Category Archives: Discussing world-wide research

Blogs critically examining notable research from around the world

Faking it is great … yeah, not really.

I’m sitting in my lounge watching The Morning Show on Australia’s Channel 7. They’ve run a segment about why faking orgasms may be good for women.  Needless to say, my eyebrows shot up at the suggestion.  I couldn’t think of one reason why it would be good for a woman to fake it.

Here’s what their expert had to say, in a nutshell:

A recent study says 67% of women fake it – the study says this can heighten arousal.  Hmmm – not sure how that works, to be honest.  Thankfully they had someone commenting.   Sexpert Tracey Cox was interviewed about the research and noted that men will compare their non-orgasming girlfriend with previous orgasming girlfriends, and may view the non-O girlfriend as lesser.  Hmmm youch.  She did go on to say that we shouldn’t fake it, thank goodness, and that we ought to be honest about our desires, and less orgasm-orientated.

The question of orgasms and faking should be one we consider carefully.  The images we see of sex in action is often one that is highly performative – we see lots of writhing and moaning and signs of arousal, particularly from women.  One of the reasons for this, apparently, is that unlike men, women’s arousal is less visible, so we need to give other signals.  Men have erections, women have… performance.

Problematically, the kinds of sexual performance we see as a guide to how to be sexual aren’t necessarily accurate.  Most of these come from the media – highly stylised and romanticised movie sex, or more sexually orientated pornography, neither of which are particularly realistic.  In this regard we ought to ignore these sources of information and start with another – our own bodies.  If during sex we feel the urge to wiggle around or moan, then well and good.  But if we feel like we need to perform these behaviours when they are not genuine, we set ourselves up for failure.  Why?  Well, hopefully that will be visible in my list:

Some reasons not to fake it (arousal, pleasure and orgasm)

  • Faking it reinforces ineffectual sexual performance:  if you are someone who likes to have your partner get you there, then moaning when s/he is not is only going to prompt him/her to continue on doing exactly the wrong thing.   Yeah, not ideal.
  • Faking closes down opportunities to learn and communicate: yes it’s hard at times (no pun intended) but talking about sex is one of the best ways to improve the quality of your sex life.  But once it starts, it’s not that big of a deal.  Faking it though stops you being able to talk about what you feel, desire, want and don’t want.  Why would you want to talk about things if you are apparently having a great old time?  Your partner’s pride might be bruised initially, but he or she will thank you in the long run.
  • Faking = lying: hmmmm yeah, not so nice when you think about it this way.  Your partner won’t appreciate you trying to pad their ego by faking it and lying when you are engaged in something many consider to be intimate.
  • Orgasms aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of sex: faking it makes orgasm the most important thing in sex, and frankly, that’s just not the case.  Sex without orgasm can be immensely enjoyable, and sex with orgasm can be immensely unsatisfying.  There is more to sex than the big O, but faking it says the opposite.

Part of the reason women fake is to protect their partner’s egos.  For men, sex is something we as a society consider them to be experts in – or as the terminology goes, they are supposed to be sexperts.  This is an unrealistic expectation.   We are all different.  Our bodies respond differently to physical, emotional and mental stimuli – what man could possibly anticipate that?  Being competent is one thing, but being expert, another.

Sexpertise makes sex problematic for a couple of reasons: it suggests that when you sleep with a sexpert they are going to know what you want/need/like which in turn stops the need to communicate – if he knows what’s good, why do you need to tell him.  Problem: he can launch in and not expect any direction or feedback from you, and you can lie back thinking that you don’t need to communicate anything because he should know what he’s doing.  See the problem?  Faking orgasm is part of this dynamic – you fake to tell him he is the sexpert, despite the fact that he may not be.

Chasing the orgasm can make your sex life less than enjoyable.  Yes they are great to have, no doubt about that, but they are not everything there is to sex.   Not having a goal to sex other than enjoyment is likely to take the pressure off for everyone – no need to perform to support a supposedly fragile ego (are our partners really that vulnerable to feedback?), and no need to chase after something that you might not have at the expense of an enjoyable time.

And just as an aside, if you’re sleeping with someone who compares your sex life to a previous partner, there may be reasons other than him or her thinking you are sexually inadequate to not be sleeping with said individual.

Remember, no none is responsible for our pleasure but us.  It’s great to have a partner that has worked out what makes us quiver and groan.  But it’s far better if we know what makes that happen for us.  Then we can communicate that to our sexual partners, which in the long run will be better for our sex lives because our partners will participate in honest sexual events where they can feel comfortable about what they are doing, whilst knowing you are enjoying yourself too.  Without the pressure of performance.

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Thinking about the risky stuff…

Hmmm, so, having my morning coffee glancing through my news feeds, and I came across an article on Think Big called The Sky is Falling.  Should We Worry?  It’s about asteroid strikes (yes, I’m a science geek (sigh)).  If you’re interested, here’s the link (http://bigthink.com/ideas/41151?page=1).

