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.



Filed under Discussing world-wide research

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 Great to be an All Black: you can get away with pretty much anything …

Poor Zac Guildford.  And I say that with genuine sympathy, though perhaps not for the reasons the media and the All Blacks organisation of apologists thinks I ought to.   We as a nation are being asked to cut Zac some slack, despite his assaulting two bystanders and sexually harassing another (female) athlete.   Guildford is yet another in a long line of professional sportsmen who drink excessively, act violently and abuse women.  I sympathise with him not because his fame is hard to handle, not because being a professional sportsman comes with pressures that can cause self-destructive behaviours, but because the kind of masculinity Guildford enacts clearly has negative impacts on his own well-being, and the well-being of those around him.

When rugby players are seen as pretty much the penultimate in male role models, and this kind of drunken and abusive behaviour appears to be generally condoned (or at least expected and therefore tolerated) when we see how common it is in the professional and amateur ranks, perhaps we ought to be thinking about what we are teaching our boys and men with respect to the kinds of masculinity they perform.   Some might say that it the alcohol talking, but there has been sufficient cross-cultural research showing that drunken behaviour is culturally defined.  Excessive consumption does not by necessity lead to violence and sexual aggression.    Not unless you live in New Zealand (and a few other western nations – proud lot, aren’t we?).     Alcohol often acts as a disinhibitor and facilitator.   It also comes with some cultural rules about how it is consumed and how consumers are to behave when consuming.   It’s not hard to see what New Zealand’s culture is.  For some of our men, it’s about potential violence and potential sexual aggressiveness.  A walk around any city centre on a Saturday night will cough up any number of fights and women being harassed by unwanted (and sometimes aggressive and insulting) sexual attention.

If we are to feel sorry for Zac Guildford, it is because he is little more than a publicised stereotype of a kind of  Kiwi manhood.  We all know Zac, he lives down the road from us, he’s one of our mates (or used to be), we went to school with him, he’s in our work place.    He is the height of hyper-masculinity in our culture, hard drinking, womanising, rough and strong, and to top it all off, a hero/an All Black.   The question of whether we ought to cut Zac some slack comes down to whether or not we ought to cut this stereotype some slack.   Personally I think there are other ways to be masculine.  And it really is about time that this kind of masculinity was reformed, rather than fed with sympathy.  Guildford was lucky not to have seriously injured someone, or killed them (whether through assault (he is after all an athlete built for physical conflagration) or a motor accident with his reckless riding).   The men he assaulted appear to be happy to shrug it off – perhaps this is the acceptance of men being men.  Kelly Pick on the other hand has had reinforced the cultural lesson that for women no space is safe from sexual harassment – an unhappy reminder of a social reality that is archaic and socially constraining.   What is ironic for Kelly is that Zac – who really is a nice guy (according to allies) – now becomes more the ‘everyman’ than ever, because our culture frames Zac this way – a regular guy, not unusually aggressive, just a rugby player with a bit of a drinking problem.  Sexual harassment and aggression can therefore come from any man, any regular guy, once he gets a drink in him.   So not only is Zac an example of masculinity, but he also reflects the kinds of femininity women ought to perform when men like him are around: cautious, aware, avoidant.   Ironically the kind of behaviour some young women discussed or exemplified in my own research.

What we also ought to remember too is that there are plenty of other ways to be masculine. I know plenty of masculine men who are not like Zac – some of them play rugby, some of the drink, and some even get trashed, but as far as I know none of them have assaulted anyone, and as a woman I feel  safe around them.  They are the kinds of men I like spending time with – but you couldn’t get me within a mile of Zac Guildford.  Yes, personal choice I know, but for me our culture’s apologetic attitude for men like Zac means that he will continue to be a lose cannon, as are many of the men who behave as he does.   No doubt he is a nice guy, for all I know he is a prince among men, but the kind of masculinity he performs frames him as a potential risk.  I doubt Zac would be happy about this if he understood just what his performance actually means to those in his very large audience.   And as a culture we ought to be unhappy about this too, because it places within our midst another thing to be wary of, another social element that constrains our behaviour (regardless of gender), another force to be avoided or capitulated to.

Poor Zac … and poor us.



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Selling sex, selling virginity

If you’ve been to one of my lectures you might remember me talking about a young American woman who auctioned her virginity over the internet – for a tidy sum I night add.    It appears as though the concept has reached the Australasia, with a Sydney escort agency advertising the ‘sale’ of a young Chinese woman’s virginity.


The article above describes this as selling body parts, as putting women’s liberation back centuries, and the young girl as likely being exploited.  What I found interesting is that it wasn’t a young woman engaging in sex work, or a young student (apparently prostitution is a not uncommon way for young women to get an education without incurring crippling student debt), but that she was selling her virginity, that made the news.

