May 292011

It’s the summer, so you know what that means:

So You Think You Can Dance.

You know why it’s so entertaining? It’s because dancers make great tv. And why do dancers make good tv? Because dancers live with their whole bodies, A dancer’s entire personhood is there, in front of you, to witness and share, all the time, in every gesture and glance and breath. The best dancers are not just dancing when they’re dancing, they dance with every heartbeat. They’re dancing when they stand still.

The dancers remind us: we’re made of meat and water and electricity. The pulses of electricity that make up thought and feeling shape the movement of the muscles and bone. Watch the dancers celebrate when they get through to Vegas – no one celebrates like a dancer – and imagine having a sexual experience (hell, ANY experience) as ebullient, as present, as fully lived as that. They jump up and down, they fall on the floor, they wiggle and bounce and run and shriek.

They live inside their bodies in a way that many of us have forgotten. We all had it when we were infants, born into a body that stretched and pushed, grew stronger and more agile… and then gradually we lost touch with our organic selves and started to spend all our time living in our heads.

Look, this is Melanie Moore:

Watch her when she’s done dancing, watch her listen to her critique. It’s all on the surface, her entire self, she fills up her body with her life, it bubbles up out of her. If you brought HALF that awareness of the present, half that joy, half that connection between body and experience, your sex life would be 10 times better than it is now, no matter how good it already is.

I talk about confidence and joy to make sex better, but dancers show you how. Watch SYTYCD. Watch dancers, not just when they’re dancing choreography but when they’re dancing their lives; let them remind you what it’s like to live inside your body.

And then live more in your body. ‘Kay?

PS: One more example. Watch Jeffery and all his friends at the end:

May 262011

A student sent me this:

(created by this guy)

She knows my oversimplified metaphor, that men are like driving standard transmission – if you move through the gears in the right order, you will get where you want to go – and women are like baking a souffle – the outcome depends on the ingredients and the chef, sure, but it  also depends on the reliability of the oven, the altitude, the humidity of the day… more variables, more variability.

Because I am truly a nerd and therefore can’t just let it go, I must comment that men would have TWO switches; as I’ve recently repeated, sexual response emerges as the product of the sexual excitation system (on switch) and sexual inhibition system (off switch). Or not switches, but dials, on those level things they have on sound boards.

Are men and women THIS different? … Well no… but… kind of, yes. I mean, in the same way that the categories “men” and “women” are not accurate reflections of the population – i.e., it’s not that simple and even within groups variability is great – this is not an accurate representation of the population. But insofar as the categories “men” and “women” ARE accurate representations of the population – and let’s face it, those categories work just fine for many, many people in the world – yes, it’s pretty darn accurate.

May 242011

Writing the blog and reading the comments is a very educational experience for me. I’m developing as an educator in ways I never could in more traditional venues. One of the things I’m finding is that stuff I love and think is really important turns out to be… not very important or useful to anyone else, and in some cases obfuscating and destructive. Examples:

1. My technical definition of “sex” as “genetic recombination of two individuals’ DNA.” It’s correct (there are those who disagree with me on that) but does it actually help anyone, or does it only create confusion and controversy? Let me clarify that I was ASTONISHED when it turned out to be controversial – it’s NOT a controversial definition, not among anyone who does this kind of work – but then I realized that people were using cultural, human standards to assess a biological, species-neutral definition, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, since we’re human. So maybe that’s the kind of thing I shouldn’t spend too much time trying to teach about.

2. The fact that the sexual motivation system is not a drive but rather an incentive motivation system. I wrote a long series of posts about this last summer and ultimately came to the conclusion that it was a technical difference so fine it held no practical value. If it FEELS like a drive, does it matter that it is not, in fact, a drive? *I* think so, but… anyway, it’s a complicated, difficult distinction that takes a lot of explaining, and the payoff isn’t very big, so I’m probably better off putting my effort elsewhere.

