Anal sex is no longer quite the salacious taboo it once was.
Not only has society steadily become more accepting of sexual relationships between men, but more heterosexual people are trying it and trying it more often than ever before. Recent surveys estimate that 40 percent of women between the ages of 20 to 24 have tried anal sex, and 20 percent of all women have tried it in the last year.
Our greater societal acceptance aside, you may have heard that anal sex can have some dangerous effects on our health, particularly as a leading cause of anal cancer. So let’s take a brief look at some basic facts and myths about anal sex and its connection to cancer.
The myths and facts behind the connection between anal sex and anal cancer.
1. It Can Cause Anal Cancer
The long and short of it is that yes, anal sex is a risk factor for anal cancer.
Anal sex can transmit the human papillomavirus (HPV), and HPV in turn leaves the cells around our rectum more vulnerable to mutating and becoming cancerous. A similar risk exists wherever HPV rears its ugly microscopic head, including the mouth, throat, and cervix. And because anal sex is generally more damaging to the inner lining of the rectrum than the stereotypical notion of heterosexual sex is to the vagina, HPV and other sexually transmitted infections are more easily spread between people who engage in anal sex. Similarly, the greater number of sexual partners, the greater the risk of cancer.
2. But It’s Rare
Close to 90 percent of anal cancer cases can be traced back to HPV. But the cancer itself is relatively rare.
According to The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, only 8,000 people will be newly diagnosed with anal cancer this year. And though cases have been slowly increasing in recent decades, only one of every 500 people will develop anal cancer in their lifetime, generally between the ages of 55 to 64 — a stark contrast to the one in every 22 people who will develop colorectal cancer.
3. And Preventable
Like other forms of cancer fueled by HPV, the available HPV vaccine can likely cut down the risk of developing anal cancer in both men and women.
While HPV vaccination rates still aren’t anywhere near as high as we’d like them to be, there is already evidence that the vaccine has lowered the risk of later cervical cancer in teen girls. And though we don’t have any concrete evidence that the same decline has occurred for anal cancer just yet, there is some showing the vaccine reduced the risk of cells in the anus becoming precancerous in young men who have sex with men.
Both teen boys and girls are now regularly encouraged to get the HPV vaccine, but when it comes to anal cancer, it may benefit women more — two-thirds of new cases are diagnosed in women.
On 18 May 2011 , the prolific dominatrix-turned-pornstar Asa Akira sent her Twitter followers one brief, but provocative message: “Ass is the new pussy.”
Although Akira was not the first to utter this smutty axiom, the tagline has been pegged to her name. That may have made it easy for many to dismiss the concept as nothing more than a shocking, perhaps self-promotional assertion by a savvy performer sometimes known as porn’s ” Ass Queen .” But the starlet wasn’t just blowing smoke out of her buttocks. She was channeling a growing and convincing body of data on the inexorable rise of heterosexual anal play in America.
We can actually track the rise of heterosexual anal sex over the past quarter century thanks to your tax dollars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a series of studies in which they asked huge groups of people the same nosey questions about their sex lives— including whether men had ever put their penises “in a female’s rectum or butt” and if women had experienced a man putting his penis in their rectums (or butts) . In 1992, 20 percent of women and 26 percent of men aged 18 to 59 had reached fifth base with an opposite sex partner at least once. In 2005, the figure was 35 percent of women and 40 percent of men aged 25 to 44. In 2011, it was 39 percent of women and 44 percent of men aged 15 to 44. In some smaller age subgroups, the prevalence of anal experimentation was even more common.
The CDC didn’t ask whether people had heterosexual anal sex on the reg (probably because it’s hard to measure what “the reg” means), experimented with other forms of anal play, or tried male-recipient butt stuff. The best numbers we get regarding frequency are studies that look at what proportion of people had heterosexual anal sex in the last year, or the last time they had sex, which is a weak proxy at best. But it give us a sense that recurrent hetero butt sex is on the rise as well as one-off experiments.
A 2010 study also suggests that experimentation with wider forms of anal play may be even more common than experimentation with anal sex amongst heterosexual couplings. Among its subjects, 43 percent of women and 51 percent of men surveyed in heterosexual couples copped to testing out anilingus, anal fingering, or anal toy play at least once. A 2008 study suggests that at least some self-identified heterosexual men are receiving anal pleasure as well (mostly fingering, some anilingus). We have no good data to compare that to in terms of trends. But given the taboos against men receiving anal play, any male-receiver experimentation seems, anecdotally at least, like a pretty big sign of the times.
