Sexual Intelligence Is Moving—C’mon!

September 25, 2016

After a decade with the same format, it’s time to go mobile, get modern, and move. Starting immediately, please read my blog at http://www.MartyKlein.com.

Same great material, same quotable opinions, same easy format. Come and see me at my new blog-home. Change your RSS feed, bookmark, or any other device you use to read me. I’ll be there.

Promise.

 

“Foreplay”—It just Makes Us Nervous About Sex

September 25, 2016

I continue to be baffled by the relationship many people have to “foreplay.”

I’ve been putting the word in quotation marks for decades (driving print magazine editors crazy as far back as the 1980s), because it describes a state of mind I don’t want to endorse.

First, it supposes that intercourse is “real sex,” and everything else isn’t—other activities are just second-rate sex. Furthermore, “foreplay” supposes that one is preparing for something—that these activities don’t have a satisfaction or integrity of their own.

When I was in high school, “foreplay” was what a guy did to get a girl hot for “real sex.” A lot of guys rushed through it, because they had their eye on a bigger prize beyond it (“real sex”). Guys also rushed through it because they didn’t enjoy it very much—it was a perfunctory ritual, a necessary procedure that girls apparently wanted, although we didn’t much understand what they got from it—other than making us jump through hoops before giving us what we really wanted.

As stilted and empty as that sounds, I see too many adult men and women in my office with the same attitude. They rush through “foreplay,” because they simply don’t enjoy it. They’re too distracted by concerns about erection, lubrication, or orgasm. They’re too anxious about succeeding. They’re too worried about how their partner is feeling, and how close they are to saying “let’s forget the whole thing tonight.” No one can enjoy “foreplay” very much when they’re distracted like that.

When patients have concerns about how their bodies function sexually, I invariably want to slow them down. I want them to feel their body parts, experience the wonder of seeing and touching a naked person, I want them to activate their sensorium: find something about your partner that looks good to you, tastes good to you, smells good to you, and so on.

I honestly don’t care if it’s a “sexual” body part (as opposed to a “non-sexual” part like an elbow, knee, or leg hair); anything we can enjoy during sex IS sexual. The elbow doesn’t know it isn’t “sexual” any more than the thigh knows that it is. Flesh doesn’t think; it waits for the brain to code an experience as erotic, annoying, threatening, whatever.

When couples come into my office with virtually no sexual experience (say, an arranged marriage of a virgin and a near-virgin), they often ask my advice about “how to do foreplay.” Or they tell me they dutifully have some minutes of “foreplay” before attempting intercourse, at which they repeatedly fail.

The idea that “foreplay” would be a period of relaxation rather than of duty, or a set of behaviors that were enjoyable rather than prepatory, is completely foreign to them. Many actually don’t know that some people enjoy those things and do them for pleasure rather than because they’re supposedly required for “successful” sex.

I understand that intercourse is necessary for conception (fertility treatments are still crushingly expensive and even risky for many people), and some couples are in a hurry to conceive. Therefore many people prioritize intercourse over other sexual activities. Far more couples prioritize it, however, because they think it’s synonymous with sex, real sex, good sex, etc..

Many people have seen little or no “foreplay” of even the mildest kind in movies or TV. If they haven’t “dated,” they may have no personal experience of it. Imagine going from nervously holding hands to clueless intercourse—you’d want to do things “right,” even though that pressure only made you more nervous.

Deemphasizing intercourse would be a great step toward making sex more satisfying, less stressful, and simply easier for a huge number of people. Encouraging people to do what they like during erotic activity, rather than doing sex “the right way” would reduce everyone’s anxiety and even promote communication. “What do you like?” “How does this feel?” “Would you like more of this? Want it a little different?”

Those are the sexiest words on earth.

“I want to do foreplay right so we can succeed at sex” never put anyone in the mood, never made anyone relax, never made anyone feel playful or confident. Lovers should not be technicians—in fact, sex is where we can go to get away from the need to do things “right” that’s so common in the rest of our lives.

Men Who Have Sex With Men: Not All Are Gay

September 22, 2016

Of course there are men who have sex with men.

But they’re not all gay or bisexual.

Or to put it another way, they don’t consider themselves gay or bisexual.

Men who have sex with men and call themselves gay or bi—well, that’s easy to understand. But men who have sex with men and call themselves straight—that’s a little more complicated. And there are millions of such people.

In fact, researchers, health care professionals, and field workers have run into this so frequently that they had to develop a new category—MSM, or “men who have sex with men” (along with WSW, “women who have sex with women”). Similarly, there are men in the black community who are “on the downlow,” slang for men with publicly heterosexual lives and secret MSM activity.

