Dec 302010

They talked about seahorses on QI this season:

(It starts at 5:47 – click here if you don’t feel like fast-forwarding through fairly gross and totally irrelevant other things.)

Again, it’s at 5:47.

Seahorses have a very rare mating system in which the male has a brood pouch into which the female implants the egg. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only species in which the males give birth to live young.

So David Mitchell says, “I know it is more complicated than I think, but, sort of, if it’s the one that’s giving birth, why don’t we call that the female? What’s the female one do that’s more female than giving birth?”

Stephen Lovely Fry says, “She plants the eggs in the male.”

David Mitchell: “Oh right. Why aren’t they actually large sperm? Why are they defined as eggs? They don’t come from the one that gives birth. It just seems so abitrary!” And he goes on, entertaingly.

Which is hilarious &c but also quite interesting, right? Mr Mitchell is a born philosopher of science. See, look:

His working definition of “female” is “the one that gives birth,” which is a totally reasonable definition for a mammal to have, since without exception in our class of vertebrates it’s true.

But the more universal definition of “female” (and I’m not going to make the mistake of insisting that a more universal definition is in any way useful or important day-to-day for most mammals, such as Mr Mitchell; it’s simply more universal without being in any way superior) is “the one with the eggs,” as he correctly deduces.

Why? What actually is the difference between eggs and sperm? Three things:

Sperm are little and many. They may result in the same overall metabolic investment as the conspecific’s eggs, but sperm are small in size and large in number. In humans, if the egg were the size of a fridge, the sperm would be very roughly the size of a corndog.

Sperm travel independently. Even in seahorses, where you might assume – indeed, scientists did assume for a long time – that fertilization would happen internally after the “impregnation” of the male, it turns out the sperm are ejaculated into the sea and have to travel back into the brood pouch in order to fertilize the eggs. Which brings us to…

Sperm compete with each other to fertilize eggs. Because they can travel and there are more of them, sperm compete to fertilize eggs. Thus a smaller proportion of sperm are represented in the next generation, compared to eggs. This is often paralleled in the reproductive success of individuals in a species; a larger proportion of females make it into the next generation than males, among whom competition if fiercer and, not coincidentally, winners are fewer. Each of us humans has more female ancestors than male ancestors; you might think we’d have to have an equal number of both, but no.

So males are the ones with the large number of tiny, traveling gametes.

Is that a better definition than “the one that gives birth”? Well, insofar as there are species in which neither gives birth – like in fish species where sperm and eggs are simply deposited on the sea/ocean/river floor and left to fend for themselves – it’s important not to use birth as the determining characteristic.

So we use gametes as the universal. And in those species where the gametes are not different, we simply don’t assign sexes; but the sperm/egg divide is nice and reliable for lots of species. Oh and there are also species with males and hermaphrodites (androdioecy) or females and hermaphrodites (gynodioecy).

In short, sex is complicated and various, but it boils down to numerous small mobile gametes (males) fighting to fertilize a smaller number of gigantic, stationary gametes (females). And that’s why we count the seahorses who get pregnant as males.

Dec 282010

From the top hat:

What happens when a woman takes viagra?

Short answer: not a lot.

Really what happens is you increase blood flow to erectile tissues. And what happens when you increase blood flow to erectile tissues? Again, not a lot, due to the non-congruence of women’s physiological sexual response with their perceived/emotional sexual response. (If you don’t know what I mean by that, go read the post. Really. It’s important.)

Sexual arousal medications have AMAZINGLY HUGE placebo effects, so it’s perfectly possible – between 15-40%, I’d estimate – that a woman taking viagra would experience an increase in desire… but she’d experience that taking two aspirin if her doctor assured her it would “increase her libido.” (Of course that effect is now diminished for you, because you’ve read this and know it’s bullshit.)

We know viagra isn’t effective in increasing women’s sexual desire because you can bet your bippy that Pfizer has tested it and tested it and tried to find an effect, and they can’t. It’s been 11 years since it was first produced, and still no effect has been proven.

