We Need To Change The Way We Talk About Anal Sex
The Debrief: The government might not care that you're crashing on your freind's floor because you can't afford rent, but they're veeeery interested in how much anal sex you're having. But the problem is, they're asking all the wrong questions...
Most of the things you do don't seem to concern the government: what you wear, where you eat, and whether you avoid sky-high rents by living with your parents or crashing on your friend's living room floor for six months. The specific way you have sex should probably fall into that category too, but a recent document issued by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport appears to disagree.
The policy note on online pornography argues for stricter controls on porn access. It suggests that thanks to porn: 'more young people are engaging in anal intercourse than ever before, despite research which suggests that it is often not seen as a pleasurable activity for young women.'
This, of course, sounds pretty worrying. And the first part of it is certainly true – more young couples (as well as older couples) are trying anal sex. But is it the anal sex itself that's the problem? After all, choosing one sex act seems to imply that the DCMS wants young people to shag according to a government-approved karma sutra. Or at least to refrain from things the department has decided are bad.
I spoke to Cicely Marston, Senior Lecturer in Social Science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who co-authored the study cited by the DCMS. Shortly after the report was released, she wrote a blog post clarifying what her research had actually found, and explaining that the government's focus on anal sex blurs the distinction between consensual and coercive sexual practices. She told me: 'We have also found similar dynamics with oral sex. Women often said to us that they didn't want to go down on their partners but did it anyway and just worked to manage their experience - by using flavoured lubes, or by using their hands to speed things up. Men on the other hand, if they didn't want to do oral sex on their partner, just told us that they refused to do it. They didn't seem to experience the same type of pressure. Our interviewees - both men and women - seemed to assume women would, or should, go down on men but that men would choose.'
Sex educator Justin Hancock also pointed out that the focus should be on consent rather than on one particular sex act. He believes much of the sex education young people receive is too focused on specific things - 'penis-in-vagina' sex, for instance - rather than helping young people understand their sexuality more broadly.
'Sex ed is rarely about pleasure, choice, communication andconsent: we all receive messages about what we should do rather than what we might want to do.' He also pointed out that when the government cites an increase in a particular sexual activity, we need to be careful not to make moral judgments. Anal sex may have increased, but is an increase necessarily a bad thing?
Or as Sammi, one of the young people I interviewed, put it: 'I didn’t know that there was an ideal amount of anal sex young people should be having.'
Anal sex: consensual or coerced?
I spoke to a few younger people about their experiences with anal sex. How was it for them? And did they agree with the government that putting young people off anal would be a good idea? Cathy, 21, explains that the dynamic in her relationship meant it wasn't enjoyable for her: “I have had anal sex, once, when I was 19, with a 26 year old guy that I was having casual sex with. We had decided to go through our respective "sex bucket lists" and do the things we both wanted to do. I didn't really enjoy it, and afterwards he said that it was good, but not as amazing as he thought it was going to be - having watched anal sex in porn before. Looking back it wasn't an equal relationship in terms of respect etc. and so I think I did agree to doing it then, whereas, if I was in the same situation now, I wouldn't.'
O, also 21, had similarly bad experiences with anal sex in the beginning, however she feels differently about it in her current relationship: 'Any experiences of it prior to now were done because I felt I had to, because I felt guilted and begged into doing it and with little thought for my own comfort and happiness. Now in a great relationship, anal sex is on the table in a totally different way - a new experience for both of us that satisfies our own kinks. It's incredible how the one right person can change something I used to feel extremely uncomfortable dealing with, who listens to me and respects me as much as he does.'
Kat, 21, enjoys anal sex, and doesn't feel like she's doing it under pressure: 'I have had one partner who I have been sexually active with and I asked to try it with them about three months into our relationship. It's something that I am really into and ideally would have it about once a month; however, my partner isn't as interested which means it's more of a once every 6-months thing.'
There is clearly a problem with young people feeling coerced into sex acts they don't enjoy – and as the original study found, anal sex is clearly one of these things. But asking whether young people are having 'too much anal'doesn't feel like the right question. After all, if it's unwanted sex, even one time is too many. Perhaps instead we need to ask: are young people having unwanted sex? And is this the fault of porn?
Sammi is a 20 year old sex blogger from the US, where sex education is equally patchy. I asked about the impact of porn on sexual attitudes. 'The lack of education about porn and sex in general often leaves young people with porn as the only resource for “sex-ed” that they are aware of. The true harmful affects of porn lie in its subliminal messages of what sex and bodies are “supposed” to look like. In reality, porn is to sex as movies are to real life. Porn creates skewed views of sexuality in general, and can’t be simplified/reduced to individual sex acts.'
Cathy thinks that porn may have an influence on the way her and her peers view certain types of sex. 'I think in some ways I would have felt less pressure to conform to what I thought was 'normal' sexually at the beginning, but overall I think that my sex life would be worse off if I had not had access to porn.' O said that the problem wasn't necessarily porn itself, but the fact that it's porn alone which seems to have answers: 'Restricting access to porn may be a good idea, but what are you going to do for the young people instead? They'll still be looking for answers and if their parents are anything like mine were, they're sure not going to ask them about it either.'
This reflects what Cicely Marston and co-author Ruth Lewis found in their original research. Although many young people cited porn as a reason for trying anal sex, there were many other factors at work: '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.'
DCMS wants to justify implementing stricter controls on porn, so it's perhaps inevitable that they'd focus on the people who say that porn encouraged them to try certain things. But making it harder for young people to see anal sex on screen won't address the core issue – that some are being coerced into sex that they don't really want to have.
Unwanted sex – what's the solution?
Unanimously, the young people I spoke to suggested that more comprehensive sex education would be of huge benefit. I'll sound like a broken record, because 'comprehensive sex education' is almost always the rallying cry at the end of articles like this. Sex educator Justin Hancock agrees – he's recently been working on a collaboration called DoSREForSchools, in which sex educators support teachers in delivering excellent sex and relationships education.
'The whole programme at dosreforschools.com is about not just telling young people: “don't have anal sex.” It starts about self: what makes us feel good about ourselves, what makes us feel bad (in society, school, people around us and us); then it's about expectations placed on us related to gender and sexual identity (incorporating why guys are called studs and women sluts); healthy relationships and what that means; consent and pleasure and communication; and then a safer sex section which is all about the many different kinds of acts that count as sex.'
Overall, the message I got from everyone interviewed was that sex education is the answer. Not a magic bullet, of course, but an important step towards making sure that young people feel comfortable exploring their sexuality and reducing unwanted sex of any kind – not just anal sex. Young people might be having more anal sex, and they're certainly watching more porn than their parents' generation, but they're also media-savvy and far more intelligent than the government seems to give them credit for. It's worth pointing out that although the DCMS is very keen to tell young people not to have anal sex, this year the government has refused calls for statutory sex education in schools, which means that whether young people get decent grounding in consent and pleasure is a matter of sheer dumb luck.
Instead of trying to hide certain sex practices from young people, perhaps they should listen to what young people want: 'I'd far rather the government increased sex education in schools, focusing on the mental impacts of porn and sex, along with things like consent and how to talk about the sex more maturely. Porn has its place and has done through human history so addressing that would be far better than ignoring it.'
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