“So is butt stuff a thing we’re all doing now?” my friend Maya Gchatted me one afternoon. She’d reunited with an ex after several years and was surprised to find his predilections had changed. Hers hadn’t. “It just reminds me of when I was little and would eat too much spicy food, and my mom would have to put Vaseline on my dumb little kid butt. You can touch my butt, but not the hole.”
“Butt stuff is such a thing,” I replied. “Not anal sex necessarily. Just anal messing around. Oh, God, ‘anal messing,’ that sentence was gross, I’m sorry.”
Defining our terms seemed important, since these are genres of sex that people get extremely touchy about, so to speak. (Consider yourselves warned, squeamish readers.) What we were talking about was heterosexual anal play—not treating the anus like the vagina’s pervier cousin, useful merely for penile penetration, but actually pleasuring it. That kind of “butt stuff” does seem to have reached a tipping point in straight culture, at least to judge from magazines devoted to conventional gender roles. Playboy published an essay on rim jobs last year, and Cosmo followed suit with a how-to guide a few weeks ago. (“If you are performing anilingus on a hairy guy, just part the hair with your hands.”) And while we’re familiar with the idea that anal sex is getting more and more common, a less talked-about side effect is the rise of “anal messing around”: The CDC reports that 44 percent of straight men and 36 percent of straight women say they have had anal sex, and an academic study found that 51 percent of men and 43 percent of women who’ve had anal sex have also participated “in oral-anal sex, manual-anal sex, or anal sex toy use.” And once the ass is in play, it’s more likely to get played around with: Half of straight men who’ve had anal sex, and one in ten who haven’t, report having inserted a finger up a sex partner’s butt in the previous month. “Oral is the new sex, and rim jobs are the new oral,” a male friend proposed.
That’s not to say that any of this is normalized, exactly. For a variety of reasons, people just get skittish when the subject comes up. Some of the biggest sexual braggarts I know squirmed when I asked about butt stuff; turns out the fastest way to get every straight man in a room to shut up is to shout, “Who likes rim jobs?” (Though I shouldn’t point fingers; this is the first article ever to make me blush while talking to an editor.) Even as anal play becomes a common extension of genital play, nobody seems comfortable discussing it publicly—even though we seem to love talking about every other taboo we bust just as soon as we bust it. Then again, perhaps the taboo isn’t truly busted until it has a “Lewinsky moment.” It took a presidential impeachment to bring frank discussion of oral sex into American living rooms; anilingus has yet to land its breakthrough role.
Part of our squeamishness has to come from the polarizing nature of the act itself. “It’s the black licorice of sex,” I theorized to Maya. “Those in favor love it, but those against regard it with disgust.” Even if you’re into it, the fear that your audience will recoil may drive you to silence. Or worse, the fear that they will forever associate you with the jarring juxtaposition of face and ass. When a male friend admitted he once sat on his willowy blonde ex-girlfriend’s face, I gasped. “But her face was so beautiful!” I protested. He was perhaps double her weight, built like a lumberjack, and hairy from neck to toe. “Were you even clean?” another friend interjected. Imagining her porcelain face wedged up the nastiest part of his body, all I could do was repeat, “But her face was so beautiful!” I said it first in dismay, then as an accusation: “So beautiful! You sat on that beautiful face!” He shrugged, and smiled a smile that can only be described as a shit-eating grin.
And butt stuff is pretty shockingly intimate. Knowledge of the anus is, let’s say, among the most intimate of carnal knowledges; a lover who spreads your cheeks sees more of your body than you will ever see without the help of a mirror. That is also the case for cunnilingus, but the key difference is that when butt play goes wrong, it goes shockingly wrong. One of the paradoxes of sexiness is that it requires us to ignore some bodily functions—like awkward noises and ingrown hairs—so that we can enjoy other, more pleasurable ones. You can eat whipped cream off your lover’s tits, but God forbid you actually digest it in her presence, particularly if you’re lactose intolerant.
In my conversations, women were significantly more open to public discussion of the butt. But in private, straight men were far more passionate about the topic. For the men, discovering the asshole’s erotic potential had been a revelation; pleasing a woman by any means necessary was a point of pride. “I’ve always been a fan of giving the rim. Best way to get a crazy orgasm out,” a 29-year-old screenwriter enthused via Twitter DM. “I was also the first of my guy friends to admit liking a finger in my ass during blow jobs, but one by one, all the guys tried it and would talk about how great it was.”
“Surreptitiously licking a dude’s butt during a blowie is like a secret handshake to let him know you’re down for some depraved shit,” an acquaintance named Julieanne said. (Some names in this article have been changed. Julieanne’s has not; she owns that shit.) “A lot of them never realize they’re into it until you do. It elevates you to sex-god status. I’ve never met a man who didn’t like it.”
But why? Transgressing a nasty boundary is, for some, part of the appeal. For those people, filth—symbolic and, yes, literal—is a plus. “Do you know why I’m doing this?” a man once asked as he reached for my butthole after sex. “Because you know I don’t like it?” I responded. “And for the smell on my hands,” he replied. My horrified reaction seemed only to delight him further.
Still, “there’s a difference between the guy who wants to, like, bury his face in your ass and inhale your crack sweat and get all up in there, versus the guy who sticks his finger up your ass because he wants you to reciprocate,” a female friend observed over whiskeys on a recent night out. “He wants a finger up his ass but can’t ask for it because he’s afraid of seeming gay or something. It’s like the guy who asks you to hold his balls and then is like, ‘Maybe squeeze a little, maybe? … Harder, maybe? … Harder! Harder! Harder!’ Until suddenly you’re like, ‘Wait, you’re totally into cock-and-ball torture.’ You really want me to stomp on your nuts; you just don’t know how to ask.’ ”
I had a revelation about butt play and sexual dominance at a house party in Brooklyn, talking to a man who enjoys rimming his girlfriend but doesn’t like receiving because it makes him feel out of control. When she rims him, he can’t see what’s going on, he explained. When he rims her, he controls everything. Thus, he concluded, even when his girlfriend sits on his face, metaphorically he is still the top. Several men expressed similar sentiments. “It’s about making her feel pleasure,” my friend Greg Gchatted. “Playing her like an instrument, demonstrating technical mastery. It’s a force thing, making her feel something.” But the logic still felt off. How could a man poised, literally, to swallow a woman’s shit possibly be in a position of dominance?
Then again, the conventional wisdom on oral-sex power dynamics has never made sense to me. When a man puts the most delicate part of his body (penis) between the sharpest parts of mine (teeth), he maintains the belief that he is dominant—even though I’m the one who could, with a few purposeful chomps, remove him from the gene pool. The heterosexual-male psyche is so self-entitling, I realized, that men can convince themselves they are in charge during absolutely any interaction with a woman. “Ha-ha, wow,” Greg said when I pointed this out. “I can’t decide if this makes ‘patriarchy’ seem pathetic or impressive. It’s like being so cool that you can do uncool things: ‘I’m so patriarchal, women can shit in my mouth.’ True masculinity is being a power bottom?”
“Maybe patriarchy is a fraud created by women to let men think they are in charge,” I replied, “so we can use their tongues as toilet paper.”
*This article appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
Photograph by Ren Hang/Courtesy of Nue Galerie