Full disclosure: talking about sex publicly makes me nervous.
I like sex, think about it a lot, and factor it into many of my major decisions. Yet, when it comes to speaking to it in writing, education and advocacy work, I always think there are more experienced, more studied and informed voices to contribute to the conversation, so I tend to stay quiet. Here’s to speaking up, and trusting my own stories.
About three months into our relationship, when my college boyfriend asked me to penetrate him, I was confused. Up to that point in the relationship, he had always penetrated me, and it had never occurred to me he was interested in anything else. It had never occurred to me that anything else was possible.
I was still new to anal sex, and had never acted as the penetrating partner. The only things I knew about positions in queer sex I had learned on the piers. Participating in the New York ballroom scene as a teenager, I had been asked almost upon my arrival if I was a top or a bottom. The first time the question was posed, I needed to have it explained to me. But even before it was, I knew there was something about power and dominance tied up in the hierarchical terms, something that, when answered, would tell my larger community how I should be treated.
The first time I tried penetrating my boyfriend, we did it standing up over the desk in his dorm room. I didn’t like the position very much, but couldn’t tell if that was just because I didn’t like giving. I went through the motions mechanically, following step by step what my boyfriend usually did for me. I found being the giving partner boring. I didn’t know where to look, and I kept waiting for the intensity, the overwhelming sensations I associated with being a receiving partner. The orgasm was nothing to speak of.
Afterward, my boyfriend told me I had been a little too aggressive, and that it had hurt. I was mortified. I remember being embarrassed that I hadn’t asked my partner how I was making them feel, afraid of my own body and what it could do.
There was a reason I felt unprepared to be a penetrative partner, and why attempting it jarred and made me anxious: I was femme. I had never considered attempting to be a giving partner, never imagined myself doing it, never asked myself if I wanted to or might like it. I believed in a role, determined by my style, my movement, the way I danced and joked and talked. I believed that giving required traits that contradicted all of my femme qualities—aggression, dominance, physical strength, machismo. I not only believed I didn’t possess these qualities, I also didn’t want to.
What I had to learn—first from my boyfriend who continued to talk to and push me to try new things, then from later partners—was that being femme did not inhibit my ability to penetrate, but actually had the potential to completely restructure my approach. As I gained more practice and tried new positions, I stopped worrying about how I should be giving and thought about what had made me feel good as a receiving partner. I let my partners determine the speed at which we moved, what worked and what didn’t, what felt good and what needed to be done differently. I learned to pay attention to how they were feeling more than how I was feeling, which meant I had to ask. I learned to find excitement in watching someone else enjoying sex, instead of being trained on my own orgasm. And it was through the exact process of unlearning everything I had been taught about penetrating that I learned to love doing it. I discovered centering sex around my partners, but also around my own sensibilities as a Brown, queer, femme boy, made sex more powerful, more meaningful, and more fun.
Looking back, it’s strange I believed any of these macho qualities were needed to be a giving partner, for they were never qualities I looked for in partners of my own. It’s also strange that I exhibited so many of the base assumptions about giving my first time doing it—don’t ask, don’t talk, just fuck—when all my best partners had done the exact opposite when penetrating me.
I was afraid of penetrating because I thought doing it meant I had to take on a sexual persona that contradicted who I was. What I had to discover was I got better at giving and became a better sexual partner not when I changed who I was, but when I allowed who I am to inform and guide my sexual practice—simple as that.
I love watching someone I care about and am really attracted to having a great orgasm. I love the feeling of the person I’m penetrating cumming on me. Whereas I see being penetrated as a time to focus in and get in tune with my own body, I love the opportunity to focus on and appreciate someone else’s that penetrating allows. If I believed I was a “bottom” or a “top,” I may have never learned any of these things.
The saddest thing to me about the top/bottom dichotomy, and why I think we should let it go forever, isn’t merely its total lack of imagination, or the offensive assumptions it makes about power and passivity. It’s that it extracts all the magic and beauty out of queer sex, forcing it back into something dictated, scripted, hierarchically structured, exactly like the society from which we are in constant escape. It turns our desire back into something that defines our proper places, rather than a sacred space to break out of them and explore other possibilities.
To all the queers: Trans, gay, pan, poly, lesbian, bi. You are you and your partners are who they are. Who we are changes, and it changes while we are together. Let’s figure out what that means each new time we meet, touch, talk and love each other, and not any time before.