I was in high school when Sex and the City premiered, and like many women of my generation and the generations that followed, that show taught me a lot about sex. Like, a lot: Things I didn’t even know existed were introduced to me every Sunday night—and one of those things was anal sex.
At the time, anal between straight couples wasn’t even on my radar. I knew that gay men engaged in it, but I held on to some pretty old-school notions when it came to why straight women would do it. Namely, as Charlotte put it so eloquently in Sex and the City’s "Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys" episode, “Men don’t marry Up-the-Butt Girl. Whoever heard of Mrs. Up-the-Butt?" Back in 1998 I agreed—and that statement was the first thing that came to mind when my college boyfriend suggested we do the deed a few years later.
Even though I was determined never to become Up-the-Butt Girl, I was in love for the first time and figured one encounter with anal wouldn’t put me in whatever category a future Mrs. Up-the-Butt might reside. The experience was, for lack of a better word, awful. It was painful and uncomfortable, and as I would tell my boyfriend afterward, it felt like I was “taking a backward shit,” if that were even anatomically possible. But on top of the physical discomfort, I also felt ashamed. It was humiliating that this was what he wanted and humiliating that I consented. What did this say about me? What other so-called deviant things would I consent to in the name of love? I didn’t even want to imagine.
Even throughout my twenties, when I stopped taking such a hard line on what sex said about my character, I still didn’t really enjoy the few times I had anal sex and figured it just wasn’t really my scene. But then something happened in my early thirties. Perhaps it was the confidence that came with age and sexual experience, but I found myself having anal sex with someone I was dating and loving it. Really loving it.
But there was still shame—this time about enjoying anal, rather than just engaging in it. It went back to what liking anal sex said about me as a woman. Was I dirty? Deranged? Had I been dropped on my head as a child and this was the outcome of it, manifested decades later? It didn’t matter how many times I watched that Sex and the City episode in which Samantha praised anal—I couldn’t come to terms with it.
Though up to 25 percent of heterosexual men and women have tried anal sex, the taboo around it is often louder than the praise. It doesn’t matter how many stats come out on the topic, like how women who have anal sex have more orgasms (it comes with an orgasm rate of 94 percent, compared with the 65 percent from vaginal sex). It also doesn’t seem to matter that the majority of women who do engage in anal sex are well-educated with higher levels of income—information one might think would nix some of the negative stereotypes associated with women who enjoy anal sex. But, sadly, it does not.
There are plenty of reasons a woman might feel guilty about enjoying it. When Teen Vogue published a piece titled “Anal Sex: What You Need to Know” in 2018, the backlash was swift. Although writer and NYC-based sex educator Gigi Engle (who, full disclosure, is a Glamour contributor) wasn’t suggesting girls run out and have anal sex—merely introducing it as an option, with information on how to do it safely—there were some alarmingly conservative, potentially homophobia-tinged responses. It didn’t take long for the hashtag #pullteenvogue to make its way onto Twitter, or for articles and videos to pop up condemning the magazine for what ultimately should have been a conversation starter and a healthy eye-opener.
“Much stigma exists around anal sex, but for some women it is their arousal and favored erogenous zone,” explains Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist and author of the relationship blog You're Just a Dumbass. “For women who know that they like anal and express it, we should [remind her] why she shouldn’t be shamed. She is simply making a decision for herself that she is interested in having better sex.”
And despite the alarmism, women who have anal are slowly but surely making their way into mainstream narratives. Lars von Trier’s 2012 film Nymphomaniac was the rare theatrical release that included anal sex (actually, there wasn’t much it didn’t include, sexually speaking), which seemed like a small but important step. Then, in 2014, both The Mindy Project and Broad City had episodes about the act. In 2015’s I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman’s character has anal while cheating on her husband. This kind of exposure just solidifies that anal is a sex move that people are engaging in, even if it’s still hard to talk about it sometimes.
With this in mind, I have been suggesting it more on my own accord to get more comfortable with the fact that I like it. My partner and I did it the third time we slept together, in fact, because it was important to me that I fully embrace my sexuality, especially the parts I was once ashamed of and which still remain taboo by society’s standards. I wanted to be the one who initiated it, thereby owning both the act and the fact that I enjoyed it. I’m starting to understand now that I shouldn’t allow archaic thoughts about how a woman should have sex (which typically means vaginal only), or the narrow-minded thinking of people who condemn it, to take up space in my mind.
While I don’t need other people or pop culture to validate my feelings on the matter, it does help in some ways to feel a sense of solidarity. It forces us to realize that human sexuality is complicated and there’s no “right” way to be aroused or to get off. Similarly, not being into anal sex doesn’t make you a prude or somehow less sexually adventurous.
It’s definitely not for everyone, but for those of us who do enjoy it, for far too long it felt like it needed to be a secret. Now I know how ridiculous a notion that is. A woman’s sexual proclivities don’t define her—knowing what you want is all that really matters.
Amanda Chatel is a sex and relationships writer splitting her time between New York City and Paris. Follow her at @angrychatel.