Last Saturday, a young friend of mine vacationing in Washington, D.C., contacted me at 3 a.m. Drunk and distraught, he told me that his drunken hookup had gone bad. “A digestive issue makes it impossible for me to bottom,” he said, “but whenever a guy asks me to top, I get nervous and go limp.” He had spent the last hour crying and beating himself up over his seeming inability to have gay anal sex.
I’d totally been there before — throughout most of my 20s, in fact — and I tried to reassure him that, contrary to his beliefs, he wasn’t a freak or a failure. Lots of young guys I’d met at LGBTQ conferences around America weren’t into anal sex either, and most of them felt like a weirdo because of it.
It’s easy to understand why they feel this way: America (and most of the world) lacks LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, so the vast number of us learn about sex through porn, and most porn scenes involve gay anal sex. That, combined with the endless obsession in the gay community of whether guys are “tops or bottoms” contributes to a perception that most gay and bi guys enjoy anal sex.
It was then that I recalled a study conducted by George Mason University a few years back. It was an online survey asking about the most recent sexual encounter of nearly 25,000 gay and bisexual men ages 18 to over 60 from across the United States — the largest study of its kind. It showed that, at any given age, only about 35% of guys (or less) had actually participated in anal sex during their last sexual encounter.
Let me repeat that: Only 35% of gay and bi dudes had anal sex during their most recent hookup.
So it’s entirely possible that if you’re not into anal sex, you’re not in the minority, you’re in the majority. There’s even a slang term for guys who aren’t into anal: They’re not tops, they’re not bottoms, they’re sides.
The study says that the vast majority of guys (around 70–75%) preferred kissing, oral sex and mutual masturbation. You can kiss, give oral sex or a handjob on your side. See? Sides. Make it happen.
There are lots of reasons guys might prefer kissing, blowjobs and handjobs over anal sex (it requires less preparation and energy, to start), but it’s still notable that less than half went anal.
Anyway, when I mentioned this to my older boyfriend, he said, “What?? No way. Those guys are underreporting, maybe because of the homophobic stigma or HIV phobia attached to gay anal sex.” He assumed that since more men these days are taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) — a medication which is highly effective at preventing HIV — the number of anal sex enthusiasts was probably much higher than reported.
So, to find out, I spoke to Dr. Lee Kinsey, a psychotherapist and sex therapist at The Montfort Group in Plano, Texas, who primarily works with gay and straight relationships that are struggling to achieve meaningful and pleasurable sex.
Why aren’t more gay and bi guys having anal sex?
“I think those numbers are probably about right,” Kinsey says. “Anal sex has been overblown as the holy grail of sex by our culture,” he continues. “Most of my gay male clients aren’t having tons of anal sex. There are many reasons why.”
“Certainly the fear of disease and the shame associated with anal penetration are factors that stop gay men from engaging in anal sex,” he says. “But those things only contribute to the real reason I think so many aren’t having anal — they aren’t enjoying it.”
Kinsey explains that good anal sex is complicated. There are a lot of factors that go into making it an enjoyable experience, he says, and the added pressure of fear, shame, guilt and pressure to perform can make it all overwhelming.
“Because there is basically zero sex education in this country, particularly for gay and bisexual men, we have not been taught how to have good anal sex.”
Kinsey has taken a good look at the George Mason University study and noted that older men reported experiencing extreme pleasure during gay anal sex at rates 15–20% higher than men under 40. “They’ve had the time to figure it out,” he says.
He also pointed out that the gay participants who reported having anal sex in their last encounter reported little to no incidence of pain during intercourse.
“Those two data points strongly indicate this 35 % have something that is making anal sex more accessible to them,” he said. “I’m betting its knowledge.”
Kinsey spends a great deal of time with his clients helping them understand the barriers that get in the way of good anal sex. Most of the time he has to help them understand how the body works and what it needs to enjoy anal sex consistently.
And while he would like to see the study replicated now that PrEP use is more widespread, he imagines any increase in anal sex would be slight because “PrEP doesn’t affect whether or not it will hurt to stick something up your butt.”
What does gay sex look like if it’s not about anal sex?
“So if gay sex isn’t all about anal, what are gay and bi men really looking for in their sex?” I ask Kinsey.
He says that if he was to pick any guy walking around Dallas’s gay strip and were able to have them honestly answer what they’re looking for in sex, they’d say something along the lines of freedom, connection, loss of loneliness, loss of pain, self-respect and respect from his partner, and pleasure rooted in safety.
“Some people who read that are probably going to be rolling their eyes,” he says. But, he continues, “Even the people who fantasize daily about just pounding someone or being pounded by someone, when they’re really honest with me, they discover that this fantasy is actually rooted in a deep desire to be free. ‘I want to be able to let go of myself, to lose myself in pleasure and in the arms of someone else who is strong enough to hold me, strong enough to take me.’ That feeling is so important and so difficult to achieve by accident. Most of us need to be taught how to achieve these things in sex.”
In short, if you’re struggling with the fact that you’re not into anal sex, Kinsey says, “You are so normal! So what you don’t like anal? Sex that worships anal as the ultimate act is boring. Period.”
He reminds people that there are many other things you can do that will make sex interesting, fun and pleasurable, and he encourages folks to do what they want to do. He suggests finding a way to give yourself permission to be yourself and explore your fantasies even if they don’t involve anal ever again.
What if you’re not currently enjoying anal sex but you want to?
For those who really want to enjoy anal, Kinsey advises first remembering that all bodies are different. He says some men will find anal sex extremely pleasurable simply because of where their prostate is located, how large or small it is and the length of their anal canal.
While he believes that nearly everyone can learn to bottom without pain, he adds, “You need to understand that sex, in general, is complicated. Pleasurable anal sex, in particular, is strongly affected by psychological and biological factors that you need to understand for yourself.”
Lots of online guides offer anal sex advice, but Kinsey says people should ignore any anal sex advice that recommends drugs or other ways of ignoring your feelings.
He says that the biggest hurdle for most gay men is usually patience. “Gay and bi men have trouble being patient with themselves and/or finding someone to have sex with that won’t react negatively to the statement, ‘I need to figure some things out,'” he says.
He continues, “Both tops and bottoms need to work through performance anxiety, fear, stigma and any residual shame or guilt. That takes time and safety. Be patient.”
Lastly, he says, “I would tell anyone who is willing to listen that sex is an emotional experience. Whether you like it or not, your emotional being doesn’t stop existing just because you decided to have emotionless sex. There is no such thing. Good sex is sex that takes your feelings into consideration and knows how to handle them. This does not mean that every sexual encounter must be romantic or loving, but every sexual partner should know how to help themselves and their partner with whatever feelings arise. That is often a tall order, but it is possible. When you learn to listen to your mind, heart and body, sexual pleasure will come — whether it involves an anus or not.”
When I bring up porn, he says, “Porn is ridiculous. I mean, come on. No one gets pounded like that in real life, especially not after zero to no preparation or foreplay. Is it possible to get pounded as they do in porn in real life? Yes. But porn doesn’t show you what’s necessary to get your body ready for that kind of fun.”
He wishes it did. He says, “Some pornographer somewhere needs to make a sex education video solely based on what porn actors do to prepare themselves. We would all learn a lot.”
What do you think about this statistic on gay men having anal sex? On which side of the percentage do you lie?
This story was originally published on October 16, 2017.