Social Theorist and Philosopher

A response to a recent article about anal sex published in the Evening Standard

The journalist Rosamund Urwin (the Evening Standard, 23rd January 2015) discusses the popularisation of anal sex in popular culture, which, though still only practised by a minority of people, is becoming increasingly common among heterosexual couples. She points out the findings of the most recent sexual attitudes survey (she doesn’t reference it, but see UCL research). She says it shows a general broadening in the nation’s ‘intimate sexual repertoire’, and now more people apparently want anal sex and all its accompaniments. She also draws our attention to two further cultural phenomena. Firstly, heterosexual anal sex is creeping into TV and mainstream film (e.g. Kiss-ass in Girls and ‘a back-door pass’ in Kingsman, a recently released spy film). She asks ‘is the latest on-screen ‘obsession’ handing women a bum deal in bed’?

Secondly, Urwin refers to research published in 2014 in the British Medical Journal Open Study (BMJ article). The objectives of the study were to explore expectations, experiences and circumstances of anal sex among young heterosexual boys and girls aged 16–18 who came from diverse social backgrounds. The research was carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the principal investigator was Dr Cicely Marston.

The results of the study are that anal sex is often painful, risky and coercive, particularly for women. ‘Few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable and both sexes expected anal sex to be painful for women’. One young woman, Emma, described it as ‘just pain… just horrible’. Many young women saw repeated requests for anal sex as something ‘they would either acquiesce to or resist’ and they were not ‘equal partners in sexual decision-making’. Some young men took a ‘try it and see’ approach where they ‘anally penetrated a woman with their fingers or penis and hoped that she would not stop them’. As one young man put it ‘sometimes you just keep going, till they just get fed up and let you do it anyway’.

Interviewees frequently cited pornography as the ‘explanation’ for anal sex, yet their accounts revealed a complex social context where the availability of pornography is only one element among others. Other key elements included competition between men; the claim that ‘people must like it if they do it’ (made alongside the seemingly contradictory expectation that it will be painful for women); and, crucially, normalisation of coercion and ‘accidental’ penetration. It seemed that men were expected to persuade or coerce reluctant partners. The study concludes that young people’s narratives normalised coercive, painful and unsafe anal sex. It proposes there is an urgent need for harm reduction efforts targeting anal sex to help encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques and challenge views that normalise coercion.

Read the full column at Resist Porn Culture

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