What’s “Natural” About Sex?

May 3, 2015

The New York Times Magazine has a great opinion piece this week about how “natural” doesn’t have a specific legal meaning.

We now live in a world in which “natural Cheetos” and “100% all-natural chicken nuggets” are for sale. The anti-vaccination nuts deride medicines that are “unnatural,” forgetting that the goal of all medicine is to defeat nature. Anti-gay folks talk about “natural [i.e., heterosexual] marriage,” as if marriage isn’t an artificial institution like baseball—and, like baseball, is played differently in different places and subject to periodic rule changes (insert favorite rant about the Designated Hitter or former laws against interracial marriage).

One of the top questions about sex people bring to therapy relates to what’s “natural.” There are two different aspects to this.

The first is about the ecology of sexual interactions: making time for sex, the process of initiating, discussing preferences, feeling adequate, and negotiating contraception.

People want sex to be “natural.” Men and women concerned about this generally mean that they don’t want to make dates for sex, want sex to mysteriously happen without anyone actually initiating, don’t want to communicate what they like and don’t like, want to believe that their partner is deeply satisfied without actually asking or noticing, and want the need for contraception to just go away.

In other words, people who insist that sex be “natural” want it to be like it was during high school or college, when no one had a clue about what was going on. You may recall that that sex often came with physical discomfort, pregnancy scares, self-doubt, and feeling isolated or confused. What a blessing that ten or twenty or forty years later, most people forget about that.

Sex in adulthood isn’t going to be like it was in high school or college.

Of course, some adults try hard to reproduce the carefree sex of their youth. So we see some middle-aged people getting drunk to have sex, not a pretty sight. Or adult women who insist that initiating sex is “a man’s job,” or adult men who say birth control is “up to the woman.” In both cases, people seem unaware about how such demands distort relationships. Ditto for the naïve ideas of men who expect their penis to get hard without being touched, and women who expect that men will know what they like sexually without being told or shown.

That’s not how sex works. We may have an excuse for these such ideas when we’re 18, but not when we’re 40. And without making a date for it, most grownup couples don’t usually find themselves suddenly tumbling into bed together for sex—especially if they have kids.

So if your definition of “natural” sex is that it just happens, no one talks, there are no problems, and birth control just disappears—you know, a 1938 black-and-white film with Cary Grant or a modern romance with Scarlett Johansson—“natural sex” is going to be hard to create. And if you can create it, you probably won’t enjoy it.

The second concern about “natural” sex equates it with “normal.” As in “Doc, is it natural to…
…want sex three days in a row?”
…be too tired on your wedding night to have sex?”
…fantasize about threesomes—and neither guy is my husband?”
…think so much about my small penis that I have trouble enjoying sex?”
…want to be slapped the second before I orgasm?”
…fantasize about sex with the babysitter—she’s practically a kid herself!”
…like getting oral sex, but I don’t like to give it?”
…have a bigger orgasm from oral sex than from intercourse?”
…like women with really big butts?”

I think the most helpful answer is “no, these things are NOT normal—because there is no normal when it comes to sex. There are things that are statistically more common than others, but that doesn’t make them superior. Besides, with a global population of five billion adults, something done by only a tiny minority can involve a huge number of people.

Sexual medicine physician Charles Moser says human beings are kinkier than any one of us can possibly imagine. Sex researcher Mickey Diamond says that nature loves diversity; but unfortunately, society hates it. I’d add that society fears it, especially if the diversity involves sex.

My goal has never been to help people have sex that’s “natural,” referring to either the first or second meaning. My goal is to help people let go of the need to be sexually natural or normal, trusting themselves and their partner to simply create experiences that are enjoyable to the two (or more) parties involved. It’s a challenge grownups should embrace, not fear.

Why Is Common Sense “Blaming the Victim”?

April 30, 2015

Be smart:

* Don’t walk in a dangerous neighborhood alone at night.
* When you park your car, don’t leave valuables on the front seat, and don’t leave your car unlocked.
* When you ride the bus or subway, keep your backpack or purse in front of you where you can see it.
* When you travel by airplane, wash your hands multiple times and use hand sanitizer.
* When you drive on the freeway and someone is weaving unpredictably, change lanes to get away from them.
* When you walk through an airport, don’t wear a t-shirt with Osama Bin Laden’s picture on it.

Seven pieces of good advice, wouldn’t you say?

You might even give this good advice to a loved one. If you did, would she or he complain that you were giving them too much responsibility for their safety? Would he or she say that you were blaming the victim by suggesting they limit their potentially risky behavior?

Of course not.

And yet when anyone suggests similarly good advice about dating or partying—“young women should not get drunk with people they barely know,” or “young women should not drink so much in public that they become incapacitated,” some people criticize that good advice as “blaming the victim.”

Such good advice is NOT a statement that “if you get drunk you deserve to be raped,” nor “if you get drunk and get raped it’s your own fault.” No, no, no. The advice to not get drunk simply reflects a cause-and-effect observation, now validated by science: young women who get drunk in public are more likely to get raped than young women who don’t get drunk in public. There’s a fact. Make your decision accordingly.

