It’s time to recognize ‘sides’ as a legitimate sexual identity

Gay men who don’t like anal sex—neither topping nor bottoming—claim their place in the community

“I was cleaning up before a hookup, as bottoms do, and found myself dreading bottoming for this guy,” Larry, 44, shares via text. “I wanted to hook-up with him, but I found myself thinking—hoping—that he’d be considerate enough to get me off after fucking me since the ins-and-outs of penetrative sex never really works for me.” 

(Spoiler alert: He wasn’t and Larry didn’t.)

In the days following this lackluster experience, Larry decided that he was no longer going to engage in penetrative sex since he doesn’t enjoy it. “It’s been freeing,” he says of the decision. “I get way more pleasure from oral and mutual masturbation. I mean, two guys jacking and sucking each other off? That’s hot!” 

Larry proudly identifies as a “side,” a sexual preference first recognized in 2013 by sex and relationship therapist Dr. Joe Kort, who wrote an article titled “Guys on the ‘Side’: Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms” for Huffington Post. In the piece, he asks: “What if a guy isn’t a top, a bottom or even versatile? What about gay men who have never engaged in anal sex and never will, ever?”

Sides, for those who may be unfamiliar, represent the queer men who do not enjoy giving or receiving anal penetration. Instead, they prefer less invasive acts like oral sex, kissing, frottage (dry humping), massage and mutual masturbation, to name a few.

As a side himself, Kort made it his mission to depathologize the notion that all queer men want anal penetration, while assuring those who don’t that there’s nothing wrong with them. “I’ve treated many queer men that just are not into it and don’t find it erotic or pleasurable,” he shares via email. “Their preferred sexual interests range from everything other than anal penetration.”

For some sides, this is simply a preference. Plenty of queer men don’t derive pleasure from anal sex, or find the planning and prep too much of a hassle. “[Bottoming] hurt every single time and I never experienced anything close to what I saw in porn,” Jay, 38, says. Even when he tried topping, Jay had difficulty cumming. “I know that porn isn’t a realistic comparison, but I never get the same pleasure from bottoming or topping as I do from oral and jerking with other guys.”

Sex and relationship therapist Dr. Joe Kort.

Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Kort

For others, being a side is less of a preference and more of a necessity. For instance, some men have trouble engaging in anal sex for health reasons. Others may experience “erectile disappointment” (a term Kort tells me is preferred to “erectile dysfunction”), or they can still get erections but aren’t hard enough or don’t last. Larry, who describes himself as “big and tall,” mentions that sex with someone of a similar stature can make penetration difficult.

 

While these men should have the autonomy to experience pleasure however they choose, the majority of sides are afraid to come out for fear of judgement. “We keep it hidden so we don’t get embarrassed,” Jay says. “I believe there are plenty of sides out there but it takes some serious hunting to actually find one another because so few of us are outspoken about it.”

“The majority of sides are afraid to come out for fear of judgement.”

Kort confirms that some sides harbour so much shame that simply being able to say you’re a side grants them the freedom to be out and proud again. “[Sides] come out as LGBTQ2S+ and find a sense of pride, but have to go back into a closet for being a side,” he says. “Coming out erotically as a side is a lot like coming out a second time.”

All of us, regardless of sexual orientation, have internalized scripts about penetration as the ultimate sexual act. It’s what we’ve been taught, after all. But the fact of the matter is that these scripts stem from cisgender, heterosexual intercourse which prioritizes procreation. Thus, by defining our sexuality around penetration, we perpetuate these dated notions of what sex “should” look like even if we don’t mean to.

Besides, penetrative sex is not as common as you might think within our community. In 2011, researchers from George Mason University surveyed 25,000 gay and bisexual men and found that only 35 percent had participated in penetrative anal sex. What’s more, almost three-quarters said they prefer kissing, oral sex and so on.

“We need to remember that things like foreplay and masturbation are still sex,” Kort says. “I’ve heard many queer and straight men say they aren’t having sex if penetration isn’t involved, and that’s incorrect.”

As is true of most penetrative preferences, sides exist on a spectrum. “Some sides consider themselves ‘side verse’ where they can imagine themselves as an oral bottom or oral top,” Kort says. “They might even enjoy topping or bottoming [anally] but it isn’t as enjoyable as other types of sex.” For example, Lou, 33, doesn’t “fully” identify as a side because he still enjoys anal sex on occasion. Instead, he describes himself as “sensual over sexual” with sexual partners.  

“I usually prioritize kissing, touching, mutual masturbation and occasional oral over full-on fucking,” he says. “For a long time I found myself unsatisfied with penetrative sex. Physically, it was enjoyable, but mentally and emotionally I felt very removed and checked out from the experience.” 

Lou stumbled on the side orientation while browsing bateworld.com, a community for men who love to masturbate, in 2017. It was the first time he witnessed people celebrating non-penetrative sex, who regarded it as the main course as opposed to an appetizer. “It was eye-opening to find out what sides were because it seemed like a perfect fit,” he says. “For the longest time I wondered if I was solosexual because there were such a lack of options.”

For Lou, the indifference is more mental than physical. “I think my Blackness (or maybe my relationship with my Blackness) has been a big contributor to why I’ve become less interested in penetration,” he shares. “Between BBC [big Black cock] stereotypes and being oversexualized by other gay men, I got pretty used to being used as a human dildo.”

With the unceasing fetishization and objectification, Lou eventually found penetrative sex too stressful. “Removing the pressure of penetration has removed a lot of performance anxiety and lets me have a more connective experience,” he says. “The session may still lead to penetration, but it’s rare, and I know it’s not automatically expected of me and hinges more on communication and desire than obligation.”

After working with countless clients who identify as sides, Kort says that because they represent a minority in an already marginalized community, sides can feel incredibly lonely and find pursuing long-term partnerships hopeless.

“I’ve been told things like ‘Well that’s why you’re single!’ and ‘How do you expect to please a man if you don’t do anal?’” Larry shares. 

“I thought my sexual tastes basically eliminated me from ever finding someone,” Jay echoes. “I thought I’d never be able to satisfy anyone long-term, so why bother?”

“Sides are living proof that there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to sex.”

Given that sides feel disenfranchised even within their own queer community, Kort created a private Facebook group called “SIDE GUYS,” where like minded individuals can connect. In the group, guys can flirt, chat about side-specific issues (like how to effectively communicate that you’re a side on apps like Grindr) and ultimately feel a sense of community in a judgment-free space. Sites like Reddit and the aforementioned bateworld host similar communities, though they are far less regulated—Kort supervises his group to ensure the space is as welcoming as possible.

Sides are living proof that there is no “normal” when it comes to sex. As queer people, we should be especially cognizent of that. For years, the sex we have wasn’t considered normal––and at one point was even considered illegal. But nowadays, everybody and their mother is having it

Acknowledging sides as a legitimate orientation is important, as it challenges what we’ve long considered the norm and dares us to re-evaluate what we consider sex beyond a singular act. 

We’re witnessing similar changes within our community. More and more queer men are breaking free from the top/bottom dichotomy which, again, was a heteronormative and stigmatized construct that saw bottoms as feminine (or “the woman in the relationship”) and tops as masculine. (Research has debunked this antiquated theory time and time again.) 

Though it was likely not their motive, sides may be the next frontier in our sexual evolution as queer men: An inclusive and shame-free orientation promoting play and pleasure without pressure. 

Bobby Box

Bobby Box is a queer writer and certified sex educator in Toronto whose work has been published in Greatist, Playboy, Elle Canada, Toronto Star, NewNowNext, Them., The Advocate and more.

Read More About:
Identity, Love & Sex, Power, Feature, Sex

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