Monthly Archives: August 2010

plain, spicy, chunky

Ten years ago I was on the phone with my friend Bill, talking about what it was like to be a sex educator, and I said, “The longer I do this, the more convinced I am that there’s no such thing as normal.”

Ten years ago.

I’m now approaching my 10,000 hours mark as a sex educator, and I’m feeling increasingly confident about this thought. It’s something I’ve said on the blog – uh, at least twice.

But what are we going to do about it, dearies? Here’s the rub: the whole CONCEPT of “normal” is misapplied to sexuality, and yet the most common question I am asked is some variation on “Am I normal?” The answer is virtually always, “Yes,” yet people virtually always feel totally unhelped by that answer. They want to know how they compare to others, as though others’ sexuality provides any kind of meaningful metric for one’s own sexuality.

So I’ve just read Blink and Outliers, both by Malcolm Gladwell. Normality is, I think, something Gladwell explores in different ways in all his books. And maybe one point he makes could be an answer to the “normal sex” problem. Here’s an important bit:

(Watch the whole thing. It’s worth it.)

Horizontal segmentation.

There is no mustard hierarchy, no spaghetti sauce hierarchy… and no sexual hierarchy.

Waddaya think?

Not the perfect “sex,” the perfect “sexes.” Sex to appeal to vast diversity of human tastes, inclinations, and preferences. Zesty pickles, visible solids in your spaghetti sauce, and spanking, if you like.

I mean, with pickles, spaghetti sauce, and cola, we have preferences, right, and we can even build identities around those preferences. It’s also true that our preferences can change over time, and our identity changes with them. And sometimes you don’t know what you want until you TASTE it.

So far so good, right? Just like sex.

Let us “confront the notion of the Platonic dish,” or, in this case, the Platonic sexuality. There is no “form of the good” for sex. There are only sexes. I love it!

But there’s a snag, see. The immediate inclination when you think about “sexes” is to sort out some sort of heuristic for sexuality, to break folks up into “sex clusters,” like the coffee clusters in the video.

And we kind of HAVE clusters (gay, masculine, feminine, straight, bi, kinky, vanilla, etc etc), and look how well that works. Not at all well, I mean to say. There’s just too much diversity; we’d need a heuristic with so many different categories it would hardly be worth paying attention to. Categories are a failure with regard to sex, and don’t we end up putting those clusters on a hierarchy, which defeats the purpose?

But humans, we NEED categories. It’s our shortcut, quick-and-dirty way of making sense of the world.

Hell, what’s the answer? I don’t know, I don’t know.

There’s no such thing as normal. But there’s also hardly any such thing as abnormal, ya know? And even worse, there’s not even a good system for horizontally segmenting human sexuality. It’s just a mess, a chaotic, teeming swarm of hormones and bodies and ideas. Here we all are, and what are we going to do about it, as Peter Wimsey says.

Sort this out, would you, and let me know what you come up with. There’s no such thing as normal. Stop worrying about it and just enjoy the sex you’re having, even if it’s just with yourself. Be your own cluster. Discuss.

are you an introvert?

People sometimes mistake “introvert” for “shy.”

I am not shy. Or rather, I am, but in much the same way as the Princess from “Once Upon a Mattress”

In other words, I’m the kind of shy that doesn’t look very shy.

No, what I am is an introvert.

The technical definition of an introvert is someone who gets energy by being alone or with one or two close friends, and drains energy being in a group. Extroverts, by contrast, gain energy in groups and feel drained when they spend too much time alone. The idea is that introverts expend energy in a group, and have to be alone to recharge, while extroverts expend energy when they’re alone and have to be with a group to recharge.

You can tell your an introvert or an extrovert by thinking about this question:

Imagine that it’s Friday evening and you’ve had a long, hard week. What are you going to do to relax?

If your answer is along the lines of “go out with friends” or “go to a party” or “go dancing,” you’re likely an extrovert.

If your answer is along the lines of “read a book” or “watch a DVD” or “snuggle up with my lovebucket,” you’re more likely an introvert.

It’s not an all-or-nothing thing; many people are somewhere in the middle.

Most statistics say something like 10% of people (in America) are fairly pure introverts. Like me.

