The Taboo of Anal Sex: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bum
Sex writers often try to make the subject of anal sex more approachable by describing people who enjoy it with euphemisms like ‘backdoor aficionados’ and ‘booty hunters.’ But this does it a huge injustice – not to mention, it’s so yukkily saccharine it could give you a sugar-high. Even ‘buttstuff,’ which I sometimes say myself only semi-ironically, is cowardly language.
So at LELO, whose anal products are regularly among our bestsellers, we’ll be treating the subject of anal sex with a bit more respect. What follows is a frank and sometimes explicit look at the biology and psychology of anal pleasure, and where those two things intersect. Because knowledge is power, and BUTTSTUFF IS GOOD.
A note on terminology, for the purists: some people make a distinction between anal intercourse, to refer specifically to anal penetration, and anal sex, to refer to any kind of anal sexual pleasure. Since we don’t think sex has to involve penetration, we’ll be using ‘anal sex’ to refer to any kind of sexual anal activity, from simply fantasizing about it to penetration and everything between.
Let’s start with a seemingly simple, but actually quite complex question: why is anal sex good?
A lot of women’s lifestyle magazines will point to the amount of nerve endings in the anus that can be stimulated through anal sex, and anal orgasms can be very intense. So, it’s pleasurable. That’s true, but there’s an frustrating redundancy in that point. Saying ‘anal sex feels good because of pleasure receptors in the anus’ is like saying, ‘anal sex is good because it’s good.’ A deeper understanding is needed, because there’s far more at play here.
A Pain In The Ass
Some people report that the potential pain of anal sex prevents them from trying it. But pain is a sophisticated thing, and our bodies have developed different responses to it. A lot of people with tattoos, for example, report the pain of the tattooing process as being strangely pleasurable, like… floaty. The reason for that is pain produces an energising response for some people, commonly known as ‘fight or flight.’ At relatively low levels of pain, such as that experienced during tattoing, or penetrative anal sex, some people will experience an increase in adrenaline and endorphins that’s designed by evolution to help us briefly ignore pain so it doesn’t distract us when we encounter a predator. It’s a thrilling feeling. It’s why people who fight don’t often know they’re injured until it’s over. And yes, I did just compare getting a tattoo to having anal sex. As someone with a large tattoo on the sole of their foot, I feel I can say with authority that anal sex hurts less than getting a tattoo.
I’m not implying that anal penetration is masochistic when I say that people enjoy the pain, and I’m not saying it’s always painful, because it’s not. (Lube is your friend. A lot of lube. Enough lube to push a pig through a letterbox.) I’m saying that pain has a complex biological effect on some of us. To put it in pop terms: anal sex gets you high. It’s sometimes the reason why people who fear it come to love it after trying it.
But not everyone has the same pain responses – it can’t possibly account for people who don’t process the fight or fight biological imperative in that way. So what about the rest of us? In this recent scientific study of anal sex, which, despite it’s small sample size, is pretty representative, the vast majority of women reported a negative perception of anal sex. That’s very common. From that study:
Others expressed concerns about cultural stigma surrounding women who engage in heterosexual anal sex. Participant 5 stated: “The first thing I think about is that it’s trashy…it’s not something that someone who respects themselves and their body does.
Ouch. And yet, the same report said a full third of US women had tried it. So why the discrepancy? Why are so many people doing something they have such a low opinion of?
Well, it’s exactly BECAUSE they have a low opinion of it that they do it. If you’re of the opinion that anal sex is ‘trashy,’ then it’s exactly the thing to do when you want to feel trashy, which we do sometimes. If you have been raised to see anal as dirty and disgusting, then when you have that very human urge to be dirty and disgusting, anal sex will satisfy it. But, afterwards, you back to normal life. Doing a dirty thing doesn’t make you a dirty person, and our entire character is not defined by our sex acts. Luckily.
I don’t mean to state on the record that anal sex is trashy, by the way. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that that’s the view that’s culturally imposed on us. (And because we’re all hypocrites when it came to sex, the ‘anal’ category on Pornhub was viewed something like 2 billion times in 2018. So… ya know.)
And that’s is the secret at the heart of it all: this is why we don’t talk about it much. The study showed that very few women openly discuss anal sex experiences with their friends – it’s taboo even amongst trust groups. You probably already know this from experience. It’s really common to talk about sex, but it’s a little unusual in most circles to include very specific sexual details, except when seeking advice in confidence. The report’s conclusion sums it up better than I can:
Most women perceive negative societal norms toward anal sex. Although this does not appear to affect intention to engage in it, it does affect disclosure of this sexual activity with friends and healthcare providers.
That element of taboo-ness that surrounds anal sex is an important part of its attraction, above and beyond the physical. It’s unique status as a taboo sex act is what makes it special. Alongside the overt elements of dominance and submission and powerplay involved in anal pleasure, there’s something subversive about it. If our sexual culture is founded on the assumption that anal sex is wicked, and yet a third of us have done it and 2 billion people have watched it, then there becomes something counter-cultural about it. Anal sex offers, briefly, a rejection of convention. In that sense, anal sex is actually empowering, not demeaning.
Every day in our work at LELO, and in everything we do, we’re actively trying to destigmatise sexual activity. We want to attack taboos and normalize sexual expression. But I’m conflicted about anal sex. On the one hand, I’m compelled to normalize anal pleasure, and encourage as many people to try it as possible. But, without its taboo, would it be as pleasurable? I suspect not. Anal sex is as much about its psychology as its physicality, and for that reason, we should keep it taboo.
With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it’s fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO’s resident sex geek, he’s been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. Here on Volonte, he turns his spotlight onto the important events affecting sex right now in a regular op-ed. Views are his own.