Anal Sex: Science's Last Taboo
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That anal sex remains taboo may explain why a study about anodyspareunia – that is, pain during anal penetration – received little attention when it was published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. The study should have turned heads: It was the first research on anodyspareunia among women; it was conducted by a well-respected scientist (Dr. Aleksander Stulhofer from the University of Zagreb); and it was centered on young women and sex. That’s often the kind of research that attracts media attention (Young women sext! They get pregnant! They give oral sex! You get the picture …). However, anal sex remains such a strong taboo that this otherwise important study barely turned a head.
Except it did turn mine. Here’s why. In an incredibly short period of time, anal sex has become a common part of Americans’ sex lives. As of the 1990s, only about one-quarter to one-third of young women and men in the U.S. had tried anal sex at least once. Less than 20 years later, my research team’s 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that as many as 40-45 percent of women and men in some age groups had tried anal sex. With its rising prevalence, I felt it was important to devote a chapter of my first book, “Because It Feels Good,” to anal health and pleasure — only to find that a magazine editor wouldn’t review it because the topic of anal sex was “not in the best interest of our readership.” Even though nearly half of American women in some age groups have done it! She added, “In the correct circles, I personally will be suggesting the book to those with whom I can share such a resource.”
Hmm. The correct circles. Which ones would those be? The ones where scores and scores of women openly sit around talking about anal sex between glasses of wine?
So taboos persist and anal sex remains hush-hush even though more people are doing it. What changed to make it more common, anyway? It’s not entirely clear – after all, rates of masturbation, vaginal sex, oral sex and other sexual practices don’t seem to have changed too much. However, it’s commonly thought that the widespread access to porn played a role. Some research has found that anal sex was shown in 56 percent of sex scenes studied even though national data of real people’s sex lives show that fewer than 5 percent of Americans had anal sex during their most recent sexual experience.
Honest, evidence-based answers to questions about anal sex are difficult to come by. You’d think we would know more about a behavior that’s become a common part of Americans’ sex lives – one that, for all its potential pleasures, remains among the riskiest sex acts when it comes to spreading sexually transmissible infections (STI) including HIV. Yet there is strikingly little scientific research on anal sex. The list of what we don’t know about anal sex is far longer than the list of what we do. This makes it difficult for sex educators to feel truly confident in answering people’s very real and important questions.
This is also what made the recent University of Zagreb study so valuable. They surveyed more than 2,000 women ages 18 to 30 about their experiences with anal sex. Building on limited early research about anal pain among men who have sex with men, the researchers asked about women’s experiences with pain. This was critical because, as much as we often talk about anal sex possibly hurting, and lubricant possibly minimizing pain or discomfort during anal sex, there is almost no research on women’s experiences of anal sex. One exception is a study that I conducted with my research team at Indiana University in which we gave six different lubricants to more than 2,400 women and asked them to use them during their masturbation, vaginal sex and/or anal sex activities. Among our interests was whether using a lubricant helped to make sex – including anal sex – more pleasurable, more satisfying and less painful (it did).