This week the students got back – or rather, the student leaders got back. The residence life staff, the tutors, the orientation leaders, those folks. As the “wellness” person on campus, my role is go from group to group, teaching about “wellness.” This week it included: dangerous drinking, stress management, mindfulness, sexual assault, motivational interviewing, sleep hygiene, and (of course) sexual health.

I love this week. There are few domains where I feel more at home than leading a group of students in the direction of self-care. I know that stuff is happening in their heads that may change their lives forever – or at least plant a seed that, when it sprouts years from now, will have an impact. The work I do is important. Critical, even.

But I’m an introvert.

This week I averaged 3 hours per day in front of a groups ranging in size from 10 and 100. The last thing I did, Friday afternoon, was spend an hour in front of the international students, many of whom are jet lagged, culture shocked, and only marginally functional. I had to bring a LOT of energy to that group. It was worth it: they learned some things and, more importantly, they felt good about me and my office and will remember me if they need something. I pushed out every drop of energy and enthusiasm I had and left it in the room with them.

And now I am TOAST. As I walked back to my office, I felt the remnants of my energy dissolving, like sea foam on the beach after high tide. I have a headache. My muscles feel achy, like I’m recovering from a fever, or like I biked 100k yesterday. My brain is dull, slow, unresponsive. Like the engine of a beat up old lawnmower.

Dear extroverts of the world take note: this is a real, physical experience. I wasn’t doing hard manual labor but my body and brain are exhausted. Depleted. Drained. As a public service announcement, I would like to draw this to your attention:

If you or your partner is an introvert, sex can be a great energizer. It will, almost by definition, come from WILLINGNESS, rather than DESIRE for sex. But if you’re willing to get started with some back massages and low-key, low-light, quiet intimacy, sex with someone an introvert trusts and appreciates can do a LOT to revive, renew, and reenergize the introvert.

You can’t demand sex from a drained introvert – you might not even be wise to ASK for sex. But if you suggest that maybe the introvert take a nice long hot shower and you could maybe give her a massage and make a make-out session and see what else feels right, that can go a long way in reviving the introvert’s inner light.

eighty-four

When I do sexual assault prevention education, I often start with a standard little activity, where the first person names the number of people they know who have been sexually assaulted, and then the second person adds the people they’ve known to that, and the third adds theirs to that and so on. So if you know one person you say, “One,” and then if the next person knows two people, they say “Three,” and so on. You see?

I did that this morning, went around the group, listened to them add. There were 22 students in the group.

By the time they got to the end, the number was 84.

84.

With 22 students in the group.

I didn’t cry until I got home, more than 8 hours later. Quite proud of that.

Why do I do this work, when there are days like this, that eat away at me?

I do it BECAUSE days like this exist. And because 22 women, representing 84 survivors, show up to a classroom on a sunny Thursday morning to learn how to stop it.

parental investment: hippos

Hippos hang out in the mud or the river except when they eat.

Many of us have lived like that at some point, eh? My last apartment was tiny – under 300 square feet, basically just a kitchen and an open space for a bed, with a bathroom tacked on. Consequently I did everything in bed, except things involving my digestive system. The primary distinction between my life and a hippo’s was, therefore, the bathroom.

Well, also hippos are harem animals, and I am not, so there’s another difference between me and a hippo.

Like peafowl, but not like blue tits, only the females invest in parenting, so this is your classic male competition/female choice scenario, complete with mate guarding and sexual dimorphism -mostly in the form of bigger meaner teeth in the males; hippos are fighters, not lovers, ya know? Or else they’d invest in some sexy coloration or something to advertise to females, rather than investing in teeth to fuck some shit up with the other boys.

Also like many big mammals, the female have a roughly simultaneous estrus, at the end of the wet season, and then they give birth mostly at the start of the following wet season. It’s only during estrus that females are receptive to sex, so the males just bide their time the rest of the year, duking it out amongst themselves, in good old intrasexual competition style.

I’ve often wondered what human society would be like if all the females simultaneous became receptive to sex for just a few weeks, say in the late summer, and then all of us were totally unreceptive to sex the rest of the year. “Well,” said a friend of mine when I put this scenario to him, “There would be no sports on TV in September.”

