So Guys, Let's Talk About the Finger in the Butt

Just over 15 years ago, the idea of a man fingering a woman’s ass as sexual play was fairly foreign to many Americans. Literally. The 2002 edition of The Joy of Sex, the late Alex Comfort’s seminal 1972 illustrated guide to everything sexual, refers to the act as postillionage, a distinctly French (read: bizarre European libertine) tradition, with which a New York Times reviewer was, circa 2003, completely unfamiliar. It was the provenance of kink or tantric sex—wild and outré.

Yet today, man-on-woman anal fingering is functionally mainstream. It is hard to find solid data on how many people know of or experience it; most researchers don’t see the act as a sexual health priority worth studying. But anecdotes from forums across the digital world suggest it is a now common practice. Many men find anal fingering so desirable, or so routine, that for the past few years it has seemingly become common for guys to try to slip a finger up their partners’ rectums, sometimes without any prior notice or discussion, even on a first date or hookup. As Sheena Sharma wrote in 2015, “the unwelcome finger is a plague upon bedrooms across America.”

So what changed? How and when did anal fingering go from an apparently niche act to a ho-hum part of many men’s sexual repertoires? And what about it do men find appealing? Given how little we talk about sex as a culture, much less document major shifts in our sexual practices, it is hard to say for sure. But sex experts do have a basic sense of how we normalized the finger up her butt.

It is worth establishing that, no matter how unusual it may have seemed to many Americans just a couple decades ago, anal fingering has likely been around as long as our species. Humans are both experimental and pleasure-seeking beings; we explore our bodies, especially in the fumbling heat of sex, discovering every possible erogenous zone that we can. And the anus can be, explains sex educator Eric Garrison, an erogenous zone for any gender thanks to the tons of sensory nerves within it. It is even possible for women some women to orgasm through anal fingering, or other forms of anal play including full-on anal sex, that wind up stimulating their g-spots. (Men, of course, can also orgasm from anal fingering thanks to prostate stimulation.) So some women have likely always worked anal fingering into their masturbatory habits. And some couples have likely always worked it into their sex lives, either as a warm-up for anal sex or a stimulating end in itself.

However, the commonality of anal play of all sorts has shifted throughout history, depending on the sexual mores of a given culture or era. And America has long been hostile to anal sexuality. Religious traditions, and religiously-derived laws, frowning on sodomy long kept not only anal play but oral sex and more both taboo and, technically, illegal in much of the nation. Such taboo acts didn’t even show up often in stag films, proto-pornos of the early 20th century that indulged in seemingly modern tableaus like threesomes and quips about bestiality fairly freely.

Americans also long viewed “any type of anal sexual behavior as happening explicitly among gay men,” says sex researcher Kimberly McBride, Ph.D.. Gays as a group have long been stigmatized in this nation by religious and non-religious folk alike. (In truth, not all men who have sex with men actually enjoy or engage in anal play of any kind, and not all who do enjoy anal do it every time they get physically intimate.) On top of these cultural and moral taboos, adds McBride, Americans have long had trouble getting over the idea that the anus is irredeemably, existentially dirtier than any other part of our bodies.

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However, American taboos against anal play never actually shut off anal fingering, licking, sex, or any other form of stimulation, stresses sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D. In a sense, they may have added a new level of eroticism to it for some. Crossing lines and doing something one sees as new and daring can be, Garrison explains, a deep source of psychological stimulation. But they did send it underground, making it harder to hear about anal fingering, think about exploring one’s own butt, stumble upon anal stimulation and accept any pleasure one finds in it, or feel justified exploring it with a partner.

New cultural forces started to chip away at these taboos and draw stigmatized sexual practices out of the shadows, though during the latter half of the 20th century. There is not much information on how much the sexual revolution of the ‘60s involved a counter-culture reevaluation of the ass. But by the ‘70s, many of the first mainstream porn directors started to feature anal fingering or sex in their films. “Anything directed by Zachary Strong in the early ‘80s usually features digital-anal penetration,” notes porn historian Charles Devlin, and Harry Reems put his thumb in a few asses in his early films. Rapidly, references to anal sexuality started to leak into mainstream films as well—like Last Tango in Paris, a notorious Bernardo Burtolucci film from 1972 in which Marlon Brando’s American character anally rapes a French woman played by Maria Schneider using butter for lube. (Don’t watch it. Burtolucci sprung the scene on Schneider without notice so, while there was no actual penetration, it is actually a recorded sexual assault.)