It didn’t catch my attention so much for the discussion on the psychology of risk assessment and asteroid strikes (clearly I need to read things more uplifting with my morning coffee btw), but rather how easily we can remove all the space-science terminology in the article and replace it with terms about STIs and sex-related health issues, and how we think about risk in relation to those terms.

We talk a lot about sexual risk in health research into sexual behaviour.  Risk risk risk risk risk.  Casual sex is called risky sex, hooking up is framed as risky, and so on and so forth.  Should we worry about risk?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t but as Think Big points out, we worry about risk the more we hear about it.  And as we hear about sex and risk so often together, we really have to ask if we are creating a culture of fear around sex, and how that is going to impact on how we conduct our sex lives.  The sky is falling apparently, because we are having casual sex.

The first thing we need to be aware of, I think, is that when we talk about risk we are not necessarily talking about danger.  These terms are not as synonymous as we are had to think.  Just becuase something is risky it does not mean that it is dangerous.  As Slovic notes, danger is real but risk is a concept we as a culture/society create, and it is complex.  “Risk assessment is inherently subjective and represents a blending of science and judgment with important psychological, social, cultural, and political factors.” (1)   And how we define risk determines what we do about it.  Defining risk therefore becomes quite a political endeavour – a quick look at how the western world handles the definition of risk in relation to terrorism is a transparent example of the politics of risk and its definition, how it creates cultural and behavioural change, and informs a culture of fear-based behaviour and thinking.  If risk-talk can do this about terror and  ethnicities (for example, the discourse suggests that all Muslims are potential terrorists – clearly a fatuous idea), then what does risk-talk about sex do for those of us having it?

If Slovic is right about the politics of risk, and frankly it seems commonsensical, then we ought to be careful about how we read research (well, anything really) that talks about sex and risk, because the way it is often defined suggests that the way to avoid risk is to not have sex outside of relationships.  Casual sex is risky – how to avoid risk, don’t have casual sex.  The problem is, risk is not that narrow.  Relationship sex can be just as risky as casual sex when it comes to contracting disease and infection, to emotional, physical and psychological harms, and issues of autonomy and consent.  There is however less research in this area, and even less looking at the bigger picture with respect to sex and danger.

I am not saying that sexual health researchers have an agenda in researching from a risk perspective other than trying to find ways to improve population health and reduce exposure to health dangers.  What I am suggesting is that if we are to approach sex research (and sex itself) from a risk framework, then we really need to think about what it is we mean by risk, how it relates to actual dangers, and what politics we are engaging with when we talk in risk-related ways.

If we are to talk about risk, what needs to be understood is where the actual dangers are with respect to bad outcomes from sexual interactions, rather than the kinds of sexual contexts those outcomes are encountered in.  From my research, I see that the greatest dangers come not from casual sexual engagements, but from ones where individuals feel they do not have the power to communicate their desires, to assert themselves as agents (ie, they determine the what/how/when/with whom aspects and are active in whatever they are doing, instead of being done to), to trust sexual partners to act ethically and responsibly, and to act ethically and responsibly themselves.  These aspects of behaviour can be present or absent from any kind of sexual context, whether it be casual or committed.  And they are in my mind the forerunner of sexually responsible and mindful behaviour.

For example, two strangers decide to have casual sex: both are self-responsible in having regular STI checks, and in respecting themselves with respect to their sexual health, both actively use and carry contraception, both communicate clearly about what they want from the sexual encounter, and treat each other with respect before/during/after the act, do not stigmatise the other or malign, and so on.  Risk/danger in this kind of interaction is low.  Then consider a couple in a relationship: one has not had a STI check prior to entering into the relationship, and as they are in a relationship considers using condoms to be unnecessary (one of the hallmarks of committedness in the modern sexual context), one partner is sexually dominant in determining the how/when and where of sex, and the other does not feel confident enough to voice their wants and desires and lack thereof; little communication occurs, and one partner can sometimes feel disrespected, whether through not being heard, or being judged or stigmatised by a partner.  This scenario, one I saw often in the comments of the young women I researched, presents a greater potential with respect to risk and real dangers than the casual sex encounter outlined above.

The point of the above example is not to throw into the risk-circle yet another kind of sex to be wary of but rather to highlight why risk needs to be thought about critically, and approached from a wider perspective than perhaps is focused on in the predominance of sexual health research.   In doing so the kinds of changes that would be encouraged in the sexually active community would more likely have better results with respect to negative sexual health outcomes.  For example, research shows that young women who feel they have a right to speak up and out about what sex they want to have, and how, are more liable to use condoms and insist on condom use, thus reducing the risk of exposure when partners are potentially unsafe.

