Anal Play Isn’t An Insult
It’s the oldest political trick in the world: Accuse someone of something so unspeakable that they’ll be forced to publicly respond it, thus ensuring they will be forever associated with whatever heinous act you’re alleging. It doesn’t have be factual, as long as it sticks.
As goes a widely told (and likely embellished) story from Hunter S. Thompson, former president Lyndon B. Johnson—when running for a Texas Senate seat in 1948—suggested that his campaign accuse his pig-farming Republican rival of “having routine carnal knowledge of his sows.” Johnson’s campaign manager argued that they couldn’t do that—because it simply wasn’t true. LBJ allegedly shot back: “Of course it’s not! But let’s make the bastard deny it!”
Last week, Amber Rose took a page out of the Johnson playbook. On Friday, the model, actress, and frequent Instagrammer jumped into a Twitter feud between rappers Wiz Khalifa and Kanye West (about the title of Kanye’s new album, of course) by publicly alleging that West, her ex-boyfriend, enjoys a little backdoor action. “Are u mad I’m not around to play in ur asshole anymore? #FingersInTheBootyAssBitch,” Rose tweeted.
Kanye took the bait—denying that he’d ever had sexual relations with that woman (in the butt, at least). “Exes can be mad but just know I never let them play with my ass,” West replied. “I don’t do that… I stay away from that area all together.”
What’s so scandalous about a straight man liking ass play that he would be forced to issue a statement on the subject to his 18 million followers? While more men than ever before are embracing the anus, publicly acknowledging it remains taboo—shrouded in homophobia and stigma about what it means to be the receptive partner. This analphobia isn’t merely an issue for straight men who enjoy the casual wandering finger but queer men who unconsciously learn to associate anal sex with shame.
Our fears about who is on bottom and what it means are as old as sex itself. While societies like the Greeks were more permissive in some ways in regards to anal intercourse, that was only true for the partner “on top.” To be in a passive role during sex was considered “feminine” and, therefore, reprehensible. As women were in a subordinate position in Greek society—often confined to the household—the receptive partner was conferred to a lower social status.
When it comes to gay men, this historical stigma is known as “bottom shame”—a phenomenon that reared its ugly head during the first season of HBO’s recently cancelled gay dramedy Looking. After Richie and Patrick have sex for the first time, Patrick expresses apprehension after Richie expresses a desire to be the one who penetrates him. “You think you’d be embarrassed if your parents thought you were a bottom?” Richie asks. “No!” Patrick responds. “Okay… maybe a little bit.”
As in its Greek context, the shame around bottoming is its association with the “female” position, but the same is true for anal pleasure, in general. While heterosexual anal intercourse has been prevalent in erotic art since the practice made its way into Peruvian pottery in the 4th century CE, it’s only been acknowledged as a thing that heterosexuals do, too, in the past few decades. And as New York magazine’s Maureen O’Connor matter-of-factly wrote in 2014, “butt stuff is such a thing.”
Back in 1994, the University of Chicago launched a landmark study on sexual behavior four decades after Alfred P. Kinsey first peered into Americans’ bedrooms. The “Sex in America” survey found that within the past 12 months, nine percent of female respondents and 10 percent of men reported engaging in anal sex. Given that gay men—the group most associated with sodomy—comprise roughly 5 percent of the male population, those numbers couldn’t be explained away by queerness alone.
Twenty years later, exploring “butt stuff” is more prevalent among heterosexuals than ever. A 2010 report from the Journal of Sex Research showed that a slim majority of males—at 51 percent—had participated “in oral-anal sex, manual-anal sex, or anal sex toy use” in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, that study didn’t specify whether men were on the giving or receiving end, but another survey from 2015 sheds light on that particular subject. The sex toy manufacturer LELO found that nearly three-quarters of partnered straight men would be into have their significant other massage their prostate.
For those unfamiliar, prostate massage occurs when a partner inserts a finger into your anus, in order to locate the tiny, walnut-sized gland sandwiched between your bladder and penis—one reachable through the rectum. Often known as the “P-spot,” the Telegraph’s Mark Simpson says that hitting the prostate just right can stimulate the most “mind-blowing, leg-shaking, eye-rolling, neighbor-panicking pleasure.” Clearly a lot of men are more than open to experiencing it.
In addition to prostate massage and sodomy, practices like pegging have become a part of the vernacular since sex writer Dan Savage first coined the term—via a poll of his readership—in a 2001 Savage Love column. In pegging, the female partner assumes the “dominant” position by using a strap-on or similar device to enter her male partner. You might recall it being prominently featured in an episode of Broad City last year, in which Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) is asked to top her boy-next-door-crush with a dildo.
Savage writes that it’s a topic he’s very, very frequently asked about by his male readers. “I’ve dedicated my life to reassuring panicky straight boys that a little anal stimulation won’t make ‘em gay,” Savage said. “My oft-stated position: If a guy and a girl are doing it during sex—whatever it is, whatever it looks like—it’s straight sex.”
If guys clearly really, really like butt play—so much so that Esquire discovered in 2012 survey that nearly 1 in 6 men complained it was the thing they weren’t getting enough of in bed—it appears our own analphobia is continuing to keep us from getting the great, mind-blowing sex we want. In a 2013 essay for the Huffington Post, Renato Barucco writes that “nerve endings don’t really have a gender identity or a sexual orientation,” but we also need to challenge why those associations bother us. Why isn’t it OK to engage in the same sex practices as gay men and women?
According to sex writer Charlie Glickman, all men—but particularly heterosexual ones—can learn something from letting go of this sex-role rigidity. “Men who get into anal penetration are among the most secure in their masculinity: because they’ve examined themselves, faced their fears,” Glickman writes in the 2013 book, The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure. In a separate column, he even posited that getting pegged can “help save the world.”
That sounds like hyperbole, but Glickman has a point. Embracing the act of being a “bend-over boyfriend” (to quote Tristan Taormino’s popular X-rated porn series) can lead to a more enlightened view of sexuality, both when it comes to ourselves and others. In particular, learning to view anal pleasure positively could further a culture that no longer treats queer desire as morally objectionable.
Despite the fact that a 2003 Supreme Court ruling deemed them unconstitutional, laws prohibiting sodomy remain on the books in 12 states, including Alabama, Kansas, and Louisiana. Thirteen years later, queer people face a disproportionately high rate of violence across the United States. When it comes to gay men, the American Psychological Association suggests that these attacks—commonly referred to as hate crimes—are motivated by both sexuality and gender roles.
“These assailants view themselves as social norm enforcers who are punishing moral transgressions,” the APA writes. “They object not so much to homosexuality itself but to visible challenges to gender norms, such as male effeminacy or public flaunting of sexual deviance.” If the APA explains that effeminate men are the ones targeted for violence, it’s because being “the woman” is still seen as being a punishable act.
Straight and gay men have little to fear from exploring all kinds of sexual pleasure—all the way from the anus to the mouth. Straight men won’t become gay from getting pegged. Gays won’t become women after bottoming. And if enough of us start being honest about what we like and how we like it, maybe we’ll finally stop viewing anal play as either a moral affront or an insult.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-sellingBOYS anthology series.