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Positions of power in play

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FEBRUARY 13, 2013

Coming from the unincorporated town of rural Hockinson, Wash., then relocating to the hub of gay culture has rocked my world in more ways than one, I have never felt fully comfortable identifying as either dominant or submissive. But since being in the Bay Area, I have learned that this binary doesn’t need to exist. I am only beginning my life as a young rookie in the sexual world, and San Francisco has been my biggest challenge yet.

I don’t identify as a “top” or “bottom,” but rather “vers”, which allows me to choose my sexual role rather than having it be assigned. Although I resist always being docile to my partners, I find my age pushes me into a submissive position, whether it’s conscious or not.

Age is a pervasive factor throughout many sexual encounters. Personally, age does make its way into my bedroom, and when with older guys, it causes me to sit back, relax, and enjoy submissiveness.

Recently I was hooking up with a grad student (not my GSI, unfortunately), and although I was planning on topping that night, his combination of age and experience pushed me down to the ground, right where I wasn’t planning to be. It was odd how natural being a “bottom” felt when a relatively large age difference existed. Although I performed my stereotyped “top” actions, such as being aggressive and taking control, I again ended up in the same position: underneath him.

Now the night was fine, and although we were a rowdy bunch, it didn’t leave me with too many bruises. Even though I consider myself radical by trying to fight the dichotomy, there still exists a natural division of power, separated by age and experience. Because I am the younger partner, I may lack the aggressive qualities that would allow me to choose my sexual role in bed. It seems that there exists an unspoken rule about who leads the sex: Whoever has the most experience (sometimes qualified by age) gets to make the decisions.

But why and how do we divide ourselves into the “top” and “bottom” binary?

It is interesting how sexual roles correlate with gender roles, in particular to the heteronormative cis-man and woman. “Cis-” refers to a person whose gender and biological sex are societally aligned. We hear of how men are predominantly the “tops” while women are usually the “bottoms”. But how do gender roles in sex function in queer relations?

It is common for the more “feminine” partner to be the “bottom,” while the more “masculine” is the “top,” but digging deeper we find heteronormative values in our labeling schemes! The binaries of masculine/feminine and man/woman seem to slip into bed with us unconsciously.

No matter what sexual orientation or gender we identify with, predetermined roles in the bedroom seem to permeate our sexual encounters. I’d like to try and fight such a problematic distinction in my sex life, but sometimes it just feels like I’m all talk and no action. During this particular sexual encounter, I tried to play my cool, throwing hints at him by forceful kisses, motive body movements and my signature moves. But I felt as if I didn’t even have the courage to ask to be dominant for the night. After all this fuss of trying to act as the dominant, I just had to relax and trust my partner’s experience to call for an enjoyable night.

Any readers who are interested in the intertwining of power and sex should read Michel Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality.” Although it is a dense read, the language opens up the concept of how power contributes to silence and is undoubtedly a factor in sex of any form. While silence can permeate, so can speaking.

Just because my sex life seems driven by how old or young my partner is, I don’t let it control the fun. Yes, age does play an intricately bizarre role in our sex lives, but through courageous and open communication, you, too, can make your playing field equal.

Contact Matthew Kirschenbaum at 


FEBRUARY 14, 2013

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