The Need For the Sexual “Other”

May 3, 2016

It seems like most human beings need an “Other” through which they demonize aspects of sexuality they fear, obsess about, or feel guilty about.

That Other may be considered slightly less than fully human; more or less out of control; immoral, uncaring about the consequences of his/her/its actions; dangerous, either in its coercive power or (just as often) its seductive power; ultimately, Not Like Us.

For much of history that Other has been homosexuality. But at various times, the Sexual Other has been Too-Sexual Woman; Masturbating Child; Adulterer; Perverted Child Molester; Pornographer; Compulsive Rapist (recently updated to Campus Rapist and Internet Predator); even the Drug Dealer whose goal is/was to get you so high that you couldn’t resist doing sexual things you shouldn’t.

As The Homosexual has gained respectability—as he/she has become more like “us” (even getting married and shopping at Ikea)—the Sex Addict and Porn Addict have become an Other. They can’t be trusted with sex—they use it for the wrong reasons (to escape from their cares, to feel young or attractive or desired), mocking “real” or “adult” sex (attached, monogamous, non-kinky). We’re even told their sex/porn activity makes their brains different! That’s as Other as you can get.

The latest Sexual Other, of course, is TransPerson. He/She/It/Them is so different from “us” that “we” don’t even know what to call him/her/it/them. And apparently we are so disoriented by these alien people that the deepest question we can ask about them, the most important policy issue they inspire is…WHAT BATHROOM WILL THEY USE?

Indeed, America is different from other countries when it comes to public bathrooms. For starters, we don’t have a fraction of the public bathrooms that Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan have. Even if you’re in downtown America, surrounded by bars and restaurants, you have to apologize or even lie in order to walk in off the street and use their bathroom. You know you’ve done it: “My wife is pregnant, we need the bathroom;” “My kid’s diabetic, we need the bathroom;” “The FBI has declared our house a crime scene, we need the bathroom.”

In civilized countries, you don’t need to obfuscate or prevaricate for the privilege to urinate. Public toilets are everywhere, and toilets in places serving the public are open to, um, the public.

There are always demands to limit the rights of Sexual Others—to limit their ability to hurt everyone else (or themselves). Because they’re seen as Different, however, the way this is done typically ranges from tragic to comic.

We withhold accurate information (including words, for heavens sake!) from teens to prevent them from being sexual, which hasn’t worked since the beginning of time (does the lack of information prevent you from doing what you want?). We withhold civil rights from gay people (and used to actively punish them) to discourage homosexuality, which hasn’t worked since the beginning of time. The federal government now demands that unwanted sexual jokes on campus be investigated by the university—a cruise missile aimed at a flea—which undermines male-female empathy rather than promote it.

Yes, on campus, Heterosexual Male is the Other. Especially if he’s stupid or naïve enough to have sex with a woman who’s been drinking. Now that unwanted kissing and non-physical, non-coercive pressure to have sex are enough to get someone thrown out of college and labelled a sexual wrongdoer for life (forget about grad school, forget about scholarships, forget about internships), people will believe anything about Heterosexual Male. Even the President will believe that 1 in 5 college women is sexually assaulted, higher than the rate in the hellish Congo civil wars or the barbaric wars that tore apart Yugoslavia 20 years ago.

As the father of two college-bound daughters, the President should have checked how the researchers came to their conclusion. It’s pretty simple—they didn’t ask women if they’d been sexually assaulted, they asked them to check a list of experiences, and the RESEARCHERS decided which constituted “sexual assault.” Like unwanted kissing. Like insistent pressure to have sex. As unpleasant as these experiences are, would you call them sexual assault?

Any group can find itself marginalized, demonized, and persecuted for its sexual practices or beliefs. You can have your legal medication withheld from you; your hospital visiting privileges limited; your physician forced to recite (under pain of prosecution) “facts” s/he knows to be false; you can be forced to endure such recitations, or even forced to endure an unnecessary vaginal ultrasound probe as the price of getting a legal abortion. You can have your private place of sexual recreation closed down as (an unproven) public health hazard. You can have your group’s medical problems deemed insufficiently “normal” to warrant a place in physician training (“if you’d use your butt only for what it was intended, you wouldn’t be in the Emergency Room right now”).

You could even find people who want to be the U.S. President, the leader of the Free World, demanding laws determining which bathroom you can use. Because one in five women who use a public bathroom are sexually assaulted, you know. I read it on the Internet.

Michelle, Her Breasts, & the Male Gaze

April 29, 2016

I have a close friend in Santa Cruz, a therapist named Michelle, with whom I have lunch once a month. It’s usually pretty glorious, with several conversations going on at once—professional, personal, political, and mmm-this-bagel-is-perfect-isn’t-it.

Yesterday we talked about women’s breasts.

We were talking about breasts as symbols of sexuality—whether their owner wants that or not. We reminisced back to junior high school—when Michelle (in California) already had adult-sized breasts, and I (in New York) just gawked at such things wherever they were, whenever I could.

Like a large number of early-teen boys, I was so overwhelmed by how amazing breasts were that I could hardly relate to the humans they were attached to. It was much easier back then to talk to girls who weren’t fully developed. Their humanity wasn’t obscured by the very breasts to which I was so attracted.

