Nov 292010

CHRIST I love Jane Austen.

I’m rereading (for about the zillionth time) Emma.

Last sentence of Chapter 20: Emma could not forgive her.
First sentence of Chapter 21: Emma could not forgive her.

In the end, of course, she does forgive her. Miss Fairfax gushes forth in apology for her coldness and many other things, when Emma has already totally forgiven her.

Emma and Pride and Prejudice are my favorite Austens specifically because of this theme of second chances, of blundering and forgiveness. What’s moving about Emma and Knightley’s and (especially) Elizabeth and Darcy’s journeys toward each other is first the blinding recognition each has of their own wrongness, then their efforts to put right what has been wrong, and at last their desperate hope that the other will see that effort and love them for it.

And they do. And we all cry and feel that there’s hope for humanity after all.

And that’s the point where fiction departs from reality. The novel ends, and we assume that they live forever blameless of their former faults.

In real life, people make the same mistakes over and over again, forever.

I have a pet theory that people are capable of real, fundamental change until they’re about 25, and then after that they can only learn strategies to work around their faults. Even if I’m wrong, it’s still indubitably true that people repeat their mistakes. What you must forgive someone for once, you might as well expect to have to forgive them for in the future, eternally. And what faults you have in adulthood you must always manage.

(The caveat is that some blunders arise more as a matter of circumstance than temperament, and those are relatively easier to prevent by changing the circumstances. But none of these things are either/or; it’s all about the interaction of people with environment.)

I’ve had occasion to think tonight about what binds me to my BFFL. And the answer is that we are tied to each other by the endurance challenge of earning forgiveness. Earning it long after it had been granted, and despite the certain knowledge that forgiveness will have to be granted again and again, for as long as we care to know each other.

I’ve been on my knees – literally – repentant for my failings, not certain that I can avoid them in the future but hating myself for them, and I’ve received forgiveness, without reservation or condition, without condescension or bargaining. Just a bare, “It’s okay. We’re okay. Of course I still love you.”

And there is nothing, nothing, nothing on earth more powerful than that.

To own one’s worst traits – impatient, judgmental, avoiding conflict by sacrificing the truth, inconstant, thoughtless, insecure, avoidant, jealous, aggressive, critical, cold, clingy, so many ways you can screw up – and to be forgiven them is to find the ultimate salvation.

I can see the power of the Catholic faith. Forgiveness for one’s sins? Yes please. If I could undo the damage of my faults by reciting some poetry, I’d count myself a devoted follower.

Some things are unforgivable. Some things are forgivable but irrevocably change the nature of a relationship. Most things, though… most things, if you embrace unconditional positive regard, most things you can forgive. And there’s not much better you can give someone.

And welcome to the holiday season. Joy to the world. And confidence. :-)

Nov 252010

I’m American. It’s Thanksgiving. Because this is a sex blog and not a broader social justice blog I’m not gonna talk about genocide or global hunger. I’m using the occasion to talk about how to make your romantic (and indeed every interpersonal) relationship better, cz that’s what I do.

Gratitude. Appreciation. Saying “thank you,” just like your mother taught you.

It shows up over and over again in research, pop psychology, and Oprah. Must be true then, right?

Well in this case it is.

It’s very simple, really. Complaining and criticizing make a partner feel underappreciated and rather like, “Well look if you don’t like it, you can just leave” or “Why do I bother trying if you’re never going to be satisfied anyway?”

John Gottman’s research goes so far as to offer a ratio: 5 positives for everyone 1 negative. He’s actually referring there to codes in his research – facial expressions, tones of voice, physiological stress responses, and words. But you can make it happen for real with a few simple tricks for increasing the salience of the good stuff.

Let the first thing you say be positive. The first thing you say sets the tone for everything else. If it’s negative, you’ll have the spend the whole rest of the conversation compensating for that; your partner will already be feeling defensive and criticized, and life will be much more complicated and painful. So start on a good note.

This is easier for some people than others. Some people are temperamentally serious. If someone asks your opinion of, say, their outfit, and the first thing that goes through your mind is “that belt should go,” you might be temperamentally series. For serious people, Marcy Kurcinka tells us, the first thing they notice is what can be improved.

Which is valuable, important.

It is not, however, the way to make your partner feel good about themselves, you, or the relationship.

So no matter what your first thought is, allow the first thing you say to be positive.

“What do you think of this outfit?”

