No, Teen Vogue, the backlash to your anal sex article was not rooted in homophobia

Many of you read (and were likely angered by) an article published earlier this month at Teen Vogue called “Anal Sex: What You Need to Know.” The piece is framed as a body positive sex ed lesson — it claims to explain anatomy, address sexual health, and challenge traditional “penis in vagina” sex. In order to avoid expected backlash to an article about anal sex in a magazine aimed at teen girls and young women, the author, Gigi Engle includes a caveat early on:

“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.

If you’re not comfortable reading about anal sex, that’s perfectly OK, too. We have plenty of other articles around a variety of issues and wellness. Feel free to click out if you’d like! No pressure at all.”

See! You can’t be mad — it’s your own fault for reading the thing in the first place. Buyer beware.

But the problem with Teen Vogue’s anal sex how-to guide is not that it discusses anal sex and that some people are just, you know, uptight about that kind of thing. The problem is that the article included a glaring anatomical error, failed to address any of the larger contexts surrounding anal sex and women (namely, patriarchy), and completely erased women from the conversation. Literally. Neither the word “woman” or the word “female” appear once in the entire article. Even the diagram depicting female and male anatomy uses the terms “prostate owner” and “non-prostate owner” (uncomfortably reminiscent of Green Party Women’s call to “non-men” last year), and Engle uses the term “vagina owners” in order to avoid uttering the horribly offensive word, “women.”

Engle says that “anal sex, though often stigmatized, is a perfectly natural way to engage in sexual activity,” but fails to acknowledge that it is mainly men who engage or wish to engage in anal sex. While she claims an interest in anatomy, Engle either doesn’t understand or (more likely) doesn’t want to get in trouble with the sex positive/queer brigade by pointing out the obvious: men’s bodies are better equipped to enjoy anal sex. This is because, 1) Men have penises that they seem to enjoy sticking in various places, and 2) Men have prostates, which are conducive to butt orgasms. Women, on the other hand, don’t have sexual organs they can stick inside other people, thereby providing said women with orgasms, nor do they have any glands or sex organs inside their rectum that trigger sexual release. Yes, some women claim to enjoy anal sex, which is fine, if true, but failing to discuss these basics in an article presenting itself as sex positive, body positive, and educational, is incredibly weird.

Again, Engle tries to cover her bases, saying, “That being said, anal (like all sex acts) is not enjoyed by everyone, and that’s totally OK.” Everyone who, I wonder? I mean, yeah, people have different bodies and like different things, sexually. But intentionally choosing not to discuss sex differences and the implications of those differences on sexual pleasure leaves a big gap in terms of the “sex ed” component of this lesson, as does neglecting to address the impact of patriarchy on sex.

The reality for girls and women is that they have grown up in a culture that teaches them “sex” means: penetrative, heterosexual, and resulting in male orgasm. Porn culture teaches us that sex is linear, culminating in the money shot, and that women are things to be penetrated — anywhere and everywhere they can be penetrated. We also learn that if a man doesn’t get off, it doesn’t count. So already, male pleasure is central in terms of our cultural understanding of sex. Beyond that, there is this thing we call “rape culture,” wherein men coercing, convincing, and pestering women into sex and into various sex acts is the norm. And not only the norm, but glorified — men who succeed at this “game” are “players.” Getting a woman to engage in anal sex is something men brag to their friends about; and not just because they enjoy the experience, physically, but because they know women don’t want to do it, that it is uncomfortable or even painful for women, and that it equates to a show of power. If that were not the case, men would be bragging to each other every time they masturbated.

So this is some of the context we are dealing with. And now we have a magazine recently heralded as radical (“woke,” in passé internet dialect), whose readership is primarily girls and young women, presenting yet another male-centered sexual practice as gender-neutral and sex positive — just something adventurous, open minded, “queer” (i.e. progressive) people do.