3. What’s true at the population level has nothing to do with what’s true about any given INDIVIDUAL in the population. I spend most of my time talking about populations, which is how most social science is done. It’s not invalid to talk about populations. But folks will inevitably read about populations and think about themselves, individually. And maybe half of people will feel that what’s true about the population is true about them too… but the other half will feel alienated. Also talking about populations does inevitably NOT talk about individuals who vary from the norm. Must I add a disclaimer to every discussion of social science, about how what’s true at the population level isn’t necessarily true about YOU? Yup.

What I’ve learned is that the way I think about sex, after all these years of education and training and experience and research and all the rest of it, is so THOROUGHLY different from the way other people think about it, that big chunks of my point of view are just too radical to be of interest or use, and parts of it are so radical as to seem offensive or just plain incorrect.

What MOST people need is not geeky picayune details, but the broad essentials, with some insight into why no one ever told them all this before and why it’s hard to believe what’s true. What IS important?

Confidence and joy.

Pay attention to your partner.

It’s not about orgasm.

Enjoy the sex you’re having.

The rest is details.

May 232011

There are times when I don’t invest much effort in providing empirical evidence for things that I say are true. Sometimes it’s because I don’t HAVE much evidence, and in those cases I try to make sure I say so. Sometimes it’s because I can’t be bothered and I figure if you want evidence, you’ve got as much internet as I have, so go get it.

And sometimes it’s because it’s something taken so for granted among people who do that kind of work that I forget that other folks might have no idea and not view it as self-evident. The valence/intensity distinction is one of those.

(If you just want to know whether or not this is genuinely a framework in which emotion research is done, all you have to go is Google Scholar search “emotion valence intensity.)

Now, my sister, being evil, introduced me to the new BBC modern-day Sherlock series. It’s only three episodes and the last is a cliffhanger and I’m left waiting until fucking DECEMBER before i know how it ends. Which makes me nutsy. Anyway. It reminded of this:

When I was in junior high, I had a t-shirt that said, “I abhor the dull routine of existence; I crave for mental exaltation.” My three favorite things about the shirt: (1) it’s a Sherlock Holmes quote; (2) it uses a semi-colon; and (3) it uses the verb “to crave” in the intransive case. (I mentioned in my last post that I was a social bottomfeeder, right?)

Also it’s true for me, the quote.

Why is it true for me? Because of science!

Briefly, VALENCE is about approach/avoidance, which is the foundation of incentive motivation and personality. Very roughly speaking (which is to say that there are important ways in which the following statement is wrong) negative valence emotions like fear and hatred are avoidance emotions, inhibitors, or products of what the nerds call the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS). Positive valence emotions like joy are approach emotions, rewards, or, in nerd-speak, products of the Behavioral Activation System (BAS). BIS/BAS. Sound familiar? Regular readers will recall SIS/SES, the dual control model of sexual response. SIS is inhibitory, SES is excitatory.

Just as with SIS/SES, people vary in the INTENSITY of their BIS and BAS. See, there’s valence – essentially brakes and gas – and then there’s intensity, or the sensitivity of the two mechanisms to environmental stimuli. See?

There are some important details I’m skipping here, but people who are high on BAS may be novelty seeking or sensation seeking or fun seeking, depending on which version of this framework you’re using. These are the folks who seek, as you might guess, novelty, sensations, fun. They try new things; abhor the dull routine of existence. They tend toward eveningness rather than morningness, they’re prone to depression, substance abuse, and some eating disorders, and I think they might also be inclined toward arhythmicity – i.e., they’re less likely to have naturally stable body rhythms and have to put some effort into keep their body clocks regulated.

The same is true for SIS and SES – those who are high on SES are increased risk for sexual compulsivity, sexual risk taking, and, generally, high risk sexual behavior. And yeah, it turns out SIS and SES are very likely separate (but linked?) mechanisms from the more general BIS and BAS. Your sexual personality does not predict your basic personality. I find this intriguing, but that’s another post.

What specifically a person craves varies widely, so it took me a long time to recognize myself in this group: I hardly drink, I hate roller coasters, I am unwilling to try unfamiliar food, I don’t even like talking to strangers; I am, in short, quite boring.

But then this weekend I realized that my idea of a good time was reading articles about the relationship between BIS, BAS, perfectionism, and sub-clinical worry. I don’t take risks with my body, but I’ll go out on ANY intellectual limb, explore any theory. I inhale books like I inhale nitrogen, I absorb the experiences of my students and colleagues. New information is my drug of choice.

