Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Problem with Bottom Shaming

An Athenian red-figure kylix (cup) dating from around 510–500 BC depicts a young pentathlete pulling his older lover towards him for a kiss. In many of the city-states of ancient Greece, sex between a man and a youth was an accepted – even idealized – form of love, its virtues extolled in works by writers including Plato.

In Ancient Greece, some philosophical reflections even idealized same-sex love. We can find notable examples in the Symposium, the philosopher Plato’s description of an intellectually high-powered Athenian dinner party. One character, Phaedrus, extols the virtues of manly, same-sex love among warriors and legislators: “And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.” This, allegedly, was the inspiration for the Sacred Band of Thebes, comprising 150 pairs of male lovers, which fought heroically at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC before succumbing to the overwhelming forces of Philip II of Macedon.


Another dinner guest at Plato’s imagined symposium, Pausanias, contrasts “base” love (with women and boys) as merely for sexual gratification and therefore inferior, with “noble” love (with young men). The latter, he says, is “pure” and about instilling guidance and wisdom in a pedagogical relationship rather than sex. This rationalization of same-sex love, whether platonic or carnal, had an extraordinary resilience in western societies over the next couple of millennia and beyond. Take, for example, the famous defense by Oscar Wilde at his trial for sodomy and gross indecency in 1895: “The ‘love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”


Throughout history, the receptive/penetrated partner in male same-sex relationships has often been seen as the lesser person in the relationship. One of the most famous examples of bottom shaming is Julius Caesar, who has often been portrayed as a macho, militaristic, elite Roman leader. Much of that masculine power revolved as much around his ability to demonstrate his sexual prowess (think Cleopatra) as it did around political prowess. However, his contemporary political rivals saw this masculinity differently and often commented on such. Julius Caesar was nicknamed the “bald adulterer,” which fit the Roman political stereotype perfectly by sleeping his way to power. As a young man, he spent a considerable amount of time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, fueling a series of rumors about an affair in which Caesar was the submissive party. His return to Bithynia just a few days after leaving to “collect a debt” further fanned the flames. Suetonius tells us that this was the only stain on Caesar’s masculinity. But it was a stain that proved difficult to wash out, and he would be reminded of it throughout his prematurely ended life. One colleague, Bibulus, addressed Caesar as “the queen of Bithynia.” During an assembly, a man named Octavius hailed his co-consul Pompey as “king” and Caesar as “queen.”  


Male sexuality and sexual masculinity have been defined throughout history by the role played by the receptive partner. Women have been seen by most of world history as the weaker sex, and because they take on the receptive role in sex, a man who is the penetrated partner for another man is seen as less of a man. A gay man’s position in the bedroom can extend to how he’s perceived in the LGBTQ+ community. Bottoms, those who are the receptive partner, are often not afforded the respect they deserve. Bottoms deserve a lot more respect than they usually receive. All too often, the terms "bottom" and "submissive" are used interchangeably. However, not all bottoms are submissive. Some bottoms can be quite aggressive, thus the term "power bottom." 


Even versatile men can have a more submissive side because they may prefer those who bottom for them to be more aggressive, but versatile men may also like those who top them to be more aggressive. The opposite can also be true: a versatile gay man who is more dominant may prefer more submissive bottoms and to take control of sex when they are the bottom. Then there are the “strict tops” who refuse to bottom no matter what. These men are often the least respectful of bottoms, and “strict bottoms” may often feel (or be perceived as) inferior to tops for being the receptive partner. The dichotomy of the top/bottom relationship needs to be more respectful for both positions.


