Masculinity & Dominance
Masculinity is not essential to the recipe of being a dominant sexual partner. And yet, this identity alignment assumption, the assumption that masculinity and dominance go together and are always aligned, prevails in nearly all aspects of contemporary Western culture, and is a key part of what defines the stereotypical male gender role. But what about all of those men and masculine people of all genders who like to be submissive? Should they be made to feel ashamed of their desires, their power identity and orientation? What about the ways that submission and bottoming can be physically, emotionally, or even spiritually pleasurable? Should we deny that experience to someone because of their gender identity or gender expression?
Of course not. Men, butches, genderqueer-masculine-leaning folks, and all sorts of others in the masculine quadrants of the gender galaxy should be able to be dominant, submissive, top, bottom, switch—or however they feel best expresses themselves in the bedroom. And yet, that is not a common understanding of the ways masculinity and dominance work.
In my workshops around the country about gender and sexuality in recent years, I often begin by explaining my basic philosophies. Very early on I am frequently met with the questions "What is a top?” and “What is a bottom?" Being immersed in kinky and queer cultures, I forget how uncommon these terms are, and how infrequently they are used when discussing mainstream sexualities. My early introductions to my own gender and power identities came through books like The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book. These guides by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, which discuss beautifully the ways power can be integrated and utilized in sex play, and in spiritual practices of power and surrender, led me to my own sense of power in the bedroom.
I tend to presume that people have at least come across the notions of "top" and "bottom" when studying the history of homosexuality, particularly in ancient Rome, when it was acceptable for a man to engage in homosexual behavior as long as he was the "top," the one who was doing the fucking. This man wasn't even seen as gay, but the "bottom," on the other hand, was.
But I forget that not everyone studies the history of homosexuality.
There is still plenty of use of the terms top and bottom in that way, to define the one who either inserts his penis or who has a penis inserted into them. But if the top is always the one who inserts the penis, then how do men bottom? Is it even possible?
Of course it is. The use or insertion of a penis—or another object, be it a dildo, butt plug, fingers, tongue, zucchini, or what have you—is not the requirement differentiating between topping and bottoming. The person who opens up their body, who allows things or fingers or dildos to be inserted, is often the one receiving, often the one bottoming, but that is not always the case. And because of the ways men’s bodies and women’s bodies have the obvious Tab A that gets inserted into Slot B, certain physical tendencies have become stereotypes, which became cultural norms, enforced everywhere.
Coming into alternative identities such as kinky and queer has brought me into communities that use specific language around aggression and power dynamics in our sexual identities. I think folks who are in queer communities or kink scenes tend to have a little more knowledge about the possibility of untethering these compulsory identity alignments, understanding that at least the possibility of dominant women or submissive men exists and taking it seriously. Aside from that, kink and queerness are already outside of the dominant norm. In order to come to one of those identities, one must undo some layers of shame, build up layers of courage in order to go against the grain, and disconnect the identity alignment assumptions that say one must be straight and (relatively) vanilla. Queer folks and kinky folks have a leg up in this process, in general, due to an inherent understanding that one thing does not necessitate the other.
This isn't always true, however. At a potluck picnic recently, Val, a queer woman friend of mine, was lamenting her latest breakup and discussing her issues with sex. "What issues?" I asked her. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but all I know of your 'issues' is that you tend to want to be submissive in the bedroom. That doesn't have to be an issue."
"But it is an issue," she exclaimed. "Because I'm a little bit masculine, people have certain expectations." And even if they aren't actually disappointed, or they don't actually want her to be more aggressive and dominant in bed, Val presumes that they are and do, and just aren't telling her. And she feels ashamed. Even if they are assuring and reassuring her, still, something in her feels off. It is the source for much shame in her relationships and within herself.
My guess is that dozens of friends and lovers and stereotypes have reinforced this for her, perhaps for as long as she's been sexual. Dozens of dykes more masculine than her (like myself, perhaps) who are more toppy than she is (again, like me), and whom she sees as "normal" or "appropriate," have reinforced her alignment assumptions. So it's much harder for her to be comfortable with where she is, and what she likes, because of the (at least perceived) expectations and policing others have been putting on her. It barely helps that I am encouraging her to claim this identity, that it is a valid power orientation; my perspective is just a drop in the bucket.