Of course we should be continually saying to all men, “don’t rape anyone, don’t exploit anyone who’s drunk, don’t get anyone drunk in order to have sex with them.” The number of young men who seem to enjoy sex with women who are drunk or even incapacitated is truly disturbing. These men lack empathy. And clearly these are men who have never had profoundly enjoyable sex, so they settle for a pathetic imitation of the real thing.

Fortunately, we are now educating young generations of males to be more respectful (and self-respectful), and more conscious of the deep hurt they inflict by non-consensual sex. We are demanding that young men discourage each other from cowardly acts of sexual violence, and that they interrupt such acts when they see them.

While we are doing this important work and anticipating its impact on the larger culture, we still must ask young women to take more responsibility for their own safety. This is not demeaning, not blame-shifting, not man-excusing, and certainly not any sort of rape-apology.

This is expecting young women to deal with the world the way it is. It is expecting young women to act like adults and forego the dubious pleasure of getting hammered with near-strangers, because that is what adults do—they balance the desire to act autonomously with the assessment of risk in the real world. We do this when selecting the clothes we wear to work, the language we use with our customers, judging when to drive over the speed limit, and deciding whether or not to wear a helmet when we bicycle.

The fact is, American college women get meticulously drunk far more often than their European peers. We should be asking them why. We mostly don’t.

Part of the reason is cultural: Americans don’t teach their kids how to sip alcohol when they’re young, so when they can finally drink, they gulp it. Drinking in America is seen as something adults do, so when teens can drink, they binge. Alcohol is marketed to teens far more aggressively in America than elsewhere, so it has the patina of cool. And American teens yearn for the tangible props of autonomy—cars, privacy, alcohol, spending money—more than their non-American cousins.

But there’s a troubling psychological reason that young women binge drink: they’re anxious. They’re self-conscious. They’re uncomfortable with the sexual expectations they face (or think they face) in party situations. They expect themselves to participate in sexual activities they may not want to do—or that they can’t admit to themselves that they want to do. Either way, alcohol strips young women of inhibitions that can feel quite inconvenient.

And so they drink so much that they become vulnerable. Unable to assess risk accurately. Unable to intervene in situations when they want to. Unable to say “I want X,” unable to say “I don’t want Y.” These disabilities are the logical climax of deliberately disabling their inhibitions—all so they can cope with their ambivalence, inability to communicate, and self-enforced isolation about sexuality.

If our young women find sex so simultaneously desirable yet unnerving that they have to get semi-conscious to give themselves permission to participate, there’s a serious problem we should be addressing. This is NOT anyone’s license to rape them; being anxious and drinking to cope with anxiety does NOT mean you deserve to be raped.

But a little self-honesty would go a long way here.

The question we face—we feminists, policy-makers, social commentators, public intellectuals, college administrators, conference organizers, concerned parents, and indeed concerned students (both male and female)—is, do we want to do everything we can to reduce sexual assault, or do we want to continue to give women no responsibility for their own safety in order to prove a political point?

I would tell my college-bound daughter that no one has the right to touch her without her clear permission, and that if she’s raped, it cannot possibly be her fault. But I would also say let’s discuss what can make you safer, what can make rape less likely, and most of all, how can you explore your sexuality as intelligently as possible? If you’re adult enough to have partner sex, you’re adult enough to be thoughtful about balancing risk and responsibility in sexual interactions.

That starts with self-honesty. And it continues with the belief that taking responsibility for your choices is not onerous or victim-blaming, it’s a glorious privilege you’ve spent your whole life preparing for.

Those who want to help young women become strong, self-aware, and confident should be in favor of this.

Science & Sex—Why Are They Now Strangers?

April 27, 2015

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at NECSS—the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism. I was surrounded by world-class scientists, including Yale Med School neurologist Steve Novella, Stanford physicist Deborah Berebichez, Oxford neuroscientist Heather Berlin, and even Bill Nye The Science Guy.

It was glorious—no explaining why science is important to everything we do or touch or think. Every one of the 600 attendees “believes” in gravity, evolution, and the Scientific Method.

I started each of the conference’s three days in a wonderful bubble. But each day, news from the outside world was an ugly intruder—which, in a way, was why I was asked to speak there. My talk was on religion’s successful challenge to democracy and public policy—which is particularly visible in the realm of sexuality.

My opening presentation was pretty straightforward:
* Organized religion has successfully marketed itself as Morality Experts
* Organized religion has persuaded many people that sex is mostly about morality—and therefore, they are society’s Sex Experts
* Organized religion has persuaded many people that sexual morality is about limiting choices (as opposed to, say, ethical decision-making or transparency).
* Therefore, when organized religion gets political power, it invariably limits everyone’s choices concerning sexuality.
* Organized religion is aggressive in including a huge number of human enterprises within its supervision of our sexuality.

Some American politicians (such as Michelle Bachman and Scott Walker) are devout believers, with whom the above message resonates deeply. They enthusiastically drag America down to social illiteracy with them. But many politicians (such as Chris Christie) are simply for sale, and will cynically flaunt newfound religious and erotophobic bonafides as part of fundraising and campaigning.

That’s why I called my talk “The Successful Subversion of Secularism.”

