Confessions of a Power Bottom
Accepting my identity as a power bottom, rather than a submissive one, has meant recalibrating how I think about sex, gender, and pleasure.
A couple of months ago, I published an essay here on Medium about what I’d learned about teaching my naïve straight friends about gay sex, about how that conversation forced me to confront my own unconscious ambivalence about my masculinity and my preference for being a bottom. I was truly blown away by the positive reception that the piece received. So many people were brave enough to share their own stories about how they related to their sexualities and their bodies. I was and am humbled by the welcome embrace of such frank discussion of gay sex, and it was a powerful reminder of the positive things that can come from publishing one’s thoughts on the internet. Sometimes, it seems, online discourse can actually be a social good rather than a fast-moving disaster.
In the time since I published that essay, I’ve had more time to think about how my behavior in the bedroom shapes the way that I relate to the world, in particular how an embrace of being the penetrated partner in sex requires a certain vulnerability, a yielding up of control to another man. Today, I want to, ahem, drill down, if you will, and talk a little more about another aspect of my identity as a bottom, namely my identity as a power bottom.
For those unfamiliar with the parlance of gay sex, the term “power bottom” refers to those bottoms who, not content to simply let the top do all of the work, instead take on a more aggressive and controlling manner. These are the bottoms who are willing to be much more physically active, to make demands of the top rather than being the passive recipient. This is not to be confused with the submissive bottom, for whom most of the pleasure in the sexual encounter stems from a willing abrogation of control into the hands of their top. Both, of course, involve an exchange of power, but in the former the power lies mostly (most of the time) with the bottom, while in the latter it lies with the top. And, at least from my perspective, being involved in a genuine dom/sub relationship requires a great deal of negotiation and conversation, a frank appraisal of the parameters and limits of the two partners involved.
The distinction between these two identities is an important one, and coming to terms with the fact that I am not, in fact, a submissive bottom (a fairly recent development on my part, I should note) has been one of the most affirming and disorienting realizations that I have yet gone through in my adult life. It meant recalibrating not only how I engaged with my sexual partners but also how I conceived of myself as a sexual subject. Accepting that I was a power bottom and not a submissive meant that I also had to rethink how I conceived of my body, my masculinity, my gender performance, and how I conceptualized the difference between fantasy and lived reality.
Some time ago, I was talking about sex with my best friend. His partner identifies as a submissive but, my friend griped, tended to “top from the bottom.” I found this turn of phrase both amusing and revealing. Obviously, the humor stems from his irritation that his partner has attempted to usurp what he clearly sees as his own justified place in the sexual hierarchy. Just as importantly, however, it reveals how an honest appraisal of one’s own proclivities, an acceptance of them, and a putting them into practice in the bedroom, can change the dynamics and affect how much pleasure and satisfaction each person derives from sex.
That conversation was one of many that forced me to confront my own desires and what I really wanted from sex. I had to accept that what I wanted wasn’t domination on the part of my top and submission on my part, per se, but instead an intensity, a ferocity and yes, even a roughness, that didn’t quite match up to the dom/sub dynamic. I had to accept that I’m just too stubborn, too focused on my own needs, to ever really inhabit the space of the true submissive.
For me, this acceptance of what actually brings me pleasure has been a somewhat halting and difficult process. A great deal of this stems from the way that I engage with fantasy. By fantasy I mean the imaginary scenarios that bring me pleasure and that, in some cases, are the goals toward which I aspire in what actually happens in the bedroom. Needless to say, for a very long time I have built up this fantasy of myself as a submissive bottom, one who was totally willing to offer himself up to other men, to lose my own agency in the act of sex. For that fantasy version of myself, what was most important in the sex act was whether or not my top fond orgasm; my own climax was secondary, if in fact it needed to occur at all.
I suppose on some level I always knew that that was a fantasy not reality, that the scenarios that I enacted in my head — and sometimes in my writing — involved an idealized version of myself, not the one that actually inhabited bodily reality. They were, to be blunt, the stuff of the porn that I watched and read rather than my own lived experience. For most people, these kinds of realizations probably happen naturally, but for me they actually involved quite a lot of soul-searching to figure out, and it was rather disorienting. Chalk it up to my being a Pisces, perhaps (a sign notorious for its inability to adequately distinguish between the world of fantasy and the world of reality, as well as a penchant for often preferring the former over the latter). Or perhaps I’m just one of those people who takes a while to really figure out what it is they want and act on it.
