Aug 062010

So, I’ve been doing this blogging thing for 6 months, today. In honor, here’s a metapost – a blog post about writing the blog.

(I’ll write the next one about making intercourse superb, to compensate.)

The blog: Friends and strangers have written me heartfelt emails and comments, both positive and negative, about stuff I’ve written – all the way from “almost substanceless, extremely defensive pontificating” (that was from a good friend) to “made me cry, physically cry, tears of pride and nostalgia” (from a stranger).

I take from that that I am doing both a terrible job and a fabulous job, which is pretty much the story of my life.

The blog has changed – or at least what I want from the blog has changed – in these months. I’ve been thinking about that a lot; I added an About the Blog page to explain this, which I invite you to ignore or not, as you please.

The short version, though, is that I didn’t start writing with the idea of having any kind of audience, and it surprises me every day that anyone reads what I write or takes it seriously.

Like many nerds who work hard at a job they love, I have a LOT of noise in my head all the time. I have to work – deliberately, effortfully – to turn down the volume. The blog was originally intended as a storage unit for some of that noise; it contained that fraction of my brain that made me most annoying in real life, like the embarrassingly obsessive collection of cribbage boards on my dad’s back porch. No one uses them, they just SIT THERE gathering dust and awkward glances.

That was fine when it was mainly my sister, my friend Andrew, and a handful of students reading the blog.

But now there’s more of you, people I don’t know. Most of you seem quite nice, quite articulate, quite interesting, etc., the kind of people I’d happily have a beer with. That’s excellent. But you do make me feel like I have some kind of responsibility here.

So I’m gonna try to be a little less noisy now, a little more deliberate and, well, responsible.

I figure I’m in a position of some small amount of power – I’ve got education and credentials and a job that allows me to teach people stuff I think is important, so that I can create positive change in the world. And I am definitely trying to change in the world; I’m trying to make it more sex positive: more sexually healthy, more welcoming of sexual diversity, more fair. Through science! Science, whose demand for objectivity necessitates a sex positive attitude, which is inherently compassionate, welcoming, and self-reflexive.

So my more deliberate and responsible goal with the blog now is to provide a fairly transparent, warts-and-all (because there’s something, something important, about authenticity) window into the workings of a radically sex positive sex educator doing the work and trying to create change.

It involves a lot of falling on my face in public, hard; it involves a lot of failure to self-monitor adequately and therefore accidentally shocking people, and a lot of visceral horror at the state of the world; but it also involves a lot of joyous increments of success, a basic pleasure in the scientific method, and a wildly comprehensive appreciation for the nature of humans as sexual organisms.

I am the job, you see. It’s a weird life.

Let’s see what happens in another six months, eh?

Aug 052010

I’m pathologically curious.

Therefore when Bill mentioned sticklebacks (they’re fish with sticky-up dorsal fins) and I realized I knew nothing – NOTHING – about stickleback sex. So I investigated, hoping to find a gorgeous video like the one about the leopard slug.

Well, it’s not quite THAT exciting:

This is a male stickleback building his first nest. Riveting, eh?

Yeah. Sorry.

But they are genuinely interesting! What’s interesting about them is that the males make the nest (all sorts of interesting science about nests as sexual advertisements), in which multiple females lay their eggs (all kinds of interesting science about mate choice), and then the male fertilizes and protects them.

It’s fascinating, in a nerdy way, because it changes the game in terms of parental investment. It’s not dissimilar to the mating strategies of seahorses; the female deposits the egg in the male and he gestates. Another game changer.

We’re used to thinking about sex in terms of peacocks: intrasexual competition and intersexual choice – typically male competition and female choice – which emerges when females have a high parental investment and males very low parental investment….

Oh wait. I’m now realizing that I’ve never written on the blog about parental investment, which is a fundamental principle of the evolution of sexually reproducing species. Never written about it, even though it’s a massive part of what I teach.

I’ll have to do a series. I’ll write about a bunch of different species with different parental investment strategies – starting the peacock and then going into different ones like the seahorses, with their paternal investment, and slugs with their hermaphroditism. Suggestions welcome – I didn’t know about the stickleback (though I now realize I *did* read about them 700 years ago when I read Tinbergen…), so I bet there are loads of fascinating species ya’ll can point me to.

So thanks a lot Bill – I mean that genuinely, but any folks who reads the blog for sex advice, rather than the nerd stuff, mean it sarcastically. Great, they’re thinking, more fucking SCIENCE.

Yeah, man. More. Fucking. Science. :)

Aug 052010

I’ve been inhaling books this summer.

I’ve also re-read Lady Chatterly’s Lover (DH Lawrence), Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse), and the entire Bertie and Jeeves canon (PG Wodehouse).

That’s what it’s like inside my head right now.

