Monthly Archives: October 2010

beta… revisited

I’ve been thinking more about this idea of beta heroes in romance novels (comments regarding which inspired the parental investment posts).

I’m inclined to think that non-beta heroes are attractive largely from a narrative point of view – if the heroine doesn’t have good reason not to LIKE the hero, whence comes the story’s conflict?

And conflict is the heart of a story. Right?

Once (if) I get into book-writing mode, I’m going to write a book for romance novel readers, correcting some of the basic errors romance novels make about women’s sexuality. In my view, this is something they get wrong: when a woman actively dislikes someone, she’s not simultaneously drawn to him sexually. That’s a common conflict in novels, and it doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny in real life.

Example: About a year and a half ago I went on some dates with this cardiologist (I’ve mentioned him before) who was attractive to me in a lot of ways – he was plenty smart, plenty articulate, not unattractive physically, not American, and enjoyed a spirited debate. These are good things. But apart from disagreeing with me about my area of expertise, he showed not interest in or respect for my opinion. He was kind of a jerk. I was QUITE DISAPPOINTED by this.

After a date with him, I would go into the office and people would ask me how it went and I would tell them just what I’ve told you. He’d be very attractive to me if he weren’t such an arrogant, egotistical, self-involved bad listener.

And they’d go, “Oh this is how it starts!”

And I was like, “No dude. This is not how it starts.”

Because conflict may be the heart of a story, but if it’s the heart of an actual relationship, then there’s something wrong.

It’s what drove me crazy about the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice – in that moment after Darcy asks Lizzy to marry him and she’s all like, “Hell no, you’re the reason my sister is heartbroken AND you’re an arrogant, egotistical, self-involved bad listener,” they lock eyes and almost kiss.

Almost KISS!?!?

Almost kiss the dude who ruined her sister’s happiness? Whom she has found to be a jerk the whole time?

Dude. If someone ruined my sister’s happiness AND was an arrogant jerk-face, there is nothing on earth that would make him seem sexually appealing to me, no matter how pretty or smart or rich he was, and my sense is that that’s true for lots and lots of women, and mostly only not true if a woman has some Issues. And that’s why that movie is bullshit. Ya don’t have to like or even respect someone to be willing to have sex with them, but from what I’ve seen you’re not likely to be hot for someone you actively dislike.

It could be that I’m missing something. I don’t understand the concept of “frenemies” or “hate sex” and I’ve always been a social weirdo, so maybe there’s a whole phenomenon that I’ve never been aware of, even in the research, about women being sexually interested in legit assholes – not the “bad boy” phenomenon, that’s different; that seems to have a lot to do with caretaking and helping and stuff. No, I mean women aren’t, as a rule, sexually compelled by a man’s body in spite of the fact that he’s a dickhead. The fact that he’s a dickhead takes whatever sexual attraction she might feel and twists its neck like a chicken.

Am I wrong about this? Female types out there, have you had the experience of seriously wanting to fuck a boy you really didn’t like? Am I wrong in thinking that actually disliking someone – and I mean genuinely disliking him, as Lizzy dislikes Darcy in the first half of the novel – stops you from wanting sex with him?

Anyway. I know: dating someone who’s smart and articulate and not unattractive and not American AND not a jerk would make for a less interesting movie/novel/blog post/workplace anecdote.

But it would make for a more interesting date. And it would make it more likely that that someone would get laid.

confidence and joy

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Um, and again.

In fact I DID say it again, at Babeland on Sunday night:

Confidence and Joy.

Would you like to be better at sex than anyone else your partner has ever been with? Well certainly you don’t want to be WORSE, eh? So what specifically makes the difference between being… just okay at sex and being… EXTRAORDINARY?

Answer: Confidence. And joy.

Confidence comes from liking your body and yourself and being able to tell what your partner is experiencing. (I’ve talked about that here and here.)

Joy comes from letting go of the cultural backwash around sex, the “shoulds” and the “mustn’ts” and the shame and the guilt and the Cosmo-style pressure to perform and instead embrace the sticky, lumpy, aromatic reality of juxtaposing your naked, fluid-pumping body with your partner’s. (I’ve talked about that here and here and here.)

To be truly spectacular at oral sex, you have to LOVE putting your partner’s genitals in your mouth. You have to love how they taste, how they smell, how they feel in your hand and against your lips and tongue. It has to be a pleasure, a delight – a joy. And of course it can only be a delight, a pleasure, and a joy if you’re not bogged down by worry about whether or not you’re doing it right. Hence confidence.

And if you don’t love it, if it’s not a delight, don’t do it. It’s not required, not by any means. It’s entirely voluntary and optional. Have you seen Ratatouille? The critic Anto Ego sums it up nicely:

“If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.”


(And how delish is Peter O’Toole?)

Of course Anton Ego learns and delivers the moral of the story:

“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

Can everyone be GREAT at fellatio? I don’t know; it takes sensitivity to your partner’s body, creativity and adaptability, a large toolkit of skills, loads of practice… and of course confidence and joy. And to a large degree, all of these can be cultivated.

