Monthly Archives: June 2010

et tu, Marty?

I need you all to know ahead of time that I frickin’ LOVE Marty Klein. You may not think so by the end of this post, but it’s true.

That doesn’t mean he ain’t wrong.

In a post titled, “Flibanserin Defeated; What Is Accomplished?” he says that we, the anti-flibbers, have been accomplished four things – four bad things, obviously:

* The further public confusion of desire and arousal. People everywhere are referring to “pink Viagra,” which is a fundamental error.

Viagra addresses arousal, not desire. Flibanserin addresses desire (albeit imperfectly), not arousal.

(Technically, according to the FDA, Flibby doesn’t address desire “imperfectly” so much as it addresses desire not at all – or not enough to countervail the harmful side effects.)

It could be true that the anti-flibbers have confused people – I don’t know. I do know that I seem to spend every other post writing about arousal and desire, so I don’t feel like I personally am contributing to any confusion. (NB: desire can be responsive rather than spontaneous and still be healthy! Arousal is women is not necessarily related to desire or even PERCEIVED arousal! Okay? Okay!)

So me, I’m not contributing the confusion. But the anti-flibbers in general? Well, this is an empirical question. I’m open to evidence. Is there evidence? Dr Klein doesn’t cite any evidence. Can anyone find any evidence?

Also, am I wrong in thinking that the anti-flibbers are not the source of “pink Viagra” but rather the media started the term? Again, I could be wrong. Anyone know?

Either way, if the “pink Viagra” term has confused people, unconfusing them should be a priority. That will, of course, require teaching people about women’s sexuality, which is more complex than mens. Which brings me to…

* Reinforcing the myth that women’s sexuality, especially desire, is more complicated than men’s.

No, no, no. Eroticism in adults is complicated, and it insults both genders to suggest that only women have emotions around sexuality. Professionals don’t understand why men don’t desire women they love any more than we understand why women don’t desire men they love.

Most men are not heartless machines eager to screw anything with a heartbeat, any more than most women are frigid creatures who only acquiesce to sex out of duty.

Women’s sexuality IS more complicated than men’s – as evinced, for example, by the fact that a hydraulics-related solution like Viagra improves men’s arousal but not women’s – but that IN NO WAY implies that “only women have emotions around sexuality” that men will “screw anything with a heartbeat.” No one is saying that and it’s slightly horrifying that Dr Klein could seriously think that someone is. How is a smart dude like Dr Klein lulled into such an obvious trap of thinking that if I say “women are more complicated” then I must mean “men are NOT complicated”? Ick. And duh.

* Denigrating the idea that some women (and their relationships) really do suffer from low sexual desire even when the emotional and relational conditions are supportive.

It’s accurate, of course, to say that there isn’t a single level of desire that’s “normal.” But women who experience dramatic drops in their desire know there’s something wrong. And isn’t it obvious that one definition of “healthy adult” is the experience of sexual desire when the conditions are right?

Again, no one is saying this. Indeed, we anti-flibbers are distressed when low-desire women misconstrue our message. A woman with low desire spoke at the FDA hearing, saying that people who were against Flibby and HSDD were saying she was imagining her problem, so I sense this is widespread misunderstanding.

And we anti-flibbers do need to do something about this. I don’t know what we should do about it, but it’s a problem that our pro-woman cause is being misconstrued as anti-woman.

Here’s a summary of my pro-woman perspective: I think – and I suppose this is opinion more than fact – but I think that saying that MOST women are healthy and living in a fucked up culture and that that’s why their desire is low is SUPPORTIVE of women. SOME women have flatlining desire and are miserable because of it and won’t feel “treated’ until their desire level reaches some tolerable threshold (a threshold determined not by any clinical or medical standards but by sociocultural standards – no less real, but it’s important to note), and I wish there were a treatment for that. There isn’t one (I doubt there will ever be a medical one), and that sucks.

Also: NO DUDE, it’s NOT obvious that the definition of a healthy adult necessarily includes experiencing sexual desire under the right conditions. Meet the asexuals, friend.

