If you identify as male, non-straight, and are over 20, the odds are pretty high that you have had anal sex at least once. The odds are also pretty high that you enjoyed it at least once, and have identified which role — or roles — feel good for you: top, bottom, and/or versatile.
But what if you don’t really like anal sex, or you’re just extremely particular about when and how you have it? What is that called? How about “a side”? As in, “I don’t like being on the top or the bottom. I prefer to be on the side.” Hi. I’m Ben, and I’m a side. In practice, that means finding partners, both sexual and romantic, becomes tricky.
In a survey I conducted via Reddit asking sides about their experiences and soliciting the opinions of non-sides about sides, my own experience as a side was validated. Typical reactions to telling a guy that they weren’t into anal sex (a side) included: being ignored or blocked, being told that “they’re missing out,” and simply being treated as if they were somehow defective. This perception is supported by the responses of non-sides I surveyed, about half of whom wouldn’t date, let alone hook up with, a side, because they enjoy anal sex too much.
So why the stigma against sides? For starters, we’re a minority within a minority. According to Dr. David Moskowitz, a sexuality researcher at Northwestern University who I corresponded with via email, “somewhere between 3-6% of gay/bi men are not really that interested in anal sex for one reason or another.” That’s about the same as the percentage in the general population of men that identify as gay, bi, queer, etc. And we all know how well received gays were for far too many years.
Obviously, comparing the current situation of sides to the historical (or present in many countries) situation of gay men isn’t a one to one comparison, but there are definitely elements that are at the heart of why gay men were/are stigmatized, and why sides are also stigmatized. The biggest is every woke queer’s thing they just love to hate: heteronormativity.
Embedded in, and at the core of, heteronormativity is the idea that men and women are fundamentally different, with men expected to be masculine and women expected to be feminine. When you get into the world of gay/queer men, these expectations are frequently transposed onto how we present ourselves to the world and how we define ourselves, and because we don’t (usually) have such clear external markers as male and female, we might not notice our adherence to gender norms.
The work of Moskowitz, the Northwestern researcher mentioned above, deals with how we internalize gender norms in terms of identification as tops and bottoms directly. His work shows a strong relationship between masculinity and identifying as a top, and femininity and identifying as a bottom. Not only that, but in one of Moskowitz’s not-yet-published papers, he found that “even most teenage virgins identify themselves in terms of top and bottom labeling, with an association between increased masculinity (among teen tops) and increased femininity (among teen bottoms).”
Teenage virgins have already identified themselves as tops and bottoms. Despite having no experience with anal sex. The only possible explanation for this self-identification, besides possible self-experimentation on the part of bottoms, is internalized heteronormativity, itself largely the result of cultural products like porn and what feels like every gay TV show/film/podcast/song ever. Porn and other mass culture both influences and are influenced by our more immediate social interactions, which in turn are governed by both spoken and unspoken rules and norms. In other words, it’s a feedback loop of multimedia, socialization, and expectation, all reinforcing one another, with heteronormativity regulating the whole thing.
This analysis does leave out an important reason why anal sex is so popular though: quite simply, for a lot of guys, anal sex feels good. (Like, really good. Or so I’ve heard.) It’s the interplay of it feeling good to many, and the restrictive labels created by heteronormative processes operating under the conscious level, which creates the predicament for sides. Without an “official” designation for those that don’t enjoy anal sex or only enjoy it under very limited circumstances, us sides, when we are seen by other guys, are too often treated like freaks for not fitting into the heteronormative standard of being enthusiastic participants of “real sex”, which gets narrowly defined, in an unconscious process, as the thing closest to procreative sex two men can do together.
The thing about the term “side” is that, unlike top, bottom, or versatile, it doesn’t indicate what it is a side likes. The term side indicates what we don’t like, not what we do like. Top and bottom also have that aspect of negation, as tops don’t like to bottom and bottoms don’t like to top, but they are also affirmations of what one enjoys. The fact that being a side is the absence of desire, and not its presence, like with top, bottom, and versatile, is, I think, the main reason that I was only able to find four other articles about this topic, only one of which uses the term side: the one in which the term was coined. Sexual orientations/preferences are rarely applied to pure negations, with the exception of asexuality.
Asexuality actually provides a good, if not completely one-to-one, example, as asexuals have shown that having a label to construct an identity around negation from helps in terms of reducing stigma (through normalization), creating a voice for advocacy, and finding like-minded people to hookup with and date. Something similar could happen with the term “side,” although, unlike aces, sides are into other kinds of sex. My own experience, which was shared by many who took my Reddit survey, shows that favored alternatives for sides to anal include oral sex, mutual masturbation, frot/body contact, and kissing.
As to why sides don’t enjoy anal sex, based on the survey and my own experience, there seem to be three main reasons: concerns over hygiene and safety, pain from bottoming, and physical/psychological difficulty with topping. About half of the sides surveyed indicated hygiene and safety concerns, with the other half indicating difficulty topping and bottoming.
It is impossible to recognize the pervasiveness of heteronormativity without realizing that solutions to problems involving heteronormativity include reforms to it, not a total rejection of it. In terms of sides, that reform would be to have more visibility of what a side is and who they are. The most efficient and effective way to do this would be for the location-based apps (such as Grindr) to include “Side” as an option for “Position.”
It may confuse people at first, but if it’s on there, people will figure it out/look it up, there will be more articles/videos/podcasts talking about sides, and before you know it, it’ll be a “thing,” like the menagerie of queer woodland creatures (otters, cubs, wolves, etc.) that even the straights have some knowledge of. Having side as a selectable option will allow us to find one another more easily and allow us to stop wasting the time of uninterested non-sides (and ourselves). Grindr is the lingua franca for men who have sex with men worldwide and including sides on there would provide us with a visibility that we otherwise couldn’t have.
If you are a side, or are curious about sides, and want to talk more and build a community, check out this new subreddit.