To an even larger degree, the success of your oral sex derives from nothing inherent in you but from the CONNECTION between you and your partner.

Confidence and joy, I believe, open up a person’s senses and spirit to a more profound connection with their partner. Bringing your full attention and personhood to sex, which is what the confidence and joy are really about, expands the potential for sex to deepen, go beyond physical pleasure and integrate multiple levels of experience. When you interact with your partner’s body as the physical manifestation of the human you love and respect and appreciate, how can you fail to be superb at sex?

Confidence, you see? And joy.

emily is funnier in person

Hey so here’s a plug:

If you live in or around Manhattan and are looking for something to do Sunday evening, why not drop by the Soho Babeland to see me talk about fellatio?

It’ll be like reading the blog, only you’ll be able to see my new tattoo that I got on Tuesday (it’s a peacock, yes in honor of Darwin and sexual selection – did I mention I’m a sex nerd?) and also I’m funnier in person. And also we can have an actual conversation.

I’ve been a giant honkin’ fan of Babeland for more than a decade and I’m, like, SUPER-STOKED to get to talk about blowjobs there. MASSIVE, right?


You should come (no pun intended). It’s gonna be awesome.


I’m learning a lot this semester.

This week a student introduced me to the term, “spoons,” used in the disability community, she told me, as a measure of energy and, like, emotional wherewithal.

I investigated further and found the original theory, as written by Christine Miserandino. She’s at a diner with her friend, who asks her to explain what it’s like to live with Lupus. In an inspired moment, she gathers up a bunch of spoons and hands them to her friend:

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she?

I *love* this. I love the language of spoons. People living with chronic illness or pain, mood or anxiety disorders, or with a partner who is living with any of those, can handily use it as shorthand for describing where they’re at. It’s something I’ve been looking for for years to talk about how my own mood stuff affects my life.

Anyway, she goes on to explain to her friend that every choice in a day is affected by this limited resource, these spoons. She walks her friend through a hypothetical day:

When we got to the end of her pretend day, she said she was hungry. I summarized that she had to eat dinner but she only had one spoon left. If she cooked, she wouldn’t have enough energy to clean the pots. If she went out for dinner, she might be too tired to drive home safely….I then said it is only 7pm, you have the rest of the night but maybe end up with one spoon, so you can do something fun, or clean your apartment, or do chores, but you can’t do it all.

Being me, of course I’m thinking about how spoons and sex interrelate.

Does sex use spoons, or does it give spoons?

In the case of chronic illnesses like Lupus and MS that are associated with pain can kill desire simply through pain and exhaustion; that’s a spoon. Anxiety and (especially) depression tend to kill sexual desire; that’s a spoon. I bet worry about performance (erection, orgasm) or body image uses spoons. I bet feeling bad about feeling bad about sex uses spoons. Managing the paraphernalia associated with chronic illness? Spoon user.

And at the same time, we know that physical affection from someone you like who likes you too is among the MOST energizing, renewing, spoon-giving things we can experience.

Maybe there’s a relationship between spoons and responsive desire. Like, maybe ya got no spoons so ya got no desire, but then your lovenugget comes and starts kissin’ on ya and snugglin’ all over ya, and that GIVES you spoons, so you get some desire!

And maybe, under the right circumstances, generating and witnessing arousal in your partner gives you spoons too!

Conclusion based on rough review of science: attempting “performance” of sex, feeling obliged to behave in a particular way, or trying to connect sexually in the absence of trust = loss of spoons. Relaxing into affection and pleasure with someone you trust = increase in spoons.

Hell, that’s true for everybody.

pleasure as empowerment

Here’s a thing from a description of an adult sex education program:

We do talk about what turns people on, not by way of giving a list of turn-ons, but we talk about the fact that different people are turned on by different things, and different parts of the body excite people differently. We let them appreciate the fact that it wouldn’t help to compare their spouses to previous sexual partners and assume that a particular type of foreplay or touch or part of the body which turned on a previous lover will necessarily have a similar or the same effect on the spouse. There is a need to understand the uniqueness and individuality of everyone and take time to understand each other’s body and what gives pleasure

Holy crap. Don’t you want to attend that class? Don’t you want to hear what they have to say?

Well, you have to go to Nigeria to hear it.

It’s from the Community Life Project, a “Participatory, community-based, demand-driven approach to provide reproductive health and HIV/AIDs education and promote family and community development.”

The idea here is that sexual pleasure is empowering. It’s an issue that Contestations took up recently. Here’s a synopsis, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

Sylvia Tamale writes that the discourse of pleasure, of “erotic is power,” helps African women to reclaim sexual autonomy from the forces of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.

In different ways, both Sonia Correa and Petra Boyton warn that pleasure can be just as oppressive a narrative as those that underscore violence.