This is one of the drums I bang all the time: medication isn’t effective, and there are behavioral, attitudinal, and experiential things you can do to increase desire/arousability for women.

Can it harm a woman? Well no one knows for sure, of course. I’m gonna say globally probably not, taken rarely and at low doses, unless you have the conditions that are contraindicated for men. And all medications have the potential for side effects or health risks; because it’s not approved for women, the research on these effects and risks is limited, to put it mildly.

So what happens when a woman takes viagra? Well most likely it DOESN’T increase her sexual desire.

Dec 272010

From the top hat:

Do many women cry after their first orgasm

Sure. How many? I have no idea. This isn’t something I can get statistics on (as far as I know), but if you watch Betty Dodson’s videos you’ll see that first orgasms are INTENSELY personal experiences that are often accompanied by cathartic laughter or tears – or both.

People cry with orgasms for lots of reasons, not just with their first. Deeply loving orgasms, orgasms that have involved a lot of build up, orgasms that function as a stress reliever, barbiturate, or sedative, or orgasms that you feel ambivalent about are all examples of orgasm in the context of emotional intensity, and they’re all potential sources of post-orgasm weeping.

See, crying is about intensity, not valence. So if emotions are like volume and they can go from mute to 11, then crying happens around 11, regardless of what music is playing, if you see what I mean. It doesn’t matter WHAT you feel, it’s how MUCH you feel. People weep with joy as well as with sorrow. It’s simply the release of intense emotions. Orgasm too is the release of intense emotion – indeed, orgasm research often characterized in the psychology literature as emotion research.

This isn’t what the question is about, but I usually take is as a compliment if someone cries with orgasm – either they experienced something intensely positive or else they trust me enough to show me vulnerability. Of course it’s crucial to check in with the person and listen carefully and empathically, to see if they’re in distress and need help, but if they’re just letting go of some intensity, it’s a super opportunity to bond.

Dec 192010

From the top hat:

What did you study in college – aka, how do I get to where you are?

I studied cognitive psychology, mostly. My degree is in Psychology with minors in cognitive science and philosophy, and my undergrad research was on spatial cognition in children with William’s syndrome.

I became a sex educator not because of my academics (I took exactly one class on Human Sexuality as an undergrad) but because of the volunteer work I was doing, as a Peer Health Educator. I was trained to do ALL kinds of health education – nutrition, alcohol, stress, massage, all kinds of things – but what really made me zing was the sexuality stuff. I had no trouble talking about sex in front of people, ever. And I absorbed every drop of information I could get. Teaching people about sexual health made me like WHO I AM as a person in a way that my academics, fascinating though they were, just didn’t.

Equally telling, one of the first things I did when I got to college was go to the sex section of the library, pick up the Hite report, and read the thing cover to cover.

How do you get where I am? Well, it depends which part of “where I am” is relevant. When you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life, there’s really two questions you need to answer:

(1) What kind of people do you like working with?

(2) What kind of problems do you like to solve?

Me, I like working with college students and, more generally, with people who enjoy learning things and knowing things and teaching things. I belong in higher education.

And I like solving problems related to sex, primarily, but also to overall individual health. My MS is in Counseling Psychology, which is basically a degree in listening to people, and my PhD is in Health Behavior, which is basically a degree in the nature of problems related to human health, at the individual, interpersonal, and cultural levels. I stayed in school because I enjoyed being in school, I was good at it, and also because having the degrees was necessary to do the kinds of work I wanted to do. Grad school is not for everyone.

But what really tells you what you should be when you grow up is what you can’t NOT do. I can’t not think about, talk about, write about sex. I can’t not do it. It’s the thing I come back to, over and over, the thing the universe keeps putting in my path.

Lots of people are interested in sex; lots of people get excited about it when they hear me teach about it, because *I* get so excited about it. I’m a moon-faced, starry-eyed goobah who cries when she talks about evolution. That kind of passion is infectious in the classroom, but that infection is often temporary. It’s not easy work and the people who are successful at it are the people who can’t not do it, not if they tried not to, not if you paid them not to.

