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Casual Sex: Everyone Is Doing It

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Part research project, part society devoted to titillation, the Casual Sex Project reminds us that hookups aren’t just for college students.

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Zhana Vrangalova had hit a problem. On a blustery day in early spring, sitting in a small coffee shop near the campus of New York University, where she is an adjunct professor of psychology, she was unable to load onto her laptop the Web site that we had met to discuss. This was not a technical malfunction on her end; rather, the site had been blocked. Vrangalova, who is thirty-four, with a dynamic face framed by thick-rimmed glasses, has spent the past decade researching human sexuality, and, in particular, the kinds of sexual encounters that occur outside the norms of committed relationships. The Web site she started in 2014, casualsexproject.com, began as a small endeavor fuelled by personal referrals, but has since grown to approximately five thousand visitors a day, most of whom arrive at the site through organic Internet searches or referrals through articles and social media. To date, there have been some twenty-two hundred submissions, about evenly split between genders, each detailing the kinds of habits that, when spelled out, can occasionally alert Internet security filters. The Web site was designed to open up the discussion of one-night stands and other less-than-traditional sexual behaviors. What makes us engage in casual sex? Do we enjoy it? Does it benefit us in any way—or, perhaps, might it harm us? And who, exactly, is “us,” anyway?

Up to eighty per cent of college students report engaging in sexual acts outside committed relationships—a figure that is usually cast as the result of increasingly lax social mores, a proliferation of alcohol-fuelled parties, and a potentially violent frat culture. Critics see the high rates of casual sex as an “epidemic” of sorts that is taking over society as a whole. Hookup culture, we hear, is demeaning women and wreaking havoc on our ability to establish stable, fulfilling relationships.

These alarms have sounded before. Writing in 1957, the author Nora Johnson raised an eyebrow at promiscuity on college campuses, noting that “sleeping around is a risky business, emotionally, physically, and morally.” Since then, the critiques of casual sexual behavior have only proliferated, even as society has ostensibly become more socially liberal. Last year, the anthropologist Peter Wood went so far as to call the rise of casual sex “an assault on human nature,” arguing in an article in the conservative Weekly Standard that even the most meaningless-seeming sex comes with a problematic power imbalance.

Others have embraced the commonness of casual sex as a sign of social progress. In a widely read Atlantic article from 2012, “Boys on the Side,” Hanna Rosin urged women to avoid serious suitors so that they could focus on their own needs and careers. And yet, despite her apparent belief in the value of casual sex as a tool of exploration and feminist thinking, Rosin, too, seemed to conclude that casual sex cannot be a meaningful end goal. “Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women,” she wrote.

The Casual Sex Project was born of Vrangalova’s frustration with this and other prevalent narratives about casual sex. “One thing that was bothering me is the lack of diversity in discussions of casual sex,” Vrangalova told me in the café. “It’s always portrayed as something college students do. And it’s almost always seen in a negative light, as something that harms women.”

It was not the first time Vrangalova had wanted to broaden a limited conversation. As an undergraduate, in Macedonia, where she studied the psychology of sexuality, she was drawn to challenge cultural taboos, writing a senior thesis on the development of lesbian and gay sexual attitudes. In the late aughts, Vrangalova started her research on casual sex in Cornell’s developmental-psychology program. One study followed a group of six hundred and sixty-six freshmen over the course of a year, to see how engaging in various casual sexual activities affected markers of mental health: namely, depression, anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. Another looked at more than eight hundred undergraduates to see whether individuals who engaged in casual sex felt more victimized by others, or were more socially isolated. (The results: yes to the first, no to the second.) The studies were intriguing enough that Vrangalova was offered an appointment at N.Y.U., where she remains, to further explore some of the issues surrounding the effects of nontraditional sexual behaviors on the individuals who engage in them.

