Brian, 30, had been with his girlfriend for a couple of years when he finally got up the nerve to pop the question. She said yes. "I took a shower. It was a Sunday. We smoked dope. Then, I got a good hour of just—you know," he says. "It made me feel like I was on Vicodin. Just. Fucking. Good."
Brian's question—"Could you lick my asshole?"—is one rarely posed aloud by the heterosexual American male. But that doesn't mean he's not thinking it. Whatever your preferred nomenclature—rimming, analingus, butt-munching, salad-tossing—oral-anal contact remains a secret item on the straight guy's sexual menu. Last year, Esquire asked 500 men, "During foreplay, what's the one thing that you want more of from your current partner?" A sizable minority—12 percent—replied that they privately desired more rim jobs, situating them between the 43 percent of guys who wanted more fellatio and the 6 percent who wanted "a little rough play."
And while the survey didn't totally give rimming its due—avoiding basic questions about frequency in the average male's bedroom—it was surprising that it was offered up as an acceptable option. While American men are increasingly prying open their girlfriends' back doors, most aren't talking about their assholes. They'll watch porn stars investigate every female orifice in seemingly limitless fashion, but fantasies of their own anal action are usually unmentionable, for reasons that have more to do with masculine pride than pleasure.
"We carry a lot of shame around our anuses," explains Charlie Glickman, a sex educator and the author of The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men and Their Partners. "It's a shame that starts when we're in diapers," and sticks around once we're housebroken. According to Glickman (who is bisexual), even as adults, "We look for a reason to justify the taboo. We say it's disgusting. We say it's dirty. We say it's gross."
And we say it's gay. Though all men are sitting on the same equipment, the male American ass is still perceived as a homosexual playground. When Glickman surveyed 100 heterosexual couples to learn about their biggest reservations around anal play, they asked, "Is this going to hurt?" and "Is this going to get messy?" But they also wondered, "Is this going to make me gay?'" Their paranoia reflects the "idea that if you receive anal stimulation, you're taking on the woman's role," says Glickman. "You're being dominated. You're losing masculine status."
Gay rimmers disagree. A 2011 study of nearly 25,000 gay males found that 25.4 percent had eaten ass on their most recent sexual encounter, and 26.1 percent had received. "It's a part of my everyday sex life," says Michael, a 26-year-old in Long Beach. "I've never met a man who refused to give or receive a rim job," regardless of his identity as top or a bottom.
Michael reasons that rim jobs might be more common among gays because they are "a logical precursor to anal sex." But they also just feel good. Psychological roadblocks to butt play mean that men who opt out are missing out, pure and simple. The anus has "got all of this exquisite sensitivity—it's similar to the nerves in your lips," Glickman says. When licked, "It kind of tickles," Michael adds. "But it also stimulates other erogenous zones, like my penis and my nipples. It's the whole body package." The feminist porn director Tristan Taormino agrees. "Why should fags have all the fun?" she wondered in a 2001 Village Voice column on the subject. "The asshole is the most democratic of all orifices—we all have one!"
To normalize rimming among straight people, like Taormino suggests, a first step might be to re-contextualize the activity as just another variation on oral sex. Sucking cock and eating pussy were once perceived as more intimate than penetrative sex. Now the acts are relatively mundane: A significant portion of today's teens practice deep-throating before losing their virginity. A 2002 survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics found that for most Americans, vaginal sex was more common than oral, with one notable exception: Fifty percent of teens aged 15 to 19 had engaged in vaginal sex, while 55 percent had given oral a try.
Of course, gays had prioritized oral in the bedroom long before straights relaxed their attitudes (and their jaws). A 2011 study found that 75 percent of gay men had performed fellatio in their most recent sexual encounter, while only 34 percent had penetrated his partner. Oral sex was so popular it barely edged out kissing on the mouth. These days it's anal sex that's following a similar trajectory from the gay to the straight bedroom. In 1992, only 16 percent of women aged 18-24 had tried it. Twenty years later, there's been a great shift: 40 percent of women from that same age bracket said they'd taken it in the butt at least once in 2010.
The straight man who continues along the path paved by his gay brethren might well be ahead of the curve. According to Jeff, a 27-year-old who's into butt play (he prefers fingers), it's "a pleasant surprise" for partners when they realize "interplay isn't always going to be set-up, mount, dismount." Some ladies even view his predilection as a badge of masculinity. "You can talk about being tough and fearless and open and sensitive, but nothing puts that to the test like allowing—and enjoying—foreign objects in the out door."
