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Reality Check: Anal Sex

First it was shocking, then it was having a cultural moment, now it’s practically standard in the modern bedroom repertoire—or so a quick scan of any media, from porn to HBO, will tell you. But the reality about anal is not, actually, that everyone’s doing it, says research psychoanalyst and author Paul Joannides, Psy.D., whose comprehensive book on sexuality, The Guide to Getting it On!, is used in college and medical school sex-ed courses across the US and Canada. The book is amazing not just for its straight-up factual information on practically any aspect of sex you can think of, but also for its easy, nonjudgmental, at-times humorous tone.

The CDC reports that the number of heterosexual men and women who’ve tried it vacillates between 30 and 40 percent (oddly, the CDC doesn’t report on how many homosexual men have tried it, except in a statistic that weirdly combines it with oral). If anal turns you on, you are definitely not alone, but its prevalence doesn’t change the fact that it’s the riskiest sexual behavior in terms of HIV and other STDs. Here, Joannides talks us through the realities of making anal both as safe and as pleasurable as possible.

A Q&A with Paul Joannides, Psy.D.

Q

When did heterosexual anal start to become a thing?

A

In the 80’s, I remember hearing from a friend that he had a videotape of anal porn. This seemed shocking at the time. (This was pre-Netflix: Everything was on videotape, from porn to Disney movies to highlights from the Olympics. Video rental stores were everywhere.) I’m not sure there are too many middle schoolers today who would be shocked or even surprised to watch anal sex on Pornhub or Xhamster.

Since porn became as easy to access as YouTube, porn producers have had to fight for clicks, and so porn has become more extreme. I’d say that by 2005, porn had totally blurred the distinction between a woman’s anus and vagina. This wasn’t because women were begging their lovers for anal, it’s because porn producers were afraid you’d click on someone else’s porn if they weren’t upping the ante in terms of shock value.

Q

Does the popularity of anal in porn reflect reality in both homosexual and heterosexual couples?

A

No. There are some couples who enjoy anal sex a lot, maybe 10 percent to 15 percent of all straight couples. But if you ask them how often they have anal vs. vaginal intercourse, they’ll say maybe they have anal one time for every five or ten times they have vaginal intercourse. We occasionally, as in once a year, hear from women who say they have anal as often as vaginal, but that’s unusual.

As for gay men, statistics vary widely, and studies aren’t always consistent in how they collect data—some might be looking at different levels of frequency, i.e. have you had anal once in the past year, or do you have it regularly? I’ve seen studies suggesting that 65 percent of men have anal sex, and others that suggest the figure is less than 50 percent. So, I don’t have exact figures for hetero or homosexual couples, but there is data suggesting that a good percentage of gay men would rather give and receive blowjobs than have anal sex.

Q

How should we modify the anal sex we see modeled in porn to best suit an in-real-life couple?

A

The way the rectum curves shortly after the opening tells us we need to make a lot of adjustments for anal to feel good. Also, the two sets of sphincter muscles that nature placed around the opening of the anus to help humans maintain their dignity when in crowded spaces (to keep poop from dropping out) mean there’s an automatic reflex if you push against them from the outside.

So one of the first things a woman or man needs to do if they want to be on the receiving end of anal sex is to teach their sphincter muscles to relax enough that a penis can get past their gates. This takes a lot of practice.

Also, unlike the vagina, the anus provides no lubrication. So in addition to teaching the sphincters to relax, and in addition to getting the angle right so you don’t poke the receiver in the wall of the rectum, you need to use lots of lube.

They show none of this in porn. Nor do they show communication, feedback, or trust. Couples who do not have excellent sexual communication, who don’t freely give and receive feedback about what feels good and what doesn’t, and who don’t have a high level of trust should not be having anal sex.

Q

What are the health risks of anal?

A

A woman has a 17-times-greater risk of getting HIV and AIDS from receiving anal intercourse than from having vaginal intercourse. So your partner needs to be wearing a condom and using lots of lube, unless both of you are true-blue monogamous, with no sexual diseases. Any sexually transmitted infection can be transmitted and received in the anus. Because of the amount of trauma the anus and rectum receive during anal intercourse, the likelihood of getting a sexually transmitted infection is higher than with vaginal intercourse.

