Many gay, bisexual and queer men have noticed that in the world of gay male sex, for every guy who’s a top or dominant or taking charge there are usually at least four to five guys who prefer the submissive, follower or bottom role. Some have told me their experience has been the numbers or more like 10 or even 20 to one.
This seems to apply across the board (at least in English-speaking countries and outside of certain ethnic enclaves in those countries) whether you’re into anal sex, erotic massage or BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, sadism/masochism) or something else sexually.
Whether we call it bottoming, submission or something else, at the core most guys like someone else to take the lead.
To be clear, I use the word submissive here in the broader way it is currently used in 21st century Western culture – as a follower – not in the strict, narrow way it was historically used in traditional, old guard, leather BDSM sense – a meaning more tightly focused on obedience – even though the broader, current usage does sometime include the traditional meaning.
Of course, this depends some on the geographic region and the specific activities that are involved. But it’s very common that there are many more guys who are submissive than dominant or tops.
Since many gay guys can be adamant about how they like their sex, this sets up some challenging issues for gay, bisexual and queer men around supply and demand – whether you’re looking for a long-term partner or a casual sex hookup. It can also bring up some friction inside long-term relationships.
Here are some reasons why most gay and bisexual men prefer to bottom or be submissive, letting their partner lead.
1. Most men are touch starved
The first consideration is that in English speaking, Western-thinking societies, men don’t receive a lot of touch. We don’t have as many opportunities to receive touch as women do (though they can be touch deprived, too).
It’s especially the case that men receiving touch from men is not something that society looks on as a great thing. Yes, they may find it entertaining or tolerate it, but even the simplest, discreet displays of affection it can still be met with subtle disapproval.
Due to this most men receive very little touch.
Sex is often the only time many men get to receive the type of touch that ideally we could also receive in social settings.
The truth is, when you’re submissive and letting your partner lead, you typically receive a lot more touch than when you’re dominant.
Whether your partner massages you, spanks you, penetrates or ties you, you get touched a lot more than he does. Generally, the dominant or top only gets touched on his hands and genitals.
So, this is one of the reasons why more guys to want to be submissive than dominant.
2. The natural inclination to balance energy
One reason more gay men prefer to be submissive is an issue of balancing energy.
In our Western cultures, we define masculinity based on action and accomplishment. We often downplay the receptive side of masculinity.
As a result, men don’t receive often. We don’t have much practice in receiving – both energetically as well as with touch.
This can bring up a strong and powerful longing to receive.
We all need balance in our lives. We need both supportive encouragement and challenge, rest and exercise, sleeping and waking, giving and receiving.
It’s the natural order. Just look at the ocean tides or the seasons of the year.
When we’re out of balance we notice, and want to get more of what we’re missing.
Fundamentally with most traditional sexual activities, the bottom or submissive partner is receiving and the dominant is giving. (It can work the other way around, but for the most part we act and think about it this way.)
3. The instinct to create polarity
When we talk about balancing extremes, polarity also comes into play. It’s a strong difference, like two ends of a magnet.
Polarity is an important factor in creating sexual attraction. As the saying goes, opposites attract.
When people talk about sexual tension or say there was a sexual charge in the air they are talking about polarity.
Polarity affects why we often are drawn to people different from us or to extremes of giving and receiving like erotic bondage or spanking.
When it comes to gay men having sex, they do not have the built-in polarity that exists biologically between a man and a woman.
Thus, the natural instinct to create polarity and thus sexual tension may lead gay men to more heavily emphasize giving and receiving. One guy wants to only give or only receive, to only bottom or only top, rather than meeting in the middle in a more mutual, reciprocal way.
All of this then may be an underlying factor affecting why many guys to prefer to bottom or be submissive, and are reluctant to be versatile.
4. Following is easier than leading
The third reason is that it’s easier to follow directions than it is to lead
This is true in any part of life and sex. It’s especially true when it comes to primal sexy play, rough sex or BDSM.
This is because taking the leadership or dominant role requires you to make decisions about your partner’s safety. You also need to figure out what is the right intensity for the other person, so that it is exciting but not overwhelming for them.
Even with vanilla sex, as the top or leader you need to make decisions and gauge the right speed, intensity and flow of activities that will work best for your partner.
As the leader, top or dominant you also need to walk the line between fantasy and reality. If your partner is not clear about what he wants, you need to deal with the fact that often what we think we want sexually (and are turned on thinking about) is not the precise thing that would be the most satisfying for him or you. For example, he may think he wants to experience more, or may even ask for more intensity than he might actually be able to tolerate.
All of this means that it takes work to be the guy in charge, top, to be dominant – and to do it well. When you’re a bottom or submissive all you really need to do is receive, follow orders, sometimes even just lay there and hopefully give some feedback.
Thus, because it’s easier to follow than it is to lead, many gay and bisexual men prefer to bottom or be submissive.
5. Desire for body enjoyment
The fourth reason for the supply and demand issue between gay male tops and bottoms is body enjoyment.
Much of the effort in being a top or dom is mental. It requires you to think about what’s going to happen next, and how you’re going to do it. This takes energy even for a skilled top with a regular partner.
You end up asking yourself questions like: How is this person responding to what I’m doing? How much am I enjoying it? What do I need to change? What’s going to happen next?
Now it’s true that there can be a lot of mental satisfaction in being a top and pleasuring your partner successfully.
Since the brain is our biggest sex organ it’s important to not overlook this.
However, all this thinking can make it harder to go out of your mind and into your body, so that you can really enjoy the pleasure of the experience.
When you’re in your mind it’s harder to enjoy your body.
After all, a big draw of sex – whether conservative or aggressively playful – is body enjoyment. And that leads more guys to want to be submissive than be a top or dominant.
