Bottoming is theoretically one of the prime joys of gay men’s sex lives. And it’s true that for some people it’s absolutely the center of their erotic universe. For them, anal sex is the epitome of “going all the way,” the top prize when it comes to intimate companionship. In reality, though, anyone honestly investigating the relationship between men and their buttholes will quickly discover that, in Facebook parlance, “it’s complicated.”
In my practice as a sex therapist, I counsel many men whose ability to participate in the pleasures of bottoming is compromised by several flavors of fear and shame. I think it’s important right off the bat to acknowledge that there are plenty of myths and fears about butt-sex, and it’s normal to feel them. People who are new to anal pleasure typically face 1) fear of pain, 2) fear of disease, and 3) squeamishness about shit. These are understandable fears to have, and they can be addressed with practical information and communication. Having a sensitive partner or teacher can make a big difference.
But let’s face it – you can equip yourself with all the information in the world about safer sex, douching, lube, breathing, and pillow talk… and still be phobic about bottoming. That tells us that shame is in the picture.
There are two varieties of shame I see a lot. We might call the first one “competence shame”: Gay porn makes it look like all gay guys are experts at fucking and getting fucked, and if I’m not, or if I don’t enjoy it, then that means there’s something wrong with me. Then there’s what’s commonly known as “bottom shame”: If I like to get fucked or even fantasize about it, that means I’m less than a man. Bottoming brings up deeply held, often unexamined attitudes about gender roles, power, desire, being gay, being yourself. What stops men from embracing the pleasure of bottoming almost always has to do with the meaning we attach to the experience. Where do those meanings come from? And is it possible to shift those meanings?
First of all, even to talk about bottoming requires running the gauntlet of casually brutal colloquial speech, where “getting screwed” or “getting fucked in the ass” means to be exploited, humiliated, or otherwise degraded. That language stems from the stereotypical straight male’s horror of being penetrated, which gets exclusively associated with being gay. “Virtually all men in our society learn negative attitudes toward homosexuality early in life,” writes Jack Morin, a San Francisco-based psychologist, in his valuable book Anal Pleasure and Health. “Those who turn out to be gay internalize the same anti-gay messages, sometimes to a greater degree than straight men.” As Morin points out, men’s fear of homosexuality conjures the more basic fear of being viewed by oneself and others as unmanly and feminine. “A great many men try to suppress, at all cost, the soft, receptive aspects of themselves. They fear their masculinity will be compromised and, therefore, their value as people reduced.”
“For men, weakness and vulnerability and need are negative qualities associated with women,” says Michael Cohen, a gay psychotherapist in New York City who teaches classes on anal pleasure for the Body Electric School. “Being submissive for someone else’s pleasure may feel like being passive, like our long-suffering mothers, whom we both love and despise. And sometimes just the desire for love, for attention, to be opened up can feel humiliating and helpless, the opposite of strong and self-sufficient.”
Gay guys who’ve been tormented in childhood for being sissies learn that it’s bad enough to be considered effeminate. If you believe that the only real man is the stud who gets hard and does the fucking, then getting fucked threatens to make the fear I’m not a man come true. “There’s a surrender of what we think masculinity ought to be when we take a man’s dick into us,” says Keith Hennessy, award-winning performer and sex educator in San Francisco. “That’s why so much porn shifts that moment to rape, to being taken, to not being responsible, to not choosing. The top knows that the bottom can’t willingly give in to his desires, so the top forces the bottom for his own good.”
The internalized homophobia that Morin described shows up in the way gay guys, even among ourselves, adopt a smirky attitude toward bottoming. To call someone “a big ole bottom” is usually a put-down in the form of a comic punchline. The drag queen working the crowd picks out an audience member and asks, “Are you a top or a bottom?” And before her target has gotten two words out, she howls, “Bottom!” The essence of the joke is: Don’t kid yourself, honey, nobody thinks you’re a man, you’re just a Big Girl. (That kind of joking strikes me as surprisingly hostile, as when straight guys use “cocksucker” as an insult. Shouldn’t a word that means “pleasure-giver” be the highest praise?)