(Dear asexuals, ya’ll have come up a lot lately. Much are you maligned! I appreciate your struggles! I try to give you your propers! Love, Emily)

But suppose Dr Klein meant “most healthy adults,” then yes. In that case let’s talk about what “the conditions are right” means. Camille Paglia wrote a NYT op ed about this in fact. Our culture doesn’t give much scope for “the right conditions” for women – and women are more context-dependent than men are (not to say men aren’t context dependent, just NOT AS MUCH). It’s the CULTURE that is the target of the “comprehensive approach” discussed later.

* Knocking down the straw man that “women’s sexuality is so simple it can be fixed with a pill.”

C’mon, no one—certainly not the drug company—has suggested this. Flibanserin is proposed for women whose reduced desire can’t be explained by a dozen other factors, including well-known desire killers such as ambivalence about the relationship, sexual trauma, and husbands who don’t bathe.

Yeah – NO ONE has suggested this. Where is this coming from? Who said the pharma folks are saying women’s sexuality is so simple it can be fixed with a pill? I’m literally asking – I haven’t heard anyone claim this.

But maybe I missed something – could well be. Maybe someone is saying this. Given evidence, I would change my mind. Um… anyone got any evidence?

So. Yeah. Those are the four things he says the anti-flibbers have accomplished. My responses, in summary: (1) have you any evidence of that? because I have evidence to the contrary in my blog; (2) anti-flibbers don’t think men are sexual robots and it’s disappointing to hear you say so; (3) we anti-flibbers aren’t disparaging any women, but I recognize that we need to do something about the misunderstanding of our view as dismissive of the suffering of women with low desire – I don’t grant that we’ve been disparaging, but I grant that it’s the perception; and (4) who thinks big pharma is saying women’s sexuality is simple? Again, just lookin’ fer evidence.

***********

A couple other things. He says:

The vociferous righteousness about this drug is terribly reminiscent of the hysteria over other sex-related drugs such as Plan B, RU486, and gardasil. Historically, conservatives have always attacked any technology designed or used to support sexual expression. But getting this resistance from progressives who care about women is new.

This isn’t “wrong” per se, I just REALLY disagree. A couple of people have said on my blog that they think my objections to flibanserin are “denying women choice” or “disrespecting women.” Indeed, Dr Klein’s comment could almost have been written by a friend of mine who kinda yelled at me for blogging about being glad flibby was not approved. He said that women with low desire thought I sounded “cruel.” But it makes no more sense coming from the inimitable Dr Klein than from my friend. Lemmee ‘splain:

The hysteria around all three of those drugs ran along the lines of, “IF YOU PUT THESE ON THE MARKET GIRLS WILL GO AROUND HAVING SEEEEEEEEEEEEEXXXXX!!!! AAAAAIIIIIGHHH!” Which is not only demonstrably untrue but also unjustified by three decades of behavioral research on harm reduction interventions.

Our “hysteria” (ugh – that WORD!) around flibby is not about what women might do – making women have too much sex or making them WANT too much sex or even making them believe their sexuality could or should conform to some medically-defined range of “normal.” Women ALREADY believe their sexuality could or should conform to some normal range – we can’t blame that on a drug.

No, this “hysteria” is about a corporation making a profit by lying to women, telling them they’re broken and need to be fixed with a drug, when really what they need is a different culture.

We’re not concerned that women will start wanting or enjoying sex; we’re concerned that they WON’T – they’ll take a drug, believing (falsely) that it will make them the sexual creatures they believe they should be, and they’ll be taking on harmful side effects in the process. They’ll buy the cultural party line that desire is amenable to medication and then they’ll feel EVEN MORE BROKEN when the drug doesn’t help. Of course, the drug company’s profits are the same, regardless of whether or not it works for a woman who fills the Rx.

The fact that it IS progressives who care about women should be a clue that our response DIFFERENT – even if your ears are tuned to hear objections to sex meds coming from the Right, the fact that it’s coming from the left means you can’t just say, “Ugh! Objection to sex meds! Must be some anti-sex freaknuts who think men are just penises with bodies!” The fact that we DO care about women are WANT sex to be good means that you might consider the possibility that we really are trying to create positive change for women.

Finally: Dr Klein goes on to disparage the New View’s options in lieu of a drug:

The suggestion of a “comprehensive approach” as if it’s some wonderful and effective new technology is troubling. Western psychologists have known for a century that sexuality is a complex and subtle combination of biological, psychological, and social components. And so all competent therapists use a “comprehensive approach” to sexual issues. And we encourage other therapists to use it as well.

