“Teen Vogue is garbage. The editors’ minds are in the garbage. The authors’ minds are in the garbage. Don’t let your kids read garbage.” That’s what an activist mom said as she burned a copy of the magazine in a Twitter video when she discovered an article teaching 11- to 17-year-olds how to have anal sex. Enraged, she called on parents to get Teen Vogue pulled from the shelves.
Whether you agree with her choice to boycott and burn the magazine isn’t the most important issue here. It’s how we got to this point: the increase of anal sex among children and teenagers.
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I didn’t hear anyone in my high school talking about anal sex. Vaginal sex? Yes, and lots of it. Unwanted pregnancies? Yep. AIDS? Definitely. Oral sex? Yep. But anal sex? No. Does this mean no one was having anal sex? I’m sure they were. Non-coital sex is as old as time, but we’re talking about heterosexual teenagers and a sexual act that was once considered deviant and taboo. That has suddenly changed. Anal sex is now the new black.
Before I expand on this, I want to say up front, as I often do whenever I write about sexual behaviors, that adults can do whatever they want. I’m not dictating to anyone or judging personal sexual practices or what people do in the privacy of their own homes. I don’t care what consenting adults do in their bedrooms, and I don’t advocate government censorship of any kind. Sex and mutual exploration is to be enjoyed—by adults.
Our focus here is on children, adolescents in particular, who are still developing physically, emotionally, cognitively, and psychologically. It is the responsibility of their parents and civil society to promote beneficial values and practices that will help them develop into healthy adults.
This Is Definitely A New Thing
When I started writing this article, I asked my 77-year-old mother if 11- to 17-year-olds were having anal sex back in her day. “No,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it certainly wasn’t common or talked about. I knew people who had sex, of course, but not anal sex. I certainly didn’t. None of my friends did. I never even thought about it outside of homosexual relationships. Those were different times.”
Different times, indeed. As reported in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers examining the prevalence and correlates of heterosexual anal and oral sex in adolescents found an increase in the “prevalence of anal and oral sex among opposite-sex partners.” A survey published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that anal sex has more than doubled since the early ’90s among heterosexual women. In 1992, 16 percent of women had anal sex. Today, it’s 40 percent.
According to Elizabeth Wildsmith and her study on dating and sexual relationships, “between 2007 and 2010, 11 percent of male adolescents and 13 percent of female adolescents reported that they had engaged in anal sex with someone of the opposite sex.” Researchers at Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center in Rhode Island have found that “anal sex is on the rise among teens and young adults, particularly those who have unprotected vaginal sex.”
Why are more young women and adolescents choosing to have anal sex than ever before? Some say it’s because of virginity pledges within religious circles. Girls, they say, are choosing to substitute oral and anal sex because they want to stay “technical virgins.” In other words, “a culture of purity is the problem.” This was the finding of a study by Peter Bearman and Hanah Bruckner of Columbia and Yale universities that made a big media splash several years ago.
Another Attempt at Sex Without Consequences
Other researchers, however, have shown this study to be inaccurate and flawed. Jeremy Uecker led a study on technical virginity and found that, contrary to Bearman’s study, religious adolescents who were virgins where “actually less likely to substitute non-vaginal forms of sex for vaginal intercourse,” both for oral (63 versus 73 percent) and anal sex (15 versus 22 percent). Instead of religious motivations, Uecker found that the “most compelling motivation for technical virginity among young people who have not had vaginal sex” is risk-reduction.
While moral teachings and wanting to remain a “virgin” certainly played a role for some, most avoided vaginal sex “because of the risks it poses to their health, well-being, and future plans.” They didn’t want to get pregnant or diseases that would derail their lives.
“Much is at stake for these individuals. They are more likely to come from homes with educated parents and are subsequently more likely to attend (or are already attending) a four-year college. For these, vaginal sex involves too much risk—it could incur damage to their educational and career trajectories, and thus it is replaced for a time by lower-risk alternatives such as oral sex. Their behavior is reflective not of their religious morality, but of their desire to live up to the expectations of their family’s socioeconomic status.”
