(Not-So) Random Thoughts About Sex

November 26, 2015

Each of these thoughts deserves a post of its own, but after a day of special foods, special company, and hours of Masterpiece Theatre (about Henry VIII), a few words about each feels just right.

* Real sex doesn’t feel like porn looks.

It’s usually less intense, less gravity-defying, less taboo-breaking, and more about the people trying to connect. Therefore real sex often has a lot of kissing, hugging, and, well, non-“sex” in it.

And because it isn’t scripted or edited, real sex often has moments of frustration, awkwardness, disappointment, clumsiness, and misunderstanding. It’s best to laugh together at these moments—another thing you don’t see in porn.

* Couples, never say “We’re fighting about something silly.”

If you’re really fighting, it’s never silly–you just don’t know what the serious thing is. Of course, it’s almost never about the thing you’re fighting about (socks on the floor, hair in the drain, forgotten birthday card, dent in the car, oral sex).

More likely subjects include power, feeling disrespected, power, loneliness, power, fear of getting old, power, self-doubt, power, shame, and, um, power.

* I understand trying to conceive, and I understand trying to not conceive.

I don’t understand “we’re not trying to make it happen, but we’re not trying to prevent it.” This is how you approach the single most profound decision of your entire life?

* When someone says “of course you think that, you’re a man,” that’s a big insult.

And the more you respect the man you say that to, the bigger the insult.

Sometimes a man has such-and-such an opinion because he’s a fool, not because he’s a man. And sometimes a man has such-and-such an opinion because he thought about it carefully, not because he’s a man. If you don’t want to be told you think “just like a woman,” don’t tell someone else he thinks “just like a man.”

And if you don’t mind, you still shouldn’t disrespect someone (of any gender) in this way.

* Of course teens get wrong ideas about sex from looking at porn.

So exactly what are parents doing to help kids deal with these ideas, and with their uncomfortable or upsetting experiences of looking at porn?

Haven’t we learned that “just say no” doesn’t work? And then parents blame porn for influencing their kids. That’s like blaming the rain for soaking your kids when you can’t be bothered to look out the window, hand them an umbrella, or teach them how to use it.

* A therapist came to me for a consultation, about a 15-year-old patient who says he masturbates as much as 9 times a day.

He asked if I thought the kid might be a sex addict. I asked what the kid means by “masturbate.” He didn’t know, which may help to explain the “9 times a day.” I asked if the patient uses lube, gets sore, or uses his hand (some guys masturbate by lying face down and rocking on the bed or floor). He didn’t know. I asked if he ejaculates when he ‘masturbates’.

“OK, OK,” said the therapist sheepishly. “I need to ask way more questions before I can diagnose this kid or the situation.”


* Let’s change the sexual expression “penetration” to either “insertion” or “envelopment.”

If you enjoy it, isn’t that a more accurate description?

* Is watching porn a form of infidelity?

If two people agree that it is, it is. If two people agree that it isn’t, it isn’t.

If two people disagree about this, why don’t they handle it the same way they handle all their other agreements? If two people disagree about whether or not 10 minutes is “late” or “mostly on time,” they may get frustrated—but they rarely end the relationship over it.

When couples ask me to adjudicate this I rarely take sides, preferring to help them talk it through. But sometimes I look at a patient and silently wonder—do you actually believe that if you walked in on your husband having sex with another woman, you’d feel “yes, this is just the same wound as him looking at porn”?

* If a male Muslim suicide bomber goes to heaven and gets 72 (presumably female) virgins…

What does a female Muslim suicide bomber get?

Giving Thanks for Sex; However…

November 24, 2015

It’s Thanksgiving, so let’s give thanks for sex.

Not just the huffing and puffing, the in-ing and out-ing, the sloshing around and drying off. Let’s give thanks for all the sexual rights we enjoy here in the U.S.—which billions of people in Russia, the Arab world, and many parts of Asia and Africa will never enjoy in their lifetimes.

Most of these rights have to do with privacy and autonomy. These always look dangerous to repressive or religiously-driven regimes. Science and technology look pretty frightening to such regimes when they can be applied for sexual purposes—which they inevitably are, throughout history.

So let’s give thanks for the many ways we are allowed to use privacy and autonomy to express our sexuality, and to use science and technology to make sex safer and more life-affirming.

Still, we should remember that these rights are stained by the many limitations that our local, state, and federal governments place on our sexual expression. In an era when tens of millions of Americans are calling for “smaller government,” it’s especially bitter that many of these same people are calling for more government intrusion into private sexual expression.

