The Science on Anal Pleasure Is In (But Not All the Way)

A new study creates terms for the many methods of anal play.
Three peaches in a row.
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Ever heard of “shallowing?” How about “surfacing?” A newly-released study found that these are some of the most popular ways women enjoy anal play, and have nothing to do with full-on anal penetration as popular culture knows it. 

The researchers—Dr. Christiana von Hippel, research advisor at sex research company For Goodness Sake, and Dr. Devon J. Hensel, professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine—published the study on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One. For Goodness Sake also sells OMGYES, a sexual education resource that includes online classes.


According to the study, which based its results on a quantitative, nationally representative survey of 3,017 women ranging in age from 18 to 93, many women do enjoy doing butt stuff, but it highly depends on how it’s done. 

To be able to talk openly and specifically about what women wanted out of anal, researchers created names and definitions for three sex acts: “Anal Surfacing,” where just the outside of the anus is touched; “Anal Shallowing,” where only a fingertip might go inside; and “Anal Pairing,” where one of the above is done at the same time as other stimulation, like touching the clitoris or vaginal penetration. 

Anal surfacing: Sexual touch by a finger, penis, or sex toy on and around the anus. Anal shallowing: Shallow penetrative touch by a finger, penis, or sex toy just inside the anal opening, no deeper than a fingertip/knuckle.
Anal pairing: Sexual touch on or inside the anus that happens at the same time as other kinds of sexual touch such as vaginal penetration or clitoral touching

Forty percent of the women surveyed like “anal surfacing,” while 35 percent find “shallowing” pleasurable. Forty percent also enjoyed “pairing.” The study goes deeper into specifics for each act, asking women who enjoyed penetration about depth, and what they liked about each type of stimulation. Almost 30 percent said anal stimulation makes orgasms more intense; 18 percent said anal play “feels profoundly intimate and emotional.” 

Media messaging around anal sex is often presented as an all-or-nothing binary: either something’s going in through the out door, so to speak, or it’s off the table completely. Most of the previously published research on anal sex centers on sexually transmitted disease risks, while some studies have examined how women navigate and negotiate anal sex with male partners, the ways mainstream media portrays women’s anal sexual encounters, or the reasons why women engage in anal with men in the first place. 


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The researchers for this new study claim that this is the first time scientific research has asked women about what they, specifically, find pleasurable when it comes to anal touch—and explicitly names those techniques.

In one-on-one interviews, the researchers asked participants to talk in more detail about their experiences. Several mentioned that when they started thinking differently about their buttholes in the bedroom—and one- or multi-dimensional as they wanted—their relationship to them changed. “I only discovered pleasure there when I started treating my butt not as a place for things to go into but more like another flat erogenous zone,” one participant said. “Kind of like how my nipple is a flat erogenous zone.”

Another said they never thought they were into anal, because of bad past experiences. “A few times partners tried to enter and it hurt—which just made me more sure,” they said. “So I was really surprised in my 30’s to realize how pleasurable it can be for me.”

Others described the unique physical sensation, combined with the mindfuck of it being considered “taboo” socially: “It’s a tingly, electric, focused pleasure. And there’s a kind of forbidden quality that makes it feel really intimate and sort of primal.” 

Naming what one wants in their sex lives can help normalize and destigmatize pleasure, even if “shallowing” and “surfacing” might seem a little clinical for something we’ve gotten used to giggling at in pop culture. “Language for knowing how and for what kinds of anal touch to ask a partner may be especially important since most prevalent forms of touch reported as pleasurable for women were done by a partner’s finger or penis,” the researchers wrote in the study. The wide age range, they wrote, shows that many people keep exploring their sexualities throughout their lifetimes. “Thus, there is a wider anal sexual repertoire that women enjoy in everyday life than has been named in scientific literature or that is often discussed openly in society.”