Here are just a few reminders of the way organized religion denies science—hard-won human knowledge and certainty—to maintain its power and enforce its mass delusions on people of faith. Professionally-executed, peer-reviewed science shows that:

* Comprehensive school sex education does not sexualize young people.
In fact, kids going through such programs are more likely to postpone first intercourse, more likely to use birth control when they do initiate intercourse, more likely to communicate with their partners about sex, and have fewer lifetime sex partners.

Shame on Congress: Year after year, Congress has refused to require American sex education programs, including those receiving federal funds, to be scientifically accurate.

* Abortion is not dangerous.
Neither surgical nor pharmaceutical abortion causes mental illness, cancer, infertility, or even deep regret. Science demonstrates that most women who get abortions are glad they had abortions. Any regret they feel is typically about the awful situation they were in that led to them to choose an abortion. Ironically, those who promote the lie that abortion harms the women who get them make abortions as physically and emotionally onerous as possible, creating the result they claim they wish to avoid.

Statistically, legal abortion is safer than childbirth.

Oh, fetal pain in the first two trimesters (when almost all abortions are done)? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it’s physiologically impossible.

Shame on anti-choice people who rob other humans of their rights and adulthood. Shame on anti-choice people who don’t reduce the amount of abortion, just its safety. Shame on anti-choice people who refuse to promote contraception, which is the single most effective way of reducing abortion. And shame on anti-choice people who call fetuses “unborn children,” which make as much sense as calling food “pre-digested turds.”

And for those who think God is against abortion, here’s a factual reminder: God’s holy Church didn’t even ban it for over 1,000 years, between St. Augustine and Pope Sixtus. And the Church tolerated it again between 1591 and 1869. Apparently God’s pretty flexible about abortion if you take a long enough view.

* Sexual violence on campus is not increasing.
It’s common for activists and politicians to repeat that “1 in 5 women are raped in college”—which is absolutely untrue. This exuberant summary of ONE study does NOT reflect the statements of respondents; it is the judgement of researchers coding respondents’ answers. They actually coded unwanted kissing and fondling as rape. That isn’t science, that’s propaganda. Is that your definition of rape?

Statistically, college campuses are among the safest places for young women in America and indeed, the world. Do women students get hassled, even groped a few times in four years? Yes, which is depressing. It ought to change. It isn’t rape.

Shame on President Obama, New York Senator Gillibrand, Rolling Stone magazine, broadcaster Keith Olbermann, and everyone else who carelessly repeats the lie that we are in the grip of a sexual assault epidemic. And shame on the college students who are promoting this myth by inflating the category of “rape” so broadly that almost any unwanted sexual attention qualifies. That trivializes real rape.

* Condoms are effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
Condoms are a modern miracle, and they work better than ever. They are now thinner, stronger, and they come in various sizes for penises that are a little smaller or larger than average. They’re not perfect, but statistically, they work very, very well, especially when used correctly. If your computer were as reliable as a condom, most IT consultants would be out of business.

Shame on Focus on the Family, whose internal memos have reflected their insight that unless they can persuade the public that condoms don’t work, people “can argue that the only thing holding people back from free sexual expression is outdated, irrelevant religions restrictions.”
+ + +
Sex and science shouldn’t be adversaries, but organized religion and cynical politicians have made them so, especially when it comes to sex. The Religious Right says it wants to regulate various parts of dating, reproduction, education, entertainment, technology, the criminal justice system, and academic and medical research—all specifically in contradiction to science.

It’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago, Americans valued science, and turned to it for the answers to many of life’s vexing questions. Now science is considered as just another opinion, easily dismissed by even educated people. Vaccination, evolution, climate change, sex offender treatment—why bother with science, when anyone, informed or not, can have (and distribute) strong opinions?

Americans proudly say that everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Unfortunately, too many people feel entitled to their own “facts” as well, especially when it comes to sex.

Indiana: Where Freedom Requires Discrimination

March 30, 2015

Indiana Governor Mike Pence continues to defend the state’s new law authorizing discrimination in business transactions if it’s based on “religious beliefs.” Religious beliefs—you know, the kind that have previously defended civic virtues like slavery, child-beating, and denying women’s right to vote. That’s “religious freedom” in action for you.

The legislation is supposedly intended to protect people with strong religious beliefs who don’t want to provide services for same-sex weddings.

America’s Christian community (population 240 million) continues to be obsessed with non-existent threats to their freedom to worship. “You don’t have to look too far to find a growing hostility toward people of faith,” state legislator Scott Schneider of Indianapolis says. “This bill acts as a shield, not a sword.”

With Good Friday around the corner—a 100% religious event that all Americans are forced to observe through the closing of public schools, the stock market, and most state and federal offices—this is a perfect time to examine the extent to which America’s religious believers need “protecting.”

* Many of the law’s sponsors and defenders won’t even be honest about whom this is aimed at: gay Americans getting married or setting up households. If this law isn’t about gays, let’s consider all the other situations to which supporters say it will apply: none.

For example, no one is talking about how this law will protect:
~ Orthodox Jews who don’t want to sell milk to people who will use it in a meal with meat;
~ Catholic photographers who don’t want to work at weddings of the previously-divorced;
~ Evangelical Christians who don’t want to provide legal or mental health services to those accused of infidelity;
~ Muslims who don’t want to provide limo service for events serving pork.