So, you get where I am by not being satisfied doing anything else.

See? Career advice. We’re branching out.

Dec 182010

This is my life: I go to have brunch with some folks and end up in a conversation about dealing with a partner’s erectile dysfunction…. And then I wrote a blog post about it.

What do you do when your partner routinely loses his erection?

Well, the first thing to remember is that sexual responsiveness is a combination of hitting the gas (i.e., giving good stimulation through all sensory modalities, including emotion and imagination) and taking your foot (or whatever) off the brakes (i.e., removing threats of all kinds), right? Right. So almost always erectile dysfunction is NOT about a failure of stimulation but about an overabundance of threats, often in the form of stress, anxiety, depression, or, in this case, a recent history of trauma.

Therefore the solution to ED, assuming it’s psychogenic and not straight-up physiological, is NOT about changing the stimulation. There is no extra-special blowjob trick you can use to get an erection back – at least not in the straightforward sense. It’s not about you as a source of stimulation.

Instead, confronting ED is about removing threats of all kinds. Now, in this dude’s case, it was most likely a temporary condition brought on by recent acute stress related to his lifestyle. So the simple passage of time, accompanied by lots of unconditional positive regard, would set things to rights fairly soon.

This combination of realities – that it’s not about stimulation and it IS about threats – tells us that the WORST thing you can do is to take it personally or judge or blame or worry or sweat it in any way at all. If it’s problematic from your point of view, it becomes a source of anxiety, which is the OPPOSITE of arousal. I know you might feel like a failure or you might be inclined to take it personally. Don’t. Your attitude should be one of bright, optimistic curiosity about the things you can do sans erection.

Penises are like puppies. They respond poorly to commands. They don’t understand. And the more aggressive you get with your commands, the more they’ll just cower and duck and wait for you to calm down. But boy are they glad to see you, as long as nothing in telling them NOT to be glad to see you.

So: imagine you were in the middle of intercourse or fellatio, and things went south. Here is the puppy penis before you, flaccid, attached to a boy who now feels like a failure, ashamed, guilty, self-recriminating. What does the puppy need most?

A balanced combination of affection and being ignored. Stop paying attention to the penis. He goes down on you or uses a vibrator or his hands on you, you masturbate while he watches, you flip him onto his belly and ravish his well-lubricated anus. The possibilities are many and varied.

Alternatively, you can adopt this opportunity to do all the pleasurable things you can do only when a penis is soft. You can put the WHOLE THING in your mouth, draw it out with a long, solid suck, and let it flop down with a pop. You can bury your face in the soft warmth of scrotum and penis. You can tug gently upward with your hands, squeezing surprisingly firmly on the soft shaft. You can rub your genitals against his, noticing and reveling in the unique sensation provided by flaccidity. Soft penises are fun! If your partner starts to get an erection, scold him lightly but firmly: “No, honey! No erection right now!” If he refuses to comply, punish him accordingly.

Either way, keep it really sexy.

In conclusion, erections come and go. People tend to put a lot of cultural weight on them, as if all of masculinity hangs on the flow of blood into and out of the phallus. But that’s all just cultural noise and has nothing to do with you and your lustbunny in bed together. Leave that behind and enjoy the body and the personhood there with you. Relax about erections. If one goes away, another will come along soon enough, I promise. The more you worry about it, the longer you’ll have to wait.

The brunch, by the way, involved some truly excellent banana bread, of which I had three slices with butter. Yum.

Dec 152010

From the top hat:

How do you feel about polyamory?

How do I feel about it? For me personally? Or for you? Just in general?

To me personally, it seems like a lot of hard work. I appreciate the principle of open and honest communication around sex and love, I totally dig that people continue to be interested in sex and love with other people when they’re in a committed relationship, and I sure as hell would rather a partner talked to me before they were intimate with someone else, than did it without my knowledge. At the same time, I have many of the insecurities that people tend to have, so granting my partner’s freedom to have sex with someone else requires managing the pain of insecurity and jealousy.