Michelle, of course, had the reverse experience growing up—way, way more attention than she wanted, and too much of it on those big things on her chest rather than on her as a person. Of course she continually had to deal with the assumption that she wanted sexual attention. I remember thinking (if you can call it that) the very same thing—that girls with big breasts were obviously very sexual. If that wasn’t true, and they didn’t want that kind of attention, why did they grow those big breasts? Like I said, I was 12.

Michelle also recalled how some individual boys were perfectly nice to her—until they were in a group of 4 or 5 guys. “You could count on teasing when guys were in groups,” she recalls. “They all must have felt pressure to prove themselves in front of each other. And of course being in a group allowed some of them to say things they couldn’t say as individuals while relating to me one-to-one.”

As she spoke, I remembered all this like it was yesterday. Does any heterosexual man ever forget his initial encounters with those glorious, magical, desirable, unattainable, mysterious treasures? If only access to them wasn’t controlled by alien creatures—girls!

Ah, if only we could all just talk about it. If only boys could be allowed to look, really look at some breasts for a few moments, without guilt or shame; eyes ablaze, jaws slack, no shame or deceit.

If only girls could talk about how complicated it is to have those things—the combination of pride, responsibility, frustration, and even alienation. The new burden of having to administer something with enormous social value—when just a child, with limited administrative skills. If only boys and girls could sit down and connect with the humans behind the banter, the intrusive looks, the defensiveness, the sensitivity.

Call me dense, but at 12 and 13 it never occurred to me to ask a girl my age what it was like to be the focus of desire. It never occurred to me to talk about the insane desire I felt, how respect and empathy were so far away when driven mad by a lust I didn’t understand—and hadn’t asked for either, by the way.

Eventually Michelle turned our conversation to “the male gaze.” I’d been hearing the term a lot while researching my forthcoming book on pornography, and Michelle had been receiving it almost her whole life. She reminded me that even in a perfectly safe situation, the full attention of a male almost twice her size could be intimidating. She suggested that most men don’t know the impact their own gaze has on most women.

She’s right about this. Most men eventually learn exactly how to look at women in public—how long you can look, how explicitly you can look, when you have to look away, etc.. At the airport or supermarket, competent adult men don’t compliment strange women on their nice butt—it’s much better to admire a woman’s shoes. Mentioning your wife while doing so gets you bonus points.

On the other hand, heterosexual men are always looking at women in public, and of course women know this. Michelle says women have to learn to forget this, at least temporarily; the inability to forget that you’re being looked at by strange men can make going out a nightmare. It’s not so much that the male gaze promises violence or even mild intrusion. It’s that it requires women in public to be engaged with the men around them whether they want to be or not. The male gaze can be a bully, even when not intended that way.

Of course, some men and women are so self-conscious that being out in public is unnerving; sitting in a waiting room or standing in a long bathroom line can be challenging. It would be nice if such people could soothe their anxiety about being “seen” by others. Regardless of the male (or generalized strangers’) gaze, some people really are way too sensitive about others’ (alleged) perceptions, and they paralyze themselves.

Women’s bodies are the screen onto which men project our hunger, loneliness, uncertainty, innocence, humiliation, and narcissism. Most women don’t ask for this, although they eventually resign themselves to it. In a really adult relationship you can even discuss this.

We men may know that our male gaze can be scary or discomfiting to others. We can think about our participation in this unfortunate dynamic, even consider the unintentionally hurtful results of our way of looking.  Or we can say “not my problem” and stick women with it. And then complain about the results.

Well excuse me, I have some apologies to write. If only there were some way to contact people you haven’t seen in a half-century. Meanwhile, I have to think about my next layover at the airport.





More Sexual Curiosity, Please

April 24, 2016

As a sex therapist for over 30 years, one of the most common goals people have come in with is “I want to be a better lover.”

Of course, different people mean different things by that. These range from “I want my partner to enjoy sex more;” to “I want to compete more effectively with other would-be lovers (real or imagined);” to “I want to enjoy sex more.” Some of these people are highly experienced, while others are beginners.

Most people who “want to be better lovers” are after some new technique, the latest sex toy, or a position they haven’t thought of yet. But I don’t think that’s where people should look.

What’s underrated as a tool is curiosity.

Not about how to twist two human bodies into a new kind of pretzel, or how to persuade someone to do something they’ve said they don’t want to do. And I certainly don’t mean some long-hidden secret about the sexuality of “all women” or “all men.”

No, I mean curiosity about your sexual partner’s subjective experience of their sexuality—of their experiences with you, of their body, of their fantasies, of their desires.

Empathy, of course, is important in every relationship: how do we imagine this other person is feeling? But to be truly empathic in a relationship (as opposed to with strangers in the airport), we need information about the other. Who is this other person? What are their beliefs and attitudes about sex?

And when it comes to sex,

* What does s/he want?
* How does s/he feel?
* What does s/he mean by various looks, silences, and sounds?
* How are you supposed to know the above?

Remember the concept of polysemicity (multiple meanings): Any given behavior may mean very different things to you and to your partner. For example, you may feel that a woman who initiates sex is powerful and confident. Your female partner might feel that such a woman is far too brazen, or is pressuring you in ways you will resent. Similarly, your partner might feel that using rough language during sex is a turn-on, while for you it feels theatrical or “not us.”

So when people ask me about becoming “better lovers,” I encourage curiosity, and the communication to satisfy it. Did your partner like the last sexual session you two had? Would your partner like you go to faster or slower (or is your pace just right)? Would he or she like more of anything you two already do? Whether it can be changed or not, is anything physically uncomfortable?

