Power bottoms

(Warning: There will be some very plain talk about gay sex in this posting.)

Every so often, I realize that an expression or construction so familiar to me that I don’t think about its analysis presents some interesting feature. So it is with the compound power bottom, which I know from the gay male world, as in this banner ad from the Falcon gay porn studio, offering videos featuring men who really like to get fucked:

The sociocultural background is important. We’re in the world of male-male sexual encounters. In this context, a bottom is a man who receives anal intercourse, a top a man who provides it. (That’s the sanitized way to talk about these things. I’m inclined to say, in very plain language, that the top fucks the bottom. But let’s go on.)

Important background stuff 1: the argument structure and syntax:

one guy tops another (Fucker tops Fucked, direct object construction);

one guy bottoms for another (Fucked bottoms for Fucker, oblique object construction, in a PP with for).

(The other argument structures — Fucker tops for Fucked, Fucked bottoms Fucker — aren’t impossible, but they’re very rare.)

There’s probably some iconicity here, since verb + direct object (vs. verb + oblique object) tends to connote a closer connection between the denotata of the verb and object, and also greater activity and agentivity on the part of the denotatum of the subject. That means that the usual argument structures resonate with the stereotype that a top is the active partner, in control of the encounter, while a bottom is (passively) serving his top, merely providing a receptacle for the top’s thrusting dick — just the stereotype that the notion of power bottom challenges.

Important background stuff 2: the encounters and their participants. Top and bottom identify the roles men take in fucking — in a specific encounter (I bottomed for Bobby last night, I topped Tommy last night), as a matter of customary preference for these roles (I’m a bottom, and my boyfriend’s a top, so we fit well together), or as a matter of (more or less enduring) sociosexual identity or personal character (a “take” on life).

(The terms can be used for other sorts of sexual encounters than fucking, but unmodified and without context they’re normally restricted in their reference. Still, there are expressions like oral top and oral bottom.)

(A reminder: there’s a significant number of gay men who aren’t interested in fucking, either as bottom or top.)

Important background stuff 3: customary preferences, and the expressions X bottom and X top (with a modifier X). One such modifier is versatile, indicating that a man has a primary preference but will sometimes take the other role (for his own pleasure as well as his partner’s). (A man who is simply versatile is (roughly) equally comfortable with either role.)

Unmodified bottom or top conveys a general preference.

The modifier total conveys a serious commitment to one role (in fucking, at any rate; all the rest of it is complicated, since some total tops are enthusiastic cocksuckers and some total bottoms are enthusiastic mouthfuckers).

Then there’s power bottom and power top: as Wikipedia has it:

A power bottom is someone who aggressively enjoys being the receptive partner.

… A power top is one noted for their great skill and/or aggressiveness in topping.

Expanding on the first: a power bottom is not necessarily a total bottom (many are versatile bottoms), but he is enthusiastically, passionately, receptive to being fucked — and is inclined to engineer encounters to maximize his own pleasure. (Don’t discount the pleasures of being fucked in the ass, especially if you have a prostate gland. They are manifold, physically and psychologically.) Occasionally a top will say ruefully that power bottoms run the show, and he just supplies the dick for the occasion — a nice reversal of the stereotype that a bottom just supplies a hole.

You can see power bottoms in action in photos on my X blog, in a posting (here) on two young men who are notable power bottoms in gay porn: Jeremy Jordan (now 33) and Trent Atkins (now 32); Jeremy can also be seen with his boyfriend, and regular top, Jason Hawke here. Another posting describes power bottom Brad King (who’s somewhere in his 30s now) in action with two other men. Other celebrated power bottoms of porn include Tag Adams (now 39) and Joey Stefano (who died in 1994, aged 26).

These men are sometimes described as hungry bottoms, and are said to have hungry holes (attributing some agency to their assholes, while getting in some alliteration) or hot holes (the asshole as enticement and satisfaction, plus alliteration) or a combination (hungry hot holes, hot hungry holes, in an orgy of alliteration).

The compound noun. So much for the sociocultural background. Now about the N + N compound power bottom.

The larger domain is power X compounds. Many of these have power referring to electricity (power cord, power tool, etc. — note that Powertool is the title of (no surprise) a gay porn flick, starring total top Jeff Stryker). But some convey strength and/or control, and that’s where we get into the metaphoric world of power bottom.

In addition to the ‘strength, vigor, energy’ sense of the noun power, there’s also a ‘social influence’ sense. From OED3 (December 2006):

Exceptionally powerful, productive, or effective; authoritative. Now usually: spec. characteristic of or associated with those who possess authority and influence.

The OED does its best to distinguish freshly created power X compounds — among them power grip, power look, power suspenders, power couple, power-diet — from “fixed compounds”, including power ballad, power breakfast, power lunch, power elite, power forward [in basketball], power nap, power pop [music], power tie. It’s not a distinction I would want to have to make. A power tie and power suspenders both serve as symbols of the wearer’s power, but are differently classified by the OED. And power couple ‘couple made up of equally impressive parts’ (which the OED has in its first list) has become sufficiently fixed to get a Wikipedia mention:

A supercouple or super couple (also known as a power couple) is a popular or financially wealthy pairing that intrigues and fascinates the public in an intense or even obsessive fashion. The term originated in the United States, and was coined in the early 1980s when intense public interest in fictional soap opera couple Luke Spencer and Laura Webber from General Hospital made the pair a popular culture phenomenon.

Then there’s power reader; a number of websites propose to improve your reading speed, to bring you more content, etc. – to make you, in various ways, a power reader.

So the specific semantic relationship between the modifying noun power and the head noun X varies from one power X compound to another; all that’s constant is a component of strength/energy or of social influence. Understanding a particular compound requires knowing a lot about the context in which it’s used and the sociocultural background of that use.

Power bottom is especially nice because it combines both types of semantic component: a power bottom exhibits energy and vigor and wields influence over the sexual encounter. So there’s a lot packed into that two-word compound.


8 Responses to “Power bottoms”

  1. David W. Fenton Says:

    You might find “pushy bottom” a nice contrast to this term.

  2. Comic reporting « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] building to a surprise vernacular climax. (I suppose the last item could have been described as a power watch, but don’t-fuck-with-me is much more […]

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Via Mike McKinley on Facebook, the parodic:
    “Power Bottoming,” The Most Disturbing New Trend in American Homosexuality
    5/10/11 on ChristWire:

    Within the homosexual element, there is a group called the “power bottomers.” The power bottomer is not just an expert at sodomy; he is singularly dedicated to this sexual assault and will entertain no other. Simply put, it is the only way he will achieve ejaculatory gratification. Recently, power bottoming has moved out of the shadows from a perverse psychological dilemma to a full-blown cultural trend with shamelessly vocal adherents. These types of sodomites delight in their lack of carnal dimensionality and spend much of their free time seeking out a mate who can balance their “queer” equation.

    (side note: glutinous maximums for gluteus maximus)

  4. Active bottoms « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] top to describe roles in sexual encounters — see my discussion of “power bottoms” here — and also with the sexual use of active and passive will be amused at the combination of the […]

  5. bottoming « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] of the noun bottom, in a sexual sense (not in the OED yet), which I discussed at some length in a posting on “Power bottoms”: [of a gay man] ‘to take the receptive role in anal […]

  6. Colored bottoms | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] and receptive roles, respectively, in anal intercourse. Discussion of bottoming on this blog here and here (with a great many illustrations on […]

  7. msjinnifer Says:

    I think I learned more than one thing here.

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