For most people, a “side” is a small dish that pairs well with a main course. For gay men, the term “side” is divisive, challenging some of the deeply rooted heteronormative expectations we have around sex.
A side is loosely defined as someone who doesn’t like penetrative anal sex – neither to give it nor receive it. Late last year, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 alum Kerri Colby reignited the side discourse with a tweet that shook gay Twitter. “I was today years old when I learned that I don’t identify as a top or bottom,” she wrote. “but as a side.”
If you’re not a gay man, you may not be aware of this term. You see, not wanting anal goes against everything we’ve been taught about ourselves — namely that there are only three positions: top, bottom, and vers, all of which involve penis-to-booty contact. Much like in heterosexual sex, we’ve made the goal of every sexual encounter to penetrate or be penetrated; anything else, in our minds, doesn’t really count or is considered a fetish.
Side visibility reached a fever pitch in June 2022 when Grindr added it as an option under its list of sexual positions. Since then, visibility and language have given representation to what some people have been feeling and practicing — and, it turns out, they’re everywhere. One of the most prominent and vocal sides is drag queen and international meme star Kandy Muse, who’s eager to talk about the state of side rights in America and how it’s a part of her queer identity.
“In my life, I’ve had to come out as a queer man, then I had to come out as a drag queen,” said Muse. “Then, to my gay friends, I had to come out as a side.”
Kandy’s story mirrors that of many other sides: For a long time, she thought she had to choose between being a top or bottom, neither of which she particularly enjoyed. Some people told her she was probably bottoming wrong — and for some time, she believed them. But after several years of trial and error — “I f*cked probably a million men,” she said — the 28-year-old decided that she probably just didn’t enjoy penetration, period.
That came with its own set of rejections, which she still experiences regularly: Some people on hookup apps stop responding as soon as Kandy reveals her preference. When she tells new friends that she’s a side, they make fun of her.
It’s mostly a joke, but it implies something very real about the stigma. For many sides, not wanting to have penetrative sex isn’t just about what they prefer pleasure-wise; it’s also tied to romantic intimacy and what they want from potential partners.
Samuel (who requested INTO withhold his last name) told me that so much of gay hookup culture is about recreating a “penetrator/penetratee” dynamic.
“I feel like there’s an intimate feeling I have around penetrative sex, and it’s something I want to do with someone I have a connection with,” said Samuel, a 21-year-old from Michigan who works in tech consulting. That makes looking for a casual hookup (during which penetration is usually expected) infinitely more difficult, because he’s upfront about not wanting to f*ck on the first link.
The root of the problem, as I see it, is that gay men identify too closely with their sexual positions. “Top” and “bottom” have become whole identities, and the implications of those identities reach far beyond the bedroom. One study suggested that a gay person’s masculinity was central in determining their anal position during sex, even though whether you’re a top or bottom really shouldn’t have anything to do with how you act. We equate tops with masculinity and bottoms with femininity, to the point where we can point to another gay man walking down the street and say, always disparagingly, “He’s such a bottom.”
“A lot of gay men really are playing out a lot of power dynamics through the activity of topping and bottoming, and it’s not necessarily about sex but about who is more aligned with the traditionally patriarchal Western man,” said Finn Deerhart, a gay sex counselor based in California. “If you’re a side, you’re completely outside the realm of that, and it confuses people on how to express themselves sexually when so much of our sexual discourse is about power and who has it.”
In other words, when we come across a side, our primal gay man brains short circuit.
Rigidly identifying with one sexual position makes sex less about pleasure and more about putting a sexual identity into action. As Finn points out, our sexual desires are constantly shifting — realistically, no one wants to do the same thing 100% of the time. “Of course we have the things we like,” said Deerhert. “But if we just go into our experiences with this set list of things we want to check off, we’re really missing the possibility of what could emerge from an authentic connection with somebody.”
Sides, through the articulation of their side-ness, challenge the top/bottom binary. People who don’t enjoy anal have always existed, obviously, but they didn’t have the words to express that until the term “side” was coined in a 2013 HuffPost article by Dr. Joe Kort, a psychotherapist who works with gay men. In that piece, he noted that several men he spoke with felt immense shame about being neither a top nor bottom. “Not being a top or a bottom doesn’t mean that one is less gay or less masculine,” he wrote. “It doesn’t make anyone any less of a sexual human being.”
Ten years later, coming out as a side can be a radical act of agency in a culture that tells sides that what they enjoy is wrong. (The irony of gay men thinking there’s a “wrong” way to have sex is a conversation for another time).
“Now, I wanted sex to be for me because I always prioritized my partner’s wants and needs before my own,” said Brenden, a 22-year-old barista who lives in New York and who started identifying as a side three months ago. Whenever someone hits him up on a dating app, he’s upfront about being a side.
For many of the sides I spoke with, penetration can still be part of the sexual diet, but it’s not the main course. In many ways, the increasing visibility of gay sides is a “f*ck you” to a culture that says you should always strive for penetration and to apply the heteronormative discourse tied to it to yourself; it prioritizes genuine pleasure over the haste of shoving a penis into a butt.
During my conversation with Kandy, we talked about why some queer people are so keen on policing each other’s sexual preferences. The more we spoke about it, the more I realized that I shared a lot of things with her, and that by gay hook-up standards, I’m probably a side, too. Giving or receiving penetration has always felt tedious, and it’s been nearly a year since I took it up the butt.
I feel perfectly fulfilled and content with the sex life I have, which mostly consists of other sexual acts. Of course penetration is fun, but I don’t think we’re always honest about how much time and effort it takes — sometimes, it’s just not worth it.
I realize that the movement of gay sides is not just about coming up with new terms, but really about refusing to conform to the ways that the culture tells us we should relate to our own bodies.
“I believe in side supremacy,” Kandy Muse told me. After speaking to her, I think I do too.
Verdict: Definitely Into It. ♦