of nontraditional, non-monogamous, polyamorous, and “open” relationships.

We were trailblazers in the “free love” movement, and have a long history of enjoying long-term, successful relationships between guys who both “play for the same team.” If you connect with someone, don’t immediately assume that your perceived sexual “incompatibility” is a deal-breaker. Talk about it. Try to make it work.

Why do I feel ashamed of bottoming?

You’ve probably been told bottoming makes you “the girl,” or makes you “more gay.” We live in a misogynistic, patriarchal culture in which feminized men often get shamed, and men getting fucked is seen by many as the ultimate act of feminization.

Maybe you’re still dealing with some self-acceptance issues, and the concept of being “more gay” is uncomfortable, because you don’t want to be “more gay.” You may not even want to “be gay” at all.

First things first: there is nothing wrong with being feminine. There’s also nothing wrong with being gay. Even if you don’t believe that now, give it time, and spend as much time as you can among your people — other LGBTQ+ folks. We will help you.

What you enjoy sexually says nothing about your social importance, your power, your masculinity, your femininity, your gender identity, your attractiveness, your desirability, or your “worth.” It’s just sex. Enjoy it. Do what feels good.

My Modern Gay Love Story

You’re at a dinner party. You’re attracted to someone sitting across the table. You ask them out on a date. You start doing everything together. You fall in love. You’re exclusive. You move in together. You’re a couple for three years. You want to get married.

You live in Beijing. You’re American. Your partner is Chinese. You’re gay.

This is the story of Steven Hill and Bei Hai, who met in Beijing in 2010. Hill had lived there for three years, teaching math in an English immersion program at China Agricultural University before he met Hai, who worked as a retail trainer for MAC Cosmetics.

“I just wanted to be with him all the time,” says Hill, a tall, trim and tan twenty-eight-year-old with a slight beard, and never without glasses over his bright blue eyes. He’d had trouble finding a connection with Chinese guys until then, dating expats like himself, but when he met Hai there was just an instant understanding. And for Hai, a fit twenty-nine-year-old with dark coiffed hair and deep brown eyes, it felt the same, with an added bonus.

“Steven is my ideal man: handsome, sweet,” Hai says, adding, “And if I were in a relationship with a Chinese guy, there is no future, no marriage, no adoption, nothing.”

Hai, an Instagram user, takes a picture of Hill with his camera phone.

Being gay in China is less taboo than many people may assume. Because China’s is not a religious society, there is no moral outrage rooted in Christian or other spiritual values. Nor is there much of a vocal, divisive political discussion over gay rights. As an issue, it is largely invisible to the public. The real cultural focus is on progeny and male children, which a gay relationship makes impossible. That is the stem of its unacceptability in China: a practical, familial consideration to end the family line.

Hill had always intended to leave Beijing in 2011, after his three-year tenure at the university was up. He is a well-educated, bilingual American and, as he approached thirty, wanted to pursue a higher-paying career back home. But once he met Hai, Hill was forced to chose between his love and his home. There was no way for Hai to easily immigrate to the U.S. since they couldn’t simply apply for a green card, move there together and get married, like heterosexual couples do.

Because immigration is a wholly federal process, it didn’t matter that Hill is from — and would return to — Maryland, a state in which gay marriage was legalized in 2012. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, including the right to sponsor foreign partners for permanent residence.

“That’s why DOMA was so bad,” Hill says. “Even as states were changing laws, it didn’t really matter for the real things gay couples were going through.”

And so from 2011 to 2013, Hill and Hai recommitted to living in Beijing, and embarked on months of in-depth research to find out where they could move, together. They lived week-to-week, never making big plans for the future. They had many friends, including several other gay couples, and an active social life. They moved in together, sharing a great apartment in Beijing, as well as two cats, then took their first big vacation together to the Philippines. They were both out in their everyday life in the city, not hiding their relationship at work or among peers. But the couple felt they had reached a plateau, with no way to take their lives to the next level, including marriage and kids.

During these years, Hill largely gave up on the idea of ever permanently living in America again.

“The U.S. was never on the list,” he says. But many other countries were. He applied to dozens of jobs in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all of which have common domestic partner laws that recognize couples who can prove they have lived together for at least one year. On his smartphone, Hill kept a large Evernote file entitled “Mission: Move To Canada,” including hundreds of articles about obtaining a Canadian visa. Yet none of these opportunities came through.

In early 2013, Hill moved home to Maryland. At the very least, they thought, they would continue a long-distance relationship while Hill made a plan of action from the U.S. Hai came with him, intending to visit with Hill’s family for a few weeks, and was granted a six-month tourist visa. This gave them time to plan.

DOMA was under review by the Supreme Court at this time, and the couple knew that if the law was repealed, they’d have a shot at filing paperwork and getting married during Hai’s stay. If not, Hai would be forced to return to China. But Hill was hopeful. Despite the steep uphill battle, he felt that something — marriage equality or immigration reform — had to give.

They went on a road trip across the country for a few weeks, a much-needed reprieve from the relentless paperwork and stress. Hill showed off America. When they were in Vegas after what Hill described as “an exceptionally positive gambling stint,” they bought a ring and officially got engaged. They couldn’t elope in Nevada — where gay marriage is illegal — and getting married back in Maryland wouldn’t help Hai’s immigration status, but they went forward on the hope that DOMA would be repealed.

I Lost My Virginity to a Straight Boy

There’s a way to burst through the shame gay men are made to feel about homosexuality.

I never learned whether the boy I lost my virginity to was struggling with his sexuality. I think, when I look back now and occasionally find myself tumbling through his Facebook page, that he wasn’t. I believe it was just sex, or at least that’s what I have tell myself now to avoid slipping into a memory induced k-hole. I realize I fell into that old gay adage of placing my feelings on a person who, for whatever reason, was never going to invest them back in me. Worst of all, though, the shame attached to the memories of those first times marred how I would approach sex for years.

It was listening to Years & Years’ new song “Sanctify,” and seeing the band’s out gay singer Olly Alexander talk about how the song was inspired his sexual trysts with straight men, that I realized that these feelings are way more common than people let on. Sure, I know all about gay guys having sex with straight guys, but it felt reassuring to see him describe the “saint and sinner role” he embodied during those experiences, and to hear the uncertainty and melancholy weaved into the song.

More than anything though, was the repeated lyrical mantra of “I won’t be ashamed.” Because as queer people, we’re buried in lifetime’s worth of shame so vivid and searing that oftentimes it’s crippling. Bursting through that shame is our badge of honor, our beautifully united experience. And maybe, like the song says, that does sanctify our sex lives and makes us just a little bit holy.