In Praise of Gigi Engle
We need to talk about Teen Vogue. Yes, readers, you read that correctly. We mean the fashion, beauty and culture magazine aimed primarily at American teenage girls. Because last week, Teen Vogue radically stepped up its already impressive sex ed. game by tackling one of the most enduring bedroom taboos. At the hands of writer and educator Gigi Engle, a whole generation of teenagers were finally presented with a comprehensive and accessible guide to anal sex.
Depending on your journalistic preferences, your children’s ages, or the way you’ve curated your own Twitter echo chamber, this might not be news to you. You might think that Engle is the straight-talking pioneer the younger generation needs. Or, like the angry mother whose ritualistic magazine-burning went viral, you might think Engel is teaching our children how to be ‘sodomized’. The less rabid among you might still take JJ Barnes’ line that Engle tackling anal sex in a publication for young female readers is unfeminist and destructive. Or, if the Teen Vogue Anal Scandal passed you by, you might want to take a moment to read Engle’s article, and then come back to this article armed with a cup of tea and an open mind. Because, readers, teaching young teenagers about anal sex is a good thing.
First, a little background to this story. In recent months, Teen Vogue has become a powerhouse of inclusive and incisive journalism. Where Vogue for grown-ups covers the traditional ‘glossy’ territory of designer dresses and aspirational lifestyles, its little sister has spent the past few months exploring issues of gender identity, sexuality, race, feminism and the dark depths of the Trump administration. Teen Vogue talks about depression, female athletes, sexual assault, and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as how to get the perfect nude lip for your skin tone. Where sex ed. is concerned, columnist Gigi Engle has recently tackled such important and sensitive subjects as masturbation, talking to your parents about being raped, IUDs and vaginal health. Engle is telling adolescents what they need to know, and are too embarrassed to ask about.
On 7th July, Teen Vogue published Engle’s article Anal Sex: All You Need To Know (subtitle: ‘How to do it the RIGHT way’). Discussing anal in the context of anatomical differences rather than gender, and emphasising the importance of enthusiastic consent, communication and lubrication, Engle’s advice was just about as inclusive, helpful, and – dare I say it? – anodyne as any writing about anal sex could be.
But then, of course, the backlash came. While butt-curious Teen Vogue readers were finally accessing information on anal sex that wasn’t mediated through unrealistic Pornhub gangbangs or puritanical scaremongering, adults from all corners of the internet rose up to complain in tones as vociferous as they were ignorant. In her quest to present young people with the facts about anal sex, Gigi Engle was branded a paedophile, a Satanic corruptor of youthful innocence, and a danger to young children – particularly young girls. If Engle’s detractors weren’t condemning her while dousing themselves with holy water and self-righteousness (conveniently ignoring the fact that anal sex is culturally recognised as ‘the sex that God can’t see’) they claimed that by talking to underage girls anal sex, Engle was promoting and normalising a dangerous act that is increasingly demanded by manipulative, porn-addled boys.
Now, I’m not here to suggest that all thirteen-year-olds should be getting intimate with their sphincters. Nor am I claiming that all anal sex that young people engage in is healthy and positive. I’m not suggesting that the effects of pornography on young people’s sexual development aren’t potentially huge and complex, and encouraging teenagers to try anal more than they otherwise might. Exposure to anal sex as a norm, rather than a rare exception, in mainstream pornography is undoubtedly changing how backdoor action is understood by young people. And yes, a large proportion of Teen Vogue’s readership is below the age of consent. But all of these are reasons why we need to talk to young people about all kinds of sex, including anal sex, more than ever before. Protesting that anal should be excluded from young people’s sexual education (and thus from Teen Vogue) is as dangerous as it is discriminatory.