Should students/other folks try it out? Sure if you like. I recommend The Ethical Slut as a beginner’s guide to polyamory and other open relationship constructions.

Signs that polyamory might be especially hard for you: you incline toward an anxious attachment style; you don’t believe it’s possible to have sex with someone outside a committed dyad and still be “committed”; you don’t believe it’s possible to love more than one person at a time; you struggle with conflict in relationships, tending to capitulate or compromise on the truth rather than say something that might hurt your partner; you or your partner rarely succeed in staying calm while feeling criticized; you or your partner feel that the other person must be responsible for your own emotional pain; you or your partner resort to name-calling, force, or other forms of contempt/disrespect during conflict.

In general, polyamory can work given a great deal of commitment, time, skill, trust, and communication. Many people lack adequate quantities of those commodities and thus the complexities inherent in open relationships (contrasted with the complexities inherent in relatively closed relationships) become sticky, uncool, and sometimes no-win situations.

So what do I think of polyamory? I think it’s hard to do well – but then again, I think monogamy is ALSO hard to do well. Polyamory is only harder because it involves more people. But the difficulty is not simply additive – it’s not just 2+1=3. No.

Dyad = You, Me, and YouInteractingWithMe. When you’re really working hard, there’s also YouInteractingwithYouInteractingwithMe and MeInteractingwithYouInteractingwithMe. Dig? Meta.

Poly at its smallest number = You, Me, YouInteractingWithMe, Thirdperson, MeInteractingwithThirdperson, YouInteractingwithThirdperson, plus ThirdpersonDealingwithYouandMeInteracting, MeDealingwithYouInteractingwithThirdperson, YouDealingwithMeInteractingwith Thirdperson, and ThirdPersonDealingwithandMe. Then when you’re working hard there’s MeDealingwithThirdpersonDealingwithYouandMeInteracting, YouDealingwithThirdpersonDealingwithYouandMeInteracting, ThirdpersonDealingwithMeDealingwithThemandYouInteracting…. you get the idea. It’s exponentially more complex.

So it’s hard, is what I think.

Dec 142010

When I did top hat night in class, I mentioned that they could ask any question about me, and I would answer it. In the context of the classroom, that’s a safe thing for me to do, but there’s some stuff I’d tell them that I wouldn’t tell the entire internets. But here are some of the questions I can answer:

Do you have any children? Do you want children?
No and no, but I have a 12 year old cat named Sugar.

Do you want to get married?
In principle, yes eventually. The decision isn’t entirely my own to make.

Favorite pick up line?
Do people really have favorite pick up lines? Like, “oh if someone says that to me, I’ll totally be interested?” Well. I like it when people say, “Hi, I’m [insert name here].”

Do you think that because of your job you have better sex?
Yes. Knowledge is power. I think the greatest benefit is that I don’t worry when stuff doesn’t go quite right.

You say you are attracted to non-American men; have you ever date a Black or Latino man (or woman)? PS – where did you get your shoes from?!!!
Yes I have, but my thing really isn’t about race, it’s about culture. And I got my shoes (turquoise microsuede boots) online.

What’s your favorite restaurant?
Really? You can ask any question and you ask this? Okay. Well, I totally love Pizzeria Paradiso – specifically the Bianco.

How do you define your own sexuality?
I don’t. I stopped trying at least 8 years ago. There isn’t a label that works. I kinda think lots of people would not adopt labels if the social world weren’t so dependent on people fitting into categories. Some people find a comfortable fit inside the extant cultural categories, but I don’t, and I’ve never been good at trying to fit myself into a prefabricated cultural box just so I can meet other people’s expectations. Fuck other people and their expectations; they’re not my sex partners so they don’t need to understand me.

