BENT's own Bear
Everybody knows what bears do in the woodsthey
sit around telling each other their life's stories and giving one
another advice. What else would those big, hairy beasts do when
they get together for their Teddy Bear Picnics?
Inspired by the wisdom of my fellow growlers, I'm
here to give advice, when asked. So, if any of you have questions
you'd like answered by someone who's been around the block a couple
of times, please send them to Bear@bentvoices.org.
And in case you're worried that you might have to
censor your thoughts, please remember that my walks around the block
were often done while dressed in kinkwear and with a thought or
two about who I might encounter along the way.
So let me know what's on your mind. If it's a Big
Unanswered Question (or even a little one), let me have
a crack at it. It is, after all, what bears
installment of Bear In Mind, Max takes a break from answering
your letters to address a complex
topic: How and why we, especially the "we" of disabled
gay men, approach the sexual roles of active and passive. Those
categories are fraught with ambiguity, as Max points out. The very
definition of "who's on top" can depend on who's doing
the defining as well as the screwing. Beware of simple explanations
is the best advice in this arena. Talking about his book, "The
History of Fellatio," in a SALON interview, French author
Thierry Leguay added the following historical footnote to the discussion,
further evidence of just how complicated the topic is:
practice of fellatio in ancient Rome was perceived in terms of
active and passive: The active one was in fact the person getting
fellatio. In this case we're talking about the soldier, the virile
male. The passive one usually a woman or a slave was
the one giving fellatio or, to understand it more clearly, the
one receiving the penis. Today, of course, it's the other way
around. We perceive the one who's giving fellatio as the active
one and the one receiving it as the passive one. But in Rome to
give fellatio was a passive act, a submissive act.
In one of my responses
to a letter asking for advice in the last issue of BENT, I touched
on the notion of someone being Top or bottom,* passive or active.
Some people might object to those labels and they would certainly
have good reason to. But the fact is, right or wrong, some gay men
define their sexual identity in terms of chosen roles in bed. I
think that the subject of these various roles is especially apt
for men with disabilities.
First off, let me say
that the notion of what constitutes a Top has changed over the past
few years. It used to refer to someone who was the dominant partner,
often in an S&M relationship. Lately, it has come to differentiate
the difference between the man who does the screwing (the Top) and
the man who receives it (the bottom). Many years ago, I hosted a
discussion on S&M relationships. The Top/bottom
roles were usually very strictly defined in those days (the 60's.
Remember them?). I also recall that many people in the
audience were outraged when someone raised the the possibility that
men might switch roles. Several people insisted that a man must
be either the Master or the slave and can never be both, either
during the same encounter or on different occasions.
Things have changed quite
a bit since then. A lot more men are identifying themselves as "versatile,"
meaning that they can either be the giver or recipient of anal sex,
or can switch between being dominant and subservient. To me, this
seems like the natural state of being. I think that most men have
the potential for being both aggressive and passive in bed, often
with a slight or distinct preference for one over the other. Very
often, the sexual role someone takes is determined by how he has
been conditioned to assume one instead of the other. I was raised
by a very dominant woman (yes, what once was thought of as the typical
gay scenario). Wanting to control the lives of those around us is
a trait that a number of close family members possess. Those genes
often drive me to be dominant in relationships, sexual or otherwise.
In addition, the lack of freedom I experienced in my youth drives
me to resent and rebel against someone dominating me psychologically
or physically. I do not take kindly to anyone who imposes his or
her will on me. I have reacted very badly to men who expect me to
be their "boy" or "slave."
Given my own free choice,
I can enjoy pleasing a partner as much as the next man. It's just
that I need to know that the choice is mine to make and not something
expected, demanded, or imposed on me. I can, therefore, say that
much of who and what I am is a reflection of the psychological constraints
I experienced during early childhood. My ability to rebel against
those constraints results from the fact that I had sufficient mobility
to distance myself from my family as well as the ability to physically
express my sexuality with others and learn from those experiences.
was fortunate. Many disabled men, however, are not as fortunate.
I know that I am treading on dangerous territory if I generalize
about what role, passive or aggressive, disabled men tend to assume.
I will, therefore, talk only from my personal experiences. The disabled
men I have known have been overwhelmingly bottom/passive. Part of
this could be a reflection of my own more dominant nature, or it
might result from the fact that the world holds far more bottoms
I am certainly not complaining
about my personal statistics. But I've
often wondered if the sexual passivity of my disabled partners is
a conditioned response, reflecting the lack of control
over their lives and bodies that so many of them had experienced
since childhood. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I will
have to revert to the old unresolved questions surrounding nature
versus nurture. Is who we are the result of our genes or does socialization
play a major role in determining who and what we are?
How does this relate
to the sexuality of people with disabilities? Once again, I have
to qualify things by saying that I am not an expert with a degree
in human sexuality, but I am well aware that many disabled people
have had few choices about their own bodies, their physical autonomy.
This is especially true for those who, since childhood, need to
depend on family and professionals for assistance with things ranging
from basic body-functions to mobility. It is also true for people
who later on acquire disabilities that necessitate intervention
on the part of others.
