Column: 'Penetrator' and 'penetrated' are inadequate descriptors for relationships

Regardless of orientation, we tend to define relationships by “masculine” and “feminine” roles.

It’s become an unquestioned thing in the gay community that being asked “top or bottom?” is no less benign a question than “chocolate or vanilla?”

Granted, it’s not like this query comes up over coffee – generally this isn’t conversation material unless you’re on Grindr or being propositioned for a hookup at a bar. And at surface level, it’s a seemingly innocent logistical question – who’s going to fuck whom? If both of you are intending to bottom and this isn’t revealed until you’re actually hooking up, it can make for an unsavory surprise, like buying hotdogs and realizing you forgot to get buns upon returning home.

But the reality is this can be a loaded question because, in gay parlance, being a top or bottom is often more than just being a peg or a hole.

It should be no surprise that many couples in the LGBTQ community often formulate their relationships in line with presumed heterosexual prototypes. To be less abstract, our default model of a relationship is generally assumed to be male-female, but implicitly alpha-beta, dominant-submissive, rational-emotional, etc.

These traits can vary among straight couples, of course, but in ways that tend to reaffirm the presumed power dynamic. A woman in a straight relationship could be more dominant emotionally or sexually (or even be a breadwinner), but this still presumes that she’s the one who “wears the pants.” This all-too-common phrase allows that a woman may take on dominant traits in a relationship, but only insofar as those traits remain traditionally male and are merely appropriated by the woman.

So when couples of the same sex or gender are in relationships, people always want to know: who’s the “man” and who’s the “woman?” In other words, who wears the pants, who calls the shots or who’s the provider, as if (whether gay or straight) these dichotomies must always be in place.

By these standards, it’s no stretch to see “top or bottom?” as a mechanism for determining someone’s masculinity or femininity, or one’s “place” in a relationship, given our tendency to correlate “penetrator” with “masculine” and “penetrated” with “feminine.” And in a community where “straight-acting” is a privileged, coveted standard and where femininity is unfairly synonymous with being an archetypal, flamboyant stereotype, the strategic aims of this question are not to be doubted.

The act of categorizing gay men as “masc” or “fem” in the gay community is over-generalized at best, and at its worst creates a hierarchy in which — big surprise — masculine men are afforded the most power and clout and “feminine” men are seen as undesirables. As is systematically touted by gay men, “I only date masculine men. If I wanted to date a girl, I’d be straight.”

Of course, there are people who aren’t exclusively tops or bottoms. One might initially feel it’s natural to be a bottom, then grow to desire being a top; whether one tends to bottom or top could also vary on relationship status, mood or whatever. It’s not always set in stone.

I’m not taking issue with someone wanting to be more submissive or dominant sexually or emotionally (I take issue with the broad use of those terms anyway). By no means am I trying to invalidate the experiences of women in traditionally masculine relationship formations. Indeed, it can be most natural or desirable for someone to see themselves finding happiness in such a dynamic, and that desire does not make one heteronormative or weak-willed.

Moreover, as I mentioned last week, being in a “submissive” role does not necessarily make one weak or powerless. Much in the same way, being a bottom does not correlate to being submissive (power bottoms, anyone?) or feminine. Insisting that the two go hand-in-hand obscures the variability of meaning, pleasure and gratification people gain from different sexual positions.

We need to move forward from merely interpreting the top-bottom binary on the axis of masculinity and femininity. The problem of assuming the person being penetrated is weak or feminine does not just exist in the gay community — as recent conversations about pegging have shown, straight men penetrated by their partner are unfairly perceived as weak, frail sissies.

Discussing power dynamics in any relationship in the context of our broader patriarchal system (while not afforded the space in this column) is crucial for understanding the roots of feminine shame and the perceived “weakness” of being penetrated. While the top-bottom question in gay relationships is the genesis for this column, one can absolutely apply the conversation to other relationships. Defaulting power and privilege to the “masculine” partner in any relationship is no coincidence, and the consequences of this assumption (the stigma associated with femininity, in this case) are worth our attention.

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