“I think you look great! Love the shoes!”

Should you mention the questionable belt? Well, that’s another post – that is, offering criticism is another post. There are times when it’s appropriate (and many other times when it is not) to criticize your partner. But I’ll write about that another time.

Reflect. That means listen, sorta. Really what it means is that when you respond to something your partner says, you check in with them to make sure you heard them right.

“What I hear you saying is…”

“I just want to make sure I understood. Do you mean…”

“You want… (whatever). Did I hear you right?”

This simple but crucial skills makes your partner feel understood and respected, which diffuses defensiveness. Which is good.

Make your non-verbal language positive. Something like 70% of the meaning we convey in communication comes through the non-verbal parts of our communication – body posture, tone of voice (aka, paralanguage), facial expression, body tension, that sort of thing. POSITIVE body language is relaxed, open, and welcoming. Smile. Meet your partner’s eyes.

Please note that positive body language doesn’t really work if it’s fake. That said, you can actually change your state of mind by changing your body – when I was a teenager, I had a boss who would paste a fake smile on her face when she was cranky, and keep it there until her mood changed to match her expression. And it completely worked. But it has to be real in order to count toward your positivity ratio.

So if you’re feeling tense, stressed, defensive, angry, or hurt, relax your body, remember something that you love about the person in front of you, and smile into their eyes with love.

Let the last thing you say be positive. Like, if you have a fight, express gratitude for your partner’s willingness to be to honest with you and to work toward solving problems. End on a high note too.

As David Schnarch tell us, the ultimate – nay, the ONLY – aphrodisiac is: Be Nice to Your Partner. It’s pretty much the advice I have for every holiday – remember Valentine’s Day? Be nice, say thank you, tell them what you love.

Oh, and while we’re at it, Happy Thanksgiving and why not donate to the World Food Programme? Did you know hunger disproportionately affects women and children?

And just for kicks, the brilliant, brilliant “Singing Detective”‘s reinterpretation of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing “Accentuate the Positive.”

Nov 222010

I learned from Sarah Vowell that John Wilkes Booth chose a particularly hysterical line in the play “Our American Cousin” after which to shoot Abraham Lincoln. It got a reliably huge laugh that would drown out the sound of the shot. That line was:

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap…”


No. What? It’s not funny.

And our lack of laughter isn’t judgment, we’re not offended – if you’re like me, you didn’t even understand it and had to look up “sockdologizing.” No, it’s just… a blank. We don’t get it.

In fact, Sarah Vowell tells us, guides at the Ford’s Theater don’t tell tour groups the line because it’s distractingly unfunny.

Humor is cultural, is my point.

Okay, so my friend Alex sent this to me:

saturday morning breakfast

basically just saying, “Hey, funny, eh?”

And this is what I said (I quote myself directly here, in order to give the full weight of my stupid/ignorant):

I think it’s ridiculous bullshit myself. I’ve never met anyone, EVER, who had quality sex with someone they hated. Someone they were attached to but angry with, yes, but not hated. Could you satisfyingly fuck, I don’ t know, someone who raped your sister? THAT is fucking someone you hate. Hate sex is a myth perpetuated by people who….

and I went on. I was on a high horse. I was grumpy for other reasons and might have been venting a bit, but ya know. I was on a high horse.

He, being a rational human being and healthily non-reactive, replied (again, quoting – and yes I asked it if was okay first), “Of *course* it’s ridiculous bullshit, but the concept is very funny, as is the execution, regardless of its applicability to, y’know, real life.”

Which was so sane and reasonable that it made me feel not *quite* a normal human being. Which is a feeling I’ve been getting used to, as a sex educator. Clearly there’s something there that is just outside my culture, beyond my scope of funny. Like, there’s something about “sockdologizing mantraps” that is The Funniest. Thing. Ever. And I just don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

There are a lot of things I could talk about re: the cartoon – love and hate aren’t on a continuum; MORE sex isn’t inherently better; sex with someone you hate is not better than sex with someone you love – indeed, almost nothing on earth is better than sex with someone you love. But the main question I want to ask is: why is it funny?

