One of the most valuable insights I learned from studying sociology is that there is a big difference between what people say and what they do. Humans are complex, contradictory creatures whose behaviors evade simple explanations. Yet, more often than not, we opt for the simplicity of common sense ways of thinking because it’s comforting, and the alternative can be mentally exhausting.
Rembrandt Duran’s recent think piece on gay sex, while seemingly progressive at first glance, commits precisely this type of error by treating socially constructed identities as indisputable truths. A self-professed expert on the matter, Duran begins by informing readers that the time has come to talk about “top privilege.” Extending ideas about race made famous by Peggy McIntosh back in 1989—which have recently gained cultural traction with the rise of Black Lives Matter and other social movements—the author wants to make tops (i.e., insertive partners) aware of their social and cultural advantages in comparison with their passive counterparts. But what exactly he wants tops to do with this political consciousness remains unclear.
Beginning with a brief, if limited, overview of gay men’s sex categories, he goes on to explain how tops—who by mainstream logic are masculine and therefore dominant and strong—get the better end of the cultural stick. In this popular narrative, penetrative sex between men is reduced to a mirror of straight sex, a copy of the original. At this point most of the gay readers out there are probably nodding in agreement thinking about all the times we’ve been asked by clueless straight people: “But which one is the girl in your relationship?”
Next, Remy (as he is known by his following of sex-positive Bushwick hipsters) lists all the ways he is different from those non-self-aware dudes out there. As a “woke top” (my term) he gets it. Whether it’s with higher rates of STIs or the double standard of slut-shaming, the bottom struggle is real.
While Duran points, correctly in my view, to the “internalized homophobia and sexist attitudes towards penetration” many gay men, unfortunately, use to understand our experience of sex, he stops short of actually challenging the entrenched forms of heterosexism and misogyny written into our sexual scripts. He seems to understand there is a problem with the equation of top with masculine and bottom with feminine. However, in taking the meaning behind these perceived identities for granted, he is unable to offer a vision of what a more egalitarian form of sexuality may look like.
So let’s revisit Peggy McIntosh’s metaphorical knapsack and take a moment to “unpack” top privilege.
For starters, any discussion of privilege that narrowly focuses on a singular identity is insufficient in that it fails to recognize the multiple interlocking systems of power that structure our lives—a fact black feminists have been reminding us of for decades. We are not just tops and bottoms, a complementary pair of masc and femme in the bedroom; rather, we bring a multitude of classed, raced, and gendered identities from the public world into the intimate space of our private lives.
If Duran were to examine privilege through an intersectional lens, he could see how racially marginalized men may not find the role of the top as empowering as their white counterparts. Take, for example, Jordan Anderson’s recent feature in Teen Vogue in which he discusses what it’s like to use Grindr (the gay dating and hookup app) as a black man while vacationing in Italy. “The European gay community that I encountered was interested in having me help them fulfill the fantasies they’d created based solely on the color of my skin,” he regrettably finds. “But they were completely opposed to the idea of a date or a relationship.” In considering this case, which is borne out by the data on race and online dating, it is incumbent on us to ask: Can someone who is objectified as an exotic Other have top privilege?
Moreover, are self-proclaimed tops privileged in similar ways to other dominant groups? Although I do not dispute Duran’s argument that many gay men talk about tops in ways that place them on a higher rung in the ladder of social hierarchies, I nonetheless hesitate to compare sex positions with other markers of social location such as class, race, and gender. Not only does such a logical leap reify the top/bottom binary (and I remain highly skeptical that any gay man is uniformly one thing across his entire sexual lifespan), but it also renders serious discussions of power and privilege meaningless.
It is more accurate, in my view, to decry masculinity as the privileged culprit in our oppressively gendered sexual relations. Being a top is just one feature within a whole field of heterosexual masculinity that is ripe for deconstruction. The real work ahead for queer revolutionaries rests in troubling the compulsory narrative that claims we must all be either males or females with appropriately corresponding gender presentations who, in turn, naturally desire members of the opposite sex. All of this goes without mentioning practices out there that already challenge compulsory heterosexuality: women into pegging, trans tops, power bottoms (which could be a whole essay unto itself), gay sex which (gasp!) doesn’t involve penetration, and the list goes on.
Queer sex needs to tell a different story, one that doesn’t position receptivity or femininity as necessarily inferior. Duran’s suggestion to end sexual stigma, however, doesn’t rewrite this script. Instead, it proposes a tepid politics of appreciation. “We need to cherish our Bottoms for all they put up with and do for us,” he concludes. “Let’s talk about our Top privilege and try and do better by them.” Going back to the racial genesis of the concept of privilege, it’s hard to see how such a solution holds up. It’s like saying: If only white people cherished minorities more. If only men cherished women. If only the straights cherished the gays.
A more enlightened approach might critically engage with deeper social structures and move beyond a simple analysis of thoughts, feelings, and individual biases. This is how we can challenge heteronormative modes of thinking that automatically assume sex positions are essential aspects of gay identity and that automatically cast bottoms as passive and weak. If “tops” are really interested in democratizing sex, we don’t need them to check their privilege. We need them to recognize their partners’ agency and stop pretending that imaginary identities grant them privilege in the first place.