Monday, January 28, 2013

Circumstantial evidence.

A vaginal photoplethysmograph. It knows what you like.
Even if you disagree.
I got about fifteen pages into Sex at Dawn before giving up. Partly because it seemed to be breaking down "monogamy is natural and therefore good" only to replace it with equally narrow thinking about "polyamory is natural and therefore good."  Partly because the opening chapter is viciously snarky about how everyone is unhappy and bad at sex these days because of their stupid monogamy delusion, which, even though I'm poly, grates on me like condescending sandpaper.  Partly because some of their evidence for universal bad-at-sex-ness is the frequency of Viagra use and female sexual dysfunction--apparently physical genital problems are just proof of your hang-ups, man.

Partly because there's a part where they make the argument that a woman's "copulatory vocalizations" are supposed to excite other men and invite them to have sex with her too, and... NO and EW and WHAT.

But mostly, I gave up on Sex at Dawn because it's full of a problem a lot of sex research suffers from--the love of circumstantial evidence.

Want to know why women moan during sex?  (Or, for starters, whether all women moan during sex?)  What would your first step in answering this question be?

Well, if you're a Serious Sex Researcher, some approaches you might take:
• Watch female chimps having sex.
• Gather media about fictional women making sex noises.
• Dissect female cadavers, searching for the sex-noise node of the brain.
• Read anthropological accounts of the sex-noise practices of women in isolated hunter-gatherer societies.
• Search the literature for historical mentions of women making sex noises.
• Hook up men and women's genitalia to "arousal-measuring" equipment and scan their brains while they listen to sex noises.
• Speculate at length about the sex noises of "cavewomen."

And one approach you would never, ever take because it's just hopelessly unscientific:
• Ask some women "hey, why do you moan during sex?"

Don't get me wrong, I don't think sex science should consist entirely of self-reports, or that cross-cultural and biological perspectives don't have a place in it.  But too often, sex research seems to consist of everything but listening to people about their own experiences.  It's the meticulous aggregation of every possible piece of circumstantial evidence--and no questions for the eyewitnesses.

I have a special hatred for vaginal photoplethysmography, and not just because it's very hard to type.  This is a device that measures bloodflow in the vagina, and therefore purportedly the sexual arousal of the vagina's owner.  Except that study after study shows that subjects' self-reports of their arousal tend to correlate very badly with their photoplethingy readings.  The photothingy says they're aroused, the human beings say they're not feeling a thing.  Naturally, this is reported in the pop-sci press as "Vaginal Blood Flow Not A Reliable Indicator Of Arousal, New Method Needed."

Haha, I'm just messing with you.  I've never seen that headline.  It's always reported as "Women Not Aware Of Their Own Arousal."  (The first link opens with chimps, too!  Oh, those fucking chimps.  Fascinating creatures and all that, but I don't understand the compulsion to study chimps to understand human sexuality, when actual humans are readily available.)  You couldn't get away with this in other branches of science.  If you measured water ice at 20ÂșC and declared "my thermometer is perfect; this ice must be defective," you'd get laughed out of the lab.  But when it comes to confirming gross old "they don't know what they really want" stereotypes about women, anything goes.

(Don't worry, though; if you have a penis, its degree of erection will also be trusted over your word.  Because no one ever got a hard-on when they didn't want to have sex, right?)

I'm a science nerd at heart.  I like the idea of applying science to sex.  (I'm still trying to find the right excuse to post the pictures from that time we measured my Kegel Power.  About half a kilo, by the way.)  I have no ambition to replace rigorously analyzed data and reproducible double-blind experiments with poems about lilies unfolding.  I think expanding our knowledge of human sexuality is a noble goal in biology, psychology, and sociology, and objective measures are necessary to achieve that.

But I also think that if you want to study humans, study humans.  If you want to study people's feelings, ask them about their feelings.  Cadavers and fMRIs and chimps should be secondary tools to validate what you learn from humans, not the other way around.

In nursing, the definition of pain is simply "whatever the patient says it is," and yet we've still been able to create a massive body of work about the causes, effects, and control of pain.  Our understanding of pain is human and subjective, and still manages to produce precise and meaningful data.  There's no reason we can't study sex this way as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cosmocking: February '13!

