Archive for the ‘pornography’ Category

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?

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.

Not Just Another Vegas Convention

February 1, 2016

Last week I spoke at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. It wasn’t exactly an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But porn lovers (and porn stars, porn producers, porn distributors, and porn photographers) are people too, and there had to be something interesting to see there, so I accepted their invitation. Besides, I have a book coming out in September called His Porn, Her Pain, and I want to get some advance support from people in the industry.

I spoke on “Has the internet really changed anything about sexuality?” My answer, of course, is “not really”—the human heart hasn’t changed, and American society’s ambivalence about sex hasn’t changed, and the collision of the two still produces anxiety, miscommunication, and shame. It’s what keeps me in business as a therapist.

But for me the big event was walking the floor of the mammoth convention. My host was my dear friend Mark who’d spent decades in the business (as a legal analyst, thank you very much), and he was gracious, patient, and informative as we walked up and down aisles, trying to ignore the deafening hip-hop music (why deafening and why hip-hop was never explained).

Aside from business-oriented stuff (think liability insurance and “your name here” key-rings) that’s fairly standard whether it’s a dental convention or fruit-grower’s convention, there were some idiosyncratic things here. Row after row after row of dildos, high-end vibrators that retailed north of a hundred bucks, and miscellaneous products to use while watching porn. Just when you think everyone in America has all the sex toys they need, American capitalists (and Chinese manufacturers) come up with new ones. They give “stocking stuffer” a new meaning.

I tried on Virtual Reality goggles, and was suddenly receiving a 3-D blowjob—well, my character was, anyway. So were several other people in my special world, oblivious to the actual humans all around me. And how long before this VR video is synched to a Bluetooth-enabled sex toy so someone can actually feel the 3-D blowjob? “Less than 12 months,” said the sales rep. Will they sell such a getup to minors? “You’ll have to ask our legal department,” he said. And when can we custom-design our VR so we’re mating with, say, Scarlett Johansson or Tom Cruise? “The rights might be a bit hard to acquire,” smiled our sales rep. What about, oh, Barbara Stanwyck? “Who?” replied the young man.

It was time to hit the really big hall, where the aisles were concentric circles, and the “booths” were miniature lounging areas for barely-dressed porn stars. Fans had a chance to stop, chat, and take photos of them. The women were working—smiling at everyone, hugging those who weren’t too pushy, posing for photos.

Mark steered us past this one and that, and occasionally said “OK, let’s talk to her,” and we’d veer left or right and stop. Whereupon some young woman way less than half our age would spot us, hug my host, and get introduced to Dr. Klein. I’d tell her about my upcoming book about porn and hand her a color copy of the cover, she’d smile enthusiastically, hug Mark goodbye, and we’d be back in the slow, Kaaba-like promenade with thousands of our intimate friends.

We’d been wanting to connect with Jessica Drake, described in Wikipedia as “an American pornographic actress, film director, screenwriter, sex educator, philanthropist, and radio personality.” She also has 540,000 twitter followers. In case you’re wondering, I have 4,163 twitter followers.

At age 30 Jessica’s made over 300 films, and spends considerable time educating her enormous fan base about sexuality. She’s known Mark since she started in the industry, and periodically refers to my work as an educator. Mark and I agreed that getting her backing of my upcoming book would be A Great Thing.

So we left the circular big hall, and went back to the first enormous room we’d walked. We saw a life-size doll of Jessica, posters of her way bigger than that, and then we saw…about a jillion fans lined up to say hello, take a selfie with her, and maybe say a few words: I dunno, maybe something like “I’ve had some of my best orgasms with you, thanks,” or “When I want to really get it up, I think of you.”

Mark guided me past this long, long line—bigger than anything I’d ever seen at SFO or JFK security—and we got to the front, a few feet from this major cultural icon. Finishing an autograph, she looked up, Mark caught her eye, and she squealed. “Mark my boy!” She strode over, hugged my slightly embarrassed friend, turned to me—and squealed “My favorite sex therapist!” and hugged me, too.