Yet for all that we’ve collectively bickered, raved, and railed about this widely acknowledged trend, almost no one’s investigated what America’s changing anal inclinations have meant for the sex market— namely brothel owners, pornographers, and toy manufacturers . To find out, I reached out to a few makers and shakers in the sex industry to get a quick look at how America’s smut mongers have responded to the rise of hetero anal sex.
Art by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger
PORN IN THE HETERO ANAL-ERA
According to Pornhub, the king of dirty search data, the heterosexual anal revolution correlates with exactly the trends you’d imagine. Anal-relatedporn searches still represent less than 10 percent of all queries on their site. However, anal is a more common term among straight content searches than gay ones and its pervasiveness in hetero searches is rising rapidly. Pornhub crunched the numbers for VICE and found that between 2009 and 2015 , anal-related searches increased by 120 percent in America. That’s significantly higher than the 78 percent increase in anal-related searches globally. The increase was steeper among male than female users, but anal-related tags were still the 18th most searched most searched terms among the site’s female clientele.
(As a side note, Pornhub’s investigation found that users aged 18 to 24 are actually 33 percent less likely to look for anal content than users aged 35 to 44, which is unexpected given how often we talk about hetero-anal as a young person’s game. But that 18 to 24-year-old demographic is 290 percent more likely to search for My Little Pony porn than any other age bracket, which is certainly its own can of worms.)
Image by Paul Avril
Yet, despite this clear demand spike, and the excitement a first-time anal scene can generate for a female performer, anal-focused heterosexual videos make up a small portion of the market. A Pornhub investigation last year revealed that just 7 percent of their straight content has an “anal” tag on it. And it doesn’t seem like porn studios are making any notable move to increase the volume of anal-focused content they create.
“I don’t think the overall production has gone up,” says Holly Kingstown, the editor of Fleshbot and a fixture of the adult industry since 1999 who’s held every job possible save actress. “In your talent pool, there are still [only] a certain number of girls who will do [anal]. And how many of that scene can you do with that girl?”
“There are performers who are willing to do it,” possibly due to industry pressures and consumer demand. “But in terms of the quality, when you’re talking about DVD sales…” she adds, before pausing briefly. “You can get a crappy internet scene or two out of a girl, but if she’s not really good at it, you’re not going to get that too many times. And when you’re talking about a girl who does it just to get a scene, it’s usually not going to be a girl who loves it or does it very well. So she’s not going to get that much work.”
Kingstown does believe that there’s more consumption of the anal-focused content that already exists. But the absolute number of anal-focused titles available for consumers is fairly static.
What has changed, says Kingstown, is the tone and packaging of the anal porn that gets made. Towards the early 2000s, when Kingstown was still working at Buttman Magazine, she and a her colleagues realized that more couples, versus angry men looking for painal (grimacing girls , visibly suffering and un-lubed ass-ramming), were exploring their content. Adjusting to this mass market, pornographers shifted to portraying anal as pleasurable and normal versus painful and sick, which had apparently been the norm for the bulk of anal porn content up to that point.
“You still see the stuff where you’ll see a woman called an ‘anal whore.’ But you also see the tone overall to be a bit more… I want to say woman-positive,” says Kingstown. “For example, I’m looking at my desk and I’ve got James Deen Loves Butt here. This isn’t James Deen Loves Sodomizing Little Girls and Making Them Cry . That title would sell too, but to a whole different audience. There’s Anal Warriors, where women are shown as strong and powerful and in control of the sex that they’re having. There’s a whole ton of these kinds of movies where the women who enjoy anal are shown as strong and powerful.”
But even if movies today portray anal sex as pleasurable, they still don’t paint it realistically. They don’t focus on the time and preparation most (s)experts agree good anal requires . They often show a ramrod, angled experience that wouldn’t be pleasant for more than a few women in the world. Of course, a lack of realistic sexuality is a chronic problem in all niches of fantasy-driven porn.