Most tops do not consider that being a bottom takes a lot of preparation before engaging in anal sex—something a top benefit from but seldom worries about. The idea of spontaneous sex might sound like a thrill, but it is an unrealistic fantasy of the gay community seen in depictions of gay life from m/m romance novels to gay porn. We don’t want to think about all the preparation available. It’s similar to something I once read about Henry James's novels that no one ever goes to the bathroom in his novels, though that is true of most novels. However, for a bottom who hasn’t prepared for sex, it can be a stressful and uncomfortable experience. To avoid any awkward mishaps during sex, most bottoms will prepare for it—even if there’s only a tiny chance, they might have sex that day. Even with the most preparation and precautions taken, most bottoms will still hope and pray the entire time that no accidents happen.


Furthermore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that anal sex can be painful at times, and it can take a lot of getting used to before it becomes a fully satisfying sexual experience. When it’s been a while, it’s literally like sticking your finger in a Chinese finger trap, and we all know that isn’t the most enjoyable thing. Most gay men will prepare themselves for bottoming ahead of time. Still, if they don’t know their partner’s penis size, this could make the experience more satisfying if he has a larger than average girth but might be less enjoyable if his penis is less girthy. There is a lot to consider and be prepared for, but it’s also a gamble if you don’t know what to expect. A bottom might ask for “Size?” or “Pics?” from a potential partner while chatting online. Those are not just questions for size queens; they can also be a question so that the bottom can be more prepared for the top. Many men will just see those questions as crude, but the bottom may just be trying to prepare for a better experience for the top.


In the gay community, bottoms are still seen as the more feminine ones. Bottoms are looked at as less than tops in the community. If you doubt this is true, then ask yourself, when was the last time you heard someone refer to a “top” in a derogatory way. Gay men often have insecurities about being labeled a bottom because the gay community all too often engages in "bottom shaming."  Why is this the case? It goes back to historical perceptions of gay sex which ingrained in men the idea that the receptive partner was lesser: either they were the younger partner, a slave, etc. Achilles and Patroclus were an example of this, while the exception was the relationship between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion. Yet, even with Alexander, all of his male lovers were not equal, such was the case with another of his favorite sexual partners, Bagoas, a eunuch "in the very flower of boyhood." It’s a stereotype that we must work to change.


The fact is your sexual preference be it top, bottom, or versatile, doesn’t mean a damn thing when it comes to your masculinity. We should be proud if we are a bottom, a top, or a bit of both. We should be proud of our sexuality and not get bogged down in roles because why does it matter? You need to realize it doesn’t matter, and we are all a part of the same community and should uplift each other instead of trying to tear each other down. Tops come in all shapes and sizes, including short guys and feminine guys. Plenty of drag queens out there are tops. Don’t assume someone is a top or a bottom because of the way they present or because of their size. There are also plenty of well-endowed bottoms, and while many of us may find that a waste of a good penis, we should respect their preferences. It boils down to each of us respecting one another.


Anonymous said...

Kudos - your last paragraph is what is important !

" Art "

Butch 57 said...

Great articles. Very good comment on the view the world takes on the male bottom. Interesting to learn about Julius Caesar history had not head that before

Cody said...

Well said, Joe. I suppose my partner and I are living a stereotype of gay men adhering to traditional gender roles. That’s a bit off topic here. I am a total bottom and he is a total top. I also tend to take on the role that many women would: I love to cook, clean, and take care of him and our dogs. He tends to take on the role that many men would, including repairer and protector. He does the small farm work and takes care of our home. He also makes sure that we are safe from harm and prepared when we have severe weather, winter storms, etc. He is also older than I am. Because of all this, many people would assume that I am feminine. I suppose I am a bit more feminine compared to him. But, in my opinion, I am more masculine than a lot of straight men. I call myself “butch.” (LOL) But, it does drive me crazy when people assume that a bottom / submissive role in life = feminine.

VRCooper said...

Great-to-the-point article...I have been gay for a minute and back in the day, it was a big thing if you were a bottom or a top and the stigma that came with it...It's just a position...It's just want to you like...And yes some are versatile...It has nothing to do with who you are as a person/your heart...Just like your hair or eye color...I have never been emersed in the gay culture...Bar fly, to every drag event...But today do you think it is less of a stigma if your a bottom/top/versatile...Just like straight men who like to bottom or top...It's just whatever floats your boat...

