Monthly Archives: October 2011

“apologetically but insistently”

(conversation about consent below; proceed (or not) accordingly.)

I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” and I must say that hearing a boy’s-eye point of view on sex is amazing to me.

Boys in early adolescence, in Bryson’s account (overblown for comic effect), view girls as possessors of a special and mysterious THING that they WANT, they just WANT. They want to TOUCH. When describing his astonishment that anyone would bother with a nuclear drill, he writes,

The time would be better spent apologetically but insistently touching Mary O’Leary’s budding chest.

Well. That sentence.

On the one hand, it’s a really funny sentence.

And on the other hand, it’s a mournful signal of the early occasions when a woman learns that her body is in the public domain. Boys apologize because on some level they realize that a girl’s body is not theirs to touch, but insistently, because the force of their want overwhelms the strength of their interpersonal boundaries.

Of course this paradigm of girls as Possessors of Sex and boys as Consumers of Sex, this entire narrative of commodification, is culturally constructed and a foundation of rape culture, of punishing women for misusing their sexuality, and of women learning that their value lies in their sexuality rather than in, well, anything else.

Add to that the brain issue. What brain issue, you ask? Adolescents have trouble with impulse control; their prefrontal cortices won’t be fully developed until they’re in their mid-20′s, so they literally CAN’T comprehend the consequences of their actions and they just DO shit because their impulse control is abysmal.

Bill Bryson grew up to be a perfectly nice guy, as far as I can tell, not a sociopathic sexual predator. He was a healthy boy growing up in a sick culture, and he survived it with minimal scars around his sexuality – again, as far as I can tell.

Which speaks to the robustness of human sexual functioning, that it can remain more or less intact in such conditions. It’s a bit like how humans can stay alive on Big Macs and corn syrup, when we evolved to eat animal flesh and roots and berries and stuff.

I think his salvation lay in the “apologetically” half of the equation. He knew, on some level, that Mary O’Leary’s body belonged to Mary O’Leary and that he did not have the right to touch it without her permission. And I think that may be the part that we’ve lost, to a great extent, in the last 50 years. Somewhere along the line, as we became an increasingly visual culture, an increasingly media-saturated culture, an increasingly… dare I say, an increasingly stupid culture, kids are having a harder time with the idea that the person in front of them is a person rather than an image, another individual with an internal life of their own, rather than a product.

Just as the American diet has, in the last 50 years, grown increasingly processed and preserved and, essentially, less full of food and more full of products, our time spent learning about culture is spent more with images and less with other members of that culture. Our brains are drowning in cultural corn syrup, and we have an epidemic of sexual dysregulation as a result.

I keep returning, lately, to this idea of disconnecting from the corporate, in order to untangle the knots that mainstream commercial (a redundancy if ever there was one) media has done to one’s brain, and trying to reorganize one’s understanding of one’s own body and the bodies and minds of the people in one’s life.

All this from “apologetically but insistently.” Life inside the head of a sex nerd, friends.

sex and the apocalypse

My entire city and pretty much the entire rest of the county (and much of the state and indeed the region) has no power, thanks to the glories of global warming and the weight of snow collecting on not-yet-fallen leaves. (So most of you won’t be reading this until tomorrow or later. Hope’re staying safe!)

The lights went out around 6:30 last night, when it was already dark and the euphemism and I were settling in to a nerdy evening of soup and internet.

A few months ago, I would have written a witty post about using the dark as an opportunity to take candlelit bath with your sweetie and then snuggle in the bed.

But then a few months ago I would have assumed that the anxiety of losing power and not knowing when it would be restored would be erased by the comfort of having someone to snuggle with – which I didn’t have then and I do now.

In other words, a few months ago I would have been a bit deluded.

Losing power and not knowing when it’ll be back is anxiety provoking. Even early into the event, I was already obsessively checking and rechecking twitter and facebook on my phone, for updates.

So rather than writing a quippy, feminist-women’s-magazine style post about “making the most of it with Victorian-era role play,” I’d like to take this opportunity remind readers that anxiety, worry, and stress of all kinds kills most people’s sexual interest. (Details about individual differences here.)