So let’s give thanks that here in America…

* You can buy birth control in almost every community.
…Although an increasing number of pharmacists claim they are exempt from state laws requiring licensed pharmacists to fill all legal prescriptions. Christ or Napoleon: does it matter what reason they give?

* Sex toys have become so acceptable that you can even buy them via Amazon.com.
…Although most marriage counselors, clergy, and physicians are licensed without ever learning a single thing about them.

* The internet offers almost unlimited opportunities where people can fantasize about alternative sexual universes and personae.
…Although our federal and state governments spend a huge amount of our tax money entrapping and prosecuting men who enjoy fantasy age role-play in adult chat-rooms.

* You can get tested for many common STDs without having to give a lot of explanation. You can get tested for HIV anonymously and confidentially.
…Although anti-pornography groups continue to lie that the adult film industry is a hotbed of STDs, and have targeted the industry for scrutiny by government safety inspectors.

* Emergency Contraception is now available over-the-counter across the U.S..
…Although many desperate anti-choice activists lie and call it an abortion pill.

* In most big cities, you can still go to swingers clubs, strip clubs, and dungeons.
…Although more and more cities are using emergency ordinances and discriminatory “sexually-oriented business” statutes to close these adult businesses—without having to prove they’re dangerous.

* The Supreme Court ruled, in Lawrence v. Texas, that morality alone cannot be the basis of American laws criminalizing sexual acts, such as sodomy.
…Although powerful and well-financed Christian groups continue to demand—and get—laws to curb “indecency,” “smut,” “secularism,” and “the homosexual agenda.”

* Many states have developed “Romeo & Juliet” laws to reduce or eliminate penalties for consensual teen-teen sex if the kids are close in age.
…Although most states still treat teen sexting as the felony of child porn distribution.

* Women can dress any way they like without fear of religious or state-supported violence.
…Although men and women still get arrested every year for being topless or nude in America’s parks and beaches—unlike our cousins in Europe, where toplessness and nudity are normal at public beaches and parks.

* Senior citizens like Bruce Springsteen, Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, and Mick Jagger are still performing, showing exactly what sexuality in old age can look like.
…Although sexuality for residents of nursing homes is still tightly controlled and sometimes punished.

I also give thanks for my 7,000 readers and 4,000 twitter followers, and for your encouraging messages of support throughout the year. You can always reach me at Klein AT SexEd DOT org.

5 Ways to Make Sex Less Enjoyable

October 28, 2015

Life has few guarantees—and even fewer when it comes to sex.

However, there are things that are guaranteed to make sex less enjoyable. How many of these have you done lately? How many of these do you think are part of “normal sex”? Imagine how much more you’d enjoy sex if you and your partner eliminated a few (or all!) of these:

* Insist that orgasm is the goal (for both of you)

Orgasm lasts a few seconds, making it a tiny fraction of any sexual experience. And while orgasms can be delightful, no orgasm is good enough to make up for sex that is annoying, mechanical, or emotionally frustrating.

If you’re having trouble climaxing, try relaxing instead of working hard. Do what’s pleasurable, what makes you glad to be there, and what makes you feel connected to your partner. If that doesn’t lead to an orgasm, you haven’t wasted your time—you’ve enjoyed sex.

And if your partner at some point looks at you and says “I don’t think I’m gonna cum tonite,” let it go—don’t insist on pushing for an orgasm. After all, your partner’s orgasm, if they have one, is for their satisfaction—not your sense of accomplishment.

* Tease the other person about their body

Most of us are a bit insecure about our bodies: too much here, not enough there, hair where it isn’t wanted, not enough where it is wanted. Bumps from shaving or waxing. Shapes that aren’t like Greek statues. A scar, blemish, or skin condition. Lack of symmetry (eyes, nipples, anything that comes in pairs).

And yet we keep coming back to sex, where we take off our clothes and invite someone to admire—or judge—our body.

Go ahead of admire. Don’t judge. If you don’t like every part of your partner’s body, focus on the parts you do like. If you can’t find one single thing to enjoy—the smell of their hair, the curve of their shoulder, the taste of their neck, the firmness of their calves—pay closer attention, and let go of your stereotypes about what’s attractive. Or get a new partner.

But don’t, don’t, don’t tease someone about their body—unless they LOVE their body. Hardly anyone likes it. And it make some people shrivel up inside—which will soon translate into them shriveling up on the outside. And if you can’t help yourself, if you absolutely can’t keep from teasing your partner about their body—maybe you have a problem much bigger than their big butt.

