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Seizing your pleasure — oh, and a beginner’s guide to anal play

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Julia DeSpain/Little Village

Tasked with picking a fun and fluffy topic for my pre-Valentine’s Day column, I sat down to write around 1,200 words on anal sex — and found myself lacking in motivation. Musings on plugs and pegging were soon overshadowed by news about bushfires, plane crashes and impeachment trials. How am I supposed to write a fun-filled article about butt sex in the midst of a Dumpster fire?

I shared my dilemma with a sex-educator friend. “Maybe we need sex — anal and then some — now more than ever,” he said.

Another friend, Cat Fribley, turned me on to the idea of pleasure activism, a term coined by Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Brown’s book combines essays, poetry and interviews from feminist writers and activists, including Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Joan Morgan and Sonya Renee Taylor. They argue that connecting with our own sense of physical gratification is central in challenging systems of oppression. Why shouldn’t our lives be focused on feeling good — even and especially when times are dark?

“We settle for suffering and self-negation because of oppression,” Brown writes. “Oppression makes us believe that pleasure is not something that we all have equal access to. One of the ways that we start doing the work of reclaiming our full selves — our whole liberated, free selves — is by reclaiming our access to pleasure.”

She invites readers to participate in hot and heavy homework, including exercises in masturbation (Brown asks her readers to masturbate before, during and after reading her book), taking nude selfies and having consensual erotic experiences with another person. A black woman, Brown writes that taking ownership of her body, self-actualizing her own pleasure, is in defiance of America’s history of slavery and persecution.

“Feeling good is not frivolous,” she asserts, “it is freedom.”

I wanted to understand this idea of pleasure activism more, so, in addition to buying Brown’s book, I chatted with the friend who recommended it. Cat has been doing sex-positive advocacy and anti-sexual violence work both locally and nationally for the last 25 years. She helped create a business plan and worked as an employee at Iowa City’s own feminist sex shop Ruby’s Pearl, which sadly closed in 2005. At Ruby’s, Cat helped people find space and words to talk about their sexuality. She reassured them that their desires are normal and natural. She sold dildos and helped folks find the right vibrators (sometimes their first one). She discussed pleasure as something to be expected and deserved with customers who usually hear a very different message.

Cat engages in similar conversations these days, but with people trying to return to a sense of safety, normalcy, dignity and connection with their bodies after experiencing sexual violence.

“Finding our way back to pleasure is one of the ways that we stay centered in a world we are building,” she said. “We have so many places where we have experienced harm, especially people of color, trans and queer folks and femmes. Those are the same folks who are doing the work to envision new and liberation-based ways forward.”

So, in the spirit of sexual liberation and frolicking the primrose path, let’s talk about anal play!

Of course, not everyone enjoys incorporating the back door in their bedroom activities, but it’s an option that doesn’t always get the consideration it deserves, despite being rather common (around 40 percent of Americans have experimented with anal play by age 50). People hoping to dabble in butt stuff with a partner may not feel empowered to bring it up, and some who had negative experiences with anal play in the past — perhaps they rushed into it or were pressured by a partner — may have written it off.

But like sex in general, there’s a variety of ways to approach anal, and there are two key ingredients to ensuring a good time: communication and preparation. Anal play can also be a fun exercise in slower, deliberative, consent-driven sex. It may have a reputation for being kinky, but safe anal also requires relaxation, meditation, massage — in short, intimacy.

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Anal play doesn’t just mean anal penetration; many folks experience pleasure from simply rubbing or licking the anus without any penetration at all. Rimming, also called analingus, is the act of using the mouth, lips or tongue on the rim or anal opening, where most of the nerve endings are.

With butt stuff, the potential for pleasure is high, as is the potential for pain. The walls of the anal canal are thinner than those of the vagina, and it doesn’t self-lubricate. Move slow and communicate your needs with your partner, breathe and, for the love of God, use lube. A silicon-based lubricant is recommended for anal sex.

If you’re feeling tense, physically or emotionally, slow down. And remember that arousal makes everything easier — and more fun! — so incorporating masturbation into your anal play can help prepare the muscles and relieve some tension. Starting with a finger, or using a sex toy like a slim butt plug or vibrator, can be a great way to enjoy anal pleasure or to warm up for a penis or larger dildo. One thing that’s important to remember is that any toy you insert into your butt must have a base that’s wider than the rest of the toy, so part of the toy always stays outside your body. This is essential to make sure the toy doesn’t get lost up your rectum. You want to avoid that trip to the emergency room!

If you have a prostate, congratulations — anal sex can be very fun for you. If you do not have a prostate, well, you still have all those touchy anal nerves. Penetrative anal can still be a good time without the added bonus of prostate stimulation, providing a unique feeling of fullness, and perhaps even internal clitoral stimulation.

Don’t forget your condoms. STIs, particularly HIV, are easily transmitted through anal sex. If you like anal a lot, and have it regularly, you might even consider PrEP, a daily drug that can reduce your risk of contracting HIV.

Of course, before any of this happens, you have to make the decision to try anal with your partner(s). In a healthy relationship, this conversation shouldn’t be too difficult — it may even be hot. Preferences about butt stuff can be incorporated in broader negotiations about your sexual checklist. What’s on the menu, and what isn’t? If someone wants to add something to the menu, how do we go about testing it? Consent is sexy, folks.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 278.


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