* The idea of “protecting” people of faith from unwanted experiences out in the world started with the “conscience clauses” pioneered by opponents of abortion and contraceptive rights. As the 21st century dawned, pharmacists, hospital orderlies, and others discovered that their religion dictated that they couldn’t do the jobs for which they were hired or, indeed, licensed—if it involved dispensing medication or facilitating medical services they didn’t want people to have.

But our Constitution doesn’t guarantee anyone’s right to pursue their religion as far as they like. It simply says the government won’t interfere with someone’s “free exercise thereof.” You want to worship, go ahead. You want to burn down a library because your religious beliefs require it, the government won’t allow that.

So you want to preach against marriage equality, go ahead. You want to try to dissuade others from participating, go ahead. But you want a special “religious” exemption from the laws that govern how modern society works? No. For that, you need to move to Iran.

Some people say they can’t obey anti-discrimination laws because they’d be helping others behave in ways they find unacceptable. That’s like refusing to stop at a red light in front of a mosque because you’d be enabling people to pray to Allah. Or your taxi company refusing to take Blacks to White neighborhoods because you’d be helping the races mix.

* What are these people so afraid of? Every business person, tradesperson, and professional in America has already served gays without realizing it, and it hasn’t sent them to hell. And these days, virtually every religious person is discovering that someone they love or admire is, gulp, gay. Hey, bad news for every Christian cardiac surgeon—you’ve probably saved a gay person’s life!

* Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Corporation, is gay. If these religious people are serious about not doing business with gays, they should stop using Apple products, and they should sell their Apple stock.

* How perfect that Indiana uses the word “freedom” to name a law that institutionalizes bigotry.

* This law is a perversion of religion, anyway. Show me, people, where your religion says you can’t do business with people who are non-believers, or people whose personal practices you abhor. Religion is simply an excuse for extraordinary narcissism, paranoia, and barely repressed rage. Because people cloak it with “religion” it’s called freedom.

* Freedom of religion under attack? Shame on Americans who say that. A year of living in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria might help such people understand what it really means to lose freedom of religion.

* The non-gay response to this law across the country has been gratifying. CEOs, politicians, and entertainers from across the country have weighed in, attacking discrimination that in this case is against gay people.
* * *
For two centuries, American society has generated a steady expansion of freedom—for groups, for activities, for individuals. Indiana, where freedom apparently requires discrimination—has interrupted this progress by making freedom a zero-sum game. What a dangerous, authoritarian idea.
* * *
To tell Governor Pence what you think of his new law, phone him at 317/232-9677.

Another Guy Who Isn’t a Sex Addict

March 27, 2015

He was 50, married, and he had all the symptoms of “sex addiction.” Let’s call him Joe.

As he travelled the country lecturing (he was a pioneering ear surgeon), he’d hire an escort to spend the night with him. He’d lie about it to his wife, of course. He became a regular—or rather he had a few “regulars”—in cities he visited frequently, such as Chicago and St. Louis. What had started 12 years ago as an occasional treat eventually became a virtual necessity.

While he wanted to be an attentive father and husband, he worked long hours and was emotionally distant from his sons and his wife. His sexual desire for her was erratic—sometimes overwhelming her, other times leaving her disappointed and confused. Always a frequent masturbator, he became a devoted consumer of online pornography. He put up a profile on Match.com and OkCupid, although it was only to cruise, never to actually hook up.

He eventually got caught. The escorts were the big headline of course, an institutionalized, long-term infidelity that completely outraged his stunned wife. But once the matter was opened, his over-involvement with porn, the mercurial desire for his wife that seemed not quite personally connected to her, his periodic inappropriate comments to waitresses, flight attendants, and baristas, all became fair game for her angry and frightened outbursts.

“I love you, which for me is simple,” she said bitterly. “What’s wrong with you?” For once, he told the truth: “I love you, but for me, that’s complicated,” he said.

He promised he’d stop with the escorts, but didn’t. He agreed to share his online passwords, but simply opened new accounts. He took down his profiles on Match and OkCupid, but found other websites on which to cruise.

And that’s how it was when they came into my office. Two years after he’d been caught cheating, they were trapped in a cycle of his promising, her believing, and him lying and getting caught again.

Over and over. She was terrified of losing her marriage, and outraged at the repeated humiliation. He was tired of her monitoring him, of her “still processing her feelings, after two whole years,” and of her periodic suspicions.

When they came to me they were getting “sex addiction” treatment, which their individual therapists had both encouraged. As the spouse of an “addict,” she was in S-Anon, endlessly talking about her trauma and her “co-dependence.” He was going to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings, but not regularly, and he was reading about the 12 Steps, but not quite enthusiastically.

She wanted me treat his “sex addiction,” and he was willing to do almost anything to end their nightmare of mistrust and chronic conflict.

But in the very first session, I told them that I don’t use the category of “sex addiction.”