If you want to discuss a concern about your partner’s body, do it outside of the bedroom, when you’re feeling close.

* Refuse to touch your own genitalia

Most people masturbate, usually by stroking their vulva or penis. And most people would rather die than do the same thing in front of a partner.

What a shame. How else can you show how you like to be touched? How else can you give yourself a bit of extra pleasure when you want it? How else can you apply lube to yourself, or insert a penis into you (or your penis into someone else)?

Some people can only climax with their own hand. Instead of seeing this as a problem or a “dysfunction,” shrug it off as your own personal style, and put yourself over the top. If you do so, make sure you stay in touch with your partner—with your eyes, your mouth, or your other hand. Or theirs.

* Freak out if you fart (or queef) during sex

Our bodies are just a festival of fluids, sounds, and smells—many of which are on display during sex. And while some of these are welcome additions to sex (vaginal lubrication, moans of pleasure, the smell of arousal), others are definitely NOT welcome.

Farts are the most unwelcome of all.

So what do you do when you or your partner um, pass gas? You let it pass. You don’t need to say “excuse me,” don’t need to hide, and certainly don’t need to stop having sex. If you’re in the middle of being real excited, you can certainly keep doing what you’re doing. In any case, about 20 seconds after it happens, you’ll both forget about it.

Unless you hold onto the unwanted moment, preparing your apology for later.

Don’t do that. Grownups know that lots of things occasionally happen during sex: a little urine, a little drooling, a belch, a sneeze. It’s because we do this glorious thing—sex—with this pedestrian thing we don’t entirely respect—our bodies.

Oh, what’s a queef? That’s just an expulsion of air from the vagina, typically during or after something goes in and out of it, over and over. It can’t be gas (that isn’t how the plumbing is arranged), so it can only be air. But it sounds like a fart, so some people feel guilt (or embarrassment) by association.

* Obsess that you don’t smell or taste good “down there”

I hear there are people who enjoy the taste of broccoli. Really? It’s hard to predict what someone will enjoy smelling or tasting—and even harder to understand it.

In oral sex, there shouldn’t really be a “giver” and “receiver”, just two people sharing some flesh, some dampness, and some enjoyment. So if you have trouble understanding why your partner enjoys licking or sucking you, ask; and then you really should believe them.

If you’re concerned about how you smell or taste, just say so—“I’m not sure I’m real fresh down there right now.” Thanks for the warning, friend. Then let your partner decide for themselves. If you hear “Mmm, lovely,” believe it. If your partner continues in an enthusiastic way, believe it. If you’re baffled by your partner’s enjoyment, be grateful rather than pushing them away.

And if you’re certain you wouldn’t like the way you smell or taste down there, don’t lick yourself.

Latest Challenge for Parents: TV Ads About ED

October 20, 2015

“Mom, what’s an erection?”
“Dad, what’s ED?”

If you’re terrified of questions like these, TV ads for Viagra and Cialis are your worst nightmare. Fortunately, the ultra-conservative Parents Television Council has your back: they have the TV commercial schedule for these products listed on their website. That way, you can either prevent your kid from watching the programs that show them (from radical-left broadcasters like Major League Baseball and NBC’s Nightly News), or distract him/her when the 45 seconds of lurid images of loving couples slash across your screen.

Yes, in families where cancer, Syria, and Donald Trump are discussed at the dinner table, conversations about erections and sex are still, apparently, taboo. What universe are these frightened parents living in? One in which kids don’t wonder about penises, or think about sex? One in which kids don’t look at porn and see penises and sex? One in which young people won’t eventually grow up to become adults who have sex?

Many parents live in a world in which they’re uncomfortable talking about sexuality. I’m sympathetic about their discomfort, but outraged about how they’re dealing with these feelings—depriving their kids of information, and encouraging norms of secrecy and silence.

Parenting is full of conversations that parents find uncomfortable. It starts early, with “I know you don’t want to brush your teeth at night, but I say you have to.” It continues with “I know the other kids think it’s dorky, but you have to wear a helmet when you bike.” And don’t forget “I know you’re broken-hearted that you can’t play soccer today, but I warned there would be consequences if you were late to school again this week.”

I’ve heard parents complain about all the sex questions they’re being forced to deal with these days: What’s a homosexual? What’s a transsexual? What’s a prostitute? Why do some people hate them? What’s a blow job? Why do people want to do that?