In a world that has mostly hated gay people and their sexuality for thousands of years, it’s not surprising that any gay person would hide their orientation. But what about people who have trouble acknowledging to themselves their same-sex attraction? What about people who have same-gender sex, feel shame, and promise themselves they’ll never do it again—and keep wanting to do it again?

Recent history is filled with high-profile men who made their careers damning homosexuality and homosexuals—only to be caught “on the downlow.” These include US Senator Larry Craig, Evangelical leader Ted Haggard, US Congressman Mark Foley, Governor James McGreevey, and “gender disturbance” psychologist George Rekers.

Each of them pursued secret sex in public places and was caught. In each case, the world was stunned: A straight guy having sex with men? A guy having sex with men making the world more hateful for gay people?

Sure.

Almost everyone in America learns to hate gay people—including gay people. Almost everyone in America learns to tease men who aren’t “manly” enough—including boys and men who feel “UNmanly” themselves. In fact, men who are insecure about their masculinity are among the loudest people telling “fag” jokes, and among the most obnoxious gropers at bars and on the subway. People who feel uncomfortable with themselves are often trying to feel better; some of them will do almost anything to relieve the nagging suspicion that they’re not OK, and that everyone sees through them.

Hence men who live as straight, have sex with other men on the downlow, and talk ugly about “those” gays. But whether the subject is sex or anything else, the harder people deny who they are, the stronger the impulse to act authentically gets. And so periodically we see people act in ways contrary to their public persona. Maybe even contrary to their basic values.

That’s when someone risks everything—when, he says, he “couldn’t help myself.” Such a person deserves sympathy for their internal torment. Not for their political malice (Rekers, for example, was a consultant on Florida’s ban on gay couples adopting kids). But hating yourself, being unwilling to accept yourself, feeling ashamed when you do something that feels like who you really are—that condition deserves sympathy.

In our sex-negative world, almost everyone has some sexual feature that could keep them in the closet: your fantasies, your preferences, a body part, a past decision, a religious belief you periodically violate. In a culture that so harshly judges sexual normalcy, everyone is eligible to be shamed. 

The sexual problem most of us face, however, isn’t our sexuality itself—it’s our shame about it, the resulting secrecy, and the isolation or periodic acting out that we do as a result of the continual denial of who we are.

Don’t find yourself acting out urges you desperately want to believe you don’t have. The world isn’t divided into “good sexuality” and “bad sexuality.” If it’s honest, consenting, and responsible, there’s only one kind of sexuality—human sexuality, in all its glorious, messy, un-categorizable forms. 

Pam Anderson & Shmuley Boteach: “Porn is For Losers”

September 4, 2016

Shmuley Boteach and Pamela Anderson have co-authored an article about pornography in the Wall Street Journal. It starts by decrying the “devastation of porn addiction” and ends by saying that “porn is for losers.”

Boteach is a Rabbi who has spent years telling people that sex should be restricted to committed, loving relationships. He says that masturbation is harmful, as it undermines the monopoly that marriage should have on sex, and therefore undermines people’s motivation to get or stay married. What a ghastly diss of marriage.

Anderson has spent half her career taking off most of her clothes, and half her career taking off all her clothes. Now we shouldn’t judge people’s opinions based solely on their past behavior. But she appeared in Playboy (for the 14th time) only 10 months ago, and posted a nude photo of herself on Instagram just last week. Apparently she only opposes porn that she’s not in.

So this odd couple—the anti-masturbation crusader and the still-stripping professional titillator—write an article warning of the terrifying dangers of porn addiction. They insult some 60-80 million American porn consumers, insisting that they all compromise themselves as parents and spouses. Given that most porn consumers walk the streets each day and go home each evening in completely unremarkable fashion, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think that porn inevitably damages everyone who looks at it, or simply lives in a society that tolerates it.

Ironically, Boteach and Anderson leave out a legitimate complaint about porn—that it presents a vision of sexuality that isn’t entirely realistic. It shows unusual bodies in unusual situations doing unusual things. Of course, if people had proper sex education, and were encouraged to communicate about sex effectively, they would deal with porn’s fictions the same way they deal with other media fictions—like cooking shows, Stephen King novels, and Mel Gibson’s films.

But people like Boteach and Anderson are very much part of the problem that they don’t discuss: they also present unrealistic visions of sexuality.

Teaching that sex has an inherent “meaning” or “purpose” independent of circumstances or the people doing it is harmful. Teaching that masturbation betrays one’s partner (or one’s God) is shame-inducing. Teaching that adults who use porn put their kids at risk of permanent damage is horribly manipulative.