As porn started to get more accessible moving into the ‘80s, Queen adds, sex-positive education that explored pleasure, not just the nuts and bolts of procreation, started to proliferate in parts of America as well, dissecting anal taboos and teaching people about the joys of all manner of anal play. By the mid-‘90s, the proliferation of the internet made it much easier for people across the country to discretely peruse porn, seek out diverse sexual information, and talk to each other about their experiences. As a bonus, in 2003 a milestone Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, toppled America’s remaining anti-sodomy laws. And during the George W. Bush presidency, a series of attempts to bust porn producers on obscenity charges for depicting non-normative sex acts, like extreme anal play, fell flat. Suddenly, anal sexuality felt less legally, officially dangerous as well.

All of these forces seemingly led to increased awareness of anal sexuality by the late ‘80s, when people like Garrison remember seeing the “shocker” hand gesture, in which men mime putting their index and middle fingers in a woman’s vagina and using their pinky to rub or penetrate her ass, used blithely by high school and college students. And by the mid-‘90s, people started to engage with anal play more actively. Preliminary research in the early 20th century suggested that maybe 10 percent of woman had tried anal sex once in their lives. By the 1990s, a fifth of all women and a quarter of all men had tried anal sex at least once, according to the research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of people trying anal at least once, or working it into their regular sex lives, has only risen since then. Today, says McBride, strong survey data suggests that 40 to 45 percent of all American men and women will try anal sex at least once in their lives.

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It is hard to know for sure, points out sex educator and anal expert Charlie Glickman, how much these figures capture an actual increase in the prevalence of anal play, and how much they just capture an increased openness to talking about pre-existing anal practices. People lie on sex surveys all the time, even when they are totally anonymous, thanks to ingrained taboos.

But by the end of the aughts, hetero anal play was common enough that sexual health researchers truly started to take note of it. By the dawn of the teens, it was normalized enough in the American sexual landscape that the prolific porn star Asa Akira could declare on Twitter “ass is the new pussy,” and people (and mainstream media outlets) largely nodded and said, that sounds right. And by the mid-teens, social scientists were reporting that young men and women both increasingly saw anal play as just one more common feature of or milestone in sex—a box they believed they had to tick to do all the things, be good at sex, or be suitably chill and sexual and thus be cool.

Granted, none of this tells us exactly when anal fingering got to be so common, given the focus of so many studies and cultural analyses on penile penetrative anal sex. “One of my frustrations with sexual science,” grips McBride, “has been the lack of attention given to anal sexuality among heterosexuals … and the idea of emphasizing intercourse without recognizing that there is a whole repertoire of anal sex practices that people participate in,” including but not limited to fingering.

But chances are, most of the experts I’ve spoken to agree, that anal fingering rode the same general wave of normalization that anal sex did. And one recent, limited study suggests that anal fingering has probably grown more common than anal sex, analingus, or other forms of anal play.

That makes sense. While a shocking number of men do try to jump straight into anal sex with no warm up, likely misguided by porn, which hides the prep stars go through for an anal scene. Many use anal fingering to stretch out and arouse a partner before consensual and well planned anal sex. Many couples also use fingering alone to build up to broader anal play later in a relationship. After all, notes Alicia Sinclar, founder of anal sex toy maker b-Vibe, many people find a penis or toy intimidating, but a finger is a good size for experimentation, and allows for solid control.

But many men also seem to use anal fingering to test the waters for further anal play. If a woman lets a man get away with putting a finger up her ass, Garrison explains, that man may feel he has a chance of having anal sex later. Men often do this in lieu of talking to a partner about their feelings on anal play. They seem to have developed a complete strategy, McBride says, likely spread via word of mouth or digital connections, of pretending that their finger or penis slipped into a female partner’s asshole—that way, if she doesn’t like it, they can say it was just a mistake. (Most people, McBride argues, do not seem to actually accidentally stumble into anal stimulation with a partner.) Needless to say, this testing the waters approach doesn’t seem that successful on its own, so many men and women wind up with anal fingering as their only, almost routine, anal play experience.

Some men may not want anal sex, but still finger their partners’ assholes. They may get a kick out of the taboo-breaking element of anal contact. (Interest in anal fingering alone as a minor kink actually seems relatively common.) Or they may enjoy the pleasure their partners tell them they get out of anal stimulation. Although pop culture often talks about anal as something men push for unilaterally, McBride stresses that many women “are actually introducing the idea to their male partners” of anal fingering as an end in itself, or of fingering as a lead up wider anal play.

Or they may just believe, whether or not they like anal play, based on feedback from past partners who like anal play or bad guidance from cultural figures like Russell Brand’s character in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that all women like anal stimulation. In this case, they may try to get a finger up a woman’s ass, often without asking, just to feel like they ticked all the good sex boxes.

