An Athenian red-figure kylix (cup) dating from around 510–500 BC depicts a young pentathlete pulling his older lover towards him for a kiss. In many of the city-states of ancient Greece, sex between a man and a youth was an accepted – even idealized – form of love, its virtues extolled in works by writers including Plato.
In Ancient Greece, some philosophical reflections even idealized same-sex love. We can find notable examples in the Symposium, the philosopher Plato’s description of an intellectually high-powered Athenian dinner party. One character, Phaedrus, extols the virtues of manly, same-sex love among warriors and legislators: “And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.” This, allegedly, was the inspiration for the Sacred Band of Thebes, comprising 150 pairs of male lovers, which fought heroically at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC before succumbing to the overwhelming forces of Philip II of Macedon.
Another dinner guest at Plato’s imagined symposium, Pausanias, contrasts “base” love (with women and boys) as merely for sexual gratification and therefore inferior, with “noble” love (with young men). The latter, he says, is “pure” and about instilling guidance and wisdom in a pedagogical relationship rather than sex. This rationalization of same-sex love, whether platonic or carnal, had an extraordinary resilience in western societies over the next couple of millennia and beyond. Take, for example, the famous defense by Oscar Wilde at his trial for sodomy and gross indecency in 1895: “The ‘love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”
Throughout history, the receptive/penetrated partner in male same-sex relationships has often been seen as the lesser person in the relationship. One of the most famous examples of bottom shaming is Julius Caesar, who has often been portrayed as a macho, militaristic, elite Roman leader. Much of that masculine power revolved as much around his ability to demonstrate his sexual prowess (think Cleopatra) as it did around political prowess. However, his contemporary political rivals saw this masculinity differently and often commented on such. Julius Caesar was nicknamed the “bald adulterer,” which fit the Roman political stereotype perfectly by sleeping his way to power. As a young man, he spent a considerable amount of time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, fueling a series of rumors about an affair in which Caesar was the submissive party. His return to Bithynia just a few days after leaving to “collect a debt” further fanned the flames. Suetonius tells us that this was the only stain on Caesar’s masculinity. But it was a stain that proved difficult to wash out, and he would be reminded of it throughout his prematurely ended life. One colleague, Bibulus, addressed Caesar as “the queen of Bithynia.” During an assembly, a man named Octavius hailed his co-consul Pompey as “king” and Caesar as “queen.”
Male sexuality and sexual masculinity have been defined throughout history by the role played by the receptive partner. Women have been seen by most of world history as the weaker sex, and because they take on the receptive role in sex, a man who is the penetrated partner for another man is seen as less of a man. A gay man’s position in the bedroom can extend to how he’s perceived in the LGBTQ+ community. Bottoms, those who are the receptive partner, are often not afforded the respect they deserve. Bottoms deserve a lot more respect than they usually receive. All too often, the terms “bottom” and “submissive” are used interchangeably. However, not all bottoms are submissive. Some bottoms can be quite aggressive, thus the term “power bottom.”
Even versatile men can have a more submissive side because they may prefer those who bottom for them to be more aggressive, but versatile men may also like those who top them to be more aggressive. The opposite can also be true: a versatile gay man who is more dominant may prefer more submissive bottoms and to take control of sex when they are the bottom. Then there are the “strict tops” who refuse to bottom no matter what. These men are often the least respectful of bottoms, and “strict bottoms” may often feel (or be perceived as) inferior to tops for being the receptive partner. The dichotomy of the top/bottom relationship needs to be more respectful for both positions.
Most tops do not consider that being a bottom takes a lot of preparation before engaging in anal sex—something a top benefit from but seldom worries about. The idea of spontaneous sex might sound like a thrill, but it is an unrealistic fantasy of the gay community seen in depictions of gay life from m/m romance novels to gay porn. We don’t want to think about all the preparation available. It’s similar to something I once read about Henry James’s novels that no one ever goes to the bathroom in his novels, though that is true of most novels. However, for a bottom who hasn’t prepared for sex, it can be a stressful and uncomfortable experience. To avoid any awkward mishaps during sex, most bottoms will prepare for it—even if there’s only a tiny chance, they might have sex that day. Even with the most preparation and precautions taken, most bottoms will still hope and pray the entire time that no accidents happen.
Furthermore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that anal sex can be painful at times, and it can take a lot of getting used to before it becomes a fully satisfying sexual experience. When it’s been a while, it’s literally like sticking your finger in a Chinese finger trap, and we all know that isn’t the most enjoyable thing. Most gay men will prepare themselves for bottoming ahead of time. Still, if they don’t know their partner’s penis size, this could make the experience more satisfying if he has a larger than average girth but might be less enjoyable if his penis is less girthy. There is a lot to consider and be prepared for, but it’s also a gamble if you don’t know what to expect. A bottom might ask for “Size?” or “Pics?” from a potential partner while chatting online. Those are not just questions for size queens; they can also be a question so that the bottom can be more prepared for the top. Many men will just see those questions as crude, but the bottom may just be trying to prepare for a better experience for the top.
In the gay community, bottoms are still seen as the more feminine ones. Bottoms are looked at as less than tops in the community. If you doubt this is true, then ask yourself, when was the last time you heard someone refer to a “top” in a derogatory way. Gay men often have insecurities about being labeled a bottom because the gay community all too often engages in “bottom shaming.” Why is this the case? It goes back to historical perceptions of gay sex which ingrained in men the idea that the receptive partner was lesser: either they were the younger partner, a slave, etc. Achilles and Patroclus were an example of this, while the exception was the relationship between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion. Yet, even with Alexander, all of his male lovers were not equal, such was the case with another of his favorite sexual partners, Bagoas, a eunuch “in the very flower of boyhood.” It’s a stereotype that we must work to change.
The fact is your sexual preference be it top, bottom, or versatile, doesn’t mean a damn thing when it comes to your masculinity. We should be proud if we are a bottom, a top, or a bit of both. We should be proud of our sexuality and not get bogged down in roles because why does it matter? You need to realize it doesn’t matter, and we are all a part of the same community and should uplift each other instead of trying to tear each other down. Tops come in all shapes and sizes, including short guys and feminine guys. Plenty of drag queens out there are tops. Don’t assume someone is a top or a bottom because of the way they present or because of their size. There are also plenty of well-endowed bottoms, and while many of us may find that a waste of a good penis, we should respect their preferences. It boils down to each of us respecting one another.