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Hirst, Froggatt and Kenny's “Perceptions of Young Women Who Engage in Anal Sex: A Sociological Inquiry”

“Hirst, Froggatt and Kenny's “Perceptions of Young Women Who Engage in Anal Sex: A Sociological Inquiry” [PDF]

McBride and Fortenberry (2010) note that little attention is paid to women’s agency when engaging in anal sex, with most studies (at that time) overlooking the role of pleasure.

[S]ociological understandings on women’s engagement in anal sex is particularly underdeveloped. For instance, it is unclear (a) how women define ‘anal sex’, (b) what factors inform or influence choices to engage in anal activity, (c) the role of pleasure in such decision-making, and (d) how many women actually have experienced anal sex.

Anal sex research pertinent to women is typically heternormative and located in contexts with high prevalence of HIV, with most studies exploring male-female anal sex in African states, particularly South Africa (Carlos et al., 2019; Francis et al., 2019; Owen et al., 2017; Ybarra et al., 2018). Owen and colleagues (2017) justify this in stating that “South Africa is an important setting to examine pattern[sic] of heterosexual AI [anal intercourse], as it has the largest HIV epidemic driven by heterosexual sex in the world” (p. 1). However, this literature can overlook the intersectional relationship between gender, race, class and sexuality that might inform the agentic decisions employed by women who choose to engage in anal sex. While research on anal sex linked to HIV and STI transmission is no doubt important, and perhaps bound by funding ringfenced for HIV prevention and reduction, it also means the corpus of data on anal sex is medically rather than sociologically framed. Furthermore, according to McBride and Fortenberry (2010), research on non-intercourse anal sexual behaviour, including oral-anal contact, digital penetration, manual stimulation, and pegging, is scarce.

[T]he heteronormative assumptions made when researching anal sex can invisibilize queer women. There is limited literature on anal sex practices amongst gay, bi, and queer women. Ybarra and Mitchell’s (2016) national (USA) study of LGB and non-LGB sexual behavior found that 1% of lesbian, gay, and queer women and 14-28% of bisexual women had engaged with penile-anal sex with their most recent partner but give no details on the dynamics, nature, and types of anal sex practices or whether their partners were trans or cis women. Marrazzo et al.’s (2005) research with 23 lesbian and bi women aged 18-29 found that “. . . in each focus group, at least one woman indicated that she had never used a sex toy for either vaginal or anal sex . . . penetrative anal sex using a sex toy was acknowledged though viewed as less common” (p. 8) but give little information on rates, types, or dynamics of anal sex practices with queer women. Thus, we have little understanding of queer women’s relationship to anal sex. In addition, not all women who engage in male-female anal sex identify as heterosexual or in binary gendered terms and such language can exclude gender nonconforming and queer identities.

Currently, we also have a limited understanding of trans people’s engagement with anal sex ... In short, aside from studies of trans sex workers, data to ascertain trans people’s engagement in anal sex as part of their wider sexual repertoire and relationships is particularly limited.

Arguably, the framing of much of this research relies on heteronomative social constructs of sex, which reinforce phallocentric scripts that value the role of the penetrator as male, aggressive, and dominant whereas the receiver is female, passive, and submissive (Austin, 2017). Such scripts dictate that sexual pleasure belongs to (cis) men with sex beginning with insertion of the penis and ending with the male orgasm (Diorio, 2016); women are the receptacles of male pleasure. In relation to anal sex, Mcbride and Fortenberry (2010, p. 132) argue that

“. . . there is a cultural assumption that women should view anal sex as undesirable or unerotic and that participation in the behavior can only legitimately result from some level of coercion of acquiescence. This perspective does not allow for wanted anal sex, which marginalizes the sexuality of women who find anal sex pleasurable or erotic.”

Following on from Fahs and Gonzalez (2014) who found that anal intercourse was an increasingly normative yet stigmatized and coercive part of one’s sexual repertoire, McBride (2019) qualitatively explored attitudes towards penetrative anal intercourse amongst women aged 18-30. She found that anal intercourse was “constructed as a prevalent but highly stigmatized, painful act motivated by relational factors. However, themes related to a woman’s own sexual pleasure, desire, and curiosity also emerged” (2019, p. 370). Largely, the desire for a woman to please her male partner sexually was the main motivating factor for engaging in anal intercourse. Interestingly, while participants in her study articulated the stigmas attached to penetrative anal intercourse, none of her participants associated stigma or pain with manual-anal stimulation and the use of sex toys for anal stimulation - attitudes towards non-penetrative anal stimulation were generally favorable.

[W]omen who were curious or wanting to engage in anal sex were framed as experiencing pressure from partners or peers ... a participant with a counter narrative to the cultural perception that anal sex is inherently a coercive act, and that pleasure might play a role in young women’s decisions to choose to engage in anal sex

Omitting pleasure from discussion of anal sex in sex and relationships education limits the potential for raising self-knowledge and obscures anal pleasure in favour of anal risk. We argue that focusing on anal sex as a problem devoid of pleasure will not deter those who are interested in partaking voluntarily. Denying that pleasure can be a motivation for anal sex is dishonest and erroneous.

When asked who the primary instigator of anal sex might be, most participants said men ... This notion of what women or girls “think the man wants” reflects Holland et al.’s (1998) concept of “the male in the head” wherein young women in heterosexual relations internalize the systematic privileges of masculinity and find it difficult not to collude with male power and resist male dominance and desires.

Although conversations around anal sex were said to be lacking, the lack of pleasure-based information and positive experiences for women was of concern to several sexual health practitioners who lamented that even ‘normative’ vaginal-penile sex was, in their professional experience, frequently a negative experience for women, so concerns over anal sex were more pronounced ... Ultimately, participants felt that more information on pleasure, vaginal and anal sex was a pre-requisite to a greater degree of agency by informing them about their own bodies.

Overall, it was felt that one of the most salient barriers to true bodily autonomy, including the ability to fully assent to anal sex, was a lack of sexual literacy and education about the body (see also Herdt et al., 2021) ... This led to further concerns about choices made when engaging in anal sex, particularly whether a woman was (a) making an informed decision, (b) making her own decision based on her own sexual pleasure, and (c) enjoying anal sex for herself rather than her partner

Lack of discussion around women and anal sex within sex and relationships education was viewed as symptomatic of wider neglect of women’s sexual anatomy, repertoires, and bodily pleasure:

Although our sample size is limited due to its exploratory nature, the pilot project yielded such rich and interesting findings that the research team felt them worthy of sharing with the wider field of researchers, educators and service providers. We also acknowledge that the sample is atypical, in that most of the participants were either workers involved in sexual health, or young people who were willing to talk about anal sex, and therefore not necessarily representative of wider populations in terms of experience, expertise and views. Also, the largely racial homogeneity of our participants made an intersectional analysis impossible. Thus, we do not claim that our findings are generalizable,

We emphasize that we are not seeking to encourage anal sex arbitrarily but advocate that if young women are to have anal sex, they are entitled to the self-knowledge that will allow this to occur safely, consensually, pleasurably, and positively.

[W]e recommend that education on anal sex move beyond medicalized parameters of risk and HIV and other STI reduction to more holistic discourses that view women and girls as agentic individuals capable of sexual pleasure who are entitled to information relating to their own bodies and how their bodies can experience pleasure; vaginally, orally, and anally.

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