Now that I think about it, however, I think that a great part of it stemmed from my relationship with masculinity. For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve done everything in my power to distance myself from the trappings of traditional maleness. I don’t recall when, exactly this phenomenon started, nor why. I do know that it was in place at least by the time that I reached high school, and I strongly suspect that it came from a combination of my parents’ refusal to obey gender norms and the toxic masculinity that I saw on abundant display in both my extended family and in many of my school classmates. To refuse that masculinity was, whether consciously or unconsciously, a means of striking back at the nauseating behavior that I saw on such conspicuous display in my daily life.
As I sexually came of age, I performed a bit of mental magic by which being submissive in the bedroom — which, it is worth mentioning, always remained a little fuzzy in terms of its exact parameters — equated to striking back at masculinity.
Unfortunately for me, I let my little rebellion overshadow what I actually found appealing about gay sex. For it soon became apparent that what I enjoyed most wasn’t the submissive aspect of being a bottom; what I enjoyed was the feeling of opening up my body, of letting a man inside of me, of feeling, yes, a little bit owned. However, I continued to cling to that idea that I was a true submissive, long past the point when it was clear that I wasn’t, neither in the bedroom nor in my everyday life (though, I should point out, I often will act submissive in confrontations, though secretly continuing to go on as I did before).
It goes without saying that I soon found myself being a little frustrated with the way that my sexual encounters were turning out. Those I was having sex with had clearly taken my confessions of being a submissive bottom quite seriously, and would often wait for me to do as they commanded. I found myself growing irritated when my own needs weren’t being met, when I was, basically, being held to the very sexual standards that I had myself imposed. Looking back on it, I can hardly blame them, and it’s clear by now that being more open about my desires and needs would have saved us all a great deal of trouble and frustration.
My realization that I was a power bottom rather than a submissive one opened up all sorts of avenues of pleasure. Now, I could feel more comfortable taking control in a sexual situation, rather than just waiting for my partner to take the lead. It wasn’t easy, mind you. The habits of mind that we erect around ourselves become their own sort of prison, the fantasy version of ourselves eclipsing and constraining the actions of the real one. For me, breaking through those chains has been profoundly liberating, opening up all sorts of avenues to pleasure that I hadn’t really realized were what I wanted.
It’s important to point out, though, that embracing my identity as a power bottom hasn’t entailed a similar embrace of masculinity and all of its trappings. I still feel a deep abhorrence for the ways in which maleness in our culture continues to be synonymous with all of the things I hate: brutality, anti-intellectualism, bullying, and the like. It’s not that masculinity has to be those things, of course, it’s just that they are so thoroughly intertwined that, as a person assigned male at birth, for me to adopt them would feel like a capitulation to an ideology that I despise. As always with issues regarding sex, power, and gender, it’s a delicate tight-rope to walk, but there’s also something pleasing about becoming more self-aware, even if it does tend to make life more complicated.
And so, accepting my new identity as a power bottom — which in its very name implies hierarchy — has brought with all sorts of new pleasures and sensations, even as it has also brought new challenges and confrontations. I can now be more honest with both myself and my partner about what brings my pleasure, about my own needs when it comes to sex.
Obviously, being a power bottom doesn’t mean that it’s just my needs that are being met in the bedroom. I am still very much invested in ensuring that my partners feel pleasure as well, and it is still true that I, as a friend of mine once put it to me, enjoy a bit of “rough play.” However, I now know that there are significant differences between what I find pleasurable in the realm of fantasy and what I enjoy in reality.
Some might question my need to constantly put myself into discrete categories when it comes to sexual behavior. Why not simply go with the flow, such people might reasonably ask, rather than pigeon-holing myself? Why not just let sex…be sex? I suppose that for most people that’s possible, but for me sex — the pleasure of it, of course, but also everything about it — is so bound up with my identity and how I present myself to the world that I need to find ways to make sense of it, and the way that I do that is by thinking of what categories I fit into, what schema can bring order to the chaos that sexuality, seemingly by its very nature, represents.
Needless to say, I don’t think that everyone needs to adopt categories in the same way that I do. However, for those who, like me, need them to craft a cohesive identity, they can make the difference between living a life that is true and one that is based on nothing more than a fantasy.