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To explore expectations, experiences and circumstances of anal sex among young people. Qualitative, longitudinal study using individual and group interviews. Anal heterosex often appeared to be painful, risky and coercive, particularly for women. It seemed that men were expected to persuade or coerce reluctant partners. Young people's narratives normalised coercive, painful and unsafe anal heterosex. This study suggests an urgent need for harm reduction efforts targeting anal sex to help encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques and challenge views that normalise coercion.
This study uses a large qualitative sample from three diverse sites in England and is the first to capture a wide range of circumstances around and reasons for engaging in anal sex among men and women between the ages of 16 and Analysis explores experiences in depth, going beyond simplistic explanations linking motivations for anal sex with pornography. The study shows that young people's narratives about anal sex contained ideas normalising coercive, painful and unsafe anal sex. These ideas could be addressed in health promotion work.
This study was conducted in England and further work is needed to assess the extent to which similar discourses operate among young people in other countries.
Anal sex is increasingly prevalent among young people, yet anal intercourse between men and women—although commonly depicted in sexually explicit media—is usually absent from mainstream sexuality education and seems unmentionable in many social contexts. Surveys suggest that young men and women—and older adults—are engaging in anal intercourse more than ever before. Very little is known about the detailed circumstances around or reasons for engaging in anal sex among underyear-olds anywhere, or what implications these might have for health.
This study looks in detail at anal practices among young people aged 18 and under, develops hypotheses for further study and makes suggestions for sexual health promotion. For the depth interviews, we used purposive sampling to maximise variation in social background. The sample was diverse in terms of economic and social background, and less diverse in terms of ethnicity most participants were white British. See Lewis et al 18 for further details. We highlighted in our information leaflet and our conversations with potential interviewees that we were keen to speak to any young person, whatever their experiences.
Although participants varied in terms of the range of activities they had experienced, and the and nature of their sexual partnerships, the majority reported opposite-sex partners only. In the depth interviews, we asked interviewees about what sexual practices they had engaged in, the circumstances of those practices and how they felt about them.
In the group discussions, we asked general questions about what practices they had heard of, their attitudes to those practices and whether they thought young people their age would generally engage in particular practices, and if so, under what circumstances. Many of our interviewees talked about anal sexual practices unprompted whether they had engaged in them or not and so in wave two, we specifically asked all of our participants about their perception and, if relevant, their experience of anal practices about a quarter of our in-depth interviewees reported anal sexual experiences.
Our aim was to explore the key discourses surrounding anal sexual practices among this age group and to elicit detailed s of specific experiences. We recorded and transcribed all interviews. We used iterative thematic analysis 19 to develop our understanding of the data. Throughout the analysis, we simultaneously engaged with theoretical literature to put the work in context. We use unique identifier pseudonyms throughout.
Quotations are from one-to-one interviews unless otherwise indicated, with omissions marked […]. Anal practices reported usually involved penetration or attempted penetration by the man with his penis or finger and, with one exception, were between opposite-sex partners. Initial anal sexual experiences were rarely narrated in terms of mutual exploration of sexual pleasure. Women reported painful anal sex:. As soon as the whole incident happened where he didn't warn me it just hurt. It was just pain [ laugh ].
It was just like: no. No one could possibly enjoy that. It was just horrible […] I guess he could have used lube, maybe that would have helped, but I don't know. Apparently if you're tense it hurts more, I guess, which makes sense really, but I don't see how you couldn't be tense [ laugh ] in that kind of situation. Some interviewees incorrectly stated that anal STI transmission was impossible, or less likely than for vaginal intercourse. There were marked gender differences in how anal sex was described: its benefits pleasure, indicator of sexual achievement were expected for men but not women; its risks—interviewees rarely mentioned risks of STIs, focusing instead on risk of pain or damaged reputation—were expected for women but not men.
Our interviewees did not describe anal sex as a way to preserve virginity or avoid pregnancy. We found other important explanations and motivations in young people's s, as we will see below. By contrast, men and women said women risked their reputation for the same act, a sexual double standard familiar from literature. Despite asserting that anal sex is inevitably painful for women, and despite not usually linking pain to any sexual pleasure, men and women often also expressed the seemingly contradictory view that anal sex was in fact enjoyable for women:.
There's quite a few, a lot of girls enjoy it. But I think most girls would like, I think they might do, on the quiet. Women experiencing pain were often depicted as naive or flawed. I think that the boy enjoys it. I think it's definitely the boy that pushes for it from watching porn and stuff, they wanna try it. The girl is scared and thinks it's weird, and then they try it because the boyfriend wants them to. They normally don't enjoy it because they're scared and I, I know that like with anal, if you're not willing, you don't relaxlike if you have, you have control over two of the muscles that are closest to the outside and then inside it's like involuntary and if you're scared or you haven't eased them off like they stay tight and then you can rip 'em if you try and force anal sex.