There’s no point in rehashing the arguments for and against sex work. To be honest, I stand on both sides of the fence on this.  On one hand I am all for women making the choice to enter into this profession (informed choice, mind you), but on the other the buying of women’s sexual services is instrumentalist and can treat women as fungible objects (no fan of that).  This is too sticky a debate to untangle here – the fact that the debate is still live suggests there is no real answer to the right or wrong, good or bad of the oldest profession.

What is most striking for me with this issue however is that what has triggered the newsworthiness of this story is the uncommon element that elevated the event above banality and subsequent un-news-worthiness of student prostitution and prostitution in general – namely the woman’s virginity.    Should we be horrified about a woman selling her virginity for $15,000?  Would we be horrified if she was selling her sexual product for such a sum if she wasn’t a virgin?  Probably not actually.  It is already being done, without much social comment.  The fact that virginity auctions and sales in the west get significant media attention suggests however that we consider virginity to be something sacred, something not to be sold, and something we ought to treat more respectfully.

The irony is that sending a son to a prostitute to lose his virginity is a great western tradition, codified and celebrated in media and popular culture.  Beginning to see the double standard ?  If men are willing to pay to lose their virginity, what is wrong with a woman being paid to lose hers?  Because it’s not the prostitution that is the issue (as noted above) its her purity.

The irony goes further.  Although we have a growing acceptance of women having extra-marital sex, there is still stigma connected to a woman’s number of pre-marriage sexual partners (it’s even the topic of movies these days), a stigma that is connected to the desire for virgin brides – brides that are clean and unused.  After all, we call women who are known to have sex outside of relationships skanks and sluts – words connected to dirt and filth – even when we don’t know how many people they have slept with (just think to the gossip and bitching you hear about someone you don’t know hooking up with someone you think is hot).    As some of my research participants pointed out, it’s not how many people women have slept with that makes them a slut, but how they go about it.  And as the slut label gets so quickly attached to women who engage in extra-relationship sex in so many ways, it’s not a giant leap to suggest that all women who engage in extra-relationship sex are potentially sluts.  Considering the variety of story types from participants who noted they had been called a slut for having sex with someone else other than a boyfriend, I don’t think  this is a giant leap at all – in fact it feels very much like a tiny step.

We ‘know’ that prostitution is dirty and demeaning – look at the social commentary against which pro-sex work supporters battle – and that virginity is something that is sacred and pure (I don’t endorse either of these ideas).  To place these two aspects together clearly is not socially acceptable.  We are willing to have morally questionable women charging for morally questionable sex (so they say) but not moral women.  Virginity is after all a moral issue.  Good women do not sell their bodies for sex.  And a woman who is still a virgin, chaste and pure at age 19, well, she’s particularly moral in a culture where the average age of first sex is around 17.

What I find most disturbing about the ruckus this event has generated is how it has reflected back to us the value our society still places on women’s virginity and purity.  Not only is it worth AU$15,000 (apparently up to US$3.7 million if you are a hot white chick like Natalie Dylan), but it is also worth the media ruckus and the moral outrage of a variety of groups, from social purity groups to feminists.  Would this story have made the news if the young woman in question, a student looking to get our of debt (sounds familiar), was not a virgin.  I sincerely doubt it.

Considering how so many young women today lose their virginity, I do wonder what the hoo-haa is all about.  In Australia prostitution is legal, so this young woman had to have approached the escort agency of her own accord.  If she had approached a loan shark, committed a crime, or run out on her debt, no one would be commenting (save her family).  But because she is selling her virginity through an agency, we have a story that generate moral hubris, and has everyone assuming she is vulnerable and being exploited.  We don’t hear similar comments being made about non-virgin debt-laden students entering into prostitution.

Of course the hoo-haa reflects our old-fashioned attachment to women as sexually pure, to women’s sexual value being attached to that purity, and to women as sexually active as dirty and immoral (sluttiness).   Losing one’s virginity for women is supposed to be special, meaningful, sacred etc.  Selling it demeans all that.  Note the double standard again – there is no such sanctity around male virginity.  As the saying goes, a man wants to be a woman’s first, a woman wants to be a man’s last.

Despite our sexualised culture, it appears that we are not that liberated after all.  I don’t think that it is the sale of this young woman’s virginity that is setting our culture back with respect to sexual liberation.  It is that we have to comment on it, rail against it, and rescue this young woman from a ‘horrible future’.   What would be a better issue to discuss  is why anyone would feel that prostitution was a good way (outside of those who genuinely want to engage in sex work as a profession) to meet the burdens of education costs.   Or perhaps that our current society fails to support its members such that prostitution as a means to financial emancipation is on the cards for so many people.  (And please, before anyone starts to talk about prostitution and addiction, I’ve known a lot of prostitutes in my time, and very few were addicts.  Most were mothers with children trying to make ends meet, or young women trying to get on their feet after financially devastating events.)