Working with sex therapy clients, I often notice that all roads lead to the same conclusions: “There’s something wrong with me…I’m not man enough…I’m weak, I’m no good, I’m foolish.” That tells me that we’re not just dealing with sex; we’re really talking about existential shame. Who I am is bad and wrong. At the core of bottom shame is the very human struggle for self-acceptance, and it can be a lifelong task to work through it.
In his book The Velvet Rage, Alan Downs suggests that gay men have their own specific journey when it comes to working through shame. “It was early abuse suffered at the hands of our peers, coupled with the fear of rejection by our parents, that engrained in us one very strident lesson: There was something about us that was disgusting, aberrant, and essentially unlovable,” Downs writes. “To experience such shame, particularly during our childhood and adolescent years, prevents us from developing a strong sense of self.” That sense of self develops from a strong identity that is validated by your environment. However, a gay man afraid to show himself for fear of rejection may create a “best little boy in the world” persona just to please others. Paradoxically, the validation earned by that persona ultimately doesn’t feel very satisfying, Downs notes, “since authentic validation can only occur in the context of one’s true, authentic self.”
The good news is that it is possible, with patience and support, to work through shame and early conditioning to arrive at a place of authentic self-validation. (The Velvet Rage closes with a smart list of “Lessons on Being an Authentic Gay Man, Or What Mom Didn’t Know and Dad Couldn’t Accept.”) Virtually every gay man who enjoys the pleasure of bottoming has encountered the same cultural prohibitions and potholes of shame as everybody else but has assigned a different meaning to sex, power, and pleasure, usually by focusing on his own body rather than someone else’s opinion.
“There’s power in rejecting rules and expectations of what others think a man should be,” says Hennessy. “The hungry or willing bottom definitely has power. Getting fucked is generally very active. You want it. You ask for it. You let it happen. Often you prepare (cleaning outside and/or inside) and even rehearse (with fingers or dildos).”
Pornography isn’t always effective as sex education – it can be intimidating and misleading – but you don’t have to look far to discover men getting fucked without sacrificing their masculine identity. In fact, some consider getting fucked to be the hallmark of “taking it like a man.” Scott Smith, webmaster of BillinExile.com, has written extensively about serving in the US Marine Corps, notoriously if surprisingly tolerant of rampant man-on-man sex. “With Marines I always found a willingness to play either role with a high degree of comfort and definitely without shame,” Smith told me. “In the Marines, sex is what men do together. It doesn’t matter if you’re top or bottom, you’re still having an extremely manly experience.”
To view sexual role-playing as a multiple-choice question rather than an either-or proposition is another way that men learn to enjoy bottoming. In other words, welcoming your feminine side as well as your masculine side, the giver and the receiver. Clinging to masculinity and fleeing from femininity leaves you cut off from half your humanity. There’s wisdom in finding a balance.
My favorite example of how that plays out in the arena of buttfucking comes from Tom Spanbauer’s novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. The hero of the novel, Dellwood Baker, tells his young protégé a fable about a mythological character he calls the Wild Moon Man.
“Story goes he takes you to the bottom of the lake to his home, and teaches you how to breathe water instead of air. If you don’t trust him and do what he says – you drown and they find you floating the next morning. But if you do trust him and do as he says, story goes, when you start breathing water, that muddy old hairy goat turns into a beautiful, strong warrior and he teaches you many secrets about the true power of being a man.
“When the Wild Moon Man takes you underwater, to the hairy rusty mud, he’s taking you to your asshole. To the place that’s as female as a man can get. You find your natural male power through your asshole, not your dick. You find your prostate. Fire down there under all that mud and hair and water. You find in yourself what most men love women for: their ecstasy, their hole into the other world. By receiving a man into you, by receiving a man like a woman, by being as female as a man can get, what you find — if you don’t drown — is the beautiful warrior in yourself who knows both sides.”
“Men like us are lucky,” Dellwood says, “We’ve learned to breathe water.”
This article was first published online by Gay.com, October 1, 2010