When Americans think of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, certain salacious details spring to mind: the stained blue dress, the Oval Office blowjob, the cigar tube that President Clinton inserted into her vagina. But one particularly raunchy footnote from the Starr Report—that Clinton had allegedly received "oral-anal contact" from Lewinsky—flew under the obsessive punditry radar. It's unclear if the act was considered overly indecent to publicize or simply forgotten—but if that rimjob had happened today, it would've been an entirely different story.
That's because 2014 is the year of the butthole: From widespread coverage in the mainstream media to lyrics to a hit single, it seems as if we've been collectively obsessed with this formerly taboo body part. So what we talking about when we talk about buttholes?
Now, this certainly isn't the first time that pop culture has toyed with the butthole—but it's historically been maligned or gawked at with juvenile fascination. Khia's "My Neck, My Back" reached No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2002, but the chorus constitutes one of the most widely giggled-about rap lyrics (to the uninitiated: the aforementioned back goes on to rhyme with her crack). In a 2001 episode of Sex and the City, Miranda goes home with her running partner, who proceeds to surprise her with a rimjob. She is noticeably distressed, and the next time they end up in bed, she can't bring herself to reciprocate.
In 2014, there is little to be shy about: We're firmly in the Golden Age of Buttholes. Nicki Minaj, noted friend-of-the-butthole who demanded that "somebody point me to the best ass-eater" in 2011 was at it again; in her hit single "Anaconda" she waxes poetic, and with a knowing wink, about a paramour who "toss my salad like his name Romaine." In HBO's True Detective, Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) embodies heteronormative swagger and brutish machismo, but is shown early on in the series lustily performing a rimjob on the young secretary who he's cheating on his wife with.
That's not to say the butthole has exclusively been featured in an erotic context. The film Wetlands, based on a semi-autobiographical German book with the same title, made its U.S. debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie is a delightfully filthy, boundary-pushing romp about a liberated teenager, Helen, who scoffs at all good hygiene practices. The pivotal plot point occurs when she suffers a cringe-worthy accident involving her anus. Wetlands is alternately rambunctious and tinged with deep loneliness, but brazen discussions about her butthole add a touch of levity—take the scene when she hands a hospital nurse her cellphone and impishly asks him to snap a photo of her asshole.
Our public fascination with buttholes has also precipitated a whole new genre of celebrity rumors. In a likely false report on MediaTakeOut.com, a fan reported that she went home with Drake, who performed expert oral sex on her butthole. She claimed he proceeded to ask for the same, to which she happily obliged. (He purportedly enjoyed it so much that he orgasmed, and they did not go on to have intercourse.) More recently, Deadspin reported another rumor about Derek Jeter asking for the same sexual favor, while positioned on all fours.
Several years have been spent chipping away at a taboo until we arrived at this cultural place. Dan Savage noted that "HIV/AIDS forced us to start talking about what people are doing in bed."
The media's jumped on board as well. On the lifestyle side, Cosmopolitan published "A Beginner's Guide to Rimjobs" in March, then a followup in April titled "8 Anal Foreplay Tips for Beginners." GQ catered to its male readership with "The Modern Gentleman's Guide to Going In Through the Back Door." There's also been a showing in unexpected corners of social media. Irreverent, subversive Twitter user @ShitFoodBlogger—who both skewers the food media world and has a significant following within it—has made "bhole" into his own personal catchphrase.
It was only a matter of time before meatier critical journalism began to pick up on the butthole zeitgeist. Former Daily Beast contributor Maureen O'Connor paved the way with her butt play manifesto, published by New York magazine in April (and included on the cover, no less). Gawker followed suit with a piece by Tyrone Palmer in September. "The Booty-Eating Renaissance" called attention to the fact that "anilingus… has been a steady topic of conversation over the past few months," and especially examined the practice in the context of straight hip-hop culture. Palmer also created a related booty-eating playlist, for your listening pleasure.
In "Warning: A Column on Butt Play," O'Connor mused: "That's not to say that any of this is normalized, exactly… perhaps the taboo isn't truly busted until it has a 'Lewinsky moment.' It took a presidential impeachment to bring frank discussion of oral sex into American living rooms; anilingus has yet to land its breakthrough role." A few months later, Natasha Vargas-Cooper wrote an essay about that precise topic for The Baffler, and the conversation about buttholes was catapulted into a highbrow realm.
Having noticed increased discussion about buttholes both generally and among my own social circles, I asked O'Connor whether she'd been confronted with the same since she published her piece. She wrote that she's "been on an alarming number of first dates where the man informed me he liked exactly one article I wrote: 'The one about licking butts.' I'm guessing those first dates who bring up the butt article are hoping the public discourse will translate to private act." Perhaps mainstream journalism does affect our sexual lives in a way that porn cannot. After all, even for the most sexually liberated, it's not acceptable to mention a fringe sexual inclination discovered on PornHub on a first date. So why not test the waters with a potential partner by hinting at something currently highlighted in the mainstream media? A NYMag article can serve as a litmus test for revulsion or receptiveness toward a particular kink—as well as chip away at the taboo on a broader cultural level.
I reached out to author and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, who attributed present-day openness to a "feedback loop": When people hear of others' sexual proclivities, those held back by shame and fear are empowered to explore. They then go on to talk about it, more people listen and are inspired to explore, and so on. It's worth nothing that we didn't suddenly wake up in 2014 deciding that it was now the time to amp up butthole discourse: Several years have been spent chipping away at a taboo until we arrived at this cultural place. Savage noted that "HIV/AIDS forced us to start talking about what people are doing in bed." When studies showed that straight people were also engaging in anal play, it was evidence of one of the ways in which "gay movements have cross-pollinated hetero-land."
I'm sure that Freud would have plenty to say about our current butthole obsession—and not all of it would be flattering. Still, it's remarkable to witness, firsthand, a cultural change that gained momentum and snowballed significantly over the course of the year. And it begets curiosity about what the next anatomical and sexual frontier we'll explore on a mass social level will be. O'Connor—finger on the pulse and without an iota of squeamishness, as always—recently wrote about menstrual cunnilingus. ("Hearing people tell me which one [butt play or period sex] they found grosser is sort of a window into their gross-out reflexes and/or sexual psyches," she divulged.) Savage was frank: "We've run out of orifices," he said, predicting that kinks and fetishes will be next. Whether it's fisting or foot jobs, something will always inspire shock and awe, until that realm of human anatomy and sexuality is brought out into the open. The good news—based on the butthole's banner year—is that it seems to be happening faster than ever.