Frankly I don’t care that the young woman in question is a virgin.  To me that makes no difference in her decision (save good business sense if the commodity is so highly valued), despite what the story’s publicity suggests.  How a young woman decides to end that sexual status should make no difference.  Especially when we celebrate the variety of ways men find for doing so, including paying for first sex, and having it with a pie.


Filed under Making the news

Its a Numbers Game… or what the results suggested pt 1

Before I get into the Sexual Risk Script, it’s worth taking a look at some of the results from the survey and the trends that popped up.

Considering that the survey is about sex I was somewhat surprised by the number of people that took it.  Sex is considered in research circles to be a sensitive topic, so as researchers we are cautioned to approach it carefully.  Participants jumped right on in however.  Which was great for me!  I had far more responses that I had ever anticipated, and it threw out some great information.  Young women certainly had something to say, and the results were full of surprises.

The first section of the survey dealt with definitions –what do young women consider hooking up to be, casual sex, fuck buddies, real sex, and so on.  These seem pretty commonsense terms, but nothing is ever that simple.

Real sex generally consisted of what we call PVI – penis/vagina intercourse (such a romantic term!)—for most participants.  Penetration was generally the benchmark activity for all sexual orientations—if piece A didn’t go in slot B, then it wasn’t sex.  Some also considered oral sex to be real sex.  Interestingly, only those who did not identify as heterosexual added things to the list of options that they considered to be real sex—they did things heterosexuals might do, but did not think to admit to.   Orgasm was also an important aspect—it was less likely to be real sex if there was no orgasm.  These two trends fit with two theories, or imperatives, that I will discuss later.

Hooking up was defined a wide range of activities.  Interestingly, despite what the media would suggest, for most participants hooking up didn’t often include PVI.  Usually it was kissing and fooling around—some groping, and maybe some genital touching, and just maybe oral sex.   Casual sex mirrored real sex, though oral sex was more likely to be part of casual sex than real sex—if that isn’t confusing…  What that difference means wasn’t really indicated, but I wonder if it has to do with reputational risk.  Casual sex wasn’t universally supported, and was often criticised, so in this regard it would make sense that casual sex would include more activities that would be negatively judged.  Oral sex with a stranger might earn a woman a bad rep, thus risky casual sex includes more socially risky behaviours… just speculating…

Anyway, what I ended up with was a nice little Venn diagram, showing the overlap of definitions participants presented:

Basically these definitions had lots of overlap, and the determining factors that influenced what degree of overlap there was for participants centred around age and sexual experience.  There seemed to be some consensus that the older you got the more your hook up experience should consist of—for example a hook up at 18 that is a bit of snogging is fine, but at 25 expectations might expand the hook up to some groping, perhaps oral sex and/or casual sex.   Analysing this, I’m inclined to read it as an example of social expectations—the older you are, the more experience you’re supposed to have had, the more sexual variety you are seeking with respect to activity.  This is all up for debate, but nevertheless, age and experience seemed to effect definitions and how much they overlapped.  This probably isn’t much of a surprise.

Participants were asked if they hooked up, had casual sex, and had fuck buddy arrangements.  Patterns were again fairly clear.  Most had hooked up, some had had casual sex, and a few had had fuck buddies.   Rates of engagement—how often participants had hook ups etc—also followed a reducing pattern.  Hook ups were most frequent, casual sex less so, and fuck buddies not so common.

What these results revealed was a general set of rules about non-relationship behaviours.  Hooking up was fine, most people did it, it was ok for a certain age group, and was generally socially acceptable as long as it didn’t get too close to the casual sex definition.  Casual sex was less acceptable but still permissible, but came with a number of inherent dangers (that I’ll discuss soon) that made it less likely to be engaged in.  For Fuck buddy arrangements this was less common.   In other words, risk factors reduced the likelihood that participants had engaged in activities that were progressively more towards real sex in a non-relationship situation.

This might suggest that young New Zealand women are a bit more risk-averse than you would think.  This trend within responses certainly made me sit up and take notice, and it was the first hint of the risk-aware nature of the participant group.  None of my participants indicated that they were running around having sex like sheep mating in a paddock (as the esteemed Dr Albert Makara so infamously suggested earlier this year).  Instead they indicated they enjoyed a fun hook up, but were weary of how far those hook ups would go.

Next time I’ll talk some more about the survey results, principally about what I called public sexual behaviour—public kissing, dirty dancing, stripping and flashing, and everything on the real sex list.

