Are You a Side? Gay Sex Ed

Queer people who don’t like to top or bottom proudly own their sexual identity.
Bobby Box
&
Sex Columnist
May 10, 2022
February 27, 2024
10
min. read
Gay Sex Ed: Sides
Table of Contents

Art by Jaime Hayde

There have been many times in my life where I’ve considered myself a side. Not to be confused with side piece, or upgrading your fries to onion rings for an extra 99 cents. A side, in the sexual sense, is an individual who doesn’t enjoy giving or receiving anal penetration. Instead, sides prefer less invasive sexual acts: frottage (dry humping), making out, oral sex, intimate touch and massage, mutual masturbation, and other things of that nature.

There was a time not too long ago that I went nearly an entire year without penetration due to a painful surgery I required after a particularly rough sexual experience of mine involving a Prince Albert and an anal fissure (you can imagine the rest).

Understandably, it took several months to even consider bottoming again. But I’m human, after all, and had my horny moments, so I quickly developed an affection for non-penetrative sex. Sloppy makeouts, mutual masturbation, oral sex and some other kinky activities were all I was featuring at the re-launch of my newly refurbished hole and, truth be told, these were some of the best sexual experiences of my life.

Though I’ve since returned to penetrative sex, for some folks, penetration is never comfortable as either top or bottom, and it’s far more common than you might think. In 2011, researchers surveyed 25,000 gay and bisexual men and found that only 35 percent had participated in penetrative sex during their most recent hookup, whereas three-quarters had given or received oral sex. What’s more, three in four men surveyed said they preferred kissing, oral sex, handjobs and mutual masturbation.

Since penetration is often regarded as the holy grail of sex acts, I’d argue there are more sides out there than are willing to admit. In part, because we only recently started acknowledging their existence. So let’s talk about that.

On the side

The idea that someone may not enjoy anal intercourse doesn’t seem particularly difficult to understand, yet sides were only first acknowledged in April 2013, in an article titled “Guys on the ‘Side’: Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms” in the Huffington Post. The author, sex and relationship therapist, Dr. Joe Kort, wrote the article after seeking a term to describe his own sexual proclivities.

“I felt very alone when I dated in my twenties,” Dr. Kort tells Grindr. “A lot of good guys passed on me because I didn't want to fuck. And since I didn’t have a word for it at the time, I’d just tell them I didn’t have anal sex. When they’d tell me that it was a dealbreaker, I’d say it was a dealbreaker if we had to do it.”

Art by Jaime Hayde
Art by Jaime Hayde

To help others with this preference, Kort sought to create an easily identifiable term to help establish community and a sense of belonging among like-minded folks who felt rejected among the gays.

“I was sitting around with friends, trying to admit to them what I was—but I didn’t have the word for it,” he remembers. “But I was tired of shaming myself over not having intercourse, and my friends were like, OK, well, what do you call it? So I thought out loud and said I'm not a top and I'm not a bottom, and then I just thought about a box and blurted: maybe I'm a side.”

The term stuck. After ruminating on it some more, Kort felt comfortable expressing this part of himself to others outside his circle. “I remember admitting it for the first time at a sex therapy workshop for gay men,” he remembers. “It was so freeing. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

Not long after, Kort published the aforementioned article, daring gay men to ask themselves: “What if a guy isn't a top, a bottom or even versatile? What about gay men who have never engaged in anal sex and never will, ever?”

Since then, the term has been picked up and published everywhere from Pink News to GQ. TikTok and Reddit have also become particularly influential mediums for spreading the word.

Taking his advocacy further, Kort created a closed Facebook group called Side Guys where like minded folks can introduce themselves, share experiences, advice, and establish a sense of understanding and community. Conversations within the group span from spicing up alternatives to anal penetration to how to best express you’re a side on apps like Grindr (who recently added side as a position). As a member myself, I can verify that it is a positive and uplifting space that almost feels like a support group.

“People in my group feel liberated,” Kort shares. “I don’t have many side clients because the group is their therapy. Among their peers, they don't feel shame or the need to unpack the reasons why they don’t enjoy penetration. They feel relieved almost immediately.”

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Side stories

Since my own experiences will not speak to everyone, I had conversations with a number of sides (some of whom asked to remain anonymous) to get their perspective.

Nate

Before identifying as a side, Nate, 32, was a fairly versatile lover, but never found topping and bottoming as satisfying as he assumed others did. “I have a high pain tolerance, but bottoming was always uncomfortable for me,” he begins. “Whether the tops were either too big, too forceful, or too eager, there have only been one or two times when bottoming has felt good––and trust me when I say I’ve tried a lot.”

When topping, Nate felt that handjobs and blowjobs were more satisfying “I don't really feel anything when topping, and the times that I've ejaculated as a top were purely thanks to my imagination,” he says.

Nate shares that he and his partner of five years have only had anal penetration six or seven times. As their relationship developed, they were relieved to discover that neither were all that fond of anal penetration, preferring instead to eat each other’s asses, suck each other’s cocks and masturbate to porn together.

