This brash porn act is shaping an unhealthy sexual culture among teens

The Globe and Mail

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As an article in this month’s GQ magazine announced that “butt stuff is in,” a troubling new British study finds an unhealthy culture of coercion, pain and sport among young men having – or hoping to have – anal sex with women.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open this week, found that some of the young men surveyed weren’t concerned about getting consent from young women, nor were they bothered by women experiencing pain during the act.

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Dr. Cicely Marston, senior lecturer in social science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and her colleagues interviewed 130 young women and men in England, asking them about their expectations, attitudes and experiences with anal intercourse. She found an unsettling narrative among her interview subjects, 16- to 18-year-olds entering their sexual lives.

“The overwhelming feeling from the people who had engaged in anal sex was that it exists in a coercive environment. There was this idea that women basically wouldn’t want to do it and that she needed to be persuaded,” said Marston. “They also talked about it as though it was completely normal for men to repeatedly ask their girlfriends for it and repeatedly be told no, but keep asking.”

The teenaged women surveyed reported that their own boyfriends were now routinely asking them for anal sex. Some expressed gratitude that they’d been allowed to decline the offer, a point Marston found disappointing – “the low bar they set for their partners.”

“We’d hope that you would also talk about what you’d actually like to do and go ahead and do that, rather than just be saying ‘no’ all the time,” the researcher said.

In group interviews, the young men talked about competing with friends to have anal sex with women, and swapping stories.“The men want to collect practices to say they’ve done them,” said Marston. “It was a box to tick. Who the partner was was completely irrelevant.”

Women’s desires were absent from the discussion: “There was no talk of mutual decision-making or mutual exploration of sexual practices.” (The researchers noted that not all male respondents talked about anal sex in coercive terms, and that at least one woman pointed out that she enjoys and initiates this type of intercourse.)

Some of the young men spoke of emulating what they’d seen in online porn, where the use of condoms and lubricant typically isn’t modelled.

“That might have introduced them to the idea of the practise to some extent,” said Marston, before acknowledging: “We allow porn to be the sex education tool for young people because we don’t provide an alternative discourse. We allow coercion to be normalized because we don’t speak up and say, ‘Actually, this isn’t normal.’ ”

So why is mainstream pornography continually downplayed when it comes to specific behaviours – in this case, coercive anal intercourse – crossing over into partnered sex?

“Because we don’t talk about sex, we don’t talk about porn,” says Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn.com, which pits porn myths against the more varied realities of human sexuality.

“Porn absolutely plays a role in this,” says Gallop. “In the absence of any healthy, accurate, honest, truthful conversation about sex in the real world, young women and men are getting their sex education from porn. And porn is performance.”

In the mainstream porn industry, still largely dominated by male producers and directors and a male target audience, Gallop says, “A lot of porn is like the sexual equivalent of Jackass. It’s about how extreme can you get, how hard can you push it. … A fundamental part of that extreme performance is that the woman suffers. It’s all about pornstar punishment.”

When nothing else is presented as a counterpoint for the viewer, “you unconsciously internalize aspects of that.” (Gallop has been famously frank about her preference to casually date “polite and well-mannered” younger men, as she made clear in a TED Talk that went viral in 2009: “I see for myself, therefore, how their behaviour unconsciously models things that porn has taught them,” she says.)

But Gallop also sees young women being educated by porn, as much as young men: “Porn does young women a huge disservice because it doesn’t show them how to expect or demand their own pleasure.”

In the current study, some men blamed a partner’s purported sexual naivety on any pain associated with the act: “There was this idea that if you’re a woman and you did experience pain, it was kind of your own fault because you weren’t relaxed enough, experienced enough – you would get used to it eventually,” recalled Marston. “There was that sense that the woman had to learn. There was no sense that it had anything to do with the man or the technique or use of lubricants.”

Another paradox emerged when men were asked if they’d actually enjoyed the act physically. Their responses were lukewarm. “They said things like, ‘It wasn’t as good as I thought it would be,’ or ‘Actually, I prefer vaginal sex.’ Certainly none of them said they loved the way it feels,” said Marston.

The researchers are pushing for more open discussion with parents and sex educators to help reduce these harmful attitudes. Marston also stresses the importance of “mutuality,” something that lies beyond consent.

“When you talk about consent, you’re implying that women are resisting all the time and that men have to check that the women are no longer resisting. Actually you should start a few steps back from that and think about why you want to do it in the first place, and have you spoken to your partner and what do they think? It’s more about mutual decision making and aiming at mutual pleasure.”

Gallop sees a wider societal refusal to acknowledge the impact that porn has on sexual relationships in which young people don’t know how they should behave toward each other.

“Our parents bring us up to have good manners, a sense of responsibility, accountability, work ethic. Nobody brings us up to behave well in bed,” says Gallop.

Instead of collecting the extreme, transgressive plot points of porn, she says “we should be encouraging people to collect experiences that represent a gold standard of giving pleasure and showcasing skill at real world sex.”