Other questions you might ask include, Thinking back to a time when you really enjoyed our sex, what made it so great for you? Did a scene in a recent movie or TV make you especially hot, and if so, is there something from that scene you’d like to try? Is there anything you do when you masturbate that you’d like us to try?

Curiosity: an undervalued quality in a sexual partner.

I don’t hear many gay or lesbian couples quarrel about pornography. But if you’re a guy in a sexual relationship with a woman, and she complains about your porn watching, you need to be curious. If she seems unreasonable (to you, not to herself), you need to be even more curious.

To get beyond the “porn is crap,” “no it’s not;” “porn demeans women,” “no it doesn’t” non-conversation, you need to get your partner talking about herself. How does she feel (as opposed to what she thinks) when she reflects on you watching porn?

How does she believe it affects your sexual relationship? How does she feel about your sexual relationship in general?

When a couple is in conflict, most people’s instinct is to try and get the person to understand them better. If both people are trying that simultaneously, the exchange isn’t likely to be productive. If instead one or both people are committed to understanding the other person better, there’s a chance they can resolve the conflict.

And if your partner reveals that when you watch porn, she feels unimportant to you, or unattractive, or pushed away, don’t disagree or even reassure her. Start by understanding how she feels, and why, and let her know that you understand. This is no small thing. When your partner feels understood you can then have a rational conversation about the options you have as a couple. These include making sex more enjoyable, and being more intimate or connected outside of sex.

It may be less glamorous, but curiosity will get you further than a new position or toy. Ultimately, the process of creating enjoyable sex generally isn’t glamorous—it’s more like creating a connection between two people who feel understood and cared about, and who pursue their mutual goals together as partners.

It doesn’t start with your partner understanding you—it start with you being curious about your partner.


“Politics? I’m Interested In Sex, Not Politics.”

March 31, 2016

Interested in sex? Then you’re interested in politics, whether you like it or not.

There are literally thousands of laws that regulate our sexual expression–who we can have sex with, what we can do, the products and pharmaceuticals we can use, the ways in which we can control our reproduction, and the ways we can share what we do with others. Who makes these laws? Politicians—from mighty senators to self-righteous state legislators to friendly city council members.

A few of these people can be bought. Others want to do good, or to leave a legacy. Almost all of them want to get reelected or reappointed. All can be influenced—many by you.

Think you’re not interested politics? Think again. If you’re involved in sex, here are a few ways you’re involved in politics, whether you know it or not:

* Mental health

Your psychologist, marriage counselor, and psychiatrist receive almost no training in human sexuality. Many programs still use the language of perversion, frigidity, and shame. Many therapists have never seen a vibrator, felt some lube, or used the word “pussy” in a sentence.

Training and licensing programs are overseen by states—meaning state legislatures. In most states it’s still legal for therapists to “treat” gay teens with the goal of making them straight.

* Sex education

What kind of sex education does your kid get? At least half of all kids in America are still exposed to the toxic propaganda called Abstinence-only sex ed, funded by school boards across the country. It’s easy enough to find out if your taxes are being used to indoctrinate your kid into the idea that good people don’t have sex before marriage, and therefore don’t need information or decision-making skills to deal with sex until then.

Congress has consistently refused to pass a law requiring that all sex education be medically accurate. A pretty low bar, but apparently still too high for Congress.

* Reproductive rights

In 1973, Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion in America. Since then, thousands of laws passed by every single state have made getting an abortion as difficult and emotionally painful as possible. And although abortion is statistically safer than childbirth, Utah has now made abortion more dangerous by requiring that patients 20 or more weeks pregnant get anesthesia, whether they want it or not. Texas has forced the closure of more than half of its remaining abortion clinics by requiring expensive and unnecessary retrofitting of buildings. Five states have only a single part-time abortion facility.

In addition, states have tried to prevent consumer access to RU-486 (pregnancy termination drug), female sterilization, and the morning-after pill. And religious organizations have sued the federal government to get a special exemption from the Affordable Healthcare Act regarding contraception.

* Sexting

In the U.S. it is illegal to create, possess, or distribute a sexual image of a minor. And “sexual image” is now defined to include clothed images that a jury decides has a sexual intent.

When minors themselves take naked selfies, they are creating child pornography. When they send or receive on, they are sending or receiving child pornography. In most states this is a felony for which someone can be jailed until the end of time.

In 40 states, the age of consent is 16 or 17, but the age that determines “child pornography” is 18. Thus, it can be legal for two 17-year-olds to have sexual intercourse, but be jailed for creating a photo of that sex—even if they only share the photo with each other.

* Sex Offender Registration

In no way do I trivialize the damage caused by adults who sexually exploit children or other adults. Such people need treatment (which they rarely get after conviction), which may involve medication or long-term supervision.

Sex offender registries were set up nation-wide to help parents protect their kids from known predators. In reality, they protect almost no one, while destroying the lives of virtually everyone they register. And unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to be placed on such a registry.

Crimes for which such registration can be a punishment include public urination, unwanted adult-adult kissing, sex between underage teens, receiving unsolicited and unwanted images of child sexuality, a drunk male having consensual (or non-coercive, if you prefer) sex with a drunk female, photo-shopping a picture of a nude adult onto the head of a minor, and non-contact exhibitionism. If you think this couldn’t happen to you in a thousand years, you’re wrong. You don’t have to be a sex offender to become a Registered Sex Offender.

