What a journey our attitudes towards anal sex have taken over the last few years. From Drake and the butt-eating conundrum, to scientific celebrations of big booties (opens in new tab), to pegging on Broad City, to twerking (opens in new tab), to Kim Kardashian's epic shiny rump on the cover of Paper Magazine (opens in new tab), it's no question that all things ass-related have taken on a mainstream edge. Pop-culture acolytes proclaimed 2014 the "Year of the Booty," (opens in new tab) which heralded a deluge of think pieces about the portrayal of butt sex on mainstream television shows like The Mindy Project and articles (opens in new tab) assessing the erotic potential of the anus. It's now ascended to a cushy place in pop culture where it's become much less shocking to talk about and engage in the act of anal sex.
Data from PornHub (opens in new tab) reveals that from 2009 to 2015, search volume for anal sex videos skyrocketed by 120 percent. But it's not just virtual fantasies that are increasing. People are also having anal sex more regularly. A 2017 survey (opens in new tab) of over 3,000 sexually active millennials shows that 35 percent of women and 15 percent of men are engaging in anal sex "at least some of the time."
Don't get me wrong—anal is still a major taboo in America. Witness: the enormous backlash of the educational Teen Vogue "Anal Sex 101 (opens in new tab)" article—written by yours truly. Even if anal is less shrouded in shame than it once was, it's still not something young people are learning about or talking about openly.
But there are pressing questions to be discussed: If anal sex is normalized and becomes a part of our everyday sexual understanding, does that mean anal sex is on the table for every sexual encounter? How has the normalization of anal sex shifted our attitudes and discussions around consent? How must the conversations evolve as a result of anal's newfound popularity?
It shouldn't be assumed that everyone is open to having anal sex just because our culture is less uptight about butt stuff. Despite the supposedly clear cut knowledge that "no means no (opens in new tab)," I've heard many horror stories of women being pressured into anal under the guise of sex positivity or a "willingness to be sexually adventurous."
Vivienne*, 23, tells MarieClaire.com (opens in new tab) that she has felt pressure to have anal sex, even when she clearly stated it wasn't an option: "I was drunk and said I didn't want that. He kept doing it anyway even when I said stop."
I once had a guy try to push me into anal sex on the third date. He wondered why I wasn't into anal if I claim to be sex positive.
Dr. Nikki Goldstein, sexologist and author of Single But Dating (opens in new tab), tells MarieClaire.com (opens in new tab) that sexual empowerment is not about doing everything sexually. "Rather it's about having the freedom to explore your own sexuality however you choose. It's about having a choice to live your life sexually the way that you want to."
A 2014 study published in BMJ Open examined young people's attitudes about anal sex and found that the majority of young women who had engaged in anal sex said the encounters were riddled with pressure (opens in new tab) and were often painful. Among 130 teens surveyed between the ages of 16 and 18, consent was a hairy issue, with young men often thinking they didn't need to ask for informed consent in order to have anal sex.
Mal Harrison, director for the Center for Erotic Intelligence (opens in new tab), blames this lack of communication around consent on what she calls low social intelligence. In this case, "the desperation to have any sex regardless of the consequences, pain, or disrespect it causes another." She describes high social intelligence as knowing the greatest sex happens between people who are genuinely into it with great enthusiasm. "This is more of a power play for guys than it is about sex. To them, it's about convincing you, coaxing you into doing something you're not cool with."
Sarah Tomchesson, a sex educator and head of business relations at Pleasure Chest (opens in new tab) says that even though there is a high concentration of nerve endings around and just inside the anus—so in theory the ass has the potential to be a stimulating erogenous zone—there's also plenty of room for error with anal play. She notes that many people have had bad first experiences because they either didn't use lubricant, moved too fast, thought that anal play had to involve deep penetration (when, in fact, external stimulation and light, shallow penetration is ideal for accessing the nerve endings in the anus) or felt pressured to try it.
We have to talk about this. We can't just brush this issue under the rug for fear of a right-winged, "We told ya anal was bad and a sin!" backlash.
In order for people to avoid anal when they don't want to have it, and to have good anal when they do, we have to provide clear-cut, pleasure-based sex education and consent in schools and at home. Just because the liberal media is all about anal now shouldn't suggest that anal is an automatic given when you hook up or that young people have learned how to engage in butt stuff safely.
"Anal sex is an area of sexual exploration where consent is even more essential for a number of reasons," says Tomchesson.
A big factor is that the butt does not self lubricate and the tissue around the anus is very sensitive, so anal sex requires more prep, planning, and communication. "We have all been socialized that the ass is a 'dirty' place, meaning that many of us have some conditioned baggage to work through before exploring anal. No matter how excited someone is to explore anal or how sexually adventurous someone is, anal play requires sensitivity, open communication, and understanding that not everyone is going to be interested in it."
We want all safe, ethical forms of sexuality to be out in the open, but that doesn't mean consent is any less important. In fact, discussions of consent (opens in new tab) are far more important the closer we move towards a sex positive worldview.
Being "sexually adventurous" does not equal "always down for anything." "No" does not mean "try harder." Saying "no" does not mean you are or aren't a prude. "No" does not mean "no to vaginal sex, but maybe anal is fine." "No" means "no." No explanation needed.
As long as we're glamorizing anal sex without proper education, there will be plenty of confusion. It all starts with the basics so that we can help foster a generation of sexually mature and self-aware adults.
Gigi Engle is a writer, certified sexologist, sex coach, and sex educator. Her work regularly appears in many publications including Brides, Marie Claire, Elle Magazine, Teen Vogue, Glamour and Women's Health.
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