And where exactly does Anderson get the cojones to condemn porn in any form? If you meticulously titillate viewers—including millions of adolescent boys—then keeping a few inches of cloth on your breasts and crotch doesn’t make you better, or your work more wholesome, than a naked porn actress on the internet pleasing several actors at once. Whether nude or bikinied, Anderson was so good at portraying sexual fantasies (and still, apparently, is), that she became rich and famous doing it. So one of the most famous porn actresses in the history of the world is warning us against the “other” kind of porn. It’s a phony distinction. I won’t say she’s a hypocrite but…well actually, I think I will.

It’s troubling that the Wall Street Journal would give its powerful platform to people who are biased and obviously conflicted about the very subject on which they opine. The WSJ should have said “Disclaimer: Boteach is against masturbation, and Anderson still undresses and titillates for money.” It’s dishonest that these authors didn’t include this information. It’s like an oil company consultant writing about oil stocks. Would the WSJ publish that guy’s opinion without noting his relevant background?

As for their warnings about porn addiction, nonsense. Let me remind you about real addiction, involving substances like heroin, Oxycontin, or alcohol. If you’re addicted to such a substance, your body’s ability to metabolize it is compromised (which does indeed affect your judgment about using it). Take away the substance from the addict and s/he vomits, shakes violently, suffers night sweats and nightmares, and may even hallucinate.

Take away porn from habitual, even self-destructive users, and there’s no such reaction. If they continue to masturbate without porn, they just get a little crabby. If they stop masturbating too (as required by many porn addiction “treatment” programs), they get really cranky. You would too if you gave up masturbation for a year.

Addiction? No one who has ever seen real addiction withdrawal would confuse it with being really cranky. Porn addiction? There’s no such thing. There’s loneliness, there’s depression, there’s anger and fear. There are situations in which people withdraw sexually because of chronic conflict or long-term emotional wounds. There are couples who have lost interest in each other sexually.

After 36 years as a sex therapist and marriage counselor, I can tell you this: no one ever leaves a vibrant, satisfying sexual relationship for masturbation to porn. But for people who are suspicious about sexuality, or who have a political agenda around sex or gender, consuming porn can never be a harmless or understandable activity. It can never be just one more thing that normal people do (perhaps imperfectly) in a normal life.

People who demonize or mistrust sexuality shouldn’t be telling the rest of us what to be scared of. And they shouldn’t look down on others simply because they disapprove of their sexual expression. Especially not if they’re professionally committed to being compassionate, or if they’ve made a huge amount of money tantalizing a generation of “losers.”

My Crippling Loss of Confidence—and Our Fragile Sexuality

August 31, 2016

For sixteen years and 1,000 posts, everything I’ve written in Sexual Intelligence has been about sex.

This piece is, too. To get there, though, you’ll need to be a bit patient. C’mon in.

I’m writing this on my way home from a week in Ireland. After a couple of days of teaching, I drove myself around the country for five eventful days. For history buffs (I am) or beer drinkers (I’m not) Ireland is a great place to visit, but the country has a serious, well-known drawback—horrible roads. They’re extremely narrow, poorly marked, and completely unlit. Americans would call many of them country lanes rather than roads for cars.

Reminder: like their British cousins, the Irish drive on the “other” side of the road.

So on an overcast Irish morning (forgive the redundancy), I climbed into my rented car with steering wheel and gearshift on the “wrong” side, heading to hidden-away thousand-year-old towns on twisting roads laid out in medieval times.

What could possibly go wrong here?

As I eased out of Dublin and into the old-fashioned countryside, I soon found out. I was continually facing cars coming toward me that were way too close. I kept edging to my left, only to hear the sounds of roadside brush scraping the car. I’d quickly move to the right, only to see the next car rushing toward me with what seemed like only inches to spare.

Move left, hit brush or loose stones, move right, get nervous, move left. Lather, rinse, repeat. See a 12th-century monastery, talk with a professional guide and/or colorful locals, get back in the car, do it again.

Eventually I drove a little too far to the left, hit some sharp stones, a rain gutter, and only God (this being Ireland) knows what else, and when I finally wrestled the car to a stop, I discovered I had destroyed my left front tire. It wasn’t flat—I had destroyed the tire and bent the rim. Disrupted my trip a bit, yes.

Fast-forward through getting the spare sort-of tire on the front, driving way too carefully for an hour to my next town, finding a shop, buying a new tire, and getting everything all fixed by the next afternoon. That’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is how much trouble I had driving after that—because of awful feelings I couldn’t even identify. It was more than fear. I know what that feels like.

