I had anal sex because I thought it’s what I was supposed to do. Turns out, I’m a side

I spent seven years of my adult life having sex that I didn’t want to have.

Topping, bottoming, flip-flopping. With boyfriends, dates and guys I’d met on one night stands. I had anal sex because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do, what I’d been told to do, because being gay is synonymous with anal sex, right? And then one day I came across the term ‘side’ – a term used by gay men who don’t enjoy anal sex, and suddenly I felt seen. 

That was almost ten years ago. I started having the sex I wanted to have instead, and started talking about my new identity to anyone who would listen. The surprising thing was, that the more people I spoke to, the more I started to realise how many other people felt exactly the same as me. I completely lost count of the times I’d hear – ‘Wait, that’s a thing? I feel that way too!’ – it seemed that there was a staggering number of gay men who also weren’t in to topping or bottoming, and yet hadn’t found the language to express how they felt.

A guy I used to date even reached out to say that he too now identified as a side – the irony being that for the duration of the time we dated each other, the two of us had been having anal sex that neither of us wanted to have. 

And it’s not always just a preference either – there are gay guys with medical conditions that mean they physically aren’t able to have anal sex. Men with phimosis (a tight foreskin) may not be able to top, and for gay men with stomas, bottoming could quite literally be life-threatening. So why then, after all of these years, is identifying as a ‘side’ still something we hear about so seldomly? The term was coined in 2013, and yet there still seems to be so little awareness. We still very much live in a top/bottom/vers culture, and I still have to find myself explaining what it means to be a ‘side’ on a near daily basis. 

It’s not always met with acceptance either. I’ve been told that the sex that I have isn’t ‘real’ sex, that I just haven’t found the right top or bottom yet, or that I need to learn to like anal or I’m not going to find a guy with which I’m compatible.

The truth of the matter, though, is that in all the years I’ve identified this way, I can only think of a couple of incidences of my sexual preference being a dealbreaker. I’ve encountered dozens of other sides, and even had tops and bottoms alike tell me that they were ‘never into anal that much anyway’ or that it’s a ‘relief that they don’t have to perform’. 

And being a ‘side’ doesn’t have to be boring either. Part of my job as an ambassador for Lovehoney – the sexual happiness people – is to get people trying different types of sex. Whether experimenting with sex toys, role play, or BDSM, there’s a whole world of sex that two guys can enjoy that doesn’t revolve around penetration. 

It very much seems that anal sex has been drilled into us as the norm, but as a community that have been challenging sexual norms since the early days of queer liberation, I’d like to see that start to change. We have so many brilliantly liberating movies and TV shows on our screens now that celebrate the joys of intimacy between gay men, and yet I can only think of one time I’ve seen a ‘side’ represented on screen. It was in Russel T Davies’ Channel 4 show Cucumber, and it felt incredibly meaningful to have the sex that I enjoy represented on such an enormous platform. 

And that’s what I want to see more of. We live in an era where shows like Drag Race have catapulted queer culture into the mainstream to the point that your aunt Shirley now understands what it means to be a ‘top’ or a ‘bottom’, and yet there are many young gay guys coming to terms with their queer sexuality, thinking there’s something wrong with them because they want to do neither.  

Grindr have recently added ‘side’ as an option, and that’s exactly the kind of change I want to see. I believe it will have an enormous impact on the number of people who understand the term, and that in turn, will cement it as an important piece of our collective sexual vocabulary. Gay men, especially those newly coming out, deserve to know that there’s a plethora of sexual activity that they can enjoy, and that they shouldn’t feel pushed in to any one way of having sex. Grindr acknowledging being a side as a legitimate identity will go along way to helping us to achieve this, but I still think there’s more to be done. 

So here’s my ask – I want to see ‘side’ normalised as a term, I want to see it become a fundamental part of queer vocabulary just like ‘top,’ ‘bottom,’ and ‘vers’ have, and I want to hear more gay men using it in their interactions. It seems like such a small inconsequential thing, but to someone out there, it could make all the difference. 


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