There’s one other respect in which I’m very much like a hippo: hippos and humans reproduce slowly, usually one baby at a time. That’s another big mammal trait.

So it’s a pretty simple life, life as a hippo. If you’re a female, you chill in the water, except when you wander over to the fridge (or “land”) for a snack, and for a brief window of time you’re willing to mate with the bull of the pod. Bull of the Pod. Heh. And if you’re a male, you either (a) chill in the river with the other single dudes, with the occasional bid for dominance if you think you stand a chance against the Bull of the Pod; or (b) preside over your harm if you’re the bull. Of the Pod. (Heh.)

Crumbs, I wouldn’t mind being a hippo.

Can you tell I’ve been working a lot of hours lately? My brain is like half functional.

My sister has a thing for hippos. She also happens to speak Russian and is a musician, so naturally I was pleased to find this classic from Flanders and Swann:

art in the blood

Sherlock Holmes (fictional), in describing his familial antecents, notes that his grandmother was the sister of the French painter Vernet (fictional). He said (in “The Greek Interpreter”)

Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms

Ya’ll know my sister is a choral conductor currently working on a doctorate in same at UConn and my dad is a dance photographer. Well my brother is an ethnomusicologist about whom the the Washington Post recently featured a profile and he was interviewed for NPR’s “Tell Me More.

(Amelia and I are the twin sisters to whom, the article notes, Ian introduced the Velvet Underground. That’s absolutely true – Ian made the best mix tapes on the planet. I still listen to the one he made me for Christmas in 1991.)

And then there’s me, right? The sex nerd who can talk for hours (literally) about oral sex and cries when she thinks about the beauty that is evolution.

It’s funny, in the WashPo article an academic describes my brother’s liner notes as “over the top.” I nearly didn’t pass my qualifying exams because my committee felt the same about my writing. Not cautious enough, too inclined to declamation and intensity unbefitting the scholar. They were quite right, of course.

Art in the blood.

No wonder Sherlock Holmes became my obsession when I was 12.

So.

The students have begun arriving back on campus, the summer is officially over for me, and I wanted to let you know that I’ll be writing less frequently as a result. My schedule for the next month is terrifyingly intense, and I’ll have little flexibility or time.

I’ve said before that there’s something, something important about authenticity. It has the power to captivate and move people, no matter its source. The musical track referred to in the Ian’s WashPo story, “Smyrneiko Minore,” by Marika Papagika, is an example of that. You don’t need to understand the words to understand the feeling and the importance. Let’s end the summer with it. (Get your hanky out.)

“the face is like the penis!” (inappropriate erections)

I’ve just read Malcomlm Gladwell’s Blink – been meaning to read it for ages, finally got around to it – and easily the best quote in the whole book (from the point of view of a sex educator, at any rate) is:

Silvan Tomkins once began a lecture by bellowing, “The face is like the penis!”

Upon reading which I collapsed in a hail of giggling mirth etc.

Gladwell goes on to say:

What he meant was that the face has, to a large extent, a mind of its own. This doesn’t mean we have no control over our faces. We can use our voluntary muscular system to try to suppress those involuntary responses. But, often, some little part of suppressed emotion – such as the sense that I’m really unhappy even though I deny it – leaks out.

And Dr Tomkins was precisely right, of course.

I thought it was worth including on the blog because it’s an excellent way to think about the ways that the sexual inhibition system responds not just to physical threats like the proximity of a predator or or the risk of unintended pregnancy or disease transmission; it also responds to social appropriateness, and aren’t we glad.

“Now is not the time!” Your brain subconsciously/implicitly tells your penis when you notice something sexually relevant in the middle of your grandparents’ golden anniversary party. And lo! the erection is forestalled. Huzzah.

It doesn’t always work, as any 14 year old boy can tell you. Erections “leak out,” as it were. Pubescent boys – bless them – get inappropriate erections because their bodies are suddenly and massively flooded with so much testosterone (and thus their SES is vastly increased, goes the hypothesis) that their SIS can’t keep up with it. So when the wind blows the wrong way or their teacher wears a shirt with buttons down the front, the poor kid spends the afternoon with his books in front of his lap.