But what I want to say now is about the peck of romance novels that took the place of television in my life. About 50, indeed, most of them highly forgettable at best, yet less toxic to my cognitive functioning that vegetating in front of the tube.

Specifically, I want to talk about the heroes.

They are nearly always Alpha Males: large and tough, both physically and emotionally, domineering leaders of men, hardened by life yet damaged in some way that the heroine (and only the heroine) must perforce heal. (Oy.)

Alphas must be “tough, hard-edged and forceful, but underneath it all they have to have a heart of gold and be capable of the deepest all consuming love that their heroines deserve.”

They’re quite often womanizers, too, with no qualms about using women of lower social status for sex or upholding straightforward double standards around “virtue,” sex, and gender; male privilege is taken in stride, unrecognized, uninteresting. They don’t like or trust women as a rule – they’ve been hurt in the past, their mother abandoned them, they were raised not to trust anyone… their affection for the heroine, therefore, is something to be scorned, fought against, and ultimately capitulated to only under the condition that it be accompanied by a need to Protect Her.

In other words, they’re kind of jerks – though their jerkiness gets dressed up as “masculinity.”

Put this way, you wonder what’s so compelling about alphas that they constitute 90% of the heroes?

Well… romance novels are escapist fantasies and I suppose the target audience is probably composed of highly competent, over-functioning women who do 85% of the housework and childrearing in addition to working fulltime and also managing their partner’s emotional life as well as their own. It’s probably nice to imagine what it might be like to have a dude just haul you up onto his horse and cart you away from danger, no matter how bravely you were willing to confront it. Many women, under conditions of great trust and affection, would feel quite interested in succumbing to an overwhelming sexual force.

Of the 50 novels, how many heroes were NOT alphas?


Those four were Betas. Betas are the “kinder, gentler” romance hero – in other words, they’re not condescending, arrogant dickheads who have to overcome their distaste for women in order to fall for the heroine. All were physically large (as are all heroes – you’ll hardly find a hero under 6′), but they were gentle and tender and they embraced their feelings rather than fighting them. They liked women, or at minimum they WANTED to like women.

And of the 50 novels, I’d say about 5 of them were genuinely good books that I might recommend a friend read. 4 of those 5 are the beta hero stories.

Give me a beta any day. Because seriously? If somebody scooped me off my feet against my will while I was trying to be valiant, it would take a hell of a lot more than a very good kiss to make me forget that this is a dude who can’t cope with a woman who stands her ground.

Aug 042010

I’ve long wondered about the physiological underpinnings of the sexual appeal of the forbidden, the unattainable, and the mysterious.

Relying as I do on the dual control model of sexual response to explain why and how and when we get aroused (or fail to get aroused), it’s a puzzle, especially this thing about “the forbidden.”

Because the forbiddenness of something SHOULD be an inhibitory factor, right? But somehow if a forbidden stimulus (like an unavailable partner) is also sexually appetitive, the very forbiddenness seems to make it more appetitive! This is a paradox!

Well. There are some theories about crossed wiring that I find fairly unsatisfactory, but then I read this article in WIRED (of all places), which discusses the neural and evolutionary origins of curiosity, in terms of the “information gap theory.”

Here’s how the article puts it:

It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

(Nerdy nitpicking: It’s not actually like scratching a mosquito bite or any itch, since an itch is an aversive stimulus motivating behavior to return the organism to baseline – a drive, in other words. Curiosity, as explained by the information gap theory and elsewhere (see Toates, 1986), is an incentive motivation system [like sex!])

The article explains the results of a fMRI study:

The first thing the scientists found is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer)


The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for abstract information – this is the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that also responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

As a chronically curious person, I can relate.

Indeed, as a highly persistent person who MUST finish every book and movie I start, I can REALLY relate. If I’ve started to read a good book and have to put it down because, you know, I have a job and a life etc, all that job and life is just exceedingly tedious interruption to my reading! It’s all I can think about! The longer I’m deprived of my book, the more I want it!

So suppose – like an itch, but not quite like an itch, like the craving for a new technological toy, like the yearning for a loved one who’s away – deprivation increases desire. Indeed, we know that deprivation (by some definition or other) results in increased sensitivity of SES, the sexual gas pedal. So the presence of an appetitive but inaccessible stimulus would generate increasing desire/arousal, eh?

(Another thing that might be explained by an “information gap theory” type story about sex is the phenomenon of wanting someone until you have them. With satisfaction of the desire comes a lack of desire.)

The test of this would be in the nature of the forbiddenness or inaccessibility. If you can’t have someone because they’re monogamously partnered, that’s maybe not that likely to be experienced as an inhibitor. You’ve got stimulus for the gas, but the reason to put on the brakes doesn’t actually mean a whole lot to your sexual motivation system. I mean, so what? They’re partnered already. That’s not a consequence, that’s a fact, unless you associate some soon, certain, and negative consequence with it; so it won’t really work as an inhibitor.