It was glorious, and rushed, and in slow motion all at once. I felt bad for the guys who were finally at the front of the line—they must have been waiting for a couple of hours, and of course had no idea why we were suddenly getting The Girl’s effusive attention—but this was no time to be shy or even considerate. For about four minutes Mark and I were alpha males—despite being the two oldest guys in a room of 15,000, the only two guys there who didn’t have raging erections.

I handed Jessica the packet for my new book, she vowed to read it and text me “soon,” she hugged us both, and Mark and I retreated, quickly swallowed up by the crowd. We headed toward the hotel lobby, totally satisfied with our rare, hard-fought prize—a brief Audience, complete with recognition. It was about time for a Diet Coke, and then I had to get a cab for the airport.



Talking sex ed & porn with Congress & the APA

October 20, 2013

This week I’m in Washington, DC giving very different presentations to two very different groups. I’ll be giving Congressional briefings on science-based sex education. And I’ll be giving a half-day webinar for the American Psychological Association on couples counseling & psychotherapy around pornography. These two subjects might seem unrelated, but they aren’t. Consider:

If young people were taught media literacy and porn literacy, they’d understand that porn relies on editing, lighting, makeup, and modern digital techniques. And they’d understand that porn isn’t a documentary, it’s more like a highlight reel.

If young people were encouraged to communicate with their partners about sex, they’d notice how much it’s missing in porn—especially the part about “Wait, I’d prefer it this way,” or “Y’know, I’d rather not do that.”

If young people were taught that contraception is a normal part of intercourse, they’d understand that its lack in porn is just part of the fantasy.

If young people were taught empathy and respect for others in sex ed class, they’d notice when it’s missing in porn—and not expect that selfishness or disrespect would work in real sex.

If young people were taught about male and female anatomy, they’d understand that the porn version of women climaxing from intercourse (in about 2 seconds) is inaccurate. And they’d understand that lube is almost always a good thing to add to sex, although it’s typically missing on-screen.

If young people were taught decision-making skills, they wouldn’t assume that the “spontaneous” sex shown in porn is a good idea.

If young people were taught about the reality of sexual fantasy, and told that fantasy does not necessarily reflect desire, they wouldn’t feel so guilty about their sexual curiosity and fantasies, which drives a lot of porn-viewing.

I’m always trying to teach adults that “Sex is not about what the bodies are doing, it’s about how the people are feeling.” If we successfully taught that to young people, we wouldn’t have to teach it to adults.

Happily, everyone at the Congressional briefing will be getting a copy of my current book, Sexual Intelligence. I hope they see the summary: “Sex is more than an activity—it’s an idea.”

32 Helpful Things You Can Learn From Porn

August 5, 2012

Pornography is not meant to be sex education. It’s fiction, period.

Nevertheless, with the enforced ignorance of abstinence-only sex “education,” most families’ and couples’ discomfort discussing sex seriously, and mainstream Christianity’s taboos about sexual reality, most people find themselves needing more information about sexuality.

If they’re fortunate, they manage to find a smart book or two, a reliable website or two, and maybe even an enlightened, open-minded, communicative sex partner. Anyone lacking all three who wants sex information inevitably turns to porn, whether intentionally or unconsciously.

Unfortunately, many young people don’t realize that porn is not a documentary. Lacking porn literacy or media literacy, they’re ignorant about editing, off-camera preparation, and other normal features of film-making. While some people assume that sex is—or should be—like what they see in porn, every good sex educator cautions against this. The most recent set of caveats comes from my good friend, journalist and sex educator Michael Castleman.

While I agree with most of his excellent article (I’ve said similar things myself over and over), let’s not forget the helpful things consumers can learn from porn.

This is NOT, NOT, NOT to say that everything people learn from porn is good. Puh-leeze—any 17-year-old who thinks his next girlfriend is dying for anal sex or a chance to blow the pizza delivery guy is in for a shock. And it’s always too bad when men think most women climax from 90 seconds of intercourse (although the antidote is pretty straightforward: simply telling a guy ‘that’s not me,’ no apology necessary).