We’re seeing a lot more prolapses. We’re seeing double anal. It used to be five anal scenes, done, not four anal scenes and a double penetration. They can go further, so they do. –Holly Kingstown
This pleasurable-looking anal, says Kingston, is now treated like a run-of-the-mill aspect of porn rather than a specialty act. Whereas in the past, you might stuff all your anal content into one niche film, nowadays directors think nothing of nonchalantly inserting an anal scene into a larger project. The overall amount of anal content remains the same—it’s just not as clustered into niche markets and individual movies. Yet, as anal becomes a normal part of heterosexual porn for a wider audience, a small audience craving painful or extreme porn, for whom anal is now too passé and mainstream, has started demanding more physically taxing and (Kingston believes) potentially dangerous ass play acrobatics from the limited actress pool.
“You see a lot more circus stuff than you used to,” says Kingstown. “We’re seeing a lot more prolapses. We’re seeing double anal. It used to be five anal scenes, done, not four anal scenes and a double penetration. They can go further, so they do. And physically, there’s only so far that you can go with your body [as a performer].”
SEX TOYS IN THE HETERO-ANAL ERA
“Anal sex has always been a frequent topic of conversation with our [mostly heterosexual] customers,” Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Babeland, told VICE when we asked for data on anal-related sex toy sales. The Seattle-based outfit with three outlets in New York is often hailed as one of the most accessible and acclaimed sex toy shops in America—a profile that lends it a large consumer base. “The ‘How to Have Butt Sex’ content on Babeland.com is the number one viewed piece of our [editorial] content. It has almost double the number of eyes on it as the ‘How to Give a Blow Job’ article, which is the second most viewed [item]. We don’t have data before 2009, but it’s always been number one.”
A Babeland survey of 18,412 customer respondents in 2009 (not a reliable sample, due to self-reporting issues, but still one of the better pieces of data you can find on this subject matter) also found that, 60.5 percent of men and 40.1 percent of women had tried using a butt plug, 56.8 percent of men and 31.7 percent of women had tried using an anal dildo, 51.8 percent of men and 29.2 percent of women had tried using an anal vibrator, and 37.4 percent of men and 27.8 percent of women had tried using anal beads.
Yet even with a high baseline of anal interest, Babeland has seen an increase in anal-related sales. Between 2012 and 2015, the genre averaged about 5 percent growth per year. As of 2015, Cavenah estimates that such toys, specifically made with anal in mind, make up about 16 percent of Babeland’s sales.
What’s more significant to Cavenah and company, they say, is how they’ve witnessed the tone and level of openness their customers use when talking to them about purchases and proclivities evolve. The hushed voices and seedy aura customers once took into transactions has faded away. And as people get more open, comfortable, and explicit with their anal sex toy needs, toy makers have responded to their feedback with a deluge of new, specifically anal-targeted sex toys , including smaller models marketed towards anal beginners. Babeland’s also noticed more luxury anal sex toys coming onto the market—products made of metal or glass, substances with higher price points—which suggests the emergence of a fair number of swankier, less bashful customers.
“We’ve definitely seen a shift in more interesting, innovative, and high-qualitybutt toys from some of the leading sex toy companies,” says Cavenah. “Je Joue debuted a remote-controlled vibrating prostate stimulator this spring. Anal toys come with vibrators, apps, and magnetic resistance that creates a pulsating sensation. There are also lubricants, such as Sliquid [Naturals] Sassy , that are marketed specifically for anal use.”
Not too long ago, I took my first step into the world of kink. I was a baby gay coming to terms with my borderline personality disorder (BDP) diagnosis, looking for any and every label that could help alleviate the lack of self-identity that comprises my BPD.
I knew I was queer. I knew I identified as femme. But I didn’t know if I was a dominant (top), a submissive (bottom), or a pillow princess; I didn’t even know if I was kinky.
So I tried to find out.
I began to notice a pattern. The sheer rush of euphoria and affection created a high I felt each time I “topped” my partner, and it would sharply drop the minute I got home. I was drained of energy and in a foul mood for days, often skipping work or class. I felt stuck on something because I wanted to feel that intensely blissful sex all over again, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it back.
If you’re familiar with the after-effects of taking MDMA—the crash, the lack of endorphins, the dip in mood for up to a week later—then you’ve got a pretty good idea of how a “drop” felt for me. Just add in an unhealthy serving of guilt and self-doubt, a pinch of worthlessness and a dash of contempt for both myself and my partner, and voila! Top drop: the less talked about counterpart to sub drop where the dominant feels a sense of hopelessness following BDSM—bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism—if after care is neglected.
