Category Archives: evolution

a stressed monkey

Aaaaaand, two weeks later…

It’s January.

Scratch that. It’s FUCKING JANUARY.

This same thing happened last year. I spend the month of January sitting in a dark hole. It’s not as bad this year because there’s much less snow and also there is the romantic euphemism to bring me news of the outside world (and chocolate and alcohol) without my actually having to go out into it.

Last year I suggested somatic mindfulness as a strategy for coping with seasonal mood stuff. This year I want to return to the idea of the monkey that lives inside each of us and motivates most of our behaviors.

What does the monkey need? What does the monkey want?

Well, sex is about the creation and survival of the next generation. The monkey doesn’t actually NEED anything from sex; as the brilliant Frank Beach once noted, no one ever died for lack of sex. (Insert predictable joke here.) There is no need, only want.

So what do they want?

Of course, boy monkeys and girl monkeys have different sex wants, due to different reproductive roles, so let’s take girl monkeys for now.

The Girl Monkey – let’s call her Alice – Alice the Girl Monkey wants, ultimately, to make babies (from an evolutionary perspective), but (1) she doesn’t want babies with any old genetic partner and (2) she doesn’t want babies at any old time. Fortunately, she’s hardly ever fertile – one day in every 28, roughly – and loses fertility when she’s already pregnant, when she’s breastfeeding regularly, when her body fat gets dangerously low, and when she’s generally very very stressed. The reproductive part of sex is moderately well in hand (from a biological point of view, anyway).

But then there’s the other aspect of sex, all of its social functions. It bonds Alice to her partner, she can use it as currency in exchange for social favors, she can diffuse conflict with it, she can, indeed, reduce her own stress level with it. And just as Alice the Monkey needs physical challenge and a variety of nourishment, she needs to keep her stress hormones balanced.

But at the same time, those stress hormones might keep her sexual interest flatlining.

Looks like we need to understand about stress.

As I’ve mentioned before stress is not just a response, it’s a cycle. Your body responds to a perceived threat with adrenaline and cortisol, which activates motivation to fight, flee, or freeze, and when you do what your body is pushing you to do and thus escape the threat, it rewards you with all the happy chemicals it can throw at you, activating the relaxation response.

The complicated part is when your stressor goes away but your stress is still there! Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor – say, a relationship conflict – doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress. And it is the stress itself, not the presence of the stressor, that disrupts sexual interest. Alice the Human can resolve a conflict rationally. Alice the Monkey needs to run or fight to lie still and shake for a while, to move all the way through the stress response and into the relaxation response.

The ladies among us are likely (like, 90%) to recognize the experience of feeling desirous of sex under circumstances of relationship happiness: when you feel cared for, understood, supported, special, safe… ya know, loved. And you may recognize the experience of NOT wanting sex when you feel stressed, threatened, overwhelmed, exhausted, or under-appreciated; then sexual interest, like a shy ferret, hides behind the sofa and won’t come out until everyone goes away.

I’ve been playing with this simile lately: emotions are like tunnels. You have to move all the way through them or you’re stuck just sitting there in the dark.

Monkey are good at moving through their emotions to get to the calm and peace at the end of them. Humans in the industrialized west are TERRIBLE at it. It’s a skill well worth learning. Okay.

the day I met evolution

Someone asked me recently how I got the point of view I have about sex. I think she asked because she had quite a social constructivist point of view and wanted to know how, basically, any reasonably intelligent human being could view sex otherwise. So I told her.

I always liked biology. In high school, I had the best biology teacher on the face of the earth. And I always liked evolution. And then I REALLY liked evolution in the mid-90s, which is when I read Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams’ best book. That book is the reason I studied cognitive psychology; indeed THIS is why I studied cognitive psychology:

