The Popularity And Perfectionism Behind Butt Sex

In the hours after his untimely death last week, many of Christopher Hitchens' most witty aphorisms went viral. One, which landed on my Facebook wall, declared that ‎"the four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex, and picnics." My friends immediately began a thread to discuss which of these he got right, and which he got wrong. Soon, it devolved into an intense discussion of the third item on Hitch's list of overpraised pleasures. Struck by the passionate debate about butt sex that broke out on my wall, I ran a small Facebook survey on the subject and received some 120 responses.

The recent rise in the popularity of heterosexual anal sex among young people is demonstrable and has been documented in a series of studies over the past few years. As the Journal of Sexual Medicine announced in 2010, 40% of women age 20-24 report having done it at least once. The number of 18-19 year-olds who've been anally penetrated rose by 20% between 1992 and 2010. Whatever the catalyst for the rise in anal intercourse, its popularity is supported by data as well as anecdote.

In March 2011, Naomi Wolf told The Age that she'd heard from many college health professionals about a troubling rise in the number of female students suffering from "anal fissures caused by sex." A nurse practitioner at a large Southern California university whom I spoke with for this story confirmed that she'd noticed the same worrying phenomenon. "Until recently, I got maybe one question a year about anal sex from a female student. Now, I get several questions a month."

While the existing research verifies a rise in the number of young people having anal sex, what it doesn't yet measure is how many young women are pressured to do it. More than a few of the female commenters in my Facebook thread mentioned that they'd been asked repeatedly by boyfriends to, as one put it, "go to 5th base." Another, Alexandra, wrote that "it seems like butt sex is a constant expectation now. It's depressingly predictable… I'd say pretty damn near every guy I've ever dated or hooked up with has asked me if he could do it." Like several other women in the thread, Alexandra noted she'd never actually tried anal, but was tired of fending off the men who plead to be the first.

Whatever the appeal of anal sex (and those who enjoy it give a wide variety of reasons why), even its strongest and most enthusiastic advocates admit that it can be intensely painful, at least the first few times it's tried. "Taking a penis in my ass the first time hurt ten times more than when I lost my virginity," wrote one woman on the survey. Several others mentioned that doing anal right required far more time, artificial lubrication, and care than any other sex act.

That care is distinctly absent in most heterosexual porn that depicts anal sex. Indeed, the pain of anal seems to be part of its appeal. One very popular porn genre features a "casting couch" storyline, in which young ingénues are interviewed and then talked — or tricked — into doing their first anal scene. Instead of the careful, gentle preparation that good anal sex requires, the sex is quick and rough, often with only spit for lubricant. Almost invariably, the camera focuses on the young woman's grimaces. More so than with any other sex act in mainstream heterosexual porn, in depictions of anal sex there's an explicit connection between women's discomfort and male arousal. A cursory examination of the most popular videos in the genre suggests that the real money shot isn't the image of a penis entering a woman's rectum as much as it is the image of her unhappy face as she's penetrated.

This doesn't mean, of course, that there aren't plenty of women who do genuinely enjoy receiving anal sex. One wrote in the initial Hitchens thread that she was rarely believed when she expressed enthusiasm for the act. "Everyone assumes I just pretend to like it to make men happy. They think I'm either a liar or a masochist. I'm neither." But exceptions like this seem to prove the rule. The reason people doubt her, as a friend of mine wrote in reply, is because "most of us aren't making it up when we say that anal really, really hurts. It's not impossible to imagine that someone could get physical pleasure from it, but it's hard for a lot of us to believe."

I'll stipulate that there are young women who really do love receiving anal sex (as do some straight men, as the popularity of the Bend Over Boyfriend series attests). But the evidence seems compelling that far more don't particularly like it and are unhappy about being pressured into it. Yet the number of sexually active women of all ages who've had anal sex continues to rise.

It's hard not to see the growing popularity of anal sex as yet another manifestation of the pressure on young women to focus on performance rather than on their own pleasure. Because it is both so agonizing (for some) and so intimate, receiving anal is instantly recognizable as the most selfless of common sexual acts. Giving a blowjob is generally less painful — and you can even keep your clothes on. The payoff of letting your boyfriend fuck you in the ass isn't the humiliation that's eroticized in male-centered pornography. The payoff isn't even the chance to prove your devotion to a guy. Perhaps the greatest incentive to do anal is the chance to prove the all-important capacity to endure pain. Hitch may have found the pleasure overrated. But for most (certainly not all) young women, pleasure doesn't seem to be the point.

In the 20 years since I started teaching at the college level, the amount of sheer physical hurting that young women are expected to endure in order to meet the contemporary cultural ideal has increased substantially. Women weren't expected to be completely "bare down there" in 1991, nor did high-fashion models seem to be quite as rail-thin as they have become since. Dieting and waxing can be physically painful, but they're also almost mandatory behaviors for young women who want to chase a body ideal. Girls play more sports (and suffer more overuse injuries) than they did two decades ago. They sleep less and are demonstrably more anxious. All of this is particularly true of the brightest and most ambitious.

Success and physical discomfort have never been so explicitly correlated as they are in the lives of young women today. Young women are perhaps more acclimated than their elders to the idea that physical pain is inextricably bound up with happiness – and with winning praise. On the soccer field or in the beauty salon, this generation is expected to prove its toughness as none before, just as this generation of women is expected to enact a more explicit sexiness than we've ever seen. And more than any other sex act, anal simultaneously symbolizes both the capacity to push through suffering and the willingness to please. For a generation uniquely acclimated to pressure, anxiety, and pain, it's little wonder that this once taboo act has become so celebrated, so popular, so expected.


Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Image via Paul Matthew Photography/Shutterstock.