Why you should care
Because keeping anal sex in the dark means it could remain a coercive practice.
Although anal sex is de rigueur in porn, with titles like Anal Acrobats and Buttman’s Big Butt Backdoor Babes, and even a “Best Anal Scene” category in the AVN Awards (the Oscars of the adult film industry), talking about the practice can feel a little like plunging into a dark abyss. Few dare mention it, at least in the world beyond the late-night glow of a RedTube reel.
But researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) want to open the door to backdoor sex. Their survey of sexually active 16- to 18-year-olds in Britain suggests that:
Anal sex between hetero partners tends to happen in “an oppressive context,” in which men often coax women into having anal sex.
Some men even compete against each other to do so — even if they expect their partners to find it painful. What’s more, both men and women accepted this coercive behavior as normal.
“Teachers, parents and wider society must discuss anal sex with young people openly and, specifically, highlight the importance of ‘mutuality’ — both partners listening and responding to each others’ desires and concerns,” said Cicely Marston, a senior lecturer in social science at LSHTM who led the study, published in the BMJ Open in July.
Despite its taboo status, the back route is a popular one among young people. Nearly 1 in 5 16- to 24-year-olds reported having anal sex in the past year in a recent national survey in Britain. But researchers know little about why young people engage in the practice — or its health implications. So Marston and her colleagues conducted a series of group discussions and in-depth one-on-one interviews with 130 men and women aged 16 to 18 from cosmopolitan London, an industrial city in the north and a rural region in the southwest of Britain.
True, not all men in the study coerced their partners, and a few women actually desired anal sex. In some cases, both partners found it pleasurable. But for the most part, participants rarely did it for mutual enjoyment. Men were expected to get off from it, and women to feel pain. As a result, men often repeatedly asked their partners if they could enter from behind — something they ultimately found hotter in principle than in practice.
Discussions about consent often simply teach young men that rape is wrong — ‘a depressingly low bar.’
So why do so many people still take the back route? Although male participants often cited a desire to emulate porn, their one-on-one interviews revealed that other factors are more important.
Firstly, not only do men and women consider coercion and nagging a normal part of anal sex, but women who find it painful are often perceived as in the wrong (they’re “scared” and just “need to relax”) or simply hiding their pleasure. Men also view anal sex as a badge of sexual prowess or experience; male participants in one group discussion said it was “something we do for a competition” and “every hole’s a goal.” (Yet both sexes believed it tarnished a woman’s reputation.) Finally, many male participants didn’t express concern about hurting their partners, viewing the pain as inevitable.
Of course, the relatively small participant pool might not fully represent all 16- to 18-year-olds in Britain, and more research is needed to determine whether the same problems exist in other countries or among other age groups. Still, the findings are suggestive. Most debates about young people’s sex lives focus on the impact of porn, but the new study “suggests we need to think more widely about the lack of importance society places on women’s rights, desires and concerns,” Marston said.
But sex education typically sidesteps these issues, since it rarely addresses specific sexual practices, and discussions about consent often simply teach young men that rape is wrong — “a depressingly low bar,” Marston said. She argues that young people should be taught mutuality, which includes challenging the notion that women are always consenting to, and men always demanding, sex.
Seventh-grade sex ed class might teach safety and basic biology, but tends to gloss over a crucial lesson: respect.