6. Increasing acceptance of alternate sexual expression and LGBT identities
Over recent years, there has been growing acceptance of sexual differences, including of gay men. The legalization of gay marriage in the United States and the rise to fame of 50 Shades of Gray are only two of the many milestones that have marked this change. Although there have been setbacks, the movement towards freedom and acceptance continues.
With growing acceptance, gay men feel safer in their day to day lives. For example, in most English-speaking countries, it is much less likely nowadays to lose your apartment, lose your job or be a victim of violence simply because you’re gay.
To use the framework of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety and physical needs are much less at risk. Thus, gay men are more able to place their attention higher on the pyramid to things such as love and notably fulfillment.
Experiences that have been less common and which are considered desirable are more on the cultural radar of gay men then they were in the long distant past.
Being vulnerable, receptive and at the same time safe, is appealing for many reasons. It’s seen as fulfilling. These days even many straight men are drawn to sexual expressions that are marked by greater vulnerability (such as being bound or receptive anal sex). This is noteworthy since being receptive and vulnerable flies against traditional notions of masculinity.
Another consideration is that often sexuality is a part of our lives where we (often unconsciously) seek to experience what we don’t or can’t have in other parts of our lives. The story has been told many times of men who are successful lawyers or CEOs who want to lose control in the bedroom, or of those without much power at work who want to be in charge in the bedroom.
In past times, simply being gay meant you were not safe in many ways. You could lose your job, your home and even your life. Thus, a desire to take on a “safer” role sexually may have been more common in those times, expressed by the desire to be the leader, top or in control sexual partner.
In more recent times where basic safety is less a concern, gay men thus feel freer to let go of control, to explore and experiment with other sexual roles.
7. The widespread availability of porn, social media and video
Gay men have many more models today of how they can express and experience their sexuality than they did in the past.
In the distant past the main opportunities to see the possibilities was through pornographic magazines purchased in a store, or through being present in a bar or club with a “back room.” While, of course, there was sexual activity and groups that met in homes, my point is that the availability of role models was much more limited. You had to leave your home to obtain them.
The available media was usually in the form of posed still images and stories. Generally, these were professionally produced, as well. It was much more common to show scantily clad models than it was to show real, live action sex.
Nowadays, sexual images are infinitely more available than in the past. Video is widespread. It’s usually more memorable than still photos.
Contemporary imagery is much more explicit. Sometimes sex is simulated but much less often than in the past.
In addition, there is a lot of home produced amateur pornography, both still images and video. For the most part this did not exist in years past.
There is much less of a barrier between the viewer and amateur producer. While professionally produced porn sometimes tries to look natural it often relies on expensive special effects and costly sets. The difference may be subtle, but fundamentally it is easier to see yourself as possibly doing or experiencing something that an amateur has produced.
All of this then means that gay men today have more models of the wide variety of sexual experiences they can have. They also see many more examples of masculine men enjoying being submissive, bottoming, being receptive or just following the lead of their partner.
8. Cultural softening of masculinity
Traditionally, masculinity was more closely linked to sexual orientation (being heterosexual) than femininity was. This is one of the reasons men are more likely to be homophobic than women. (Just consider how it’s usually considering more acceptable for 2 women to hug than for men to do so.)
While traditional masculinity still has a strong hold on English-speaking, western-thinking cultures, the notions of masculinity have softened and become more flexible.
Society has changed in many ways. For example, roles that were traditionally the domain of women – like being a nurse or schoolteacher – are less likely to be considered inappropriate for men. These days a man who is artistic, a great cook or in the theater or a dancer is less likely to be assumed to be gay than in the past.
We also see more permission in the culture for men to express their emotions.
Of course, there are many exceptions and regional nuances to these trends.
Traditionally, if a man was gay he was considered less masculine. While gay men may have consciously rejected this idea the temptation to believe it at an unconscious level was real.
Some men went along with this idea and flaunted their feminine qualities.
Many others sought to accentuate their masculine qualities, to be hyper-masculine.
Accentuating one’s masculinity served several purposed. Socially it could save one from physical danger or economic hardship.
Psychologically it could be a savior too. Living as part of a small minority in an environment where almost everyone thought badly of people like you can make it difficult to maintain a positive self-esteem.
Being as masculine as possible was therefore a very practical defense mechanism for gay men.
The previously widespread experience for men of being in the military (common due to the draft) also encouraged all men towards hyper-masculinity.
In this traditional masculine way of thinking, one of the ways to be “masculine” when it came to sex was to be in control, to be the leader, the top.
The idea of what it means to be masculine has softened or become much more flexible in the broader culture. Much of the stigma of being gay has gone, from English-speaking countries at least.
The need to be hyper-masculine is much less important today and this change is showing up in the bedroom. One example of this is the increasing numbers of straight men who are enjoying receptive anal sex.
As the notions of masculinity have softened and become more flexible, many gay men feel less constrained in many aspects of their life including sexually. Exploring, being the follower, the receptive partner, the submissive is more accessible and desirable.
Erotic creativity and flexibility can help you connect more sexually
These factors usually occur and motivate us outside of conscious awareness. They lead more guys to want to bottom or be submissive, and that’s why the numbers are so imbalanced, and have been reported to have been imbalanced, going back many years (though perhaps not quite as imbalanced as today).
So, whether you’re trying to find a relationship or someone for casual sex, or just trying to keep the erotic fire burning with a long-term partner, keep in mind these reasons for why guys like to follow the leader more often than taking the lead in bed.
For all these reasons, it’s a great idea to develop a range of erotic skills so you can be flexible and enjoy a versatile range of activities as it will give you more options, and thus more pleasure.