In the BDSM community, it’s common to talk about the submissive (sub) experience: To communicate the expectations and needs of the submissive partner before engaging in consensual kinky play, to make sure the safety of the sub during intense physical and/or psychological activities is tantamount, to tend and care for the sub after the scene ends and they’re brought back down to earth.
Outside of this, the rush of sadness and anxiety that hits after sex is known as post-coital tristesse, or post-coital dysphoria (PCD). It is potentially linked to the fact that during sex, the amygdala—a part of the brain that processes fearful thoughts—decreases in activity. Researchers have theorized that the rebound of the amygdala after sex is what triggers fear and depression.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 46 per cent of the 230 female participants reported experiencing PCD at least once after sex.
Aftercare is crucial and varies for subs, depending on their needs. Some subs appreciate being held or cuddled gently after a scene. Others need to hydrate, need their own space away from their partner or a detailed analysis of everything that happened for future knowledge. But no matter what the specific aftercare is, the goal is still the same: for a top to accommodate a sub and guide them out of “subspace”—a state of mind experienced by a submissive in a BDSM scenario—as directly as they were guided in.
I asked one of my exes, who’s identified as a straight-edge sub for several years, what subspace is like. As someone who doesn’t drink or do drugs, I was curious about what it was like for them to reach that same ephemeral zone of pleasure.
“It gets me to forget pain or worries, it gets me to focus only on what I’m feeling right then,” they told me. “It’s better than drugs.”
My ex gave up all substances in favour of getting fucked by kink, instead. I’m a little impressed by how powerful the bottom high must be for them.
“The high for bottoms is from letting go of all control,” they added. If we’re following that logic, then the top high is all about taking control.
We ended the call on a mildly uncomfortable note, both trying not to remember the dynamics of control that ended our relationship.Those dynamics were created, in part, by my BPD, and, as I would later discover, top drop.
In the days to follow, I avoided thinking about what being a top had felt like for me and scheduled a lunch date with another friend to hear his perspective.
“Being a dom gives you the freedom to act on repressed desires,” he told me over a plate of chili cheese fries. This is what his ex said to cajole him into being a top—the implied “whatever you want” dangled in front of a young gay man still figuring himself out.
He was new to kink, new to identifying and acting on his desires, and most of all, new to the expectations that were placed on him by his partner. He was expected to be a tough, macho top to his ex’s tender, needy bottom. His after-care, however, didn’t fit into that fantasy. If that had been different, maybe he wouldn’t have spiraled into a place where his mental health was deteriorating, along with his relationship.
The doubt and guilt that he would often feel for days after a kinky session mirrored my own. We both struggled with the idea that the things our partners wanted us to do to them—the things that we enjoyed doing to them—were fucked up. It was hard to reconcile the good people that we thought we were, the ones who follow societal expectations and have a moral compass and know right from wrong, with the people who are capable of hurting other people, and enjoying it.
For my friend, there was always a creeping fear at the back of his mind that the violence or cruelty he was letting loose during sex could rear up in his normal life, outside of a scene.
For me, there was a deep instinct to disengage, to distance myself emotionally from my partner, because I thought that if I didn’t care about them as much, then maybe I wouldn’t hate them for egging me on to do things I was scared of.
My friend has since recognized how unhealthy his relationship with his ex was. These days, he identifies as a switch (someone who alternates between dominant and submissive roles). The deep-seated sense of feeling silenced that was so prevalent in his first kinky relationship, is nowhere to be seen. He communicates his sexual needs and desires and any accompanying emotional fragility with his current partner. He’s happy.
I’m a little envious of him. My second-favourite hobby is rambling about all of the things I’m feeling, and it’s a close second to my favourite, which is crying. I credit my Cancer sun sign for my ability to embrace my insecurities, but there’s still something that makes me feel like I’m not equipped to deal with top drop.
There’s an interesting contrast between how a top is expected to behave—strong, tough, in control—and the realities of the human experience. When a top revels in the high of taking control, but starts to feel some of that control fading afterwards, how do they pinpoint the cause? How do they talk about that insecurity? How do they develop aftercare for themselves?
One of the hallowed tenets of BDSM and kink is the necessity of good communication; to be able to recognize a desire, then comfortably communicate that to a partner. Healthy, consensual, safe kink is predicated on this.