Does being accustomed
to giving others power over your body set up the tendency to do
so when it comes to sex, as well? Is taking a passive sexual role
a reflection of the assumption most people make that men with disabilities
cannot take charge of their bodies and lives? And perhaps most important,
in light of the social strides made by people with disabilities
in recent years, is the assumption of the bottom/passive role automatically
degrading for someone with a disability?
Most people would assume
that a paraplegic man hooking up with another man, for example,
would play a passive role by giving pleasure to his partner, not
receiving it. We might assume that without the ability to maintain
anything other than a reflex erection, the paraplegic man would
have to rely on his oral abilities to gratify a partner. The disabled
man's natural tendency might lie in this direction, or it might
not. He might be saying, in effect, that's all I can offer sexually.
Will he feel shame if he assumes a role that is expected of him?
If he finds that he enjoys being dominated, does his pleasure grow
out of a lack of self-esteem caused by his disability? Does he think
that this is all he deserves, or is it part of a genuine need unique
to his brain and body?
There are no simple answers.
Sometimes we become what we are expected
to be. I have known of at least two paraplegic men who
were "Masters," with a coterie of male slaves. I have a feeling
that they were the exception to the rule. Most likely they realized
that sex is mostly mental and that their partners had an emotional
need to be controlled and could adapt to the lack of an erect organ
to play with or be penetrated by.
Experiencing shame at
assuming a passive role in bed is especially keen for disabled people
in light of recent trends that encourage them to assume power over
their lives. But being ashamed of wanting to be subservient
sexually is not something that only people with disabilities have
to cope with. I have a friend who, in
addition to great looks, a perfect body, and an impressive sex organ,
prefers a subservient role. Most people would never assume this,
judging by his looks. His bottom-desires were something that he
felt ashamed of and tended to leave unexplored. Over the years,
he has made peace with his needs and has acted on them in a positive
way. Most men would ask why someone so desirable would want to be
subservient, especially to bulkier and older guys. He is so attractive,
the reasoning goes, others should be falling at his
That mode of thought
could be extended to include the idea that any man less than perfect,
and especially a disabled man, should be grateful to anyone offering
sexual gratification, should be willing, in fact, to subordinate
his own needs entirely. And if that is something that many people
might think, why would it be surprising that many disabled men themselves
might think the same and act the same?
Of course, you could
say that adopting either a passive or active, Top or bottom role,
relegates a relationship to the realm of the kinky, something that
not all gay men indulge in. You could also say that taking on those
roles or any
variation of them, is something that might heighten sexual pleasure,
especially when one or both partners have functional limitations
and might benefit from mental enhancements to their physical capabilities.
Any self-respecting fetishist knows that anything, and I do mean
anything, can become a sexual object. One body part
can replace another as the focus of lovemaking and a means of exciting
a partner. Any number of devices can be used instead of a flesh-and-blood
sex organ. And role-playing can generate mental excitement that
can enhance any sex play and end up bringing two people closer together.
I've always maintained
that since so much of sex is about gratifying needs, wouldn't it
make sense that satisfying the need to be passive or aggressive,
Top or bottom, might contribute the added dimension of meeting a
partner's gut-level needs? And yet, the assumption of distinct roles
within a relationship is something that even many gay men are uncomfortable
with. Perhaps as the prevailing myths about
the passivity of people with disabilities are shattered, more and
more disabled men will see themselves capable of assuming a dominant
role in bed.
It may, however, take
longer for the gay community at large to realize that being a Top
or being the aggressive partner is well within the realm of a disabled
man or woman. People with disabilities are a rare sight in most
gay bars, leather or otherwise. It is difficult enough for many
disabled people to find sex partners. Finding sex partners with
a preference for role-playing could be even more difficult.
wanting to assume a subservient sexual role could be tough for a
man who is told by his peers that adopting such a role is equivalent
to reinforcing an incorrect but prevalent stereotype.
That man might simply opt out of the quandary by not venturing into
sexual role-playing at all. He might thus deny himself potential
pleasure because of what others might think. And that might just
be the biggest shame of all, because it is something that too many
people, disabled or nondisabled, do too often.
*The role of a Top is
usually defined by a capital "T" while the role of the bottom is
signified by a lowercase "b." I've used the traditional symbols
as a means of emphasizing the distinction between the roles. -MV
Illustrating this article are drawings
by Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). They can be found on the Web's most
beautiful gay art site, El
Museo del Gayo.
IN MIND postscript:
Dear Max, your
answer to my letter was very sensitive, and made me think.
I have since gotten together with this guy, and basically, I used
my hands, helped with a bit of baby oil. It worked and we both
came, and we both enjoyed it. I did not ask myself what others
would do, but did what made me comfortable. I can pretty safely
say we both enjoyed it. Your kind words gave me the courage to
do what was pleasurable for me. I did suck a bit, but it still
isn't my favorite thing. I wish all gay guys were as open and
sensitive as you!
-Bob and Harley Dog
VERGA has been an
activist ever since getting a call from a friend reporting that
he'd been in a riot at the Stonewall Bar only hours before.
He began his activism with the West Side Discussion Group, later
became involved with its offshoot theater group, and was one of
the founders of Mainstream, a gay-disabled group. For more about
Max, see his longer biography.