Li Yinhe very simply says that the cultural tradition of China is that women should be utterly non-sexual, and that tradition is unfair. “Women have a right to sex, and should be able to enjoy the happiness of sex, not just serve men sexually, or have sex for reproduction.”

As Pinar Ilkkaracan says:

women from all socio-economic levels perceive the autonomy over their bodies and sexuality to be an indispensable part of their human rights and one of the most significant pre-conditions of their empowerment.

Me, I say that when you teach about safer sex from the point of view of pleasure, you get better results. If you don’t acknowledge that people have sex because it feels good and they like it, they won’t pay attention to you. Why should they? What do you understand about why they have sex? From a pragmatic viewpoint, acknowledging the importance of pleasure, when to teach Americans about sex at least, is crucial to effective education.

But even more, the acknowledgement that women have a right to pleasure implies, necessarily, that they have a right to control their own bodies. There are plenty of cultures left in the world where women’s bodies are considered to be in the public domain, accessible to whatever man decide to avail himself. Too, the perception of “nice, clean” middle class women as non-sexual results in the sexual exploitation of poor women.

It’s an argument that I find self-evident, but lots of people struggle with it. “Why is pleasure important when there’s, like, AIDS and fistulas and stuff?” Well. Women are sexual; they have desires and arousal and orgasms; they have bodies that can touch and be touched. Women get to be in control of their bodies, as men get to be in control of theirs. Women get to control their reproduction and when they have sex. Women’s sexual pleasure is a right. Recognizing this when we teach about sex makes sex education more effective and builds a culture of sexual agency for women, gives women power.

Pleasure as empowerment. See?

For more examples, have a look at Global Mapping of Pleasure, which identifies sex positive harm reduction interventions around the world.

I don’t respect you

Okay folks, I’m pissed off. I’m just gonna warn you in advance.

There have been some conversations lately about the role of religion in, say, the suicide of gay teenagers.

“I don’t believe gay people should get married and I believe gay people are going to be punished by god, but I don’t hate them and I would never be violent against them,” say the religious fuckwits. And they genuinely believe they are not part of the problem.

Well of course they are, but that’s not my point.

Look, let me be unambiguous about this:

If you believe gay people – or indeed any people – are going to hell, then I don’t respect you. I don’t just not respect your beliefs, I don’t respect YOU. As a person. Morally. I feel morally superior to you. I have contempt for you and I think the world will be a better place when you are dead.

I’m not participating in a dialog here. I’m not creating an environment of mutual understanding. I’m not trying to see the world through your eyes. I know what the world looks like through your eyes and it’s a vision that will never, ever become a reality.

The hard part is: am I, with my bitterness and intolerance, any different from the bigots? Am I not myself a bigot? Am I not therefore a hypocrite?


For two reasons:

(1) Having contempt for the culturally dominant narrative is not the same as having contempt for the target narrative. Believing that gay people are going to hell gives a cultural purchase to hatred and violence. Like a little bump on a rock where over years barnacles accumulate, the idea of sex as sin is a foothold for discrimination, bullying, harassment, and violence.

Believing that people who believe that gay people are morally inferior, are morally inferior (complicated predication) is the tide smoothing away that bump on the rock. The minority, target perspective – the “intolerant of intolerance” perspective – is a fundamentally responsive, rather than reactionary, perspective. It’s protective of the minority. It takes the punches of the dominant view. It absorbs and buffers violence, where the dominant view commits violence.

(2) This is the really big one: all opinions are not created equal.

The magic of culture is that we move – slowly, messily, painfully, non-linearly, but inexorably – toward justice. Toward equality. The massive blob of humanity is filled with diverse opinions, but the blob moves in a direction; some opinions will be winnowed out. In the natural selection of morals, ideas of hate and discrimination lose. It’s inevitable.

There is no finish line; peace and justice and equality are never complete, can never be complete. But the cultural process of humans is inherently inclusive. We are moving in that direction and cannot but continue so, at the largest scale of analysis. Over time and space, we grow more just.

Religion has been used as a justification for slavery, for the oppression of women, for genocide. And religion has been used to speak out against each of those. It’s not about religion; it’s about you and your wrong opinions.

You “religious” fuckwads, don’t have to respect me – I don’t ask that you do – and it doesn’t matter if you don’t because you have already lost. And I refuse to respect you because that will slow down the movement; the longer it takes us progressives to put an end to your pernicious bullshit, the more kids die.

Not all opinions are created equal. Your beliefs are not innately respectable; the belief that gay people are going to hell is, indeed, contemptible, and I am at peace feeling contempt for those who possess that belief. I am content because I know not simply which way the wind is blowing, but what force causes the wind to blow in one direction or another.

And justice shall roll down like waters, doncha know, and righteousness like ever-flowing stream.

I should probably re-read this before I post it, tone it down; I should probably add caveats about how this is just my opinion etc. But dammit I’m fucking ANGRY. And sometimes righteous anger is the only appropriate feeling.