“You don’t treat cases like this? You won’t see us?”
“I do treat cases like this, all the time, actually. I just don’t use the ideas around sex addiction to explain people’s behavior, or to make treatment decisions.”
“What do you do instead?”
“I do therapy. Couples counseling or individual therapy, as seems appropriate.”

Although they were skeptical, they decided to see me anyway.

And that’s what we did—therapy. During the course of our work, here’s some of what Joe realized:

* He turns to sex when he feels lonely.
* Because he knows his wife loves him, there’s a limit to how proud he feels when she tells him he’s great. He gets more emotional value from strangers’ appreciation than from his family’s. And sex workers are the perfect strangers.
* He makes promises about calling or texting his wife when he travels for work. But then he feels so controlled when it’s time to contact her that it’s a struggle to keep his promises. For him, not calling is a small adolescent rebellion that feels oddly satisfying. But her experience is that for him, giving into these feelings is more important than their marriage or his commitment.

In fact, we talked about what other non-sexual feelings he has that are so strong he finds it difficult to keep his commitments. It was eye-opening for both of them.

Mostly Joe talked about these things–with his wife. She didn’t like some of what she heard. I gently encouraged her. When she tried to avoid or limit conversations by saying she was “being triggered,” I gently insisted the conversation continue. When he tried to avoid or limit conversations by referring to her obvious discomfort, I wouldn’t let him.

And so they talked. They fought, but they were fighting about new things, and eventually they were fighting in a new way—as partners attempting to find truths, rather than as adversaries trying to persuade each other about who was wrong.

I didn’t tell Joe what he couldn’t do (like use pornography), so he didn’t have to defend his autonomy with me. Of course, he got defensive anyway, periodically feeling misunderstood and judged.

We talked about that as part of our relationship. She observed us. He thought about it. They talked about it. They were watching intimacy in action. They practiced it. They cautiously liked it.

He backslid, hiding a few inconsequential things for seemingly no reason. Of course. I interpreted this: yes, he was wrong, but he wasn’t bad. This was big news for both of them.

He voluntarily disclosed more about what he had done in the bad old days—months after he had supposedly told her everything. She wailed about him victimizing her again. I reframed this, encouraging them to celebrate it. Backed by her therapist, she once again insisted on “full transparency.” I suggested something slightly more modest, so he could succeed and she could enjoy it.

She’s still waiting, I think, for the “full transparency.” Do grownups really provide that to each other about important topics? Your favorite flavor of ice cream, sure. But your sexual fantasies, your sense of guilt for not being a better spouse, your secret flirtation at the airport? It isn’t easy, and if it comes, it rarely comes all at once.

Therapy continued, all three of us working our butts off. He developed a new standard of sexual behavior for himself, which he’s been living up to—at least, that’s what he says, and I believe him. She’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Her therapist says she has PTSD. That strikes me as a heavy burden to place on this woman, who is still upset, maybe a little too upset, almost three years after her husband’s betrayal with professional escorts.

Teaching Sexuality in Hong Kong

March 9, 2015

“Yam tho.” It’s pronounced “yomm toe,” except you form the syllables in the back of your throat rather than the front, and you end the words with a tight jaw rather than a loose one.

It means “vagina” in Chinese, and it became my secret weapon. When I can’t get a non-U.S. group to loosen up and participate in a seminar, I have them teach me how to say vagina in the local language, and then a few bold ones and I practice together. By doing this periodically for the length of the seminar, everyone eventually gets involved. So I got good at saying Yam tho, and they got good at saying it as well as at hearing it.

Other than “yam tho,” most of the group of 32 professionals hardly said a word; in fact, some of them looked down when I spoke to them.

I taught The Sexual Intelligence Approach to Therapy, and I worked my butt off. How many different ways can you say “Any questions? Any comments?” and still get silence in return? When I asked “does this material seem relevant to your work?” they still stared at me blankly. Did I mention that I was working my butt off?

Fortunately for me, I have taught in many Asian countries, and so I expected this. But it was still frustrating—all the more so because I had to respond to the silence and blankness with my own big smile and renewed energy.

But that’s the Hong Kong way: respect the authority of the teacher. Don’t talk about your own experience, even if the teacher begs for it. The interesting exception: over a third of the participants came late, straggling in by ones and twos during the first half-hour of the seminar. They apologized perfunctorily.

By the end of the day most participants were at least smiling, and I ended the day by talking about their silence and my informal style of teaching. I discussed how our patients want to show us deference, which can either help or hinder the therapy. And of course therapists have to find a way to show respect to patients—without hindering the therapy as well.

I told the group I understood they wanted to be respectful to me. I said that challenging their own inhibitions would be one way to do it, and that coming on time the next day would be another. They nodded, and the next day, they were all on time. They even spoke during the day. And we talked about it all as a therapeutic issue, which was a first for almost every one of them.

In Hong Kong, most young people live at home until they marry, which makes dating an interesting activity. Almost no one has a car. Pre-marital sex isn’t that common, and so we have the interesting phenomenon of newlywed couples who are sophisticated in every way—except sexually. This is different than virginal couples in, say, Pakistan, who lack sophistication in most ways in addition to sexually.

