butt

A recent study found that while anal sex is on the rise, teens feel coerced into trying it. Then why is it so prevalent in porn?

Note: This article features frank discussions of sexuality and is NSFW.

True confession: I am a sex writer who has never had sex. Specifically, anal sex. Has a digit slipped in during an inopportune moment, as a result of my getting distracted by a loud noise or shiny object during foreplay? Sure, probably. Have I performed an act, and allowed said act to be performed on me, that is most popular in Nicki Minaj songs and men’s prisons? Yes, once, during high school, but my recollection of said event is hazy. (All I remember is darkness, lube, and an odor that I later identified as akin to the penguin exhibit at the Central Park Zoo.) But while I’ve dipped a toe in the frigid waters of anal sex, I’ve never taken the plunge, and have no intention of doing so.

As one of the few women in my social circle who hasn’t tried it, and someone who is considered fairly sexually liberated by virtue of what I write about, I have been asked a few times why I haven’t tried anal sex. Most of my reasons are fairly predictable—I think it would hurt, doody comes out of there, my boyfriend doesn’t have any interest either so why should we do it, f**kin’ doody comes out of there, and so on and so forth.

But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I think the main reason why I haven’t had butt sex has nothing to do with doody. (I’m not of the opinion that fear of your own bodily functions should dissuade you from doing anything that’s potentially pleasurable, and besides, that’s what God made baby wipes for.)

The main reason is because my not having had butt sex is sort of like someone never having tried oysters, or not having seen E.T. (Two things I’ve also never done.) For hetero women of my generation, admitting you haven’t tried anal is so rare that oftentimes, it’s easy to feel like it’s tantamount to saying you’re a prude who hates sex. But at the same time, not having seen E.T. and not having tried oysters and not having had butt sex are some of the most unique things about myself, and even though I might be missing out on a world of indescribable pleasure from depriving myself of all three, somehow I doubt that’s the case.

A generation or so ago, admitting you’d never had anal sex before would be far less shocking than admitting the reverse. But we’ve reached the point in our culture where if you’re a sexually active hetero woman, butt sex is now considered a de rigeur staple of your sexual repertoire. If you don’t do it in bed, it’s kinda like going to an Allman Brothers show and not hearing them play “Whipping Post.”

When it comes to anal sex in the 21st century, the general consensus seems to be, as porn star Asa Akira once succinctly put it in a tweet, that “ass is the new pussy.” A 2010 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, for instance, reported that 20 percent of women aged 18-19 had tried it, a 20 percent increase since 1992. Now, it seems that anal sex is on the rise among teenagers, according to a recent study from the journal BMJ Open: Anal sex is on the rise among people between the ages of 16 and 24, with 19 percent of men and 17 percent of women reporting having tried it.

Surprisingly, however, the study found that while both men and women were having more anal sex, few were actually enjoying it, with the researchers noting that it usually took place in “a context encouraging pain, risk, and coercion”:

There were marked gender differences in how anal sex was described… 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.

Ladies weren’t the only one to report not enjoying anal sex or feeling coerced into having anal. The study also reported that some men didn’t actually find anal pleasurable, so much as they viewed it as a “marker of heterosexual achievement or experience.”

At the risk of disregarding the experiences of those who do genuinely enjoy having consensual anal sex (and there are people who do), the study’s results were something of a cause for concern. If anal actually is taking place in a context “encouraging pain, risk, and coercion,” why, exactly, are so many people having it? Is it because of societal pressure? Is it because of porn, as author Naomi Wolf posits, after learning from college health counselors that straight women are increasingly complaining of experiencing anal fissures from sex? Or is it because of something else entirely?

To find out, I administered an informal poll to my friends, which basically entailed me texting in all caps, “WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT BUTT SEX.” What I learned is that, first and foremost, anal porn is not nearly as big a factor in determining sexual practices as we might think it is.

For one thing, contrary to all the studies linking the rise of anal sex to the prevalence of butt sex in porn, “anal sex” as a search term isn’t actually that popular. According to a Pornhub Insights study on the most popular search terms by country, “anal” doesn’t even crack the top 10; same goes for anal-centric search terms like “butt,” “ass,” or “buttsex.” (Interestingly, that is not the case in Russia, where “anal” is the most popular search term.

In fact, when I talk to heterosexual men about porn, by far their most common gripe—if straight men can be said to have any gripe at all about online porn—is the prevalence of anal sex in porn clips that aren’t specifically tagged as such. My friend Scott, for instance, tells me that if he’s watching porn and an asshole makes a surprise cameo appearance, he’ll immediately look for another video, or fast-forward to another, vagina-centric section.