Prior to his partner, Nate confesses he would either ghost sexual partners before penetration was on the table or would feign a stomach issue. He, like many sides I spoke to, often feel pressure to have anal sex as if it’s some kind of expectation, even after expressing they don’t want to.

Kerem

“I feel the need to be assertive in my refusal to participate in penetrative sex, even though I struggle with confrontation,” Kerem, 24, shares. “There have been many times my partners have interpreted me not wanting to have penetrative sex as being a prude or ‘playing hard to get’ which has led to some very disturbing and non-consensual experiences.”

This is particularly important to Kerem because he has been sexually assaulted in the past, something he believes contributes to his identity as a side as he has since found bottoming difficult and painful.

“My own experience aside, the idea that penetration is the only validating factor during sex is pretty wrong to me,” he says. “I will always prefer oral and a long foreplay over anal anytime, so it is infuriating that sex is reduced to a short penetrative activity where it can be a longer period full of intimacy and exploration.”

Simon

Simon, 30, says gay men will treat him one of two ways: like a prude or an alien. “They just can't imagine sex outside of penetration,” he explains. “When I do find someone else who prefers oral, or identifies as a side, it's like that scene in the Parent Trap when the twin Lindsay Lohans remove their fencing masks and immediately connect.”

Simon, like many sides, is more versatile in his preference. He will have penetrative sex on occasion, but only with somebody he trusts and is comfortable with. Sides, like most sexual preferences, exist on a spectrum. Some are willing to have (and will enjoy) penetrative sex occasionally, whereas others will not engage in penetration at all.

Atlas

For Atlas, 18, being a side compliments his identity as someone who is gender non-conforming. “I go by he/him pronouns, but I can fit into nonbinary or gender non-conforming because I relate to both identities,” he explains. “Being a side compliments my identity because it’s comfortable and doesn’t feel out of place whether I’m eating ass, pussy, receiving head, or sucking dick. There isn’t a clear dominant and submissive person, at least in my preferred experiences. You can be whatever you want to be.”

Art by Jaime Hayde
Art by Jaime Hayde

Subverting expectations

Apart from what’s been expressed above, there are many other factors one may identify as a side, from erectile difficulties, body image issues, performance anxiety, medications, the chore of preparing (for bottoms), health issues, chronic pain, a well-endowed partner, fear of STIs and HIV, past traumatic experiences, the list goes on.

These are all perfectly understandable reasons to validate their preference, yet they still feel the need to because sides feel othered. The bottom line being that everyone should have the autonomy to experience pleasure however they choose.

“We need to remember that things like foreplay and masturbation are still sex,” Dr. Kort says. “I’ve heard many queer and straight men say they aren’t having sex if penetration isn’t involved, and that’s incorrect.”

Art by Jaime Hayde
Art by Jaime Hayde

It’s for this reason that many sides speak around their preference instead of addressing them outright. “I just tell a prospective partner that I'm not looking to fuck,” Simon says. “But it still feels like an alienating conversation and one that often feels moot to have if we end up not clicking.”

A commonality among the sides in my conversations was the sense of shame associated with their preference. Because they represent a minority in an already marginalized community, sides can experience extreme loneliness, and fear that they will only further isolate themselves by expressing their disinterest in penetration. Kort goes as far as to say that coming out erotically as a side is like coming out a second time.

Shame is not something we’re born with, of course, it’s learned. We’ve long been fed the narrative that penetration is the ultimate sexual act. This is an outdated script that stems from cisgender, heterosexual (and homophobic) intercourse that prioritizes procreation. It’s the same reason we’ve become so goal-oriented regarding sex, meaning a sexual experience is not enjoyable or successful unless one or both partners climax.

By simply existing and staying visible, sides question why we place these expectations on ourselves. Who are these almighty rule-makers dictating what sex should be or look like. Better yet, why are we listening?

Anal sex (or “sodomy” as it was written by law and inextricably used to incriminate gay people) didn’t even become completely legal in the US until 2003. And today, only 18 states in America require HIV education to be medically accurate. That’s insane! Clearly, whatever parameters our society is placing around sex is not only purposelessly limiting, but painfully out of date.

Sides challenge what we’ve long considered the norm, creating a larger sexual space to play in. One with fewer boundaries and expectations where we can experience pleasure without pressure.

Now that there is finally a term for it, the challenge now is to normalize it, and Kort suggests we start with the apps, where most sexual communication takes place. “I think all these apps should include side as an option,” he says. “To really help people understand that not being a top and not being a bottom doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, and to help sides find each other.”

To normalize further, sides need to be visible and vocal. Representation matters; something our community understands all too well. So while side recognition may still be in its infancy, nobody knows how to advocate and uplift better than the LGBTQ+ community, where nobody should feel othered for their identities and what they like (and don’t like) doing sexually.

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