Over time, Vrangalova came to realize that there was a gap in her knowledge, and, indeed, in the field as a whole. Casual sex has been much explored in psychological literature, but most of the data captured by her research team—and most of the other experimental research she had encountered—had been taken from college students. (This is a common problem in psychological research: students are a convenient population for researchers.) There has been the occasional nationally representative survey, but rigorous data on other subsets of the population is sparse. Even the largest national study of sexual attitudes in the United States, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of close to six thousand men and women between the ages of fourteen and ninety-four, neglected to ask respondents how many of the encounters they engaged in could be deemed “casual.”

From its beginnings, sex research has been limited by a social stigma. The field’s pioneer, Alfred Kinsey, spent decades interviewing people about their sexual behaviors. His books sold, but he was widely criticized for not having an objective perspective: like Freud before him, he believed that repressed sexuality was at the root of much of social behavior, and he often came to judgments that supported that view—even when his conclusions were based on less-than-representative surveys. He, too, used convenient sample groups, such as prisoners, as well as volunteers, who were necessarily comfortable talking about their sexual practices.

In the fifties, William Masters and Virginia Johnson went further, inquiring openly into sexual habits and even observing people in the midst of sexual acts. Their data, too, was questioned: Could the sort of person who volunteers to have sex in a lab tell us anything about the average American? More troubling still, Masters and Johnson sought to “cure” homosexuality, revealing a bias that could easily have colored their findings.

Indeed, one of the things you quickly notice when looking for data on casual sex is that, for numbers on anyone who is not a college student, you must, for the most part, look at studies conducted outside academia. When OkCupid surveyed its user base, it found that between 10.3 and 15.5 per cent of users were looking for casual sex rather than a committed relationship. In the 2014 British Sex Survey, conducted by the Guardian, approximately half of all respondents reported that they had engaged in a one-night stand (fifty-five per cent of men, and forty-three per cent of women), with homosexuals (sixty-six per cent) more likely to do so than heterosexuals (forty-eight per cent). A fifth of people said they’d slept with someone whose name they didn’t know.

With the Casual Sex Project, Vrangalova is trying to build a user base of stories that she hopes will, one day, provide the raw data for academic study. For now, she is listening: letting people come to the site, answer questions, leave replies. Ritch Savin-Williams, who taught Vrangalova at Cornell, told me that he was especially impressed by Vrangalova’s willingness “to challenge traditional concepts and research designs with objective approaches that allow individuals to give honest, thoughtful responses.”

The result is what is perhaps the largest-ever repository of information about casual-sex habits in the world—not that it has many competitors. The people who share stories range from teens to retirees (Vrangalova’s oldest participants are in their seventies), and include city dwellers and suburbanites, graduate-level-educated professionals (about a quarter of the sample) and people who never finished high school (another quarter). The majority of participants aren’t particularly religious, although a little under a third do identify as at least “somewhat” religious. Most are white, though there are also blacks, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups. Initially, contributions were about sixty-per-cent female, but now they’re seventy-per-cent male. (This is in line with norms; men are “supposed” to brag more about sexual exploits than women.) Anyone can submit a story, along with personal details that reflect his or her demographics, emotions, personality traits, social attitudes, and behavioral patterns, such as alcohol intake. The setup for data collection is standardized, with drop-down menus and rating scales.

Still, the site is far from clinical. The home page is a colorful mosaic of squares, color-coded according to the category of sexual experience (blue: “one-night stand”; purple: “group sex”; gray: the mysterious-sounding “first of many”; and so on). Pull quotes are highlighted for each category (“Ladies if you haven’t had a hot, young Latino stud you should go get one!”). Many responses seem to boast, provoke, or exaggerate for rhetorical purposes. Reading it, I felt less a part of a research project than a member of a society devoted to titillation.

Vrangalova is the first to admit that the Casual Sex Project is not what you would call an objective, scientific approach to data collection. There is no random assignment, no controls, no experimental conditions; the data is not representative of the general population. The participants are self-selecting, which inevitably colors the results: if you’re taking the time to write, you are more likely to write about positive experiences. You are also more likely to have the sort of personality that comes with wanting to share details of your flings with the public. There is another problem with the Casual Sex Project that is endemic in much social-science research: absent external behavioral validation, how do we know that respondents are reporting the truth, rather than what they want us to hear or think we want them to say?