It’s a point I haven’t made for a while – not since two July’s ago, when I was criticizing TV for blithely ignoring how stress affect sexual desire.

So I’m glad for the opportunity to avoid making the error that I criticized last year, the a glossy assumption that a stressful situation can be handily set aside while you play and frolic with your bunny.

Nah. It’s neither that simple nor that easy. When shit just sucks and when the suckitude drains you of sexual energy, THAT’S NORMAL.

It makes perfect physiological sense, right? Your stress response, being unable to differentiate between loss of electric service and, say, being hunted by a lion, shuts off or slows down a variety of biological systems, from your digestion to your immune system, until such time as the stressful situation, be it lion or electron, has been resolved. Your sexual motivation system is one of the ones that gets impeded by the stress response; globally (and there are exceptions), sex is not a biological priority under circumstances of high stress.

(Sometimes sex can be used to manage negative affect or to resolve a stressful situation.)

(Also, there are special strategies for dealing with worrying about sex during sex.)

So when you’re stressed and therefore your sexual interest goes away, THAT’S NORMAL. Don’t sweat it. Don’t try to be a candy-coated sexy kitten when what you want is to obsessively reload the outage map.

You know what can help instead? Straightforward affection, the loving presence of someone you trust and care about, who trusts and cares about you. Be grumpy and stressed together. As long as you recognize that the stressor is OUTSIDE the relationship, you can commiserate and problem-solve and just sit next to each other in the candlelight, glad that there’s someone else there, in case this really is the apocalypse.

this is what sexy looks like

So it was frickin’ freezing this morning when I went to run the dog. Literally. It was 30 degrees.

So I piled on the thermals and the earwarmers and the legwarmers and the gloves and I pulled a windproof skirt over my fleecy yoga pants, plus a neck gaiter, and I pulled a neon yellow cycling shirt over all that (a color a former boyfriend once called “don’t-hit-my-daughter yellow,” because my dad bought it for me).

Just imagine that for a second. Fleecy pants with legwarmers and knee-length windproof skirt, black thumbhole thermal shirt, black gloves, gray earwarmers, black floral neck gaiter, and a fluorescent yellow long-sleeve fleece-lined mock turtleneck. And white-and-pink minimal running shoes. On a body that has spent 34 years loving cheese and chocolate, as well as dancing and rock climbing.

Now imagine that outfit stepping out into the dark and cold of 6:30am in late October in New England, onto the frozen wooden front steps… and INSTANTLY sliding ass-first down the stairs, to bump skull against stair.

I just lay there on my ass for a minute, in that dark and cold.

I lay there sprawled and checking in with all my various body parts (none of which were injured), while the dog waited for me at the far end of his leash, and I thought, “This is what sexy looks like.”

See, I’m a REALLY good dog mom, to pile on all those clothes at that time of day, to run with 65 pounds of shedding, slobbering attention-hog. It makes him happy. And making the dog happy is part of how the romantic euphemism can tell I’m a nice person, as sexy on the inside as I am on the outside. It’s the emotional, personality equivalent of pneumatic tits and a bouncy ass.

And so I ran with the dog, just a couple miles, and I picked up his poop and ran him home and fed him breakfast. Then he went back to bed and I went to work. And this right now, me sitting at my desk, having spent the day talking with students, this is what sexy looks like. Sexy smells a little of coffee and local, heritage apples.

And later tonight – SO late, not til 8:30pm – when I get home at last and the euphemism is waiting for me on the couch, with that shedding, slobbering dog asleep at his side, that’s what sexy looks like too. It looks like white dog hair on an army surplus jacket, and like root vegetable curry warming in a crock pot. And also like 6 feet of brilliant, funny, tolerant, patient, generous, sexytime boy, let’s not forget that.

ebooks of compiled posts

Hey there folks, based on people’s feedback, I’ve compiled the 10-part Orgasm series, everything from your first orgasm to simultaneous and extended orgasms.

It’s not new content, it’s just the blog content organized for you and put into ePub, Mobi, and PDF formats. Handy, right? The romantic euphamism did all the technical part, so thank him for it.