Romance novels tend to fetishize the inappropriate erection, as though it implies that the love interest’s appeal is so great as to overwhelm the hero’s defenses, you see. But in fact they’re more a measure of the guy’s innate levels of SIS and SES.

Take it as a compliment, absolutely! And there’s certainly nothing threatening about an erection in and of itself. It makes no demands, requires no attention – it’s the man attached to the erection who might do that, and any man worth is sodium chloride knows that his erection is his own responsibility and no one else’s.

But also don’t take it as an insult if it doesn’t happen, or if it happens when you’re not around. Erections come and go. Men without physiological erectile dysfunction get several of them every night, during REM sleep. No biggie. And in real life it is truly awkward for a grown man to get an erection in public. Really. Broadly speaking, it’s the kind of thing that’s only funny or sexy after the fact.

I want to say that the face is a more reliable source of information about how desirable he finds you, because his body isn’t busy trying to prevent him from generating a conspicuous tent in his trousers. And for lots of men that’s probably true: the eyes tell a story his dear penis just isn’t allowed to tell until he’s got you all to himself.

Sadly men are still culturally trained to use that “voluntary muscular system” Gladwell mentioned to suppress emotions that you’d rather he did’t suppress. Just as his body suppresses erections for good cultural reasons, his face is under tight cultural reigns too – some more than others.

So the face IS like the penis. Both respond innately; both inhibit in response to social motivations. Both can tell you something – but not everything – about how he feels about the fact that you’re there.

And the next man I see, whoever he is, may wonder why I start to giggle when I look at his face.

i like the sticky

This is a less sciencey, more airy fairypost. My sister would call it “fruity.” Touchy feely. Because I had a rough night.

See, I like the sticky – I mean, the sticky aspects of being human and having sex. It’s a thing for me; part of being sex positive is being comfortable with the organic parts of sex. As part of a lovingkindness meditation, though, I tried imagining the experience of a person who genuinely believed her body’s fluids were disgusting and that it was RIGHT to find her fluids disgusting.

I had to cut the meditation short and switch to a body-positive meditation because I felt like I was poisoning myself, so powerful was the sensation of rejecting my own organism; and still the feeling of self-hatred clung to me all night, like a lingering cold or a well-aimed kick.

How wrenching it must be to live inside a body whose functioning causes disgust, how raw, how crippling. During my meditation, I literally gasped for air, flooded and drowning in the need to love ALL OF YOU out there, as if I could heal with love and acceptance all of you who reject your own organism, or who have been rejected for your organism. I love you, my heart chants to the universe, I love you all, you’re safe, you’re well, you’re loved, you’re home, home because you’re in your body.

If I love you, there’s room in my heart for the inevitable byproducts – sticky, wet, aromatic – of being alive. While your pulse beats, your body battles infection and digests nutrients and absorbs water and cools and heats itself; while you live, in other words, you produce fluids, and those fluids have taste and smell and texture and temperature. And while your pulse beats and I love you, I love the blood and mucus and myoglobin and sweat and acids that thrum with salts and electricity to keep you here on the earth with me.

Love is messy, friends. I hope, I hope, I desperately hope that you are loved.

I want the world to be learned, impartial, and very relaxed about fluids. I want my ER nurse to be utterly cool if I come in with a nearly-severed finger. I want my ob-gyn to take it in her stride when she’s dealing with blood, baby, placenta, and vagina. I want my partner to say yes to sex when I’m menstruating. I want YOUR partner to say yes to sex when either of you is menstruating. I want love to include, to embrace, to relish the bodies of lovers.

My sister said, “You should quote ‘The Body Electric.’” Yeah I should!

Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest,
You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul.
[...]
If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred,
And the glory and sweet of a man is the token of manhood untainted,
And in man or woman a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is more
beautiful than the most beautiful face.

The sag. The jiggle. The ooze. The wet spot. I had a rough night last night, see. That happens when I’m confronted with the punishing scale of the things I’m trying to change out there.

I think bodies are gifts, and I want you to believe it too. I like the sticky.