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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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Sex and Risk – Its Fun but …

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing about my research results.  A number of interesting results came out the survey and interviews and a web discussion group.  Many are too large to be dealt with in a single posting – TMI – so I’ll tackle them piece by piece.  Feel free to offer comments or email me about what you’ve read.

My first major research finding is something I call the Sexual Risk Script.  One of the theoretical frameworks I used in the thesis is called Script Theory –we learn a number of scripts about how to behaviour in various social situations and bring these out in various circumstances and use them as they are or adapt them to the context and/or who we are and what we believe.  It’s a useful framework for providing some explanatory and descriptive information about behaviour.

The Sexual Risk Script is based in the large number of conditional statements that participants gave during their interviews and within the survey.  “It’s fun to hook up as long as you …” or “It’s fine to have casual sex as long as you …”   There was such a predominance of these kinds of statements that I began to see a pattern in the kinds of conditions (the ‘as long as you do x’ part of the statement) that many participants adhered to.  The Script therefore ended up looking like a list of rules or guidelines that should be considered when thinking about flashing your boobs at a bar, hooking up with a new guy, having casual sex, or starting a fuck buddy relationship.  Predominantly these conditions were risk-avoidant advice snippets, centring on sexual health, emotional/mental safety, partner-related safety, reputational safety, and self-control.

On a personal note, this was a difficult Script for me to come to grips with.  When I was growing up the dialogue around sex for young women involved a lot of scare tactics.  I was coming of age as AIDS began to be part of the sexual lexicon, and a huge mythology was circulating about how you could catch it and what it would do to you.  Sex ed focused on pictures of oozing sores and herpes blisters, and the ‘evils’ of STDs.  The shame of becoming pregnant in your early teens was also a weighty dialogue.  Sex education for me was an effective program of terror, basically.  How any of us ever managed to have sex … ?

Coming to this research I presumed that this fear-focus in education and social dialogue would have changed.  Young women are apparently having more sex with more partners, with greater frequency.  Surely young women are less fearful or risk-averse than I felt at similar ages.  Of course, that’s a purely subjective assessment.  It’s not something I could really know for sure.  But the appearance of the Sexual Risk Script out of all the statements and conversations had with participants during my research suggested that risk-focus is still a major orientation for young women, one that is not off-set by a pleasure-based dialogue that paints sex as something beyond risk – namely as something that can be fun, enjoyable, esteem-building, and subjectively satisfying.   This was a disappointing realisation for me.  I had hoped that our sexual culture had become more balanced in its treatment of female sexuality, that ‘sex=risk’ had evolved into something more.   What movement beyond this I came across was driven by participants and their personal experiences, and their own self-discoveries, rather than our social context.   Society still seems to be pedalling the same old stories.

Thinking about sex as risk is of course important, and that so many young women focused on this aspect of their sex lives highlights the efficacy of sex education and social messages around being safe sexually and protecting yourself against disease and ‘dangerous’ partners.  The importance of these aspects should not be undercut.  However, that there are few opportunities for young women to engage in alternative conversations about sex and their own desires and pleasures appeared to tip the balance towards danger-thinking at the expense of many other pleasurable aspects.   The only chat in town that many participants suggested was OK to talk about with respect to sex, was risk-oriented, despite many wishing they could talk more honestly and openly about sex and their sex lives.

This orientation towards sex – that risk-avoidance is central – was obvious in how participants talked about what they were OK with doing, what was OK for others to do, and what would happen if boundaries were crossed.  Basically, participants noted that young women could have a limited amount of fun.  There were certain things they could do safely without for example damaging their reputations, getting used, catching something, losing control and being slutty (or unfeminine), or being violated somehow.  Borderline behaviours could be done but carefully – be discrete, hide them away, tell people you were drunk or say it was only a hook up and hide it behind some ambiguity –caution and careful consideration was necessary.  Other behaviours were guaranteed to end in STIs and unwanted pregnancies, feelings of being used, getting coerced, being vulnerable to crazy guys, and being labelled a slut or a bitch or a skank.

Safe behaviours weren’t always guaranteed to be safe either.  Stigma and reputational damage were serious consequences for many participants, and due to the nature of judgemental observers, something as simple as making out with someone could have serious impacts, of which many participants were aware.   The Script’s cautionary nature therefore suggested that being sexual in any way outside of a relationship was a tricky undertaking.   The usefulness of the Sexual Risk Script was therefore obvious, as a way to help minimise negative consequences.    But it also had the not so great impact of significantly curtailing the kinds of things young women were able to do, narrowing the list of permitted behaviours to little more than kissing and erotic dancing.   Beyond, this, activities were potentially risky and could only be done within certain circumstances.

In my next post I’ll discuss the limits to behaviour more, and the kinds of conditional statements participants offered, that helped illustrate those limits.

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