But if you can’t have someone because, I don’t know, you feel likely to experience STI transmission or unwanted pregnancy or serious social stigmatization or other soon, certain, and highly negative consequences, that would legit turn on the brakes and, even if it didn’t stop you from wanting the person, wouldn’t actively INCREASE your desire for that person.

The test then, is of the relationship between the nature of the inaccessibility of a sexually appetitive stimulus and a person’s experience of wanting that appetitive stimulus more in relation to its inaccessibility.

Someone go test this please.

Aug 032010

Someone called Butter asked a totally fascinating question over there in the GoodinBed forums:

My wife… has little to no interest in sex and yet I have caught her several times using the vibrator when I am not home (during the day when I am at work), when I am away on business and even when I am home. There have been a number of times when I have tried to initiate sex and have had her say she is too tired, only to be woken up in the middle of night with her masturbating in the bed beside me as she thinks I am asleep. When I confront with this, she has denied it and grows defensive… I explained it made me feel inadequate and I felt as though I had been replaced. [...]

In the forums I’m limited to 1,000 characters, but this is the kind of question that I could write a thesis on, so I thought I’d address it here too.

To begin, here’s what I told him:

Your reaction is very understandable. You feel rejected. Indeed, you’re BEING rejected by your wife, but it sounds to me like her rejection and her masturbation are actually separate issues.

Having interest in sex is not the same as having interest in having an orgasm. The nice thing about a vibrator is that it can provide a quick, easy, complication-free orgasm. It probably DOES help her fall asleep.

Separate the masturbation from the lack of sex – I really believe they’re not related. It’s just not in the same category as sex with you.

But do talk to her about finding a way back to a sexual connection with you. What works for many couples is agreeing to non-sexual touching a few nights a week (it’s an idea I’ve discussed here on my blog). Women are more likely to feel interested in sex AFTER foreplay has started.

So the question is: if Mrs Butter has no interest in sex with Mr Butter, why does she masturbate? Well let’s think about people’s reasons for having sex. Here’s a far-from-exhaustive list (feel free to suggest more):

Reasons to Have Sex:

  • intimacy with partner
  • sexual release
  • to fall asleep
  • to relax
  • for fun
  • to avoid boredom
  • to experience something novel
  • to experience something familiar
  • to avoid feeling other emotions
  • stress relief
  • for money or other material benefit
  • to avoid violence or other punishment
  • conflict resolution

Reasons Not to Have Sex:

  • avoid emotional drama
  • pain or other discomfort, physical and psychological
  • fear of pregnancy or disease
  • feeling pressured to perform or consent
  • worried about body image, social reputation, or relationship
  • history of trauma
  • too tired, physically and emotionally
  • depressed, anxious, or stressed
  • guilt, shame

In the cost-benefit analysis of sexual decision-making, sex with a partner might lose out because there’s too much on the reasons-not-to side, whereas masturbation wins because there’s less drama. The masturbation isn’t a REPLACEMENT for sex with a partner (not in this case, anyway, in my opinion – though it might be for some people), but rather a different behavior with different benefits and consequences.

Sometimes masturbation is just simpler and easier than partner sex, with its interpersonal and physical complexities.

Slightly triggering story ahead:

A long, long time ago I talked to a young woman who was TOTALLY FREAKED OUT to have woken up in a hotel room she was sharing with her father, to the sound of her father masturbating. My guess is that her dad was probably just trying to get to sleep after a long, stressful day, and he thought she was asleep. She felt VERY creeped out.

Tactfully, I did NOT try to defend her father’s choice to her. (Really he would have been better advised to get in the shower and masturbate there, rather than in the room with his (adult) daughter.)


But the reason I’m telling this anecdote is to illustrate the point that masturbation isn’t necessarily about any other person; sometimes it’s just about wanting a fast, easy, reliable orgasm, for whatever purpose orgasm serves. Sleep. Stress relief. Fun. Mood regulation.

What do you want out of sex? Sometimes all you want is to feel a little better, a little calmer. And masturbation has fewer calories than wine.

Aug 022010

Christ, three posts in one day? What’s come over me?

Well, I can’t help it, I *have* to share this with ya’ll.

My sister showed it to me when I had a head full of Lady Gaga, Simone de Beauvoir, and the relationship between feminism and authenticity/fallibility, and I can’t get enough of it.

Philosopher Nancy Bauer writes:

I think that [de Beauvoir's] credibility in her pleas to women ultimately to value freedom more than happiness rests on her willingness to put her own fallibility on display. [emphasis mine]

Bear in mind that I’ve also got a head full of Mad Men too, and Don Draper famously says:

You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do and they hate us for it.

Of course that’s what an actor does too. That’s what Christopher Beautiful Eccleston is doing in the music video above; it’s two and half minutes of focused, controlled, choreographed feeling something.

