Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

sexual-paradox

(Photo: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock)

The Painful Paradox of Coercive Sexuality

• August 13, 2014 • 3:30 PM

(Photo: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock)

A new study of sexually active British teens reveals disturbing narratives about anal sex.

Anal sex is a subject no one wants to talk about. Yet, as with so many taboo topics, the lack of discussion is effectively hiding troublesome truths.

A new study of sexually active 16- to 18-year-olds in England reveals a striking paradox. It finds that “few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable, and both expected anal sex to be painful for women.”

In spite of this, the practice seems to be gaining in popularity. A recent national survey in Britain reported that, among 16- to 24-year-olds, 19 percent of men and 17 percent of women had engaged in it over the past year.

The results suggest there is an “urgent need” to “encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques, and challenge views that normalize coercion,” co-authors Cicely Marston and Ruth Lewis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine write in the journal BMJ Open.

There is an “urgent need” to “encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques, and challenge views that normalize coercion.”

Marston and Lewis conducted a series of group discussions and in-depth, one-on-one interviews of 130 men and women ages 16 to 18. Participants hailed from three different locations (London, a northern industrial city, and the nation’s rural Southwest) and represented a diverse set of social backgrounds.

“There were marked gender differences in how anal sex was described,” the researchers report. “Its benefits (pleasure, indicator of sexual achievement) were expected for men, but not women. Its risks—interviewees rarely mentioned risks of sexually transmitted infections, focusing instead on risk of pain or damaged reputation—were expected for women but not for men.”

Given this disconnect, it’s not surprising that participants report anal sex was usually the result of persuasion, “with repeated, empathetic requests from men commonly mentioned.”

But if even men find the practice more enticing in theory than in practice, why are so many so insistent?

“The main reasons given for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography,” the researchers report. But Marston and Lewis consider that answer somewhat superficial; they point out that “anal sex happens in a context characterized by at least five specific features.”

First, some men’s narratives suggested “they expect coercion to be part of anal sex.” Second, and relatedly, “women being badgered for anal sex appears to be considered normal.” Third is the notion that women who do not enjoy it “are either flawed or keeping their enjoyment secret.”

“Fourth, anal sex today appears to be a marker of (hetero)sexual achievement or experience, particularly for men,” the researchers write. “The society which our interviewees inhabit seems to reward men for sexual experience per se and, to some extent, rewards women for compliance for sexually ‘adventurous’ acts…. Women may also be under pressure to appear to enjoy or choose certain sexual practices.”

“Fifth, many men do not express concern about possible pain for women, viewing it as inevitable. Less painful techniques, such as slower penetration, were rarely discussed.”

To summarize: “Anal sex among young people in this study appeared to be taking place in a context encouraging pain, risk and coercion.” And yet, the researchers write, “sexuality education, where it exists, rarely addresses specific sexual practices,” and thus avoids these vital issues.

It all suggests a need to expand sex education beyond mechanics to moral issues, with a goal of instilling a mindset of mutual exploration, mutual enjoyment—and mutual respect.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.