No. No. I LOVE the sticky.

the little woman

All the talk about fertile young virgins made me want to tell y’all this. It’s the story of the origins of the thin ideal, as I learned it at a conference about eating disorders. This is what I learned:

Time was (and by “time” I mean the C17th-ish) a softer, rounder, plumper female was the glorious standard. See, it was only the rich women who could afford the food and the sedentary lifestyle that allowed them to accumulate the abundant curves of the women in Rubens’ paintings.
Rubens's eve

Around maybe the mid-C19th, coinciding roughly with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, it became a fashionable thing for a man to be able to afford a wife who was too weak to work.

It was a status symbol for a man, an advertisement of his wealth, you see, for his wife to be a small, thin, weak female, barely able to totter daintily around the house; how decadent to have a wife who not only didn’t but COULDN’T contribute to the household income!

This is in contradiction to everything evolution would have a woman be: robust, healthy, strong, tall, able healthfully to conceive, gestate, birth, and breastfeed multiple offspring.

But it’s so vulgar and coarse, isn’t it darling, for a woman to be able to give birth without having to spend months recovering, and it’s quite low class to breastfeed one’s own children.

Need evidence that big was beautiful? Take Jane Eyre (1847); whereas Jane herself is small and thin – “puny,” Ms Bronte says – Blanche, the lady lined up to steal the heart of the black but comely Mr Rochester, is tall and curvy:

They were all three of the loftiest stature of woman…. Blanche and Mary were of equal stature—straight and tall as poplars. Mary was too slim for her height; but Blanche was molded like a Dian.

When I first read Jane Eyre – when I was 12 or 13 and thoroughly steeped in the thin ideal – I thought, “That’s ridiculous, of course he’ll choose Jane, she’s smaller!” Which just goes to show you.

So that, my friends, is where the thin ideal originates.

Nowadays thin is the ideal for a combination of historical and class reasons: only the rich, you see, who can afford real food and have the leisure for exercise, can be thin. But always these fashions around women’s bodies are about social class. Thin is rich and thin is young. Nothing to do with fertility (on the contrary), nothing to do with an “evolved preference,” except insofar as we have an evolved preference for higher social status.

(Remind me to tell you one day why it’s stupid to think human males aren’t attracted to cues of high social status in females – which is a myth firmly entrenched in the “standard narrative.”)

Next time you meet a young woman who is worried about her body fat, maybe tell her this story and remind her that she’s no man’s property, no one’s status symbol, and the best way for her to be beautiful is to be healthy, which isn’t at all about weight (it’s healthier, indeed, to be 75 pounds “overweight” than to be 5 pounds “underweight”), and self-confident.

parental investment: blue tit

Blue tits are common birds in many parts of the world. Here’s one:

a blue tit

Apart from having a fun name, blue tits are interesting for a number of reasons:

(1) Unlike peafowl, they co-parent. That’s true of about 90% of bird species, it turns out. The female incubates the eggs – big clutches, up to 16 eggs – while the male feeds her, and then both parents feed the young when they hatch. However, this split of responsibilities results in a metabolic game where the female benefits from synchronous hatching (all chicks born together = greater feeding effort by Daddy) and the male benefits from asynchronous hatching (more incubation effort by Momma, less stressful provisioning by Daddy). The females, as the incubators, typically win this game.

(2) They appear monomorphic (i.e., the males and females look alike) to our eyes, as we might expect in a species where both males and females invest in parenting (see peafowl post for a fuller explanation). But they can see ultraviolet light, and it turns out that the blue crown reflects UV light, and females favor males with highly reflective crowns. (Imagine if men had glow-in-the-dark penises, and the brighter it glowed, the better he was at cunnilingus, and you begin to get the idea.)

(3) Here’s the really interesting bit: the UV reflectance trait might not be primarily selected for by sexual selection, but rather secondarily selected for; Momma feeds her highly reflectant nestlings more than the lesser reflectant ones; in an environment of intense sibling competition such reflectance means that the more you glow in your mother’s eyes, the better you’ll get fed by her. Interestingly, Daddies are not significantly affected by this.  So the female preference for reflectant males might be a byproduct of her preference for reflectant offspring! Neat, eh?