And, he says, it doesn’t really work.

He’s right about therapy not helping desire – Julie Heiman wrote a review article of effective sex therapies maybe 10 years ago, and she noted that she wouldn’t even include therapy for desire because there was no evidence that therapy could increase desire per se.

What therapy DOES give couples, as he indeed says, is better communication skills, an untangling of the knots around initiation, and makes orgasms more reliable (in women). And it helps people to understand and embrace their own sexualities, rather than seeing the ways it varies from the cultural narrative around sexuality.

Women, varying from each other so much more than man (ahem, women are more complex) need this self-acceptance even more than men do; there is only one big ol’ cultural narrative and a quingigillion women’s sexualities (as opposed to merely bajillions of men’s sexualities).

So what “comprehensive approach” means from MY point of view (as an educator, not a therapist) is, well, EDUCATION. Education both in and outside of therapy. Education about non-concordance, responsive desire, and the other aspects of women’s sexuality that make it so crucially different from (and yes, more complex than) men’s. If women understand their sexuality in its normal, healthy state, they’ll experience less distress when it just does its thing – and women’s sexuality’s “thing” includes, for 90% of women, shutting down in response to depression, which is more common in women than in men, and for 80% of women, shutting down in response to anxiety, also more common in women than in men.

YOU know these things already because you read the blog – and thanks for reading because CHRIST ON A BIKE do I spend a lot of time writing all this stuff. It’s nice to know some folks are learning something. But lots and lots of people think a woman is supposed to be like a man. And she’s not.

To conclude the longest post so far on the blog (and hopefully the longest ever), I want to mention a way in which I differ from the larger New View view:

We all know that drug companies will keep looking for a sex drug for women, but if they ever do find one that works (they won’t), as I’ve said before, I’d sing its praises.

Why?

Because despite all the reinforcement of cultural myths around women’s sexuality, all the manipulation the marketing division would inevitably try, there are women who feel really bad about having no desire and their distress won’t be allayed through reframing or education or better communication with their partner.

But there won’t be a drug because women’s sexuality IS more complex than men’s. There can be no female equivalent because of the arousal non-concordance I keep banging on about and because of the predominantly responsive nature of women’s sexual desire.

Globally speaking, it’s not women’s DESIRE that’s broken, it’s the culture that shapes both women’s desires and their perceptions of that desire (“enough” desire, “too much,” “too little”). What needs to be fixed is the CULTURE. You can’t medicate a culture. You can change it gradually through education and various reform efforts.

Because women’s sexuality is what it is – variable on a galactic scale, changing across a woman’s menstrual cycle and reproductive lifespan, as well as varying hugely from woman to woman, and disruptable by more factors than we know about, in ways we don’t yet understand – it’s not amenable to medical interventions as science currently construes that term.

Public health interventions, maybe. Therapy, that too, in an indirect way.

Education. Education. Education. I only wish Dr Klein had included, in his list of our accomplishments, the creation of a teachable moment for women to learn about their own sexualities.

what she said

While I struggle for a clear description of how culture constructs women’s sexuality, Camille Paglia gets it right.

Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium.

and

Pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra — not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values. Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist.

It’s both humbling and a relief to hear someone say what I would have said, if only I had been clever enough.

sex positive

It takes a lot to write and teach well about sex. One mandatory requirement is a sex positive attitude.

What does it mean to be sex positive?

I looked all around the internet for a definition that really described what’s encompassed by the term and didn’t find one that I felt really did it justice. Cory Silverberg reviews a number of definitions at about.com. I particularly like what Carol Queen had to say:

“Sex-positive, a term that’s coming into cultural awareness, isn’t a dippy love-child celebration of orgone – it’s a simple yet radical affirmation that we each grow our own passions on a different medium, that instead of having two or three or even half a dozen sexual orientations, we should be thinking in terms of millions. “Sex-positive” respects each of our unique sexual profiles, even as we acknowledge that some of us have been damaged by a culture that tries to eradicate sexual difference and possibility. Even so, we grow like weeds.”

Right on sister.

I asked Twitter, too – @missjuliesunday said:

here’s what i use: (programs/activities/etc convey that) sex is fun and pleasure is good for you.