Red cover!  Julianne Hough!  The older I get, the less often I recognize these people!  Not quite sure how to feel about that!  She's wearing a, um, transparent plastic cropped biker jacket and satin pajama-underwear-swimsuit... I have no idea what kind of clothing that is!  "Weird Stuff Guys Google About You!"  Believe me, Cosmo, you have no idea!
"A few months ago, my friend asked me to volunteer at a homeless shelter with her--and ever since then, I've been dreaming of opening my own.  I'm so inspired!  I want to give clothing, food, and love to families who live in poverty."
Errgh.  I mean, it's nice that she has good intentions.  But maybe she could be directing those good intentions toward supporting an existing shelter instead of pulling a "I spent four whole hours there, I totally know how to start this from scratch!" Something about this makes me feel like she's not quite prepared for the reality of people who don't just need love, they need healthcare, legal aid, case management, and advocacy.  If all you've got is love, host a fundraiser and give the proceeds to someone who understands social work. will send your ex a bouquet of flowers--chopped up, decaying, and decapitated.
Well, you've got to admire the chutzpah of a florist who realized they could make $29 a bundle for their trash pile.
The Fake Chastity Belt 
"When I'm into someone, I don't want to ruin things by having sex with him too soon," says Liz [...] "The problem is, I usually want to have sex with him so badly that I don't trust myself not to go too far with him when we're making out."  So she squeezes herself into her grossest pair of Spanx.  "I have an extra-ugly girdle reserved for really tempting situations." 
Other women rely on things like prickly legs, a grown-out bikini line, or even just a good old-fashioned pair of granny panties. No matter your poison, they are all things we like to call fake chastity belts: preventative measures taken to ensure that no matter how tempted you are to have sex, you don't.
Oh my God.  This fucking article.  This whole fucking article.  I can't even.  I can't.  I just... I'll make a list.

1. Having sex with a guy "too soon" ruins everything. Because the last thing a guy who wants to have sex with you wants is for you to reveal that you want him just as much and then have sex with him, because then you'd both be happy, and that's, uh, terrible.

2. If you don't want to have sex with a guy, you have to go take absurd romantic-comedy measures to prevent it.  You can't just decide not to.

3. A woman with body hair or unflattering underwear is so comically unfuckable no man would want her.

4. No, wait, actually I think the idea is that the man would want you, but you'd be so ashamed by your appearance that you wouldn't let him see you even though he'd want you anyway.

5. The article then goes on to give tips about how to make your unsexiness sexy in case you decide to be sexy after all but you're still in your unsexy clothes that you put on to keep yourself from being sexy.

6. This fucking article.
Q: My guy wants to come on my face. How do I even respond? 
A: [...] If he's into dominating, try doctor-patient role-play.
I needed a breather before I got to the next reprehensible article, so here's something merely inexplicable.
Can Sex Make You Skinnier? 
Carboholism. As much as it sounds like some fake word the diet industry came up with, I can assure you, it is a very real affliction.
Yes.  The fact that you are alive and have a metabolism fueled largely by glucose is a very real affliction.

I joked once, long ago, that one of these days Cosmo was going to tell us the Krebs Cycle was unflatteringly unfeminine.  I never expected them to call my bluff.

Anyway, I had a long quote from this article typed up but it was fuck-all boring, so I'll sum up: writer goes on diet where whenever she wants to eat life-sustaining amounts of food, she does something sexual instead.  (Sometimes the "something sexual" is watching True Blood, or begging her husband to sexy-text her, which he does grudgingly.)  The diet holds up for five whole days.  But it's, y'know, totally an awesome idea that 18 million readers had to hear all about.
"I'm Marrying My Gay Best Friend!"
Spoiler: by "gay," she means "identifies as gay but attracted to some women."  Which kinda changes the whole story from "wow, you better explain why that isn't a terrible idea" to "um, good for you?"

It would be cool if Cosmo used this to discuss how fluid sexuality can be and how people can defy definitions and find happiness in unexpected ways, but they do not take it in that direction.  They take it in this one:
"Oh, my god," I gushed into the phone.  "I just met the cutest gay guy!" [...] 
Dating a gay man has its upsides. [...]  While I wouldn't call myself a slob, Dave basically organizes my whole life.  When we're out shopping, he knows when to ask "Will you really wear those shoes?" He's not just my date to weddings: He helps me pick out the perfect dress and even does my hair."
All of this is very nice, I guess, but also very "Gay man make adorable sassy little pets for straight women!  And I got to take one home!"

I'll let Brian Safi (video link) take it from here.
Go to Best Buy or a specialty audio shop, and ask someone there for a home-theater surround-sound system (warning: a really good one will cost you up to $500).  Say it authoritatively or you're going to get upsold.
I'm pretty sure you're going to get upsold no matter how authoritatively you say that.

(Later, they describe a subwoofer as "a square box that magically balances the sound.")
Touching the strippers is against the rules in clubs, although no one is going to throw a woman out for brushing a thigh or boob.  Because from a woman, that illicit touch manages to be both sexual and sweet.  Instead of doing it with a sleazy grin, like a guy might, women cheer and laugh.  An inquisitive graze resembles a high five at a sporting event between teammates.  Among the female patrons and dancers is an undeniable spirit of camaraderie, like the whole thing is so absurd, they all have to laugh.
Yeah, that's real nice.  Real poetic-like.  Keep your goddamn hands to yourself.
"In our society, the last thing a young woman wants is to be perceived as uptight, humorless, and jealous," says Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches gender studies at Pasadena City College and speaks nationally on gender issues.  "Getting a lap dance assures a man that you're none of these things."[...] 
"Women aren't turned on by male strippers, because they're always presented as a caricature," says Schwyzer.

i'm done.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Teenage Panic.

