When Did Anal Sex Become So Taboo?
Let's be honest: This sexual act has happened throughout history.
When people hear the words “anal sex,” there is a myriad of thoughts that could go through their minds. There are those who openly enjoy it, those who secretly want it, and those who don't want anything to do with it. And while no one should be shamed for their opinions on anal sex, it does warrant some investigation into exactly how it became such a—gasp!—controversial subject.
According to a 2017 study that was published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 36% of women and 44% of men between 25 and 44 years of age have engaged in heterosexual anal intercourse (HAI) at least once in their life. The same study also reported that there is “evidence that the prevalence of HAI may be increasing in recent years.” And while the evidence can’t be pinned to an actual increase in HAI or the idea that heterosexual people are just becoming more open about having it, there has been an influx of anal sex being discussed on TV shows and in music, which can make the topic seem less taboo.
“We've seen more talk of anal in mainstream media and pop culture. The Broad City pegging episode is a prime example, as well as Nicki Minaj rapping, ‘He toss my salad like his name Romaine,'" sex expert, writer, and activist Zachary Zane tells HelloGiggles. "I also think [that] as a society, we’re beginning to recognize that sexual health and sexual wellbeing play a pivotal role in our mental health. That’s why we’re seeing more mainstream publications openly discussing all aspects of sex, not just anal, as part of ‘lifestyle’ and ‘health’ in a way that we haven’t seen in years past.”
But while anal has wiggled its way into the mainstream a bit, making it less taboo than it was even 10 years ago, it still has a stigma attached to it. Which, honestly, shouldn’t be the case considering that it was once just as acceptable as vaginal or oral sex. But since that is the case, let’s start at the beginning and see how exactly anal sex became so taboo in the first place.
2300 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.:
Based on historical findings, it’s probably safe to assume that anal sex has existed since the dawn of mankind. Whether it’s been between two men or a man and a woman, anal sex has been practiced by humans for years—and shamelessly practiced, I might add.
“Anal sex has been around for centuries,” says Gabi Levi, sex expert and founder of the erotic site Shag Story, citing the existence of it in Babylon, capital of Babylonia, which began in 2300 B.C.E. and was conquered in 539 B.C.E. “The Babylonians were considered especially hedonistic, and both the Grecians and Babylonians would swing through various partners on a daily basis, regardless of sex. Everyone was bisexual, as sexuality wasn't a huge consideration, thus normalizing anal sex within those communities.”
At the same time, with a bit of an overlap in history, anal sex was being practiced in other ancient cultures as well, notably Greece and Rome, which both were founded between 700 B.C.E. and 800 B.C.E.
Although we tend to think that Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece were a free-for-all when it came to sexuality, there’s a reason for this: Neither society attached sexual desire to gender. The concept of being heterosexual or homosexual simply didn’t exist because, for them, sexual partners were based on social standing. When it came to sex, intercourse and otherwise, there were one of two roles a person could be: the penetrated or the penetrator. What role a person had was usually related to age and/or hierarchy within the society.
“In Ancient Greece, Rome, and early modern Europe, anal intercourse between men was evaluated differently...At this time, sexuality was often described in hierarchical rather than intimate terms,” says Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., sociologist, clinical sexologist, and the sexuality and relationships expert for Sex Toy Collective. “Sex was [considered] an act that a more powerful person [would do] to someone less powerful.”
Because of this, although gender wasn’t exactly on the table, the penetrator was deemed more masculine than whoever was on the receiving end, according to Melancon. But while this was acceptable behavior and it was completely normal for young men to be with much older men, certain lines were drawn when it came to sex with a female.
“Male penetration of another male would still be less acceptable than sex with a female,” says Melancon. But when men did engage in sex with a female, whether it was with their wife or a prostitute—the latter being acceptable even for married men—anal sex wasn’t off the menu, as it was used as a method of contraception. And considering that Soranus of Ephesus, a gynecologist during ancient Roman times, basically suggested his female patients sneeze after their male partner ejaculated in them to avoid pregnancy (according to Women’s Life in Greece and Rome), anal sex did sound like a far wiser choice if they weren't ready to have a baby.
100 C.E. to 700 C.E.:
Although Rome didn’t fall until 476 C.E., it’s important to jump over to 100 C.E. to explore how anal sex was used in what we now know as Latin America.
Artifacts left behind by the Moche—which was an ancient Andean civilization in Peru that existed between the first and eighth centuries C.E.—show that anal sex was a common sexual act that was practiced. So common, in fact, that not only was it the most frequent sexual act found on Moche ceramics, but images of vaginal sex are so few and far between that they're “almost nonexistent.”