So put all this in my head – all the feminist philosophy, all the Mad Men, all the Christopher Eccleston, not to mention Enlightened Misogyny and Half the Sky – and this what comes out:

Maybe this is the next big thing for feminism. Maybe vulnerability, maybe fallibility, maybe feeling something, maybe simple, authentic presence in a room with other people will be how we claim our space. Maybe the patrician culture of “feelings = weakness” will topple in the face of the tidal wave of real humans really caring about each other.

Cz, shit, I see Christopher Beautiful Eccleston just being, just sitting there and showing us his inner life, and I think there’s nothing more powerful than that. Nothing more persuasive. Nothing more beautiful.

I don’t know quite what it is about authenticity, but there’s something there. Something important. God knows it’s at the core of the best sex you’ll ever have. But I think it’s also at the core of the revolution, ya know?

Aug 022010

So Ian Kerner emails me and says, “Did you ever think you’d be on the front page Fox News?” To which I reply along these lines:

“Sure, but I always figured it would be in an article exposing me as the fag enabling anti-American pinko feminazi that I am.”

But no. It’s about women’s orgasm and it’s to promote the Good in Bed forums.

Go figure.

It’s women’s orgasm week on the forums, btw. Therefore most of my blog posts for the rest of the week will be about women’s orgasms. One my favorite topics. Should be fun.

Aug 022010

Fluidity. I’ve been trying to understand people’s judgment of fluid women.

Is it the case that people have a basic underlying sexual orientation and, though their desires may stretch and morph under some circumstances, ultimately they always return to a particular shape? Are people obliged only to date people in their “first tier” of attraction, even if circumstances create affection for and attachment to someone outside a person’s primary orientation? What if circumstances desperately limit access to people who match the “first tier” orientation? Is a person obliged even then to avoid dating second tier partners?

Well. There’s me as an example and illustration.

It’s taken years to acknowledge that though I can be attracted to and happily sexual with someone culturally “appropriate” but outside my orientation, to partner myself with such a person would be exceptional and surprising; I’d spend my life attached to this person but constantly seeing people who are a better match for my innate orientation.

Here’s the thing: I’m mostly into non-Americans.

The older I get, the more concrete this fact becomes.

Like many women, I *can* be aroused by someone outside my primary orientation – straight women can be turned on by lesbian erotica, women of all orientations can enjoy gay porn, and I can, given positive circumstances,  get jiggy with an American, but I’m routinely inclined toward non-Americans. Indeed, not once have I felt the instantaneous “yes! you!” feeling for an American. Only for non-Americans.

Actually, it might be more specific than that. There’s a theme in my life of people from members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Australia, Great Britain, India, New Zealand, South Africa…  When I was 14 I met a guy from Ghana and was totally besotted. My first True Love (videlicet: obsessive, lustful, long-distance attachment to unattainable, inappropriate object – see previous) was English. Maybe one day I’ll meet someone from Trinidad or the Seychelles and learn just how far around the globe my orientation stretches.

My orientation is shaped not so much by sex or gender as by geography, sociohistorical forces, and probably the broadcast schedule of PBS in the 80s. So what the hell is up with that? For all my education and insight, I have no idea where this came from.

But I don’t need to understand it to accept it. (Whatever’s true about your sexuality, I hope you feel the same way.)

Was I born this way? No that’s absurd, you can’t be born with a predilection for people from an intergovernmental organization… yet certainly my earliest romantic feelings and fantasies were for non-Americans. Seriously, 11 years old and fantasizing exclusively about non-Americans!

Still, I’ve felt not only sexual attraction but also real, deep love for Americans. 500 years ago, I would have married my third boyfriend, a boy from Oklahoma, had he not dumped me on my ass. (Would such a relationship inevitably fail?)

That was rather more than a decade ago and my sexual orientation has had time to learn from experience, which is how Lisa Diamond suggests it works, and the combination of experience and natural inclination has resulted in a person whose first tier of attraction is for people not from America.

Yet I live in the US and most of the people I meet are American, so “facilitating circumstances” definitely favor my partnering with an American.

Should the world condemn me, then, if I find myself in a relationship with an American? Should it whisper that I’m leading this American on, since under my relationship with this American I’ll still have this inclination toward non-Americans?

Or must I exclude Americans from my dating radar and go out only with the handful of non-Americans who happen to find their way to this corner of New England? Am I condemned to be alone as long as circumstances of my romantic life vastly limit my access to first-tier attractions?

Well, world?

I’m actually asking. It’s an ethical question, and I truly don’t know the answer.

I’m also trying to illuminate this idea of fluidity and orientation. In the general scheme of things I don’t talk about my own sexual experiences, but this is a rare case when I think talking about my personal life might stir new thinking about old questions.

Orientation. Fluidity. Social judgment. You tell me.