Surely we all crave something, but let it be known that some folks really do have a different scale of appetite. The high-BAS’ers among us want NEW things, have a hard time resisting temptation, and experience life at a different volume than other folks. It ain’t easy. If you ever find yourself thinking about someone, “Why can’t they just CONTROL themselves?!” remember BIS and BAS. Some people’s psychological gas pedals are more sensitive than others.

May 212011

When I was in the fifth grade, there was this kid, this boy, with coke bottle glasses and a mouth full of metal braces and a lisp and an affinity for science fiction. He was, obviously, a genius and we all knew it and we all ostracized him. In fact, the only person lower on the social ladder than him was me, and even I, in a chickenhearted effort to be a joiner, mocked him.

One day we’re doing an activity that involves finding words that you can spell by pronouncing letters. Like, “M. T.” for empty or “N. R. G.” for energy. So we’re all sitting there trying to think of examples, and this kid, he looks at me and he goes, “M. L. E.”

I had three thoughts, all, in retrospect, deeply unworthy:

1. Shoot, I didn’t spot that! (My trouble was that I was breaking up sounds by syllable. Failing to Think Outside the Box.)

2. He likes me.

3. Ew.

That last thought had no actual verbal content, only a profound visceral SHOVE, as though his emotional movement closer to me was a threat. Which I suppose, socially, it was. But I look back on that moment from nearly 25 years’ distance and I think, “What would I do today if a guy who was unambiguously smarter than I am, with sweet, gentle manners and a bad lisp used his giant brain to think of something clever about my name, and then told me about it with a shy little smile?”

I think I’d probably tear off my clothes and throw myself into his lap.

But I was a social bottom feeder, 4th through 8th grades, absolutely the lowest of the low. Friendless, rejected, isolated, because kids can tell when a kid is a weirdo, and I was totally a weirdo – a natural introvert, steeped in literary fiction, and living in a massively unstable family of origin where I learned to keep to myself at all costs. My gut-level rejection of this nice kid (whose name, sadly, I forget – I can’t even remember the name of my 5th grade teacher) had as much to do with the emotional survival skills my family was implicitly teaching me as with my desire to ingratiate myself with the other kids.

So deep, so automatic the socioemotional dynamics that shape our adult lives. I’ve utterly let go of What Other Kids Think, but the earliest lessons of emotional safety are more deeply embedded. WOULD I throw myself in his lap?

The difficulty with these early-learned dynamics is that they feel RIGHT – indeed they ARE right, in context; they’re utterly crucial survival skills. (Anyone who grew up in a stable family of origin may be thinking, “What the hell is she talking about?” right now, but I’ll just say it has to do with insecure attachment and whether or not your adult caregiver will be there when you need them.)

All I knew then was that closing the psychological distance between me and this kid was something I feared, dreaded, hated.

How many of us find our adult friendships and partnerships colored and even warped by the failings of our families? And how few of us actually talk to each other about it? When has someone said to you (or you to them), “You know, when I first met you, I didn’t want to talk to you because what if you wanted more from me than I was ready to give? And that’s was only because I watched one of my parents drain the other one dry and I never wanted to feel that way.”

Wouldja talk to each other about it? Do.

May 152011

I’ve been on vacation. Last year I blogged from my vacation, but last year I went to England to swing dance and this year I went to my mother’s house to rollerskate.

And there has been commencement and the various form of pageantry that dresses up saying goodbye to students.

As it happens, the actual dresses that the pageantry demands are white.

Yeah. White.

Guess why.

Well, folks will tell you it’s because it’s the school’s official color, but why is white the school’s color?

The color white, with its poetic overtones of purity apparently reflects the college motto, “To virtue, knowledge.”


The conflation of virtue with “purity” is, to me, problematic.

Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations research tells us that purity/sancity is one of the (five) basic dimensions of morality:

Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Coincidentally, today my cousin posted this video on Facebook:

Now, I’ve juxtaposed “purity” and “dirty,” and in each case the claim is that it ought to be extolled, celebrated, understood by the community as virtuous.