Women agree that the act can change the way they think about their man—for the better. L.A. writer Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal captures feelings of empowerment through rimming in a poem recently published by Sibling Rivalry Press. "[T]his morning I called my boyfriend my boyfriend for the first time, right after I flipped this boyfriend on his belly, backed his ass into my face, rimmed him with the effort of my entire body and have never felt so butch." And when Lily, a 26-year-old Brooklyn woman, revealed at a dinner party that her boyfriend loved a little tongue in his ass, "Someone asked, 'Did you think that he was perhaps gay?'" She replied, "No, I thought he was perhaps human."
Rebranding a typically gay sex act as acceptable for straights could help normalize gay people themselves, particularly in places where gay sex is still deeply stigmatized. When the Ugandan evangelical pastor Martin Ssempa launched a Rick Warren-aided and Michele Bachmann-approved anti-gay campaign there in 2011, his propaganda zeroed in on the horror of ass-to-mouth stimulation. "I've taken some time to do a little research to know what homosexuals do in the privacy of their bedrooms," he says in a videotaped speech that's so offensive it rises to the level of viral comedy. "One of the things they do is called 'anal licking,' where a man's anus is licked like this, by the other person," he adds while cupping his left hand into a circle and smacking his lips against it. "Poo poo comes out, and then the poo poo's out, and then they eat the poo poo." (Though Ssempa claims to be disgusted by the results of his gay "research," his literally shit-eating grin says otherwise). "We want to ask Barack Obama to explain to us: Is this what he wants to bring to Africa?" he continues. The "first gay president" remains closed-lipped on the topic, advancing the gay agenda through marriage equality and open military—as opposed to anal—service. For a post-Clinton presidency, such a stance could be considered regressive. Blamed for popularizing oral sex when reports surfaced that Monica Lewinsky sampled his cigar in the Oval Office, Clinton's proclivities went even further south. Another detail buried in the Starr Report: Monica totally rimmed him, too.
But part of the problem is that, outside of gay contexts (and apparently, presidential investigations and Esquire sex surveys), the topic of rimming is rarely breached—even in the clinical literature of science or the lewd output of Hollywood. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, conducted by Indiana University sex researchers, delved into the rate of anal penetration of women and gay men in 2010, but it didn't question the straight man's asshole. Pop culture similarly ignoresthe act. When Sex and the City brought analingus chitchat to the brunch table in 2001, Miranda said she accepted one guy's tongue up her butt, but she recoiled when the roles were reversed. Even Samantha's lips were sealed. We've seen Lena Dunham engage in some highly uncomfortable anal sex on Girls, but she's yet to eat out Adam's ass (season three maybe?). In this summer's apocalyptic bro-comedy, This Is The End, rimming was relegated to a gross-out gag: At a coke-fueled party, Jay Baruchel walks in on Michael Cera, who is sipping Capri Sun while a girl goes at him from behind. "Is Michael Cera's butthole as adorable as I pictured?" Seth Rogen later asks Baruchel. "I picture it looking like a little donut. A little pink sprinkled donut."
But the Hollywood anus is carefully sheathed behind nudity clauses, and even in straight porn, males don't spread their cheeks outside of niche sites. The industry's most attention-seeking asshole belongs to Rocco Siffredi, the boundary-pushing Italian who mastered the art of the 180-degree-turn mid-blow job. But as the poster boy for porn's "gonzo" trend—which sent the sexually enflamed Siffredi punching stomachs, pissing on tummies and sitting atop the faces of women across the continent in the 1990s and 2000s—he might have done more to exoticize the practice than popularize it among American viewers. (The takeaway? Don't try this at home.)
For the layman, logistics remain an obstacle. "There's a reason we say 'where the sun don't shine,'" Glickman says. "If you're a woman having sex doggy-style, your ass is exposed, but that's not a position that men are typically in." The ideal analingus position puts a man "on his back with his knees pulled up to his chest." Or: "Standing on the floor and bent over the end of the bed." Or: "On his elbows and knees." Says Glickman, "It can feel like a vulnerable thing."
And some straight men—unaccustomed to grooming the area—are understandably nervous about how that intimate zone will present, up close and personal. "I wasn't gonna get the real, in-there, good butt stuff unless I showered," Brian submits. Hygiene is a legitimate concern. Along with the standard set of STIs transmitted through oral-genital contact, rimming carries a small, but real, risk of intestinal parasites, according to the CDC. (How many people have actually had to seek pharmaceutical remedies after a rim job is unclear.) Gays have already figured out a solution: "Fucking around and hopping in the shower together is not a weird interlude," Michael says—it's a sexy one.
But for many people, "Disgust factors heavily when it comes to sex," says Jesse Bering, author of the new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. While some women can get over the gross-out factor when hygiene is controlled for, "You never know how they're going to react" to a rim-job request, Brian says. "Someone could be like, 'Oh my God, that's disgusting.'"