By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/1/2007 1:35:54 PM ET 2007-03-01T18:35:54

As if we needed another example that we all have far, far too much time on our hands, a short music video posted online by a fellow calling himself Samwell has circulated around the world via the Internet. (I have received it twice in the past few days.) In response, naturally, Samwell has his own Web site where he boasts that the video has had more than “425,000 views in one week” and announces that a “teaser” CD is out with more on the way.

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Samwell’s talent quotient is for Simon Cowell to judge, but I’d be willing to bet money that Samwell would not have had 425,000 views in a week had he not titled his song “What What (in the Butt).” These words represent just about the entire lyrical content. Samwell tells us he is gay, but he’s not tapping into a gay audience, necessarily. He is tapping into the stupendous growth of interest in anal sex among everybody else.

A new book, "Master Class: Anal Sex," is scheduled to be published this month by the Erotic Print Society. It will be a guide complete “with professional photographs that pull no punches and specially commissioned drawings.”

But it will be competing in a crowded field. "Anal Sex for Couples: A Guaranteed Guide for Painless Pleasure," came out last fall, and the "Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women" (second edition) by Village Voice columnist and porn director/producer Tristan Taormino arrived a year ago. Later this month, she will release her new instructional video, “Tristan Taormino’s Expert Guide to Anal Sex.” And The New York Times named a memoir of anal sex, "The Surrender," by former ballet dancer Toni Bentley, one of the most notable books of 2004.

Curious but coy
The Sinclair Intimacy Institute, a creator of sex education videos for adults wanting to know "how to," produced one called "The Better Sex Guide to Anal Pleasure" back in 2003. Yet according to Mark Schoen, Sinclair’s resident sex therapist, the company had had no plans to create one.

“Our Web site has search terms that drive people to ask questions and one of the most searched — I think in the top three — terms was anal sex,” he recalls. “I heard that, so I went to our call center where people take phone calls and order catalogues and I went around and started talking to the employees. I asked them what kinds of questions they were getting, and again, one of most frequent topics was anal sex. This was a surprise to me.”

No wonder it was a surprise. While somebody might make a comment at a party, say, about oral sex, or some other aspect of their sex lives, few are yet willing to openly discuss anal sex. Certainly, there is almost no formal education on the topic. And yet the practice and interest in it appear to be growing.

“There has been a huge shift,” Taormino says.

Statistics bear this out. According to results of a federal study released two years ago, 40 percent of men and 35 percent of women surveyed in 2002 said they have had anal sex with an opposite-sex partner. An earlier study published in 1994 showed that among heterosexuals, 26 percent of men and 20 percent of women had ever engaged in anal sex. And if anecdotes by experts are to be believed, the numbers have boomed in the last few years.

Why now?

The first and most obvious reason is the influence of porn, which is always trying to come up with new ways to titillate and to be naughtier. “Anal sex did not used to be de rigeur in porn and now it pretty much is even for mainstream porn,” explains Constance Penley, a film studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Since mainstream porn is so widely viewed, many more people have become exposed to the practice in a heterosexual, not just homosexual, context. “There was time when [porn producers] were first going after the couples market in the late 1980s that nobody would think to have an anal sex scene in a movie labeled for couples,” Taormino says. “Now it is quite the opposite.”

Both men and women have been influenced. The effect on men has been documented. When researchers in Sweden asked heterosexual men visiting a medical clinic about porn and anal sex, 296 out of 300 said they had consumed porn and half of them “felt that pornography impacted their sexual behavior; they got inspired.” About the same number of men who had viewed porn had also had anal sex.

Taboos changing with the times
Digital culture generally, not just porn, has also been a big influence, Schoen believes. Information about anal sex, as well as every other imaginable sexual variation is now just a click away. When curiosity is fed by knowledge, regardless how accurate, barriers often come down.

“I think it has been such a taboo topic people do not openly talk about it, especially men,” Schoen says. “There is that whole myth that if you like anal play you must be gay. But you know, when I think about it, I recall that when I first got into this business in the 1970s, the taboo topics were oral sex and masturbation. I now think anal sex is where those topics were 20 years ago. We are all about breaking taboos now.”

In fact, Schoen and Taormino both believe that as gay culture has become more acceptable, especially among a younger generation, traditionally gay practices, like anal sex, are becoming more common in the rest of society.

For example, a Houston-based company called High Island Health began life 10 years ago as makers of a medical device to ease symptoms of prostatitis, or inflammation of the prostate gland. The device is inserted into a man's anus to put pressure on the prostate, offering relief.

“If we sold 10 units in a week it was a big hoorah,” operations director Amy Sung recalls. But then the company got into the adult sex toy market. Since 2004, sales of its Aneros device — a version of its prostatitis device — have risen 100 percent per year.

Submissions to the company’s online forum contain both criticisms of the product (pain, ineffective, complicated learning curve) and praise (along with a pronounced preoccupation with rectums). “The orgasms I have with her while using the aneros are absolutely unbelievable …” one man writes. “They are the most intense orgasms I've ever had. She loves it. I love it. And the shared sexual experience is extremely intimate.”

Taormino hears the same type of comments. “The rise of men being vocal and open about fact that ‘I am straight and I enjoy anal on the receiving end,’ that is a huge trend. There are videos like ‘Bend Over Boyfriend.’ And I get dozens of letters per day from men asking questions like where can I find a woman” who will perform anal sex?

In the past, women were depicted as being reluctant receivers, and while no doubt many still are, many others, Taormino and Schoen say, are finding they enjoy the practice, too.

As if to underscore the mainstreaming of anal sex, online merchants such as Amazon.com now offer an increasing array of gear for anal play, like the Deluxe Vulcanite Anal Douche with Attachment, and the Anal Eaze Cherry Flavored Desensitizing Numbing Gel.

Precautionary practices
But this illuminates a worrying aspect of the anal-sex trend. Experts warn against using a numbing agent for anal sex, arguing that you want to be able to feel if something hurts too much in order to stop in time to prevent damage.

The rectum was designed as a one-way street for waste management. It can tear under the right circumstances, and it can contain a full complement of bacterial, and in some cases viral, germs.

So if anal sex is becoming a regular part of the American sex life, experts say, sex educators must communicate accurate health information so it is done safely.  

“I’ll give you an example,” Schoen says. “Someone sent our company a film they wanted us to distribute and the buyer who screens these asked me what I thought. So I looked at it and it shows a couple having anal sex, then he pulls out and puts it in her vagina. We could not distribute that. It was modeling unsafe behavior” by possibly transferring pathogens from the anus to the vagina and the urinary tract.

The two most important precautions, educators say, are condoms and lubricants — and plenty of the latter.

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and contributing editor for Glamour magazine, is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

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