It took me an entire day of wretchedly careful driving, clumsy stopping, not wanting to make right turns (which cross traffic, like an American left turn), and feeling confused about my terrible internal state before I sat down, after a late and unhappy dinner, to talk about what I had done and how I felt. To a pub-keeper. He was undoubtedly surprised at my earnestness, especially since I wasn’t drinking, or even complaining—I just needed to talk out loud and discover what I was feeling. And after a half-hour of talking about myself, I found out.

I was ashamed of what I’d done. Events had proven me arrogant, inadequate to a challenge I was dismissively certain I could manage.

But much worse, I now no longer trusted myself. Driving—an American’s most basic right, most basic skill, most basic experience—I suddenly couldn’t do it without thinking. I didn’t trust my own judgment—of distance, speed, geometry, safety—and I was terrified.

Get this distinction—I wasn’t so much terrified of driving, or of getting hurt, as I was terrified of not being able to trust my own judgment. My judgment: my trusted companion through a 35-year clinical career, life as a self-employed entrepreneur, the deaths of my parents, high-profile involvement in contentious political issues, the gradual erosion of my aging body, financial and legal decisions about which I lacked sufficient knowledge.

And now I didn’t trust my judgment. Without it, I could barely inch forward at even a deserted country intersection.

And yes, I felt humiliated—like discovering I was a fraud, which I’ve never feared I was. But the shame didn’t cripple me. What crippled me was something my patients talk about all the time—the Lack of Confidence.

And now we’re finally coming to the sex part. Thanks for your patience.
* * *
For three decades, patients have asked me, begged me, pleaded with me: “How do I develop more confidence sexually?”

My answers have varied, depending upon the person:

* You don’t need confidence. Sex is that special thing that you can just enjoy no matter what happens.

* Go ahead and feel confident—not about any particular outcome (like erection or orgasm), but about the fact that you can enjoy whatever you do, and can enjoy being with the person you’re with (depending on how you choose your partners, of course).

And in the longer term…

* We’ll identify what makes it hard to trust yourself sexually, resolve that, and then you’ll feel confident. This could be anything from fear of your “promiscuity” to fear of believing you’re OK.

* We’re going to reconceptualize sexuality so that just being yourself is all you need to “do” to be adequate. Then you’ll feel confident.

* We’re going to investigate how religion, culture, and other influences have created visions of sexual adequacy that you can’t possibly live up to. We’ll resolve those, and then you’ll feel confident.

* We’ll help you accept your own sexuality so you can imagine a partner accepting your sexuality.

* We’ll help you communicate better and be more open to the sexuality of someone you care about, so you’ll feel more confident about handling whatever comes along.

This sort of thinking has helped a lot of people over 35 years.

I’ve always felt that sexuality was sort of the low-hanging fruit of human experience—it’s so much easier to navigate than things that are legitimately difficult, like raising a child, learning another language, installing skype, or saying no to a donut.

My patients keep telling me otherwise. They insist that sexuality is a terribly difficult thing to relax into, to feel familiar with, to talk about, to improvise. They lack Confidence.

Now I understand this a little bit better. Almost everyone trusts their judgement about something—whether it’s shopping for groceries, matching their clothes, doing their job, handling their kid’s cough, following a football game, or yes, driving.

For many of my patients, sex isn’t one of those ordinary things they trust they’ll do adequately. Of course, to them it seems that everyone else in America is good at it—great at it—presumably every day, and twice on Sunday. And now I have a slightly better sense of why that’s so disconcerting, so disruptive.

Every week I see people who are one lost erection away from disaster, one didn’t-quite-orgasm away from humiliation, one not-tonight-dear away from feeling emasculated. They want me to fix something so that they’ll be able to trust sex and themselves, even if they never have before.

I tell them that by itself sex is pretty simple, but that their unique experience of our culture (say, punitive religion), their unique biography (say, alcoholic parent), and their individual psychology (say, feeling guilty for their submissive fantasies) are combining to make sex so complicated that of course it’s hard to relax and trust it—or themselves.

Many people are terrified to trust their judgement about whether they’re sexually normal, or sexually attractive, or sexually adequate, or perceiving their partner accurately, or communicating effectively. They’re afraid to trust their judgment about the “right” way to kiss, or whose responsibility birth control “should” be, or whether it “should” be an intrusion.

This week, a narrow, twisting Irish road and a green-eyed Irish pub-keeper helped me understand this a little better.

Sexually, Are We Becoming Wilder or More Conservative?

August 18, 2016

The answer is yes.

Here’s a sample of America’s complicated sexual landscape:

* The U.S. Navy just named a ship after Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in America. Things have changed in just 22 years, when gays were barred from serving in the military.  

* In 2009, the city of Sandy Springs, GA passed a law criminalizing the sale of sex toys (that’s 2009, not 1909). Last month a federal appeals court upheld the law, referring to a similar existing ban throughout Alabama.