And yet, for all these flaws, the Casual Sex Project provides a fascinating window into the sexual habits of a particular swath of the population. It may not be enough to draw new conclusions, but it can lend nuance to assumptions, expanding, for instance, ideas about who engages in casual sex or how it makes them feel. As I browsed through the entries after my meeting with Vrangalova, I came upon the words of a man who learned something new about his own sexuality during a casual encounter in his seventies: “before this I always said no one can get me of on a bj alone, I was taught better,” he writes. As a reflection of the age and demographic groups represented, the Casual Sex Project undermines the popular narrative that casual sex is the product of changing mores among the young alone. If that were the case, we would expect there to be a reluctance to engage in casual sex among the older generations, which grew up in the pre-“hookup culture” era. Such reluctance is not evident.

The reminder that people of all ages engage in casual sex might lead us to imagine three possible narratives. First, that perhaps what we see as the rise of a culture of hooking up isn’t actually new. When norms related to dating and free love shifted, in the sixties, they never fully shifted back. Seventy-year-olds are engaging in casual encounters because that attitude is part of their culture, too.

There’s another, nearly opposite explanation: casual sex isn’t the norm now, and wasn’t before. There are simply always individuals, in any generation, who seek sexual satisfaction in nontraditional confines.

And then there’s the third option, the one that is most consistent with the narrative that our culture of casual sex begins with college hookups: that people are casually hooking up for different reasons. Some young people have casual sex because they feel they can’t afford not to, or because they are surrounded by a culture that says they should want to. (Vrangalova’s preliminary analysis of the data on her site suggests that alcohol is much more likely to be involved in the casual-sex experiences of the young than the old.)  And the old—well, the old no longer care what society thinks. For some, this sense of ease might come in their thirties; for others, their forties or fifties; for others, never, or not entirely.

This last theory relates to another of Vrangalova’s findings—one that, she confesses, came as a surprise when she first encountered it. Not all of the casual-sex experiences recorded on the site were positive, even among what is surely a heavily biased sample. Women and younger participants are especially likely to report feelings of shame. (“I was on top of him at one point and he can’t have forced me to so I must have consented . . . I’m not sure,” an eighteen-year-old writes, reporting that the hookup was unsatisfying, and describing feeling “stressed, anxious, guilt and disgust” the day after.) There is an entire thread tagged “no orgasm,” which includes other occasionally disturbing and emotional tales. “My view has gotten a lot more balanced over time,” Vrangalova said. “I come from a very sex-positive perspective, surrounded by people who really benefitted from sexual exploration and experiences, for the most part. By studying it, I’ve learned to see both sides of the coin.

Part of the negativity, to be sure, does originate in legitimate causes: casual sex increases the risk of pregnancy, disease, and, more often than in a committed relationship, physical coercion. But many negative casual-sex experiences come instead from a sense of social convention. “We’ve seen that both genders felt they were discriminated against because of sex,” Vrangalova told me. Men often feel judged by other men if they don’t have casual sex, and social expectations can detract from the experiences they do have, while women feel judged for engaging in casual experiences, rendering those they pursue less pleasurable.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise: the very fact that Vrangalova and others are seeking explanations for casual-sex behaviors suggests that our society views it as worthy of note—something aberrant, rather than ordinary. No one writes about why people feel the need to drink water or go to the bathroom, why eating dinner with friends is “a thing” or study groups are “on the rise.”

It is that sense of shame, ultimately, that Vrangalova hopes her project may help to address. As one respondent to a survey Vrangalova sent to users put it, “This has helped me feel okay about myself for wanting casual sex, and not feel ashamed or that what I do is wrong.” The psychologist James Pennebaker has found over several decades of work that writing about emotional experiences can act as an effective form of therapy, in a way that talking about those experiences may not. (I’m less convinced that there are benefits for those who use the site as a way to boast about their own experiences.) “Often there’s no outlet for that unless you’re starting your own blog,” Vrangalova points out. “I wanted to offer a space for people to share.”