I’m sort of taking it as read here, based on what Alex said, that people DON’T actually believe in hate sex. Indeed, I’ve written about this idea before: people don’t want to fuck people they hate. Well, women don’t, we established that. Do men? Hey straight guys, can you think of a time when there was a TOTAL BITCH, a harpy, a shrew of a woman who was, nevertheless, powerfully attractive to you? Men are sorta globally more visual and maybe I’ve been overestimating them in thinking that hating someone would outweigh any beauty she may possess, but none of the guys I know can sustain attraction to even the most gorgeous woman if it turns out she’s contemptible, mean, or stupid. They may be ABLE to have sex with someone they dislike or even hate, but it won’t be “awesome.” It’ll probably be pretty bad sex. This makes sense also in terms of how the sexual response/motivation mechanism works, but I’m not gonna get that nerdy right now.

So why is it funny? I’m genuinely asking.

I can only guess that there is something in the ether of pop culture that I have not noticed because of who and what I am, about having sex with someone you hate.

So can someone tell me? Why, conceptually, is it funny to imagine/say that sex with someone you hate is awesome, when in actual fact it would be dull at best and an act of violence at worst?

Is it because it removes sex from the emotional intimacies of affection and thus from the demands of relationship, respect, and responsibility? And that’s sufficiently appealing or culturally important that even the intensity of HATE can’t damp its power?

Jeez, is it as simple as juxtaposing two apparently opposite concepts, hate and sex? Is that funny?

I really, truly don’t understand. I’m like a dog watching TV here, folks. If people don’t believe it hate sex is the island of awesome, whence comes the power of the idea?

Nov 202010

So a question arose in class about the vas defrens, which led me on a hunt that resulted in the following:

Human embryos are endowed with two sets of ducts: the Wolffian which typically develop into male reproductive tracts if the embryo has a Y chromosome and the Mullerian ducts, which typically develop into female reproductive tracts if it does not have a Y chromosome. (<– it's more complicated than that.)

Whichever set of ducts don't develop are actively suppressed, hormonally, so they shrivel into nearly nothing.

The male reproductive tract includes the vas defrens and seminal vesicles. The latters' job is the production of some of the fluid that sperm travels in (the rest produced by? yes, the prostate).

Non-crucial but interesting: The area of the vas defrens that meets the ducts of the seminal vesicle and the prostate is where sperm mixes with ejaculatory fluid and thus creates semen as we know it . The whole system is paired from epididymis (adjacent to the testicle) to seminal vesicle, UNTIL the prostatic region of the urethra. So that's important, if that sort of thing is important to you.

So much for the Wolffian ducts in males.

Now, male bodies have remnant homologues of the Mullerian ducts, such as the uterus masculinus (aka prostatic utricle), a fragment of the reproductive tract whose only notable quality is a slight tendency to get infected. The homologues aren't large, nor are they importantly functional as far as I can tell. Evolution apparently suppressed the Mullerian ducts as much as necessary, and then stopped bothering.

But here's the neato part, which I have only recently put together:

APPARENTLY there is NO female homologue for the seminal vesicles. Nothing. Not even a vestigial remnant like the uterus masculinus.

Fascinating, eh? It indicates the thoroughness of the eradication of the Wolffian ducts in the absence of testosterone during embryonic development.

Why would evolution invest so much in eliminating the Wolffian ducts? Something to do with the importance of protecting the female internal reproductive organs, maybe? I think there's likely to be some actual REASON and it's not just a byproduct of homology, because it's not just that they don't grow, it's that the female body actively SHRINKS the Wolffian ducts

You probably need to be a pretty hard core nerd to find that fascinating, but boy do *I* find it FASCINATING.

Nov 172010

I’ve been attempting to catalogue the questions I get asked – partly for my own reference and partly because I routinely get asked, “What’s the most common question you get asked?” Indeed I’m asked this question so regularly that I’ve begun wondering if it might not BE the most common question I’m asked.

(Actually the most common question I’m asked is some variation on “Am I normal?“)

As I document the questions I’m asked, I notice that I’m asked a lot of questions about vaginal penetration – orgasms with penetration, the g-spot, the hymen, why you might feel like you have to pee… anything and everything to do with sexual pleasure derived from putting something inside the vagina.

I work primarily with college students. Many of them – the national statistics would indicate that about HALF of them – experience their first penetration during these years. So their vaginas are these new, uncharted territories, and there’s all this cultural HYPE about what it’s like, what it ought to be like. And the thing is, it isn’t at ALL what they’ve been led to believe.