* Sex Work

Except for a few counties in Nevada, exchanging money (or other valuables) for sexual services (with or without orgasm) is illegal in the U.S.. Lap dances, hand jobs, massages with happy endings, sacred temple prostitution, being whipped while covered in cream cheese—if you find it sexy, and money has changed hands, you’ve broken the law.

Sex is the only kind of labor adults are not free to sell or barter. Of course, those who sell sexual labor are subject to a fierce public relations campaign to persuade the public that all sex workers are exploited and/or damaged. Conservative feminists can be cruelest of all, accusing adult women who claim full agency when selling their own sexual labor of being delusional and in need of rescue. Crusaders like Melissa Farley and Gail Dines classify anyone who sells sexual labor as a victim of human trafficking.

Somehow, our intercourse-obsessed culture has managed to criminalized outercourse activities such as BDSM and kinky sex. Local and state governments seem to feel that any physical activity that provides pleasure is suspect.

And so if you’re interested in sex of ANY kind, you’re involved in politics.


Open? Poly? How to NOT Cheat

March 28, 2016

A number of people have come into my office this past month inquiring about various forms of non-monogamy. Of course there’s the traditional one-sided clandestine affair, in which one person thinks the couple is monogamous while the other person knows that isn’t true (because he or she isn’t).

For people who want a consensual arrangement, two of the more common ones are:

* Open relationship: Each person has one or more sexual partners outside the couple, which they freely acknowledge to each other;
* Polyamory: The couple finds other people (usually one or more couples) with whom to have a non-casual sexual relationship. Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships says it’s about “maintaining multiple significant, intimate relationships simultaneously.”

Given all the media attention to various forms of consensual non-monogamy, some of my patients are now considering some kind of arrangement. Unfortunately, many popular misconceptions lead to insufficiently thoughtful decisions. So here are a handful of quick tips about “open” or “poly” relationships. To make things easy, I’ll use the expression open/poly to refer to features the two have in common.

The facts, please:

  1. Poly and Open are different.

Poly couples are typically involved with other people together. Open couples often have relationships or adventures separate from each other. While Open couples may be interested in only sex with others, Poly couples are oriented toward longer-term emotional involvement with others. Clearly the two arrangements require different (if overlapping) sets of emotional skills

  1. Both Poly and Open are about communication as much as they are about sex.

Couples who don’t talk to each other about complicated things save a lot of time—and, some would argue, heartache. Open/Poly couples, however, are committed to processing their feelings about their own and each other’s behavior and experiences. That can be especially complicated if two partners are having very different experiences.

If you don’t like relationship conversations, Open/Poly is NOT for you.

  1. Open/Poly is not for everyone.

Indeed, there’s a long list of reasons people DON’T enjoy Open/Poly: jealousy, anger about other things, concerns about abandonment, difficulty trusting each other, feeling much less attractive than one’s partner, feeling much less comfortable with others than one’s partner, and a rigid sense of how things “should” be.

  1. Open/Poly doesn’t solve all of life’s problems.

Such an arrangement may improve life in a lot of ways, but it won’t lower your cholesterol, reduce chronic pain, make your kids study more, or make your boss less manipulative. It may make some of life’s irritations more tolerable, and your enhanced self-esteem may help you navigate some tricky people problems. But not all. And it certainly can’t fix that ailing shoulder you hurt mountain biking.

  1. One person can’t unilaterally declare that a relationship is Open/Poly.

Depending on your attitude, doing so is either called cheating or jumping the gun. Handing your partner a done deal—“We’re now in an Open/Poly arrangement, I predict you’re gonna love it”—is rude, thoughtless, and simply impractical. How is one person supposed to trust another to do a delicate, collaborative project like Open/Poly when they can’t even begin it as a conscious partnership?

  1. When you’re Open/Poly, your partner’s satisfaction IS your concern.

Ethical, consensual non-monogamy doesn’t mean you stop caring about your partner, nor does it mean your partner’s well-being no longer affects you. To make Open/Poly work, you have to listen to their concerns, help them think through periodic dilemmas or feelings, and genuinely care about how the arrangement is working for him/her. If you don’t, it won’t.

  1. Don’t be surprised if you develop more feelings in Open/Poly than you expected.

There seems to be something about taking off your clothes with someone, and putting a part of their body inside yours (or yours in theirs) that often leads to emotions—whether of vulnerability, bonding, belonging, affection, yearning, or something else.

  1. Don’t rely on gender stereotypes with Open/Poly.

That old idea that men want sex and women want relationships? Hello, it’s 1959 calling—they want their stereotypes back. Both men and women can be dissatisfied with monogamy. Both men and women in Open/Poly can experiment with sexual adventures as well as emotional ones. Both men and women can talk about complex relationship issues. And yes, both men and women can become disenchanted with Open/Poly. Don’t think of the people you meet as “women” or “men”—think of them as unique individuals.

  1. Open/Poly isn’t easier or better than monogamy.

It’s just different. There are NO simple sexual arrangements!

Does Porn Demean Women?

March 24, 2016

I don’t think this is a very helpful question.

Porn is a compendium of human fantasies about sexuality—and, therefore, about power, pleasure, connection, anger, fear, gender, desire, beauty, comfort, and the exotic, and many other things.

Of course, human sexuality involves enormous doses of imagination. That’s part of what gives it so much impact in our lives.

