Sexual chemistry is important for any relationship. But for gay men, determining if you’re sexually compatible requires you to ask a very personal question: “Are you a top, bottom, or vers?”
Because dating is outrageously nuanced and there is no set of rules to abide by (multiply that by 10 if you’re queer!), it can be difficult to determine when such a question is appropriate and how it should be phrased. You don’t want to offend anybody with the presumption of sex, but you also want to know that you will be sexually compatible. It’s a dilemma I personally struggle with because sex is important to me, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life having charitable intercourse.
For me, It’s a question that both precedes a one-night stand and is an important component of a serious relationship. If a prospective partner and I were static in our positional preferences, I would likely view that as a sign that we are not compatible in every aspect of our partnership, and that would likely impact my enthusiasm in taking things further.
Evidently, I’m in the minority. I posted a poll on Twitter asking if positional preference would present a problem with a crush, and the majority (73%) said that they would try their best to make things work, depending on a number of factors, like whether the person will switch positions on occasion, how much you like them, and so on.
Because it’s a priority for me, I tend to ask the question straight out of the gate. I’m fairly forthright and meet most dates on the apps, where asking such a question is more casual and expected. After an introduction and some banter, I’ll ask their preference (if it isn’t already revealed in their profiles, though even then someone who identifies as vers may be more inclined to top or bottom) and, depending on the answer, either cut the conversation short by wishing them luck in their search or figure out where to go from there. Modern dating is all about convenience and instant gratification.
In my mind, nobody has the time or money to invest in a date only to discover you’re both tops or bottoms. I also believe positional preference can impact qualities outside of the bedroom. For instance, if a bottom tends to take on a submissive role during sex, these influences can be reflected in everyday behaviors (i.e. being held, feeling protected, etc.). The same issues present themselves with partners who take a more dominant role in the bedroom. While submissive tops and dominant bottoms certainly exist, this is another layer—albeit different—of sexual compatibility.
But enough about me. Because not every circumstance where this question is pertinent occurs online, I’ve reached out to a couple of experts on how to best approach the conversation. To start, each agreed: The answer is dependant on the culture of the environment (where you are, how you met, etc.), so, unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
“If someone wants to have casual sex, it’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask right away,” Patrick David Tully, a therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in working with gay men seeking deeper relationship satisfaction, tells NewNowNext. But, he adds, the question can be limiting if seeking a partner. “If a deeper relationship is desired, I encourage clients to think about what they’re seeking, since compromise for long-term relationships can be quite satisfying and lead to more matches one might not have considered previously.”
As for when this conversation should be breached, there is no designated time period. It’s more of a feel-it-out situation. In seeking public opinion, I published a poll on Twitter and was surprised to find that asking one’s positional preference “on the date” was the least popular option of the three offered, with 10% of the vote. The other two being “before the date” (34%) and “post-date, pre-sex” (56%). Ben Kline, who voted post-date, pre-sex believes, “One should allow a little fun and mystery, to see if there’s even a connection and/or spark, before worrying positional politics.”
In any case, New York-based therapist Daniel Olavarria advises you wait until the conversation becomes personal in other ways, which can be right off the bat or after a few dates, depending on the person. “If you’re sharing what you’re looking for in a relationship or what you have learned from your previous life experiences, then you might have the green light to probe a bit further,” he says. “If you are at that point in the date, then a great way to segue towards sex in a tactful way is to ask your date how important they feel sexual compatibility is in a relationship. This opens up the conversation much more organically and leads both of you toward sharing your sexual preferences in a way that is respectful and productive.”
As for how the question should be phrased, be frank but considerate, along the lines of: “Which do you enjoy more: topping, bottoming, or being versatile?”
In his practice, Tully shares that he has seen many men who will turn away prospective suitors due to both being tops or bottoms. “Relationships are about negotiation. A solid relationship will allow room for compromise so both people are willing to utilize different positions, or use toys to satisfy that need,” he says. Tully is also a supporter of polyamorous relationships where different people can fulfill different needs (find a top if you’re a bottom and vice-versa) for each person in the relationship.
Monogamy is a construct dictated by heteronormative culture. Fortunately, being gay is an entirely different experience, so if being open or exploring polyamorous relationships is appealing to you, don’t let outside judgments influence your choices.
“I encourage men to try different things that might be uncomfortable at first. It’s fascinating how much fun couples have when they commit to this process,” Tully says. “It’s scary, too, because of the psychological effects each position has: the submissive nature of bottoming and how topping is traditionally associated with dominance.”
How do you break down those barriers? Let go of any rigid expectations of what “should be” and simply let pleasure be your guide, says Tully. If nothing else, use the experience as research for when you’re on the other end of the equation.
If you decide switching positions isn’t for you, all hope is not lost. There are other ways to please a partner beyond penetration. There are so many erogenous zones that can bring intense pleasure and intimacy.
“Ask your partner what areas of their body are most sensitive and then get creative,” Olavarria suggests. “Incorporating roleplay or toys can also help mix things up. The name of the game is to not think about what you can’t do together and instead to explore the endless possibilities that are available to you.”
An incompatible positional preference is not a death sentence for a relationship, as long as both partners are willing to explore the many options available that queer people can explore. Having recently moved to a new city, I’m the first to admit that I may be prioritizing too strict a dichotomy between tops and bottoms, a belief that may change now that I’m seeking more serious relationships. However, knowing that others are willing to give love a chance when sexual compatibility may not match is encouraging, and ultimately reveals that we’re looking for love above all else.
Connection is what’s most important and if there is sexual chemistry—regardless of positional preference—I say give it all you’ve got.