“I really like vaginas. They are just fantastic. I’m not really looking for an alternative,” he says. “When something else comes up, it’s like, what is this shit? That’s not what I came here for.”

My boyfriend, who takes a much harder line on anal sex and buttplay than I do (he is of the “but…but poop comes out of there” school of thought”), is of the opinion that anal sex is “overrepresented” in porn as a whole: “I think the ratio of anal porn to pussy porn is greater than the ratio of men who enjoy it to those who don’t,” as he puts it.

This is, of course, not to say that there isn’t an audience for anal sex in heterosexual porn; obviously, there is. But among the men I spoke to, the “why is there anal sex in non-anal porn” gripe was common enough that I’m inclined to think that audience is much smaller than most porn directors think. “I think I’ve always assumed that no women enjoyed [anal], and that it was just something porn stars did cause they probably get paid extra for doing it,” my friend Dan, who also fast-forwards through anal scenes, told me. “That’s not hot to me. I’d be more likely to try it in real life than I would be to watch it in porn.”

The assertion that “no women” enjoy having anal sex is obviously not the case—in fact, one study has reported that women who regularly have anal sex report having more orgasms, though it’s possible that has more to do with the fact that women who have anal sex tend to be more likely to experiment in bed, thus making them more likely to have more orgasms. But it does raise the question: If there’s a substantial number of men who have no interest in anal sex, why is porn targeted at heterosexual males so butthole-centric?

My colleague Miles Klee has two theories, one of which has far more ominous implications than the other: “I think the prevalence of anal in porn (and subsequent mimicry, because I guess young people are now becoming weird misinformed sexual autodidacts through the magic of a supersaturated Internet) has to do with the power/control/humiliation dynamic so often staged in these productions, i.e., the woman is being recklessly used, defiled, broken,” he hypothesizes.

His second, more innocent explanation: porn directors’ “apparent ADD or mania for variety.” “I find that the number of position changes in a typical porn video is absurd by most domestic standards, and I guess that standard has people scrambling to plug any and all available orifices.”

Ultimately, the prevalence of anal sex in porn, as well as the increasing prevalence of anal sex in heterosexual couples’ sex lives, promps more questions than it does answers. Are porn producers struggling to cater to what they think is increased demand for anal in porn? Or is Miles correct, and is porn turning us into “weird misinformed sexual autodidacts,” scrambling to plug up any and all of our holes? It’s a chicken-or-egg question. Which came first: the butt sex, or the porn?

Considering how quick most researchers are to attribute all changes in human sexual behavior to Internet porn, it’s somewhat surprising (not to mention refreshing) that the BMJ study ultimately concludes otherwise. While the study attributes the culture of anal sex “coercion” in part to the popularity of anal sex in porn, it also takes care to note that “the lack of importance society places on women’s rights, desires and concerns” is probably a far more significant factor.

While misogyny probably does play at least somewhat of a role in this phenomenon, I’m inclined to take a somewhat more generous view of why butt sex is so popular, despite the fact that the number of people who enjoy it is likely disproportionate to the number of people having it. As we continue to become more sexually liberated and in touch with our bodies, and as the culture at large increasingly gives permission for us to do so, we’re obsessed with the idea of having better sex, more often.

If we’re lucky enough to find someone we like having sex with, who enjoys having sex with us, we’re constantly wondering if there’s something else out there that can offer a superior release, some sexual Mount Everest we can reach whose heights we can’t even fathom. This is why women who have one kind of perfectly good orgasm, be they clitoral or G-spot or anal, obsess over having the other kind, and this is why men who have access to one perfectly good orifice obsess over having access to another.

My friend Scott puts it best: “I think the only reason I would try anal is this question of, ‘What if there’s this Holy Grail out there that’s even better than sex?’” he says. “I could see why that would be pretty tempting for lots of guys.”

We should all strive for continual improvement and satisfaction in our sex lives, just as we should strive for continual improvement in our jobs or relationships or any other field. But the idea that there is a Holy Grail of sex in the form of a butthole, or any other organ, for that matter, is not only silly—as the BMJ study concludes, it actually can be kinda dangerous.

To those men and women who have found their Holy Grail in the form of anal sex: I’m genuinely happy for you, and I wish you well. But I don’t need to have tried oysters to know they taste like the ocean, and I don’t need to have seen E.T. to know the alien—spoiler alert—flies back to his planet at the end. And more than anything, I wish the men and women who feel coerced into having any kind of sex other than the one they find most pleasurable felt the same way.

Photo by StarAlex1/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.

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