The world of smells is now virtually closed to modern man. Not that we haven’t got a sense of smell – we sniff our food or wine, we occasionally smell a flower, and can usually tell if there’s a gas leak, but generally it’s all a bit of a blur, and often an irrelevant or bothersome blur at that. When we read that Napoleon wrote to Josephine on one occasion, `Don’t wash – I’m coming home,’ we are simply bemused and almost think of it as deviant behaviour. We are so used to thinking of sight, closely followed by hearing, as the chief of the senses that we find it hard to visualise (the word itself is a giveaway) a world which declares itself primarily to the sense of smells. It’s not a world our mental processors can resolve – or, at least, they are no longer practised in resolving it. For a great many animals, however, smell is the chief of the senses. It tells them what is good to eat and what is not (we go by what the packet tells us and the sell-by date). It guides them towards food that isn’t within line of sight (we already know where the shops are). It works at night (we turn on the light). It tells them of the presence and state of mind of other animals (we use language). It also tells them what other animals have been in the vicinity and doing what in the last day or two (we simply don’t know, unless they’ve left a note). Rhinoceroses declare their movements and their territory to other animals by stamping in their faeces, and then leaving smell traces of themselves wherever they walk, which is the sort of note we would not appreciate being left.

But while I was studying cognitive psychology, I was also working as a peer health educator and sexual assault crisis responder, doing all this work with sexual health, learning a shit-ton about human sexuality, and generally gearing up to become what I am now. Yet somehow – even with that reference to Napoleon – I didn’t make the link between evolution and sex.

But then. Then.

(This is the point in the telling when I got embarassing and weepy.)

I was in my second year of my Masters degree, in a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute Sexual Health Clinic (an experience for which I was underprepared and am now breathtakingly grateful) and the brilliant, gentle, kind, amazing human being who is John Bancroft (*sigh*) was talking about the Dual Control Model, the new theoretical model of sexual response that he and Erick Janssen were developing. They had just published about it for the first time that year.

He said something like, “… many motivational systems are structured this way in the nervous system, with separation inhibition and activation systems. It makes evolutionary sense to balance activation response with inhibition response.”

And a light went on.

I sat there silently and it felt like… like the whole inside of my brain was a game of Jewel Quest: one thing shifted, and the consequence was a cascade of changes that went on and on; my entire understanding of sexuality, everything I’d learned in 5 years of education suddenly became new again, more meaningful, more powerful, more real.

I thought, “So SEX is actually an integral part of an organismic body, a biological function that we share with lots and lots and lots of other species, and what goes on in our bodies is not just about the movement of water and electricity and meat, but about how those movements have supported survival for millenia.”

And I thought, “And from that beginning you might be able to trace causal lines to everything true about human sexuality. Certainly you can understand the fundamentals of human sexual response.”

And I thought, “Why did no one ever explain it to me this way before?”

Since then I’ve learned a BUNCH more about it. I know that HUMAN sexuality in particular is vastly social, which is adaptive (or, at minimum, exaptive) because of the duration and intensity of infant dependence. Our reproductive functions are by no means limited to actual reproduction but expand to a breathtaking array of parenting behaviors, necessary to keep themselves and their offspring alive for the decade and a half, until the offspring reach their reproductive years.

So I started with a less biological, more constructivist point of view. And I landed where I am because of the MASSIVE explanatory power of evolution. It was like I had been admiring and studying a lovely tree, and then someone showed me THE FOREST, in all its complexity and awe-inspiring glory.

what baboons teach us about culture

Ready for a nerd post? Me too! It’s actually going to be a post about what it means to perform your gender, from a biological perspective.

Another of my media consumption bits lately was the doco National Geographic: Stress: Portrait of a Killer.

One of the things we learn is about a troupe of baboons. It gets described starting at 2:30 in the clip below:

Typical baboon troops are intensely hierarchical and patriarchal, competitive to the point of Machiavellian deceit and violence.


In this one troupe, the aggressive alpha males were killed by infectious disease, leaving more females than males and the males who were left were non-dominant.

Result? A total revolution in the culture of the troupe. Low aggression, high social affiliation. New adolescent males joining the troupe would bring their learned, typical baboon culture, but within about 6 months they would unlearn the “jerkiness” of typical baboon culture and learn this new kinder, gentler baboon culture.

The dominant alpha jerks got killed off, and the troupe turned into a bunch of gentle, social baboons who didn’t tolerate jerkiness.

Now, when this happened, the standard wisdom was that jerks were what baboon are, naturally and innately.

What this teaches us is that the overall culture of a group of these primates is NOT innate in any straightforward sense. They will not always, under all circumstances organize themselves in a particular way. Where there is competition, competition will grow. Where there is collaboration, competition will not be tolerated.