Mark [our emphasis]. The idea that women would generally not wish to engage in anal sex, and so would need to be either persuaded or coerced, seemed to be taken for granted by many participants. Even in otherwise seemingly communicative and caring partnerships, some men seemed to push to have anal sex with their reluctant partner despite believing it likely to hurt her although it should also be noted that other men said they avoided anal sex because they believed it might hurt their partners.
Persuasion of women was a feature to a greater or lesser degree of most men's and women's narratives about anal sex events, with repeated, emphatic requests from men commonly mentioned. Um, he kept asking me at first. The narratives suggested little expectation that young women themselves would want anal sex. Many young men, on the other hand, clearly described wanting to penetrate a woman anally.
Among those who had had anal sexual experiences, few of the men and only one woman among this young age group referred to physical pleasure in their s. Alicia, the only woman narrating pleasurable anal penetration, exemplifies some of the complexities involved in women's navigating and narrating anal sexual practices. She described a fairly common pattern: her partner asked for anal sex, which she first refused but later agreed to.
Her partner had had anal sex before. I didn't wanna try it [anal sex] initially, well I was unsure about it initially. I think I was interested to why he was interested. I was curious about it […] So I think that's […] I just sort of tried it for him. She described the second occasion they had anal sex differently in the first and second interviews:.
And I think he thought he can make me like it like that. At the second interview, she was clearer that he had deliberately penetrated her she may also have spoken to her partner about it between interviews. At both interviews, she emphasised how much she enjoyed subsequent anal sex with the same man, and that either of them might initiate it. Alicia was the only woman we interviewed who described experiencing pleasure, including orgasm, from anal sex.
In a work, we have shown how interpretations of apparently coercive events can change over time 21 and it is possible that better, later experiences in the context of a continuing relationship had allowed her to incorporate the initial, less enjoyable ones into a narrative of personal sexual growth within a stable relationship, particularly as she came to enjoy the practices that she had found painful at first. It is possible that even as she talks about enjoying the practice, her narrative was shaped to some extent by social expectations about women resisting anal sex.
Similarly, men did not spontaneously talk about not enjoying anally penetrating a woman, only mentioning it after direct questions, supporting other works describing an onus on men to articulate only a positive view of sex. Few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable and both expected anal sex to be painful for women.
This study offers explanations for why anal sex may occur despite this. A fuller picture of why women and men engage in anal sex emerges from their s.
It seems that anal sex happens in a context characterised by at least five specific features linked with the key explanatory themes described above:. First, some men's narratives suggested that mutuality and consent for anal sex were not always a priority for them. Even Alicia's narrative contains some of the apparently coercive features of anal sex that other women report in negative terms, despite Alicia reporting enjoying anal sex.
Fourth, anal sex today appears to be a marker of hetero sexual achievement or experience, particularly for men. Fifth, many men do not express concern about possible pain for women, viewing it as inevitable. Less painful techniques such as slower penetration were rarely discussed. Currently, this apparently oppressive context, and indeed the practice of anal heterosex itself, appears to be largely ignored in policy and in sexuality education for this young age group. Attitudes such as the inevitability of pain for women, or social failure to recognise or reflect on potentially coercive behaviour, seem to be unchallenged.
Alicia's case demonstrates how women might absorb potentially negative experiences into an overall narrative of control, desire and pleasure, all of which she emphasises in her .
We do not suggest that mutually pleasurable anal practices are not possible among this age group, nor that all men want to coerce their partners. Rather, we wish to emphasise how mutuality and women's pleasure are often absent in narratives of anal heterosex and how their absence is not only left unremarked and unchallenged, but even seems to be expected by many young people.
Further work is needed to assess the extent to which similar coercive discourses operate among young people in other countries. This is a qualitative study, with an in-depth analysis of a smaller sample than would be usual for epidemiological studies, but which spans three locations and diverse social groups. Sexuality education, and specifically what it should contain, is the subject of global debate.
Yet sexuality education, where it exists, rarely addresses specific sexual practices, such as anal sex between men and women—despite its potential for disease transmission and, as these s reveal, coercion. In England, where this study was located, discussions of pleasure, pain, consent and coercion are included in good sexuality education but such education remains isolated, ad hoc and non-compulsory.
Anal sex among young people in this study appeared to be taking Looking for a anal lover in a context encouraging pain, risk and coercion. Harm reduction efforts targeting anal sex may help encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques and challenge views that normalise coercion. The authors thank Kaye Wellings and Tim Rhodes for their role in the project de, the two reviewers for their contribution, and Amber Marks and Crofton Black for their comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.
Contributors: CM and RL contributed to the planning, conduct and reporting of the work described in the manuscript. CM is the guarantor for this manuscript. Competing interests: None. Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.Looking for a anal lover
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