@pamelamadsen said:

…I would say “Shame free enjoyment of healthy sexuality”

@heathercorinna said:

Whoo boy. Talk about a big question! Barest basics, IMO? View of sexuality as beneficial, not either bad or neutral.

Shame-free, healthy, good for you, beneficial. Sex-positivity, it turns out, says, “Sex? It’s positive!” Generally the definitions seem to include the themes of acceptance of diversity and a broad understanding of sex as a biological and cultural aspect of humankind.

Sounds nice, eh? It’s also inherently feminist and progressive. You have to think being a woman is just as good as being a man, in order to believe that sex, all sex between any number of consenting adults, is a-okay.

But actually DOING sex positivity is rather more difficult than you think. Folks who teach about sex for a living are supposed to spend a whole bunch of time being exposed to diversity and examining, reexamining, and adjusting our attitudes about sex. If we take our jobs seriously, we are constantly working to overcome our own hangups and barriers, so that we are constantly accepting and supportive of all forms of consenting sex. Broader, broader, broader. Like yoga – working toward feeling more and more comfortable with a deeper and deeper stretch. It’s hard work – there are some things that I haven’t let go of, despite 15 years of exposure and self-assessment and relaxing into acceptance.

It gets complicated sometimes. Say you’re a gay rights activist in the 80s. It sure does help your cause if all the gay folks you know, well, to put it bluntly, act straight. Monogamous. Vanilla. Long-term partners hosting dinner parties with chicken picata, yellow cake, and moderate quantities of moderately nice Merlot. You might have a hard time expressing joyful support for a flaming queen of a boyslut, because you perceive that queen as undermining your political goals. After all, the middle aged, middle class, white straighties who write legislation find it easier to cope with homosexuals who don’t, you know, SEEM homosexual.

There are lots of people whom you might assume are sex-positive by virtue of their work or their lifestyle who… well… not so much.

Gay people who think bisexual people are just straight folks with a wild side or gay folks who aren’t ready to come out. That’s sex negative. Kinky folks who judge and shame vanilla folks? They’re just as sex negative as the vanilla folks who judge and shame the kinky.

I say all this by way of describing why Jesse Bering’s article about masturbation pissed me off. In addition to his implication that, like, girls are gross, he also thinks it’s okay to question someone else’s sexual orientation. Like this:

This is one of the reasons, incidentally, why I find it so hard to believe that self-proclaimed asexuals who admit to masturbating to orgasm are really and truly asexual. They must be picturing something , and whatever that something is gives away their sexuality.

This shows a basic misunderstanding of what asexuality is, as well as a condescending attitude of, “I don’t believe your experience is what you say it is,” and that’s sex negative.

I can’t stop Dr Bering from writing about sex – and christ knows the fact that he writes a column for Scientific American shows that the intellectual world doesn’t really give a rats ass about challenging sex-negative attitudes – but I want to offer my little bleat of frustration that 63 years after Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and 57 years after Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, people still think it’s okay to judge and doubt other people’s sexual realities, if they’re different from their own. Either folks can’t spot sex negativity when they see it, or else they don’t much care.

Is it a big deal? I certainly think so – and not just for its own sake. Sex positivity brings with it anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, anti-classism, antisectarianism… if sex is good for everybody, that means it’s good for EVERYBODY.

Sex positivity is hard work – maybe I’ll do a post about why (I think) it’s hard work for people to stay open-minded about sexuality that isn’t their own. But I’m quite convinced that world peace hinges on global acceptance of sexual diversity. Really. So I get pretty pissed off when I see something that looks an awful lot like institutionally sanctioned sex negativity.

the evolution of a woman

So here’s a hard question that someone emailed me:

WHY do women respond to such a wide range of stimuli?

(Respond genitally, we mean, because by now you’re all well versed in the non-concordance issue, right? Right.)

Well. I don’t know. No one does, really. I’ll tell you my opinion, but I could turn out to be wrong. (I think I’m right, but when did thinking you were right every guarantee anything?)

I think women respond to a wide range of stimuli for two possible reasons, tied to the function of arousal in women.

What IS the ultimate function of arousal in women? In men, it’s fairly obvious: erection facilitates penetration, which is the one and only means to fertilization. Excellent. Men need arousal in order to reproduce. Indeed, they need arousal and ejaculation in order to reproduce.