What I want this to illustrate about humans is the idea that the roles we claim under the label “gender” are byproducts of who-knows-how-many variables related to resource abundance, sex ratios, fertility, and population density. They are not “innate” in the straightforward sense of being able to say that “men are this” or “women are that.” We can only say that in the particular given context in which behavior is observed are measured, people in one category behave in a particular, predictable way. The innate characteristics of humans will respond adaptively to the environment.

Maybe there are some things that are innate – for example, I’d buy an argument that the rules in our nervous systems that respond the environment and shape these adaptive behaviors are innate; but their behavioral phenotypes are so variable and complex that identifying the “trait” that underlies the diversity will be very difficult.

This is a terribly complex idea, this notion of socioenvironmental context shaping not just an individual’s behavior but an entire culture.

Hey, favor? Could someone say this point back to me so I know if I’ve expressed it clearly?

Word up.

what I see in the window

So here’s a photo of a skirt hanging in a window at a local shop:

What do you see?

A big lovely flower?

Because what I see is SEX.

I see a giant, springing, spreading load of sex organs on generous display, advertising their availability, ripe, ready.

I see sex spread wide and colorful, so that it directly overlaps the wearer’s genitals. I mean I’m surprised parents don’t feel the need to cover their children’s eyes when they walk past. It might as well be a giant drawing of a wet vulva or a throbbingly erect penis. I mean, I could NEVER wear that skirt, NEVER. Compared to that flower, I’m a downright prude.

And I can’t NOT see sex. I walk past this skirt every single day, and every single day I think to myself, “I bet a mom would be okay with her 14 year old daughter wearing that, just because it’s not a picture of ANIMAL sex organs.” And I shake my head in bemusement.

Sex. Nerd. Did I mention?

commenter cheese sauce

Breakthrough! Well, for me anyway!

The story so far: I define “sex” as “the genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA.” Some femisists feel that this is heteronormative and delegitimizes non-reproductive sex. I, of course, think they’re wrong; I believe that I understand why they feel that way, yet I’m having the devil’s own time explaining my definition in a way that clarifies what I mean. I’m learning that it might be a hopeless and, moreover, pointless exercise – like, does it actually help people to think about sex the way I do, or is it just intellectual fodder with no practical use? – but there was a glimmer of hope recently.

A commenter in the feminist cheese sauce thread said that the following was totally helpful in moving her from “sounds kinda heteronormative to me” camp to the “oh! I see!” camp:

The more I think about it, the more I think the species-neutrality of my definition is a big part of the problem [the problem being the belief that defining "sex" as the genetic recombination of two individuals is "heteronormative"]. I don’t mean HUMAN SEXUALITY is the genetic recombination of two individuals; I mean SEX, all sex, monkey sex and bird sex and plant sex and seahorse sex. Released from species and culture and relationship, the evolutionary origin of sex is the genetic recombination of individuals.

Does that help? At all? Because surely it’s obvious from everything on the blog that I KNOW that human sexuality is about more than making babies, or else I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do talking about, say, oral sex or women’s orgasms.

I noticed too that other commenters restated my definition and got it wrong, imposing human-centrism (or mammal-centrism) on my definition:

Melinda, who disagrees with me, said that I was saying that “biological reproduction involves internal fertilization between a male and female.” But I’m not saying internal fertilization (that would exclude the many species of fish, among a great many other lifeforms), nor did I say male and female (that would exclude the leopard slug, among many others!)

DexX, who agrees with me said, “a female of the species having an ovum fertilised by a male of the species,” but that excludes seahorses and many others.

I would not go so far as to say that the people who were conflating “sex” with “human sexuality” were “humancentric” or “human-normative” and minimizing or erasing or excluding the sexualities of other species – after all, we’re ALL inclined to do it. Carl Sagan described it as “our posturings, our imagined of self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.”

But just to make a point, let me say: sex is the primary reproductive method of a WHOLE LOT of life on Earth. Humans are my favorite species, but we can only understand human sexuality in the context of life, all life. And the starting place understanding WHAT SEX IS for all sexually reproducing lifeforms is the definition I’ve given: the genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA. Two orchids. Two seahorses. Two kakapos. Two lions.

Like “gay,” “heteronormative” is a human concept that can only apply to human sexuality. My definition isn’t about humans and therefore literally can’t be heteronormative.