Will that change with a new generation of young Hong Kongers? It doesn’t appear so. The 79-day Occupy Central event was no Woodstock, no 1969, no anti-Vietnam War movement. Although young people did mobilize together for the first time, there was virtually no lifestyle component to it, certainly nothing involving sex or drugs (or even progressive music). No one is going to suddenly leave their parents’ home and live a new way.

The power of sexuality to transform lives, then, is still a sleeping dragon for young people here. Sexual expression, of course, is the ultimate form of personal autonomy, which is why both authoritarian regimes and organized religion want to control and limit it. Most young Hong Kongers have still not personally experienced sexuality freeing them from the earth’s gravitational pull. They’re not demanding more access to it, and still rarely kiss or hold hands in public.

And so teaching therapists about sexual empowerment and integrity, and how to bring such topics into the therapy room, wasn’t quite so straightforward as it is in the U.S.. Our two-day seminar at Tung Wah College progressed slowly, although the feedback was that it had been profound for many participants.

The following day I lectured about sexuality education design and delivery at the Hong Kong Family Planning Association. I had two primary messages: that we should be teaching young people life skills, which they can then apply to sexual situations and decisions, and that sex education should not be focused on harm reduction but on life enhancement.

Hong Kong’s young adults need that just as much as their eight-year-olds.


Ten Erection Disappointments That Are NOT “ED”

February 27, 2015

Men, women, and couples come to my practice each week talking about “ED”—erectile dysfunction. The term apparently refers to anyone who can’t get an erection when he wants to—once. This, of course, implies that penises should behave like ATMs—ready to do business 24/7, rain or shine.

But that’s not how penises or the human brain are built. Penises actually need a lot of conditions in order to do what their owners, or their owners’ partners, want them to do. Those conditions can involve emotions, environmental issues, or features of the partner. If one of those isn’t quite right, even the healthiest penis will stubbornly stay small and soft and quite calm.

So here are ten common situations in which penis owners—or their partners—often expect or demand an erection, and don’t get one. Such cases are examples of unrealistic expectations, not ED.

* You’ve been drinking a lot
“A lot” might be as little as a couple of drinks. You don’t have to be drunk in order to be compromised by alcohol. You know how drinking slows down your reflexes for driving? It also slows down your erection reflex.

* You’re really tired
Sometimes sex is available exactly when we’re most tired—and worse, we may fear it won’t be available when we’re rested (or a potential partner has had a chance to think things over). Besides, many people leave sex for the last thing at night, when they can no longer do anything productive. When we treat sex so disrespectfully it’s no wonder if our bodies don’t respond.

* You’re afraid sex will lead to pregnancy (or an STI)
Even if you’re telling yourself over and over “it won’t happen,” or you’re repeating to yourself “don’t forget to pull out,” that can be pretty distracting.

* You don’t really want to have sex with this person
Sometimes it’s a long-term partner we’ve lost interest in, but we have sex in order to prevent conflict. Sometimes it’s a casual partner that we’re not that attracted to—but hey, it’s sex, right? Actually, wrong.

* The stuff she’s doing isn’t sexy to you—in fact, it hurts
Long, long fingernails where you don’t want them, too much teeth, thrusting or bouncing on your penis in a way that scares you—these can all chase away an erection. And a look, a phrase, or lingerie that she thinks is sexy but just strikes you wrong can also get in the way. Turns out men are more sensitive than some people give them credit for.

* She’s sloppy drunk
Why you’d want to have sex with a drunk woman is an important question. Among other things, it’s hardly ethical (although I understand that you both might be). But once you’re into it—or trying to be—it usually turns out to be way more trouble than it’s worth. Most penises don’t find it to be a pretty sight.

* She doesn’t want to have sex
Trying to talk someone into it—or roughly pushing them into it—gets some men excited, caveman-style. Most men are simply too human to enjoy it. And no matter how desirable she was before she said “no,” once a woman says “no” it’s hard for most men to keep their self-respect if they keep pushing. And erections usually leave when dignity does.

* You’re in a big hurry
If you’re in a big hurry, you’re either thinking about the thing you need to do next, or you’re worried about being caught (or simply running out of time). Not conducive to erection.

* You’re just not in the mood
Many men have been told that since women control sex, a man doesn’t have the luxury of not being in the mood when sex is available. If you’re not in the mood but proceed anyway, your penis may reveal the truth by refusing to participate.

* You still haven’t gotten over the argument you recently had
That argument hurt, didn’t it? And even if it didn’t, it made you feel separate from your partner, right? Besides, a productive argument actually gives you something to think about afterwards. If you’re thinking about that, that’s good—but it may not leave much of your attention available for sexual interest.
* * *
Why does it matter what we call a situation that may be, variously, aggravating, embarrassing, confusing, or shocking?

For one thing, getting beyond the narrative of ED means the lack of erection may not mean a lack of desire, arousal, or affection. For another, it means that the lack of erection may be quite temporary—as soon as the right conditions are arranged (an hour later, a week later), an erection may be quite available. And finally, it means that erection drugs may not be the right approach to getting the desired erection.

As in so many things sexual, honesty with oneself and communication with one’s partner are frequently the first steps toward improving your sexual experience—in this case, getting more reliable and drama-free erections.