The other aspect of thinking critically about the gap between risk and danger has to do with the kinds of risks that we are wary of, and the likelihood of that actual danger occurring.  A good example of the gap between risk and danger can be seen in the current climate of parental fear around child abductions.  Stranger danger is the predominant message around child abductions, yet most children are abducted by someone they know.  Very few are taken by strangers.  Yet our proscribed behaviour to mitigate the risk is to drive our children to school/the mall/the park/playdates etc, and to have them accompanied by someone at all times.   Hardly the kind of behaviour that offsets the actual danger of child abduction, but one that suggests that the actual gap between risk and danger is quite large and that the politics of risk management in childcare is not quite on target.

It is worthwhile considering this gap too when it comes to what research describes as risky sex.   Now,  I don’t have access to statistics on the likelihood of contracting an STI from a casual sex encounter.  The best I came up with was a link discussing the likelihood of catching gonorrhoea from an infected parter (http://dermatology.netfirms.com/mdderma/STDcenter/STDFaqs/STD_FAQ_transmission.html) – 20%.  Note that the partner has to be infected already – likelihood gets far more difficult to predict when we try and calculate that a partner has an STI in the first place.  A likelihood that would drop the actual danger (brain rattles whilst pulling out school stats probability stuff).

This isn’t to say that we should be cavalier about STIs, rather it’s to put things into perspective.  It’s one thing to look at a sexual partner as a potential source of sexual risk, and another to act as though they actually are.  The former suggests precautionary measures, the latter, avoidance.  If we approach risk as danger, then our behaviour changes to something that is perhaps not favourable – already we are criticising parents who over-coddle their children in response to a plethora of risk-messages about the unsafeness of everyday environments.  Overt attention to risk can result in negative outcomes unrelated to the actual danger they are warding against.

Couple statistical likelihood with sexual health outcomes, and the life-destroying tone of risk messaging swings even more into questionable territory.  Modern medicine puts many STIs within the curable category, and many more in the treatable and manageable category.  And as long as we are responsible before, during and after, then danger is reduced (even if risk is not).  But we do not treat STIs the same as we treat other communicable diseases – as regrettable, treatable, and curable.  Instead we stigmatise.  If we were as scared of catching the flu as we are of an STI we’d never leave our homes.

Again I am not dismissing the impacts of STIs, rather I am suggesting that the gap between perceived risk and actual danger might not be as narrow as the litany of educational and medical messages around non-relationship sexual activities might suggest.  But I am definitely suggesting that we ought to take the fear out of risk-discourse around STIs – because it’s being scared that can stop people acting pro-actively to manage their sexual health.  Is it a big deal you got Chlamydia?  Sure.  Will it destroy your life? No (as long as you manage your health).  But does the world treat your differently when it finds out you’ve had it?  Yes – it may not destroy your life, but it certainly can alter it.   And that’s the kind of risk we shouldn’t have to negotiate.  When we catch STIs from unfaithful partners, yet have safe casual sex … well, you can see the disjunct in how we treat people.   And why risk-discourse can be off-target.

Risk is a complicated issue – about that, Slovic is right.  When we talk about risk the politics involved can be hidden, and certainly not straight forward.  However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be critical in our approach to sex as risk, and the messages we receive about it.   It ought to prompt some internal reflection, about how we conduct our sex lives, not as risk-averse, but danger-averse.    If we have a more targeted approach to our sex lives we can then start to change our sexual community to a safer one – because we have our eyes on the right targets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(1) Slovic, P (1999). Trust, Emotion, Sex, Politics, and Science: Surveying the Risk-Assessment Battlefield in Risk Analysis, 19(4).

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It’s just porn …

Having recently posted an article about porn consumption and its purported negative effects on male sexual function, I thought I’d write something about my thoughts on porn.

Robinson’s article in Psychology Today discusses some research, and what she describes as the growing number of posts and discussion threads by young men reporting increasing difficulties in their sexual performance due to porn consumption.   The article discusses the links between poor erectile function and high internet porn consumption and extreme porn consumption.  The argument goes that arousal is dopamine-based (one of the pleasure drugs in the brain), and over-stimulation causes dopamine-resistance – like insulin resistance in Type II diabetes.  Like drug addiction, you need more and more dopamine to feel a buzz.   To fix it, try a little rehab – cold turkey, and bang (no pun intended) you’re back to normal.  A little behaviour adaptation, and the body rebounds, along with erections.   (This is the article link: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201107/porn-induced-sexual-dysfunction-is-growing-problem).

