Jan 112011

I’ve been watching a lot of Dog Whisperer lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Cesar Millan and I have something in common.

There are folks who object to Cesar Millan’s approach to dealing with fearful, aggressive, or otherwise unstable dogs. They “disagree” with his approach (grounded in ethology of dogs). They think he’s physically hurting the dogs, they hate to see the dog “flooded,” and they think it “involves high adrenaline, physical action.”

They’re wrong. They’re so wrong I think they must be blinkered or stupid or deliberately misunderstanding. What does Cesar say about 50 time per show? Calm, assertive energy. Calm energy is, by definition, NOT adrenaline energy. Morons.

No, not morons. They just see the world the way they see it, and anything that fails to fit into that view must be wrong or impossible. So not morons, just… stuck. And judging.

I once had a neighbor who gave me the stink-eye for not coddling and cooing at my dog when she fell down two slippery steps. Clearly I am a callous, unloving person, right?

If I had stooped down and loved all over the dog, I would have been giving her positive feedback WHILE she felt panicked about the fall, thus teaching her to feel panicked at the bottom of the stairs. So what did I do? I watched and listened to find out if the dog was injured, and she wasn’t, so I kept walking. I stayed calm… and assertive.

I was doing what was right for my dog, but to people who don’t understand it looked like I was being neglectful and unloving.

Why does it look wrong? Because it is not quite the appropriate thing to do with, say, a human child. A human child falls down a couple steps, you watch and listen to find out if they’re injured, AND (assuming they are not) you touch them, smile at them, ask “Are you all right?” in a voice that gently anticipates, “Yes.” Human attachment systems are such that gentle light touch creates calmness, it changes the state of mind. In dogs, gentle light touch REWARDS whatever state of mind the dog is in. Not understanding this difference between humans and dogs produces the kind of misunderstandings that make people misjudge Cesar.

Anyway. Why the hell am I writing this on a sex blog?

Because I, in my very minor way, get misunderstood as Cesar gets misunderstood. I have a deep knowledge of my subject area, and my opinions are different from people who do not. They are sometimes different from people who do, because everyone’s point of view is different and that’s a GOOD thing. The world view is a hologram of slightly different perspectives on the same topic.

Some of my greatest, misunderstood hits: Women are different from men, and until we embrace that fact, women will suffer under the false belief that they are broken. Medication for women’s sexual desire is a blind alley. Sexual fluids are beautiful; believing they are gross blinkers the progress of science and contributes to a sex negative world, which in turn contributes to sexual injustice.

And there are people who object powerfully to all those things. They are well-intended but usually ill-informed; they see the world they way they see it and anything that fails to fit into that view must be wrong.

I do what it right for women’s sexuality, but to people who don’t understand, it looks like I’m doing damage, insisting that women and men are different, that medication is a blind alley, and that failing to feel good about sexual fluids creates a world where we’ll never end HIV, sexual violence, or unwanted pregnancy. Yeah, your “ew” response contributes to injustice and violence. So quit it, okay?

Cesar and I have other things in common: we believe in the important of individual differences of temperament – he in dogs, I in humans; we believe in the importance of staying relaxed in the presence of the unexpected and unwanted; and we both have a deep, internal calling to do what we do. We can’t NOT do our work. We want and intend to make the world a better place.

While I’m at it, here’s my equivalent of the “calm assertive pack leader” mantra:

It’s not about orgasm. Pay attention to your partner. Enjoy the sex you’re having.

Tell those three things to everyone you meet, please.

Emily Nagoski

  9 Responses to “I feel you, Cesar Millan”

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  1. Amen! I’ve been silently lurking around your site for ages but for some reason today I felt like I needed to second that!

  2. <3

    Also, you mentioned media in the previous post and I think a similar chord is seen here. People and the media especially, since it holds so much power, need to educate themselves and others better.

  3. Have done. Will keep doing.

    And I repeat the objections to “ew” responses too. Funny is, the one thing people seem to react with shock to is my inability to get shocked by the fact that sex is normal, all around, and influencing all aspects of life. In other words, people are shocked I’m not grossed out by kinks I don’t get turned on by, not grossed out by the thought of my grandparents’ sex life, not shocked by children masturbating. And I used to be shocked by how people don’t see how natural it all is.

    Now I just use the calm, assertive, indifferent to reactions repetition approach. I have found it to work. People react to preaching but seem to be drawn to an opinion expressed calmly by someone who simply looks happy and satisfied enough not to care about persuading them. Or that was my experience anyway.