That may well end up the Casual Sex Project’s real contribution: not to tell us something we didn’t already know, or at least suspect, but to make such nonjudgmental, intimate conversations possible. The dirty little secret of casual sex today is not that we’re having it but that we’re not sharing our experiences of it in the best way.

Complete Article HERE!

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Cross-Cultural Evidence for the Genetics of Homosexuality

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Mexico’s third gender sheds light on the biological correlates of sexual orientation

By Debra W. Soh

The reasons behind why people are gay, straight, or bisexual have long been a source of public fascination. Indeed, research on the topic of sexual orientation offers a powerful window into understanding human sexuality. The Archives of Sexual Behavior recently published a special edition devoted to research in this area, titled “The Puzzle of Sexual Orientation.” One study, conducted by scientists at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, offers compelling, cross-cultural evidence that common genetic factors underlie same-sex, sexual preference in men.

In southern Mexico, individuals who are biologically male and sexually attracted to men are known as muxes. They are recognized as a third gender: Muxe nguiiu tend to be masculine in their appearance and behavior, while muxe gunaa are feminine. In Western cultures, they would be considered gay men and transgender women, respectively.

Several correlates of male androphilia — biological males who are sexually attracted to men — have been shown across different cultures, which is suggestive of a common biological foundation among them. For example, the fraternal birth order effect—the phenomenon whereby male androphilia is predicted by having a higher number of biological older brothers—is evident in both Western and Samoan cultures.

Interestingly, in Western society, homosexual men, compared with heterosexual men, tend to recall higher levels of separation anxiety — the distress resulting from being separated from major attachment figures, like one’s primary caregiver or close family members. Research in Samoa has similarly demonstrated that third-gender fa’afafine—individuals who are feminine in appearance, biologically male, and attracted to men—also recall greater childhood separation anxiety when compared with heterosexual Samoan men. Thus, if a similar pattern regarding separation anxiety were to be found in a third, disparate culture—in the case, the Istmo region of Oaxaca, Mexico—it would add to the evidence that male androphilia has biological underpinnings.

The current study included 141 heterosexual women, 135 heterosexual men, and 178 muxes (61 muxe nguiiu and 117 muxe gunaa). Study participants were interviewed using a questionnaire that asked about separation anxiety; more specifically, distress and worry they experienced as a child in relation to being separated from a parental figure. Participants rated how true each question was for them when they were between the ages of 6 to 12 years old.

Muxes showed elevated rates of childhood separation anxiety when compared with heterosexual men, similar to what has been seen in gay men in Canada and fa’afafine in Samoa. There were also no differences in anxiety scores between women and muxe nguiiu or muxe gunaa, or between the two types of muxes.

When we consider possible explanations for these results, social mechanisms are unlikely, as previous research has shown that anxiety is heritable and parenting tends to be in response to children’s traits and behaviors, as opposed to the other way around. Biological mechanisms, however, offer a more compelling account. For instance, exposure to female-typical levels of sex steroid hormones in the prenatal environment are thought to “feminize” regions of the male brain that are related to sexual orientation, thereby influencing attachment and anxiety.

On top of this, studies in molecular genetics have shown that Xq28, a region located at the tip of the X chromosome, is involved in both the expression of anxiety and male androphilia. This suggests that common genetic factors may underlie the expression of both. Twin studies additionally point to genetic explanations as the underlying force for same-sex partner preference in men and neuroticism, a personality trait that is comparable to anxiety.

These findings suggest childhood separation anxiety may be a culturally universal correlate of androphilia in men. This has important implications for our understanding of children’s mental health conditions, as subclinical levels of separation anxiety, when intertwined with male androphilia, may represent a typical part of the developmental life course.