Women, on the other hand, don’t. We can get pregnant and give birth just fine without being the least interested in the sex that initiated the pregnancy. Why bother getting aroused?

No really, why bother?

1. Protection. The lubrication of the vagina functions to minimize friction associated with penetration. Reducing friction reduces tearing of the vaginal walls, which in turn reduces risk of infection.

So why would a woman respond genitally to, like, pictures of monkeys having sex? Because her body is preparing itself for penetration, to prevent infection. Her body is protecting itself. Therefore reason 1 why (I think) women respond genitally to more or less anything: generic physical preparation for potential sex, in order to reduce harmful consequences associated with penetration. This is what Meredith Chivers suggested at a conference a few years ago, and it sounded good to me.

(However, it doesn’t account at all for women presented with sexual stimuli who DON’T get physiologically aroused. So. It’s imperfect.)

2. Reward. This one is HIGHLY speculative, even though it will sound perfectly sensible. It’s sensible because it’s based on a common assumption – and as far as I’ve been able to figure it’s an untestable assumption. The assumption is that orgasm was selected for in MALES because it rewarded behavior that resulted in ejaculation, which is a man’s one and only buy-in to the evolutionary game. Make it feel real good, evolution says, so he’ll want to do it more.

Let’s assume that’s right.

Now. Orgasm has not been under primary selection pressure in women; that much seems to be definitely true. This is a big part of the explanation for why women vary so much more than men do – they vary in orgasmicity, clitoris size, all kinds of things. Penises vary in size much less than clitorises do, did you know that? It’s true. Why? Because penises have been under direct sexual selection pressure. Clits, not so much.

However. I think – and this is more speculation – I think sexual arousal in general and the clit in particular have been under secondary selection pressure. That is, it’s there anyway, due to the wonders of biological homology (must write post about homology), so evolution’s like, why not see if we can make use of this? I think this might be why the clit, although it is about 1/8th the size of a penis, has something like twice as many nerve endings. Why go to the metabolic expense of developing all those nerve endings unless they serve some purpose?

What is that purpose? Pleasure. IMO.

The hypothesis here is that pleasure rewards a woman for doing things that turn her on, which will in turn potentially result in selecting a good genetic mate, building a supportive social network, etc etc.

Pleasure, NOT ORGASM per se. The available science suggests that high intensity arousal is plenty to change a woman’s biochemistry in the appropriate ways; orgasm is not the target.

Now, it’s not at all speculative to say that, globally, pleasure rewards an organism, which causes the organism to learn. What’s speculative here is my suggestion that a woman’s physiological arousal/arousability has been under selection pressure because it guides her toward adaptive behaviors. The range of potentially adaptive behaviors related to sex and mating is SO VAST among human females that a gigantic range of responsiveness allows women to adapt to any and every set of sociosexual circumstances.

And from there it just gets HIDEOUSLY complicated. I mean shit can go TERRIBLY wrong and be terribly confusing, painful, and maladaptive. Complex systems like women’s sexuality have the potential disadvantage of being wildly disruptable.

Anyway. Before I get on a wacky tangent here, I’ll summarize:

I think women respond genitally to a wide range of stimuli because (1) it helps protect their bodies from damage associated with penetration and (2) the pleasure of arousal, at the physiological level, trains a woman onto behaviors and stimuli that the body interprets as adaptive in the sociosexual context in which a woman is immersed. The range of potential stimuli demands that her body be responsive to nearly anything.

I could do a whole thing about tend and befriend and the potential role of sex in the stress response, but this is already a very long post. We’ll leave it til later, eh?

misogyny and cervical mucus in Scientific American

I can’t reply fully to this infuriating Scientific American article about masturbation until Primate Sexuality gets delivered to my library, so that I’ve got a reference work from, but for the moment let me just address the worst anti-feminist bit, discussion of which requires little more than my own appalled horror.

Dr Bering writes:

Well, Baker and Bellis are clever empiricists. They also apparently have stomachs of steel. One way that they tested their hypotheses was to ask over 30 brave heterosexual couples to provide them with some rather concrete samples of their sex lives: the vaginal “flowbacks” from their post-coital couplings, in which some portion of the male’s ejaculate is spontaneously rejected by the woman’s body. [emphasis mine]

I’m going to ignore, for the moment, that Baker and Bellis are best known among sex researchers for producing Rudyard Kiplings, o best beloved, and for being proven wrong. I’m going to ignore, again for the moment, that the results of this study do not really support the hypothesis in question. I’m going to move straight to the plain old RUDENESS of that paragraph.