No matter how discomfiting, questions like these do represent some expectation of communication by a child. The only thing worse than having to deal with questions you don’t like is NOT having to deal with them—because your kid refuses to ask, or knows she or he will get a non-answer.

The truth is, kids need instruction about sexuality the same as they do in all other aspects of life. To address that need, one single “The Talk” isn’t nearly sufficient; kids need an ongoing conversation that lasts most of the 18 years that they live with you. If you’re fortunate, it even extends beyond the time your kid leaves home for college or elsewhere.

When kids are young, many conversations about sexuality involve plumbing and logistics. Values are essential, too: how to decide when and with whom to have sex, how to treat people you have sex with, what responsibilities come along with the decision and the pleasure (we hope) of sex.

Backward-looking groups like Parents Television Council and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (the re-branded Morality in Media, which was a far more honest name) aim to solve the “problem” of uncomfortable adults by limiting commercials that encourage questions they’d rather not answer.

But such commercials provide a golden opportunity to provide accurate information and clarify your values around sexuality and decision-making (yes, “morality”). We don’t need fewer conversations with our kids about sex, we need MORE. As usual, hiding information and stories we don’t like creates more problems than it solves. The response to TV commercials we don’t like is talking about them, not eliminating them.

No one likes answering questions that they’re uncomfortable with. But doing so is a key aspect of raising kids properly. In fact there’s a special word for conversations with your child that you’re uncomfortable with. It’s called Parenting.

Why does anyone look at porn?

October 3, 2015

Why does anyone look at porn?

For tens of millions of American men and women, there’s only one answer: To get more sexually excited. The goal of getting excited, of course, is to enhance the process by which people eventually get not-excited—also called satisfaction.

Lather, rinse, repeat three times per week for 75 years.

How someone feels about that—deliberately doing something to get more aroused—is an excellent predictor of how they will feel about pornography. For those suspicious of sexual arousal, porn is bad. For those who think that tinkering with our own arousal is selfish or creepy, porn is bad.

And for those who think arousal is OK, as long as it’s directly connected to one’s partner’s body, personality or sexual behavior, porn is also bad.

When people want to talk about their disapproval of porn’s mission of increasing excitement, they generally resort to one of the standard criticisms of porn:

* Watching porn is a form of infidelity
* It’s immoral
* It exploits actresses
* It gives consumers wrong/bad ideas about sex
* Consuming porn makes people withdraw from their partners
* It’s secretive, which hurts a relationship
* Consuming porn leads to violence against women
* It suggests novel, even “kinky” sexual activities
* It leads men to demand sexual behaviors from women that women don’t want to do.

As standard as these criticisms are, each has a straightforward response:

* It depends on how you define infidelity; what about lusting after women in the airport, or fantasizing about them while masturbating without porn?

* Some people prefer to measure morality by reference to ethics or how we treat others, rather than by a private erotic choice hurting no one.

* Watching porn exploits actresses to the same extent that watching pro football exploits athletes, who risk their physical safety for our entertainment. “The money they earn isn’t comparable”? So if porn actresses make a fortune (some do), watching porn is OK?

* Most adults watching porn know it depicts fantasy, not a documentary. In every society, in every age, people have held inaccurate or harmful ideas about sex. A lack of real sex education doesn’t help in this regard.

* No one withdraws from a sexual relationship that’s physically and emotionally satisfying, certainly not for the chance to masturbate to a video.

* People only keep their porn watching a secret when their mate demands it—via ultimatums, demands, or other rigidity. And yes, porn watchers could be braver about confronting this—but porn watching doesn’t have to inherently involve secrecy.

* Everyone knows porn watching has gone up, and every law enforcement agency says that the rate of sexual violence has gone down. If anything, there’s a strong argument that porn acts as a safety valve to reduce sexual violence.

* If learning new ways to do things is bad, the most dangerous person in town is Martha Stewart, the queen of reimagining what we can do and how we can do it.

* People have been pressuring each other for various sexual behaviors since the beginning of time. Thirty years ago it was oral sex; before that it was intercourse before marriage; before that it was kisses and embraces during courtship. We should be concerned that there are still people who can’t say “no” firmly enough within a relationship to prevent future invitations.

The deeper issue here is over ownership of our eroticism. Do we still own it when we’re in a relationship, or does the relationship now own it? If we agree to limit our sexual behavior within a relationship (as most people do), does “behavior” include sexual fantasy?