Unprotected anal sex, regardless of whether it is practiced by straight or gay couples, is considered the riskiest activity for sexually transmitted diseases because of the physical design of the anus: It is narrow, it does not self-lubricate, and the skin is more fragile and likely to tear, allowing STDs such as HIV and hepatitis easy passage into the bloodstream.

Q

Are those risks all mitigated by the use of condoms and lube, or are there still issues, even beyond that?

A

The risks are substantially reduced by the use of condoms and lube as long as they are used correctly, but you won’t find too many condoms that say “safe for anal sex” because the FDA has not cleared condoms for use in anal sex. That said, research indicates that regular condoms hold up as well as thicker condoms for anal sex, so there’s nothing to be gained from getting heavy-duty condoms.

As for using the female condom for anal sex—studies report more slippage and more pain than with regular condoms.

Do not use numbing lube, and do not have anal sex while drunk or stoned. Pain is an important indicator that damage can occur if you don’t make the necessary adjustments, including stopping. If there is pain, perhaps try replacing a penis with a well lubed and gloved finger. The glove will help your finger glide more easily, and might be more pleasurable for the person on the receiving end. Also, this allows a woman to do anal play on a male partner. (When it comes to anal sex, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.)

Q

Are there known health consequences of anal practiced over the long-term? Can you do it too much?

A

One of the urology consultants for my book believes that unprotected anal sex can be a way for bacteria to get into the man’s prostate gland. He prefers the person with the penis that’s going into the other person’s butt use a condom.

Also, small chunks of fecal matter can lodge into the man’s urethra. So if the couple has vaginal intercourse following anal intercourse without a condom, the male partner should pee first in addition to washing his penis with soap and water.

Q

Do pre-anal enemas make a difference in terms of health safety? What about preventing accidents?

A

I know of no studies on the relationship between pre-anal enemas and health outcomes. As for its general wisdom, people seem as divided on that as on politics in Washington. So I would say, to each her own. Also, some people use a “short shot,” which is a quick enema with one of those bulb devices instead of using a bag and going the full nine yards. In any case, accidents are likely to happen at one time or another.

Q

What tests should people be getting if they practice anal?

A

There’s “should” and there’s reality. If I were on the receiving end of anal sex, I would want to be sure my partner did not have HIV before I’d even let him get close to my bum with his penis.

Q

Probably more people try anal today than in the past—are there ways to make a first experience a good one?

A

Both of you should read all you can about it first. Spend a few weeks helping the receiving partner train her/his anal sphincters to relax. Make sure you and your partner have great sexual communication, trust, and that you both want to do it, as opposed to one trying to pressure the other, or not wanting to do it but doing it because you are afraid your partner will find someone else who will. Do not do it drunk or stoned, and do not use lube that numbs your anus. If it doesn’t feel good when it’s happening, stop.

Q

Do people orgasm from anal stimulation? Is it common or uncommon?

A

Some women say they have amazing orgasms from anal, but usually they will be stimulating their clitoris at the same time.

Q

Does it usually take a few tries to enjoy anal? Are there positions that make it easiest?

A

It depends on how much you are willing to work on training the receptive partner’s anal sphincters to relax, how good your communication is, how much trust there is, and probably on the width or girth of the dude’s penis. Common sense would tell you it should go way better if a guy is normal-sized as opposed to porn-sized.

Q

What should we be telling our kids about anal?

A

We don’t tell them about the clitoris, about women’s orgasms, about masturbation, about the importance of exploring a partner’s body, and learning from each other. We don’t tell them that much of what they see in porn is unreal, and we don’t talk to them about the importance of mutual consent. So I don’t see anal being at the top of most parents’ “should talk to our kids about” lists. There are more important things we need to be talking about first.

Paul Joannides, Psy.D. is a psychoanalyst, researcher, and author of the acclaimed Guide to Getting it On!, which is now in its ninth edition and is used in college courses across the country. He’s also written for Psychology Today Magazine and authors his own sex-focused blog, Guide2Getting.com. Dr. Joannides has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Sexual Medicine and the American Journal of Sexuality Education, and was granted the Professional Standard of Excellence Award from The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Joannides also lectures widely about sex and sexuality on college campuses.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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