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Zach Stafford Headshot

Top Privilege?

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It's common knowledge that if you are a bottom and plan on having sex, then you shouldn't eat at Chipotle. I cannot count the number of times I have been chatting with friends about where we should eat and someone mentions Chipotle, forcing someone else to chime in, "Girl you better not plan on bottoming today."

We all usually laugh and agree, even shouting, "Right!" It's a fun fact that we joke about, but it's also an annoyance for many who fear that they may have a, um, surprise if they do decide to get intimate with another man, just because they ate one of their favorite foods, which moves through them a little too quickly. Beyond Chipotle there are lots of other foods that bottoms don't eat before sex... and there are some bottoms out there who just don't eat at all.

Over the years my friends and I have begun joking that this is all a part of what we call "top privilege," meaning that men who identify as tops have inherently greater privileges than do bottoms. We would joke that top privilege is the sexual equivalent of the white privilege in the world. Recently I began to think about this more, asking: Is there really privilege in being a top?

So I began to look around me and survey the different ways in which tops have it "better" than bottoms have it, and obviously, I first looked to dating and hook-up apps.

If you turn on your Grindr or Scruff or any other hook-up app, you will see your screen littered with torsos within small boxes. I would say that a large percentage of these profiles will state things like, "Masc only," or, "No fems," or, "Be a real man," etc. Others will state, "Masc guy here," or, "Athletic," or, "Real man," blah, blah, blah. You get the picture.

In gay sex masculinity is hot right now, and it has been for a long, long time. And beyond all these declarations of a desired gender performance, you will see another word float around with frequency -- "top" -- as in, "Top here," or, "Bttm looking for top," or, "You be a top," and so on and so on. Top. Top. Top.

It seems that everyone is a top on Grindr. If some anthropologist in the future only looked at today's Grindr profiles for information on gay men in 2013, then they'd think bottoms were on the brink of extinction. This is obviously untrue, and I believe the use of "top" on online profiles is more a way to bait people into responding to a message sent on one of these platforms. It's like a worm on a fishing hook.

Tops are highly desired not only because of the sexual aspect of topping but because many see the "top" identity as synonymous with masculinity or being a "real man."

For instance, a lot of my straight male friends will joke with me about being gay by saying, "Man, if I was gay, I would for sure be a top." They believe that just because they are a "top" with women, then they would obviously be a top with men. This is obviously much more about gender than about anything else. The patriarchy tells us that to be a man is to be the penetrator, the phallus, etc. And in this line of thought, bottoms are seen "less than," "feminine" or "the woman" because they are the taker of the phallus. So of course, when a straight man is considering his hypothetical life as a gay man, he would automatically assume that he'd be a top. But honey, let me tell you that that is so not true. Believe me.

Anyway, gay men buy into this as well. Tops in the gay world are seen as ideal men, and not just because of what they do in the bedroom but because of what they represent to society: a "real man." That means that we have some self-loathing to work through.

Moving on, let's look at tops through a different lens: HIV/AIDS.

HIV is a virus with a steep history within the LGBT community. The acronym "HIV" stands for "human immunodeficiency virus," and it is a chronic condition that can lead to AIDS. HIV is transmitted through four fluids: blood, breast milk, vaginal secretion and semen. In regard to transmission, for one sexual partner to acquire HIV, the other partner would have to have the virus currently and expose him or her to HIV through one of those fluids in a way that transmits it into the bloodstream. Most commonly, this occurs through sex and drug use.

When it comes to acquiring HIV, anal sex is considered the riskiest form of sex, not because biology is homophobic but because the rectum is much more easily torn, allowing the virus a fast entrance into the bloodstream. Thus, the receptive partner (read: bottom) is put at high risk when a condom isn't present to create a barrier.

You know who isn't at as high a risk? Tops.

In 1999 a famous study published by the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF showed a large discrepancy between tops and bottoms when it comes to acquiring HIV. The study found that if a sexual partner was topping and was HIV-positive while the receptive partner was HIV-negative, this bottoming partner had 1-in-122 risk of becoming infected. When reversed, and the bottom was HIV-positive while the top was HIV-negative, the risk of transmission become just 1 in 1,666.

This is still a controversial conclusion in the HIV/AIDS research communities, but from these findings and others we have seen the concept of "seroadaptive" behaviors emerge as a form of harm reduction among many groups of people, especially gay men. In short, "seroadaptive" refers to changing what type of sex that we do in order to change the level of risk of acquiring HIV that we face. For instance, if you don't have a condom, and one partner hasn't been tested for HIV in a long time, but the other has and is HIV-negative, then you may have the HIV-negative partner top, which would lower your risk, according to the study cited.

Of course, there is still risk in whatever sexual role you take, so don't walk away from here thinking, "Oh, I can just start topping, and everything will be perfect!" Not true. Beyond HIV/AIDS there are other STIs that you can acquire from topping, so wrap it up.

We humans have no control over how our bodies are designed and what makes us more at risk for HIV/AIDS, so it may be a tad unfair to call it "top privilege," but in some ways that is appropriate and allows us to have more conversations around HIV/AIDS, which is greatly needed in our community.

So is top privilege a thing? I am still unsure. It seems that by using this term we are actually describing bigger issues at hand, things that have to do with gender, power, and desire, things that transcend just sex or our Grindr profiles and deserve more attention and analysis than crassly labeling how one uses his penis a privilege.

But the one thing I think many people will still see as a top privilege, especially with gay men, is Chipotle. Tops still can eat at Chipotle before sex, and that is a privilege. A huge one.