How a Versatile Top Is Defined in Gay Relationships

gay male couple in bed
svetikd/E+/Getty Images

You may have been asked at one time or another whether you were a top, bottom, or versatile. Some gay men use these labels to identify themselves or to find partners that match their preferences. Others prefer a more loose interpretation of their sexual roles.

It is not unusual for gay men to define themselves this way. Whether you're considering dating or simply hooking up, as a gay man you'll typically ask the other guy whether he’s a top, a bottom, or a versatile. It’s important to find this out as soon as possible because if you intend to date, or become seriously involved in a relationship, it’s vitally important that you and he be sexually compatible with each other.

The whole issue of top versus versatile hit the gay community big time in 2016 with the release of a survey published in the "Archives of Sexual Behavior," entitled Gay Top and Bottom Roles Generalized by Stereotypes. The study revealed that judgments made about whether an individual is a top, a bottom, or a versatile are simply based on perceived (not actual) masculine and feminine traits.

What do these labels mean?

Let's get clinical for a moment: top and versatile are sex positions taken during sexual activity. While the term can reference females, the labels have commonly come to identify positions preferred by gay men while engaging in sexual activity.  A top is a male who prefers penetrating and a versatile is typically a man who is open to either being a top or a bottom (i.e., the male who "receives").

One gay man had this to say about position labeling:

There’s so much talk and discussion about who gives and who receives. I’ve had straight people tell me that they assumed that most gay guys simply take turns. Yes, some do, but most don’t. But what if a guy isn’t a top, a bottom or even versatile? What about gay men who have never engaged in anal sex and never will, ever? I am tired of all the labeling.

Another gay man (a financial consultant) who relocated to New York City says that the already complex dating world became even more difficult to navigate with all the chatter about positions.

“New York is a bottom town,” says Jason. “When you’re on and the profile says ‘versatile,’ you know that guy is really a bottom. It means he will top but doesn’t like to.  I’m a bottom, and my profile says versatile.”

Why Are You Being Asked To Label Yourself In the First Place?

In straight male-female relationships, there are traditional generalizations one makes about sexual compatibility—although I am underscoring the word "generalizations." However, when two men are involved it is difficult to determine sexual compatibility before the two parties meet. Especially in today's swipe right, swipe left app dating world, one needs to put some thought into it so they can be clear from the start. 

Positions and Sexual Identity

A person's sexual role/position has more to do with personal preference than with how masculine or feminine they are or how masculine or feminine they appear to be/look.  In other words, it has more to do with one's unique personality than the fact that they are straight, gay, dominant, or submissive in nature

There are no absolutes when it comes to an individual's sexual preferences. Some men use these terms as a guide, while others see them as a necessary protocol to follow. Either way, it's an important conversation to have before sex or dating.