That said, here’s a reminder of helpful things that porn can teach us about sex.

WAIT, ONE MORE TIME: I know, I know—porn also contains many inaccurate, even egregious lessons. But if we take them seriously—and, fortunately, not every porn consumer believes the fantasies of porn—let’s also take the following positive helpful lessons seriously. Many of these are positive lessons sex educators have been teaching for years:

Men can touch their penises during sex;
Women can touch their vulvas during sex
Spit works for lube
Some women sometimes desire sex without romance
Telling each other stories can make sex hotter
Men can climax using their own hand
Some women think about sex in advance
Women sometimes insert the penis into their vagina
Men sometimes insert their penis into a vagina
If the penis comes out during intercourse, you can simply put it back in
Some women like fellatio
Some women like cunnilingus
Some men like fellatio
Some men like cunnilingus
Some women like anal sex
Some men like anal sex
Vulvas can look really different from each other
Some women use and enjoy vibrators and dildos
Some men like their balls squeezed during sex
Pregnant women can be sexual
Whether during intercourse, oral, or manual sex, the clitoris can be important
The volume of ejaculate is not related to penis size
Sex is more than penis-vagina intercourse
Some women have orgasms
Some older women are sexual
Older women can be attractive to younger men (and vice versa)
People can have sex with people of different races
People can smile and talk to each other during sex
People can indicate to each other what they like during sex
Some women shave/wax, others don’t
You can happily ejaculate outside a vagina (onto a leg, chest, butt, belly, lower-back tattoo, or your own hand)

WHATEVER your sexual fantasy, you’re not the only one who has it

Book Review: Vulva 101

January 4, 2012

Today I come to praise vulvas.

Vulvas in general, but especially the hundred and one featured in Hylton Coxwell’s new book. It’s gorgeous. They’re gorgeous.

The coffee table book is elegantly simple: it features 101 Canadian women, age 18-65, showing their vulvas close up in living color. We get the women just as they are. We see hair, we see stubble, we see smooth, bare skin. We see jewelry, tattoos, and even the wisp of a tampon string.

The variety of course, is astounding. For decades, we sex educators have been saying “vulvas are like noses—every woman has one, but each one is different—in size, shape, color.” Indeed, in these extreme close-ups every vulva is a landscape (vulvascape?) all its own: graceful peaks, abrupt valleys, graceful curves, contrasting textures, the random asymmetries of nature.

And the colors! The high-resolution photography yields every possible shade between ebony and bubble-gum: cranberry, wine, claret, maroon, nutmeg, fire engine, mauve, chocolate.

A review of this wonderful book would be incomplete without mention of its predecessors. In 2003 there was Petals (the book, followed in 2006 by the DVD, both of which won a Sexual Intelligence Award). Its black-and-white work was exquisite; the interviews with its models were even more eye-opening.

A decade before that (and, remember, before digital photography) was Femalia. The truly groundbreaking book edited by Joani Blank featured 32 full-page vulvas, all with lips spread. This little (6”x8”) gem has just been reissued, and is a perfect $15 Valentine’s Day gift.

“Vulva 101 is a great resource for anyone who wants to honor the female sex organ,” says educator and artist Betty Dodson. Indeed, our world would be a better place if every girl received a copy from her parents the day of her first period.

In fact, Vulva 101 is a great antidote for any woman considering labiaplasty to “correct” her “unattractive” genitalia. It’s also a great response to activists complaining that today’s porn, which shows primarily shaved or waxed vulva, is subtly training men to desire pre-pubescent girls. In these dozens of bare vulvas, no one could possibly say there’s a little girl among them.

With a tip of the historical hat to both Petals and Femalia, congratulations to Vulva 101. It’s the perfect confluence of art and sex–which makes it a work of political provocation. Both the subject and the provocation deserve celebration.

The book’s website is here.

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Top Moments of Sexual Intelligence, 2011

December 30, 2011

2011 was quite a year for Sexual Intelligence. Some 75 posts were viewed over 125,000 times.