Laura Lindberg’s study on “noncoital sexual activities among adolescents” confirms this demographically, finding that “teens of white ethnicity and higher socioeconomic status were more likely than their peers to have ever had oral or anal sex.”
What’s Driving This Trend?
Let’s face it, girls have always been wary of sex because of these socioeconomic and religious reasons, but in the past anal sex wasn’t the go-to solution it is today. How, then, did anal sex become increasingly popular?
I believe it has been driven by four social factors. First is the general sexual permissiveness that has been increasing in our culture since the sexual revolution—the ubiquity of sex, the acceptance of formerly deviant sexual practices, and the effects of sex-positive feminism on society. In the name of equality, women started acting like men, expressing their sexuality in all the ways a man does. Past sexual mores vanished. Uninhibited, emotionally detached sex became the norm.
Second is the exposure of anal sex in the media, hence normalizing it. As Tracie Eagan of Jezebel.com told ABC News, “Anal sex is sort of always considered the last frontier, pushing the envelope.” We saw this take root in popular culture in the 1990s with “sex-laden MTV, documentaries on gay lifestyles, and television shows like ‘Sex and the City.’”
What began in the ’90s has snowballed. Just consider the awkward sex scene in “Girls” between Desi and Marnie in the kitchen, which Lena Dunham described as Marnie getting her “butt eaten out”; the strap-on scene in “Broad City”; and the gay anal sex scene in “How to Get Away With Murder.” Even “The Mindy Project” went bottoms up.
Then, Of Course, There’s Pornography
The third factor is pornography, where depictions of anal sex are endless. Egan observed that “as with other sex trends, girls are more open to experimentation because pornography has become so easily accessible on Web sites like XTube and YouPorn.” While some research finds pornography has no effect on the sexual behaviors of adolescents, this is not the finding of many solid studies or of comprehensive research.
A study in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association reported, “There is agreement in the literature suggesting that adolescents can learn sexual behaviors from observing the behaviors depicted in sexually explicit material.” Pornography rewires the brain, changing perceptions and behaviors: “When an adolescent boy compulsively views pornography, his brain chemistry can become shaped around the attitudes and situations that he is watching.”
Another study in 2006 found that pornography distorts adolescents’ perception of sexuality. Researchers “extended these findings by revealing that pornographic media conveyed expectations and demands regarding what to do.” In addition, research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that adolescents who use “sexually explicit material are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as anal sex, sex with multiple partners, and using drugs or alcohol during sex.” This finding was supported by another study in 2009.
Research on HIV prevention published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that subjects “showed significantly elevated odds ratios for having engaged in unprotected anal sex” that was associated with increased viewing of pornography that depicted anal sex. A United Kingdom study bears this out, with male participants saying they wanted to have anal sex with women to emulate pornography, although this was only one factor.
A comprehensive study of all the often-conflicting research on this topic also found a correlation between pornography and sexual behaviors. Collectively, these studies suggest that youth who consume pornography may develop unrealistic sexual values and beliefs. Among the findings, higher levels of permissive sexual attitudes, sexual preoccupation, and earlier sexual experimentation have been correlated with more frequent consumption of pornography.
Researchers have had difficulty replicating these results, however, and as a result the aggregate literature has failed to indicate conclusive results. Nevertheless, consistent findings have emerged linking adolescent use of pornography that depicts violence with increased degrees of sexually aggressive behavior.
Informed by porn, young people are more likely to exert pressure to have anal sex. A UK study found men are motivated not only by curiosity and porn-fueled fantasies, but by competition. “Men in a group discussion said anal sex was ‘something we do for a competition’, and ‘every hole’s a goal.’”
