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How I Learned There's More Than One Way To Have Gay Sex

Anal isn't everything.

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What is sex, exactly? If you’re a freshman taking your high school health class, sex is a flower having its petals torn off. According to philosopher Michel Foucault, sexuality is a discourse, bound up in our societal attitudes and laws regulating the human body. And when I was a teenager staying up late to browse the family computer while everyone was asleep, the internet’s definition of sex — at least when it came to man-on-man action — was two drunk straight guys who had “never done anything like this before.”

For me, sex was something shameful, marked by a lifetime of disappointment. When I was 23, I told the guy I liked to stop the first time we had sex. It was really painful and it didn’t feel right. The next day, he told me he didn’t want to see me anymore. A week later I had sex with someone else — just to prove that I could. Before I took my clothes off in his bedroom, which was filled with stacked PBR cans and old laundry, I repeated to myself, “I am a person who likes sex, I am a person who likes sex.” I thought if I said it enough times, it would be true. Instead, I accidentally took a shit all over him.

Gay sex is supposed to be transcendently exhausting, so orgasmic that it makes you instantly grab for a pack of cigarettes. In my experience, bottoming is like having a hot knife jammed into my intestines — and I avoided it for the next three years, until I met a man I wanted to like sex for. He was kind and patient, and I tried very, very hard. I relaxed and tried not to be so tense and I made plans to have sex with him every day until it felt “normal”— or like the sex I imagined other people were having — until we slowly had less sex and then stopped. I was tired of gritting my teeth through the constant pain, and I could tell he took it personally, as if he’d done something to hurt me.

I should have realized a lot earlier that the problem was bigger than me, but you’d be surprised how used you get to certain things: like sleeping alone to avoid taking a dump in a stranger’s bed. When it came to sex, I thought pain was the only choice I had. What’s more, I thought I deserved the pain — but I wanted to deserve someone who loved me instead.

This past March, I decided it was time to stop hurting. A jovial internist in Brooklyn advised me to get a colonoscopy to take a closer look, and he came back with news: I had irritable bowel syndrome.

It might seem like there’s little connection between food and intercourse, but when you’re having gay sex, the two are intimately — and sometimes awkwardly —connected. As Zach Stafford wrote in the Huffington Post, “it’s common knowledge that if you are a bottom and plan on having sex, then you shouldn't eat at Chipotle.” If anal sex can be messy, IBS only makes it worse, causing bloating and pain in your lower abdomen if you eat “trigger foods” (mine are dairy, eggs, spicy foods, and the dreaded gluten). For some, irritable bowel syndrome is linked to constant, uncomfortable constipation, but others may experience unpredictable bouts of diarrhea.

If you’re already feeling bloated, having anal sex might be the absolute last thing you want to do — because it only makes you feel worse. I was referred to a specialist who told me what to eat but also how to prepare it. But even for those who manage their symptoms with diet control, many gay men who suffer from IBS continue to be reticent about having anal sex. On sexual health forums, men complain that the nagging fear of pain in the back of your mind kills the experience. “I suffer from lots of bowel problems, which [makes] the idea of being on bottom even less appealing,” a forum poster on RealJock confesses. “Even more of a problem is even on days when my IBS isn't an issue, I just can't enjoy it.” Another user on the IBS Group website claims that after getting diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, he stopped having sex altogether, because he’s too worried about a flareup.

Sex is a symbol, a language, and a physical encounter — but it’s also a range of experiences as diverse as our bodies themselves.

These men may choose to go the rest of their lives without having anal intercourse — but those with IBS are certainly not alone in finding penetration painful, or otherwise undesirable. According to a 2011 study from George Mason and the University of Indiana, researchers found that just 1 in 3 men who have sex with men (MSMs) are regularly having penetrative intercourse. An earlier study from the Centers for Disease Control in 2005 found that number to be somewhere between 55 and 80% (there’s sadly little research overall on the subject).

No matter the specific statistics, a significant number of gay and bisexual men aren’t regularly having anal sex. But that doesn’t mean they’re being celibate — they’re engaging in mutual masturbation, foreplay, oral sex, and all kinds of sexual behaviors too often deemed as “lesser." In 1998, Bill Clinton claimed that he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky — because she only gave him a blowjob, after all— and it seems that the idea itself has stuck. A 2007 survey from the University of Kentucky found that just 1 in 5 college students classify oral sex as sex.

But the kinds of sex that gay men — and queer people in general — are having force us to rethink those notions, ones that for too long many, including myself, have accepted as the only definition of “what counts” in bed. Sex is a symbol, a language, and a physical encounter — but it’s also a range of experiences as diverse as our bodies themselves, which we too often ignore. And as a number of researchers, therapists, and writers have testified, it’s time to start recognizing them.


Where do we get this idea of what counts? For many gay men, it starts with our own sex partners and friend groups.

I spoke to Noah Michelson, the executive editor for the Voices section of the Huffington Post, who told me that this is a problem he regularly encounters. Over the phone, he explained that were he to tell a friend that he’d had sex with someone but that it didn’t involve penetration, he would likely hear something like: “That’s not sex, that’s a hookup.” Michelson said, “They have all these other names for it.”

Gay men often fall into the same limiting notions of sexual intercourse as the undergrads in the Kentucky study — what sex therapist Ian Kerner calls “sex script rigidity.” That term entails a number of different things: For a couple who have been together for 40 years, rigidity might mean that one partner is stuck always performing the “top” position, even if he might like to switch things up. But as Noah Michelson explained, these expectations often frame sexual interactions between gay men from their earliest connections. If you’re messaging a guy on a hookup app, the first question often is: “Are you a top or a bottom?” The question is an indication that — when it comes to this encounter — the end goal is penetration.