It’s free, creative commons license, so download away and distribute to your friends, lovers, siblings, parents, enemies, whatever. I just want people to be able to access the information.

You’ll find them under the downloads tab.

With it, you’ll see a Paypal link. Dig this: I’ve decided to take blogging a bit more seriously. Mostly until now it’s been for my own entertainment, but I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how it helps people, and I feel like it’s a good thing to do. So I’m going to buy a domain and set things up a bit more formally, which takes a little money. If you have a few spare bucks and the blog has been useful for you, feel free to help out. If the blog has been useful but you really kinda don’t have a few spare bucks, seriously don’t worry about it.

So that’s the news.

belly theories

I wanted to add to yesterday’s post that I have a pet theory about why this silly and biologically untenable “flat belly” has become such a vogue.

Well I have two theories, actually.

The first, less sexually interesting theory, is that it’s a corporate construct designed to make us believe incorrect things about what our bodies are supposed to look like, so that we’ll feel bad and try to change our bellies, buying all kinds of crap in the process, when actually there is nothing wrong with our bellies that a little basic knowledge can’t fix. What makes me especially like this theory is that it’s actually NOT POSSIBLE to achieve the rock-hard-fat-abdomen advertised, because that’s simply not how bodies are shaped, so we’re being led down a rabbit hole, made to crave something that is genuinely impossible. Which is a good trick, if you have a vested interest in making people spend money.

My second theory is about why THAT aesthetic in particular might resonate so powerfully. It might be that the taut abdomen is actually more like what a person near orgasm looks like. You get all this tone in your abdomen, these waves of muscles contractions that may well flatten out your belly. In the way that lipstick darkens lips as lips darken with arousal, blush flushes cheeks as cheeks flush with arousal, and mascara and eyeliner, the flat abdomen mimics arousal.

Just a pet theory.

Oh, and a third theory: youth. Because fat accumulates on younger women more on the butt and thighs and gradually moves north as they age, fat on hips and thighs is an indicator of youth and fertility. That’s actually a genuine thing at moderate levels, but it doesn’t account for the EXTREMITY of the current fashion. That, I think, is best accounted for by the corporate theory.

(PS – All of the above might be nonsense.)

two boobs, two butt cheeks, no belly

Over the weekend, I was introduced (by Yuko, Ananth, and George) to the idea of “escher girls” in comics. Like this:

two boobs, two butt cheeks

Yuko tells me the point of these skeleton-defying positions is to show both boobs and both butt cheeks all in the same panel. BAM: the soft parts!

There are other similar Tumblrs, like boobsdontworkthatway, to give you an idea of the genre. (NSFW, unless your work is like mine.)

The artists among you will object to the epic figure drawing fail of such illustrations. The feminists will object to the, well, objectification and misrepresentation of women. Those of you who want to get turned on by pictures of scantily clad women will object to the fact that these images don’t have much to do with what scantily clad women look like.

The soft parts bother me, it’s true. But what I REALLY object to is the hard part in the middle, the waist and belly. Even the lowest-body-fat female athlete you can imagine has to SUCK IN HARD to make their abdomen look like that. And yet a startlingly wide range of media represent women’s bodies as having this kind of midsection.

Take the original cover of The Female Eunuch, a feminist polemic. Flat, toned abdomen.

Even the cover art of On Our Backs (pdf) the feminist and delicious women’s magazine, has abstrictified the female body to have a six-pack between luscious titties and a rounded, bounding booty.

Me personally, I don’t walk around with my gut sucked in and my abdominal muscles flexed. (Grrr!) I walk around with my belly soft and rounded. And it is ROUND. There’s some fat, yeah, which is nice too, but even when I’m athlete-lean the shape of my belly is still round, unless I actively flatten and flex those muscles. Like that chick in the tuna commercial? Who lets out her belly when the elevator doors close? That has nothing to do with fat and everything to do with the natural, healthy functioning of the muscles and organs of the midsection.