The blog was also honored twice. It was named number 21 of the Top 100 Sexuality Blogs. And the post on the circumcision debate (Self-Hatred As Public Policy) was expanded and reprinted in the book Best Sex Writing 2012, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by Cleis Press.

What do you think of as the year’s most memorable moments of Sexual Intelligence? Here are my choices—some happy, some awful, all important.

5. Mississippi “Personhood” Amendment Fails
4. Stealth Federal Funding for Abstinence Ed
3. Newsweek Conflates Watching Porn, Prostitution, & Trafficking
2. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Ends
1. Teen Pregnancy, Sex Abuse, & Rape Decline in America

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Your Kid Looks At Porn. Now What?

December 23, 2011

I was recently interviewed by internet safety expert Dr. Larry Magid for a piece on kids looking at porn. We had such an interesting conversation I thought I’d write about this myself.

Of course, 700 words can’t possibly cover every aspect of this issue. But let’s begin.

Given the typical danger-oriented media coverage of pornography, it’s easy for parents to feel terribly anxious about this issue. To listen to Newsweek or “morality” groups, you’d think that every American boy is in danger of becoming a porn addict—an obsessive, aggressive loser who hates women, and eventually destroys himself.

So let’s all take a deep breath and calm down.

Here’s what we know: All children are sexual. That means they have sexual feelings and thoughts. Naturally, six-year-olds don’t think about intercourse, and thirteen-year-olds can’t imagine the subtleties of mutual arousal and satisfaction. But every human is born a sexual being. How parents deal with their feelings about their children’s sexuality will shape how they feel about, and what they do about, their kid looking at porn.

So how do you, Mom or Dad, feel about your kid masturbating? That is, after all, why he or she looks at porn more than once or twice. If you can’t handle that, the kid’s use of porn will of course be unacceptable—but beside the point. Whether it’s about kids’ use or adults’ use, too many conversations about whether porn is harmful to users or society is really about the unacceptability of masturbation. If that’s your position, be honest and say “I don’t want my kid masturbating to porn because I don’t want my kid masturbating.”

Even parents who accept the reality that their kids are sexual and masturbate can be concerned about porn. What if it’s violent? What if it encourages values of which I disapprove? What if it’s confusing?

The answer to all three questions is: it might.

The porn your kid watches might be violent—but it probably isn’t. Most porn isn’t—for the simple reason that there’s a limited market for that.

The porn your kid watches might encourage values of which you disapprove—but it probably doesn’t. Most porn shows men and women as partners, wanting pleasure and wanting to give pleasure. Porn isn’t a love story, so if you disapprove of people having sex before marriage, you may object to your kid watching almost any sexual depiction, whether it’s porn or Desperate Housewives.

But if your kid watches porn, he or she might easily get confused: Is that what sex is really like? Is that what most people look like naked? Do strangers really have sex together so easily? Are some people really rough with each other in bed? (This is where you explain that just as kids play games on the ballfield, pretending to be mean or brave when they really aren’t, some adults play games in bed, pretending to be bossy or submissive when they really aren’t.)

Questions like these deserve answers. And if you remember your childhood—before the internet—you know that kids develop questions (and confusion) about sex even without porn. After all, you did.

The response to “my kid’s watching porn, what do I do?” is—you talk about it. You ask lots of gentle questions. Your kid squirms. You explain stuff. You squirm. No one’s comfortable talking about this. You talk anyway. That’s what parents do—they talk about subjects even when they’re uncomfortable.

Just like kids need media literacy, kids need porn literacy. They need to understand that they’re watching actors playing roles, not documentaries. They need to understand that just as Glee and Harry Potter are edited, so are porn films. None of these media products is an accurate portrayal of real life. For example, porn usually omits two crucial parts of sex—the feelings and the talking.

All of this argues for a pre-existing parent-child relationship, doesn’t it? No one wants their first parent-child conversation about sex to be about porn.