Do you like it rough?
Sometimes. More often than not I prefer gentle. I got a 5-minute 4 hand massage recently and one massage therapist said to the other (sounds like a joke set-up), “Emily’s sensitive!” because I went from knotted up to buttery soft in like 30 seconds. Technically, I’m more intense than sensitive, but I’m much a kinetic learner that I respond readily to tactile stimulation. Also, I’m a total sentimentalist – just look at the stories I like best – so I’m typically less interested in power differentials, force, or physical intensity than I am in emotional intimacy, tenderness, and quiet focus.

(“Emily,” you may be thinking, “Why would you answer a question like that seriously?” Because it’s an opportunity to encourage people to think more deeply about what that kind of question actually entails – the physical, emotional, and social implications of rough sex.)

What is your favorite sex act?
I don’t have a favorite because it all depends on the partner and the context. Honestly, I’m not being coy or hedging, it really depends. Really, my favorite is anything with people I love and trust, who love and trust me too. It’s about the relationship. (I’m such a GIRL, huh?)

Why did you really become a therapist?
I didn’t, I became an educator. I can tell you why I didn’t become a therapist though. Some people are at their best in the “magic box” of the therapeutic relationship, one on one or in a small group, and other people are at their best in the didactic environment of the classroom. I’m among the latter.

What’s your favorite song to have sex to?
Song? The best sex happens when your attention is fully tuned to your partner; music is a distraction.

Would you ever sleep with a student?
Never, under any circumstances, would I ever sleep with a student, or with someone who had ever been my student. Never. Is there anything I can say to make that even clearer?

Why are you so awesome?
Well thank you for that. Last night I asked a student what her favorite thing about the class was and she said, “Your frankness.” She was referring to my ability/tendency to talk about sex as though it were a combination of plumbing, etiquette, and physical fitness. Which it is. So that’s probably where a lot of my perceived awesomeness comes from – I think it’s just a huge relief to a lot of people to be able to talk about sex as though pretty much everything was just okay. Which, again, it is.

Can I see your tattoo?!?!?!
You bet! It’s a peacock (yes, in honor of Darwin and sexual selection), and it wraps around my ankle:

Dec 132010

It’s the questions about relationships that break my heart.

A lot of sex questions can be resolved simply by giving an answer: no, you can’t get addicted to your vibrator; no, there are no ill health consequences related to masturbation, only ill health consequences related to shame about masturbation; yes, if you’re on hormonal birth control it’s safe (like 95% safe) for your partner to ejaculate inside you, but if you’d like to back up with a condom, that’s cool too; yes, Saran wrap is actually effective as a dam during cunnilingus – but only the regular kind, not the microwavable kind; yes, children, even infants, experience arousal and orgasm.

Answers like that are factual and easy to give, and they tend to land inside people like brandy, spreading unpredictable warmth and ease. I love giving those answers.

There’s some sex stuff that’s harder to answer: never had an orgasm? Systematic desensitization plus self-reflection, and it’s easier to describe than to do. Sex addiction? No you can’t be “addicted” to sex but it’s a handy shortcut term for people who don’t understand compulsive behavior as a strategy for managing negative affect. No desire? Yeah, it happens to most people at some point in their lives and here’s a list of things that may be causing it and another list of things you can do about it – again, it’s easier to describe than to do.

Answers like that are like handing someone a toolbox and saying, “Good luck.” I don’t feel great about it, but it’s SOMETHING, and hell an educator can’t fix all the problems in the world.

But the relationship stuff.

Someone asked, “Why do we always fall for people who are bad for us?”

Answer: we don’t, not all of us, not always. Those of us who do can learn to fall for people who are good for us.

Early in our relationship lives, we fall for people who replicate our family of origin. (I said that in class and there was a widespread groan of horror.) We fall for folks who obey the rules of attachment we learned before we were, say, 4 years old.

For some people, that’s okay. But if you had a fucked up family of origin, you’re going to recapitulate that fucked up dynamic until… until you change. Sometimes change happens spontaneously, but mostly it’s deliberate and it’s EFFORTFUL.

