Back in August 2017, All We Cannot Say guest and sex educator Gigi Engle penned an article for Teen Vogue. The topic? Anal sex.

Far removed from what we traditionally and wrongly believe is publishable fodder for teenage girls – dating, interviews with celebrities, fashion, etc – Engle’s unprecedented guide to anal sex had parents, the media, and other keyboard warriors up in arms.

Anal Sex: What You Need To Know inspired an onslaught of the internet’s most potent style of content – outrage op-eds. The indignant and offended took to their screens, creating YouTube videos claiming Engle was a fraud. Religious right-wing conservatives bemoaned ‘sodomy’ (yes, people still use this word) as an act of sin, and other concerned citizens worried that feminism might be taking a step backward.

Regardless of your personal reaction, preferences and thoughts on the piece, its publication in a mainstream magazine – let alone one aimed at teenage girls – signalled a drastic shift in our intimate lives, and society and culture overall.

The questions on our lips?

Is anal sex now mainstream? Has the stigma shifted? And where did the stigma come from?

It’s true: anal sex is growing in popularity and we need only look to the media to notice an increase in butt-centric think-pieces. Specifically: how to have it, how to enjoy it, and most targeted at women ready to explore their sexuality outside of family planning. Having already conquered casual sex, anal sex signifies a potential new spin on Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and The Single Girl: a liberated woman, ready to own her pleasure on a (w)hole other level.

Look at the headlines for proof.

Late in 2017, Cosmopolitan writer Anna Breslaw outlined her personal experience, coupling anecdotal tips with sound advice for safer sex.

The She Knows website decided to take the “we’ll publish it but don’t endorse it approach”, allowing an anonymous writer to explore the subject.

And in more concrete examples of proof, there are the studies that indicate a metaphorical and literal loosening of inhibitions. According to a 2011 report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 39 percent of women aged 20-24 had experimented with anal sex, and one-third of these women dabbled in the back door in the past month.

But in 1992, just 16 percent of women admitted to having entertained some kind of anal exploration.

That’s a significant increase from years before.

But how did we get to here, and where have we come from?

 

A very brief history of anal sex

Although there’s no overt mention of anal sex in the Christian Bible, sodomy (quite literally, the sin of Sodom), refers to an account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, where a large group of men sought to gang rape two angels who had taken the form of men. Without any concrete evidence, it’s popularly believed that the men of Sodom wanted to have forcible anal sex with the angels.

Before the invention of written text, one can look to erotic depictions from ancient civilisations. We know the usual fare – artefacts which come to us stripped of any context or archeological data, depicting gigantic penises and heterosexual intercourse. Although beliefs about conception had little scientific basis prior to the late 19th century, these artworks are usually representative of procreation. It’s only a happy coincidence that conception fits in so neatly with longstanding, often Christian, Western European beliefs. Even the Kama Sutra and Tantric texts are predominantly heteronormative.

It’s not different for the Moche of Peru, with one caveat: the most commonly depicted sexual act is anal sex, with most pairs being heterosexual. We might never know the historical connection between a functional pot and an explicit anal sex scene, but its seemingly unrelated presence is cause for a giggle, not the mention, thought. Perhaps the Moche too shared our sense of humour and curiosity for taboo acts.

A stunning ceramic art work becomes a joke at dinner time, or an indignant nephew gifts their aunt with a backhanded gift, sure to embarrass her for many a meal to come.

Or maybe its prevalence is symbolic of something much more – an understanding of nerve mappings and erogenous zones, and sex as much more than vaginal penetration.

Or, perhaps more likely, it represents a very limited understanding of insemination. Many other tribes, like the Sambian and New Guinea tribes, believed semen and breast milk must be shared via other orifices before intercourse, including the anus and the mouth, lest their magic powers not work once the great deed is done.

Anatomical ignorance or not, 500 anal-centric effigies don’t lie. The Moche truly had an appreciation for heterosexual anal sex.

But, evidently enough, that’s not where the stigma starts.

 

Anal Sex and LGBT Rights

Anal sex primarily has its stigma bound up with homophobic beliefs and Christianity. After all, it’s why words like sodomy and buggery still exist. Up until 2003, anal sex was illegal in up to 13 different states, a law which some claim aimed to target same-sex intercourse. Although unlikely that an individual would receive punishment, the over ruling of such laws means a lot on a macro level. The laws had been in place since the 16th Century, where in 1533, England enacted the first secular law criminalizing “the abominable vice of buggery”, making it punishable by hanging. The Buggery Act was part of King Henry VIII’s anticlerical campaign to discredit the Catholic church and seize its property. The English colonies in America adopted English law against sodomy or, as in case of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island colonies, simply cited Leviticus as the basis for establishing sodomy as a capital offence.

And therein lies the real question we should be asking: were laws against anal sex really intended to stamp out same-sex relationships?

Perhaps. Although same-sex relations are evident all throughout history, the term “homosexual” didn’t exist until 1869. Coined by Hungarian writer and journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny, he along with other activists argued that same-sex attraction was innate.

Many agreed with him, but rather than inspiring a “born with it” attitude, same-sex attraction became pathologised, posited as a hereditary degeneration requiring psychiatric care.

Essentially, a disease caused by some congenital malfunction.

 

Anal sex and stigma today

We’re headed into a more liberated era, and yet anal sex is still cause for pearl clutching and outrage. Along with rampant homophobia, there’s also the argument that anal sex is representative of unrealistic, masculine porn fantasies. As writer Hugo Schwyzer argued back in 2011,

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.

But to relegate anal sex to the same corner as performative sexiness does negate the facts that many, many women enjoy it. The exception to the rule? Maybe. There’s still very little data to back up anything.

And yet, anal seems like it’s here to stay within our search histories and now, our college campuses. We might not approve, but the sexual renaissance lives on.

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