And for Michelson, that can feel invalidating. He confessed that he would “fall into that category of people who would say that I’m not having a ton of penetrative anal sex as a gay man.” When I asked him why that is, he explained: “I think it can be a lot of work, especially as a bottom. There are things that you need to do to get ready for anal sex and it just ends up being like, ‘Ugh, do I really want to go through that whole routine to do that?’ I think that anal sex can be amazing, obviously, but other things can be just as amazing.”

The problem is oftentimes not anal sex in and of itself: The problem is the shame our culture makes people feel around their preferences.

Joe Kort, a 52-year-old writer and sex therapist, explained that it’s not just that he rarely engages in penetrative sex. In our phone interview, he told me that he’s never had anal intercourse — despite being in a decades-long committed relationship. Whereas many men label themselves as “tops” or “bottoms,” Kort calls himself a “side.” In an article for the Huffington Post, he defines sides as men who “prefer to kiss, hug and engage in oral sex, rimming, mutual masturbation and rubbing up and down on each other, to name just a few of the sexual activities they enjoy.”

Kort continues, “These men enjoy practically every sexual practice aside from anal penetration of any kind. They may have tried it, and even performed it for some time, before they became aware that for them, it was simply not erotic and wasn't getting any more so.”

As Zach Stafford — now a contributing writer for the Guardian — clarified in an interview, the problem is oftentimes not anal sex in and of itself: The problem is the shame our culture makes people feel around their preferences. When it comes to anal sex, Stafford explained that there’s a pervasive stigma around the act of bottoming. He argued that this shame is partially a result of the 1980s AIDS epidemic — but instead of encouraging people to lead healthier lives, the stigma only creates more blame. “It’s about making you the reason why something bad is happening,” Stafford said, “but what we know from science and from our lives is that stigma doesn’t save the world.”

One way to eradicate the shame of bottoming, or any other kind of sexual preference, is education. In the United States, there’s very little in the way of sex ed for anyone — let alone for queer individuals. That means that many MSMs are forced to educate themselves with the limited resources they have, which often involve the unrealistic depictions found in gay porn. As Kort explains, visual depictions of gay sex take a lot of the messiness out of it. Kort said, “They made sex look so easy and anal sex look so seamless.”

Michelson agrees: “No one makes any weird noises, there aren’t any weird smells, it’s not awkward. That’s not what sex is about. I think it does a great disservice to people in general but especially to young people who have expectations of what sex is going to be like.”

While pornography can be a way to normalize alternative sexual practices — like BDSM or fetish play — it’s a bad substitute for healthy, empowering instruction that allows you to explore your sexuality or gives you a space to do so. That’s exactly what Paul Rosenberg hopes to provide. He founded Seattle’s local Rain City Jacks in 2005, a male masturbation club that meets three times a month. In our chat, he told me that his goal is to give “people a new way of experiencing sexuality in a very positive way,” and he believes that the public nature of masturbation clubs is a way to encourage that. “It’s all in the open,” Rosenberg said. “It invites a sense that this is OK.”

No matter what kind of sex we’re having, Rosenberg explains, it’s important to be honest and open about intimacy. “If you want to create a world that’s shameless around sex, you have to model that for others,” he told me. Rosenberg is right — but that also entails being more honest with ourselves.


As a 27-year-old adult, getting diagnosed with IBS was like a second coming out — of learning to be more honest with myself and my partners about what I want. According to Kort, that’s incredibly common. He explained that defining your sexual preferences — what you do and don’t like, or what you’re willing to do — is an important stage of the long coming-out process. “I think coming out gay is a different experience than coming out sexual,” Kort said. “When you come out gay, you’re having gay sex and doing stuff, but you’re really coming out with your identity. It has less to do with sex and more to do with who you really are.”

You should be engaging in intimate acts that give you pleasure — not having the kind of sex you think you’re supposed to be having.

If it takes a long time to come to terms with your sexual nature, that comes with a certain amount of trial and error — as well as being open to the process of learning about your body and what it likes. “Working across the spectrum of LGBTQ individuals, I find that the definition of sex is usually pretty elastic,” Kerner said. “I am continually inspired around the flexibility of what defines sex.” Kerner explained that he would “never encourage someone to do something they don’t want to do,” but it can also be important to “push a little outside of [your] comfort zone.”

For me, that entailed trying things I hadn’t done before, experimenting with different toys to help myself relax. My partner and I are working up to penetrative sex — while realizing that, hey, maybe we won’t get there, and that’s OK. We’re also experimenting with anal massage, based on Ian Kerner’s recommendation, and we might even make a visit to New York Jacks.

And earlier this year, I got a happy ending massage on a recommendation from a friend, which helped reframe my notions about what sex was: Instead of needing to have penetration, it became about having an experience. You should be engaging in intimate acts that give you pleasure — not having the kind of sex you think you’re supposed to be having. This is why sex and relationships coach Mark Davian insists that it’s important to shift away from goal-oriented sex. Instead of looking specifically for intercourse, Davian believes the idea should be that “we’re going to feel good but we’re not so focused on a goal. ... That can open up doors.”

I’m still opening those doors for myself by figuring out what I like and what sex means to me. In doing so, I’ve discovered that there’s no definition of normal — whether that’s in bed, or anywhere else.

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