And by effortful, I mean you have dig through layers of hardened earth, uproot your own psychology, and replant it somewhere less toxic.

I tell folks to read David Richo’s How to Be an Adult. Does the title feel patronizing to you? Some people have said that to me, but to me it’s just like, “Yep. That’s what we need. An instruction manual.” And that’s what it is – a how-to guide for putting down the grief and the trauma and creating space for love.

It isn’t easy, but it is simple: grief with blame turned inward is depression; grief with blame turned outward is rage; grief without blame is how you heal.

So we don’t always fall for people who are bad for us. We fall for people who meet our expectations of what partnerships are made of. Our expectations were shaped, when we were young, by our families. Once we’re adults, we have the opportunity to change those expectations. Deep change requires time and suffering, suffering like the ache you experience when you come in out of the cold.

And does any of that actually help the person who asked the question? Well, at least I’ve suggested a book they can read – which is like pointing out a toolbox they might try. But the pain that lives in the question is so deep, the loneliness, the trauma, the sense of hopelessness… all I’ve offered is the assertion that change is possible. But have I offered any motivation for them to believe me?


Dec 122010

Out of the top hat:

If you accidentally cut your clit, how long does it take to heal? Do you have to do anything to treat it?

I have two responses to this:

(1) The “Holy Shit!” Response: Women’s genitals are HIGHLY VASCULAR and HIGHLY ENERVATED, so if you cut your clit it would bleed a lot and hurt like a sunnuvabitch. If you cut your clit (or anywhere on your genitals) and the bleeding doesn’t stop VERY soon (30 minutes), seek medical attention. Remember the woman from “Orgasm Inc” who had a clitoral hood reduction and broke a stitch and almost bled to death? Seek medical attention.

(2) The “Parts is Parts” Response: Imagine this question was, “If you accidentally cut your lip/tongue/elbow/ball of your foot/whatever…” how would that change the question and its answer? When skin gets cut, what do you do? Put pressure on it to stop the bleeding, clean it, then cover it with antibiotic ointment and a bandage. Wounds on more sensitive areas take longer to heal, older people take longer to heal, deeper wounds take longer to heal.

Holy jesus, I hope this person is okay. Let’s hope it’s just a minor incident with a razor. There’s a reason to wax rather than shave.

Dec 092010

So: last day of class is question day. All the things they wanted to learn and didn’t, all their curiosities, their fears, their fantasies, they can drop anonymously into a top hat, and I answer them, one at a time.

No, really, a top hat. Here it is:
the top hat questions

In an hour and a half, I didn’t get through all the questions – hell, I didn’t get through HALF the questions. So I’ll keep the hat on my desk and start posting answers on the blog.

I’ll do what I did in class, which was to reach down and grab the piece of paper under my hand. I won’t edit or cull, I’ll just answer them until they’ve all been answered.

The question in my hand today:

What explains lesbian twins? Not “dyke-a-likes,” but lesbians who also happen to be twins.

Fabulous, extremely hard question. First, for those who don’t know, dyke-a-likes (dyke-alikes?) are lesbian couples in which the partners strongly resemble each other. This question, it sounds like, is asking instead about twin sisters, both of whom identify as lesbian.

The answer is: (1) (honest but unhelpful) no one knows exactly, yet; (2) (vague) the same process that explains twins in which one is a lesbian and the other is not, or twins in which neither is a lesbian, viz some combination of genetics, biology, and environment.

As folks learned in class, women’s sexuality is, very globally speaking, more sensitive to context than men’s, and sexual orientation is not an exception. A 2008 study of twins showed that genetic effects accounted for roughly TWICE the variance in sexual orientation* in men compared to women. In addition, shared environment accounted for none of the variability in men, but about .16 of the variability in sexual orientation in women.

* I say “sexual orientation,” but it’s important to note that actually this study looked only at same-sex sexual behavior, not identity.

So that’s interesting, eh?