To illustrate, collection of “first intercourse” moments, as described in romance novels:

Beyond Innocence, Emma Holly

It felt like her soul was tearing down the middle, not with pain but with gladness. With this act, her whole being made room for him

Lord Carew’s Bride, Mary Balogh

It was – yes, it was by far the most wonderful experience of the day. Perhaps of her life…. There was no pain except for one brief moment when she thought there would not be enough room and then felt him breaking through and realized it had just been the loss of her virginity. There was no other pain, even though there was an unexpected tightness and stretching. He was far bigger than her imagination had anticipated. When he was finally fully embedded in her, she felt very – married, although she knew that this was not all.

As You Desire, Connie Brockaway:

She lifted her hips and there – oh, there – a pressure, not quite pain, not sharp, but a stretching, a deep final ache and – and the promise of ecstasy.

Perhaps least incorrect, Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale:

He came into her, delicious burn, more hurt; her husband – all heat and dark fire; her wicked husband, who knew corrupt worldly things, who held her tight and kissed her and kissed her again while it hurt, stretched his beautiful body over hers, pushing harder, creating pain and soothing it at once, more pain, until she cried out with anguish at the peak. [...] She gulped for air, her tense muscles slow to realize that the sharp piercing hurt had subsided.

What do we learn? That it hurts so good. (I’ll do another post on pain with penetration.) That it, like, kills you softly. That it’s an intense and moving experience.

Well. Sometimes.

I’ve talked a lot on the blog about the importance of context in sexual experience – a sensation in a non-erotic context may hurt while a sensation in an erotic context will feel good. I often use the example of tickling: sometimes tickling can be fun and playful and sometimes it’s annoying and irritating, depending on the context.

Well, with first penetration, you’ve got all these sensations that you’ve never experienced before, so you and your brain and your body are searching for context – past experience, cultural expectations, current circumstances (like your partner and the relationship) – trying to figure out whether this is the fun and playful kind of tickling, if you will, or the annoying and irritating kind. Because really it’s just sensation, and with sensation, “there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Penetration takes practice, and it’s often an acquired taste, like coffee or whiskey or asparagus. Maybe it demands a more sophisticated palate than, say clitoral stimulation.

I don’t want to underplay the importance of a moment when you let someone put part of their body INSIDE your body. It’s a BIG DEAL; it takes trust and communication and affection and a willingness to open yourself. It doesn’t matter who’s being penetrated, where or with what: it’s a BIG DEAL to let someone put something inside your body. Yeah.

But it’s not NECESSARILY a very sexy sensation, the first time you decide to do it. Indeed, the first FEW times will not necessarily feel that way.

Unsolicited advice: Come to your first penetration with curiosity and openness to new experience. Don’t expect to feel your soul open or to experience the greatest thing of your life. Expect novelty, expect intensity. Let it be interesting without forcing it to be earth-shattering.

Nov 152010

I didn’t intend for my recent beta post to be about the false dichotomy between “nice guys” and “bad boys,” but lots of the comments were about that.

Can I offer an opinion on the subject?

Bad boys- and I’m referring here to the attractively naughty ones, not the dickheads – are confident on the outside and wounded on the inside. Their wounds cause them to behave in risky ways (in my job I describe this as “maladaptive health behaviors to manage negative affect”), and the confidence is a shell to protect the squadgy bits in the middle; like chitin on a cockroach, it makes them virtually indestructible, but no less messy if you somehow crush them. Women are drawn to the combination of confidence (“chicks love confidence,” as Minnie Driver tells us in the South Park movie) and vulnerability. Women will, indeed, tolerate a surprising degree of dickwad-ery in order to feel that they and only they understand and can HELP this beautiful, wounded soul.

All of which, needless to say, usually ends badly.

Nice guys, in contrast – and here I mean the kind of nice guys women don’t date, not beta heroes – wear their insecurity on the outside, like a particularly unwaterproof raincoat. A protective layer of nothing, with nerves (as PG Wodehouse might put it) sticking out a yard from their bodies. You can’t touch them without hurting them. So you don’t touch them.

This also ends badly.

Fortunately, I think, most people are reasonably healthy and able to tend to their own, not-too-abundant emotional needs. I think most of us live in a happy middle-ground between self-parenting so fiercely that no one can get close to us and needing so desperately to be parented that no one but an actual PARENT would be willing to do it.

In other words, I think most of the time this isn’t what dating failure is about; I think most of the time dating failure is about simple incompatibility, without reference to the emotional health of the people involved. Most of us are reasonably good at staying over our own emotional centers of gravity and, like, being nice to each other.