  4. Can definitely relate to your “it’s not about orgasm” comment, but am a bit dismayed that I don’t seem to hear/read it more often (the reverse seems to be true). I have a new partner and he’s really keen for me to enjoy the sex we have together, which I absolutely love, but the first few times he was a bit disappointed that I didn’t orgasm during intercourse. I told him that I don’t need to orgasm to enjoy myself, and the only time it bothers me is when I’m trying to do so for my partner. I just enjoy giving and receiving pleasure and if I have an orgasm, wonderful, if I don’t, it’s still wonderful.

  5. I’m certainly in favor of feeling good about bodily fluids, but I’m not sure I understand the argument that “failing to feel good about sexual fluids creates a world where we’ll never end HIV, sexual violence, or unwanted pregnancy.” Is there a link that I’ve missed where that reasoning was explained?
    Great mantra, anyway!

  6. Like your first poster, I’m a lurker and it’s pretty funny that my first post is on attitudes to animals ;-) – suffice to say, it’s great to hear your attitudes in this area, as I am both extremely fond of animals and deeply upset by peoples’ constant opining that animals are “little people”.

    Anyone who appreciates a relationship with an animal will realise that they are so much more than “little people” and so different that describing them as such is indicative of an attitude that can cause terrible problems in handling them, and probably leads to more animals winding up in homes or put down than any kind of conventional “cruelty”. I’ve known vivisectionists with ironically far more respect and better relationships with their test animals than many who claim to love animals above all else.

    I think the reason I responded so much to this post is because I was watching some material on Temple Grandin last night, and spent time thinking a lot about the human behavioural spectrum and the way that most of our communication problems centre around the assumption that everyone is exactly like us, a narrow definition of humanity which leads to terrible confusion once language and communication comes into play: especially in the semantic minefield of “different has to mean better or worse than”.

    Often our own ideas of what’s “nice” and what’s “disgusting” are so unquestioned that we are left with an assumption that they are somehow contributory to a universal picture of what’s nice and what’s not. And I think you choose a very interesting way of expressing this.

    I wholeheartedly applaud your hands-on, scientific-yet-pragmatic approach to your field, and wish you the absolute best in your teaching and writing. It’s a great thing to read your posts and come away with so much to chew over and think about. Cheers.

  7. Regarding Cesar Millan, there are a lot of well-informed people who find his outlook on dog training problematic.

    For instance, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (SVBT), plus a ton of other people at varying levels of expertise.

    You say many times on this blog that you want people to recognize your education and the informed perspective it gives you on human sexuality. So why do you privilege the opinion of one self-taught “dog psychologist” over that of several societies of animal behaviorists?

    • Putting aside the incorrect usage of the word “privilege” here (I’m not giving it something it hasn’t earned – indeed his lack of education means he had to work harder to gain my respect) and also the lack of actual evidence provided by the links you included, I’ll say that I trust a lot of what Cesar Millan says and does for a bunch of reasons, apart from the ones I’ve already written about.

      (1) Nearly everything he says about animal behavior is the same as Ian Dunbar (PhD, trained under Frank Beach, animal behavior god), even though nearly everything they have to say about how to teach dogs is different; they disagree primarily about the acceptability of teaching people – especially men and children – to put their hands on dogs to discipline them. There’s an entire chapter on Ian Dunbar’s techniques in “Cesar’s Way,” including advice Ian would give Cesar in changing how he does things on his show.

      (2) Nearly everything claimed by people who view Cesar’s work as cruel are seeing something that isn’t there. Over and over again, when you actually watch the show, Cesar proclaims the supreme importance of calmness, kindness, empathy, listening, and patience, patience, patience.

      This is actually the primary reason I feel in sympathy with him: the organized vet groups and animal trainers et al are seeing and hearing in Cesar’s techniques the old school of dog training, when actually what he’s using is a brand new, thoroughly unique technique that, alas, REMINDS people of the other not-so-good stuff. Just as my use of biological definitions, terminology, and methodology feels heteronormative (it’s not) and reductionistic (it’s not) and essentialist (it’s not) to some people, his use of the language of dominance, leadership, and discipline feels cruel and aggressive to some people. It’s not.

      (3) Cesar is, to my knowledge, the only one who’s trying to teach dog lovers how to meet their dog’s needs, when pretty much everyone else is trying to teach dog lovers how to get their dogs to meet the human’s needs.

      All that said, I know the methodology of ethology – used by John Bowly and Nicolas Tinbergen among other massively important researchers – and I know that that’s how Cesar learned about dogs; without any training, he did just what some of the most important animal behaviorists in the history of the field did. I don’t think his lack of education or formal training is a reason to discount his work.

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