Why are How to Get Away With Murder’s gay sex scenes full of bottom shame?

How to Get Away With Murder Isn't Shy About Gay Sex. But Its Crude Take on Sexual Roles Is Embarrassing. 

How to Get Away With Murder Isn't Shy About Gay Sex. But Its Crude Take on Sexual Roles Is Embarrassing. 

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Oct. 28 2014 11:38 AM

What’s With All the Bottom Shaming in How to Get Away With Murder?

Connor Walsh, likely considering who “to do” next.

Photo credit: Nicole Rivelli / ABC

Feel free to file this one under “crotchety complaints” if you like, but the point is worth making: How to Get Away With Murder, the melodramatic, Viola Davis–starring legal procedural indulgence of the fall TV season, has a bottom problem.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate associate editor. He covers life, culture, and LGBTQ issues.

I’ve kept up with HTGAWM so far not because it’s particularly good (Damages did the intimidating-yet-troubled HBIC, terrified-yet-ambitious underling, and mysterious-yet-intriguing flash-forward thing better back in 2007), but because the show is reportedly some kind of step forward in gay media representation. And, in its suggestion of same-sex analingus or showing of a fictionalized Grindr screen on primetime network television, that reputation may be earned to a degree. But the show’s depiction of gay sexuality, mainly through the adventures of first-year law student/dude whisperer Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), has thus far persistently contained a nasty strain of bottom shaming—and that kind of retrograde mess is not progressive in the least.


Bottom shaming, for the uninitiated, is the cultural tendency to deem the receptive partner (bottom) of anal (and sometimes oral) sex as somehow lesser than the penetrating (top) partner. This devaluing is usually couched, unsurprisingly, in terms of effeminacy, especially when a person chooses for whatever reason to identify as a bottom exclusively. Gay men are as guilty of participating in this as anyone, but there’s also a long history of fighting against bottom shaming within the community, not least because it represents the incursion of fundamentally sexist hetero hang-ups into a realm where they have no place.

An (actually great) Thought Catalog essay on the phenomenon, back when bottom shaming popped up in HBO's Looking, offers this blunt explanation:

Gay sex is only legible to straight people in terms of the heterosexual matrix … [and in that context] if [a guy] is fucking a dude/is a top, well then that’s way preferable than if he was getting plowed by D’s all day long. This attitude is wholly cultural and deeply rooted in how we think about gender. Like, men are supposed to be men. Like, men don’t take dicks up the ass.

When you start paying attention to examples of this dynamic in HTGAWM, you’ll be struck by how often they creep in—and, what’s worse, how unnecessary they seem to be.


In the pilot episode, Connor and I.T. whiz Oliver’s first sexual encounter—which occurs after Connor has preyed on Oliver’s insecurities to gain information for his professor’s case—shows Connor gruffly ordering Oliver to “turn over”—an event realistic and not in itself troubling. But in Episode 2 we discover that Oliver apparently did not like turning over. When Connor appears with dinner after a missed date earlier in the week, Oliver scolds: “You really think I’m that desperate, that you can buy me some takeout and bat your eyes, and I’ll get down on my knees like some sad twink?” Note that the gay archetype of twink is being used here in its pejorative sense, as in a young, silly, effeminate guy who is definitely a bottom. After initially closing the door on Connor, Oliver reconsiders the offer of sex, with a caveat. “OK,” he says, “but tonight, I do you.”

It’s amazing how much ideological weight can be carried by two little words. It would seem that in HTGAWM’s universe, bottoming, despite the preparatory efforts and assumption of health risks it requires relative to topping, is not really “doing.” To do—i.e., to be a true sexual agent; to not be a twink—is to penetrate. This evening, Oliver will “do” Connor (who will, as a consequence, apparently not be doing anything) both to obtain authentic sexual satisfaction and to punish Connor for being an inconsiderate fuck buddy. Bottoming is not a role one takes on willingly, but the price one pays for missing a date.

If you think I’m making too much of one sentence, give the subsequent episodes a look. Episode 3 trades bottom-shaming for full-fledged gay shaming in the storyline where Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) discovers that her fiancé once got off with Connor back in boarding school, the confrontation over which ends with the fiancé dismissing his consensual and presumably enjoyable encounter as “stupid” because it involved another man. But let’s leave that troubling choice of words aside and examine Episode 4. Early in the hour, Connor arrives to court a bit late after having again goaded Oliver into sex, and the bro-tastic Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry) is concerned. “Really dude? Asher asks. “Isn’t your ass tired?” Connor smirks: “Who said it’s my ass?” Who indeed, because that person would be assuming that Connor might like to bottom, and we already know that’s patently ridiculous.

Later in the episode, Connor can again be found “doing” something with Paxton, a client’s sexy personal assistant, including a mysterious (and possibly acidic) maneuver that makes the young man’s “eyes water.” All this eventually leads to Paxton being exposed as a traitor to his boss, at which point said boss indulges in a bit of bottom-shaming and prison-rape joking: “You’re going to be in jail, with the other inmates, who are going to love the hell out of your ass,” she fumes. Good thing Pax commits suicide rather than subjecting himself to that fate.


Impressively, the bottom shame/prison-rape combo is deployed again in Episode 5, when Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) laments that a client will likely go to prison “where he will probably become somebody’s bitch boy.” It’s a line that makes Asher’s joking about Connor knowing how “to use a back door” seem almost classy. With all this happening in just the first five episodes, who can tell what fresh insights future installments will bring?

Snark aside, here the thing: I find the inclusion of this bottom shaming leitmotif in HTGAWM more confusing than offensive. As I said, it is not at all clear to me that Connor needs these tiresome little asides to establish his character, and I think we can all agree that the ha-ha-prison-rape stuff should have long since been banned from any writers’ room. I’ve watched the clips many times, and I just don’t get why they’re there. Leaving them out would have done nothing—except prevent a show that wants to be progressive in its sexual politics from taking up a damaging old stereotype and broadcasting it to audiences that may not know any better.

Peter Nowalk, HTGAWM’s creator and lead writer, is gay, and he has said that he wanted to “push the envelope” with gay sex in the show. “Writing the gay characterization and writing some real gay sex into a network show is to right the wrong of all of the straight sex that you see on TV,” he told E! “Because I didn't see that growing up, and I feel like the more people get used to two men kissing, the less weird it will be for people.”

Audience education is an admirable goal for a soap, and you have to commend Nowalk (and executive producer Shonda Rhimes) in that regard. But it’s a shame that Nowalk and his co-writers felt, for reasons that remain opaque to me, that gay sexuality had to be rendered as a kind of game in which one is always striving to win at the supposed expense of the bottom, always angling “to do” instead of being “done to.” Do they really think that gay sex won't be “legible,” as the TC essay put it, to viewers without an old-fashioned male/female, taker/taken gloss? This vision of gay sexual dynamics is not only crude, but also largely inaccurate. (And where bottom shaming does exist in real life, we ought to be quick to stamp it out.) If Nowalk is truly interested in using HTGAWM to present a version of gayness that “feels more modern,” he is undermining his project by undervaluing his bottoms. But lucky for him, I think the fix is easy: Less trite talk, more hot action.