In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a renaissance for anal sex in American entertainment. Hollywood’s classic sex scene formula hasn’t changed much in eons, with its rote trajectory from passionate kissing to penetration in seconds. If viewers are lucky, maybe there’s a bonus oral sesh in between. But anal sex, when displayed or even just implied, has often been invoked for cheap jokes, or to punctuate an act of violence. So, the fact that butt stuff is seemingly everywhere and being shown as a genuine source of pleasure feels pretty momentous.
These days, hardly anyone bats an eye when anal appears in otherwise standard fare, like the sweetly surreal rom-com Palm Springs. For all its efforts to cultivate the largest possible audience, even Marvel has gotten in on the fun. In 2016, the Disney-owned studio chose to bestow its audacious antihero Deadpool with an interest in pegging, which was nothing short of a crowd-pleaser.
(M)ass Appeal: How Anal Sex Became Hollywood Worthy
These days, anal is the new normal on prestige networks like HBO, where it shows up in everything from dead serious dramas like The Staircase to winking satires like The White Lotus. Fun fact: on the latter show, where hotel manager Armond, played by Murray Bartlett, is caught tossing salad on the job, that specific shot was initially conceived by an actor. The director originally intended to show the two workers mid-coitus, but Lukas Gage, who played the receiving party, suggested the rim job.
“I think ass eating needs to be talked about more,” Gage told Andy Cohen last year on Watch What Happens Live. “We’ve seen [penetrative] sex on TV!”
We’ve really come a long way. I’m old enough to remember when “don’t drop the soap” was the go-to anal sex reference in mainstream movies and TV shows. A few decades back, the most well-known depictions of anal intercourse were often violent attacks against someone who was queer, incarcerated, or both. For example, Boys Don’t Cry garnered Hilary Swank her first Academy Award in 2000 for portraying a real-life trans man, Brandon Teena, who was raped and later murdered in his rural Nebraska town.
To be clear, it’s not that anal sex has been totally liberated from the realm of taboo and grisly true crime. Even nowadays, getting “fucked in the ass” remains a routine shorthand in hypermasculine settings for being bested in some sort of conflict (see virtually any episode of Succession, another HBO instant classic). But despite the tenacity of such lexical relics, I see the rate of progress as successfully instilling a superior norm, where anal sex is more likely than ever to be portrayed in a shame-free way that centers pleasure instead of power, and as an activity that anyone can enjoy.
"Queer folks are certainly not the only ones, on-screen or off, enjoying back-door action."
So, what’s changed? From what I can tell, it’s the early aughts when things started to shift. That’s when the Oscar-winning films that feature anal sex, like Monster’s Ball (2001) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), were portraying the act as a source of pleasure and connection — just like any other sex scene. Brokeback in particular is considered a watershed moment for gay men in cinema, for its portrayal of their sexual desire as legitimate, and even sacrosanct.
In fact, the recent influx of LBGTQ+ people in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, may have helped sex scenes become more well-rounded. After all, taboos about anal pleasure in the US derive from the country’s Puritan roots (with a major assist from Sigmund Freud). This led to the stigmatization of virtually all non-procreative sex, and helped to seed homophobia in Western culture. But it’s also meant that queer people, unacknowledged by the strictures governing cis-hetero sex (i.e. sex ends when the person with the penis has an orgasm), are freer to approach their sexuality from a place of curiosity and exploration.
With greater visibility in entertainment and social media in recent years, LGBTQ+ people have been able to make their experiences and desires widely known, including ones — like anal sex — that have been traditionally coded as “queer” by the mainstream. That being said, queer folks are certainly not the only ones, on-screen or off, enjoying back-door action. Seeing straight cis TV characters engaged in anilingus is increasingly common, like on Vida, a short-lived Starz drama about grief, queerness, and Latinidad.
In an ill-fated hookup between Linda and her boyfriend, we see her eating his ass, which he vocally enjoys. “Did you bring the plug?” she asks beforehand, implying that this is routine, and also that she’s an enthusiastic participant. I loved that this was played totally straight, without mocking the boyfriend for being into it. What I didn’t love as much was the later reveal that this guy is a selfish prick, when he subjects his grieving girlfriend to a humiliating heartbreak.
While modern screenwriters may be less reliant upon prison rape punchlines and “no homo” quips, it’s definitely not uncommon to see anal pleasure (or a desire for it) as a stand-in for loathsome character traits, as with the scene in Vida. Another unhelpful trope is when anal sex is shown specifically to demonstrate that a character (often a woman) is despairing and self-destructive, like in Marvel’s Jessica Jones or in the Cheryl Strayed biopic, Wild. Even as we’re beginning to depict anal sex more honestly overall, the cultural compulsion to project baseless stigmas onto anal sex has been resilient.
As a passionate pleasure advocate, I feel a sense of triumph that anal sex is becoming increasingly normalized through storytelling, whether through entertainment or online. It shows that we’re helping each other understand what’s possible in our relationships and our (sex) lives, and learning to put pleasure first.