This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
Last week, hyperconservative Maggie Gallagher wrote a piece in which she rather unsuccessfully tries to link women’s right to make reproductive choices and anal sex.
The first thing that set off alarm bells for me was her citing a research article mentioned in the book “Premarital Sex in America,” on the possible relationships between abortion and depression. According to the authors, this research may “suggest that abortion may contribute to depression in emerging adulthood, independent of sexual-behavior patterns”. Of course, what she left out was this article from the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, which analyzed whether women who had had abortions reported depression or low self-esteem within a year of their pregnancy and five years later. What they found was that:
Abortion was not associated with depression or low self-esteem at either time point. Socioeconomic and demographic characteristics did not substantially modify the relationships between abortion and the outcomes.
Of course, there may be more complexities to this than either of these studies suggest. After all, the emotions that can come up around abortion can be challenging for a number of reasons. And unfortunately, anti-choice folks like to use that as justification to take away reproductive rights, since it makes for an easy excuse.
But this post on Time.com shows that we need to remember that this sort of one-dimensional argument is simply wrong. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers looked at the rate of mental health visits among women both before and after abortion and childbirth. And they found that while women who had more psychiatric disorders did have a higher rate of abortions, the rate of mental health visits changed only a little bit afterward: 1% had sought psychiatric help nine months before the abortion while 1.5% did so afterward. The article did note that, overall, the women who had abortion “tend to come from lower-income households and have higher rates of accidental pregnancy.” Given the correlations between poverty, mental distress and disorders, and access to accurate, non-judgmental sex education and support, this isn’t really a surprise, I think.
But what this does show is that Gallagher took a multi-faceted issue and boiled it down it a convenient soundbite that just happens to support her anti-choice beliefs. So I guess it shouldn’t also be a surprise that she did much the same with regard to anal sex.
According to her, the same book also claimed that by age 23, 33% of young women have tried anal sex and of them, 15% said that the enjoyed it “very much.” Gallagher then asks the question “why do they do it?” and jumps to the conclusion that it’s because of porn culture and disempowerment.
Now, I do think that the prevalence of anal sex in porn does prompt more people to try it. But then, watching a cooking show often inspires people to try things in the kitchen that they might not have thought of on their own. There doesn’t have to be anything sinister about it.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a big difference between having anal sex in the sense of trying it once or a few times and doing it regularly. Since Gallagher doesn’t mention it, I don’t know if she’s equating the two or whether the authors of “Premarital Sex in America” are. But if you’re going to draw connections between women having anal sex and women feeling pressured to do something they don’t want to do, you also need to look at frequency, not just whether they’ve ever done it.
It’s also more than ironic that two paragraphs after she acknowledges that 15% of women enjoy anal sex very much (and without mentioning how many women like it somewhat), she then says that “Anal sex is painful, unsanitary, unsatisfying for women, and creates unique risks for serious physical diseases.”
I’ll definitely agree that anal sex can be painful or uncomfortable. It can certainly require more attention to cleanliness. And for many people, anal sex may not be satisfying on its own, although it can be a pleasurable addition when combined with other sexual activities. Most porn portrayals of it tend to make it seem as if anal intercourse without any clitoral or vaginal stimulation is all there is and if porn is your only sex education, you might not think to try other ways of doing it.
But even with all of that, 15% is a pretty sizable minority. So what do you think kept Gallagher from phrasing it as “anal sex is painful, unsanitary, unsatisfying for many/most women”? As is often the case with folks who are speaking from a place of sex-negativity, Gallagher denies the experiences of the women who she mentioned just a few sentences earlier. So it’s not a shock when she asserts that women are doing it to please their boyfriends. Nor am I surprised that she leaves out the experiences of women who have sex with women, many of whom enjoy anal play.
I know that being pressured by their boyfriends is one reason that some women are having anal sex. That is absolutely true. And the question of how we can create a culture in which gender-based inequities no longer make it possible for men to pressure or coerce women into having sex of any sort is a really important one. It’s just not the entire story.
Some women have anal sex because they’re curious about it. Or because they enjoy it somewhat. Or because they think that being sex-positive means enjoying (or at least doing) every kind of sex rather than what works for them. Or because they want to avoid pregnancy. Or because they want to enjoy it and so they keep trying it, even though it doesn’t suit them. Or because it worked well with one partner, so they keep trying it even if it doesn’t work as well with other partners. There are plenty of other possible reasons, too.
Whenever people take something as diverse and complicated as why anyone does anything sexually and claims that there’s only one reason for it, they’re simply wrong. Even if it describes what happens for some people, it’s still not what happens for everyone. And in this case, if at least 15% of women are having anal sex because they enjoy it “very much”, that’s a pretty clear example of the ways that sweeping statements render some people invisible.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gallagher suggests checking out the Wikipedia entry for anal sex, if you doubt her description of anal sex. So here’s what you’ll find there (at least as of 10:30 am on 1/31/11):
Though anal sex is pleasurable for many people, and some may reach orgasm (through stimulation of the prostate in men, and clitoral and G-Spot leg stimulation in women), others find it painful, in some cases extremely so.
Now, we could debate whether anal sex is pleasurable for “many” or just for “some,” but don’t you think it’s odd that she’d try to use an article to bolster her claims if that article does the exact opposite?
Of course, the fact that Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage is probably enough to demonstrate that she makes false claims and unsupported arguments based on prejudice and selective reporting of science. The fact that she’s doing it again is consistent with her modus operandi, I suppose.