* There are increasing legal protections for trans people, and one rarely sees the acronym LGB or GLB anymore—the T is now a firm part of the sexual alphabet. On the other hand, there’s a vicious internecine battle going on about who’s a “real” trans person, whether a trans person is a “real” woman or man, and if sincere, intelligent people can actually debate the issues around transgenderism without being called transphobic—or worse.

* More Americans try anal sex and oral sex than ever before. More Americans experiment with BDSM than ever before. More Americans go online for sex advice than ever before. More Americans give online sex advice than ever before.

* Most Americans say they support sex education in school. Most Americans don’t want schools teaching kids about pleasure, pornography, why people have sex, how to decide when to have sex, or most other relevant subjects.

* It’s harder to get an abortion than to buy a gun. It’s harder to get an abortion than to buy an a semi-automatic weapon. In many states, it’s almost impossible to get a legal abortion. In every state it’s possible to get a dangerous, expensive, illegal one.

* The federal government now insists that if two college students get drunk and agree to have sex, one can call it rape and try to have the other expelled from school. At the ensuing hearing, the accused student will not be allowed a lawyer, nor will he be allowed to cross-examine his accuser. This destruction of due process is supposed to be “progress.”

* At least sixty million American men, women, and couples use porn regularly.    

* Nearly half (45% or 2.8 million) of the 6 million pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended. There are 45 unintended pregnancies for every 1,000 women aged 15–44—so nearly 5% of reproductive-age women have an unintended pregnancy each year. How can that many people be that irresponsible year after year?

* You can buy sex toys at Walmart and Amazon.com, along with dozens of brands of lube and condoms. 

* You can become a Licensed Marriage Counselor without hearing the words “sex toy” in your training.

* The federal government and various states spend tens of millions of dollars to plant detectives in adult chatrooms. They role-play being teens; when chatroom visitors role-play with them, assuming that the person claiming to be a teen is in fact an adult, the visitor is arrested and accused of thinking he was texting with a real teen, which is a felony.

* A majority of Americans think gay people should have the same rights as straight people.

* * *

In a perfect expression of ambivalence, Americans are more sexually adventurous in their own bedrooms, but increasingly supportive of restrictions on other people’s sexual expression. Fear of sexual violence (which has steadily declined for years, but is regularly whipped up by both the Left and the Right) is one explanation. Fear for their children’s safety (although in many ways kids have never been safer) is another. And confusion and anxiety about the rapid pace of social change is surely a factor, too.

More information hasn’t necessarily helped: myths about predators, child porn users, pedophiles, swingers, age-role-players, and “perverts” such as nudists and cross-dressers have proliferated as public awareness of such people has grown without corresponding facts and insight about them.

In private at home, many Americans are able to leave these concerns behind, and explore their bodies (and each others’) with an abandon many people didn’t have twenty or thirty years ago. Still, too many people experience high and unnecessary levels of sexual frustration, disappointment, and “failure.” A gentler approach to the sexuality of people “out there” would surely help people relax, accept themselves more, and create more enjoyable, less self-conscious sex.  

 

 

More Religious Bullying—Around Sex, Of Course

July 31, 2016

The “First Amendment Defense Act”—who could quarrel with that?

I do. Maybe you do, too.

HR2802 prohibits the federal government from acting against anyone who “believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief” that gays shouldn’t marry or that sex belongs only in heterosexual marriage.

Under this law, the feds couldn’t withhold tax exemptions, contracts, or loans from people or corporations defying federal laws prohibiting discrimination against GLBT people. The bill would protect a business denying time off for a gay employee to care for a sick spouse. It would protect a private school refusing a child just because her parents are gay.

Along with “conscience clauses,” this bill elevates “religious belief” into a convenient exemption from the laws the rest of us must follow.

Here is the First Amendment’s entire guarantee of religious freedom:  
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Founders’ intent is clear and simple: to prevent the government:

  1. from “establishing”—sponsoring or requiring a religion, and
  2. from “prohibiting the free exercise”—confiscating books, banning churches, criminalizing blasphemy or heresy.

In America, we can believe what we want (unlike in Saudi Arabia). We can pray (or not) as we wish (unlike in Iran). We can urge our kids to make the private y choices we prefer about how to live their lives (unlike in China).

In America, the government may not regulate what to worship or how to worship. It must regulate how all people are treated, and the basic rights all people can expect. As that standard changes over time, everyone is expected to adjust as a condition of citizenship. Women now vote—you don’t get to prevent them. Black people now move into your neighborhood—you can’t exclude them with neighborhood covenants. Handicapped people get to use your restaurant—you don’t get to say you can’t afford an accessible bathroom.