As it stands, sexual orientation research will continue to evoke widespread interest and controversy for the foreseeable future because it has the potential to be used—for better or worse—to uphold particular socio-political agendas. The moral acceptability of homosexuality has often hinged on the idea that same-sex desires are innate, immutable, and therefore, not a choice. This is clear when we think about how previous beliefs around homosexuality being learned were once used to justify (now discredited) attempts to change these desires.

The cross-cultural similarities evinced by the current study offer further proof that being gay is genetic, which is, in itself, an interesting finding. But we as a society should challenge the notion that sexual preferences must be non-volitional in order to be socially acceptable or safe from scrutiny. The etiology of homosexuality, biological or otherwise, should have no bearing on gay individuals’ right to equality.

Complete Article HERE!

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British Columbian study reveals unique sexual healthcare needs of transgender men

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by Craig Takeuchi

While HIV studies have extensively examined issues related to gay, bisexual, and queer men, one group missing from such research has been transgender men.

Consequently, Vancouver and Victoria researchers undertook one of the first such Western Canadian studies, with the findings published on April 3 in Culture, Health, and Sexuality. This study allowed researchers to take a look at HIV risk for this population, and within the Canadian context of publicly funded universal access to healthcare and gender-related public policies that differ from the U.S.

The study states that trans men have often been absent from HIV studies due to small sample sizes, eligibility criteria, limited research design, or the misconceptions that trans men are mostly heterosexual or are not at risk for HIV. What research that has been conducted in this area has been primarily U.S.–based.

The Ontario-based Trans PULSE Study found that up to two-thirds of trans men also identify as gay, bisexual, or queer.

The researchers conducted interviews with 11 gay, bisexual, and queer transgender men in Vancouver who were enrolled in B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS’ Momentum Health Study.

What they found were several aspects unique to gay, bisexual, and queer transgender men that differ from gay, bisexual, and queer cisgender men and illustrate the need for trans-specific healthcare.

None of the participants in the study were HIV–positive and only two of them knew of trans men who are HIV–positive.

Participants reported a variety of sexual behaviours, including inconsistent condom use, receptive and insertive anal and genital sex, trans and cisgender male partners, and regular, casual, and anonymous sex partners.

The gender identity of the participants’ partners did influence their decisions about sexual risk-reduction strategies, such as less barrier usage during genital or oral sex with trans partners.

While trans men shared concerns about HIV and sexually transmitted infections with gay cisgender men, bacterial vaginosis and unplanned pregnancy were additional concerns.

Almost all of the participants used online means to meet male partners. They explained that by doing so, they were able to control the disclosure of their trans status as well as experiences of rejection or misperception. Online interactions also gave them greater control over negotiating safer sex and physical safety (such as arranging to meet a person in public first or in a sex-positive space where others are around).

When it came to healthcare, participants reported that regular testosterone therapy monitoring and transition-related care provided opportunities to include regular HIV– and STI–testing.

Some participants, however, experienced challenges in finding LGBT–competent healthcare services, with issues arising such as clinic staff using birth names or incorrect pronouns, insistence on unwanted pap testing, and a lack of understanding of the sexual practices of trans men.

The researchers note that these findings indicate the need for trans-inclusive services and trans-specific education, particularly within services for gay men.

Complete Article HERE!

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How to Have a Sex Life on Antidepressants

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When quitting isn’t an option, is it possible to overcome the sexual side effects that come with an SSRI?

By Shannon Holcroft

So, you’ve finally filled the antidepressant prescription that’s been acting as a bookmark for the most recent novel you’re feigning interest in. Somewhere between missing your own birthday party and watching everyone else have fun without you, you gave in. After a few medicated weeks, things are starting to look up. Except for your sex life, that is.

Just last week, you were tied to a kitchen chair enjoying an amazing (albeit rather mournful) few minutes of escape through sex. Today, getting naked seems less appealing than all the other pressing tasks you have new-found energy to complete.

“Is it the meds, or is it just me?” you wonder as you deep-clean the fridge with new vigour. After some soul-searching, it becomes clear that you’re still the same person—just with fewer festering foodstuffs and a lot less crying.

