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Thursday, April 2, 2009

FAQs, Part 2: Doin' the Butt

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In last week's column, I discussed female ejaculation, a subject that is invariably asked about in every sex ed workshop I facilitate that includes time for anonymous questions. A close runner-up for the most frequently asked-about topic is anal sex. As with female ejaculation, the specific questions run the gamut, but I never fail to get at least two or three queries about some type of anal play.

What's interesting to me is that in Milwaukee, at least, this topic is still somewhat taboo, despite the high level of curiosity. People will ask all sorts of questions about anal sex anonymously, but seem somewhat shy to publicly declare that anal play is something they enjoy. If I bring anal toys to a group setting like Erotic Milwaukeeor a "Sex Toys 101" class, they sit lonely and ignored, the spotlight stolen by the vibrators and furry wrist cuffs. Although we have our butt plugs, prostate stimulators, and anal beads out on display at the Tool Shed for customers to touch and feel along with the rest of our toys, they get far less action. Past classes on female ejaculation have had three times the number of participants as classes on anal play.

The anonymous questions that I get also have a strong tendency to view anal sex as something that men "do to" women, which I think reflects some of the (hetero)sexist imagery that's being put out there in mainstream porn, just as I noted about female ejaculation in last week's column. "How do you convince a girl to put it in her ass?" is a typical question that I received last year, which I've used at several sexuality educator trainings since to give future teachers a chance to practice answering nonjudgmentally while also challenging prevailing gender stereotypes. Many people also ask what women get out of anal sex. It's rare to have a question that is specifically about men's enjoyment of being stimulated anally.

I begin all my answers by saying that the anus is an equal opportunity orifice -- everyone has one, and people of all genders may enjoy both insertive (being the "top") and receptive (being the "bottom") anal play. The anus has a high concentration of nerve endings, and the muscles that contract during orgasm wrap around the anus as well as the vagina and the root of the penis. Physiologically, these are two of the reasons that anal play can feel pleasurable. The social taboo that sometimes surrounds anal sex can add a psychological thrill as well. While most people think of "anal sex" as a penis or dildo penetrating someone's butt, I encourage exploration -- tickling the outside of the anal opening with a vibrator, tongue, or finger or inserting a small plug or vibrator that can be left in place while engaging in other activities can be fun and less intimidating to start out. My three rules to avoid anal mishaps are never to insert anything inside the rectum that doesn't have a flanged base that's wide enough to prevent it from slipping all the way inside, to ALWAYS use lubricant since the anus doesn't produce its own, and to stop immediately if you or your partner experience pain. There seems to be a prevailing notion that anal sex is painful, and this is just something that you have to put up with. In reality, pain is your body's signal that something is not right. I am absolutely against all of the numbing lubes and sprays that have recently flooded the market, supposedly to make anal sex "more comfortable." You run the risk of injuring yourself if you don't feel pain, and what's the point of having sex if you can't enjoy the sensations that go along with it?

Despite the taboos and the misconceptions, there are a lot of anal pioneers in our city. I am thrilled by the women at Erotic Milwaukee who yell out responses to anonymous questions from the audience, whether giving their three basic rules for anal play ("Go slow. Communicate. And use lots of lube") or sharing the position that they find most comfortable for anal penetration ("Try it lying on your side, from behind!"). I am also very happy whenever a man comes in to the Tool Shed to purchase a dildo for his female partner to use when penetrating him (an act dubbed "pegging" by Dan Savage's readers), which happens more and more frequently -- the Feeldoe Slim"strapless strap-on" being the toy most often selected for this purpose. It made my day last weekend when a woman who was picking up some romantic body lotions and powders for a weekend away with her sweetie threw in a cute butt plug at the last minute. Our gay male customers make me happy in a different way, because in general, they are so over the stigma about anal play that many other people have and think nothing about picking up a dildo and musing aloud about whether it would make a good birthday present for a boyfriend.

So don't be afraid, Milwaukee! Butt play can be healthy, normal and fun for people of all genders, as long as no one feels coerced into trying it. The more we all talk and ask about anal sex, the more enjoyable it will be for you and your partners.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side. She has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.