And I’ll be honest with you: I learned all of the above pretty much just so I could post this video, which the animators set in a blue tit birdhouse, but which is otherwise unrelated. I thought it was too funny not to find some excuse to post it:

the meaningless mean

In response to my post about the interview about Sex at Dawn, Nathan made this comment:

I’m about halfway through the book. I’d say their basic argument is reasonable, assuming that they’re representing the studies they cite responsibly. The book, however, is a lot longer than it needs to be and kind of unpleasantly written – snide when it doesn’t need to be, and with large, unsupported tangents from the main point. Someone else should write a good book starting from this data.

If there’s a single thing the book hammers on that is intended to be mind-blowing, it’s that there exist (and have existed for a long time) societies that are vastly less monogamy- and paternity-focused than the contemporary West. That this is news might be unfortunate, but there are a lot of people who don’t know that.

Which triggered a whole cascade of things in my head.

(1) If the book’s point is what I think and Nathan says and Ginny wrote – i.e., that the received wisdom from David Buss et al about women preferring older, rich men and men preferring young virgins is grounded in faulty assumptions about the role of paternity in sexual selection and leads to all kinds of ideas about both monogamy and women’s sexuality that are demonstrably untrue – then yes it is, as Nathan says, reasonable.

I know that because the point is not remotely original or new. To cite just one example (that I particularly like) Hrdy’s Mother Nature was published 11 years ago and says the same thing. Hrdy is careful to note that we don’t actually KNOW what sex was like pre-historically; it leaves no fossil record. But she discusses a variety of extant pre-literate cultures that have different attitudes from ours, like the Canela in Brazil, whose wedding ceremony includes an admonishment to the newlyweds not to be jealous of each other’s lovers.

(2) I think the REAL trouble is not that this is a new idea – it’s not (see above) – but that mainstream media has happily followed the ev psych story as far as it matches our cultural norms, but then abandoned it altogether. What turns off, grosses out, or offends the sensibilities of a journalist or an editor won’t make it to the magazine article. So the Canela, the Etoro, and everybody else with a sexual culture not like ours are just thought of as freaks, rather than examples of human sexual variability. And there I think we have the crux. Variability.

(3a) It took until the 70s for gays to start moving into the sexual mainstream, and that work isn’t close to finished yet. Women still aren’t part of the sexual mainstream either. Why? Because sexual attitudes – and therefore communication, legislation, and indeed science about sex – are planted solidly in moral ground. Variation from the norm is not just “variety,” but “deviance.” Why on earth would the good readers of Cosmo, Men’s Health, or Oprah Magazine want to read about deviants, except as a “freak show”?

How, indeed, can you broadcast about variety in human behavior without having it perceived as a freakshow?

(Ye Olde Mitchell and Webb have, of course, made a joke about the half-assed attempts at same:)

That’s the sort of question I can’t answer but that I’m pretty sure OTHER people, who know something about mass media, CAN answer.

(3b) And the problem is built into science as it has been practiced for yonks: measurement of central tendencies, with the assumption that “variation around the mean” is just insignificant noise; and worse, measurement of the behavior of brown people by white people from a cultural “high ground.”

With sex, the central tendency is close to meaningless. What’s important is the variability that has been traditionally ignored. That’s why Diamond’s work is so important: she’s looking directly at the variability, not looking for “averages” but for large-scale patterns, dynamics. (Hey Andrew, in her last chapter she says what I’ve been saying since 2002: that dynamical systems theory is the way to understand sexual development and diversity!)

This was Darwin’s genius: the ability to see the underlying meaning in variability. It was Kinsey’s genius too: to see variety and, like the Harvard-trained entomologist he was, see only variety, not deviance. And it is the future of the study of the evolution of human sexuality. Look at the variety, and see the principle underlying it.

When we have the right principle(s), everything will fit, all variety will be accounted for, and no sexual variety – barring the infringement of rights (which gets very complicated very fast but we’ll just leave that alone for now) – will be any better or worse, just as peacocks are no better or worse than blue tits, and hippos are no better or worse than lions.

So, now. Go. Do. Change the world. We at least – we few, we happy few – can make a start. We can look at sexual variety and celebrate it, and scold those who would judge it. Make it so.