Then There’s the Acceptance of Homosexuals and Gay Sex
The final factor in the increase of anal sex among young people is the impact of the homosexual culture on society. I admit, I can’t back this one up with studies, so I’m presenting this as my opinion born of observation and common sense. Just as the black culture became fused with the broader culture in the civil rights era resulting in hip-hop influencing everything from fashion to lingo, the normalization and acceptance of homosexuality is having its own effect.
Unlike ever before, we are exposed to gay sex in mainstream media, the gay lifestyle is written about and praised in schools and popular culture, sex education often includes discussion of sexual preferences, and homosexuals are freely expressive about their sexual habits and behaviors, no longer silenced by social stigma. Homosexuality has undeniably influenced fashion, film, television, the arts, education, and language through gay slang.
I believe this influence extends to sexual behaviors. In the past, anal sex (or sodomy, as it was known) was primarily associated homosexuality. Homosexuality was considered deviant, so its sexual practices were considered deviant as well. With loosening of social norms and normalization of homosexuality, sodomy lost its stigma and its name. Anal sex became acceptable.
These four factors, I believe, have contributed to the increase of anal sex among adolescents, who are forever being sexualized by the culture. Should this concern us as a society, or is this no big deal? I’d say when it comes to children, it’s a big deal.
Now, Let’s Be Clear: Anal Sex Has High Health Risks
Anal sex is a very high-risk sexual behavior, more so than vaginal intercourse and oral sex. As reported by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a Guttmacher study found that 25 percent of the women they interviewed had been forced to have anal sex. “Coercion and violence notwithstanding, many participants reported pain and discomfort, including emotional distress, during anal intercourse.” A study from the UK concurs: “Young people’s narratives normalized coercive, painful and unsafe anal heterosex.”
In HuffPo, Naomi Wolf said when she visited several college campuses, “anal fissures were the number one health problem women were having because everyone was doing anal when they were drunk and had just met, which is not the best way to do anal. It’s a very delicate thing. So, the scripts are being set by porn.”
Not only is it painful, it has other risks. It can eventually lead to fecal incontinence, and the American Cancer Society reports, “Receptive anal intercourse also increases the risk of anal cancer in both men and women, particularly in those younger than 30.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that “Anal sex is the riskiest sexual behavior for getting and transmitting HIV for men and women.” It “carries a risk 17 times greater than receptive vaginal intercourse. Moreover, receptive anal intercourse even carries a risk 2 times greater than that of needle-sharing during injection drug use.”
The CDC also reports that “in addition to the same sexually transmitted diseases that are passed through vaginal sex, anal sex can also expose participants to hepatitis A, B, and C; parasites like Giardia and intestinal amoebas; bacteria like Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli.”
Given the high risks, do we really want our children having anal sex? Some might say it doesn’t matter as long as they’re educated about the risks. Education, they claim, is key. Yes, education is very important. But where should they get this education? In what social context? According to which moral worldview? This is for parents, not educators, the government, or Teen Vogue, to decide. If parents forego their duty and let the world educate their children about sex, that’s their prerogative. But they have no right to complain when all the education in the world fails.
As beneficial and necessary as education is, it is best when set within a strong moral framework, though admittedly this is not full-proof, given our imperfect nature. This can only come from families and other private associations. Kids are having anal sex today not because they’re uneducated, not because they’ve taken virginity pledges, but because they’re immoral.
Some will say they’re doing it because they’re typical teenagers—raging hormones and all. If we were simply talking about normal sexual development, I’d agree. But we’re talking about anal sex—a sexual behavior that culture is imposing on them. Typical teenagers of generations past who were free of this social pressure and influence seemed to refrain from taking the back door when the front was closed. Why can’t kids today?
Our children are not just physical beings feeding their animal appetites. They’re spiritual creatures, rational and moral. Our education about sex of any sort is woefully lacking if it focuses only on the physical. Children’s minds and souls need to be educated as well. That’s something Teen Vogue is simply not equipped to do. All it can do is perpetuate a materialism that debases our children rather than elevating them by informing their minds and enlightening their souls.