Over the years, our civilization’s ideas about health, child-rearing, women, and civil rights have evolved. But traditional religious ideas in these areas are lagging behind (by definition—their followers want to live by 2,000-year-old rules).  This sets up a conflict between their religious ideas and their country’s political ideas.  For politics to accommodate those religious ideas, we’d have to go backwards, abandoning social, cultural, and technological progress.

Religious people apparently want to have it both ways—they want the modern advantages of cars, telephones, medicine, and the Designated Hitter, but they want to cherry pick which of civilization’s advances they can’t abide.

And most of them somehow concern sex. Respecting their Iron Age religion’s obsessions with sex would strip us of many of our most cherished freedoms—many of which we have fought for, and achieved, in our own lifetime.

And so last week Paul and Teresa Wieland sued the government in federal court. They claim that the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate tramples on their family’s religious rights even if they don’t use of it. They want a law that doesn’t affect them dismantled because it offends them.

And because they’re afraid that the law more easily enables two of their daughters, who are not minors, to get contraceptive information or products. They lament a world in which their efforts “to nurture, educate, and raise” their daughters “according to Catholic principles” is threatened. They don’t trust their own parenting—so they want America to roll back its laws to the way human needs were understood a millennium or two ago.

So are there any limits to the assertion of religious privilege?

The historic preference given to religious belief over philosophical, artistic, astrological, or psychotic belief is an anomaly we must bear. But empowering people to drag all of us back to the 1950s, 1850s, or the 50s in order to protect their bizarre vision of life’s requirements is a tragic mistake that increasingly undermines our democracy.

With Americans like these, who needs other countries’ religious fanatics?

 

 

Sex, Secrets, & Shame

July 27, 2016

As an everyday therapist, shame isn’t some abstract idea—it’s quite real to me. It’s why people keep secrets. It’s why they do exactly the opposite of what they want to—to prove that they don’t want it. It’s a big reason people behave self-destructively—unable to talk about their impulses, their feelings, or their curiosity, they act them out, despite the consequences.

(Note: When the behavior involves sex, this may be mistaken as “addiction.” Nonsense.)

There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex. Predictably, that leads to sexual secrets, sexual violence, sexual acting out, and dramatic sexual inhibitions.

And it’s intertwined with sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it. For example:

You go to Mary’s house for dinner, you tell her how you like your chicken cooked. You go to bed with Mary, you don’t tell her you’d like less fingernails on your back.

You go hiking with John and you tell him to slow down a bit. You go to bed with John and you don’t tell him you wish he’d slow down a bit.

You’ve seen the musical Cats a dozen times—which you know other people think is odd, but that’s OK with you. You like a finger in your butt during sex—which you imagine other people think is odd, and that’s definitely not OK with you.

You watch a NASCAR race knowing that the thought of someone crashing is actually kind of exciting. You go to bed knowing that the thought of your husband slapping you is kind of exciting—and you’re terrified of what it “means” about you.

Enter the Internet.

On the Internet, we can be ourselves. We can also be someone other than ourselves: Shy people can be flirtatious or even aggressive. Females can be male. The old can be young, the young old, and everyone can have blue eyes and a flat stomach. Many people find these adventures to be liberating.

But there are games the government won’t allow you to play, even within the relative safety of the Internet. Adults are not allowed to talk about sex with unrelated minors (it can look like grooming for abuse). Adults are not allowed to photoshop children’s heads on nude adult bodies. Adults are not allowed to go to chatrooms where other adults pretend to be minors and talk with them about having pretend sex together.

You better not do that last one—what participants call erotic age-play or age role-play—because the government has planted detectives in these chatrooms to pose as adults pretending to be minors. If the adult you’re involved with in age-play turns out to be a cop, you’ll be accused of believing that the adult you’ve been playing with is an actual minor, and your life will be ruined.

Yes, it’s that simple.

If the point of age-play is to pretend as believably as you can (“Is your mom home? No? Great! What are you wearing, honey?”), it’s almost impossible to prove that you didn’t believe you were talking to an actual minor (as opposed to an adult pretending to be a minor). And while the burden of proof rests with the government, juries play better-safe-than-sorry when confronted with someone who just might be a predator.

Which brings us back to shame: shame that we have the sexual fantasies we do, that we yearn to play the sex games we love, that our body parts are wired for pleasure a little differently than some others’ (you know, “normal” others).

Learning about it hour after hour, decade after decade, as a sex therapist I’m privileged to know exactly how kinky the human family is. Are my patients super-strange? Nah—when I compare what I hear with what my colleagues hear, it’s pretty much the same.

