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Qualitative Study Shows Porn’s Role in Normalizing Coercive Anal Sex

The main reasons given in the study for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography.

Decades of studies from respected academic institutions, have demonstrated significant impacts of porn consumption for individuals, relationships, and society. "What’s the Research" aims to shed light on the expanding field of academic resources that showcase porn’s harms in a variety of ways. Below are selected excerpts from published studies on this issue.

Trigger warning: The following post contains explicit descriptions of sex acts.

The full study can be accessed here.

Anal heterosex among young people and implications for health promotion: a qualitative study in the UK

Authors: Cicely A. Marston & Ruth Lewis
Published: July 2014

Peer-Reviewed Journal: BMJ Open

Background

Anal sex is increasingly prevalent among young people, yet anal intercourse between men and women—although commonly depicted in sexually explicit media—is usually absent from mainstream sexuality education and seems unmentionable in many social contexts.

Surveys suggest that young men and women—and older adults—are engaging in anal intercourse more than ever before. Sexually explicit media depictions are often mentioned as affecting how sex is viewed and practiced by young people, with anal intercourse being one of the “high risk” practices thought to be promoted by such media, although evidence about the influence of pornography on anal practices is thin.

Studies of anal practices, which are generally of over-18-year-olds, suggest that anal sex might be desired by young men more than women and may be used to avoid pregnancy, or vaginal intercourse during menstruation, while often being unprotected with condoms.

It may be painful for women, and may be a pleasurable part of sex for men and women. Almost one in five 16–24 year-olds (19% of men and 17% of women) reported having had anal intercourse in the past year in a recent national survey in Britain.

Very little is known about the detailed circumstances around or reasons for engaging in anal sex among under-18-year-olds anywhere, or what implications these might have for health. This study looks in detail at anal practices among young people aged 18 and under, develops hypotheses for further study, and makes suggestions for sexual health promotion.

Methods

The narratives about anal heterosex presented here emerged as part of a longitudinal, qualitative mixed methods study (the “sixteen18” project) which explored the range and meaning of different sexual activities among a diverse sample of 130 young people aged 16–18 in three contrasting locations in England: London; a medium-sized northern industrial city and a rural area in the southwest.

From January 2010, we conducted 9 group interviews and 71 in-depth interviews (wave one: 37 women and 34 men), re-interviewing 43 of the depth interviewees 1 year later (wave two), until June 2011.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Research Ethics Committee approved the study and all participants provided written consent. For the in-depth interviews, we used purposive sampling to maximize variation in social background.

Within each location, we sampled from a range of settings including: schools/colleges; youth work services targeting young people not in education or training; youth organizations; a supported housing project for young people living independently from their families; and informal networks.

We also used “snowball” sampling and, in the rural southwest, we approached people directly in a town center. The sample was diverse in terms of economic and social background, and less diverse in terms of ethnicity (most participants were white British). See Lewis et al for further details.

We highlighted in our information leaflet and our conversations with potential interviewees that we were keen to speak to any young person, whatever their experiences. Although participants varied in terms of the range of activities they had experienced, and the number and nature of their sexual partnerships, the majority reported opposite-sex partners only.

In the in-depth interviews, we asked interviewees about what sexual practices they had engaged in, the circumstances of those practices, and how they felt about them. We deliberately left “sexual practices” undefined, to allow for young people’s own definitions to emerge. In the group discussions, we asked general questions about what practices they had heard of, their attitudes to those practices and whether they thought young people their age would generally engage in particular practices, and if so, under what circumstances.

Many of our interviewees talked about anal sexual practices unprompted (whether they had engaged in them or not) and so in wave two, we specifically asked all of our participants about their perception and, if relevant, their experience of anal practices (about a quarter of our in-depth interviewees reported anal sexual experiences). Our aim was to explore the key discourses surrounding anal sexual practices among this age group and to elicit detailed accounts of specific experiences.

Results

Anal practices reported usually involved penetration or attempted penetration by the man with his penis or finger and, with one exception, were between opposite-sex partners.

Anal practices generally occurred between young men and women in “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationships. Although a small minority of interviewees said anal sex (ie, penetration with a penis) was exclusively “gay,” it was widely understood as also occurring between men and women.

The main reasons given for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography, and that “it’s tighter.” The implication was that “tighter” was better for men and was something men were said to want, while women were expected to find anal sex painful, particularly the first time.

The “pornography” explanation seems partial at best, not least because young people only seemed to see this as motivating men, not women. We found other important explanations and motivations in young people’s accounts, as we will see below.

Few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable and both expected anal sex to be painful for women. This study offers explanations for why anal sex may occur despite this. Interviewees frequently cite pornography as the “explanation” for anal sex, yet only seem to see this as a motivation for men. A fuller picture of why women and men engage in anal sex emerges from their accounts.

Anal sex among young people in this study appeared to be taking place in a context encouraging pain, risk, and coercion. Harm reduction efforts targeting anal sex may help encourage discussion about mutuality and consent, reduce risky and painful techniques, and challenge views that normalize coercion.

The full study can be accessed here.

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