Engle talks a lot about communication and open, honest discussion, sure, but she also talks about anal sex as a challenge to overcome. She discusses the fact that the anus is not naturally lubricated, that it’s very easy to get injured, that it’s usually uncomfortable at some or all points for the “vagina owner,” and that (hey!) the anus isn’t like a vagina. But she never suggests that, actually, there is no reason a woman needs to grit her teeth and try anal sex with her male partner, just because he wants to. Further, Engle treats the person asking for anal sex (who is most likely to be male, though of course she doesn’t say so) as though they are somehow vulnerable, saying, “Asking for anal can be a bit daunting, no matter who you are.” Like, yeah, the big hurdle we need overcome is men’s fear of asking women to fulfill their porny fantasies…

But here’s the kicker: while the article presents itself as pro-sexual pleasure, the diagram of the “non-prostate owner’s” sexual organs doesn’t include a clitoris.
That’s right — the sexual organ primarily responsible for women’s orgasms was omitted from an instructive diagram about sex, aimed at women.

Naturally, the feminist internet got mad. Naturally, women asked questions, such as: “Why have you omitted the existence of males and females?” “Why is Teen Vogue teaching young women and girls how to accommodate male fantasies?” Where the fuck is the clitoris?!”

The response to these questions and critiques? Fuck you/what about the men.

Digital Editorial Director of Teen Vogue, Phillip Picardi, responded with a “tweet storm” celebrated by queer media and liberals alike. Ignoring literally everything women had said about the article, Picardi claimed that the backlash was rooted in “homophobia” and ignorance, adding, “How can you expect young women to not get pregnant without access to reproductive health care?”

Perhaps Picardi is unfamiliar with the audience of the magazine he works for, or perhaps he doesn’t realize that women can’t get pregnant via their butts. More likely, he was defensive and also a man, so responded by centering himself, lying about the criticism, and literally giving women the finger.

The author of the piece responded in an even worse way, doubling down, claiming those criticizing her piece were “psycho” and “trolls,” painting herself as a brave truth-teller, up against repressive pearl-clutchers, and repeating the word “woke” over and over again.

Aside from not publishing such a harmful, anti-woman piece in the first place, the best way Teen Vogue could have dealt with all this would have been to address the criticisms head-on, and publish a response, from a real, live female feminist. Of course, they haven’t and likely won’t, because the reason Teen Vogue published an article encouraging young women to engage in painful sex with self-centered men, that wholly erased biological sex, then framed the whole thing as “sex-positive,” is because they are not here for women.

Teen Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, says the magazine aims to “educate, enlighten, and empower young women, arming them with all they need to lead stylish and informed lives.” Teen Vogue editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth, told The Guardian in February, “We say ‘woke’ here. We’re a woke brand, and our readers are woke, too.” But the magazine’s efforts to appear “woke” remain rooted in marketability, not in an effort to effect real political change or empower girls and women to say “fuck you” to the male gaze and porn culture. Condé Nast (and the company that owns Condé Nast, Advance Publications) has long produced magazines that convince girls and women to hate themselves, but to address that self-hatred by spending money. (The companies also have a history of union-busting, for the record.) While Teen Vogue has clearly made an effort to publish more challenging and political content, their criticisms of Trump and “slut-shaming” can only happen within a context that also encourages capitalism and discourages women’s liberation. I mean, do you really think Condé Nast would survive a socialist, feminist revolution?

That reality aside, I do still think Teen Vogue should be held to account for what they publish. They can be capitalist while also acknowledging that female bodies exist and while producing responsible information about sex. My intention here is not to shrug and say, “Oh well, what did you expect.”

Teen Vogue is enormously influential, in terms of how girls and women see themselves and the world around them. It is irresponsible and hypocritical to claim political righteousness and to align oneself with marginalized groups, while feeding such harmful messages to the most oppressed group of all: women.

If Teen Vogue ever wants to recover from this mess and create the reputation they so desperately desire, they need to do more than defend themselves disingenuously, hoping no one will notice they aren’t being truthful in those defenses. They need to stop erasing the bodies and realities of those they wish to profit from, in an effort to fit in with the neoliberal queer movement that dominates “feminist” discourse in the U.S. And they also, for fuck’s sake, need to stop saying “woke.”

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.