"But if you do happen to unzip your fly, then, uh... uh...
enjoy your new life as a cautionary example?"
Look at any forum or question site frequented by sexually active teenagers, and you'll see the same theme come up over and over:

"I had sex. I'm terrified I'm pregnant and have every STD ever."
"A guy fingered me.  I'm terrified I'm pregnant and have every STD ever."
"I touched a girl's breasts and then touched my penis. I'm terrified she's pregnant and we both have every STD ever."

I'm paraphrasing a little sardonically, but I remember being there.  The first time I touched a boy's penis, he demanded I wash my hands immediately, because maybe they had some sperm on them and maybe I would masturbate and then I would get pregnant for sure.  And when I started having intercourse, although we always used condoms, I was absolutely convinced I was pregnant and infected.  It got to the point where I would have stomach rumblings and think that I was feeling a baby kicking.

Despite (or because of) this belief, I never took any tests.  I was so scared of seeing a positive result, I couldn't bear to.  I'm damn lucky that I was worried over nothing, because it was more than nine months before I screwed up the courage to actually use a pregnancy test, and years before I went to a clinic for an STI test.

I was a pretty savvy teenager, intellectually.  My school sex ed wasn't much, but I'd been through every page of Scarleteen and the sex chapter of every "you and your health" book I could get my hands on.  I'd read up on the correct methods for every kind of contraception and the symptoms of every infection.  My problem wasn't lack of education, not exactly.  My problem was an all-consuming terror of punishment.  I'd been able to unlearn misconceptions about the biological details, but I hadn't unlearned the idea that having sex was a very wrong and forbidden act.

The morning after I had sex for the first time, I woke up with a crushing feeing that I'd done something evil and I was going to be caught and punished.  The next time I saw my parents, I was terrified.  I thought they were going to catch some nuance in my speech or gestures and go "Wait a second... you're acting like a sex-haver!  You are in so much trouble."  This didn't happen, but the feeling of guilty terror lingered.

And I think it was that guilty terror that led me to my paranoia.  I was so convinced that I had been bad and would be punished, I believed biology itself would punish me.  It didn't help that I'd grown up hearing about how pregnancy and STIs were "consequences" for sex.  Health class, parents, teachers, media, and peers had always talked about these things not as risks that adults have to manage, but as dire fates (or worse, humiliatingly comical fates) for sluts.  At age 15, I took a certain toxic-girl-hate pride in being Responsible and Pure.  At age 16, I'd had a penis inside me.

This nasty mess of emotions did nothing to stop me from having sex, of course.  There was a whole other mess of emotions telling me that you're undesirable and you're not growing up and you're not in a real relationship if you don't have sex, and those won out in the end.  (Plus I was really horny.)  And by "in the end," I mean "within two hours"--I had sex almost immediately the first time I found out a guy wanted to have sex with me.  So much for convincing kids to wait.  All I was convinced to do was have sex, but feel absolutely terrible about it.

But you can't say there was no deterrent effect, because I was powerfully deterred from seeking any kind of medical advice or testing.  That would be humiliating beyond measure, I was convinced.  It wouldn't feel like asking for help; it would feel like turning myself in.  Saying "I need an STD test" felt to me like saying "I'm a disobedient slut who probably got what she deserves," and I couldn't face that shame.  I'd rather just take my chances.  Even though I was terrified of my chances.

God we fuck up teenagers' heads.  We tell them that biological conditions are moral punishments and then we get all shocked when they don't practice rational risk management of biological conditions.  We teach them "sex is super desirable and all the cool kids do it, and it's hideously shameful and will destroy your life" and we wonder why they act an eensy bit neurotic about it.  If you tried to design a system for making sexually active kids confused and unsafe, you couldn't do much better than the American media and school system.

And for once, the answer is relatively simple.  Just talk about sex like it's a part of life.  Some people have sex and some people don't, because people are different. STIs aren't bad because they're Dirty Crotch Rot; they're bad because they're contagious illnesses like strep throat or whooping cough, and you can ask a doctor to check for and treat them just like you would with strep throat.  Unwanted pregnancy isn't a scarlet A; it's a mostly-preventable accident that sometimes occurs when people are going about their normal business of having sex. You can ask the school counselor about a variety of topics, including career planning, problems at home, questions about sex, or conflicts with teachers.

If we could just get the goddamn stick out of our collective ass and accept that sex is a human activity and teenagers are humans, maybe there wouldn't be quite so many plaintive "I don't understand my body and I'm confused and scared and I don't know anyone I can ask in person" messages flying out into the world.