“It must be a side effect,” you decide. But months after filling your prescription, your genitals are still giving you the physiological equivalent of 8d2cc2c1a43108301b149f7f33e1664d.png

Why Antidepressants May Be a Downer for Your Sex Life

“[Sexual dysfunction] is a difficult, frustrating, and very common issue with this class of medications,” says Jean Kim, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University.

Twelve percent of American adults reported filling an antidepressant prescription in the most recent Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. Not just for clinical depression, but for all kinds of off-label conditions like chronic pain and insomnia.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressant class. And between 30 percent and 50 percent of individuals taking SSRIs experience sexual dysfunction. Desire, arousal and orgasm may be affected by changes in function of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine; the very mechanisms through which SSRIs treat depression.

How to Work Around the Side Effects

When fighting to survive a potentially fatal mental illness, there are often more important concerns than getting it on. It’s frequently not an option to stop taking life-saving medication to avoid side effects. So what’s a sexual being to do?

Despite SSRIs being pretty pedestrian, there’s no concrete answer to addressing sexual side effects. “Unfortunately, not much is reliably effective to deal with this [sexual dysfunction],” Dr. Kim notes.

This may sound pretty gloomy, but there are plenty of things you can try to bring sexy times back around. “Don’t hesitate to bring up the issue with your prescribing clinician, as there might be some helpful interventions available,” says Dr. Kim.

Here are other ways to work around the sexual side effects of antidepressants:

1. Time It Right

“Some literature advises trying to have sexual activity when the serum level of a daily antidepressant might be lowest in the bloodstream,” says Dr. Kim. In other words, the ideal time to get it on is right before you take your next daily dose.

If your dosing schedule makes it tough to pencil in sexual activities, chat with your clinician about changing the time of day you take your meds. In many cases, there’s room for flexibility.

“This would not work much with some SSRIs that have a longer half-life like fluoxetine (Prozac),” Dr. Kim adds. Those taking antidepressants that exit the body quickly, like Paxil and Zoloft, could be in luck.

2. Switch It Up

Switching to a different medication, with the support of your prescribing clinician, may make all the difference. Certain antidepressants have a greater incidence of sexual side effects than others. Commonly prescribed SSRIs associated with a high frequency of sexual dysfunction include paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft) and fluoxetine (Prozac).

Besides exploring the SSRI class, venturing into atypical antidepressant territory is another option. Buproprion (Wellbutrin) is an atypical antidepressant observed to present the lowest sexual side-effect profile of all antidepressants.

It may take some trial and error, mixing and matching to identify what works best for you, but it will all be worth it when you can [insert favorite sex act here] to your heart’s content again.

3. Augment

Some treatment add-ons may act as antidotes to SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction. “Supplementing with other medications that have serotonin blocking effects (like cyproheptadine [Peritol] or buspirone [Buspar]) or enhance other neurotransmitters like dopamine (like Wellbutrin) might help,” says Dr. Kim. She is quick to note that these findings are yet be confirmed by “larger-scale randomized controlled clinical trials.”

“Another common strategy is to prescribe erectile dysfunction drugs like sildenafil (Viagra) and the like for as-needed use before activity,” says Dr. Kim. Viagra has been found to reduce sexual side effects, even if you’re not in possession of a penis. In Dr. Kim’s clinical experience, “[Viagra] seems to help in more than a few cases.” Discuss with your doctor before adding any more medications to the mix.

4. Exercise

Now’s the time to take up aquacycling, indoor surfing sans water or whatever fitness fad tickles your fancy. Keeping active could be the key to preventing sexual dysfunction caused by SSRIs.

“Sometimes sexual dysfunction is not just a primary SSRI drug side effect but part of underlying depression/anxiety as well,” Dr. Kim explains. “Anything that helps enhance overall blood circulation, mood and libido might be helpful, such as exercise.”

Complete Article HERE!

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Reality Check: Anal Sex

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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.

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