So when some people criticize that “porn demeans women” I wonder if they’re objecting to men’s and women’s sexual imaginations, or men’s and women’s sexual behavior, or to some hypothesized interaction between the two.

A small amount of porn depicts male characters committing violent acts against female characters who seem to be suffering. Watching this appears to be erotic for some men (and more than a few women). Some people don’t like this fact—a fact that shouldn’t be blamed on porn. Do these depictions “demean women?” No. They are fictional portrayals that many people find distasteful, which is a quite different thing. They show situations, emotions, behaviors—and yes, sometimes cruelty—drawn from the human sexual imagination.

This material represents a very small amount of pornography, precisely because most consumers do not find such things erotically engaging—which is the whole point of watching porn.

On the other hand, some amount of porn depicts characters engaged in erotic power play: teasing, spanking, constraining, controlling, pretend coercion. Men and women have found stories, music, or pictures of such things exciting throughout history. And many lovers do these or related activities in real life. In the world of human sexuality, power is a primary currency, so our sexual imagination is rich with it.

This power dynamic in consenting relationships is paradoxical: two people cooperatively agree to divide up power in an asymmetrical way for a specified time period (the asymmetrical arrangement typically ends when the sex is finished, sometimes even sooner). For erotic purposes, they then pretend this division of power is real and not under their control. So regardless of handcuffs or stern words or candle wax, this dynamic really exists only in the imagination. Depicting this visually is an artistic challenge, whether for pornography or Sharon Stone, for Andy Warhol or Fellini.

So does porn demean women?

(There’s overt violence in mainstream TV, films, and video games. The vast majority of it is directed toward men. While there are voices decrying violence in media, I don’t hear anyone claiming that that violence “demeans men.”)

Overt violence in porn (NOT the pretend coercion of sexual games common in both porn and real-life sex) is of interest to a very small number of consumers. Aside from that, what else does porn typically depict that activists such as Gail Dines, Pamela Paul, and Melissa Farley critique as demeaning to women?

Fictional depictions of female lust. Female sexual desire. Female exhibitionism. Female submission. Female domination. Women flaunting their bodies. Woman-woman sex. Women taking joy in their sexual pleasure. Women taking joy in their partner’s pleasure. Women enjoying sex without being in love. Women valued as sexual partners without reference to their intelligence or sensitivity—and women valuing men in exactly the same way.

Why would anyone object to any of these fictional depictions? If those things are demeaning to women, how wholesome, how puerile, how stripped of eroticism does a woman’s sexuality need to be before activists like John Stoltenberg, Rebecca Whisnant, Catherine MacKinnon say it is not “demeaning” to her?

* * *

To say that porn demeans women is to deny the reality of some women’s passion, lust, and desire. It’s to say that women never enjoy what men enjoy. It’s to say that women don’t enjoy playing games with their sexuality, including power games. It’s to say that women shouldn’t be who they are or enjoy who they are, but that they can only enjoy “authentic” sexuality within limited (and historically stereotypical) bounds.

This is NOT feminism.

Saying that men are exploiting women when men are enjoying female eroticism is what demeans women. It objectifies women and cheapens the erotic world they create. To say that women are being exploited when a male gaze is enjoying their pleasure or enjoying images of female eroticism is to rip the partners’ collaboration out of sex. It actually says that female sexuality is defined by the male gaze, that the male gaze trivializes female eroticism. No, female eroticism has its own authenticity and integrity whether men are observing or not—meaning yes, it has authenticity even when men are observing.

Exactly what version of (1) female sexuality and of (2) male-female erotic interaction is being promoted by pathologizing female passion, and the male enjoyment of it?

Does this mean a woman can’t dress sexy for her lover? Can’t dance for her lover? That a woman can’t give her body to her lover? Does it mean that women have to control their eroticism lest it excite men too much? Does it mean men and women can’t play power games in bed? That they can’t use sex to pretend they are different creatures than they actually are?

If—if—in the act of watching a porn film a man reduces the actress to a body, to an object, why is this bad? If it is, why then is it OK to watch Meryl Streep work—with her fake accents, wig, and scripted lines, who is merely a vessel for the ideas of the playwright and director? And why then is it OK to watch professional athletes, dancers, and singers, who indeed sacrifice their health and comfort to train and then perform for us? If the answer is, “because our objectification of athletes and other performers takes place within a specific space,” the same is true for pornography.

Do we care about the person inside of LeBron James, Serena Williams, Miley Cyrus? Do we really care when Kobe Bryant says his abused knees won’t let him get on the floor to play with his kids, or that Britney Spears or Bristol Palin make a series of bad life choices—as long as they entertain us? For that matter, do I care about my letter carrier as a person, or do I only care that she does her job, no matter how much her feet hurt, or her back’s being injured?

The issue of relating to people merely as impersonal entities performing a task is a fundamental critique of capitalism, and it’s worth a discussion. But porn didn’t invent this problem. And if this dynamic seems “worse” because sex is involved, that reflects our attitude about sexuality rather than a sophisticated analysis. It does NOT represent some special kind of compassion for people who perform in adult films—who, by the way, aren’t asking for anyone’s special compassion. They want what the cashiers at Wal-Mart want—a raise, better health insurance, and the flexibility to leave work early when their kid gets sick.

If men get inaccurate ideas about women from porn, does it mean that porn demeans women? Virtually all media products depend on exaggerated or selective portrayals of human beings—from Euripedes’ Medea 2500 years ago to the Bronte Sisters, the Merchant of Venice, Sherlock Holmes, the Supremes, and John Wayne, for starters. The National Football League provides inaccurate ideas about men every Sunday.