I am not a comics person, romantic euphemism notwithstanding, so I don’t have a great deal of exposure to these images or their audience. But their audience seems to be adolescent boys (or adolescent men), and it worries me that they might be learning that this is (a) what a female body looks like and (b) how a female body works. If that’s what they think, they’re in for either a major disappointment or a major treat, depending how you think about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of “What is normal?” and SO MUCH of the answer has to do with what a woman’s body really looks like and really does. I can’t talk about sexual health without also talking about body image and embracing the sticky, rounded, breathing organism that you live inside, rather than expecting it to look the way a picture of a woman looks.

I want to make my partner come.

So here’s a question I get pretty regularly:

I can’t make my partner come from oral sex. They say they’ve never come from oral sex and that they aren’t particularly interested in it. But I really want to make them come from oral sex. What can I do?

And I get it from everyone, regardless of the genital or gender construction of the asker or their partner.

And part of me is like… “YOUR PARTNER SAID NO! NO MEANS NO!! FOR EVERYBODY!!!!”

And part of me is like, “What is this magical power that orgasm has over people?” I mean, what *is* it about orgasm? I concede that it has powerful sway, culturally; these days, your partner’s orgasm is held up as the holy grail of Competent Lovemaking. And I’m the last person to argue that such a feeling is purely socially constructed. Orgasm definitely is a kind of physiological destination, particularly for the male-bodied among us. Beyond a certain point of arousal, when you’re just a few steps away, your body really does push you along toward orgasm, and arriving at orgasm really is a different kind of experience from non-orgasmic sexual pleasure. All of your physiology changes, with tachycardia and waves of entrained muscle contractions that change your breathing patterns. Orgasm, physiologically, is an EVENT, no question.

And after orgasm, you’re likely (though not guaranteed) to experience yet ANOTHER physiological state, the recovery and/or refraction period of relaxation and general sense of wellbeing – yet another kind of pleasure that sex can bring.

So I get that orgasm is A Thing for people, and that it’s a thing we want to give our partners, the way we want to give them pretty flowers and delicious chocolate treats and jewelry and any other thing that we think is a pleasurable thing to have.

But all these lovely things – orgasms as well as flowers, chocolate, jewelry, and the rest of it – are lovely only if your partner is interested in receiving them, and no amount of You Being Interested in Giving It to Them will make them more interested in receiving them.

Let’s use a metaphor: Suppose you LOVE giving flowers. You LOVE it! You love shopping for them, buying them, carrying them to your partner, handing them over, and seeing the look on their face. You love seeing them in the window the next time you come over. And then suppose that your partner is… well… kinda tired of receiving flowers. They know you love seeing the flowers, so they keep them out, even though they’d really rather just chuck them. The pollen is getting to them and they’re considering taking allergy meds so they can tolerate all this flower-giving. And they’ve tried to hint gently about the things you could bring that might be more relevant, meaningful, or tolerable to them, but you’re just so STUCK on giving flowers, that they can’t get the message heard without feeling rude.

It’s like that with orgasm. There are lots of beautiful ways to give pleasure. And orgasm, though a lovely destination, is not always easy to get to, and if it’s difficult to get to, sometimes you’d rather just go someplace that also lovely and not such hard frickin’ work. (Another metaphor: the Cape! A lovely place, but is it worth a 3-hour drive in Labor Day weekend traffic, when you could just stay home and watch Netflix? You see what I’m saying?)

“I want to make my partner come,” is this very sweet and beautiful sentiment, but it’s only really relevant if it’s accompanied by “… and my partner wants me to make them come.” Otherwise it’s just creating a dynamic where they feel obligated.

I mentioned in a recent post that insisting that making a partner come is a purely generous sentiment – “I want to make them feel good!” – is either delusional or misguided. If you really just wanted to make them feel good, you can do that LOTS of ways that don’t necessarily involve orgasm. If you want to make them feel good, lick them until their toes curl, by all means, OR give them a back massage or do the dishes for them or tell them what makes them the awesome, heart-stopping person they are.

If you want to make them COME, that’s something else. That’s wanting to make them come. That’s your desire. Try not to confuse your desire with theirs.

more on being nice.

affectionate tigers

I’m looking at the relationship talk feedback and noting that someone was looking for more details about, essentially, how to fight with their partner.

A difficulty in giving relationship advice is that it’s actually very simple to say, while it’s often very (and sometimes very, VERY) difficult to use.