And is it a bad thing to nourish our relationship with our own eroticism?

Anyone who thinks so must also indict industries promoting fashion, perfume, plastic surgery, hairdressing, cars and other large consumer items. Not only are these designed to make us more attractive to others, they are also promoted to make us feel sexier, more glamorous, and more youthful—to affect how we feel about ourselves,  not only how others feel about us.

In a world where we’re all encouraged to increase our self-esteem and sense of empowerment, doesn’t that include our sense of our own sexuality? This is not an abstract thing; increasing our self-esteem and empowerment means, if we wish, increasing our experience of our own eroticism.

Particularly in monogamous relationships, viewing pornography—with or without masturbation—seems a particularly benign and effective way to do that.

The Dirty Little Secret of Therapy

September 26, 2015

It’s National Psychotherapy Day.

I’ve been a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist for 34 years—over 35,000 hours of therapy with men, women, and couples. I make a living from it. Most of my friends are therapists. Like most therapists, I’ve been in therapy more than once. I really, really believe in it.

Nevertheless, it’s time, once again, to critique the institution of therapy. Today’s criticism:

If the public knew how little most therapists learn about sexuality, they’d be stunned. While there are exceptions, here’s what most therapists (and social workers) in America learn about sex as they’re being trained:

* How to define, assess, and treat victims of child molestation;
* How to talk to people who have been raped;
* How to discuss infidelity—generally using a perpetrator-victim model;
* How to encourage couples to “compromise” their differences in sexual desire or preference;
* It’s OK to be gay (finally!) (unless you go to some “Christian counselors”);
* In general, men want sex more than women;
* Men who go to sex workers have an emotional problem, often a fear of intimacy;
* The traditional Masters & Johnson model of sexual response, in which you either get erect or wet, get excited, and then climax—or you have a “dysfunction.”

Like I said, there are exceptions. But the chances are that your therapist didn’t learn much more about sex than that. And a lot of it is crap. Almost all of it is negative.

Here’s what your therapist should have learned as part of his/her training:
* Exactly how difficult long-term monogamy is for people who like sex. How to talk with—and be compassionate for—people having difficulties with monogamy, or couples having conflict over their different preferences.

* The actual content of most internet porn. Why so many people prefer masturbating to porn than having sex with their partner. How to talk with couples about this without demonizing the porn consumer.

* “Romantic” sex isn’t better than other kinds. “Spontaneous” sex isn’t better than other kinds. Intercourse isn’t better than other kinds of sex. Monogamy isn’t better than other arrangements. People’s insistence on one or more of these fairy tales is the source of great misery, whether they’re patients or therapists.

* Most normal children experiment with sex with their peers in ways that could get them in huge trouble with the law.

* Vibrators. Nipple clamps. Fingers in anuses. Hair-pulling. “Accidental” exhibitionism. “Accidental” voyeurism. Deliberate exhibitionism and voyeurism. What people actually do sexually.

* In adulthood, male sexuality and female sexuality are far more similar than different.

* Not only do women fake orgasm, men do, too. And for the same reasons.

* Straight people have same-gender sexual experiences. Gay people have mixed-gender sexual experiences. Some of these people are comfortable doing so. Others feel awful, and consider it a dark secret. The secrecy is almost always destructive.

* The extraordinary range of human sexual fantasies. Fantasy does not typically reflect true desire; in sex, fantasy doesn’t predict behavior any more than it does in other parts of life (daydreamed about killing your boss or neighbor lately?). While some fantasies have “meaning,” most are simply low-cost, calorie-free entertainment.

There’s a lot more about sex that therapists should know. And therapists should be more comfortable about sex than we are, including activities that a therapist thinks are weird.

It’s also important to note that most of what therapists learn about sex is pathology oriented—that is, distortions of sexual behavior and motivation. But what about healthy sexuality—what do therapists learn about that? Other than society’s norms (love drives desire; intercourse is the most intimate kind of sex; etc.), not very much. It’s the equivalent of going to a knee surgeon who knows all about damaged knees but very little about healthy ones. That’s not the surgeon I would pick.

When it comes to sexuality, the fields of psychotherapy and couples counseling are way behind the times. When shopping for a therapist, regardless of your issues, you may want to ask about his/her philosophy regarding sex, gender, and intimacy—because that will color their attitude about a lot of topics that seem unrelated, but aren’t.

How to ask? Just ask. Listen to how comfortable your would-be therapist seems, and what vocabulary she/he uses. “Private parts” and “marital relations” is probably not a good sign.