What Part of “Fantasy” Don’t They Understand?

February 23, 2015

The success of “50 Shades of Grey” and news about Pornhub’s most popular search terms has too many people buzzing about the alleged dangers of each.

Both traditional conservatives and some self-identified feminists are condemning 50 Shades as encouraging violence against women. Clearly, these people know nothing about S/M, and not nearly enough about violence against women. Similarly, groups like xxxChurch and other anti-porn crusaders are dismayed that “teens” was the most popular porn search term last year, fearing this means we’re about to see a rash of adults trying to have sex with teens.

The panic about both of these things is founded on the persistent myth that enjoying a fantasy is the same thing as desiring it in real life. If that were true, millions of our neighbors would be punching their bosses, sleeping with their brothers-in-law, selling their homes to start over in Boise, or urinating on the very next TSA guard that hassles them.

Most grownups know that fantasy doesn’t equal desire and that it doesn’t predict behavior. One of the ways we cope with the pressures and complicated decision-making of adulthood is fantasy. We watch Star Wars and Star Trek, CSI and Grey’s Anatomy, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and James Bond (and yes, Wonder Woman and the Million Dollar Baby) and we think “If only that were me…if only I had the chance…”

And we make damn sure we never have the chance. That mayhem stuff is dangerous. Fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with.

Which explains the appeal of 50 Shades of Grey: Fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with. And the appeal of porn featuring 18 and 19 year olds (the only teen porn you can find on the overwhelming majority of porn sites): fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with.

Yes, there are people who coerce women sexually. And adults who romance college kids, even some high school kids. But 50 Shades isn’t making that happen, and neither is porn. According to the federal Justice Department, the incidence of each has gone down in the last decade.
* * *
Anyone who looks at 50 Shades and thinks that women like to get roughed up is (a) not really watching the movie, and (b) thinking that before they watch the film. The idea that women like to fall in love with guys who rough them up was popular before E.L. James was born. Jimmy Cagney and Jane Austen come to mind. 50 Shades isn’t the problem. Given economic options, most women don’t stay with someone who roughs them up. And, of course, 50 Shades isn’t about roughing someone up, it’s about two people collaborating on an experiment.

The concern about porn and teens is amusing, and as completely ignorant of history as only Americans can be. Teens have been the center of human erotic attraction since the beginning of time. Evolutionarily, they’re perfect for mating. And their bodies are as close to perfect as human bodies get. Of course they’re attractive to us today—they were attractive in Shakespeare’s time, in the Middle Ages, in Jesus’ time, and in the Greek heyday before that. Nothing novel about it.

Interestingly, Pornhub’s number two search term was lesbian, and numbers 3 and 4 were MILF and stepmom. Where is the outcry about everyone watching porn at risk for turning into, or desiring, lesbians? Or all the porn watchers suddenly turning toward older women, thereby depriving younger women of the relationships they deserve? Don’t forget granny porn—does its popularity predict an abandonment of all women under 50?

The accusation that 50 Shades is not a “feminist” book is telling. One hundred million women buy the book and it’s not feminist? That many women are not to be trusted to express their own eroticism? 50 Shades is not great literature (nor a great S/M manual), but it has flushed pro-censorship, anti-sexual diversity, fascist-style feminism out of the bushes.

Assuming they’re not obsessive, unwanted, and intrusive, fantasies are not dangerous (even then, the fantasies themselves are not the problem). What is dangerous are shame, guilt, and fearing that we’re not normal. And the forced secrecy that results from these. They’re more constraining and dehumanizing than Mr. Grey could ever be.

Speech Codes, PC Politics: When America is NOT “Charlie”

January 27, 2015

I am Charlie Hebdo, standing with Free Expression and against the violence that would destroy it. Perhaps you are Charlie Hebdo, too.

But is America Charlie Hebdo? In many crucial ways, no, as America becomes more offended and less tolerant of free expression every day.

Last week, I called CNN’s management cowards for refusing to show Charlie’s first post-massacre cover (it was neither obscene nor libelous). They self-righteously claimed their decision reflected respect and tolerance. Nonsense. Self-censorship to protect yourself from violence may be smart, but it expresses neither respect for others nor tolerance of diversity.

Pathetically, The New York Times announced a similar policy, refusing to show the image that is one of the world’s central stories of 2015—but refusing to admit their reason was fear of violence. CNN and The Times boldly support the publication of the cartoons abroad, but not here. That Atlantic Ocean inspires a lot of courage for others’ risk-taking.

So how would Charlie Hebdo and its covers fare if published here? Not just reported on as news, but actually published and distributed. Sadly, that’s where America’s ambivalence about free expression would become visible. I’m not talking about “We shouldn’t insult Muslims, they’re people too;” no, it’s much worse. America has descended into a parody of a Waldorf kindergarten in which no one’s feelings must ever be hurt.

If those cartoons were published and distributed here,

* Their distribution (whether for money or for free) would be prevented on most college campuses (as speech hurtful to others);
* Students on many campuses would successfully insist they not be discussed in class;
* Dozens of cities would pass a resolution condemning them and attempting to limit their availability;
* Many high schools would suspend any student caught with one;
* Many adults would complain that they constitute a hostile work environment and demand they be banned from the workplace—and employers would comply, fearing lawsuits.

