While navigating through the emotional highways and byways of my current relationship, I have inevitably (and sometimes irritably) stumbled upon the vestiges of past relationships; both torturing and amusing myself by the lessons learned and the mistakes made. One relationship in particular that was questionably over- documented in conversations and journals both public and private is the one I shared for several years with a gentlemen I have always referred to as Dean.
While malady coursed through pretty much every aspect of that relationship, one of the main issues (that many of the other problems eventually funneled down into) was our shared passive aggressive navigation of sexual practices. We fell into the eternal quandary that has stifled, quelled and exasperated male homosexual couples since the beginning of time, “Who is going to be the top? Who is going to be the bottom?”
Personally, I have realized that when it’s just sex, navigation seems to be relatively simple. You follow your carnal instincts. You tell the one night stand, the Adam4Adam hookup, the Pizza Hut deliver boy, the homeless dude with a six pack, what you want done and then you do it. For the most part, we know our bodies and we know what feels good so riding that surface level pleasure and surfing with no attachments involved can be freeing and exhilarating. Relationships, on the other hand, require you to drop anchor and figure out who this other person is outside of the surfing and in turn find out who you are. And with enough speculation, assumption and misinformation handed down to us through the millenniums, and sometimes by our very own religions, about the unyielding laws of weak willed, passive femininity and dominating, domineering masculinity, it can be quite maddening trying figure out where you fit in.
Sexually speaking, both Dean and I knew exactly what we wanted. But when the anchor was dropped and the relationship was struggling for stability, tougher, more intense questions bubbled up like, “If I am always taking the sexual role of penetrating, then as a Top, am I the ‘man’ who controls the relationship? Do I want to be the ‘man’ all the time? Does this make me a ‘man’? Do you consider yourself to be a ‘woman’ because you are being penetrated? Can a real man be a bottom? If I want to Bottom does that make me a woman?” These questions went on and on and neither of us bothered to really investigate the answers out of an extreme fear of what those answers would connote.
Now usually when topic conversation veers around to a discussion of “Tops” and “Bottoms”, I usually roll my eyes and grunt thinking that it’s a moot conversation. That eventually, as you get older, you’re inevitably going to “Flip-Flop” if you will, so the whole preoccupation is a little pointless. After Hurricane Dean I do have to say that I do look at the matter with more reverence. As gay men, our preference of sexual roles is paramount, annoyingly so. In heterosexual relationships, because of biology, it’s a conversation that is rarely if ever discussed. With a man and a woman there is a plug and an outlet. You can fancy up the plug and you can fancy up the outlet but there is really only one way to get that electricity going and it is a pretty simple fix, you stick it in. With two men however, that predetermined assumption of roles is out the window. So you have find out fairly early on and with a certain level of honesty how your partner gets his electricity… and if you are willing to supply. I do now hold a greater respect for those male on male dating or hook up sites that add the question of sexual roles to their profiles. There may be the intonation that it’s an intimate question, only to be answered when/if the relationship gets serious, but I maintain it’s better to know sooner than later. Picture this: you get to know someone on a deep and spiritual level, create a friendship and companionship that rivals any relationship you have ever had. Cry with them. Share with them. Open yourself up to them. Then you find out they’re into scat. They’re still a beautiful person. They still respect their mom. But are you willing to roll around in shit with them? Are you willing to give up on what could possibly be the best relationship of your life for just one sexual practice? Be it that they are into scat… or a bottom like you… or a top like you… or some other aspect that doesn’t coincide neatly into your sexual practices? Wouldn’t it be better to know this information before you got your heart involved… and purchased those 300 count white linen bed sheets?
I maintain the acceptance of those incongruent sexual practices is not an easy task. It can be done and it has been done successfully since the beginning of time, but it was not through a simple, “I love him so I’ll change” sentiment. It takes a certain amount of self-reflection and communication with your partner. If you do not have a lot of experience being penetrated or have had bad experiences being penetrated, being in love alone is simply not got to lessen that pain. There are emotional ties involved to that practice and every media outlet associates it to femininity and submission and if you were brought up with those strict gender roles of masculine overbearance and feminine obedience, it can be a daunting task to discover the pleasure and supremacy of being penetrated. The same is true with someone who repels the idea of penetrating and discovering the release and acquiescence of topping. It’s going to take some patience, commitment and honesty with both partners. And as a community I do think we are far overdue in standing up and putting to rest the idea of “feminine bottoms” and “masculine tops”. For one, the connotation is that all bottoms are feminine and that femininity equates to weakness smacks of misogyny and a maddeningly level chauvinism that turns a blind eye to the fact that without bottoms… there would be no tops. Two, appearance, demeanor and mannerisms are not fail-safe indicators of peoples’ sexual practices. Not all drag queens are bottoms. Not all football players are tops. Which leads to the last point, what difference does it make if all of us are undervalued as citizens? There is no more value in being a top than it is being a bottom if at the end of the day none of us can get legally married in 37 of the 50 states in America. And in the hip-hop community you’re a “faggot sissy” if you give or receive.
If there is anything I garnered out of the dissolution of my relationship with Dean is the value of honest and direct communication, particularly when it comes to sexual practices. There is nothing wrong with affirming your allegiance to one proclivity or another and it is possible to experience both practices with honestly, patience and respect. And in that same vain, there is nothing wrong with ending a monogamous relationship with someone where sexual compatibility cannot be achieved… even after a mountain of honestly, patience and respect. It is not a commonly accepted outlook to dissolve a relationship over its sexual politics. But I think it’s as important as any other aspect of a relationship and I can tell you from firsthand experience that those incongruities can disease it and eventually kill it. And while I navigate through the emotional highways and byways of my current relationship I do have a tendency to reminisce over the miles travelled with Dean, careful to not make those same pit stops, making sure I ask for directions… and avoiding another crash and burn.