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Let’s Talk About Sexual Positions

Narrow Definitions of Sex and Binary Position Labels Can Limit Your Sex Life

By Justin Lehmiller, PhD

What does “having sex” mean to you? If you’re a gay or bisexual man, chances are that you define it as insertive or receptive anal intercourse, or “topping” and “bottoming,” respectively, as they’re known more commonly in the community.

Men who have sex with men tend to see this as the “gold standard” for sex, according to scientific research. In a 2017 study published in The Journal of Sex Research, participants were recruited at Pride festivals to complete a survey about their definitions of sex. Specifically, they were asked to evaluate up to 17 different activities and determine whether each one counted or not.

While there wasn’t 100% agreement on anything, gay and bisexual men mostly agreed that anal intercourse counts—in fact, more than 90% said that “topping” and “bottoming” were “definitely sex.”

No other activity on the list was categorized as such by a majority of participants. For example, approximately one-third said that oral sex, rimming, using sex toys with a partner, and mutual masturbation could be considered sex.

By contrast, lesbian and bisexual women saw things very differently. In fact, there were ten different activities that a majority of them said were “definitely sex.” These activities included using dildos, oral sex, sixty-nining, rubbing vulvas together, and mutual masturbation.

Gay and bisexual men, it seems, define “sex” in a far more restricted way than do lesbian and bisexual women. Moreover, most gay and bi men identify as strictly “top” or “bottom” when it comes to sex. A 2017 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that, among gay men, more than two-thirds (69%) identified with one of these position labels.

So, what are the implications of the fact that gay and bisexual men tend to see sex in such narrow terms and, further, that most identify with a specific sexual role? Is it a good idea to take such a black-and-white approach to sex? As a sex researcher and educator, I see it as being more harmful than beneficial for several reasons, which I explain below.

Narrow definitions of sex lead to a scripted, goal-oriented approach to sexual activity.

When sex is defined very narrowly, this necessarily sets a goal for a given sexual encounter. People try to get through everything else—the foreplay—quickly (or they skip it altogether) in order to reach the “main event” where everyone has their clearly defined roles.

If the pioneering research of Masters and Johnson—the founders of the modern sex therapy movement—taught us anything, it’s that goal-oriented sex doesn’t make for the best sex. In fact, it creates a sense of pressure that forces you to stay in your head and stick to the script rather than getting lost in the moment, having fun, and exploring different sensations.

In other words, sex is no longer about what you want to happen, but what you think is “supposed” to happen. The result is that sex has a tendency to become routine very quickly. Further, pressure to stick to the script can create performance anxiety that reduces sexual desire and arousal.

You would probably be surprised at the number of gay men who have approached me over the years who want my help because they’re in sexless relationships. They’re having sex with their partners infrequently or not at all—and do you know why? It’s almost invariably because their sex life has become too predictable: it’s the same thing over and over.

Rather than trying to mix things up with their current partner, many of them had cheated, some had opened their relationships, and some were thinking about breaking up. However, these things aren’t necessarily going to solve their underlying issue—the predictability of sex. Those who just break up are dooming themselves to experience the same problem time and again because, well, “same script, different cast,” as Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox once told us.

There are all kinds of ways to introduce novelty into your sex life, from a new partner to a new position to a new sex toy to having sex in a different setting.

Narrow definitions of sex prevent you from trying new things.

One of the big problems with the goal-oriented approach to sex is that it prevents you from exploring your sexuality. What do you like? What feels good? The truth is that it’s hard to know unless you actually try different things. This means that there could be a lot of things out there—kinks, perhaps—that bring you great pleasure that you just haven’t discovered yet.

Trying new sexual activities isn’t just a form of self-exploration—it’s also a way to fight off something psychologists refer to as the “Coolidge Effect.” The idea behind this concept is that sexual arousal tends to decrease over time in response to the same sexual stimulus. As a result, we need to keep introducing novelty into our sex lives in order to maintain high levels of arousal and interest.

For example, if you watch the same porn clip every day, you’ll tire of it pretty fast. Watch a new clip, however, and not only will you likely become more aroused, but you may even reach orgasm faster. In fact, there are scientific studies showing that this is exactly what happens!

The Coolidge Effect explains why when I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want, I found that novelty was one of the core fantasy themes, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. We crave trying new things when it comes to sex.

There are all kinds of ways to introduce novelty into your sex life, from a new partner to a new position to a new sex toy to having sex in a different setting. The possibilities are endless.

The key point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to mix it up. And if maintaining a long-term monogamous relationship is what you want, this becomes massively important. When passion for a partner wanes, amping up the novelty factor in the bedroom (or where ever it is that you like to have sex) can bring it roaring back.

Adhering to strict position labels can limit your potential pool of partners—and your opportunities for love.

Have you ever turned down a sexual opportunity because the other person was a mismatch for your preferred sexual position? You’re not alone. It’s not uncommon for gay and bisexual men to meet other men and experience strong mutual attraction, but to pass on the opportunity to hookup or start a relationship because they don’t have compatible sexual position labels.

Every time this happens, you’re missing out on a potential opportunity to have a hot and different sexual experience, or possibly to even start a meaningful relationship with a great person. When sex is defined so narrowly and position labels become relationship dealbreakers, it not only limits our pool of potential partners, but also our opportunities to find true love.

Adhering to strict position labels can limit your sexual skills, techniques, and satisfaction.

Yet another limitation of taking a narrow view of sex, and strictly identifying as a top or bottom, is that it prevents tops from learning what it feels like to bottom, and vice versa. If you’ve never experienced the other side, you might be limiting your sexual skills and maybe even making incorrect assumptions about what feels good to someone in the other position.

By exploring and experimenting with different positions, you’ll learn more about what feels good and what doesn’t. You can then use this knowledge to enhance your sexual techniques in ways that not only increase your own pleasure and satisfaction, but also that of your partner(s).


What I hope you take away from all of this is that “sex” doesn’t have to be just one thing. The more narrowly we define sex and put people in clearly defined boxes that specify their sexual roles, the more limited our sex lives become. We miss out on opportunities for pleasure, self-exploration, and love. We also make it harder to maintain satisfaction over time in our relationships, no matter what type of relationship you’re in—monogamous, “monogamish,” or polyamorous.

It’s time to drop the script, mix it up, and define sex on your own terms.

Art: Federico Cortese, Lovers (2000).
Justin Lehmiller

Justin Lehmiller, PhD

Justin Lehmiller, PhD, is a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His writings have appeared in USA Today, VICE, Playboy, Men’s Health, Politico, and Psychology Today. Dr. Lehmiller’s latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or Instagram @JustinJLehmiller. Credit: Esther Boston.