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by Jack Morin

Recently, a client strolled into my office for his weekly therapysession and, with a mischievous grin, launched right in: "Guess who Isaw on TV last night?" I innocently asked who it was, not realizingthat Comedy Central had replayed an interview I had done for their newsspoof, The Daily Show, when the third edition of my book, Anal Pleasure and Health, came out last summer.

"Yeah," he went on, "I was channel surfing and there you were with amirror between your legs, demonstrating how to look at your butt." Iimmediately sensed a memorable "therapy moment" in the making. For asplit second I flashed back eighteen years when another client hadstumbled across the book when it first came out. He terminated histherapy in an angry phone message--no discussion.

How different things were with this Gen-Xer. He spent only a fewmoments describing his surprise at seeing me in such an uncompromisingposition on national TV. Before I could explain myself, he wasrecounting how his girlfriend had recently put her finger up his buttwhile giving him head, thus introducing him to the joys of prostatemassage. "What an orgasm!" he proclaimed. "She calls it the magicspot." His openness, in more ways than one, was delightfullyrefreshing. He informed me that the topic of anal sex comes upregularly among his friends and that reluctance has only been expressedby a couple of guys who fear that their anal adventures might bemistaken as signs of gayness.

This degree of comfort with anal sexuality is certainly far from thenorm, but the contrasting reactions of these two clients is a fittinganalogue for a wider sea change in attitudes, a shift that appears tobe unfolding far more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. Thesigns are unmistakable: sex toy boutiques report brisk sales of buttplugs, lubes and other anal paraphernalia. And whereas people used toblush, giggle or change the subject when they'd hear about my book, nowthey tell me anal sex stories and ask advice. Ten years ago I couldn'tbeg my way onto a radio show; now I'm a popular guest on morning talkshows across the country.

When I'm not recommending to Howard Stern that he stick a finger uphis butt every day in the shower, I'm wondering, "Is anal sexbecoming--dare I say it--almost normal?" For as long as anyone canremember, the anal taboo has been reinforced by visceral reactions ofdisgust: the anus is revolting, so ignore it, don't talk about it(except for jokes), and whatever you do don't get off on it! Is thisancient and mighty taboo finally pooping out?

To understand what's going on, we have to start with the fact thattaboos, especially sexual ones, have paradoxical effects. Sure, theirpurpose is to control behavior. But because they imbue the forbiddenobject or behavior with intense significance, they're also unexpectedaphrodisiacs. When an internalized taboo silently proclaims a giant"No," sexual curiosities and desires are either short-circuited or theybecome supercharged by the thrill of the forbidden - sometimes both.This push-pull dynamic permeates erotic life in so many forms that Icall it "The Erotic Equation": ATTRACTION + OBSTACLES = EXCITEMENT.

As long as a taboo maintains broad cultural compliance, forbiddenurges are forced underground. But when that consensus breaks down, asin times of rapid social questioning and change, subterraneanfascinations begin to seep into public consciousness, propelled by theenergy of the taboo itself.

I first saw signs of seepage in the seventies when sex therapyclients, mostly gay men at first, specifically asked me for help inlearning how to relax so they could enjoy anal intercourse. Virtuallynobody had ever made such requests before that time. The total lack ofreliable information on the subject prompted me to develop and test asex therapy process for anal problems as my doctoral research. Iencountered enormous resistance, but somehow I got away with it,probably because the sexual revolution was in full swing andsophisticates everywhere felt compelled to hide their prudery.

The two most enduring cultural-political movements of thatera--feminism and gay liberation--set the stage for the mainstreamingof anal sex. As women claimed increasing choice about their turn-ons,the concept of anal experimentation moved way beyond tired images ofwomen taking it in the rear in male porn. For the first time, large sexsurveys showed that substantial numbers of Americans were trying analfingering, licking, and fucking at home. In my work with couples itbecame clear that women were often the instigators of anal play, whileothers discovered that they actually liked it after being coaxed intoit by their partners.

Still and all, in most people's minds, butt sex and malehomosexuality are inextricably linked. This linkage stems from thewidespread belief that the only "real" sex is intercourse and,consequently, that gay sex IS anal intercourse. It doesn't seem tomatter that most gay sex doesn't involve intercourse. Historical andanthropological data suggest that cultural attitudes toward analintercourse and homosexuality are strongly correlated. So with the riseof gay liberation in America, the anal taboo lost a big chunk of itspurpose--the suppression of queer desires.

It's also crucial to recognize that gay liberation and feminismshare a strong connection. Not only are members of both groupsdenigrated and oppressed, but if you ask any homophobe what's wrongwith gay guys, the answer is always a variant of, "They're not realmen; they're too much like women." At its stinking core, homophobia ISsexism in action.

The first cases of what we would later call AIDS appeared shortlyafter the original publication of Anal Pleasure in the early eighties.As it gradually became clear that anal intercourse was a major pathwayfor the sexual transmission of HIV, I feared that any strides towardgreater anal awareness would be decisively crushed by a powerfulresurgence of the anal taboo. Ironically, however, HIV has proved to bethe greatest single promoter of anal literacy. For the first time inhistory, anal sex was regularly mentioned on the evening news. Thenation's health required that we violate the bedrock of the taboo; wehad to talk about it.

