We Need to Talk About Butt-Sex

Anal is the most intimate sex we’ve got as gay men, yet most of us rarely ever talk about it. This I discovered on Fire Island last summer, while conferring with various guys. I became convinced that we just don’t talk enough about butt-sex, especially regarding the necessary prep. So, here’s my attempt to crack open a discussion.

Why go there? Without the flexibility to consult one another on the mechanics of anal sex, we lack the best tips for safety, cleanliness, and achieving maximum pleasure–a real problem for the young, and/or sexually inexperienced, who may have to endure unnecessary confusion, embarrassment, or pain during intercourse.

It’s no wonder we’re so retentive, given the relentless disparaging of butt penetration that surrounds us. I, for one, am tired of the sickening euphemisms (e.g. “Dumpster Diving”, “Fudge Packing”), and the constant suggestion that getting fucked-in-the-ass is the worst possible thing a man could.

Many gay men I consulted for this article said they never respond to derogatory anal sex references. “I just feel shame.”, said one, “Swallow my anger”.

This internalized 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 entertainment and fantasy, like 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.

For example, you may feel intensely defective for not fucking in a hyper-efficient-MTV-style-montage sort of way–like the cast of Queer As Folk always did: the furtive-staring-cum-rough-kissing-cum-tearing-off-clothes-cum-tearing-open-condom-wrapper-(with teeth)-cum-rhythmic-penetration-cum-Cum, Cum, Cum! (What if, instead, you find yourself nervously rinsing your rectum behind a triple-bolted door, while your partner waits patiently–and then less so–for you to get your butt back to bed and finish what you started…an hour ago). With the exception of that rare unicorn who can seamlessly bend and deliver impromptu, everyone else gets to be filled with anxiety, inadequacy, and shame.

Renowned psychologist and co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, Charles Silverstein 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? (A Google search for “anal sex”, for example, produces a first page full of tips for women).

There are blogs, chatrooms and articles touching on bottom prep for guys, as well as a few books: Mike Alvear’s accessible and entertainingGay Anal Sex: How to Bottom Without Pain or Stains, and Silverstein’s aforementioned Joy, now in its third edition, effectively written to be the first comprehensive, community sexual resource for gay men. However, when I recently consulted Silverstein for this piece, 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.”

Silverstein goes on to say, “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.” Silverstein emphasizes shame as the primary reason why we avoid talking about our butts.

“It’s not sexy,” says a friend, adding his two cents on why backyard-grooming rituals e.g. douching, enema rinsing, and sphincter stretching stay closeted. And he’s right, the messy, slow, internal nature of these activities would not a hot time at the movies make.(Imagine if Weekend was about three days on a bidet.)

In fact, the reasons why anal discussions often reach dead ends are manifold, and complex, and for those who are interested in the why, it is clearly articulated in the works of Freud, Michel Foucault, Silverstein, and Leo Bersani, to name just a few. But, for my purpose I’m even more interested in the how; how shame related to our butts interferes with our sexuality, and how we can reclaim it.

In the spirit of Bersani’s essayIs the Rectum a Grave?–which possibly contains the most alluring and empowering description of bottoming ever written–Martin Weber’s recent Huffington Post article, The Bronze Eye is Open: A Philosophy of Anal Sex, and also Oprah’s 2006 special, “Everybody Poops”–I’m interested in how we can bridge the gaps between us, create common spaces to talk about our butts, and maybe share tips for the best preparation for penetration–and freeing us up to have the best possible, realistically achievable, sex.

While on Fire Island last summer, my friend Ben and I were blithely chatting by the pool when conversation suddenly ran secret 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…., discovering that “other gay friends” did not fill in that blank for either one of us.

This made us curious. We’ve had distinctly different histories. (I’ve been monogamous with my husband for over a decade, tending to prefer dinner parties to clubs, while Ben has had multiple partners in that time, and attends every White, Black, and Shades-of-Gray Party, yet neither of us ever received top-down prep tips from other gay men.

We expanded our inquiry to other men on the Island–men of various ages, cultural backgrounds, and sexual experience–and found the same was true for all of them.

The bolt wasn’t unlocked by any one key disclosure (much of the “secret information” shared included jocular tips, like offering prospective partners the disclaimer, “Enter at your own risk”), but by opening the communication lines, all typical guardedness was lifted, allowing for a sense of fellowship, and a palpable subsiding of group shame.

Over the following months, I proceeded invasively to investigate–in person, by email, and over Facebook, asking just about every gay man I know (or know of)about their ass habits.

Of those who responded, all but one said they “mostly topped”, and were therefore unfamiliar with tricks of the bottoming trade–maintaining the unicorn mystique of bottom behavior.

All of them claimed complete naivete about bottoming before their first anal sex–“Baptism by fire” says one–and very few of them admitted to consulting friends, or any reference guide, to this day. (Upon reflection, one said, “My friends say they don’t give a shit [about bottom prep], but I don’t believe they’re truly so blase. It’s like the ladies who say they never get their hair done…it just happens to be perfect.”)

When these “mostly top” guys did bottom, their preparation varied from simply showering and “basic cleanliness”, to an occasional warm water enema rinse, to douching several times in a row, but again, all participants stated they were self-taught.

On the occasion of accidental mess, most said their steamy sex scenes instantly became silent movies, avoiding any talk–even with long-term partners–and engaging in overmuch cleaning before moving on–which in many cases meant going 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 says, “I’ve stopped mid-way, pointed it out, and ended the sex. Once I stopped and told him to go to the bathroom – I was so grossed out, I went home while he was showering. That was a dark night”.

Only one person brought up prepping to avoid pain, saying that he has been known to sit 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 discussing the psychological fears of anal penetration– being “buggered”, “sodomized”, or “invaded”–is far more complicated and threatening than talking about your average, Oprah-endorsed poop anxiety).

Most folks I contacted online respectfully declined to answer(I’ll expect some awkward encounters when next we meet). I certainly understand their positions–I’m not so sure how I’d reply to such questions over email–but this withholding does give us a strong sense of the cagey retention surrounding the topic.

The sole, brave-proud-self-proclaimed-“power bottom” however, did in fact respond by email(apparently writing from his home on Planet Unicorn), saying he learned about bottoming, before losing his virginity, 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!!!”

Contrary to the other participants, Power Bottom apparently talks about prep “with all my gay friends, all the time”, but 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 wanted to learn Mr. Power Bottom’s adaptive secrets–even Lady Gaga knows he wasn’t born this way–but we were unable to rendezvous in person.

And then there were none. 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 down hill real fast”.

His professional work ethic is also apparent in 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…All aboard!”

Frost says 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 says, mimicking the pros on TV, which educed into a main event far more interesting than their attempted emulation, “…buttfucking!” His description of this early experience, captures a buoyant sexual experience with a sense of innocent discovery and play–an image we rarely associate with anal sex, but one that could help us all to talk about, prepare for, 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 his efficiency has come with time and practice.

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 says, “I looked at him and I said, ‘Really?’ [laughing]. I gave him a towel, he went to finish what he should of 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 the conversation, he said, “There are ten 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 all mighty Madonna shits as well.”

Now, certainly if you don’t have anal sex for a living, 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 dissemination 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?”.