First off, Teen Vogue isn’t just a print magazine for teen girls. It is also a well-known and well-respected online resource that also caters to LGBTQ youth. With this in mind, Engle’s article discusses anal sex for ‘prostate owners’ and ‘non-prostate owners’, reaching out to young people who are working out what to do with their new, confusing bodies, sexualities, and gender identities. By describing people assigned female at birth as ‘non-prostate owners’, Engle isn’t trying to erase womanhood and define teen girls as entities who can only be understood as non-men, diverging from the masculine norm. She’s making sure her sex ed. is relevant to everyone.
By describing anal sex as it relates to anatomy as opposed to gender, Engle creates a space where queer, trans, and non-binary youth can get the information they need to start exploring their sexuality. In so doing, she acknowledges anal sex as something that can play an important role in the lives of young people for whom the heteronormative vision of sex as ‘when a man puts his penis goes into a woman’s vagina’ simply doesn’t apply. If children and teenagers receive an education that recognises heterosexual ‘PIV’ sex as an act of love and desire as well as procreation, why shouldn’t kids for whom that isn’t an option (or isn’t the sole option) learn that there are other sexual acts of equal value that will allow them to express their desires when the time comes?
As well as recognising anal sex as a pleasurable act that is as worthy of recognition and respect as any other, discussing anal is necessary for saving lives. Treating anal sex as though it is sinful and unspeakable perpetuates homophobia. It reinforces the shame and stigma felt by young LGBTQ people who recognise that much of society is still suspicious of their sexuality. And it bolsters the idea that any sexual act that could never lead to a potential foetus is somehow less valid. Keeping anal sex out of mainstream conversations contributes to a wider homophobic culture that leads LGBTQ youth to depression, self-harm, and suicide.
Withholding the facts about anal sex can also lead to young people taking unnecessary sexual risks by not using condoms, or hurting themselves by doing too much, too soon. On the one hand, shutting down open conversations about anal sex can cause the spread of STDs among young people who don’t know what they’re doing. On the other, by overlooking the positive aspects of responsible anal sex between consenting adults, it helps to perpetuate distrust of gay relationships and HIV stigma. Teaching young people about anal sex as a normal, safe sexual act is ethically necessary.
While we’re on the subject of risk, anal sex is not inherently dangerous – particularly if you’re using protection. Despite what JJ Barnes, the Christian right and WebMD might tell you, anal is broadly recognised not to be that troublesome if you’re doing it right. The idea that having anal sex somehow guarantees cancer, rectal prolapse, infected fissures or fecal incontinence is a product of fear, misinformation, and homophobic prejudice that still considers anal sex freaky and perverse – and thus dangerous – by definition. Don’t forget, for the vast majority of people who engage in it, anal sex is about pleasure. Why shouldn’t it be normalised and discussed with respect?
So what about Gigi Engle’s impact on heterosexual (or bisexual) cisgender girls? Are they the right audience for an article on anal sex? The short answer is: of course they are.
To start with the bleaker reasons why it’s important that teenage girls have all of the facts about anal, we need to talk about pornography, rape culture, and the difficulties of being a young woman in 2017. Teenage girls grow up in a world where they are consistently eroticised, objectified, and taught to pin their self-worth on their sexual allure and availability. The NSPCC website states that ‘more than 4 in 10 teenage schoolgirls in England have experienced sexual coercion’, and startling numbers of boys and young men are consuming hardcore online pornography and developing unhealthy, violent, and objectifying views towards women. Schoolgirls are being pressured into sending explicit pictures of themselves (which are then shared without their consent), and performing sex acts with which that they are uncomfortable as a result of pressure from male partners. All of this makes it vital that anal sex is something teen girls can understand, think about, and talk about.
If we want girls to know that they shouldn’t be having sex that they don’t want, we need to tell them what that sex involves. Only if they are fully informed can they know whether to agree to a new sexual experience that a boy is requesting or, more unpleasantly, demanding. Would we rather teenage girls found out about anal from Teen Vogue, or from a boyfriend who has no idea about safe sex and just wants to try the lubeless piledriving he’s been watching on his iPhone? If girls have a shared and accepted language with which they can talk about anal sex openly to their female friends, they can find out whether ‘everyone is doing it’, or whether they are being bullied by a boy who wants to use them for his own sexual experimentation.