According to Caril Phang, a researcher of Indigenous cultures of the western hemisphere quoted in Atlas Obscura, "That Moche pottery presented the physical act of sex was an affront to the Catholic faith. However, the art also proved advantageous to the colonizing ideal. It suited the Spanish need to define Indigenous peoples as ‘carnal,’ ‘lustful,’ ‘pagan’ tribes on whom ‘just war’ would be declared to expand Spanish territory—and the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church." Basically, it is theorized that there was equality between men and women and that they were considered progressive in comparison to others.
Common Era or Christian Era:
It goes without saying that Christianity has had a profound effect on the world, especially when it comes to sex. One of the biggest contributors to the New Testament in the Bible was St. Paul, a celibate Christian leader who, although living in the time shortly before the fall of Rome, advocated for celibacy both before and after marriage. According to him, sex was for procreation only, and his teachings echoed long after he was gone. With P-in-V intercourse subtracted from the equation, with the rise of Christianity anything else was considered “wrong"—even though Jesus was only known to discuss lust (adultery in particular) and divorce, according to the Bible.
For hundreds of years, as the Church became more and more powerful, sex and religion continued to be linked. In order to be pious and guarantee a one-way ticket to heaven, one had to obey the teachings of the Church. It was also during this time that the papacy, or rather the appointment of popes, began, further solidifying the Church as an institution of power.
In the early 1200s, the Catholic Church stepped up their interference in the bedrooms of the people by decreeing in 1215 what was called a “licit marriage.” Monogamy was enforced, divorce was condemned, and rules banning sodomy were established. However, what one did behind closed doors, in the privacy of their own home, is hard to monitor. In other words, whether or not people were still engaging in anal sex is difficult to confirm or deny, but still, the church’s rules attached a stigma to it. The very definition of taboo is “banned on grounds of morality or taste.” Because of this, there is a large gap in the history of anal sex. Were people doing it? More than likely. Can it be confirmed? Hard no.
What was acceptable came and went over the centuries, but the Church’s hold over the people was a strong one. In the Victorian era in the 1800s, with cases of syphilis running rampant, there was a shift toward masturbation. Although prostitution was commonplace at the time, what one could or couldn’t due with a Victorian era prostitute isn’t in the history books. What is in the history books is that, despite the repression of sexual desire, married couples were having sex, even if it wasn’t for procreation.
Fast-forward to the 20th century, in which there were three major things that affected sex and sexuality: the sexual revolution of the 1920s, Dr. Kinsey’s studies and reports on sexuality, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Kinsey’s research included anal sex, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s stared down all previous conventions about intercourse, liberating how people viewed all sex acts—including anal sex.
Present day within the Common Era:
Right now, in July 2020, anal sex is illegal in 12 states in the U.S. According to the ACLU, the reason for this is strictly linked to homophobia, with no mention of anal sex between heterosexual couples mentioned except in two states: Maryland and Oklahoma. The laws were written specifically to limit the rights of gay individuals, including adoption and job safety. With sodomy laws on the books and anal sex considered something that only homosexual couples do, the government has helped individuals believe that anal sex is wrong or taboo to engage in. But while that may be the case in some areas of the country and the world, it hasn’t stopped a section of our society from breaking away and embracing it with open arms.
Zane predicts that the stigma surrounding anal sex will continue to decrease for the time being, but it’s not likely to stay that way forever. We are, after all—in case you hadn’t noticed—in the midst of a sexual revolution. “We had one in the '60s, as we all know, and we had one in response to the Victorian era, around the turn of the 20th century,” says Zane. “However, acceptance of sexuality and sexual openness waxes and wanes, usually in response to a religious conservatism becoming more prominent.”
In other words, the hope of completely putting the anal sex taboo to bed for good isn’t very likely. Especially as long as we live in a culture that continues to associate anal with homosexuality and as long as homophobia persists.
“I think if we were to decrease homophobia, we’d see an increase in acceptance for anal,” says Zane. “To be honest, that could in part be why we’re starting to see greater acceptance of anal sex in the United States as of late. We’re seeing less homophobia (although, of course, there’s still plenty).”
But, as Zane points out, there’s a very tight grip on religiosity and conservatism in the U.S., and it’s a level that you’re not likely to find in our European counterparts, who tend to be more open about sex. (Sex education is taught in the Netherlands to kids as young as four, and it’s also mandatory in the majority of European countries.) “As long as that continues to exist, there will always be sex negativity,” says Zane. And where there’s any sort of negativity, miseducation, stigma, and taboo will follow. However, for some of us, the taboo factor can be a real selling point.