What we talk about when we talk about anal

We speak to an expert in queer theory and author of “Reading From Behind” about discussing the part of our body that’s both desirable and disgusting

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When I think about anal pleasure – in the abstract sense, rather than having it – the title of an old Sade song comes to mind: “The Sweetest Taboo”. In many ways, those three words encapsulate the way that we view anal sex as a culture – as something bound in contradiction.

Mostly – at least privately – it’s enjoyable: with a recent study finding that it proved more effective than cunnilingus in helping women reach orgasm. But it is something that we rarely speak about aloud and, for some reason, it still feels hard to be truly open about.

Never has this been made more plaintively apparent than last week, when model Amber Rose famously waded in on Kanye West’s Twitter spat with Wiz Khalifa. Rose shut Kanye down with what is, apparently, the ultimate affront: a disclosure of his love for a good old anal pleasuring. Her hashtag “#FingersInTheBootyAssBitch” made the internet scream. Rose got over 290,000 retweets. Her words were printed onto T-shirts, and sold on Etsy. It was, for better or worse, a true moment in our culture. 

Kanye, meanwhile, became uncharacteristically sheepish. It wasn’t until around two days later that he responded to Rose’s claims, putting out the statement: “Exes can be mad but just know I never let them play with my ass… I don’t do that… I stay away from that area altogether.” Has anyone ever, so succinctly, managed to make it so glaringly obvious that they love having their ass played with? Debatable. But that’s not the point.

The point is: What’s the big deal with butts anyway? Why are we so totally obsessed with orienting sexuality and mapping it onto the body? And how can we benefit from a rethinking of the arsehole as we currently see it? From sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who showed that plenty of couples were doing it up the ass, through to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who described the anus as the ultimate erogenous zone, the way we’ve acknowledged anal sex has varied through points in history. So, how do we see it now? 

Professor Jonathan Allan, a Canadian academic and expert in queer theory has just written a book called Reading From Behind, which spends a long time thinking about these questions. In fact, he’s kind of come up with a whole theory of the arsehole. The more Allen began to research conflicting cultural attitudes towards what he calls “anality”, and their history, the more people criticised his insistence on investigating the arsehole as a point of contention.

“It’s a weird one, the asshole,” says Allan, over the phone from Canada. “On the one hand it’s exceptionally desired, and on the other hand it's considered exceptionally disgusting, right?” Allan explains that we talk about arseholes all the time, that they have a strange ubiquity, and once you start looking for references, you see them everywhere. “Our vernacular has all kind of examples,” he points out, “Like ‘you're such an ass’ or ‘you're so anal’”.

Then, of course, there’s the fascination with the booty across pop culture; we marvel at Nicki Minaj’s curves, at J-Lo’s behind, at Kim Kardashian’s microclimate. There are entire songs dedicated to butts: Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” can be traced back through Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious”, to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. There has also been, in recent years, the popularisation of the belfie – read: butt selfie – immortalised on Instagram accounts ranging from Rihanna to Princess Nokia.

The discussion around women’s butts – which according to Allan is really about “curvature” –  is never independent of cultural context. To worship a full-bodied bottom can be to fetishise the black or Latino female form; it can be celebratory or objectifying. To reject a big behind can be bound up in racism or bodyshaming. Our attitudes to butts is something we talk about, though. We discussed Nicki Minaj’s appendage in the press after men queued up behind it at Madame Tussauds, we asked whether Miley’s twerking scandal constituted cultural appropriation, and there were Marxist readings of the fuss over with Pippa Middleton’s bum.

“The butt is desired in a lot of heterosexual situations, says Allan, giving the example of questions guys ask one another, like, ‘are you a butt man or a breast man?’ The distinction, though, as he puts it, is that an interest in butts “certainly doesn't have to mean that you're a homosexual, or interested in anality or anal sex”. It’s only when we start to talk about the anal cavity itself that homosexuality is implied. And while we feel comfortable talking about “booties”, we are less au fait with discussing anal sex.

“There does seem to be this governing idea,” explains Allan, “that the anus is the very ground zero of gayness. Men think, ‘What does that mean that I'm interested in anal pleasure?’ And it suddenly becomes an attack on masculinity in a lot of ways – to admit it is to surrender one's masculinity.” Hence the shame surrounding #FingersInTheBootyAssBitch. And yet, the silly thing is, remarks Allan, it doesn’t have to be about gayness or masculinity at all.

“There does seem to be this governing idea that the anus is the very ground zero of gayness. Men think, ‘What does that mean that I'm interested in anal pleasure?’ And it suddenly becomes an attack on masculinity in a lot of ways”

In Reading from Behind, Allan quotes a letter written to sex columnist Dan Savage by an anonymous straight man. It says (to paraphrase): “I really love it when my girlfriend pleasure my ass, am I gay?” Dan Savage’s answer is, no, says Allan: “There's a man, there's a woman, so nope!” And yet, the idea is still there that anal sex is reserved for homosexual men. Allan doesn’t want to “de-gay” anal sex, but at the same time, he says that viewing male pleasure as purely to do with the penis is a reductive way of looking at things. A lot of men enjoy anal pleasure, straight or gay, only – we associate it with the negative connotations around homosexuality – possibly ones left over from the AIDS crisis (ongoing) – during which the rectum was widely equated with the grave.

All of this prompts a big hypothetical question: If society becomes more accepting of gay people, will it change social attitudes towards anality? I put this question to Allan. “I think we are seeing a lot more discussion in some places,” he says, “But social acceptance is still a long way off. If we looked at popular culture and representations of gay people or non-normative families, like Modern Family, everyone's neutered in the show. I think we're comfortable with ideas of growing acceptance around LGBT issues but as Canadian Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau said decades ago, “The State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

The situation is the same here in the UK – we have gay TV hosts like Stephen Fry, Alan Carr and Graham Norton, but they’re relatively desexualised. We don’t see much anal sex on TV, straight or gay. We’re so shy to talk about anal pleasure, in fact, that we’ll risk harming ourselves sooner than discuss it openly. Allan’s research found that A&E departments receive swathes of people who have been pleasuring themselves up the butthole with a range of inanimate objects – objects which have not been properly designed for insertion into the rectum, or at least the kind of insertion where you can actually get them out of there again.

Allan argues that, if we managed to overcome the taboo shrouding our arseholes we could do away with our lack of awareness about them and also do away with a whole lot of the shame attached to anal pleasure. “What I really find interesting about the butt, is that we all have one,” he says. “To me, what is so interesting is that so much academic work is about difference and separating people, but the ass sort of unifies us; not that we all use it the same way, not that we all have the same relationship to it, not that we all aestheticise it or politicise it the same way, but we all have it – isn't that some sort of common ground?”

When we really stop and think about it, the arsehole opens up another dimension. Whether it conjures shame or desire or pleasure or disgust, it is, at least in Jonathan Allan’s mind, “something that can unify us.” When you put it like that, it starts to feel silly that the arsehole is viewed as “the ground zero of gayness”. If anything, wouldn’t it make better sense to think of it as a kind of “ground zero of queerness”, or at the very least, queer potentiality? “I think that's a possibility,” agrees Jonathan, “And I think that one works where we understand queerness as the theorist Eve Sedgwick described it: as the open mesh of possibilities.”

Reading From Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus by Jonathan Allan is published on March 15

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