Age-play. Fetishes. Erogenous zones that no one would dream of (except for the millions of people with the same one). And fantasies: ranging from Cleopatra to Henry Kissinger, from a lonely farmhouse to a not-so-lonely space capsule, from the most violent and cruel to the most docile and eerily innocent.

If people weren’t ashamed of their idiosyncratic eroticism, if we all had a more accurate sense of human sexual desire, fantasy, imagination, and curiosity, we’d each realize just how gloriously ordinary our sexuality is. We wouldn’t have to hide in the anonymous bulrushes of the internet, wouldn’t have to suffer silently through others’ irritating sexual techniques, wouldn’t need special sexual etiquette. As in other things, paying attention, being respectful, and keeping a sense of humor would cover most situations.

Until then, people will keep sexual secrets from their mate (and their therapist). They’ll stop having sex with their partner, or they’ll compulsively pursue their partner every day, regardless of practicality (“I and the baby and both sick, Mario, do you really think I want sex?”). They’ll drop out of therapy rather than risk my judgement about how weird they are.

A terrified patient once said, “I bet if I tell you my story, it’ll be the weirdest thing you ever heard in this room.” “Listen,” I replied, “I’ll bet it wouldn’t even be the oddest story I’ve heard since lunch.”

And that’s the day he started changing his life.

Republicans: Porn a “Public Health Crisis”

July 11, 2016

As delegates land in Cleveland International Airport for the Republican convention next week, they can expect to hear the following announcement: “As our plane descends into Cleveland, passengers are reminded to set their watches back 15 years.”

Yes, the proposed Republican Party platform is seriously behind the times. It urges that the legalization of same-gender marriage be reversed; endorses the professionally-discredited “conversion therapy” (attempting to “cure” GLBT children); wants transgendered people barred from bathrooms that don’t match their birth gender; and of course demands that abortion be criminalized—or made so onerous that no actual person could get one.

And it declares that pornography is a Public Health Crisis, especially for children, which “is destroying the life of millions;” and it urges states to fight this “public menace,” pledging their “commitment to children’s safety and well-being.”

Them’s fightin’ words.

It’s words we didn’t hear forty years ago, and it’s not because Playboy was considered good for the soul back then. Preachers and civic leaders everywhere were talking about it: it was immoral, it was “smut,” and users were ostracized (and vendors were sometimes jailed). It was said the Bible condemned porn and the lust it encouraged, and that masturbation was sinful (a deliberate misreading of Genesis 38, in which Onan is struck down for refusing to participate in levirate marriage—not for masturbation).

These days critiques of pornography don’t mention masturbation much, don’t mention sin much, and rarely discuss morality. The anti-pornography narrative has changed.

It’s no longer about immorality; it’s about public welfare and public danger. The porn user is no longer seen as endangering just himself, but his family, his community, and millions of children across the country as well. Porn itself is dangerous, and porn users are supposedly converting this dangerous substance into public danger.

In this critique, porn use has been converted from a private activity to a public activity. As a result, the number of stakeholders who can legitimately oppose it has skyrocketed, and now include those who oppose human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, sex work, rape, the exploitation of women, and anything that “demeans women.”

Other new stakeholders include those promoting covenant marriage, those who treat “porn addiction,” and those who believe masturbating to porn creates sexual dysfunction or a lack of interest in real women.

These various parties now talk about pornography with great authority and passion, as if they suddenly know something about it (their bizarre statistics, extreme examples, and unproven associations show otherwise).

These new stakeholders all talk about internet porn as if it is a completely new creature about which we must develop entirely new concepts of human beings. Internet porn—with us less than twenty years–is seen as somehow responsible for social ills that have been with us for centuries, like rape and disrespect for women.

And yet according to the FBI, the rate of rape has gone down steadily since broadband internet brought porn into everyone’s home. And who wants to argue that respect and opportunities for women were higher in the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1890s, or any other decade in human history? Of course we want things to improve. That doesn’t mean things haven’t improved at all.

Internet porn does have a problematic impact—boys and young men, and therefore girls and young women, are learning about sex from it. But don’t blame porn for that.

American parents have completely abandoned the idea of effective school sex education, and they run screaming from any actual conversation with their kids about porn—its unrealistic bodies, its stylized version of sex without affection, its portrayal of sex games without the label “this is a sex game—don’t take it literally.”

If your neighbor gave his teen a car without teaching him how to drive, you wouldn’t blame the car if the kid had an accident. If we give our kids access to porn either personally (by giving them smartphones) or culturally (via a wide-open internet) and don’t give them instruction in this complex adult product, it’s unfair to blame them for their unsophisticated interpretation of what they see. It’s ludicrous and irresponsible to blame the porn—yet that’s what most grownups opposing porn do.

