Every month, nearly 11 million homosexuals in the world go to the Grindr application to search for sex with other men. Once there, they can cycle through an endless stream of guys, from handsome to simple, bear to twink. Yet when it comes to choosing positions for sex – a crucial criterion for most gay men – the possibilities have long simply been up and down. The only other choice available is to switch between these roles: verse (for general purpose).
“Not fitting into those roles made it very difficult to find someone,” said Jeremiah Hein, 38, of Long Beach, Calif. “There is no category to choose from.”
“Every time I looked at these picks, I thought, ‘I’m none of that,’ said Shai Davidi, 51, from Tel Aviv, Israel. “I felt there had to be something which was wrong with me.”
Last month, however, that finally changed. In mid-May, Grindr added a position called side, a designation that upends the binary that has historically dominated gay male culture. The sides are men who thrive in all types of sex acts except anal penetration. Instead, a wide range of oral, manual and frictional body techniques provide a release rich in emotional, physical and psychological rewards. Some members refer to these activities as “external courses”.
Many sides say they are subject to widespread rejection and misunderstanding within the gay community, whose members often view them as immature, lazy or even asexual. “A lot of people feel stigmatized,” said Lucien Samaha, 64, from New York, who identifies as one side. “You feel like you’re less than a fully-fledged gay person.”
The term side was coined in 2013 by sexologist and author Dr. Joe Kort, but it wasn’t until the last year that it gained glimmers of recognition in the wider gay world. Eighteen months ago, Dr. Kort created a private Facebook group page called Side Guys to give men a forum for acceptance and, perhaps, to start a movement. “I wanted to create a community,” he said. “I wanted to help people get rid of loneliness and shame.”
Things started slowly for the group, with members joining at first by the dozens, then by the hundreds. In the past eight months, however, membership has doubled to 5,000. Posts from young and old sides come from all over the world. Kort said most of the men found their way to the group through the TikTok videos he created to spread the word. Other men have created their own informative videos on TikTok, including model Barrett Pall, who has 1.4 million followers on the site. In another breakthrough, Wikipedia recently added a definition of “sides” to its “homosexuality terminology” entry. Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based gay comedian Michael Henry has created a hilarious, yet likeable side-by-side mock tutorial that has garnered over 224,000 views on YouTube in the past few weeks, making it one of his most viewed clips.
In the video, a young man tells friends that he “saw a range of men but not up or down”. A friend asks questioningly, “What are you doing with these men?” Shake hands?” After the guy introduces himself as a side, Henry asks, “You mean like a potato?”
“No,” says the side. “When it comes to sex, I do everything but buttocks.”
Henry said he was inspired to create the piece after hearing younger men using the term in gay bars last year. “It’s something that people had started talking about, but not many gay people know about,” he said.
The reaction to Henry’s video was quick and encouraging. “In the comments, people were like, ‘Finally there’s a name for what I am,'” he said. “There is such relief.”
As fresh as public conversation may be, Butch Peaston, 69, of Albany, New York, said: “The sides have always been there. I’ve been called that for 50 years.
During this period, he said, the reaction within the community had “been appalling. People would be bothered once they knew I wasn’t into penetration. It made no sense to them. »
But it made a lot of sense to people like Kort. “I’ve had these feelings since I was 10,” he said. “When anal sex was introduced to me as a college student, I was like, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ People would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you a virgin?’ I felt totally helpless. Finally, in my 40s, I said, “That’s stupid. I’m a therapist! Why am I ashamed of this?
To soothe this feeling in himself and others, he began to speak about it in retreats and presentations he gave. In 2013, he wrote an article about it for the Huffington Post, which introduced the word to the wider culture. Soon it was picked up by Urban Dictionary. Two years later, Russell T Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk and It’s A Sin, wrote a comedy series called Cucumber, with the main character identified as a side. It’s far from a flattering portrayal, however. The character’s sexual approach is presented as immature, scared and restrained, reflecting all the more negative opinions of the community. “They act like we’re just rookie gays — not fully developed,” Hein said.
Some people even see the supporting role as an expression of internalized homophobia. Kort sees otherwise. He thinks that defining penetration as the only norm for sex is a heteronormative construct that gay people have the opportunity to challenge. “It’s mimicking patriarchal shit,” he said. “I always try to tell people that all sex acts are sex. It shows you Define it.”
He considers a parallel approach to be useful for straight people as well, including women who find penetrative sex painful or who prefer oral techniques. The approach can also reintroduce sex to gay and straight men who have erection problems, as secondary techniques can make orgasm easier for some.
Kort, like many parties, thinks a lot of men with similar interests are still in the closet on this. There is evidence that a large number of gay and bisexual men prefer parallel action, at least temporarily. A 2011 study by George Mason University in Virginia, which surveyed 25,000 men who identify as gay or bisexual, found that only 35% of them had participated in penetrative sex during their last sexual relationship. Three-quarters of these men said they preferred kissing, oral and non-penetrative acts. Perhaps for this reason, parties the Guardian spoke to said they had no trouble meeting men for first sexual encounters. It was only when it came to romantic relationships that their interests – or lack thereof – became a deciding factor.
Some parties who have long-term lovers have said that in order to maintain these relationships, they have to keep them open so that their higher or lower partners can experience acts that they do not feel comfortable providing.
Talking to the Side Guys and reading their posts makes it clear that they all have different stories and different preferences. But they bond on two things. First, there is great joy in acknowledging the growing community and recent spread of the term. But there is also exhaustion from constantly having to explain their lives to others, as well as a deep residual pain from having such a personal and meaningful part of their lives misidentified. “I’ve been through so much rejection and frustration,” wrote one Side Guy. “I didn’t want to talk about it, not even to my dear closest friends,” wrote another. “I was so afraid of being judged”
The introduction of the term on Grindr represents a significant step forward as it goes straight to the sexual act. Major credit for his addition goes to Bobby Box, a writer on gay issues who wrote an article earlier this year on the sides for Xtra, a Canadian queer publication.
“I’ve never had such a strong response to anything I’ve written,” he said.
Emboldened, he told his Grindr editor – who oversees his blog – that “this is something people need to know,” Box said. “And he accepted. He came to see it as a community.
Kort said the community was broad enough to also include trans and intersex people. To further promote the movement, he began marketing t-shirts on his website emblazoned with the phrase, “I’m a Side with Pride.” He hopes parties will soon feel comfortable enough to form their own visibility groups at Pride marches.
Box sees hope in a younger generation that has challenged binary thinking, especially in the areas of identity and sexuality. “Children will save us,” he said.
“The more we say the word and the more people talk about it, the more it will be out there,” Kort said. “The time has come for this.”
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