Apparently collecting ejaculate requires no particular digestive toughness, but ejaculate in cervical mucus requires industrial strength gastric abilities.

Should we conclude that Dr. Bering himself has felt nauseated by the fluids of any female sex partners he may have had? Indeed, the blatant, unapologetic, flinching gynophobia made me wonder if he’s gay, which it turns out he is, but that doesn’t make it okay for him to discuss female fluids as physically disgusting.

In Scientific American.

It’s just fuckin’ rude, man. Your personal disinterest in cervical mucus doesn’t make it okay to describe it as gross in a science magazine. You owe women an apology, and, if you plan to write about sex science in the future, you need to get over your bullshit.

(EDIT: My reply to Dr Bering’s reply to this post. Also, the ode to cervical mucus this conversation inspired.)

how to have an orgasm, in 400 words or less

I’ve spent today polishing a booklet about orgasm written by a student. I’m essentially just adjusting the formatting and checking for typgraphical errors, but the one weak bit is the section that explains the technical bit about how orgasm works and why they go wrong.

It is incredibly difficult to explain this in 400 words, which is all there is space for.

Let’s try it, eh? Okay, go:

Your sexual response system is made of two mechanisms in your central nervous system (brain and spine): a Sexual Excitation System (SES) and a Sexual Inhibition System (SIS).

SES is essentially the “gas pedal” of your sexual responsiveness – it notices sexually relevant information in your environment – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and thoughts, and sends a signal to your genitals that says, “turn on.”

SIS is you sexual “brakes.” It notices potential threats and sends a “turn off” signal to your genitals. Threats include physical consequences like STIS or unwanted pregnancy, but also psychological and social consequences, like relationship issues, worry about social reputation, body image difficulties, and performance anxiety.

Most often (though not always) orgasm difficulties in college age women are associated with SIS responding to too many things. If your SIS has learned to put on the brakes in response to worries about body image and performance, these worries can delay or prevent arousal and orgasm.

Through the practice of mindfulness and systematic desensitization, you can train your SIS to ignore body image, worries about performance, and other thoughts that can impede sexual arousal and orgasm.

How?

Each day, spend 5-30 minutes lying still and noticing how your body feels. Your mind will wander – that’s normal – and your job is to redirect your thoughts back to the sensations in your body. Over time, your mind will stay more readily focused and your sensory awareness will grow more acute.

Week by week, add erotic stimulation, gradually increasing its intensity. At first, just touch your body in a general way and notice how that feels. After a week or so, add breast stimulation. Maybe another week later, add genital stimulation.

You needn’t try to increase your arousal level; just notice how your body responds to various kinds of touch.

Stay aware of the physical changes you notice happening as your body becomes aroused; notice how your breathing changes, how the sensitivity of your skin changes, how the tension in your muscles changes. If you find yourself worrying about whether or not you’ll have an orgasm, gently return your attention to the sensations in your body. Just allow your arousal to increase or decrease, however it wants to in response to sensations.

Eventually you can add fantasy to the physical sensations and notice how your arousal changes depending on what you’re thinking about.

391 words. Is that too abbreviated? Does it make sense? What questions are you left with?

HOURS I’ve been trying to write this.

This is why I would make a shitty journalist.

Occam and attachment

Speaking of attachment…

You guys, there are things I don’t know. I bump into brand new stuff – even stuff I think ought to have known before – pretty regularly. Example: Clelia Mosher‘s work was unknown to me until a couple months ago.

So I’m absolutely certain that there are plenty of things that I’ll learn in the future and plenty of things that I’ll feel like I ought to have known before.

But here is something I’ve never heard before, from our old friend the Evolutionary Agony Aunt that just sounds like… well… total bullshit:

Human behaviour seems to be under the control of two evolutionary programs: one that results in fertilisation, disillusionment and a series of partners, and the other that enables humans to develop the lasting relationships that lead to long, happy and healthy lives.