JiEL said...

I'm happy you've put this historical part because it gives us some broad views of what was homosexual encounters back in those days.

For the bottom/top questionning, I understand some gays to be such hardheaded on those labels but for me it's just a personnal thing and is to be discuss between two men and their early relationship.

I consider myself as a versatile/bottom man but not a passive one.
That can be a issue when the «bottom» is just doing nothing to please his partener which I had some experiences in the past.

What is also making me a bit sad and mad is when some are putting «women's» social tasks on bottoms so they're again labeling that doing cooking or housekeeping tasks only feminine ones.

I was married to a woman for 22 years before divorcing and doing my coming out and all over those 22years of marriage, she almost never did housekeeping stuff and in the kitchen we were equal doing meals etc..
We were both working out of the house and with 3 kids, we had to team up to do it going well.

Gender tasks are no more devoted to any of the genders, male of female.

Isn't it that the most famous cuisine's chefs are men?

Joe said...

@Art, thanks. I am glad you agreed with my last paragraph.

@Butch57, it is interesting that Caesar, a leader associated with womanizing, was actually constantly slurred during his lifetime for being a bottom. I believe that is in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, which is an interesting and salacious book filled with gossip from Ancient Rome.

@Cody, I have often heard, “There are reasons for stereotypes,” and I find that phrase an excuse for discriminating against people. I think all relationships have roles, and few are completely equal, but that doesn’t mean that the roles we take in a household should be given gender assignments. I love to cook and I know many men who love to cook, some straight, some gay. As I said yesterday, we should be able to be ourselves without having certain aspects of our personality or appearance assigned a gender.

@VRCooper, I think anyone who pays attention to trends in social media, especially TikTok, you’ll see tons of videos where they say, “The person who sent you this video thinks you’re a bottom,” or variations on that theme. A lot of bottom shaming is going on in those videos, even when self-proclaimed bottoms take it as a badge of honor, at some level the person “sending” that video meant it as an insult. There is definitely still a stigma, but many bottoms are taking their role as a badge of honor and basically are saying, “Fuck you!” to anyone who tries to shame them for it.

@JiEL, speak to any female chef and you will find out that they say the culinary industry is dominated by men because there is a certain old boys club in the culinary industry. That is changing, but women have a much harder time, not because they are not great chefs and deserve to be at the top, but because of the male-dominated nature of the profession.

Coop said...

Great essay, Joe. My sexual experience is nil. At one point in my life, I was convinced that I had to pick a role.
And I was downright frightened of being the "bottom"... To the point that I was uninterested in penetration.

I read a biography of Alexander by Anthony Everitt. I was genuinely interested in the history. I learned as well that the youth/subordinate wasn't supposed to be sexually aroused. And sodomy was forbidden.

Now I've learned a bit and, perhaps, become more self confident, I can look at a pic of a guy and fantasize about many things. Top, bottom, or "being a slave to his thighs". Since I refuse to hook up with anyone or go cruising, I am not worried about the finer details just yet. I want to be in love, first.

I saw that pic of Tyler, read this discussion, and now I am having thoughts that a Catholic boy should not have on a Friday during Lent. :)

RB said...

I too am familiar with these stereotypes about bottoms. It seems the top has the power. The top also seems to be the partner more motivated to want it bare. Doesn't the top get more pleasure (and less risk) from bare than does the bottom?

Joe said...

Yes, RB, it is safer for the top, but really only if he’s circumcised. It’s still pretty safe for the top if he’s uncircumcised, but there is more risk there than for a circumcised top. Supposedly it is more pleasurable. Condone can be quite uncomfortable in my opinion, but I still use them.

Soul Yaoi said...

Nice post. I am versatile that switches from being a top or bottom through the years and can say I don't experience the stigma much when it comes to roles expected. Fiesty bottoms are the best. :)