Example: preventing escalation in an argument is quite simple. You just stay nice to your partner. Simple.

Yet not always easy.

In a previous post, I write about the importance of being nice to each other, and I said that the biggest reasons we sometimes fail to be nice to our partners is that we get stressed out, which shuts down both our capacity to listen empathically and our senses of humor, which are totally necessary in order to be nice. So to fight effectively, you just be nice, which is approximately the same as saying, you just stay calm. As in:

1. Start out gentle.
2. When you feel criticized, take time to relax.
3. End with positive stuff.

Now, this all feels pretty simple, I think, but it’s quite contrary to what a lot of people think of as “a fight.” Like for a lot of people a fight starts with something like, “Dude, you’re late again; you’re always late.” That sentence has no sense of humor, it’s already stressed, it’s critical and even contemptuous.

Why not say instead, “I’m really grateful for how you always call me when you’re on your way home to see if I need you to get anything. There is one thing though, that I’d like to ask for your help with, and that’s being on time. Can we talk about that?” a gentle start up helps your partner stay calm, so that they can continue listening.

Even “I” statements, which every therapist on earth will tell you are A Good Thing, don’t necessarily cut it. “I really need you to be on time” is certainly better than “You’re always late. Stop it.” But tone of voice makes all the difference. “I really need you to be on time,” spoken in a demanding, judgmental, non-negotiating tone of voice just shuts down the discussion. An “I really need you to be on time,” in a gentle and supportive, almost questioning tone helps to prevent the other person from feeling criticized.

You might even say, “I really need you to be on time,” in a tone that pokes gentle fun at your own not-necessarily-ideal need for precision. On-timeness is not a universal need, you see, culturally or individually, so it’s equally valid for your partner to say, “I really need you to relax about being late.” Wouldn’t you rather they said it in a playful, relaxed, gentle way than an aggressive, demanding way?

So what makes it hard to keep stress out of your fights? What makes people resist such simple (if not easy) advice? Seriously, WHY NOT start up gentle?

Well, something I’ve noticed among my students, at any rate, is that they find that Being Nice fails to provide adequate opportunity to express their sense of injustice, anger, and hurt, all of which are absolutely, unquestionably WELCOME in an honest, fair argument. Effectively communicating with anger and hurt about an injustice (e.g., “I was waiting for you for two hours, with grumpy kids, and it’s not fair that I was stuck that way, expecting you to be back to HELP ME!”) requires that your partner be able to listen while ALSO being nice.

But of course your anger could all too easily trigger them to defensiveness, which would lead to escalation.

Being Nice, you see, requires a whole lot of listening and understanding the other person’s story, when quite a lot of what a person wants in a fight is for their OWN story to be understood! “You don’t understand! You’re not LISTENING to me!” is a common battle cry.

ONE OF YOU, either of you, has to back down, sit down, stay calm, and LISTEN to the other one. Let’s call the person who does this Person A.

Here’s the big part: if you find yourself in a position where both of you feel that to be Person A is to “lose,” then you’re in a dangerous position, vis a vis the stability of your relationship. The notion that Being Nice = your partner wins and you lose is a zero-sum construction and it’s an indication that things are QUITE sticky in your conflict.

“I can’t be nice because THEY aren’t being nice!” is a toxic dynamic in the relationship. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner about it (“Honey, I’ve noticed that we’re having a hard time being nice to each other because we’re afraid that if we’re nice the other person will take advantage of it”) but that’s not very useful because, hell, the whole problem is you can’t talk about shit without being defensive.

Well. To keep this post under 1,000 words, I’ll use a shortcut idea – not the only idea by any means (and therapy is always an option!), but a fairly simple one:

Go through your Story-of-Us with your partner. Talk about when you first met and how you got together. Look for fondness and admiration in the narrative. Look for “we-ness,” a sense of us-together, even us-against-others, and look for awareness of each other’s needs and values (“love maps”), and look for a sense of purpose and meaning in your various struggles together. Does it just seem like one random fuck up after another, or have you been collaborating through challenges in a way that helps you each to grow, and helps you grow together? Are you disappointed with your life and your relationship, or do you feel that where you are in life indicates a positive movement toward the life you’ve wanted for yourself and your partner?