The two evolutionary programs, as she describes them, are controlled by dopamine and oxytocin respectively.

So (1) I’ve never heard this idea before and (2) it seems a little nutsy and confused.

I am not a neuroendocrinologist (neither is Ms Jahme), but I know enough to be able to say that it’s, like, waaaaaaaaay more complicated than that.

Prolactin does damp down sexual responsiveness after orgasm, counteracting the effects of dopamine, but “post-orgasmic increases of prolactin probably do not represent a direct negative feedback mechanism to the CNS but are likely to be one signal among a complex interaction of neuropeptides, monoamines and neurotransmitters controlling sexual behavior.” In other words, it’s not even REMOTELY that simple.

Furthermore, oxytocin can both increase and decrease dopamine, AND dopamine in turn can increase oxytocin (I don’t know if it can also decrease OT). So it’s not like they’re separate systems – indeed dopamine and oxytocin are reciprocally interacting bedmates in the hormonal dance of attachment and a vast range of socio-affiliative behaviors.

Furthermore, oxytocin isn’t just the happy feel-good hormone of the securely attached; under stress, oxytocin levels increase in order (it’s hypothesized) to motivate a person to seek the safety of a social group. Google “tend and befriend.” In other words, OT is not really predictive of a “long, healthy, happy life.”

This kind of nonsense gives evolutionary psychology a bad name among real scientists.

The broader short-term/long-term system dichotomy is something Ms Jahme and her cohort of evolutionary psychologists (David Buss, et al) have been proposing for years, and as a theory it doesn’t work. It’s a cheap attempt to explain the defeatingly varied array of sexual, social, and romantic behaviors people exhibit. It ignores the true complexity of human behavioral neuroendocrinology.

Maybe I’ll do a post on why the dichotomy doesn’t work. It’s complicated and technical and probably fairly boring.

I would add here something I’ve mentioned before, which is that the best (by which I mean my favorite) relationship research is John Gottman’s observational studies of couples’ communication patterns and stress responses. He can predict with staggering accuracy whether a couple will divorce within the next 5 years by watching them fight. He’s not looking at their brain chemicals, he doesn’t need to know their plasma levels of prolactin or oxytocin. He just needs to see how critical they are, if they roll their eyes, if they listen to each other, if they allow time for stress levels to go down.

And furthermore these are teachable skills, not biological programs. (Oh god, I dread the day when someone says that learning these relationship skills “transitions a person from the short-term evolutionary strategy to the long-term evolutionary strategy.” Utter. Bullshit.)

attachment styles – a primer

How can it be that I’ve never done a post about attachment styles? I talk about it all the time with students – it’s useful stuff. It’s the kind of thing that makes people go, “Why did no one tell me that 10 years ago?”

Some background: the attachment system, as I said previously, is an adaptive mechanism whereby humans experience a social bond with others. It helps us survive infancy and it ties us to our adult romantic partners.

The way we attach to others in adulthood is shaped by the way we are parented. There might also be some temperamental proneness to particular attachment styles, but the stuff I’ll talk about now is the parenting stuff.

Very, very briefly, we attach securely when our adult caregivers (usually parents) are pretty reliably there when we need them. We cry, they come. We turn around, they’re there. Under these conditions we learn that our adult caregiver will come back when they leave; they will not abandon us. So when we’re frightened, we know we can go to them and be protected.

The abandonment thing is crucial: remember that infants’ lives literally depend on their adult caregiver coming back. So it’s a serious thing in an infant’s life, figuring out how to cope with potential abandonment.

We attach insecurely when our adult caregivers are less reliable. If they’re under extreme stress or have lots of other children to take care of or have an active drug or alcohol addiction or have a mood or personality disorder, they won’t necessarily be there when the infant needs them, and if they are there, there’s no guarantee they’ll be in a helpful frame of mind.

What all this boils down to are three primary styles of attachment:

Secure. About half of us (and I mean North Americans – I’m gonna guess this is also approximately true for Europeans, but I honestly couldn’t say about any other continent) have a secure attachment style. This means that when your attachment object goes away, you experience distress but you don’t panic, you’re more or less sure they’ll come back if you need them, and when they do come back you feel better.

Anxious-Insecure. About a quarter of us (see caveat above) have an anxious attachment style. In this style, you cope with the risk that your attachment object might abandon you by clinging desperately to them. When they go away, you feel panic, and when they come back you don’t necessarily feel better.