I’m no scientist.  In fact, in terms of the medicalisation of sex and its reduction to the purely biological, I’m the first to throw my hands up in despair and to cite research that does not look only to the body to explain sexual ‘dysfunction’.   The failure of big-pharma to come up with a pink Viagra, and positive effects of placebos on women in research control groups for FSD drugs, go a long way to supporting the common-sense notion that sex is not just about penises and vaginas and clitorises.   What kind of day you had at work, what your emotional state is, how stressed you are about your credit card debt, and a thousand other little things influence our ability to engage in sex.  Some influences are physical, some are psychological, some emotional, others spiritual.  Problematically, research tends to reduce them to the biological – being cynical about it, its hard to be surprised when that is where the money is.  If we can ‘cure’ limp penises with a little blue pill, then maybe we can cure porn-related-ED with dopamine-blockers to speed up detox, or we can medicate in others ways to reduce the negative effects of hard-core porn consumption on some viewers.  The problem with this kind of approach ought to be obvious.  Treating the body without looking to other areas of the self only treats a symptom (if we are to regard porn consumption as a disorder).  Treating the what (ED) without treating the why (of why people watch porn and particular kinds of porn) is only half the story.  But then, that’s how you keep consumers consuming.

What is of additional interest to me with this article however is that in looking at (supposed) extreme outcomes  of porn consumption, all porn consumption can be pathologised.   When we talk about extremes, we all worry that we might somehow be effected too, even if we only watch a little.   I’ve seen a lot of porn.  Some I’ve seen as part of my research, some out of curiosity, and some because … well why not, really.  I’m pretty regular in that respect I guess.  Sex is interesting, most of us are curious about it, and because its such a taboo many of us like to sneak a peak (among many other reasons).    And porn spans a wide range of types, from the kind that makes you think ‘that’s kind of sweet’, to the really fake kind that makes you laugh, to the hardcore gonzo porn that frankly makes me feel sick on a lot of levels.   Part of the problem about talking about porn is that the term covers too much to be of any use to us.  The difference between home-made porn and gonzo is considerable, and when people take their stances on porn the spectrum of activities can get elided into one big negative category.  The first question we really need to address is whether this is the case.  Is all porn bad?  Considering how sexually repressed we are as a society (don’t be fooled by our current trend towards sexualisation) thinking about this is quiet important, because it reflects what we think about sex in general.   And if we start thinking about that, we can work out realistic boundaries that reflect realistic and ethical behaviour rather than moral panics and ill-informed condemnation.

If we can break porn down into the OK kind (if you think there is such a thing) and the not OK kind, we can start to discuss more sensibly the effects porn can have on its viewers.  To say that porn has no effect whatsoever I think is naive.  Problematically, when such statements are made (that porn effects us), the inference is that porn’s effects are necessarily bad.   Porn can be inspiring, giving you new ideas about what you want, and just as importantly what you don’t, without having to deal with that negotiation within the middle of a sexual event.  Knowing what to ask for was a major issue for many of my research participants.  Porn can also be normalising.  Seeing others desiring what we desire can make us feel less different, abnormal, deviant, however you want to describe it.   Of course, that’s a slippery slope argument considering the rise of hard-core and gonzo type porn, but not everyone slides down a slippery slope.  And porn as a sex aid is well known.  The negative critiques of porn usually centre on the debasement of women and the desensitisation of men (I’m leaving out porn involving minors for obvious reasons).   But again, these positive and negative effects, I suggest, depend on the kinds of porn you are watching.  Importantly, they also depend on your attitudes to sex in general, and your moral and ethical orientation towards others and yourself.

Thus I suspect that there will be a variety of reactions to the above article.  Some readers will see the research in their lives (whether in their own consumptive habits, or those of their partners’), others will note that they or their partners may want to negotiate more uncommon sex acts into their partnered interactions as a result of consumption, others that they feel less tense about their sexual selves because they watch a little porn.  Some will think ‘OMG that’s me/my boyfriend/my partner’, others that the research does not represent them so it mustn’t be so.   In taking Robinson’s article as a general warning to all porn-consumers, we run the risk as we do in so many areas, of treating the majority in a particular way because of the behaviours and reactions of a minority.   Of course, those with a medical background for research must do this if they  work from the idea that bodies can be universalised and essentialised – namely that all bodies are basically the same, and that problems reduce to the body.   When discussing porn consumption however, we move far beyond the body, but also back to it, to minds and hearts within it first and foremost.

I am not defending porn consumption.  But I am suggesting that Robinson’s purely biological approach to the effects of consumption is short-sighted and ignores the complexities that surround sex for us in Western society.  Realistically speaking, stopping consumption in favour of partnered interactions that result in successful sex can just as easily be read as not only dopamine rebounding but also the effect of conforming to socially acceptable ways of seeking sexual pleasure: ‘God’ may have blessed you with two hands, but vaginas (and other partner body parts) win hands down, morally speaking.   If porn makes you react, or eventually fail to, there may be more to it than neuro-transmitter addiction.

 

 

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