Some men may even finger their partners’ asses because they want their own asses fingered or fucked, points out couples counselor Israel Helfand. Heterosexual male interest in prostate and other forms of anal stimulation has exploded in the last decade, Sinclar points out. (It really really hit the mainstream when media personality Amber Rose Tweeted about how her ex, Kanye West, allegedly liked her to play with his asshole.) The forces behind that emerging anal trend are myriad and complex; they deserve their own piece. But suffice it to say that, as Helfand explains it, most American men have a hard enough time talking about sex and their desires openly, so they try to make subtle hints about what they’d like by doing it to their partners. Or, acknowledges Garrison, they may think that because they like the stimulation of anal fingering, their female partners will too.

Until fairly recently, argue McBride and Sinclar, anal play was something couples only started to explore after being together for some time. But the increasing mainstreaming of anal sexuality writ large over the past decade pushed that from an advanced sexual activity to explore later on in a relationship to a seemingly mundane activity to try even in a hookup or on a first date. Sinclar acknowledges that early and un-discussed anal fingering could have been common even before this, but just underreported thanks to continuing taboos around sexual dialogue and the reticence of many women, pre-MeToo era, to talk about non-consensual sexual experiences like getting a finger up their ass without talking about it beforehand

No matter why a man might be interested in anal fingering, though, or at what point in a sexual relationship he decides to introduce it, it is never okay to do so (as many men seem to) without discussing anal play with a partner first. Sure, acknowledges Glickman, it may seem incredibly hard to talk about sex for many people, especially with a hookup or new partner, and easier to just try something. Past experiences in which women wound up liking that unannounced finger, or didn’t react negatively to it, may make it seem okay. But it is, in fact, an assault. Even women who don’t react negatively to this unexpected intrusion may still not like the experience; they may just go along with it because they feel like it’s what’s expected of them in the modern sexual world.

Although the anus is an erogenous zone, some women just do not like butt stuff—the same way some men just don’t like nipple play, despite the erotic potential of our nipples. It can be mentally or physically uncomfortable. Anal stimulation may also be attached to negative memories and emotions for many. These women will likely never appreciate a surprise finger up their assholes.

Even women who do enjoy anal play in general might not want it at a given moment, from a given person, or without any notice. So, “as a general rule, something like that should be discussed prior to the act,” says Helfand, ideally “during a time separate from ‘play time.’” And, of course, it is worth remembering that even if you get consent to finger, that’s not consent for anal sex.

Unfortunately, notes Glickman, some men do want to finger their female partners’ asses because they suspect they won’t like it. They like, he explains, “getting a woman to comply with a sexual demand” no matter how she feels about it, or getting away with doing something unwanted. “For a long time period,” notes Sinclair, hetero anal play “was really about a man conquering a woman.”

Acting on this desire or impulse to conquer a partner and do things she doesn’t want, outside of a well informed, discussed, and consensual kink power exchange dynamic, is rape. Plain and simple.

It is also worth considering, for men who treat anal fingering as an unconsidered and un-discussed part of their sexual scripts, that this is actually a great way to make sure that a woman never wants any more anal play with you, or possibly with anyone else. Recent studies suggest that, while many women are interested in exploring anal play on their own, or willing to do so to please a male partner, quite a few of them wind up feeling pain and discomfort after, and subsequently losing interest in, it. This is in part because, as Glickman points out, jamming in a finger without lube (as men often see done in porn) is painful for most people. It can even lead to anal tearing and, if your hands are not clean, risk an infection. The surprise and violation of inserting that finger without discussing anal play with a partner first often just increases un-lubed discomfort or damage—the latter especially because a woman may tighten up in response to this shocking physical intrusion.

To avoid this, Glickman stresses, make sure you get consent. And make sure to know what you’re doing. Read up on how to slowly stimulate an anus. Use plenty of lube—actual lube, not just your spit. Make sure your nails are trimmed and your hands are clean. And let your female partner set the pace for exploration, “even if that means ‘never gonna happen,’” Glickman explains.

This is all good advice to keep in mind moving into the future, because anal play will likely only grow more culturally accepted in the ‘20s and beyond. There are still plenty of stigmas against anal sexuality in America. Many people still think anal sex is for people with loose morals, or that it is just plain dirty. The same cultural forces that have spearheaded the mainstreaming of anal sexuality over the past three decades are still at work, chipping away at those taboos. And as they do, more and more people will feel more and more cultural pressure to explore anal—especially by fingering a female partner’s ass. Hopefully, keeping the modern history of anal fingering in mind, they can respond to that pressure with open conversation with their sexual partners, even during a hookup. And if both parties are interested in a little digital-anal stimulation, then hopefully they will be willing to take the time, discussion, and lubing up to make it great rather than just ticking off a sexual box without thought to the quality of the act.

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