And when these events were covered on the 10 o’clock news, the troublesome magazine cover would not be pictured, for fear of offending a few viewers and a local anti-hate-speech group.

If you doubt this, consider the following recent events.

* The annual production of the Vagina Monologues was recently discontinued at Mt. Holyoke College—a prestigious all-women’s school with a proud liberal tradition—because it might make transgender students who don’t have vaginas feel left out.

* Model and former Miss Universe Australia Erin McNaught has been trashed in the blogosphere for posting attractive bikini photos of herself four weeks after giving birth. Apparently many non-model new mothers women feel implicitly criticized by McNaught’s proud display.

* College students are increasingly demanding “trigger warnings” on class lectures and reading assignments. This feminist-based concept claims that students need assistance in protecting themselves from material they will find upsetting and hard to engage.

* More and more events are being described as “microaggression” and “microassault,” the feminist concept which claims that everyday interactions that make someone feel lonely, ignored, unattractive, judged, or inferior should be seen as part of a broad political dynamic—and eliminated.

* Worst of all, virtually all college campuses have now institutionalized speech codes, which dictate that a student must not say or do anything that another student might find emotionally hurtful. Sitting around campus reading—not proselytizing, just reading—Playboy, or Mein Kampf, or a history of the KKK (even one that denounces the KKK) is enough to invite disciplinary action or even expulsion. Yes, really. (See www.TheFire.org for examples.)

So a publication like Charlie Hebdo which routinely satirizes and criticizes Muslim violence, Jewish avarice, religion in general, the nationalist right, and politicians in general would not find a welcome home here in the U.S.. We can cheer the overseas courage that publishes and protects it, but as a people we are simply not strong enough to tolerate these emotional challenges in our own country.

But isn’t satire a right?

“No,” says The Humanist editor Maggie Ardiente, “It’s an obligation.” And the more it’s condemned, the more it’s needed.

Some gays slow to catch on to religious exceptionalism

January 19, 2015

In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times writer Frank Bruni says “I’ve been called many unpleasant things in my life…but I chafe at this latest label: A threat to your religious liberty.”

Bruni is gay, and he resents people claiming that their religion allows them to discriminate against same-gender couples and individuals in arenas such as marriage, parenting, and employment. Indeed, an increasing number of bakers, photographers and other wedding vendors are claiming the right to not serve gay couples.

I totally agree—it’s pathetic that adults hide behind religion to selfishly and piously opt out of our American constitutional covenant.

Many gay people seem shocked, SHOCKED, that religious people would do this to them. But as I documented in my 2007 book America’s War On Sex, religious adherents have been doing this to a majority of Americans for decades. (It typically, though not always, centers around religion’s obsession with sex.)

Just to pick a few recent examples, under the guide of “freedom of religion,”
* Christian pharmacists claim they have the right to not dispense medication whose purpose they disapprove of;
* Muslim taxi drivers claim they have the right to not carry passengers who carry alcohol;
* Orthodox Jews claim that Rabbis have the right to suck babies’ penises as part of the circumcision ritual;
* Congressional Christians blocked the proposed requirement that school sex education be scientifically accurate;
* Many Christian organizations have sued the federal government, claiming that they are exempt from the mandate to provide employees the option of free contraception. These same recipients of federal grants claim the right to discriminate in employment and service delivery.

As a conscientious American, I am sick of the religious exceptionalism we pay for every day. Religious people believe they should get a break from the normal rules that govern us because they believe in something that’s supposedly bigger than the rules; or because of “tradition”; or because lots of other people believe as they do. That’s just wrong.

Who decides what’s a religion (whose adherents get government privileges), what’s “just” a cult, and what’s plain silly? (Remember, every “religion” starts out as a cult.)

According to the most radical part of our Constitution, government is NOT supposed to decide—it isn’t supposed to “establish” a religion. When the government decides that Judaism is a “religion” but the Church Of Bacon isn’t, the government is “establishing” a religion. And when the government decides both are “religions” (the Church of Bacon is now “established” by Nevada law), the government is still taking sides against some other groups it derides as a mere “cult” (funny, no one has proposed the Church Of Broccoli).

When the government decides which Iron Age desert hallucinations form a religion, and which are simply delusions, it is “establishing” a religion.

The Constitution does NOT say that all religious practices are legally acceptable (female genital cutting? Mescaline as an adolescent rite-of-passage?). Nor does it say that government should facilitate every behavior inspired or required by religion (covering your face in a driver’s license photo? Refusing your kid’s life-saving blood transfusion?). Nor does the Constitution promise that government will help people PRACTICE their religion—only that it won’t prevent people from BELIEVING what they choose to believe.

But America’s religious leaders now demand that government help people practice any silly thing they believe their religion requires, which is a threat to our way of life. Gay people are not the only ones who are considered “a threat to religious liberty.” It’s everyone who wants to do something of which some religious people disapprove. If that sounds like tyranny, it is. It’s why the Puritans left England—because they didn’t want their lives controlled by others’ religious beliefs.

Crucifying democracy on a cross of religious liberty is a crime against humanity.


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