Should we stop watching movies, professional sports, video games, Broadway productions? Stop listening to music, stop looking at paintings? No. To best enrich our lives by consuming the creations of imaginary worlds by artists or performers we value, we simply need a bit of media literacy—not to stop watching or listening.

Although a small amount of pornography depicts gruesome behavior, not only does porn not demean women, it celebrates female sexuality—typically without the culturally redemptive context of love, relationship, intimacy, etc.. This is what people from across the political spectrum find so upsetting. Demeaning to women—that women are imagined as truly sexual beings? Really?

Oral Sex: You Said A Mouthful

March 3, 2016

Before the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, there was a joke popular in New York nightclubs. What do eggs benedict and a blowjob have in common? They’re two enjoyable things you don’t get at home.

Yes, kids, there was a time when oral sex was exotic, primarily the province of prostitutes and gay people. Well, times have changed.

In the 1994 “Sex in America” national study, Ed Laumann and colleagues 3,432 American adults. They found that about a quarter of their sample had had oral sex in the past year. Today, depending on the study, it appears that over half of adults who have partner sex are having oral sex at least occasionally.

My patients have a wide range of feelings about oral sex. The most common include:

* I love it, what’s the problem?
* I like it, and feel self-conscious enjoying it
* I don’t mind doing it, I wonder if I’m good at it
* I don’t mind doing it, but why do some people love doing it?
* It’s creepy. Mouths don’t belong down there
* I don’t see what anyone enjoys about that

Making things more difficult, the common English expressions “to give” and “to receive” oral sex are way too limited. It’s true, in some couples one is giving (and not enjoying) and other is receiving (and enjoying, or wanting to enjoy). But in many couples, both partners are enjoying it equally, regardless of whose mouth and whose genitalia are involved (and of course in situations often called 69, all are involved at the same time).

So why the complicated feelings about oral sex?

* Religious taboos against non-reproductive sex;
* Personal “ick” factor;
* Confusion about why someone else would want their mouth “there”;
* Cultural norms about “who does that” (i.e., not “nice people like me”);
* Situations in which A wants B to go down on A, but A won’t go down on B;
* Situations in which A says to B, “I’m willing to go down on you, so you have to go down on me.”

Frankly, some of these feelings are about oral sex, while others are about something else (like power or trust or body image).

As a therapist, it’s not my place to encourage people to do oral sex. (In fact, while most patients like to get advice, most patients don’t want to be told what to do.) However, as with decisions about almost anything, it is my place to encourage people to talk about how they decide what to do, what their beliefs are about who does what, and whether they want to examine beliefs they acquired long ago.

For example, some women whose partners suggest cunnilingus (he goes down on her) refuse simply because they don’t feel clean “down there”—even after a shower. “I just can’t help how I feel,” they report. Or “I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. He says he enjoys it, but I just can’t believe it.”

The world won’t come to an end if her vulva doesn’t get licked (especially if she enjoys other kinds of sex), but why would a person hold on to a funny belief like that? I generally think there’s something else going on (like feeling her femininity is somehow dirty or deficient, or not wanting to feel too vulnerable), so it’s my job to help her chase that down—if she wants to. Sometimes she’s willing, sometimes not.

Then there are guys who expect blowjobs like it’s their right–big mistake. Or expect some majestic, theatrical, biologically unlikely Deep Throat–big mistake. Or who assume that every woman wants a guy coming in her mouth, or on her face–big mistake. Or who feel insulted if a woman spits the stuff out instead of swallowing it–big mistake. What’s with these guys?

“Too much porn” is not an answer. A lack of manners, or empathy, or communication, or appreciation is more like it. Guys, if you’re not taking your behavioral lessons from NASCAR, Star Wars, or Wrestlemania, don’t take it from porn, either.

Most people don’t know that legally, “sodomy” includes oral sex, and of course various states had criminalized sodomy for centuries. Those laws were endorsed by the 1986 Supreme Court decision Bowers v. Hardwick, eventually overturned in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas. In both cases, laws criminalizing male-male anal sex was at issue. Heterosexual oral sex just came along for the ride, so to speak.

So is oral sex “sex”? If you haven’t had intercourse but have had oral sex, are you a “virgin?” Is a blowjob “infidelity”? Which is more “intimate,” intercourse or oral sex?

I am asked each of these questions many times every year, whether by patients, lecture audiences, or email inquiry. The answer to all of them is the same—it all depends on what you mean. All of these terms are socially defined; every culture in every era has its own answers, and every person adapts these answers to fit their own circumstances (whether of passion, guilt, or need to follow authority).

At the end of the day, oral sex is just one more way that people align their bodies with each other, or their hearts with each, often leading to wonderful pleasure for both people. For others it’s a way to prevent pregnancy, or to deal with pressure, or to feel grownup, or to make a buck, or to dance with taboos. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not; the reasons for your decision matter way more than your decision.

Sex is Constructed—By You

February 29, 2016

What is sex? There are as many answers as there are people.

Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton’s famous testimony about “sexual relations” made “what is sex” a daily topic of conversation (look it up, kids, under Monica Lewinsky and some-blow-jobs-require-you-to-shut-your-mouth).