If your Story-of-Us is serving its purpose in your relationship, you’ll find that reviewing it helps you to remember that it’s not really a zero-sum; being nice doesn’t mean you lose. Being nice means you BOTH WIN.

And if your Story-of-Us is not serving its purpose? Well. That’s another post.

be less American, okay?

I went on a bit of a rant at the conference, during the session I presented with a pair of fellow college sex educators, about preventing STI transmission and unwanted pregnancy.

Someone asked why we have such high rates of STIs and pregnancy in the US, when in Europe they’re so much lower.

I started my answer with, “Because our country was founded by the Puritans who LEFT Europe” and ended by getting very passionate about that fact it is STILL, after DECADES of uncontrovertible evidence, controversial and problematic to do any of the three things that we WE ALREADY KNOW AND HAVE KNOWN FOR DECADES will prevent STI transmission and unwanted pregnancy. Those things are:

1. Comprehensive, age-appropriate, universal sex education.

2. Affordable, barrier-free access to birth control and condoms.

3. Economic and educational opportunities for girls and women.

Done. We lack neither the knowledge nor the means; we lack only the will.

Which is why I was so pleased to see this story about girls in India who were named Unwanted having an opportunity to change their names. This is a piece of the various efforts being made to promote girls and women in a culture that is historically not merely misogynist but actively gynocidal. I just made up that word I think, but SOMETHING has to describe a culture in which female fetuses are aborted or wives are burnt on their husband’s pyre.

One of the things I mentioned in the relationship talk is that there are cultural differences that account in part for individuals’ learning or not learning effective communication skills, and that cultural difference is not value-neutral. Just as there are some cultures in which there is more infectious disease and infant mortality, so there are cultures in which there is more depression, anxiety, violence, and dysfunction; there is such a thing as a healthier or unhealthier culture, absent all value judgment. Assessing not from a moral but a public health perspective, some cultures are sicker than others.

American culture is not the sickest in the world, but it is the RICHEST sick culture, from my point of view, so acting less like an American will probably help you be healthier and happier. If you’re not working to create change, even within your own group of family and loved ones, you’re making my job harder, so please start not being so American. Thank you.

Yep, that’s totally A Thing.

I’ve had several different comments lately, not from students but from grown up professionals who do health education, that what they find helpful on the blog is having a name for a phenomenon they’ve experienced and not had any kind of cognitive or social context for, and so couldn’t quite understand it – it doesn’t fit with the mainstream notions of “normal,” but they’re too overall savvy to accept that it must therefore be something Wrong.

I think this must be why so many students said that the most important thing they learned in my class was “I’m normal.” Having language to talk about diversity empowers them with a conceptual framework, if that’s not too formal a way to think about it, in which they can hang their own and others’ sexual experiences.

Examples: Yeah, you might identify as straight and still sexually desire and/or fall in love with a woman; that’s a thing, it’s sexual fluidity. Yeah, you might not want to have sex until after something sexy has started happening; that’s a thing, it’s called responsive desire. And yeah, your genitals might stay dry even though you’re turned on, or get wet even though you’re not; that’s a thing called non-concordance.

They’re all Things.

It’s a compromise solution, isn’t it, having language for A Thing (responsive desire, non-concordant arousal, rare intercourse orgasms). Creating a word means creating a CATEGORY. Ultimately categories end up doing damage when people attempt to fit themselves into those categories. But god it’s comfortable to find a niche you fit into, right?

Maybe we can somehow get the idea of a Meta-Category into the cultural consciousness: you might not fit into any of the categories; that’s a thing too, it’s called variety.

Over and over again, I consider the idea that clustering sexualities might be the closest humans can come to deconstructing a sexual hierarchy, so that it’s not that there’s a Best sexuality and other inferior ones, but that there’s simply a variety of clusters a person might broadly fit into, like which roast of coffee you prefer or the extent to which you like visible solids in your spaghetti sauce. Not better or worse, just… varied.

And when that happens… can we call them Fuck Clusters?

Pretty please?