What’s Missing From The New Research On Anal Play

There’s some new research about women’s experiences of receiving anal play, and it’s worth taking a look at. About 2000 heterosexual women who experienced anal intercourse at least twice in the previous year were asked about the level and frequency of pain. Almost half (48.8%) had to discontinue the experience because of pain or discomfort, and 8.7% said that they had severe pain every time they tried. The women reporting pain frequently hypothesized that the inability to relax was the reason for the pain. And the women with pain with every experience of anal play reported “substantially lower levels of sexual satisfaction… and were less sexually assertive.”

I think there’s a lot to unpack here. As a sex educator who puts a lot of time into talking with people about anal play, I see a lot of opportunities in this research. And I also see some unanswered questions that would shed some light on these women’s experiences.

I’d really like to know more about the sexual experiences these women and their partners are having. Did they use a good lubricant? Did they warm up with fingers or toys, or did they just dive right into anal intercourse? Did they include enough sexual arousal such as vaginal or clitoral stimulation, oral sex, or intercourse, before starting to have anal sex? Did the women or their partners use a vibrator or fingers on the clitoris to help keep the arousal up? Did these women have previous experiences of uncomfortable or painful anal sex that led them to anticipate another painful episode? How is the communication between these women and their partners? Do they experience painful vaginal penetration?

All of these questions are relevant because they point to different etiologies for painful anal intercourse. Lubricant is one of the most important ingredients for anal pleasure. So is warming up with smaller objects or fingers. Unfortunately, since neither of these is ever shown in the vast majority of porn, I talk with a lot of people who have had painful anal sex as the result of copying what they see on screen. As I often say, learning to have sex from watching porn is like learning to drive from watching an action movie. Someone is going to get hurt.

Similarly, arousal shifts how our bodies receive and process sensory input. If you’re working at the computer and your sweetie bites your neck, it’s not likely to feel the same as if they bite you just as hard in the same spot in the middle of sex. That’s especially important because the anal muscles are affected by our moods and emotions. The external muscle is easier to mindfully control, but the internal one is very sensitive to how we’re feeling. Stress, anxiety, and fear can all cause it to tighten, which makes stimulation more likely to be uncomfortable. In turn, that makes the muscle tighten more, which leads to pain. And just as the anxiety that men sometimes feel around “performance” can lead to erection difficulties, fear that anal play will hurt can lead to painful anal sex.

Not only that, but sexual arousal can help the pelvic floor relax. That’s one reason clitoral stimulation can make anal play easier and more fun. In fact, for a lot of people anal play only works when it’s an add-on and without something else pleasurable, it might not feel good at all. And again, since you’ll rarely see someone in a porn movie using a vibrator on their clitoris during an anal scene, it’s easy to understand why so many people don’t think to try it.

When we wrote The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men & Their Partners, worries about anal penetration and pain were one of the three big hurdles that men described in our survey. (Concerns about anal play getting messy and attitudes around anal penetration and masculinity were the other two.) So this isn’t something that only women face. For anal play to work, you need to know how to do it right.

Further, I’m curious about these women’s attitudes and beliefs about the anus. It’s a place that holds a lot of shame for people, for many different reasons. And in my experience, there’s a correlation between anal shame and discomfort with anal sex. That makes sense, since any difficult emotion can start the cycle of muscular tension and pain. For a really good read on the topic, check out Jack Morin’s Anal Pleasure & Health.

Another relevant question is what the relationships between the women who experienced anal pain and their partners are like. In addition to relaxation and lubrication, the third key ingredient for anal sex fun is communication. For it to work well, the receiver needs to be able to ask for more lubricant, or a different position, or a different speed/depth/etc. Not being able to speak up during anal sex makes it much less likely that the giving partner will be able to do it in a way that works for you. And since anal pleasures can be quite idiosyncratic, what works with one person might not suit another. So even with a partner who wants to make it as pleasurable as possible, not being able to advocate for one’s preferences can lead to uncomfortable anal play. In addition, the trust that encourages relaxation is deeply linked to good communication and the ability of one’s partner to respond to the receiver’s shifting needs.

I also want to know how many of these women experience pain or discomfort during vaginal penetration. About 15% of the population has pelvic pain or dysfunction, and while not all the causes will also lead to anal pain, some of them will. At the very least, asking women who have pain during anal penetration about possible pain during vaginal penetration would shed some light on both.

Lastly, I’d really like to know more about the possible correlations between pain during anal sex and these women’s partners. How much do they know about making anal play feel good? What books, movies, or websites have they gotten information from? And have they ever received it? Men who have been on the receiving side of anal play are much more likely to be skilled and sensitive givers of anal stimulation, in my experience. Since anal intercourse is, by definition, something that takes place between two people, it would be helpful to know more about these men’s attitudes, information, and skills.

So while I’m glad that this research was done, it leaves many of the questions that are most relevant for sexual pleasure and education unanswered. I have some concerns about how these results might be interpreted, especially by people who already have fears about anal sex. The best way to make sure your anal sex is as fun as possible, get the info you need to do it right. You can find some excellent books and how-to movies online. And of course, The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure has plenty of advice and suggestions for fun anal play, whether you have a prostate or not. Don’t settle for less fun in your sex than you deserve!

5 Responses so far.

  1. Ruby Ryder says:

    “Men who have been on the receiving side of anal play are much more likely to be skilled and sensitive givers of anal stimulation, in my experience.”

    Yes, yes and yes. You can read all the information you want but I agree there is nothing quite like experiencing anal penetration yourself to really get a sense of how to give it.

  2. Those are exactly the questions that need to be asked. Personally, I have never experienced pain – quite the opposite. But before getting started, my husband and I watched a wonderful video, Nina Hartley’s guide to anal sex. I’m so glad we did!

    Even Marlon Brando reached for the butter in Last Tango…


  3. […] read the full study, click here. For more on the topic, check out Charlie Glickman’s analysis. Share this: Filed Under: Headlines, Latest News, Sexual Studies, The CSPH Blog Tagged […]

  4. GemmaM says:

    “8.7% [out of a group of women who experienced anal intercourse at least twice in the previous year] said that they had severe pain every time they tried. . . . [T]he women with pain with every experience of anal play reported “substantially lower levels of sexual satisfaction . . . and were less sexually assertive.” ”
    I bet they were, if they did it at least twice despite being in severe pain the first time — though I’m sure at least some of them said “no” after the second try.
    I’m detecting in your response a strong undercurrent of “anal play ought not to be painful”.  Not “try it, and if it’s painful, stop” but “try it, and if it’s painful you must be doing it wrong.”  I’m not sure that’s an entirely good reaction.  I also don’t think you should worry too much about these findings being interpreted the wrong way by people who have fears of anal sex.  The right way to assuage fears of pain during anal sex isn’t to trot out the tautology of “Don’t worry, it never hurts when people do it right.”  The right way to assuage fears of pain during anal sex is to say “Indeed, this might hurt.  If it does, we should stop.”  <i>Then</i> you can get into the list of things that should make pain less likely.

  5. Jason T says:

    I completely agree! A very well thought out article with totally valid questions. As a woman I cannot comment, but as a man who has been on both sides of anal sex I think it is incredibly important for the penetrating partner to have received anal sex before. You really don’t know how it feels unless you’ve tried it and it is an incredibly delicate practice that requires finess and care (which, unfortunately, many straight men lack). 

    It is very important to be vocal about what is going on, because there are many times where I would have had to stop out of pain if I did say “more lube”, “give me a minute” or “take it outtakeitouttakeitout!”. Seriously, it’s all about communication and figuring out what works for you. It’s not easy, but it is SO fun when you get it right!

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