Avoidant-Insecure. The remaining quarter (ditto) have an avoidant attachment style. In this style, you cope with the risk that your attachment object might abandon you by not attaching at all. Avoidant kids don’t prefer their parents to other adults; avoidant adults are more likely to approve of and have anonymous sex.

Also Insecure-Disorganized. Some people have a disorganized or chaotic attachment style. They’re a mess and may exhibit the most desperate and reckless emotional flailing you can imagine.

(It’s all quite a bit more complicated that that, but this is plenty to be getting on with.)

If you’re an anxious or avoidant style person, I recommend David Richo’s wonderful How to Be an Adult, which simply, frankly, and gently lays out the steps to sorting out your shit so that you can have relationships with people. When I was doing my clinical internship, I recommended it to my clients and they all liked it a lot. Richo uses the language of “fear of abandonment” and “fear of engulfment,” which roughly parallel anxious and avoidant attachment styles respectively.

Not only your attachment style matters, in relationships. Your partner’s style matters just as much, and your own style may change your tolerance of your partner’s style. For example you’ll notice my birthday wish song says, “You must attach secure or slightly anxious…”” – ungrammatical for scanning purposes, but the point is I can’t cope with an avoidant style in my partner; it makes me crazy.

Why? Because I fall on the anxious side of secure, and when anxious meets avoidant, you get… well, the interaction between the two styles plays a role in the overall dynamics of the relationship. You might be able to imagine the mess that emerges. I’ll do a post on that, but it happens I talked about this last semester:

now *I* want a “condomlabra”

On Twitter, the fabulous Marty Klein shared this video from the (also fabulous) Paul Joannides:

And I liked it so much I just had to post it for ya’ll. It’s just exactly the right combination of simple, frank information, silly humor, nerdy gadgetry, approachable dopiness, and unshockable comfort with all things sexual that makes The Guide to Getting It On the classic that it is.

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve got in your pants if there’s nothing in your brain to connect it to.”

sometimes a lighthouse…

Because I am a generic nerd as well as a sex nerd, when our lad David Mitchell did a thing on cultural references in media, accompanied by a number of visual references that I didn’t get, I went on a little electronic hunt (which is exactly what his rant predicted people would do.)

And, being a nerd, I actually tweeted Mr Mitchell about the one result I wasn’t sure of. The lighthouse, I tweeted, must be a reference to Elizabeth Harcourt Mitchell’s 1860 novel The Lighthouse. There were a bunch of “Mitchell” references of varying levels of obscurity but this was really QUITE obscure.

He tweeted back (very nicely) that I was wrong. The lighthouse, it turns out, is part of the logo for tiny Mitchell College in New London, CT.

Indeed, further investigation revealed that the logo represents the New London lighthouse, built in 1801 on the Long Island Sound, at the mouth of the Thames (pronounced as spelled, to rhyme with “James” – I know, right?) River.

New London is about an hour and a half drive from where I live and not far from a dance I was planning to attend Saturday night, coincidentally enough. So what could I do but go there? No self-respecting nerd, given these conditions, could NOT go. I went and found the actual New London lighthouse. Here it is:
New London lighthouse, Long Island Sound

Does this have anything to do with sex? No.

(Except… Only on my way home did I even began to consider the implications of hunting down an 80′ tall sticky-up hard thing, just because I would be in the area and it was in Mr Mitchell’s thingamajig. Freud would have something to say on the subject. But Freud can suck an egg, dude.)

It’s just the sort of story you might remember, if you ever wonder how I learned all the stuff on the blog. I learned it by not stopping just because I had found the answer I was looking for. Having the answer isn’t enough; having a comfortable nest of social, historical, biological, or philosophical context in which to house the answer is much more satisfying.

So it’s just a lighthouse. But let the lighthouse stand for the obsessive over-preparation, ravenous curiosity, and urgent inner motivation (not a drive!) to understand things that got me where I am today.

And thanks to the blog, I know there are bunches of you out there who, like me, don’t stop asking questions just because you’ve got the answer. You’re who I’m writing to. I’m glad you’re there.

(I’ll write a thing about relationships or fetishes next, I promise, something sexy and/or useful.)