Anal sex is a subject no one wants to talk about. Yet, as with so many taboo topics, the lack of discussion is effectively hiding troublesome truths.
A new study of sexually active 16- to 18-year-olds in England reveals a striking paradox. It finds that “few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable, and both expected anal sex to be painful for women.”
In spite of this, the practice seems to be gaining in popularity. A recent national survey in Britain reported that, among 16- to 24-year-olds, 19 percent of men and 17 percent of women had engaged in it over the past year.
The results suggest there is an “urgent need” to “encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques, and challenge views that normalize coercion,” co-authors Cicely Marston and Ruth Lewis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine write in the journal BMJ Open.
There is an "urgent need" to "encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques, and challenge views that normalize coercion."
Marston and Lewis conducted a series of group discussions and in-depth, one-on-one interviews of 130 men and women ages 16 to 18. Participants hailed from three different locations (London, a northern industrial city, and the nation’s rural Southwest) and represented a diverse set of social backgrounds.
“There were marked gender differences in how anal sex was described,” the researchers report. “Its benefits (pleasure, indicator of sexual achievement) were expected for men, but not women. Its risks—interviewees rarely mentioned risks of sexually transmitted infections, focusing instead on risk of pain or damaged reputation—were expected for women but not for men.”
Given this disconnect, it’s not surprising that participants report anal sex was usually the result of persuasion, “with repeated, empathetic requests from men commonly mentioned.”
But if even men find the practice more enticing in theory than in practice, why are so many so insistent?
“The main reasons given for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography,” the researchers report. But Marston and Lewis consider that answer somewhat superficial; they point out that “anal sex happens in a context characterized by at least five specific features.”
First, some men’s narratives suggested “they expect coercion to be part of anal sex." Second, and relatedly, “women being badgered for anal sex appears to be considered normal.” Third is the notion that women who do not enjoy it “are either flawed or keeping their enjoyment secret.”
“Fourth, anal sex today appears to be a marker of (hetero)sexual achievement or experience, particularly for men,” the researchers write. “The society which our interviewees inhabit seems to reward men for sexual experience per se and, to some extent, rewards women for compliance for sexually ‘adventurous’ acts.... Women may also be under pressure to appear to enjoy or choose certain sexual practices.”
“Fifth, many men do not express concern about possible pain for women, viewing it as inevitable. Less painful techniques, such as slower penetration, were rarely discussed.”
To summarize: “Anal sex among young people in this study appeared to be taking place in a context encouraging pain, risk and coercion.” And yet, the researchers write, “sexuality education, where it exists, rarely addresses specific sexual practices,” and thus avoids these vital issues.
It all suggests a need to expand sex education beyond mechanics to moral issues, with a goal of instilling a mindset of mutual exploration, mutual enjoyment—and mutual respect.