About 40 per cent of all US women have had anal sex at some point in their lives, research has shown. But because of the stigma attached to it, there’s very little research out there on what it’s like for women and how to stay safe.
Intrigued by the mysteries of female anal, Love Matters tracked down sexpert Kimberley McBride at the annual get-together of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She spotted the gap in the research way back in 2003.
‘It was really taboo at the time – it was something that sexual science wasn’t receptive to,’ Dr McBride says. ‘I had lots of female friends coming to me and saying, “My partner wants to try this and I’m terrified” or “Is he gay?” but I didn’t have any research to give them an answer. We only had a few studies at the time, and they were all about HIV risk.’
Dr McBride figured the time had come to understand more about women’s experiences with anal sex, and she’s been working on the topic ever since. In a recent study, she tracked down 33 women aged 18 to 30 who were willing to chat about the subject. During five focus group sessions, the women talked openly about their attitudes towards anal sex, why they’d tried it (if they had), their knowledge of anal sexual health, and the kinds of products they used.
The chats were later analysed for themes. Dr McBride was interested in how the women felt about anal intercourse as well as other types of anal sex, including manual fingering, oral anal, and sex toys.
Pleasure or pain?
When it came to penetrative anal sex, most of the women in the focus group weren’t really into it. Firstly, they felt there was a lot of stigma about it. Secondly, it hurt! The amount of pain and discomfort varied among the women though. Some said it was extreme, while others were in two minds about it. Some felt that pain was part of the experience.
So if pleasure wasn’t the main reason to have anal sex, why were they doing it?
‘Oftentimes it was to please a partner,’ Dr McBride said. ‘A few women talked about pleasure, but that wasn’t really the immediate response.’ That’s not to say they didn’t feel it could be pleasurable for other women – but it wasn’t the main reason they were having it. It was more to do with their relationship – about increasing intimacy and trust, and pleasing their partner.
Then there was pure curiosity. Some women were keen to try it because their friends had told them about their experiences or there had been some reference to anal sex in the media.
The women’s reasons for having non-intercourse anal sex were different. Fingering and sex toys were pleasurable for some, said Dr McBride. They gave reasons like, ‘It feels good’ and ‘It’s fun to be experimental’ for trying these things out. For other women, these were ways to build up to intercourse.
Anal sexual health
The women in McBride’s focus group lacked knowledge about anal sexual health – something they recognized and were worried about. They wanted to know more, but they didn’t feel comfortable talking to a doctor about it. And they had no idea where to find reliable information on the internet.
HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were concerns for many of the women. Unfortunately, some of their ideas about anal sexual health were just plain wrong, says Dr McBride.
‘They would say things like, “Well, you know the vagina is moister so I would think that that could be a bigger problem for infections because of bacteria. The anus is dry so there’s probably less chance that you would have an infection.” But of course, scientifically we know the opposite is true!’
Five Anal Sex Tips
If anal sex is something you’d like to try, Dr McBride has five tips to keep in mind.
‘A lot of women talked about a partner just doing something - so putting their finger there or their mouth there or their penis there - and how that wasn’t okay. So communication is the first thing and be very explicit about it.’
‘For women, the relaxation thing is very important. Try fingering or oral contact, getting used to the sensations first.’
- Start small
‘One of my participants said, “You kind of have to start small and work your way up.” So again, don’t start with a penis, but first stroking, then maybe a finger.’
- Use a good water-based lube
‘Of course, use lots of lubricant – and water-based lube, not saliva, not anything petroleum-based. The rectal tissue is much more fragile than the vaginal tissue and it doesn’t self-lubricate in the same way. So it’s important to have lube – but good lube!’
- Use a condom
‘Certainly, condom use is important. So if there’s any risk for STI transmission or HIV, make sure to use a condom, preferably polyurethane or latex. And again, not just lubricant on the condom because that could dry out. Changing the condom if you’re going between anal and vaginal or anal and another type of behaviour is important to prevent infection.’
Questions about anal sex? Head to our forum - let's talk.