What a journey our attitude towards anal intercourse has had over the last few years. From twerking, to Kim Kardashian's epic glistening behind on the cover of Paper Magazine, to 2014 being named the “Year of the Booty” all things ass-related have taken on a mainstream edge. Once considered hardcore taboo, anal intercourse now appears to be a popular, even commonplace, act in the heterosexual bedroom. In fact, 36% of women and 44% of men aged 25-44 in the US have had heterosexual anal intercourse (HAI) at least once (Chandra, Mosher, Copen, & Sionean, 2011). Is this new? No. HAI has been in vogue since at least the Age of Antiquity dating back to the Ancient Greeks (McBridge & Fortenberry, 2010). But, research on HAI typically uses self-report measures, like questionnaires, so it’s hard to determine if the frequency of anal s is actually increasing, or if respondents are simply more comfortable admitting they’ve had it over the years (Reynolds, Fisher, & Rogala, 2015).
Just so that we’re all on the same page, anal intercourse has been defined as a partnered sexual act involving the insertion and thrusting of one partner’s penis into the anus of the other (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, 2009). Anal play, though, includes anything from finger or sex toy insertion into, or oral sex on, the butt. So what’s the big deal going down about asses then? Well, for starters, there’s a large crack in the research. The majority of research is devoted to gay men, thus largely ignoring heterosexual women’s (and men’s) experiences (Fahs, Swank & Clevenger, 2014). Further, sexual risk-taking, increased risk of anal cancer among women, contraction of HIV, and low rates of condom use have been the focus of the anal intercourse literature, leaving connections between anal intercourse, power and pleasure largely neglected (Benson, Gilmore, Micks, McCoy, & Prager, 2019). So, by framing anal intercourse as just a health concern, we really don’t know much about whether heterosexual women (or men) derive pleasure from anal intercourse—or really anything about their experience with it (Benson et al., 2019). In the end then, more facts are crucial for heterosexual women to determine if they want to give their man the green light to their backdoor.
A recent groundbreaking study by Benson et al. (2019) sought to address this gap in the HAI literature and found that the majority of women had a negative first experience with anal intercourse due to physical pain and/or feeling coerced. This finding appears to be consistent with previous findings, as women tend to have significantly less positive attitudes toward anal intercourse compared to men. In fact, 60% of young heterosexual men reported that they liked past experiences of anal intercourse but only 13% of heterosexual women had the same response (Fahs, Swank, & Clevenger, 2014). When asked why women engaged in HAI, minor motivators such as pregnancy prevention, maintaining perceived virginity status for religious reasons, and avoiding vaginal intercourse during menstruation were common. However, the researchers found that primary motivator behind women engaging in HAI was *cue the drum roll* to please their partner (Benson et al., 2019).
Cultural norms and media appear to be the primary culprits of this unfortunate reality. Cultural beliefs about gender and heterosexuality typically frame men as sexually assertive and women as sexually passive. Accordingly, sexuality scripts often place men in the directive role of initiating and determining the nature of the sexual interaction while women are expected to submit to men’s wishes (Fahs et al., 2014). Men’s pleasure is central in terms of our cultural understanding of sex (Murphy, 2017). Speaking of, there is a social norm called “rape culture,” wherein men coerce, convince, and pester women into various sex acts (Murphy, 2017). And, not only is this the norm, but men are often lauded when they succeed at this “game” as “players” (Murphy, 2017). Feminists argue that getting a woman to engage in anal intercourse is something men brag to their friends about; and not just because they enjoy the experience, physically, but because they know women don’t want to do it, that it is uncomfortable or even painful for women, and that it equates to a show of power (Murphy, 2017). In a recent GQ article (2017) in which men were asked why they sought anal intercourse, the majority said it was because it was “a harder-to-reach goal than old-fashioned intercourse” and the “ultimate final barrier” (Rubin, 2007). For other men, the appeal of anal penetration is less about the novelty and more about the psychology. For example, a respondent in the GQ interview said, "For most of my friends, it's sort of a domination thing…it’s basically getting someone in a position where they're most vulnerable” (Rubin, 2007). Thus, from the minimal research we have, it appears that anal intercourse is a complex negotiation that involves gendered understandings of pleasure as well as power (McBridge & Fortenberry, 2010).