And if you find yourself leaning on the tired old trope of “He was/I am too much of a ‘nice guy,’ to go out with,” or “They/I like me/him because I’m/he’s a ‘bad boy,’” there’s almost certainly something more interesting happening that you’d be able to see – and probably learn from – if you stopped to look a little more closely and think a little more critically.

Like culture has fabricated these boxes into which we chuck people – the Bad Boy box and the Nice Guy box – based on the flimsiest of information, and we think we’ve EXPLAINED something, when all we’ve done is… put it in a box. It’s not that the bad boy/nice guy trope is without ANY meaning, it’s just that the meaning is so rarely useful and so shallowly descriptive as to make it almost meaningless.

Me, I think you can do a lot more with a gender-free story about self-care and empathy.

Nov 132010

At the library check-out desk, over a heap of Georgette Heyer novels:

DESK PERSON (obviously a student): You teach here. (not a question. she recognizes me.)

ME: I do. (internal dialogue: Georgette Heyer novels! Oh god oh god, why do I not read more Proust or Balzac?)

DP: Do you know if you’ll be teaching your class in fall 2011? I want to take it.

ME: Spring 2012. (internal dialogue: When I checked out “Streetcar Named Desire” and the anthology of Roald Dahl short stories, there was a professional staffer at the desk, but when I’m getting a heap of Georgette Heyer novels, of COURSE it’s a STUDENT!)

DP: I’ve heard a lot about your class.

ME: And yet you still want to take it? That’s good. (internal dialogue: I’VE READ THE COMPLETE WORKS OF NABOKOV, HESSE, AUSTEN, VONNEGUT, HARDY, AND DICKENS! DON’T JUDGE ME!!)

DP: I guess so. (friendly smile, clearly not judging me, hands over heap of Georgette Heyer novels)

ME: Thanks. (internal dialogue: It could be worse. They could have nauseating cover illustrations of heavily muscled men in half-buttoned white shirts swooping over a buxom lady in a gravity-defying dress. That would be worse. Please tell me that would be worse.)

DP: Have a good weekend!

ME: You too! (internal dialogue: oh god oh god oh god.)

Christ. I mean I know I’m a snob in the general run of things, but really! These are books written in the late 40s/early 50s; they’re really the romance novel equivalent of checking out “Singing in the Rain.” It’s mid-C20th pop culture and nothing worse. Even contemporary pop culture isn’t wicked – I feel nothing but comradery with folks when I find out they read romance novels. People admit to watching Glee and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire without a blush, so what exactly is my problem? Why do I… oh, hang on. Oh.

It’s the SEX.

People see romance novels and think girl-porn. I think people see these books and think I’m reading books with explicit sex in them. Some of them DO have explicit sex in them… and it turns out I’m bothered by the idea of people seeing that I read them!

Oh my god I’m not a snob – I mean, I *am* a snob, but that’s not the problem here; the problem here is that I’M A PRUDE!


I… I have no idea what to do with this thought. On the one hand, I’m a sex educator and being comfortable with all things sexual is part of my job. Nothing sexual phases me. On the other hand, keeping an appropriate boundary between my professional life and my personal life is crucial, for reasons both practical and ethical. Any actual sex I might have I can keep utterly private from students simply by not having it on campus. Easy. But my choice of fiction, mediated as it usually is by the public library across the street from campus, is more in the public domain.

So there’s Emily the sex educator with a heap of romance novels that may or may not contain scenes of explicit sex – written with an unknown degree of literary merit, for whatever that’s worth.

Yes? What about it?

I don’t know, man, but it feels weird.

Nov 122010

I’ve been thinking about eye contact.

Seen Coraline?


Making up a song about Coraline,
She’s a peach, she’s a doll, she’s a pal o’ mine.
She’s as cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline!

When she comes around exploring Mom and I will never ever make it boring –
Our eyes will be on Coraline!

Now the “eye” thing is part of the story – in the alternative world, everyone has buttons for eyes.

But what’s compelling about the idea of button eyes, anyway, and of having eyes on someone?

David Richo condenses human social needs into the “5 A’s” and one of his “A’s” is ATTENTION. Being seen as your full self and taken seriously. From this, he says, we learn self-esteem. We learn that we are worth paying attention to.

Consider the little kid calling, “Look Ma, no hands!” when she’s riding her bike. Why does it matter if Ma looks?