How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one—but the lightbulb really has to want to change. When it comes to sexuality, it’s time the therapy field changed dramatically—so we can more effectively help our patients change and grow. Of course, it’s unnecessary for every therapist to specialize in sex. But patients’ assumption that every therapist knows a lot about sex—and doesn’t simply believe common, destructive myths about it—should not be unreasonable.

Naked In Tokyo

September 18, 2015

Last week I went to Tokyo to speak at World Sexual Health Day. Coordinated by the World Association for Sexology, the Japanese Society for Sex Education, and others, the program featured an impressive array of national and international speakers. Some are now new friends.

My talk was the last event of the day, and in a different location from the rest of the program. And so at 6pm my Tokyo host (whom I’d met the previous day) and my sexologist-translator (whom I’d never met) picked me up at my hotel, and after a short taxi ride we arrived at a sort-of nightclub, which had been booked for the evening.

Inside there were dozens of cocktail tables, at which most of the chairs were already filled. As my host had predicted, it was a pretty well-behaved crowd with very little drinking (I’d been concerned about the latter, not the former).

After several short welcomes (including one from the nationally-famous gynecologist who has written a forward to the Japanese edition of my current book, which my Japanese publisher didn’t tell me about—but don’t get me started on that), my translator Daisuke and I were brought up to the little stage, and just like that we began.

Miraculously, the guy is fantastic, the crowd responds to my (our?) jokes, and we’re off and running. My theme is Sexual Intelligence—don’t look for perfect functioning, perfect bodies, or perfect sex. Decide how you want to feel, communicate that with your partner, relax, and together create an experience that simply feels good.

Or something like that. Who knows what the talk was like in Japanese. In any case, I give lots of examples involving food and sports, which seem to resonate. I inform the audience that this talk isn’t going to be perfect, and say that once I decide that, I can just relax and be present. If I expected to give a perfect talk, I might be nervous, and I certainly would enjoy the experience less. Get the analogy?

I also discuss how sex itself has no meaning, and so people construct its meanings for themselves. And in Japan (I assume) as everywhere else, people construct meanings that create pressure, constrict the experience, and define things arbitrarily. I give a few common examples (if he doesn’t get erect, he doesn’t love me; if I let him go down on me, I have to go down on him to be “fair;” a real woman climaxes from intercourse; etc.), which the audience recognizes. I casually throw in a few more myths about sex, layering the depth of the presentation.

Ninety minutes later, people are still attentive, and still smiling or nodding or obviously thinking. Virtually no one is looking at a mobile phone, and two dozen people are taking notes. We come to a close, get way more than polite applause, and I call for a short break. Upon resuming, I thank Daisuke publicly, and we have a lively question period.

When it’s over, drinks are poured, mobile phones are checked, books are purchased, and people crowd around wanting autographs, photographs, or advice. One young couple sort of surrounds me, clearly concerned about something. The guy asks in perfect English, “We have a problem. She’s obsessed with condoms and I don’t want to use them. What should we do?”

Obsessed? Yes (I am not making this up), she has decorated her apartment with them, hundreds of them, everywhere. Why? “Because they’re so colorful and they help so many people,” she says through his translation (did I mention I’m not making this up?). And why won’t he use them? “Because sex should be done naked.”

Now I’ve heard a lot of reasons for not using condoms, but this one’s a bit unusual—a philosophical- ontological objection. So I say to the guy, “I see we both wear beards. I guess you don’t have sex naked, since you wear a beard.” No, he says, a beard doesn’t count because it’s natural, it’s part of who he is. He needs for sex to be done naked. OK, “What about the winter time—what if your feet or her feet are cold, do you have sex wearing socks?” No, he says, feeling their bodies in their various states of warmth and coldness is part of intimacy. I’m not sure she agrees with this (she’s wearing a shawl while I’m sweating in the crowded club), but I can see that our young philosopher is no amateur.

So I ask, “Don’t you ever have sex under a blanket?” He says Gee Doc, you’re really focused on this naked thing. I point out that much of my talk has just been about the constructed nature of sexuality; how ideas about “normal sex,” “sexy,” “undignified positions,” “men,” etc. are a big part of how people complicate sex and undermine their enjoyment. I note that his “naked” is just another arbitrary construction, which he’s carefully designed to rule out condom use.