Couples who see me for therapy have been arguing the question longer than that, and of course the internet has made the question even more complicated. Virtual Reality will be the next frontier for the question. If a pair of goggles and some software can give you a deeply personal experience of having sex with Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain, what is sex?

Philosophically, there actually is no “sex.” There’s “my experience of sex,” “your experience of sex,” and maybe, depending on your point of view, “our experience of sex” (a bit of pot definitely supports that last point of view). As our lives unfold, of course, the meaning and experience of sex changes, so what’s even more accurate is “my experience of sex today” and “your experience of sex today.”

Actually, this is all quite practical, as I discussed with 200 therapists in Austin, Texas last week. Sponsored by Southwest Sexual Health Alliance (SSHA), I spoke for the afternoon on Sexual Intelligence. I discussed how everyone, consciously or unconsciously, answers the following questions:

* What is sex?
* What is sexy?
* Where do I fit in?
* What is my history?

Everyone gets to answer these questions for themselves. Culture, of course, shapes our answers: religion, the media, science, politics, standards of beauty, etc.. So does our family, our friends, and that boy in third grade.

If a woman with small breasts decides small breasts are unattractive, that will shape her sexual experiences forever. If a man decides that losing his erection the first time he has intercourse means he’s a terrible lover, that will shape his sexual experiences forever. If a couple decide that masturbating together is “real sex,” that will give them options other couples don’t have, especially as they age.

The much-beloved sex researcher John Gagnon died last week.

The New York Times says he “shifted the ground in sex research by proposing that sexual behavior could better be understood by looking at social forces rather than biology or psychology.” If you don’t yet have gray hair, it may be hard to appreciate what a revolutionary approach that was back in the 1960s and 1970s. Except for anthropology, most social science back then was rather mechanistic, putting people in categories more than understanding their subjective experience.

John was a prime influence in me becoming a sociologist. When my Midwest graduate school discouraged me from specializing in his approach, I left and went to study in California. John soon became a prime influence in me specializing in sexuality. He later became a treasured friend.

John, along with his colleague Bill Simon, explored how society shapes the very categories with which we think about sexuality. As a therapist today, I show people the dynamics of how they define themselves sexually. If the results of that self-definition are hurtful (“I orgasm the wrong way,” “My fantasies are weird,” “Men always disappoint me,” “No one with my background can ever enjoy sex again,” “I’m no good at sex,” “Of course sex hurts sometimes”), I invite people to change their definitions of themselves and of sex. When they do, the results are glorious.

Some people like spanking, others don’t. Some people like their nipples licked, others don’t. Are these things sex? If you want them to be, sure. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if you like them, you give yourself permission to do and to enjoy them. And that if you don’t, you don’t.

“Sex,” the Italian saying goes, “is the poor man’s opera.” Everyone can write their own unique aria, and everyone’s voice is perfectly adequate. We just have to go and sing without worrying about anything else.

For a body-centered look at this topic, see this.

Rule 34: What It Says About Your Sexuality

February 23, 2016

Rule 34: If it exists, or you can imagine it, there is porn of it. No exceptions.

Rule 34 summarizes everything about sexuality.

It says that human sexual fantasy is limitless. It says that anything can be eroticized, can be arousing, can be life-affirming. It reminds us that any ideas we have about what’s normal sex are about us, not about sex. I’m always telling patients “don’t blame sex for your ideas about sex.”

Rule 34 reminds us exactly what pornography is: a library of human eroticism. Pornography is a celebration of how humans can stretch their erotic imagination—sometimes in ways that disturb you or me. Nevertheless, pornography celebrates the erotic imagination BEYOND specific content. Like the ability to imagine the future, and the knowledge that we’re going to die, the enormous range of pornography is uniquely human.

Rule 34 also reminds us that people don’t necessarily want to do what they fantasize about. Sex with Kramer, George, & Jerry at the same time? Sex with a dolphin? Sex with someone about to be guillotined for stealing a loaf of bread? Sex with your grandmother at high noon on Times Square? A threesome with Batman & Robin?

Rule 34 also reminds us of the coin’s other side—that none of us can imagine the entire range of human eroticism. That should keep us humble. It’s somewhat like a gourmet travelling to a far-off, isolated country and discovering they eat something there he never considered food—say, fried worms. The issue isn’t so much does the gourmet want to eat fried worms; rather, it’s the idea that there’s “food” that he never considered food. And if that’s true about fried worms, about how many other “foods” might that also be true?

Rule 34 shows us all knit together in an erotic brotherhood (or sisterhood, if you will). If the human project of eroticism is bigger than both you and me, your turn-on and my turn-on that appear so different from each other are really small parts of a much bigger whole. And there are others who are into your turn-on (which I find so exotic), and there are others—perhaps many others—who think my turn-on is so very exotic.

Imagine travelling to another country whose customs may be unfamiliar. We go to Italy and see adults and children topless together on the same beach. We go to India and see cows on the street. We go to Vietnam and see old women doing manual labor on construction sites. We go to Denmark and see men and women nude in a sauna together. We go to Russia and learn we have to bribe taxi drivers with Marlboros if we want them to pick us up.

International travel teaches us about our own customs: when I return from a trip I’ve always learned something about the way WE do things, because I’ve been to a place where they don’t do that. I learn that my way isn’t the right way, it’s just my way. No matter how much I prefer it, no matter how much it’s right for me, it’s just my way, not the right way.