If girls are going to engage in anal sex, they also have the right to know that they can and should experience pleasure in the process, rather than believing they need to tolerate pain and misery for the sake of a boy’s orgasm.
We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that teenage girls also have the capacity to become interested in anal sex of their own accord – before and after they reach the age of consent. The discourse surrounding anal sex – and the outrage that has been heaped upon Teen Vogue – continually paints it as an act that is sought out by boys and men, and inflicted upon girls and women. Yet while we might not like to acknowledge it, girls are also sexually curious, also consume pornography, and also have the capacity to seek out sex that can harm them if it isn’t practised safely.
We don’t teach girls about contraception to encourage them to become sexually active, but to make sure that they can make an informed and safe choice as and when the time comes. Girls need to know about anal sex so that they can make a similarly safe and informed choice about their own bodily safety and autonomy. If you want to keep your daughters safe and happy, remember that they should all have the right to every scrap of information they can get. Denying that teenage girls have desires and sexual experiences is laughable at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
Also, just a gentle reminder that anal play is something lesbian and bisexual women and girls also engage in. You don’t need a penis to get involved, and we still need to teach our girls to play safely, no matter their sexual orientation.
As well as being rooted in homophobia, reluctance to acknowledge anal sex as a legitimate and pleasurable sexual practice that women enjoy is also a product of misogyny. Anal sex is often viewed as ‘dirty’, or ‘slutty’. For some people, therein lies the joy. But even as an adult woman, to admit you enjoy anal sex is to set yourself up for assumptions about moral standards and promiscuity that some twisted people see as a legitimate reason to violate consent. ‘If she’s into anal,’ they say, ‘she must want or deserve anything she gets.’
The stigma surrounding women and anal sex is mired in arbitrary standards of acceptable and unacceptable sexuality, and the notion that women are somehow devalued by where, how, and how many penises they let enter their bodies. Tacitly or actively teaching girls and young women to view sex that has the potential to make babies as acceptable, and anything else as inappropriate, is not liberating. Instead, it helps girls internalise a hierarchy of sexual practices where ‘penis-in-vagina’ sex is the upper limit of what they should do, lest they stray into the dangerous territory of ‘the slut’. Only by treating all sex as equal, provided it is consensual, harmless and mutually gratifying, can girls learn that all of their desires are valid, and that their choice of sexual act does not dictate their morals or their personal worth.
Gigi Engle’s first shot at bringing anal sex ed. to the teenage masses wasn’t perfect. There isn’t one mention of the clitoris on her diagrams or in her writing. Given the significance of the clitoris to female sexual pleasure, erasing it from a magazine targeted at young female readers is inexcusable. Equally disturbing is the editorial note at the bottom that reads ‘This article has been updated to include the importance of using protection during anal sex.’ The idea that an article on any sexual practice could be published in a teen magazine without the word ‘condom’ repeatedly written in giant flashing letters is mind-blowingly irresponsible. But changes have been made, and even if Teen Vogue hasn’t ramped up the importance of clitoral stimulation, it now highlights how protection is just as important as mutual respect, individual choice, and mandatory enthusiastic consent.
Pretending that young people won’t be curious about anal sex is stupid. Pretending that they wont try it is delusional. We need to make sure that when they decide to try it, however old they are, they are doing it in the safest and most informed way possible. It is not enough to leave teenagers’ sexual wellbeing to an awkward silence and the pretence that they aren’t getting most of their sex ed. from porn and hearsay. We desperately need more honest discussions about diverse sexual practices where young people are concerned. By addressing anal sex in a way that engages with teenage audiences, Teen Vogue has taken a bold step towards making a whole generation wiser and safer. We should all be grateful for that.
Catherine Ellis is deputy editor of Erotic Review