Rise of the sides: how Grindr finally recognized gay men who aren’t top or bottom

Eevery month nearly 11 million gay men around the world go on the grindr app to seek sex with other men. Once there, they can scroll through an endless stream of guys, from handsome to domestic, from bear to twink. But when it comes to choosing positions for sex — a crucial criterion for most gay men — the options have long been just top and bottom. The only other choice available switches between those roles: fresh (for versatile).

“Not fitting into those roles has made it very difficult to find someone,” said Jeremiah Hein, 38, of Long Beach, California. “There is no category to choose from.”

“Whenever I looked at those choices, I would think, ‘I’m none of those things,'” said Shai Davidi, 51, of Tel Aviv, Israel. “I felt there must be something wrong with me.”

Last month, however, that finally changed. In mid-May, Grindr added a position called side, a designation that is turning the binary that has historically dominated gay male culture on its head. Sides are men who find satisfaction in any kind of sexual act except anal penetration. Instead, a wide variety of oral, manual, and friction-body techniques deliver a release rich in emotional, physical, and psychological rewards. Some adherents call these activities ‘outercourse’.

Many parties say they are subject to widespread rejection and misunderstanding in the gay community, whose members often view them as immature, lazy or even asexual. “A lot of people feel stigmatized,” says Lucien Samaha, 64, of New York City, who identifies as a side. “You get the feeling that you’re less than a full-on gay.”

The term lace was coined in 2013 by sex therapist and author Dr. Joe Kort, but has only gotten a glimpse of recognition in the wider gay world in the last year. Eighteen months ago, Dr. Short a closed Facebook group page called Side Guys to give the men a forum for acceptance and maybe to start a movement. “I wanted to create a community,” he said. “I wanted to help people get rid of loneliness and shame.”

It started slowly for the group, with members reaching the tens first and then the hundreds. However, in the past eight months, membership has doubled to 5,000. Messages from young and old come from all over the world. Kort said most of the men had 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 the entry “terminology of homosexuality.” At the same time, LA-based gay comedian Michael Henry created a hilarious, yet likeable, mock tutorial that has racked up over 224,000 YouTube views in recent weeks, making it one of his most-watched clips.

In the video, a young guy tells some friends that he’s “seen a string of guys, but no highs or lows.” A friend asks mockingly, “What are you doing with these men? Shake hands?” After the man reached out as a hand, Henry asks, “You mean like a potato?”

“No,” says the side. “When it comes to sex, I do everything but ass.”

Henry said he was inspired to make the piece after hearing some younger men use the term in gay bars over the past year. “It’s something that people started talking about, but not many gay people know about,” he said.

Joe Kort
dr. Joe Kort: ‘The more we say the word and the more people talk about it, the more it will be out there.’ Photo: Courtesy Dr. Joe Kort

The response to Henry’s video was quick and encouraging. “In the comments, people would say, ‘Finally there is a name for what I am,'” he said. “There is such a relief.”

As fresh as the public conversation may be, Butch Peaston, 69, of Albany, New York, said: “There have always been parties. That’s what I’ve called myself for fifty years.”

At the time, he said, the reaction within the community had been “terrible. People would be disturbed if they knew I didn’t like penetration. They didn’t feel like it.”

But it made 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 powerless. Finally, when I was in my 40s, I said, ‘This is stupid. I’m a therapist! Why am I ashamed of this?’”

To soften that feeling in himself and others, he started talking about it in retreats and in presentations he gave. In 2013, he wrote a piece about it for the Huffington Post, introducing the word to the wider culture. It was soon picked up by Urban Dictionary. Two years later, Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and It’s A Sin, wrote a comedy series titled Cucumber, whose lead character is identified as a side. However, it is far from a flattering picture. The character’s approach to sex is presented as immature, scared and reserved, reflecting the most negative views in the community. “They act like we’re just starting gays – not fully grown,” says Hein.

two men wearing t-shirts with the text
Joe Kort markets ‘I’m a side with pride’ T-shirts. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Joe Kort

Some people even see the supporting role as an expression of internalized homophobia. Short sees the opposite. He believes that defining penetration as the sole norm for sex is a heteronormative construct that gays can challenge. “It mimics patriarchal nonsense,” he said. “I always try to tell people that all sex acts are sex. It’s how you define it.”

He also sees a side approach as helpful for straight people, including women who find penetrative sex painful or who prefer oral techniques. The approach may also reintroduce sex to gay and straight men who have erection problems, as side effects may make it easier for some to reach orgasm.

Kort believes, like many parties, that there are still many men with the same interests in the closet. There is some evidence that a large number of gay and bisexual men prefer sideshows, at least temporarily. A 2011 study from George Mason University in Virginia, which surveyed 25,000 men who identified themselves as gay or bi, found that only 35% of them had engaged in penetrative sex during their last sexual encounter. Three quarters of those men said they preferred kissing, oral and non-penetrative acts. Perhaps for that reason, the parties the Guardian spoke to said they had no problem meeting men for first-time sexual encounters. Only when it came to romantic relationships did their interests—or lack thereof—become a deal breaker.

Some parties who have long-term lovers said that in order to maintain those relationships, they should keep them open so that their highest or lowest partners can experience acts that they themselves don’t feel comfortable with.

Talking to the Side Guys and reading their posts makes it clear that they all have different stories and different preferences. But they tie each other over two things. First, there is great joy in recognizing the growing community and the recent spread of the term. But there is also exhaustion of constantly explaining their lives to others, as well as a deep residual pain of misidentifying such a personal and meaningful part of their lives. “I have experienced so much rejection and frustration,” wrote one Side Guy. “I didn’t want to talk about it, even with my closest friends,” wrote another. “I was so afraid of being judged.”

people wearing rainbow colors are smiling and marching
The Queer Liberation March in New York in June 2021. Kort said he hoped the parties would soon feel comfortable forming visibility groups during Pride marches. Photo: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The introduction of the term on Grindr represents a significant step forward, as it moves right in the direction of the sexual act. Major credit to the addition is Bobby Box, a gay issue writer who wrote a lace piece for Xtra, a Canadian queer publication, earlier this year.

“I’ve never had such a strong reaction to something I’ve written,” he said.

Encouraged, he told his editor at Grindr — who oversees his blog — that “this is something people need to know,” Box said. ‘And he agreed. He has come to see this as a community.”

Kort said the community was broad enough to include trans and intersex people as well. To further promote the movement, he has started marketing T-shirts on his website with the phrase, “I’m a Side with Pride.” He hopes the parties will soon feel comfortable forming their own visibility groups during Pride marches.

Box sees hope in a young generation that has challenged all binary thinking, especially in the areas of identity and sexuality. “The 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 for that is now.”

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