As for humans, my friend Bill said it for me:

Vulvas, penises, breasts, testicles, uteri — they’re about reproductive sex. But individual species pirate them for all sorts of things. Ask a hyena about her giant clitoris, or a bowerbird about his collection of trinkets. Or a human about his or her sexual activity. Truth is, only a minuscule portion of human sexuality is about reproduction. We’ve pirated it quite spectacularly for everything from circle jerks to Lesbian poetry — for FUN, for bonding, for profit, for oppression, for Republican talking points. In fact, there are few things we haven’t pirated it for, and given the fact we’re overreproducing ourselves into a planetary crisis, it might be good if we got busy and pirated it for even more things.

heteronormativity, science, and my grandmother’s cheese sauce

A very kind person mentioned my blog as one that other blogs Feministe readers should read. Thank you! So nice!

To my chagrin, though, she writes:

[Emily] mainly blogs about sex, and it is mainly hetero-normative sex, but she admits that openly. I think she does this because she scientifically studies sex. That is what the blog is about, but I still think it has feminist roots, and I think she says some noteworthy things.

Which. I mean.

(1) The blog isn’t mainly “heteronormative sex;” I checked, and during 2011 I’ve written just as many posts explicitly about gay sex as I’ve written posts explicitly about straight sex. So if heteronormative means bias in favor of opposite-sex relationships of a sexual nature, and against same-sex relationships of a sexual nature, then the blog definitely hasn’t been heteronormative in the past 3 months, at least. Indeed, given the disproportionate representation of queer sex and queer gender, I’d say just the opposite.

(2) What I admit openly is that I ground my thinking about sex in evolution, which demands a definition of sex as the genetic recombination of two individuals. This is not a heteronormative attitude, nor is it exclusionary. I’ve confronted this before and it has given rise to some pretty major ranting. A key thing to remember is that sex is inherently about DIVERSITY, and that when science says something is true about a population, it’s not saying anything at all about YOU. Just because half-baked journalism makes the mistake of conflating population level science with individual-level decision making doesn’t mean you should too. They don’t get paid enough to use insight and precision when they write about science, but don’t let that draw you into the same mistake.

(3) It’s not feminist DESPITE the science (“that’s what the blog is about BUT…”), it’s both sciencey and feminist, with no conflict between the two!

Look, can I plead with the queer folks to embrace the biology? The whole point about the biology is that the phenotype is innately VARIED. It is GLORIOUS. Sex is of, by, and for DIVERSITY and VARIATION, from its very foundations.

And can I plead with feminists to embrace the evolutionary origins of women’s sexuality, to love and cherish the fact that we’re the ones with the vaginas and the breasts, and to allow their minds to be blown by the impact of our reproductive role on the processes of natural and sexual selection?

It is a BEAUTIFUL thing, evolution, despite the fact that a lot of the science about it is terrible. We need feminists to PARTICIPATE in the science in order to disprove the bullshit and discover the truth, not to reject it whole, like a kid at the dinner table refusing in eating her Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts are GOOD FOR YOU, whether you like them or not.

Science is feminist when feminists make science. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Elisabeth Lloyd and Lisa Diamond prove it. So yes, I am a feminist, and yes, I love the science of evolution, and yes, and there is no conflict between the two.

Will anyone ever believe this? Will anyone ever perceive a biological approach to sex as feminist and queer-friendly?

My grandmother put cheese sauce on my sprouts and then I ate lots of them. Maybe my job is to discover the feminist cheese sauce that will tempt you all to enjoy science in spite of yourselves.

(BTdubs, unrelatedly, can I register a slight gripe that, like, a little girl playing with a big gun is totally not feminist to me? No child playing with a gun is feminist.)

orgasm questions

In the comments, someone asked:

I’ve read a good share of your blog and finished your book:
The Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms. In Chapter 13 of the book, it suggests that women train themselves to “come reliably in 20 minutes” Is this the minimum, average, or target along the way to achieve a longer duration in which it takes for a woman to orgasm? Is the intent to help a woman build up to 20 minutes so as to enjoy a longer, more pleasurable experience? Would 20 minutes to come be considered a quickie or a long event for most women?

20 minutes is a very approximate “average” time to orgasm for women. Roughly half of women reading that can already do it – and some can come in minutes – and roughly half will have a little training to do, but it’s not really about the 20 minutes. The intent is to build RELIABILITY.

