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Photo: Elinor Carucci

Every couple of years, another once-scandalous sex taboo starts making its way toward the commonplace. A decade ago, blow jobs were what people whispered about; then three-ways became the naughty bedroom act. Now, it’s anal sex—but according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Survey of Family Growth, it’s rapidly becoming a regular feature of hetero couples’ horizontal activities.

The survey, released last year, showed that 38.2 percent of men between 20 and 39 and 32.6 percent of women ages 18 to 44 engage in heterosexual anal sex. Compare that with the CDC’s 1992 National Health and Social Life survey, which found that only 25.6 percent of men 18 to 59 and 20.4 percent of women 18 to 59 indulged in it.

Anecdotal research also demonstrates curiosity is on the rise. Babeland’s anal-sex workshops are now held three or four times a year, instead of once, and they’re filled with straight couples. “More and more, people are devoting themselves to learning about anal pleasure,” says Carolyn Riccardi, education coordinator for Babeland’s New York retail stores. “Male-to-female anal sex has been happening since the dawn of time,” she says. “What’s different now is that women are actively learning how to enjoy it and have fun with it.”

“I first did it with my husband,” says Lisa, a recently divorced thirtysomething from across the Hudson. “It was a regular part of our married sex life, and I enjoyed it. I think it can feel good for anyone—except if you’re too uptight about it, meaning, you’re literally tight-assed.”

Ah, yes, the anal-sex dilemma: If you think it’s going to hurt, it will. Relaxation isn’t the only requirement for a good experience: Too much aggression (and no lube) can put a woman off anal sex permanently.

And not all guys are anal enthusiasts, either. Jim, a 27-year-old consultant, has been given the opportunity by willing partners but hasn’t taken the plunge. He agrees that it seems to be on the rise among his friends but wonders whether it’s “really a cultural shift or just something we ease into semi-contemporaneously as we age, like marriage or buying real estate or listening to jazz rap.”

The idea that anal is something couples eventually turn to for sexual variety seems to be supported by the CDC survey, which shows the lowest numbers among those who’ve never been married and are not cohabiting, compared with those who are cohabiting, married, or divorced.

“For me, anal sex is very intimate, much more so than regular sex. If I care about someone, I’m willing to experiment,” says Irene, a 33-year-old East Village environmentalist who has been doing it with Lex, a 30-year-old Wall Streeter. But when we press Lex on whether he likes to receive anal attention from his girlfriends, he responds, “Call me old-fashioned, but the guy should be the penetrator, not the penetratee, no?”

It’s an attitude still widely held by many straight men today, and one that’s reflected in the CDC survey: Though the report is chock-full of all kinds of straight, gay, and lesbian sex in fairly graphic detail, there’s absolutely no research on female-to-male anal play. It turns out that the straight-male fear of reciprocal anal play is a potent mix of sexism and homophobia; a straight man can do it to someone else, but having it done to him isn’t okay.

But the newly discovered anti-cancer benefits of prostate stimulation are giving straight guys—especially the progressive New York breed—a legitimate excuse to be more, shall we say, open to exploration. And men’s magazines, which until recently discussed anal sex only in terms of how to trick a girlfriend into giving it up, now publish articles on the Aneros—the doctor-created, FDA-approved prostate stimulator—and the male G-spot, a.k.a. the P-spot, a.k.a. the He-spot.

“Straight guys come in looking for the Aneros,” says Riccardi, “but once they get all their questions answered, they’ll walk out with something more fun and less medical for themselves. Or their girlfriends will come in looking for ways they can be the penetrator, too.” When Riccardi first started working at Babeland three years ago, she would gently ask straight female customers if they’d ever tried sticking a finger up their boyfriend’s or husband’s bum, and they’d shoot her looks of horror. “Now when I ask them that question, they almost all say, ‘Oh, sure.’ ” The store’s strap-on sales have never been higher.

“My wife is totally turned on by the idea of ‘having’ me, as that’s just not something women really get to do most of the time, and it’s not something that guys have usually had done to them. It really is a reversal in the most primal of ways,” explains newlywed Brooklynite Anthony. “I think anyone who doesn’t enjoy it or thinks they wouldn’t is hindered by their own hang-ups. It feels good, period. And breaking taboos is sexy. Variety is sexy. Being vulnerable is sexy.”

Em & Lo are the authors of Sex Toy: An A-Z Guide to Bedside Accessories and Rec Sex: An A-Z Guide to Hooking Up.

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