There’s a story Dustin Hoffman tells about Lawrence Olivier – starts around 1:50 below:

“What’s the reason we do what we do?” Hoffman asks Olivier. Acting, he means.

And Olivier gets in his face and says: “Lookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatme.”


Half the human cortex is visual cortex, committed to processing visual information. The back half of your brain, approximately. Vision is important to our species. Eye gazing between infants and adult caregivers elicits attachment behaviors; between adult lovers, it shifts sex from passionate to profound.

It’s complicated by culture of course. I had a meeting with a student a while ago, and every time I got into didactic mode her eyes shifted to the floor and I was like, “Is she listening? Is she bored? Is she annoyed?” Her responses all indicated that she, like, totally got what I was saying and was into it. It took me like 15 minutes to figure out that this was a cultural difference, based on respect for the “dominant person” (uh, me, apparently) in the conversation.

There’s all kinds of power stuff involved, and eye contact often mediates conflict. And humans can tell what someone else is looking at by seeing where their eyes go.

Probably this has something to do with the importance of facial expressions in predicting others’ internal states, which is a key human skills. But that doesn’t make it less astonishing that a pair of goo-filled globs popping through the skull, attached to the brain by a string of meat, could be the source of so much information and power. Does it?

Button eyes. Our eyes will be on Coraline. Look at me. Stephen Sondheim knows it, too:

Not to mention “Our Town” and that whole bit about how people don’t look at each other.

So. Like, ya know. Look at each other. Don’t forget. Is what I’m trying to say. With your goo-filled globs on strings of meat. Look.

Nov 092010

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:

Nov 092010

Oh god you guys, I have discovered that a long-time semi-crush object turns out to humorless. No sense of playfulness or the absurd. A sourpuss, if you will.

I can’t explain how it became clear – it was one of those things where people were joking and teasing and playing and having fun, and then crush-object came clumping in with a big, self-congratulatory turd of a joke.

At first it was okay. I shrugged it off, attributed it to “a bad day.”

But then it happened again on another occasion.

And then again.

It was a major blow. My crushiness shriveled and expired under the weight of it.

I have no empirically-based idea why sense of humor is important. There’s probably research on it that I’m unaware of, but at the moment I’m just going to speculate irresponsibly, if that’s okay with you. I think sense of humor is important because it denotes two things:

(1) shared experience of culture, which has to be valuable for something, surely – an indication of like intelligence and social values; and

(2) ability to stay calm, which must have advantages when it comes to conflict resolution. Folks who can stay relaxed and not get defensive when they feel criticized have longer, happier relationships. The science tells me that much; but surely the ability to laugh at yourself helps with that skill.

Now I’m not saying that an attractive (i.e., kind-hearted and egoless) sense of humor honestly advertises these characteristics, but I think it’s like mannequins in a shop window; if you like what you see there, you’re tempted to explore further. Or maybe a better simile: it’s like a great meal at a new restaurant – you’ll go back again because of it and, even if the next thing you try isn’t as good, you know you can always go back to that first favorite.

Regardless of the REAL reasons it’s important, sense of humor has climbed over the backs of every other trait to the top of my mate choice heap. Money and looks are squashed down at the bottom with the trash juice and the stray bits of junk mail. Articulateness is somewhere floating around the middle, in the vicinity of self-regard and what my sister calls “art.” Way up at the top is sense of humor, supported by progressive politics and the ability to learn to tolerate intensity.

Especially on the subject of sex, people can’t take themselves too lightly. Bodies are too ridiculous, the fluids too sticky, the body movements too silly, the noises too odd. If you can’t laugh about your own body, you’re doomed to a lifetime of angst and melodrama and problematizing in your sex life. (I wonder if anyone has done any research on the relationship the between ability to laugh joyfully at oneself and frequency of orgasm. Bet there’s something there.)

Dorothy Sayers made Peter Wimsey say, “I do know that the worst sin – perhaps the only sin – passion can commit is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or makes its bed in hell – there is no middle way….”

And in the next book, on his wedding night, Peter crawls into bed beside Harriet for the first time, cold and damp, “scrubbed like a puppy under a scullery pump,” having spent his wedding evening wrestling with an uncooperative paraffin stove, and he says, “What does it matter? What does anything matter? We are here. Laugh, lover, laugh. This is the end of the journey and the beginning of all delight.”

Confidence and joy, friends. Joy.

Too bad about the crush object.