So make 2012 the year you raise the subject of sexuality with each of your kids. Both you and they will benefit. And if at some point you need to discuss porn with them, you’ll already be in the middle of a loving, long-term dialogue.

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Giving Thanks: Teen Pregnancy, Sex Abuse, Rape All Decline

November 24, 2011

Mandatory disclaimer: Sex abuse is gruesome, rape is horrifying, unintended teen pregnancy destroys lives. One single case of any of these is way, way too much.

Now to the science: there’s been a dramatic drop in child sex abuse and rape for several years. And while these two crimes are obviously under-reported, there’s no reason to think they’re more under-reported today than 10 years ago. If anything, the reverse is true.

Teen pregnancy has also decreased dramatically. And although teen marriage is far more common in some American subcultures than others, the decline in teen pregnancy has occurred in every kind of group—racial, ethnic, income, educational.

Nevertheless, the media, fundraising appeals, politicians, and conservative (and some feminist) doomsayers cry endlessly of dysfunctional epidemics, of out of control behavior, and of our country’s very fabric being destroyed by sexual violence and compulsivity.

(Pornography is often cited as the “cause” of these non-existent epidemics. Claims that these social pathologies are getting worse are then used as proof that pornography is dangerous and must be controlled or eliminated. But let’s not digress.)

So since it’s Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks. There’s little enough to cheer about in our battered republic these days, and this is legitimately good news, fantastic news.

And while giving thanks, let’s note:
1. America should be cheering the apparent success of various programs that tackled these three problems. Increased awareness, empowerment of the less powerful, and other interventions may actually be working. Those working with children are subject to more background checks; women are more assertive about their boundaries; teens are using more contraception, starting sex later, and having fewer partners.

Instead of talking about how nothing works and problems keep getting worse, let’s build “things can and do change” into our national story. And let’s demand that more resources go toward maintaining those changes, possibly helping people rather than giving in to our culture-wide despair.

2. We should be very curious about why so many people are claiming that things are getting worse and worse when the data shows that they’re getting better. This phenomenon is killing our country, and we should examine it as carefully as drunk driving, cancer clusters, high school dropout rates, and similar dangerous trends.

3. Why are we so eager to embrace the demonstrably false myths about socio-sexual pathologies getting worse and worse? Why do we resist the good news about a drop in sexual violence or childhood exploitation?

Sexuality seems to be a magnet for this kind of mass delusion. Look, for example, at teen sexting. As online safety expert Dr. Larry Magid says, there’s an epidemic of good decision-making about sexting—practically no kids do it. “It’s important to acknowledge that NOT sexting is “normal,” he says. Otherwise, we’re practically begging kids to join the “everyone’s doing it” mentality, turning a false perception into an accurate one.

An article like this inevitably receives a flood of hate mail, angry that I “don’t take these problems seriously.” To which I sigh, “please see this post’s first and last sentence.” But the question is, why must taking a problem seriously require either cooking or ignoring the facts? Why is cheering the improvement of a problem perceived as trivializing it?

We who care about social problems like sexual assault and sexual abuse should be working overtime figuring out exactly how these decreases occurred, so we can promote and enhance them (they may actually have little to do with programs or interventions). And we should be studying what perversity in human (or American) nature makes people insist that things are worse than they are, ignoring documentation of the very changes our hearts desire.

And now I’ll repeat sentence number one: Any amount of sexual violence or teen pregnancy is a bad amount. But some bad amounts are bigger—i.e., worse—than others. Exaggerating how terrible things are in order to generate attention or create more funding (or to prove piety—that one really, really cares) isn’t just bad policy. It’s immoral.

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Yale Bans “Sex Week”

November 16, 2011

Yale University President Richard Levin has announced that the school is discontinuing “Sex Week” in its present form. Since 2002, the program has brought speakers to campus to discuss a variety of sex-related topics. But as it grew, it involved corporate sponsors such as Pure Romance (in-home sex toy sales parties) and porn stars such as Sasha Grey.

President Levin has done the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

He could have assembled the student Sex Week producers and said “we need to do this differently.” They could have proposed substantive changes (or not), and let things unfold from there. But no, he dropped the atomic bomb.

