BEAR IN MIND

ADVICE from
MAX VERGA
BENT's own Bear

Everybody knows what bears do in the woods—they 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 do best.

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In this 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:

The 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.

WHO'S ON TOP?

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.

I 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 than Tops.

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 feet.

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.

Genuinely 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.

© 2001 Max Verga

*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.

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A BEAR 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

 

MAX 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.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2001