Women vary a LOT, for pretty complex evolutionary reasons. And all of that variability is normal and healthy. For a woman to have knowledge of her sexuality and the various factors that influence is, for her to be able to produce arousal and orgasm reliably, provides her with a foundation on which to build a vast array of satisfying sexual experiences.

The questioner continues:
I’m a bit perplexed on the whether or not my sweetheart (for 10 years) is faking orgasm. I’ve read the “Is she faking” chapter and usually see signs she really is having an O, but as you said, all symptoms can be faked. Is it possible for her to O in just a minute or two? Her “quickie Os” tend to occur after a couple of hours of sporadic (2-3 per hour) seductive behaviors such as suggestive banter, compliments, and bits of touching, caressing, and kissing. She says she gets her quickie Os regardless of stimulation method (oral and/or intercourse). If it has been 5-7 days since her last O, she tends come in 3 minutes or less, but these situations are not accompanied by the seductive behaviors and sometimes it takes much more than 3 minutes. [...] Can a woman come on a regular basis in such a short window as less than 3 minutes? Or is she just really preferring sleep over sex and preferring not to tell me I’m just not doing it for her?

Yes a woman – some women – can come in minutes on a regular basis. Remember that sexual stimulation isn’t just erotic touch; your “seductive behaviors” are absolutely part of her arousal process, both building sensation/emotion AND reducing CNS inhibition.

And as you may have experienced yourself, for some people a wait between orgasm makes the arousal process faster. So yeah, that could absolutely be real. Some women do that.

But is she faking? Only she can tell you for sure.

Faking is often about protecting the partner’s ego. Does she know that your happiness doesn’t depend on her orgasm but rather on her satisfaction? Because if she thinks you need her orgasm in order to be okay, on those occasions when orgasm isn’t there for her, she might fake it to make you feel better.

But it’s totally possible that she’s really coming that quickly. Women vary.

Unless this is all created simply by your uncertainty about the physiological capabilities of women’s bodies, another issue altogether is the communication skills that can bridge the gap in trust that created an environment where you don’t know whether or not she’s (however benignly) lying to you. That’s another post.

an evolutionarily adaptive reproduction strategy

There were a lot a comments from my unintentionally heteronormative post along the lines of “There are lots of accepted uses of the word ‘sex,’ Emily, so don’t be linguistic fascist.” (No one was actually rude about it – I’m exaggerating for entertainment value. EDIT: Well, one person was rude.)

Now, given that I am aware that there are other usages (I could hardly fail to be aware of it, as a fluent English speaker), why would I insist in my class, on my blog, and indeed in life, on such an abstruse usage of the word sex as “an evolutionarily adaptive reproduction strategy involving the recombination of two individuals’ genes”? After all, hardly anyone means that when they, for example, say, “I had sex last night” or “What’s the sex of your baby?”

What on earth could I be thinking?


Sex – as I’ve defined it (see above) – is a terrible pain in the ass. First you (and by “you” I mean any sexually reproducing organism, from orchid to chimp) have to produce some gametes, which are only useful if you can find a conspecific to juxtapose THEIR gametes with yours (unless you’re, say, a Komodo dragon female and can, under duress, make like the Virgin Mary). Not so very difficult maybe if you’re something like a starfish, who free-spawns, just leaving your gametes in the water in the vicinity of some other ready and able starfish.

But suppose you’re a peafowl. Now sex has gotten VASTLY more complicated! You have to persuade an opposite-sex conspecific to put their gametes next to yours. If you’re a peahen, you have to try to pick the male most likely to provide the healthiest sperm, and if you’re a peacock you have to prove to the females that you have the healthiest sperm, which involves growing a tail that makes you a walking bullseye for predators. What the fuck. And then you have to have intercourse. And if you’re a peahen you have to gestate the egg, lay it, incubate it, and then raise the peachick to reproductive age. Criminey!! It’s complicated, time consuming, effortful, and all for what?

Yes, for what?

Sex has to have a REALLY BIG payoff to be evolutionarily adaptive, because it comes with all that cost. That payoff is: the genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA. All the hardware and software that supports mate selection, mating, and (to a large extent) parenting evolved in support of SEX: the genetic recombination of two individuals.

So what’s the big deal about recombination?

Alfred Kinsey – don’t tell me you don’t know who Kinsey was, he was a Harvard-trained entomologist who took his passion for collecting populations and observing the infinite variety within a species and used it to change the world forever – was fascinated by individual variability. No two individuals in a species were alike – not gall wasps, not humans. No two alike.

