Being openly gay doesn’t mean you’re automatically open to discussing every intimate detail of your sex life with anyone who asks.
Yet in a recently published interview in a New Zealand LGBTQ+ magazine called Express, South African–Australian singer Troye Sivan was asked to publicly comment on his favorite sex position. The reporter first asked the celebrity several questions about whether he’d have sex with Shawn Mendes before culminating the interview by asking, “Top or bottom?”
If you’re not familiar, some people colloquially use the terms “top” and “bottom” usually to reference who is giving penetration during a sexual act (top) and who is receiving penetration (bottom). “Ooo… definitely passing!” Sivan responded to the question in the write-up of the interview. But last week, the singer took to Twitter share his actual thoughts, calling the question “wildly invasive.”
Many of Sivan’s fans rallied behind the singer, calling out both the reporter (who is also gay, BTW) and the magazine for trying to get such personal information out of him, though some outlets have criticized Sivan for being so offended about the question. A now-trimmed op-ed from Out magazine called Sivan’s reaction “a bit hypocritical” because he has created music about his experience “bottoming” in the past, but Sivan was quick to respond on Twitter, pointing out that not all his music is about sex and that to assume so is oversexualizing him.
“I speak about sex in my music on my terms, when I’m in control, and writing music that is going to be close to my heart forever,” Sivan wrote in a Twitter thread responding to Out. “That does not open the flood gates [and] give anyone a pass on basic manners and allow them to ask about the ins and outs of what I do in bed.”
Expecting queer people to publicly talk about their sex lives is a form of othering.
To clarify, it’s not inappropriate to talk about sex in general—in fact, talking about our sex helps us to normalize sexual experiences, share information about sexual health and safer sex practices, and more easily seek out support if anything is going awry. But there’s a big difference between talking about sex with your close friends or partners for example—people you trust with your private experiences—and being forced to share details about your sex life with the public or being expected to share these details with strangers.
LGBTQ+ people, in particular, seem to get these basic boundaries crossed on the regular. Dr. Michael J. Salas, a Dallas-based sex therapist who specializes in working with LGBTQ+ people, says it’s common for gay men to be asked questions similar to the one Sivan was posed with. Part of it is a type of objectification or voyeuristic othering—an inability to view queer folks as regular human beings who deserve the same privacy, empathy, and respect as anyone else.
“Imagine asking a big-name, straight actor if he enjoys being pegged. It wouldn't happen,” Dr. Salas tells O.school. “There's a perception that gay men don't have to be respected about their sexuality. They're expected to have to justify it or explain it whenever someone asks them about it.”
Dr. Salas adds that people’s curiosity about gay men’s sexual preferences in particular stems from larger underlying stereotypes mainstream society has about being gay. “Gay men are often treated as if they should be defined by the sex that heterosexual people assume that they have,” he explains, adding: “A lot of gay men don’t even like anal sex.”
Why you shouldn’t ask a gay man if he’s “a top or bottom.”
Some people personally choose to adopt terms like “top” or “bottom” as social identities or ways to convey the type of role they like to take in a relationship. In queer relationships, where there are fewer assumptions or expectations about each partner’s role than there are (for better or worse) in heterosexual relationships, sometimes terms like these can be helpful in clarifying how a person wants to show up in a relationship.
But problems arise when these labels become prescriptive instead of chosen. Among gay men in particular, the “top or bottom” dichotomy often becomes a way for straight folks to try to assign a specific identity to a man simply based on a sexual preference. People are more or less trying to reduce a person down to a sexist caricature based on that person’s favorite sex position.
“People have historically created offensive ideas about the sex roles in gay sex and then assigned meaning to these roles,” Dr. Salas explains. “A sexual position is identified as something that is supposed to equal status, power, levels of masculinity, etc. Gay relationships are often viewed through a heterosexual lens. There is supposed to be a ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ from this lens, and those roles are supposed to mean all types of things about men. These assumptions are then assumed to be reflections of the identity that a gay man has. Gay men are obviously much more than their sexual identities.”
Sivan himself retaliated against the notion that his entire identity should be defined by his sexual experiences. His song “Bloom,” released last year, has been called an “extended allegory for anal sex,” and he himself included the hashtag “#bopsboutbottoming” in a now-deleted tweet around the song’s debut. Many fans have since heralded him as a “bottom icon.” But in an interview with them last August, he called the sentiment “completely reductive,” adding: “Without getting into like any sort of details whatsoever, that was a song I wrote about a particular experience. I’m not branding that as myself forever. It was definitely just writing a song.”
In short, topping and bottoming can be identities—but they certainly don’t have to be, and people shouldn’t assume they are or assume that one of these terms must apply to every gay man in the world.