The effects of our national discussion havebeen--surprise!--paradoxical. Of course, the specter of HIV has sulliedthe image of the anus--already seen as the epitome of filth--evenfurther. But simultaneously an implicit, yet unspoken question grewmore persistent with each round of statistics and safer-sex warnings:Why is there so much butt sex going on in the first place? In a timewhen sexual boredom was taking hold, the prospect of a new and risqu´┐Żerotic option started to look very interesting indeed. Once it becameclear that they could be practiced safely, various forms of analsexuality became increasingly popular, precisely because they had beennewly liberated from the stranglehold of taboo.

The path to mainstream is, however, inevitably rocky. While it's nowrelatively acceptable for a couple--gay or straight--to experiment withanal stimulation, lingering inhibitions often require that it been donein the heat of passion, with the participants literally groping in thedark. Not surprisingly, many unwary experimenters quickly discover howhorribly their butts can hurt when penetrated without adequateself-awareness, relaxation, and sensitivity. Nerve endings work bothways: the greater the capacity for pleasure, the higher the potentialfor pain.

It turns out that the greatest barrier isn't the one against analsex. Far deeper and more intransigent is the prohibition againstbecoming intimately and comfortably acquainted with this hated bodyzone. I've talked with hundreds of men and women who find it mucheasier to try anal intercourse than to get out a hand mirror and takean extended gander at their own bottoms--with the lights on. Similarly,plenty of guys are perfectly willing to enter the anus, but aresqueamish about massaging or touching a partner's--not to mention theirown. To fuck it is one thing; to lovingly caress it is quite another.

Here's another paradox: once the anal taboo has weakened enough toallow for anal experimentation, but not enough for thoroughself-knowledge, the potential for discomfort or unintended damage is atits highest. More often than not, for example, receivers of analintercourse aren't aware that they have two sphincter muscles, and thatthe external one may be easy to relax while the inner one goes intoinvoluntarily spasms. Others don't realize their anuses are chronictension zones, accumulating stress just like a stiff neck. In thesecases, anal relaxation requires gentle and persistent attention,something the anal taboo remains foursquare against.

When the short anal canal relaxes enough to allow entry into thelarger rectum, yet another key discovery awaits: the rectum isn't astraight tube like the vagina. Instead, it's a curvaceous organ thatcan readily accommodate a dick or a dildo when the angle of entry isright, but can just as easily hurt like hell when an object rams intothe rectal wall, usually at the first curve, a few inches in.Unfortunately, too few anal sex experimenters are sufficiently clearabout their requirements regarding such essentials as positioning,lubricants and preferred movements. Gaining intimate knowledge of one'sinternal rectal landscape isn't particularly difficult, but it doesrequire the sort of curious self-exploration that the anal taboosilently, yet tenaciously, discourages.

Another downside of the mainstreaming of anal intercourse is theunwelcome arrival of a whole new set of disruptive performancepressures for both sexes. Women may feel the burden of making yetanother orifice available (like it or not, sometimes) for more pokingand prodding from horny guys. And men may worry about keeping it up foryet another activity that sinks or swims depending on the status oftheir erections. In some circles, especially among gay men, anultra-demanding vision of what it means to be sexually "versatile" caneasily disrupt the simple pleasures of erotic play. Today's sexualsophisticate is supposed to be comfortable with it all--an impossiblestandard for most of us to meet.

For pioneers who learned to love anal sex when it was still kinkyand verboten, normalization is a different kind of a mixed blessing. Onthe plus side, it's uniquely validating when the masses belatedlydiscover something you've known for years. But some enthusiasts arereporting a distinct reduction in raw excitement as the prohibitionsthey once enjoyed flaunting turn into mush. When transgression is hot,mainstreaming is not.

But taboo-busters, take heart! While it's clear that anti-analprohibitions ain't what they used to be, they're still alive and well.Taboos are insidiously non-rational, permeating culture and psyche,just as language invisibly shapes our thinking and perceptions. There'sno sign that "asshole" will become a term of endearment any time soon.

Luckily, we don't have to obliterate the last vestiges of the analtaboo before we begin reaping the rewards of violating its tight-assrules. The freedom already exists, for those with the courage to claimit, to learn how to love our buttholes. One of the best steps you cantake is to insert your finger in your anus every day in the shower forabout thirty seconds as you breathe deeply. Differentiate the twosphincter rings with your finger tip (about 1/2 inch in). Withpractice, you'll be able to relax the "involuntary" internal sphincterat will. This healthy habit will boost your awareness immensely and caneven help prevent (or heal) common tension-related anal medicalproblems such as hemorrhoids, fissures (scrapes or tears), orconstipation.

If anal eroticism interests you, try masturbating while insertingyour finger (women: don't use the same finger for vaginal stimulation).If you want to get fucked, learn about your inner shapes first with thehelp of a butt plug or flexible dildo. And make a solemn pact withyourself to immediately stop anything that causes anal pain. One of themost dangerous legacies of the anal taboo is the mistaken belief thatbutt sex inevitably hurts at first. The truth is: if it hurts, you needto back off and take more time to relax.

The mainstreaming of anal sex is a dynamic work in progress. As thenation fumbles its way toward greater anal awareness and pleasure,lingering retrograde impulses will fight back valiantly. Who knows,there may even be clamoring for a new round of sodomy laws. But in theend, a growing army of sensuous assholes will save the day.

Reprinted with permission from Nerve.com.