No. Two. Alike.

THAT is sex.

I have a twin sister. And still: No. Two. Alike. Do you see the beauty?

The function of recombination is diversity. DIVERSITY!!! Diversity is the point and the purpose and the goal and the ultimate reason for the existence of sex! That’s why starfish and peafowl go through the rigmarole of sex: genetic diversity. No two alike.

You should already be going, “Holy shit!” right? This is the point where, when I talk about this in person, I start weeping at the sheer beauty of it. I’m not exaggerating.

But wait! There’s more!

Now you’re not a starfish and you’re not a peafowl: now you’re a bonobo, a land-dwelling ape that lives in matriarchal communities. And an amazing thing has happened. Hardly any of the sex you have is reproductive – the females are only fertile for tiny windows of time throughout the year – and yet they have sex ALL THE TIME.

Secondary selection pressure has had its wicked way with all that hardware and software that evolved in support of sex, giving rise to an ENTIRE CULTURE of sex. Sex now mediates social communication, it facilitates economic transactions, it diffuses conflict, it establishes and maintains power hierarchies.

(Sound like any other species you know?)

Sexual behavior became social because of the kinds of offspring sex generates. Asexual reproduction produces mini-me’s, not baby-us’s. Mini-me’s are pret-a-porter, the fast fashion of reproduction. Sex produces baby-us’s because it’s SEX: the genetic recombination of two individuals. And baby-us’s are bespoke, handcrafted; they need to grow and develop and be protected (unless you compensate for lack of parenting by having huge numbers of offspring, most of whom die; but then numbers is just another, less cuddly kind of protection).

Offspring developed needs so intense that the survival of an infant depended on the cooperation of more than one caregiving adult. And so you know what evolution did for some species – clever, brain-inverting evolution? Evolution saw that sexual motivation was hanging around in the central nervous system right in the vicinity of infant-caregiver bonding, and it said, “Right, I’ll have YOU.”

Yes, I’m saying that LOVE ITSELF is a direct product of sex. And by sex I mean, of course, the genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA. I’m saying that sexuality became social, relational, because of the dependent nature of the offspring produced by sex.

Do you feel the magic? Doesn’t it make you quake with the profundity of LIFE? If it doesn’t… then God, Jed…

And now… dear heaven, this is the big one… imagine you’re a human. A human, with little narrow hips to walk upright, and a great big giant brain to think with, and therefore the most dangerous childbirth in the mammal family and infants of such utter dependency that they would just freeze to death if you put them on the ground overnight.

And so human sex became the MOST social, most adaptable, most varied system of any sexually reproducing species. (This is the point at which my students would chant back to me: PHENOTYPIC PLASTICITY.) Sex EXPLODED, a trait of such vast plasticity that only a fraction of its forms are immediately adaptive. It had to explode: sex is now a parenting behavior in a species where multiple caregivers are crucial to the success of offspring; it’s loving bond, an economic commodity, a communication strategy, an art form, as well as a font of genetic and behavioral diversity – and still the ONLY method we have for moving our genes into the next generation.

Roughly speaking, then, genetic recombination gave us diverse and dependent offspring, which gave us romantic love and every kink and pleasure imaginable. The giantness of our brains had a lot to do with it, but even those giant brains were a product of recombination.

Some of this is speculation and some of it is over-simplified, but it’s essentially the story of human sexuality.

And it all starts with a luscious, lazy, extravagantly precious egg and teams of sweating, panting sperm (in humans, anyway). From there, from that point in evolutionary time and space, come diversity, dependent offspring, and the social functions of sex.

And thus humans, as from a seed a flower (more sex), come with our ball gags, golden showers, foot fetishes, Catholic school girl fantasies, whips, cages, breath play, sensation play, group sex, monogamy, polygymy, polyandry, jealousy, gays and lesbians and bisexuals and asexuals and queer folks and folks who don’t claim any identity and transfolks, and LOVE ITSELF – and also assault, abuse, rape, pedophilia, and wide and daunting array of harmful uses to which we put sex, all the dazzling and heartbreaking variety we witness in humanity – vast, limitless. As Kinsey said, “The only unnatural sex act is one you can not perform.” Variety. No two alike.