Rule 34 helps us understand that about sexuality. Your porn isn’t right, it’s just your porn. That goes for No Porn, and Gentle Porn, too: it isn’t right, it’s just your way. And that goes for our sexuality in general—our way isn’t the right way, it’s just our way. A good sexual relationship involves people whose respective ways mesh: one person expands their vocabulary, or both do, or one narrows theirs, or both do. As long as people can fit together with dignity and celebration (um, there’s MY values again), it doesn’t matter what they do.

Rule 34: everyone else is different from you. But governments, religions, and activists try to whitewash almost every kind of sexuality except the version they approve of. As biologist Mickey Diamond says, nature loves variety; unfortunately, society hates it.

Superbowl = Ground Zero for Sex Trafficking? Super Nonsense

February 1, 2016

Superbowl 50 is taking place next Sunday just a few miles from here. Some of my neighbors are renting out their suburban houses—five grand for the long weekend. Lots of locals here are getting out of town—winetasting in Napa, skiing in Lake Tahoe, or making the long drive to Disneyland.

Along with all the other hazards of 200,000 visitors descending on one place at the same time, one is talked about with increasing frequency—sex trafficking. For years, the urban myth of increased sex trafficking has followed the Superbowl (and Olympics, and World Cup) around like an unwanted cousin at a tailgate barbecue.

Sex trafficking—the real thing, not the political consumer product or object of do-good sloganeering—involves kidnapping or manipulating someone out of their community, forcing them to engage in sex acts somewhere else, and not allowing them to leave at will.

It’s horrendous.

It’s not simply prostitution, not even underage prostitution (which is, of course, illegal and awful). It’s not making porn films, even under onerous conditions. It’s not stripping or being an escort.

And it’s not a special problem at this upcoming Superbowl any more than it was at previous Superbowls.

An increasing number of groups are intent on persuading Americans that we have a terrible and growing problem with sex trafficking. Their data is virtually non-existent, elided with words like “experts agree” and “shameful epidemic.” The new phrase is “youth at risk of being trafficked”—which is, tellingly, ALL youth with any sort of problem.

The media reports anti-trafficking conferences and gigantic, grisly estimates; politicians grimly respond with vows of stricter laws, and the wildly unusual victim is trotted out as proof of some enormous underground industry.

A favorite ploy of anti-trafficking groups is to claim that major sporting events are a central focus of this evil. In 2011, Texas attorney general Greg Abbot said “The Super Bowl is one of the biggest human-trafficking events in the United States”—without any data. He strengthened a unit to pursue those involved with child prostitution (not the same thing as trafficking, of course). The result—at the Dallas Superbowl there were 113 arrests for adult prostitution, and none for trafficking.

The same is true for the three Superbowls before that: grim predictions of upcoming trafficking disasters, and none materializing. Says Robert Casey Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas office, “The Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes.” The 2012 Superbowl in Indianapolis: 68 sex workers arrested; 2 qualified as human trafficking. Last year’s Superbowl in Phoenix: 71 adult and nine underage sex workers arrested; none had been trafficked.

Simple economics would explain why event-specific trafficking rarely happens: it makes no sense for traffickers to spend huge amounts of money dragging victims across the country, housing them, advertising for business, and charging reduced rates to undercut local prostitutes, all for a single weekend of illicit income—in a place crawling with law enforcement.

Nevertheless, promoters of a Sex Trafficking Panic are at it again. Last month local county Supervisor Cindy Chavez held a press conference announcing a trafficking awareness campaign with the claim that “the scourge of human trafficking is still prevalent throughout our county,” citing no data whatsoever. Like almost all activists, she made no distinction whatsoever between labor trafficking and sex trafficking; labor trafficking is at least three times more common, although it’s a far less glamorous issue.

Every year, the NFL has to deny that they’re the center of an odious international sex slavery ring. Several years ago NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the Superbowl sex slave story was simply an urban legend.

But that doesn’t stop those who are feeding—and feeding off of—America’s latest Sex Panic. One week before hosting the 2014 Superbowl, for example, Indiana’s legislature unanimously passed a law that makes recruiting, transporting or harboring anyone younger than 16 for prostitution a felony punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison. The law was passed without a single documented case of sex trafficking in the state. You now get less jail time in Indiana for murdering a teen than for pimping her.

Nationally, dozens of millions of dollars are allocated for fighting human trafficking. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area some 39 organizations are dedicated to identifying and aiding survivors of trafficking. Most groups “fighting” trafficking primarily raise awareness, with little or no data on what this increased awareness actually accomplishes. “Raising awareness” would be harmless if it didn’t cost money, encourage fear and anger, or spread misinformation.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly why “raising awareness” about sex trafficking in America ISN’T harmless—it’s diverting money, time, and attention to a barely-existing problem, encouraging politicians and the public to ignore more important issues—like unintended pregnancy, domestic violence, and a lack of prenatal medical care for poor teens.

Calling prostitutes of any age victims of trafficking is an insult to those who really are kidnapped or tricked into sexual slavery. And lying about the Superbowl’s magnetism for the worst kind of criminality—when the numbers clearly show otherwise—is a disservice to every parent, every teen, and every taxpayer. It’s the latest example of the Sexual Disaster Industry expanding its product line.

To repeat, real human trafficking is horrendous. While even one victim is too many, we should be grateful that with all of America’s problems, sex trafficking victimizes such a tiny number of people. And we should be wondering at the motivation of law enforcement, non-profit groups, and politicians who work hard to frighten, anger, and mobilize the public about this.


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