He measures me carefully, then breaks into a big smile. “Well, you got me Doc,” he says. “I use that “naked” thing mostly as a justification. I hate how sex feels with condoms, but that wasn’t getting me anywhere. The “naked” thing sounded much better. You busted me, Doc.”

And with that he shook my hand, she thanked me, and they left. The irony of him displaying the very constructed nature of sexuality that I had spent the evening discussing (including how people create unnecessary struggles during this process) is, apparently, completely lost on him.

Can someone get me a drink please?

Has the Internet Really Changed Anything About Sexuality?

September 2, 2015

Nothing could be more modern than the rise and fall of Ashley Madison: millions of world-wide members linked by a single website, the central promise of cyber-confidentiality, millions of phony profiles generated by algorithm, and the whole thing brought down by hackers—exposing not just the criminal business behavior, but the email addresses and IP information for millions of accounts, both real and fake.

This ultra-modern story is also a reminder that the human heart hasn’t changed. I’m not talking about the good old-fashioned greed of unethical businessmen. I’m talking about the customers. People still want to connect. People still find it difficult. People still have trouble talking to their mates about sex. People still want what they can’t have.

People still fantasize about infidelity; some pursue it, and some indeed do it. Some do it out of lust, some out of anger, some out of despair. Some do it because they want what comes after the sex: a hug; a note that says “you’re great;” the feeling of belonging, or of being desired. Some do it, as Olympia Dukakis told Cher in the film Moonstruck, because they know that one day they’re going to die.

Most of all, people still lie about sex.

As a 30-year resident of (and therapist in) Silicon Valley, I hear every single day that the internet has changed everything. And I have a front-row seat for the latest ways that people use technology as part of dating, mating, and long-term coupling.

I hear about Grindr, Tinder, Match.com, and yes, Ashley Madison. I know about meetups, flash mobs, and Group-on. I know people continents apart masturbate together on Skype, and I seem to hear about sexting every week. There’s an amazing amount of information on line about everything from clitorises to sexual side effects of drugs to the number of calories in semen to whether olive oil is a good lubricant.

Caitlin Jenner’s story—which many people find personally liberating—would be just private gossip without the internet. So would Miley Cyrus’s self-declared “pan-sexuality”—which, again, many people find personally meaningful.

And yet…

  • People are still wondering if they’re normal
  • People are still getting pregnant unintentionally
  • People are still inhibited talking about what they like in bed, and hesitant to say what they don’t like
  • People still insist on sex, or withhold sex, as part of marital politics
  • People still have sex when they’d rather hug
  • People still lie about their past experience
  • People still want sex to be “natural and spontaneous,” even though nothing else in their lives is.
  • People still look at porn. For the same reasons they always did
  • People still think men and women are “opposite” sexes, whose perspectives are inevitably different.
  • People still have sex because they’re lonely. Many people still feel lonely during and after sex.
  • People still have sex—or join Ashley Madison–because they want to feel young.
  • People still regret what they see in the mirror, and lose their appetite for something that could soothe them.

So has the internet changed anything about sexuality?

Only this: our obsession with the constant, intense, novel stimulation of the internet has rendered real sex with an actual person a bit less all-compelling than it used to be. We actually have to remember to pay attention during sex now—since it doesn’t grab us like colorful, noisy websites do, and since it doesn’t promise us the entire world every moment the way our smartphones do.

Actually, sex does make that promise. It can even deliver on that promise—but only if we pay attention. And in the age of the internet, that’s a big if.

Ashley Madison: Playing Around, or Just Playing?

August 30, 2015

We’ve learned two things from the Ashley Madison hack-a-thon:

  1. “Internet security” is an oxymoron—like working vacation, compassionate conservatism, science magic, free speech zone, and the one true religion.
  2. You can make a lot of money pretending to offer men a chance to meet strangers for extramarital affairs.

What we have NOT learned is that tens of millions of men actually want to arrange extramarital affairs with virtual strangers.

That’s because we don’t know how many men joined AM specifically to get laid (yes, of course many did), and how many joined for other reasons. These could include:

“I wonder who might pick me.”
“I wonder who’s available.”
“It’s so much fun pretending I’m available.”
“I wonder how it would feel to be young, handsome, and single.”
“I wonder what a horny woman sounds like.”
“I just want to talk about my sexless marriage with someone.”

It turns out that both groups—the “I wanna get laid” crowd and the “I wanna talk or imagine” gang—were systematically cheated. Of five million supposed female members of AM, over 99% of their profiles were fake, manufactured by the site to lure male (i.e., paying) customers.

