How Do Gay People Pick Their Sexual Roles?

How does one become a top or a bottom? Do all gay men hold secret ceremonies to assign their sexual positions? We dive deep into the logistics of gay sex.

“This might be ignorant but how do gay people pick their roles in sex? I have a few gay friends but am worried about coming off as offensive, so I’ve never asked. As a straight man, most of the expectations for taking control is on the man (I love it when women take charge or initiate, but in my experience that’s an exception). And when it comes to sex, it’s pretty clear who is going to be penetrating whom in a hetero situation. When you’re gay, how does that work? Do you just have a role and then look for people who are the other?”

Fun question! I’m grateful that you came to me, your friendly neighborhood sex columnist, to ask. Hopefully you’d be able to have a revealing chat with your queer friends about sexuality in a respectful way, but now we get to have this discussion with everyone!

Your question is as adorably straight as you are, but the answers are complicated. First, let’s talk about expectations in hetero hookups.

How to Pick Up Chicks

The reasons men tend to take the lead in hetero dating and sexual situations is not simply a biological remnant of caveman mating practices, as much as we enjoy the “Just So Stories” of evolutionary psychology. You’ve likely read articles that sounded very scientific that argue that because men can knock up an endless number of women and a woman can only have so many kids at a time, they have different investments in fucking, so guys aren’t choosy and women must gatekeep their vaginas like an armed sentry. That’s not not true, but it’s not the full story.

While it’s true that a man can concurrently impregnate multiple people and it’s true that having the risk/capacity to get pregnant does change the sex game, a lot of our social norms about sex are societal, not biological. There’s lots of evolutionary evidence that women have always been DTF with multiple partners. In fact, sperm have evolved to compete with other sperm that they encounter inside a vagina. That doesn’t happen for no reason. 

Decades ago there were studies where a bunch of men and women were approached on the street and asked if they wanted to go out that night or go to bed with the person. The studies were replicated more recently and the findings were still similar: a lot of dudes said yes, none of the women did. Some point to this research and say “Aha! Something something men’s innate sex drive!” But that’s a really shallow reading. 

Setting aside the fact women are generally at greater risk of violence from a strange man than vice versa, the odds of a random hookup with a guy being sexually pleasurable for a person with a clitoris are -unfortunately- not great. There’s a big ole orgasm gap between straight men and women that does not exist between same-sex partners. If a man has a hook up, there’s a good chance he’s gonna cum, regardless of his partner’s gender. For a woman, the odds are so-so with a guy but much better with a woman. That goes a long way to explain why straight women are far more likely to regret casual sex

That’s not even getting into the whole double standard on slut-shaming! There’s a very narrow window of acceptability for women’s sexuality and the goal posts change constantly. 

Who IS Penetrating Whom Now?

When we talk about who is taking the lead, we’re usually operating with cultural scripts: what we expect everyone around us to do. When it comes to dating, we’re improvising, with a loose understanding of what sport we’re playing. 

And while it might be a foregone conclusion that your sex partners are going to be the only ones getting something slid inside them, that’s not necessarily true for all male-female pairings. It’s a matter of how open-minded you are to pleasure and comfortable with shifting power dynamics. 

There are lots of ways to have sex, so don’t limit yourself and your possibilities! Besides, if you know exactly what’s going to happen every time, that’s a good way to get bored. 

And Now: Queer People!

One of the many miracles of being queer is that it’s a first opportunity to question social expectations around sex, and love. Once you realize that not all people are straight, it’s a chance to ask, “what other things are optional?” and “what do I actually want to do to?” It’s a chance to ponder how you feel about gender, whether you want to have kids, how many partners you want to have, and much more, including how you want to have sex. 

There is a smattering of research on how queer people (especially men who have sex with men) develop an identity as a top (insertive) or a bottom (receptive) partner. For some people, it has to do with one’s sense of gender, as some queer people’s sexual roles mirror the dynamics of masculinity and femininity from the dominant culture. For others, it has to do with physical body traits, everything from muscularity and hairiness to height and penis size. A lot of people identify as versatile (being game to top or bottom), too. How you get down on a particular night might be a game time decision.

For queer women, it gets even more complex. While there’s long been a perception that there’s always a more masc and more femme partner in a lesbian relationship, women and nonbinary queers are less likely to subscribe to gender roles in general and to require them in a mate. And because they don’t want to make anyone feel pressured and put upon (like the way men may make them feel), femmes are notoriously uhhhh let’s say delicate in their approaches to each other. When it comes time for queer women to get to business, that can be more a matter of personality and relationship dynamics than anything else. 

Ultimately, this is a great question for absolutely everyone. How do you decide who is going to make the first move and who is going to be doing what to whom in a sexual situation? These are things that are always worth contemplating.

    • Timaree Schmit Headshot

      Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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