Sure, Republicans, keep trying to turn the clock back on regulating our private sexuality. Some of you are already trying to criminalize birth control, and your local zoning commissions keep attempting to eliminate adult entertainment—which judges keep reminding you is illegal. Keep shutting down performances of Vagina Monologues, as if that will stop people from acknowledging their vaginas. Keep insisting that discrimination is OK when directed at others’ sexual choices—cab drivers refusing to take people to abortion clinics, bakers refusing to bake wedding cakes for gays.

Americans are frightened by ISIS, paralyzed by climate change, disgusted with their government, crippled by second-rate public education, and increasingly overweight and overworked.

So good work, Republicans, coming together in these complex times to give Americans what they really need: restrictions on other people’s sexual expression.

Indiana Can’t Make Abortion a Thought Crime

July 3, 2016

This spring Indiana criminalized abortion if the reason is the genetic abnormality of the fetus (for example, Down Syndrome). Last week a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional.

Even if you believe legal abortion should be limited to a certain time period—say, likely fetal viability—this overturned law attempted a staggering intrusion into the private decision-making of Americans contemplating a legal behavior. It empowered the state to judge residents’ thinking, values, and lifestyle. It allowed the state to withhold a legal right if it doesn’t like someone’s reason for exercising that right.

Any “conservative” would protest if such a law involved driving a car, getting surgery, or buying a gun: “You can have breast implants to help you keep your husband, but not to help your lingerie modelling career;” “You can get a blood transfusion if you want to get healthy and return to your job as a go-go dancer, but not if you’re just going to be a homemaker,” etc.

This law said the state could decide if your reason for exercising your right to an abortion is good enough—and it named one reason as simply not good enough.

A real “conservative” can only support such government intrusion by being completely dishonest or by admitting that he/she value something more than logic and the rule of law. Note that two-thirds of Indiana’s overwhelmingly Republican state legislature are supported by the National Right to Life Committee, and draw your own conclusions about civic treachery.

A handful of states ban otherwise-legal abortion if it’s based on the gender, race, or ethnicity of the fetus. Such laws show the anti-choice movement’s cynical opportunism. They say they want to ban all abortions at all times. To market this position and make it more palatable, they cut intellectual corners—tolerating abortion in the case of pregnancy following rape (why? Isn’t it still an “innocent unborn child?”), or trying to limit abortion for reasons of which they don’t approve (trying to shape the gender balance of a family, or prevent the lifelong responsibility of a Down Syndrome birth).

But why bother to pass a law about Down Syndrome fetuses? There are less than 10,000 such pregnancies in America each year; in addition to the roughly 800 that die without intervention, less than half are aborted. Indiana, with 2% of the country’s population, would expect less than 200 such abortions per year.

One anti-choice website laments the loss of Down Syndrome children—“Aborting Babies With Down Syndrome Has Wiped Out 30% of the Down Syndrome Community,” it cries.

 Putting aside the fact that these abortions aren’t done on “babies” (a willful medical, legal, and moral distortion that isn’t even worth discussing) it’s fascinating to note the concept that a bigger Down Syndrome Community is better than a smaller one. Um, no: while it’s great that there’s a source of support between families who choose this jaw-dropping, lifelong responsibility, creating more such challenged families is not a positive thing.

One might as well say that since Alcoholics Anonymous helps people and families deal with problem drinkers, creating more and more alcoholics who can be helped this way is a good thing.

The overturned Indiana law also required that all aborted fetuses be buried or cremated, rather than be routinely incinerated along with other medical tissue. This is another attempt to regulate how people deal with the consequences of their private decisions.

If someone electing a legal abortion conceptualizes her choice as “losing a child” whom she wants to commemorate, she can do a wide range of things, including giving the “child” a name or observing the “child’s” death anniversary. On the other hand, if a woman sees her abortion as ending an unwanted pregnancy, the state has no right to force her to deal with the fetus as if it were a person.

As a marriage & family therapist, I have dealt with many cases in which people felt they had to expand their families and their life narratives to include the “lost child” forever—invariably compromising the quality of life of themselves and their other children. If real people in the real world don’t want to elevate a fetus into the status of personhood, the state should not force them to do so with unwanted burials—and the inevitable emotional meanings and attachments that follow. Shame on Indiana for attempting to manipulate its own citizens doing something perfectly legal.

Most states now make the experience of a simple abortion as miserable as possible for residents who have the nerve to pursue a safe, legal medical procedure. States continue to throw tantrums and just invent reasons that people can’t have abortions, or that health care providers can’t provide them.

These phony “conservatives” want to shrink “Big Government” just small enough to fit under people’s bedroom doors. Have they no shame?