Surprise, surprise—a business model that exploited sexual desire, arousal, curiosity, loneliness, and dissatisfaction was wildly successful. AM swindled virtually every customer who was shopping for real sex, and virtually all customers who were pining for validation, conversation, or information (about women or their own marketability).

It’s easy to scorn customers who were cheated while they participated on a website for cheaters. Poetic justice, some might say.

I disagree—the two are completely unrelated. We expect that people who crash while driving drunk should get quality medical care, right? And we expect that convicted criminals should be treated in a civilized way while jailed, right? (Parenthetically, let’s remember that virtually none of the 31 million male members actually cheated via AM; we can say that many tried, which would make them akin not to convicted criminals, but rather suspected criminals—who, in America, have tremendous legal rights.

If any good comes out of this mess (besides CEO Noel Biderman losing his job, along with, one hopes, everything else he values), it would be the two cultural conversations it launches: one about internet privacy, the other about sexual fantasy and infidelity. However, the question is NOT “why do 31 million men want to cheat,” but rather “why are so many men inhibited from talking about sexual or emotional issues with their partners?”

The topics involved range from “I don’t feel attractive anymore” to “you don’t seem to desire me much” to “how am I supposed to live without oral sex for another 25 years” to “can’t we pretend X or Y before or during sex” to “I don’t think this monogamy thing works for me.” Whether they want to cheat, flirt, talk, listen, or masturbate, every one of AM’s 31 million actual members has something to say to his partner at home.

The fear of data exposure is a dystopian new twist on guilt and the fear of being known. But if that gets some of these 31 million men talking more honestly with their partners, it will be a step forward after all.

Limiting Abortion to Healthy Fetuses?

August 23, 2015

Mark Twain once groused that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” Ohio has proven once again that no one’s freedom is safe when conservative politicians are up for reelection.

Within a few weeks, Ohio’s legislature is expected to criminalize any abortion if the pregnant woman’s intent is to avoid having a baby with Down syndrome.

Of the six million pregnancies each year in the U.S., fewer than 20,000 are carrying a fetus with Down syndrome. Some 2/3 of those pregnancies will miscarry, leaving a maximum of some 6,000 Down’s pregnancies in America continuing to term (and thus potentially to abortion). But even assuming that all 20,000 Down’s pregnancies are viable, Ohio (with 3.6% of America’s population) would have about 720 of them.

That’s what this law does—it criminalizes abortion for these 720 pregnancies.

It’s an election year after all. Governor John Kasich is running for president, and 2/3 of the legislature is endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee.

Of course, Ohio isn’t the only grandstanding U.S. legislature. In 2013, North Dakota criminalized abortion because of fetal genetic anomalies, including Down syndrome. Seven states ban abortions if the reason is gender selection; Arizona’s law even forbids abortion when the doctor knows “that the abortion is being sought based on the sex or race of the child, or the race of a parent of that child.”

Arizona passed this law without a single example of gender-selection or race-selection abortion anywhere in the state. The law prevents something that doesn’t exist. So one imagines Arizona criminalizing abortions taking place on February 30; banning abortions if the father is Elvis; and not allowing abortions if the mother is married to a kangaroo.

Supporters of the Arizona race-selection abortion law note that a high percentage of abortions are being sought by minority women, who are disproportionately poor. Apparently, they don’t realize that reducing health care options, sex education, and contraceptive availability for poor people leads to more unplanned pregnancy. Anti-choice legislators are against abortion almost as much as they’re against reducing unplanned pregnancy. Maybe they don’t know where babies come from.

The Arizona law raises an interesting question. If a Hispanic couple wants an abortion, will they be challenged as wanting an abortion because the fetus is Hispanic? After all, it’s not a White, Black, or Asian fetus they’d be aborting. And what about a White couple who wants an abortion—when they know darn well the baby they don’t want is White? Are these “abortion because of race?”

Arizona, Ohio, and other states can, of course, make the experience of a simple abortion as miserable as possible for residents who have the nerve to pursue a legal medical procedure. And states can throw a fit and just invent reasons that people can’t have abortions.

Sex-selective abortion has indeed created complications in India and China, both dramatically different cultures from America’s. Some American legislators seem to have their states confused with these two ancient societies, historically tormented by radical gender- and racial beliefs.

Ohio and other state legislatures, to their eternal frustration, can’t simply make abortion illegal. Their phony “conservative” Republicans want to shrink “Big Government” just small enough to fit under people’s bedroom doors.


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