And THAT, O best beloved, is what I mean by sex. It is – and let’s just breathe deeply into the wonder of it – the genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA. Which results in glorious diversity and social functions of sex.

Holy. Fucking. Shit. Right?

So. In my view, the intercourse you had last night or the genitals on your new baby or whatever other use to which you put the word “sex” can only be a tepid and scrawny, compared to vast powerful richness, delicate and messy, sticky, unrepentant, like the very best of lovers, of the technical definition: the genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA.

Does it sound like I’m taking a limited view of what sex is? Am I saying that sex is all about reproduction? Am I excluding anyone? Is there not plenty of room for psychological and social factors? Is there not plenty of room for language and culture?

Did I persuade anyone? Even one person? That yes, biology-as-launching-point is not only not oppressive but actually a gateway to the CELEBRATION of human diversity, loving relationships, and even, dare I say it, social justice?

I have at least the advantage that this post is so unavoidably long that almost no one will actually read the whole thing.

Well anyway, it’s Carl Sagan’s birthday:

unintentionally heteronormative

I discovered a MAJOR pedagogical fail last week.

My course is called Women’s Sexuality, so I began my first lecture with the questions:

What is sex? and What is a woman?

Right? Because it’s Women’s Sexuality, see?

Sex, I ultimately told them after some collective brainstorming, is an evolutionarily adaptive strategy for reproducing, involving the recombination of the genes of two individuals to generate a brand new (genetic) individual. In humans, as with many species, it involves a male, who has sperm, and a female, who has eggs.

A woman, I told them, was, for our purposes, for the time being, the female of the species, the one with the eggs, the uterus, and the breasts. In the process of brainstorming definitions, the class also suggested that a woman was “anyone who wanted to be,” and I promised that we would return to that idea and begin to explore the massive complexity of this concept.

And the entire semester would be an exploration of what falls out of that foundation of sperm and egg.

That was all in weeks 1 and 2.

Last week was the Gender lecture.

Let me say here that the class includes everyone from first years to seniors, folks who’ve never heard the phrase “gender binary” and folks who have fully transitioned from one gender identity to another. It’s a diverse group of students, but it’s also a 100-level class.

So I began at the approximate beginning, with the Bem Sex Role Inventory and the idea that masculinity-femininity doesn’t have to be viewed as a one-dimensional continuum but could instead be a two-axis system. I talked about intersexuality. I talked about transsexuality. Stuff like that.

After it, I received an email that, among a great deal else, described my curriculum – the entire curriculum, mark you – as “unintentionally heteronormative.”

Which made me stare, with one eyelid twitching, at my computer, because it means that for the last 8 weeks I have been failing, for two hours each week, over and over again, to make the most fundamental point of the class.

Because my class is neither unintentional nor heteronormative.

I mean, I do the obvious stuff: I use “they” rather than “he” or “she;” I say “partner” rather than “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “husband” or “wife.” I say “penetration” when some people might just say “sex.” I routinely point out the absence of research on people of non-hetero sexual orientations, the heteronormativity of the language in the textbook and in the media used in class. I’m, like, SO active in not assuming that anyone has any particular sexual orientation or gender identity and in teaching students not to make assumptions, to think critically about the science and the politics that live in the science. And of course I have an entire lecture on gender variation and another entire lecture on sexual orientation and identity (that’s next week).

But I AM teaching that humans are a sexually reproducing species wherein some have sperm (males) and some have eggs (females).

I suppose I’ve been relying on students to find their own way to embracing biology as a valuable way to think about sex. But this point of view is so foreign to many of them, many of them Sociology or Women’s Studies majors who have never thought about sex in terms of biology or reproduction, many politically active around these issues without ever having studied them academically. And I suppose it was too much to ask that they get there on their own.

I wanted them to find their way to the notion that it’s not “heteronormative” to recognize that sex is an evolutionarily adaptive reproduction strategy that, in humans, involves males and females; it’s just our biology, and there’s a complex, mutually interacting relationship between the biological and the social. I’ve been working toward that all semester. But they have not gotten there.

So I’ve spent days banging my head against a metaphorical wall, unsure how I could have failed so spectacularly, for so long, and not have realized it. I have 180some brilliant young humans who’ve spent something like 15 hours being lectured at by me without actually receiving the message I was trying to convey.

And now I have to figure out what to do about that.

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?