We Need to Talk About Butt Sex

Without consulting each other about anal sex, we lack the best tips for safety, cleanliness and achieving maximum pleasure, a problem for the young and/or sexually inexperienced, who may have to endure unnecessary confusion, embarrassment or pain during intercourse.
01/25/2013 12:29 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

WARNING: This post contains sexually explicit language. Please read on at your own discretion.

Anal is the most intimate sex we have as gay men, yet most of us rarely ever talk about it. So here's my attempt to crack open a discussion. Why go there? Without consulting each other about anal sex, we lack the best tips for safety, cleanliness and achieving maximum pleasure, a problem for the young and/or sexually inexperienced, who may have to endure unnecessary confusion, embarrassment or pain during intercourse.

Given the relentlessly disparaging euphemisms for anal sex (e.g., "dumpster diving" and "fudge packing") and the constant suggestion that getting fucked in the ass is the worst possible thing that could happen to a man, it's no wonder that we're so anal-retentive about it. Many gay men have told me that they never respond to derogatory references to anal sex. "I just feel shame," said one. "Swallow my anger." This shame corrodes our minds and contaminates our sex lives. It's a particular challenge to field these messages when friends and family are the ones transmitting them. (Consider all the times you've been expected to laugh at a dumb prostate-exam joke.)

Worse yet, without having each other as resources, we may rely too heavily upon the scant media devoted to gay male sex, which unrealistically insinuates that we're all "spontaneous bottoms" -- that is, we can easily drop trou, whenever, wherever, and open up for some good, clean fun. This myth keeps the realities of butt-sex prep tightly shrouded, turning fantasy into anxiety-inducing expectation.

Charles Silverstein, a renowned psychologist and a co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, says, "If you're going out and you hope to get fucked, then the proper preparation is required, meaning cleaning the colon. That's not only correct, it's polite." He's right, but why, then, does the topic of bottom prep rarely come up, even between gay men? (For example, a Google search for "anal sex" produces a first page full of tips for women.)

There are a few books on bottom prep for guys: Mike Alvear's Gay Anal Sex: How to Bottom Without Pain or Stains and Silverstein's aforementioned Joy, the first comprehensive sexual resource for gay men. However, when I recently consulted Silverstein, he said, "I've read a lot of books about gay sex, written a few myself, and notice that there is very little instruction about preparation for a bottom. The best I know is a couple of pages by Goldstone's The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex." He added, "It is clear to me that social inhibition is the reason cleanliness of the anus and rectum is so rarely openly discussed. We avoid looking at whatever makes us feel uncomfortable. Too bad. As a community, we should discuss this more openly."

"It's not sexy," says a friend, adding his two cents on why backyard-grooming rituals (e.g., anal douches, enemas and sphincter stretching) stay in the closet. And he's right: The messy, slow, internal nature of these activities would not a hot time at the movies make. (Imagine if Weekend were about three days on a bidet.)

In fact, the reasons that anal discussions often reach dead ends are manifold and complex. For those who are interested in the whys, it is clearly articulated in the works of Freud, Michel Foucault, Silverstein and Leo Bersani, to name just a few, but for my purposes, I'm more interested in the hows: how shame related to our butts interferes with our sexuality, and how we can reclaim it.

While on Fire Island last summer, my friend Ben and I were chatting by the pool when the conversation suddenly turned secretive and deep: We broached the myth of the "spontaneous bottom" and proceeded to shatter it with our personal backstage confessions. We interrogated each other as if for a memoir entitled Everything I Know About Bottoming I Learned From..., and we discovered that our other gay friends had never filled in the blanks for either of us. We expanded our inquiry to other men on the island, men of various ages, cultural backgrounds and levels of sexual experience, and we found that the same was true for all of them. The bolt wasn't unlocked by any one key disclosure (much of the "secret information" shared consisted of jocular tips like offering partners the disclaimer, "Enter at your own risk"), but communication lines opened, allowing for a sense of fellowship and a palpable subsiding of group shame.