Sex Week will, in fact, return in a different form next year, although neither sponsored by nor located on Yale facilities. But regardless of the outcome, the reasoning behind the fuss is highly troubling. It indicates a continuing trend of American sex-negativity dressed up as concerns about public health.

A group called Undergraduates for a Better Yale College complained that Sex Week was too focused on porn. That may or may not be true. But they go on to demand, “Tell Yale that a pornographic culture does not create respect, but degrades…[the campus should focus on] relationships based on true love between partners, not transient lust.”

As is often the case, people who want sex intertwined with “love” believe that that’s the only correct form of sexual expression—for everyone, not just for themselves. These students apparently want Sex Week to be Intimate Forms of Affection Week. That kind of narrow-minded thinking and discomfort with lust is why students need Sex Week in the first place.

Another troubling aspect of the situation is the way President Levin received the recommendation to shut down Sex Week. It came from the report of a committee investigating whether the campus environment is hostile toward women, which is illegal under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act.

The committee’s report suggested—with absolutely no data or even theory—that because Sex Week had become too focused on titillation and porn stars, it was part of a bigger problem of sexual assault and harassment, and thus should be banned. This is the familiar libel of those angry about how sex is misused to hurt others: sexual entertainment and the frank admission of lust in the human psyche somehow lead to sexual violence against women.

These people ignore two FACTS:
* Cultures around the globe that experience an increase in legal porn enjoy a decrease in sexual violence;
* Since free porn flooded American homes via the internet in 2000, sexual violence has decreased.

That said, I can easily agree that Sex Week has evolved in some unfortunate directions. As a lifelong sex educator, I have watched as porn stars have been hired to lecture college students across America. I have seen representatives of Ashley Madison and other dating sites presented as experts on conference panels. I cringed as Ron Jeremy went on a national tour debating the XXXChurch on the effects of porn. I even lived through Kim Cattrall publishing a book of sex advice called—gulp—Sexual Intelligence. Her credentials? Playing a sex-loving woman on the show Sex And The City.

I admit it—I’d rather be giving those lectures myself (shameless promo: see the link to my 2012 lecture schedule at the right of this page). Or that they be given by my esteemed colleagues, such as Debbie Herbenick, Jay Friedman, Judith Steinhart, Paul Joannides—there are dozens of qualified (and entertaining) sex educators out there.

But the problem with campus Sex Weeks goes beyond having porn stars as “experts” (although at least we can depend on these people to use grownup words like clitoris and ejaculate). It’s a matter of addressing what students actually need.

The three biggest sexual problems facing students are:
* Unintended pregnancy;
* The inability to communicate before, during, and after sex;
* The fluidity of the concept of “consent.”
(Note: Life is NOT as simple as “no means no.” While coercion IS black-and-white—it’s always wrong, regardless of circumstances—pressure, self-doubt, ambivalence, misunderstanding, fantasy, hope, low self-esteem, and the trading of sex for prestige or other nebulous goods is far more common in college student sexuality, complicating sexual interactions even before we get into issues like alcohol and privacy.)

These three issues are inextricably linked. They all relate to questions of accepting one’s own sexuality; feeling a sense of agency in shaping sexual experiences; having a wide range of sexual options, not simply intercourse or even genital sex; and making sexual decisions based on one’s core values (which requires knowing them, of course).

This is the stuff that Sex Weeks should focus on—not positions or techniques, not why porn use devalues or addicts us, not why sex-with-love is the best sex. The three Cs of enjoyable sex—communicate, communicate, communicate. A frank discussion of why men enjoy porn (and keep it secret), and why women feel queasy about it would be great too—not a discussion of how porn affects “people” or “society” or even “users,” but a venue for students to discuss their feelings and their fantasies about each other around porn.

While the Yale community debates “appropriate” ways to learn about sex and love, I note with grim irony their widespread acceptance of two of the world’s most violent, body-objectifying institutions—NCAA football and ROTC.

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