What first comes to mind when you think of anal sex? Do you think of pain, fear, coercion? Do you think that anal sex is obscene, hardcore, adventurous, taboo, and perhaps dirtier than other forms of sex? Do you think of sex between gay men? Or do you think of pleasure, romance, love, connection, intimacy, trust and joy?
Where anal sex is depicted as occurring between men and women, both medical research and popular culture tend to see men as the penetrators, women as the receivers, anal sex as a riskier sexual activity, and as having a coercive element.
For example, in the US series Sex and the City, one of the lead characters Charlotte York was disturbed and distressed because her male partner wanted to have anal sex. “I don’t want to be the up-the-butt girl, because I mean … Men don’t marry up-the-butt girl. Whoever heard of Mrs. Up-The-Butt?” she laments to her friends.
And of course, there’s the infamous Fleabag scene which depicts Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character acquiescing to anal sex with “Arsehole Guy”, while stating to camera:
After some pretty standard bouncing, you realise, he’s edging towards your arsehole, but you’re drunk, and he did make the effort to come all the way here, so you let him. He’s thrilled.
These depictions both shock viewers and put men’s pleasure and desire above women’s. Women are rarely viewed as the active instigators or penetrators of anal sex, especially between female same-sex partners, and are almost never seen as anal enthusiasts.
Our research team conducted a series of focus groups with 20 participants aged between 19 and 56 years of age. They included sexual health practitioners and those with a vested interest in sexual health, such as youth workers, and young people. The purpose of the study was to explore perceptions of anal sex, exploring questions such as: What is anal sex? Who is involved and for what reasons?
In our focus groups, anal sex was immediately assumed to be a male sexual preference before women’s pleasure was considered. Participants expressed that women who desire anal sex are culturally perceived as adventurous, sexually experimental, or “out there” in some way.
Imagine meeting a woman who is open about how much she enjoys pegging her boyfriend (where she’s the giver rather than the receiver) every other night. Would she be seen as edgy? Wild? Kinky? Would she experience bias on the basis of her sexual preferences? Would she be judged?
Our research strongly suggests that she would. Perhaps these negative attitudes are unsurprising – after all, even some doctors are reluctant to discuss anal sex with women, causing a potential risk to health.
Anal sex is commonplace – despite the stigma
Our research highlights the concerns of some sexual health practitioners that women may be influenced by their male partner to engage in anal sex or may make decisions to participate in anal sex without being fully informed. These concerns then raise questions about whether women are consenting to their own sexual desires and behaviour or men’s.
It is difficult to estimate how many people generally, and women specifically, are engaging in anal sex. Many people are not comfortable speaking openly about their sex lives due to geographic, contextual and intersectional factors such as race, religion, gender and sexuality.
There is also no clear consensus over what constitutes anal sex, whether it’s rimming, pegging, fingering, penile-anal intercourse, anal massage, or other activities. But some estimates show that just over one-third of US women have had heterosexual penile-anal sex.
Other scholars have argued that more adults and adolescents are engaging in anal sex than have an account with X (formerly Twitter).
Contrary to immediate negative biases of – and concerns over – anal sex, these estimates suggest that it is a relatively common practice for women to engage in anal sex as part of their wider sexual repertoire.
How then, given the immediate negative biases and potentially overzealous concerns over male-led coercion of women and young girls, should anal sex be discussed appropriately?
Foregrounding women’s safety and pleasure
A focus on women’s sexual pleasure is strikingly lacking from conversations in sex and relationships education, and within sexual health clinical practice. In our research we argue that anal sex must be included in sexual health education as part of a wider repertoire of sexual pleasure.
What should be concerning is not engagement with anal sex per se – women are having anal whether we want to acknowledge it or not – but the lack of education around anal sex that, if included in relationships and sex education, could increase the sexual literacy of women and young girls.
We are not encouraging anyone to engage in anal sex if they do not wish to, but our research does emphasise that if young women are to have anal sex, they are entitled to the self-knowledge that will allow this to occur safely, consensually, pleasurably and positively.
Our research has highlighted implicit assumptions that must be challenged and destigmatised These involve what anal sex actually is, who the primary instigator is, and whether women are active participants who want to engage in anal sex for their own pleasure.
Providing knowledge on anal sex that centres women’s pleasure allows for a higher degree of choice to engage in sexual practices that feel right for all women involved.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.