Over the following months I continued my invasive investigation, in person, by email and over Facebook, asking almost every gay man I know about his ass habits. Here's some of what I found:
  • Of those who responded, all but one said they "mostly topped" and were therefore unfamiliar with bottoming.
  • All of them claimed complete naïveté about bottoming before their first anal sex experience ("Baptism by fire," quipped one), and very few of them admitted to having consulted friends or reference guides to this day. (Upon further reflection, one said, "My friends say they don't give a shit [about bottom prep], but I don't believe them. It's like the ladies who say they never get their hair done, that it just happens to be perfect.")
  • Most said that when accidental messes happened, their steamy sex scenes instantly became silent movies: They avoided any talk, even with long-term partners, and engaged in overmuch cleaning before moving on (or going their separate ways). With the exception of one friend's "friend" who supposedly thinks of "magic messes" as "extra lube," everyone unequivocally felt that shitting the bed could mean the end of the affair. One friend said, "I've stopped midway, pointed it out and ended the sex. Once I stopped and told him to go to the bathroom, but I was so grossed out that I went home while he was showering. That was a dark night."
  • Only one person brought up prepping to avoid pain, revealing that he occasionally sits on a dildo for up to two hours to warm up -- most recently while studying for a big test. (Perhaps this aspect of prep was largely untouched because the psychological and physical fears of anal penetration are far more complicated and threatening to discuss than your average, Oprah-endorsed poop anxiety.)
  • The sole proud, self-proclaimed "power bottom" said he learned about bottoming from studying gay porn. He also said that he did and does consult gay friends ("especially gay doctor friends") for tips and support. His maxims are: "Anal prep is everything! It makes the experience clean, fun and amazing! Anal prep gives the bottom confidence to do what he does best!" Unlike the other participants, Power Bottom apparently talks about prep "with all my gay friends, all the time," and also with his partners ("Oh, yes, they should know all the prep I went through. In return, they will work just as hard to please me...").

I wasn't able to follow up with Power Bottom to uncover his bottom prep secrets, so it was time to consult a pro. Porn star Shane Frost was kind enough to indulge me. He validated my disbelief in the myth of the "spontaneous bottom," saying, "[Bottom prep] is very important on a professional level. Whether you're talking about cleanliness or just the readiness of the bottom, if they are not prepared, the scene can go downhill real fast." His professional work ethic carries over to his personal life with his boyfriend of four years. "I like to always present a clean cabin for the submarine to dock in, and I like to have a wide enough cabin for him to fit comfortably," he told me. "All aboard!"

Frost said that he learned about anal sex in his early adolescence, experimenting with a peer of the same age. They would play-wrestle in their skivvies, he said, mimicking the pros on TV, which turned into a main event far more interesting than their attempted emulation: "butt fucking!" His description of this early experience conveys a sense of buoyancy and innocent discovery and play -- an image we rarely associate with anal sex, but one that could help us all talk about it, prepare for it and do it.

Now, as an adult who has worked in porn for five years, Frost says that the industry is his primary community, making it very easy to openly discuss prep. His own ritual involves douching once at home before his shower, and then again at the studio "once oral and photos have completed." Each douche takes him about two to three minutes; he admits that he achieved this efficiency with time and practice.

But as important as cleanliness is to him, he's learned to be understanding, good-humored and communicative when accidents occur. "The last time it happened", he said, "I looked at him, and I said, 'Really?'" He laughed, then continued: "I gave him a towel, he went to finish what he should have done before we started, and we then proceeded to fuck again. Sometimes you can't avoid it. Sex isn't planned. It just happens, so you roll with the punches."

When I told him about the numerous guys struck dumb whenever poop enters the bed or even the conversation, he said, "There are 10 bazillion people in this world, and guess what. We all shit. Cher shits, President Obama shits, Justin Beebz shits, and, yes, wait for it... the almighty Madonna shits, as well."

Now, to be sure, if you don't have anal sex for a living, then you're more likely than Shane Frost to be penetrated by societal shame when it comes to your anus, but we can learn from him. When I asked Charles Silverstein how we'll learn to be more open with each other about sex, he said:

We learn through modeling. But we need models. That means more instructional information from gay books, gay instruction manuals, even some of these porn stars telling viewers about prepping. I don't believe there will be any resistance by gay men, because they want to learn. The resistance comes from their elders, who are simply not doing their job of instruction. I expect that no mainstream publisher is going to publish that sort of book or video, but we now have so many alternatives to traditional books that there isn't an excuse for ignoring this important topic. Such a venue would also be useful in disseminating information about safe sex, STDs and sexual variations.

I'll leave you now with some encouragement in the words of Shane Frost: "Everyone's doing it, so why not talk about it?"

This blog post has been abridged. The full version is available at markoconnelltherapist.com.