"Yes" is the only thing that explicitly means "yes" in sexual situations. The absence of "no" does not imply the presence of a "yes." These are some of the most basic guidelines to engaging in consensual sex -- regardless of what kind of sex that might be, including anal sex. (Note: They are not the only guidelines.)
Outlining this might seem elementary. New findings on teens' sexual behavior, however, indicate that clear pronouncements of what constitutes consensual anal sex are very, very much needed. According to researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, young men are not always concerned about getting consent to perform anal sex with female partners, normalizing the idea that coercion and pain are normal parts of a young woman's sexual life.
Researchers Cicely Marston and Ruth Lewis, whose findings were published in the journal BMJ Open, interviewed 130 teens from the ages of 16 to 18 about their attitudes and expectations for anal intercourse between opposite sex partners. They discovered that while a minority of youth have anal sex, many are talking about it -- in potentially dangerous and upsetting ways:
Young people talked to interviewers about an oppressive environment where some men compete with each other to have anal sex with women, even if they expect women to find it painful. Women also reported they were repeatedly asked for anal sex by their male partners. Their accounts also raise the real possibility of coercion for young women – who are sometimes put in situations where they are penetrated anally without their explicit consent. ...
While the interviewees mentioned young men wanting to copy what they saw in porn as an explanation for anal sex, the interviews suggest other factors are more important, the researchers note. These include in some cases a lack of concern about young women's consent, or the levels of pain they might experience, and competition among young men to have anal sex with women.
There is, of course, a #notallmen caveat: Marston and Lewis note that there were some female participants who enthusiastically engaged in anal sex without being coerced by their partners; some even found it pleasurable (probably because they willingly consented). Overall, though, the researchers found that many young women who did engage in anal sex found the experiences painful and full of pressure. They seemed to occur in sexual climate in which the concept of mutuality wasn't highlighted enough amongst teenagers, for reasons that ranged from a lack of open dialogue and education to young men attempting to mimic what they see in porn.
"While anal sex might not be the easiest topic to raise, we cannot afford to ignore attitudes that help normalize coercion and negatively affect both women and men," Lewis said. "Anal sex is part of some young people's sexual lives, and we believe our study makes a powerful case for more open discussion."
Additionally, Marston added, the study indicates that the discussion needs to extend beyond what constitutes consensual anal sex, so that young people also learn to respect women's sexual and bodily autonomy. One of the primary reasons for the current coercive atmosphere, the findings suggest, is a dearth of concern for women's rights.
"Current debates about young people's sex lives often seem to focus narrowly on the impact of porn," Marston said. "But our study suggests we need to think more widely about the lack of importance society places on women's rights, desires and concerns."