The text came as I was leaving work.
The sender was a girlfriend who has three daughters. She was upset. I texted back to find out what she was talking about and this is what I learned:
Teen Vogue, the off-shoot of Vogue which exists as an old-school print publication in America as well as a digital brand, has a sex columnist called Gigi Engle who writes about sex regularly for them. This is a picture of Gigi from her website where she describes herself as a "Writer, sex educator, speaker and feminist activist":
Engle's bio states that: as a sex educator, she teaches a variety of classes centred around pleasure, sexual health, and confidence.
I clicked on the link my friend sent me and this is what I saw:
The story is actually fine. In a way. It's instructive and informative. It begins with lots of disclaimers and justifications for why Teen Vogue is publishing it in the first place:
"It's important that we talk about all kinds of sex because not everyone is having, or wants to have, "penis in the vagina" sex. If you do have "penis in the vagina" sex and are curious about something else, or are finding that that type of sex is not for you and you'd just like to explore other options, it's helpful to know the facts. Even if you do learn more and decide anal sex is not a thing you'd like to try, it doesn't hurt to have the information."
This has always been my approach to sex education. Information is power. All the research confirms that girls who are better educated about sex are more likely to feel confident enough to say no to things they don't want to do. Sex education is directly linked to a LATER onset of sexual activity, according to Dr Debbie Ollis, a senior lecturer in health and education at Deakin University.
"In actual fact, what a number of studies show is that by providing comprehensive sexuality education, young people actually delay the onset of sexual activity," Dr Ollis told the ABC. "And for kids who are sexually active, the research shows that they participate in much safer practices around sexual activity."
The author of Teen Vogue's anal sex story warns that anal is not something you can do quickly. She advocates for using lots of lubricant and a condom and warns that while you can't get pregnant via anal, you can catch diseases. All good info.
But my friend (let's call her Jane) - and many other mothers of Teen Vogue readers - remain horrified.
This is how Jane explained it to me:
"Teen Vogue is for 12-17 year old young impressionable girls who are growing up in a generation that is saturated with online porn. Teen Vogue finishes the guide with the statement 'if it feels good do it'. That's an appalling message! Like it's some kind of empowering thing!
"Can Anna Wintour explain why on earth she would allow such potentially damaging material to go to print? Perhaps she can run a story next month about the best designer diapers that Teen Vogue's young readers may require after they have torn and irreversibly damaged anus?"
OK. A few things. Firstly, I'm almost certain Anna Wintour has nothing to do with this. As the editor-in-chief of Vogue and the editorial director of parent company Conde Nast, I can guarantee that 67-year-old Wintour is not approving the stories published in Teen Vogue. But this is not about Teen Vogue or even Anna. This is about my friend, and the mothers of young girls, feeling betrayed and despairing that there is no safe haven from the onslaught of porn culture coming at their daughters like one continuous freight train through pop culture and cyberspace.
I feel their fear and their fury.
And let's be honest. Anal sex is about porn culture. The mainstreaming of this particular sex act is directly linked to porn, something most boys - and girls - have been exposed to before they reach high school. The way anal sex got into Teen Vogue is via porn.
At this point, I should declare, I am wearing three hats as I look at the controversy that has blown up around this story.
- As a former Cosmo editor who wrote, edited and published more sealed sections than any human should.
- As a mother of one sexually active young person who has consumed porn and two younger children who I know will be exposed to porn in the next few years.
- As a digital publisher whose job it is to create engaging content that women want to read.
With the benefit of all my hats I can totally understand the horror. Not about the act itself - whatever floats your boat, if it's consensual, no judgement. But the thing about sex and young girls is that most don't know what they want. They just want to be desirable. Normal. Like everyone else. Very very little sex education is about female pleasure. It's far more likely to be based on fear (avoid pregnancy! avoid STIs! avoid promiscuity!) and virtually all porn is produced for men, via a male lens.
Young girls and women are now learning about what sex 'should' by like by watching porn. And that's terrifying.
Remember your early sexual experiences? Often, they're more performative than enjoyable. You're trying to act and respond in the way you think you should. It's in your head more than your body. What should I do? How should I sound? How does my body look to him? How does it feel for him? And for today's girls and young women, what's going through their heads on a loop is porn. That's their blueprint for what sex should be, how they should be. What they should like and how they should react. Enter anal (sorry).
The tone of this anal sex article (which is only on the website, not in the magazine for commercial reasons - advertisers would freak out) is that anal is simply another item on the menu... in the same realm as oral sex or being on top.
But come on, it's not. It never has been. For almost all women, anal sex is an acquired taste (in the same way as brussel sprouts or offal) that most women never acquire. Popular with a small minority. Not on the menu for most.
But in porn? It's as if every episode of Masterchef included offal and brussel sprouts as ingredients. Confusing. Misleading. Not representative.
However. I also understand why anal sex is something Teen Vogue's readers would want to know about. Of course! Because Teen Vogue's young female readers are not just quarantined into some kind of fashion ghetto where all they're interested in is handbags and shoes. That's why Teen Vogue also includes articles about politics. And sex. Young girls - like all women - are interested in a wide variety of information about a diverse range of topics that are relevant to them and their lived experience.
Listen: After interviewing 200 teen girls and writing a book about it, Madonna King learnt a thing or two about talking to teenagers (post continues after audio...)
And I would argue that anal sex is relevant to teen girls and is part of their lived experience - or will be as soon as they start experimenting sexually with boys - who, according to every expert, are now consuming porn from as young as nine years old and having their ideas about sex formed by it.
From the type of sex they see in porn, boys are clearly going to be misled into thinking all girls like anal. LOVE it, in fact. Because in porn, all women do! No matter that as adults, we know that porn stars are paid more for anal - because there are less of them who want to do it. Just like women who aren't porn stars! Fancy that.
Teen Vogue addresses none of this. Not really. They don't talk about the influence of porn. They don't talk about how to say no to a sex act you don't want to perform. They don't talk about how to deal with it when your partner claims to have "slipped". Or how to tell him what you like and what you don't. Maybe they talk about this in other articles but the emotional aspect of navigating anal sex (the article claims that there are lots of nerve endings in your anus and technically that may be true but... really??) is a huge miss.
The other big miss is information about hygiene and how important it is to not put any body part in or near a vagina after it's been near an anus. That's just dangerous in terms of possible infections. Crucial information, that.
As parents in 2017, we have to talk to our kids about porn. Our sons and our daughters. We need them to know that the sex you see in porn is like the driving you see if you watch the Formula 1: extreme.
We also have to make sure they have access to information about different types of sex so they can be safe and healthy regardless of what they choose to do with their partner.