Ass-backwardly, another motivator of anal intercourse is that it increases relationship intimacy, which explains why the majority of anal intercourse occurs in monogamous relationships rather than with casual partners (McBridge & Fortenberry, 2010). When reviewing online blogs about anal intercourse, writers focused on the importance of cooperation and communication among partners. Anal intercourse was seen as something that had to be worked toward by both partners for it to be mutually pleasurable (McBridge & Fortenberry, 2010). Those who practice anal intercourse also said it required more planning than vaginal intercourse, including proper preparation and the building of trust with their partner (McBridge & Fortenberry, 2010). These bloggers are not wrong. The anus is not as flexible as a vagina - it’s tight, and its thin tissues can be easily damaged (Engle, 2018). So, feeling relaxed, working up to anal intercourse through inserting fingers and butt plugs first, leaving time for foreplay, using protection, and lots of lube as well as going slowly are essential for safe and enjoyable anal intercourse. Indeed, with proper preparation, a pro-anal mindset among both partners, and a strong relationship dynamic, anal intercourse can be pleasurable for both parties with the dual benefit of broadening a couple’s sexual repertoire and keeping the spiciness in the bedroom alive.
All in all, although there is a dearth of research on the health implications of HAI, there is an even greater paucity of research on anal intercourse and women’s sexual satisfaction. In order for women, and people in general, to avoid anal intercourse when they don't want to have it, and to have good anal intercourse when they do, we have to provide clear-cut, pleasure-based intercourse education in schools and at home. It would also be nice if media gave anal intercourse/play a more realistic tone as well; right now, it is simply sensationalized by media. Just because media are all about anal intercourse/play or just because we know how to do butt stuff safely now doesn’t mean anal intercourse/play is a given when you hook up. Anal intercourse is an area of sexual exploration where consent is also essential; so much can go wrong, and research shows that many heterosexual women feel coerced into doing it. Without comprehensive research and education, people will likely engage in anal intercourse in ways that can lead to pain, feeling coerced, and perhaps feelings of inequality within a partnership (even if brief). Let’s foster a generation of sexually mature and self-aware adults who have the freedom to explore their own sexuality and make informed choices. Without such awareness, it’s better for people to be safe than sorry and keep their backdoor shut.
4th Year BAH Psychology, Queen’s University
Benson, L.S., Gilmore, K., Micks, E., McCoy, E.L., & Prager, S.W. (2019). Perceptions of Anal Intercourse Among Heterosexual Women: A Pilot Qualitative Study. Sexual Medicine. 7(2): 198-206.
Chandra, A., Mosher, W., Copen, C., & Sionean, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 national survey of family growth. National health statistics reports, 1(36).
Engle, G. (2018, May). Anal Sex: What you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/anal-sex-what-you-need-to-know
Engle, G. (2017, August). How the normalization of anal sex has shifted the conversation about consent. Retrieved from https://www.marieclaire.com/sex-love/a5489/rise-in-anal-sex-statistics/
Fahs, B., Swank, E., & Clevenger, L. (2014). Troubling Anal Sex: Gender, Power, and Sexual Compliance in Heterosexual Experiences of Anal Intercourse. Gender Issues, 32(1): 19-38.
McBridge, K.R., & Fortenberry, J.D. (2010). Heterosexual anal sexuality and anal sex behaviors: a review. The Journal of Sex Research, 47(2): 123-136.
Murphy, M. (2017, July). No, Teen Vogue, the backlash to your anal sex article was not rooted in homophobia. Retrieved from https://www.feministcurrent.com/2017/07/20/no-teen-vogue-backlash-anal-sex-article-not-rooted-homophobia/
Reynolds, G., Fisher, D., & Rogala, B. (2015). Why Women Engage in Anal Intercourse: Results from a Qualitative Study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(4): 983-95.
Rubin, P. (2007, July). Is anal sex the new deal breaker? Details. Retrieved from http:// www.details.com/sex-relationships/sex-and-other-releases/200707/anal-sex-new-deal-breaker