I can’t get excited about purity – which is actually strange, given that I am unusually sensitive to disgust (about everything except sex). Mice, bugs, bad smells, bodily fluids (outside the sexual context), germs, I’m a TOTAL wuss. I have driven 15 miles in the middle of the night to escape my apartment where my cat had just killed a mouse. I have called friends for moral support while attempting to dispose of the body of an ex-bumblebee. I don’t shake hands with people and I use my elbows to open doors whenever possible. The sound of people coughing wetly makes me nauseated and angry. I SHOULD, by rights, morally judge those who are not “pure.” But I don’t, I can’t. I view my inability to cope with the ickinesses in life as a shortcoming, not a virtue.

But I can get behind celebrating the virtue of dirty – and by that, of course, I mean not just hard, dirty work (a virtue I appreciate but nevertheless eschew, because I’m a middle class wuss – see above) but also the virtue of mutually consensual exploration between consenting peers, unhindered by cultural lies about what’s okay and what’s not okay to do with your body. The virtue of dirty sex – raunchy, forceful sex, anal sex, sex in the grass, sex in a barn, sex in a nursing home, sex with restraints and weapons, sex with non-normative fluids, any sex that violates the “community standards” that the FCC relies on to determine whether something is pornographic. Pornographic, offensive-to-others, mutually consensual sex that reaches deep into your soul and teaches you something about yourself, your partner, and the nature of being human: there’s a virtue I can get behind.

And to virtue, knowledge.

Congratulations and love to the new alums. Get dirty, in every sense.

May 062011

I’ve been reading genre fiction again, and getting frustrated by it. This time I’m frustrated by the pop culture attitude toward beauty. The notion of beauty is one that matters a lot to me, so I tend to get a bit ranty, but let me try to focus on what my current bugbear is:

A person’s beauty isn’t an objectively assessable thing on which there will be universal agreement. There isn’t one perfect beauty to which we all aspire and to which we are all attracted. Like humor, the most beautiful person, according to the averaged ratings of 100 people, is very nice to look at but (to most people’s eyes) not memorable or extraordinary.

Beauty is REALLY about individuality. Moreover, anyone with a brain worth connecting with knows that real things have scratches; anyone with a brain worth sharing your brain with sees wabi sabi or jolie laide, knows that (especially these days) the standard beauties are the ones who invest a lot of time and money on their beauty instead of on books, chocolate, rollerskates, or real estate. Better a crooked nose and a fascinating, unique hobby than a perfectly symmetrical, unblemished face and no life.

Of course ideally we’d all be beautiful in our unique ways and not worry about fitting any standard. But we’re human, I get it, we’re profoundly social and driven by norms, so how about as a compromise we maybe think about fitting into a particular TYPE of beauty?

Maybe we can generate beauty clusters.” Like, this is a dumb article about an interesting thing – click on the link and scroll to the bottom, where you’ll find composite images of women from 35 nationalities. They’re all pretty, but they’re all definitely different. I’ll play my hand here and admit that I found the French composite heartstoppingly beautiful, and the West African composite strikes me as the one I most want to have a chat with. Also the Irish composite looks noticeably like my mother.

Or maybe not. Maybe we hope that people can embrace 7 billion different definitions of beauty. I’ve said before that I think men don’t care much about all this, not in real life. (The science makes these leaps from the ratings people give in a lab to what these ratings might mean in terms of attraction in the real world, where we can smell each other and experience each other’s emotional energy and stuff. I’ve looked for studies that prove a link between judgments in the lab and real life but I’ve found nothing. Anyone else?) I think in real life all of us find beauty in what we love far more often than we find love in what appears beautiful.

Am I a hopeless pollyanna? And does it make a difference that I say these things as a funny looking chick, asymmetrical, with small eyes and a big chin and various other violations of the “standard” for women? Would it be more meaningful (or less?) if I were the usual kind of beautiful, instead of my own definition of it?

May 042011

Given the escalation of the political horrors around abortion (ahem, Indiana), I’ve had abortion on the brain.

People who want to make abortion illegal essentially believe that the fetus is alive, has a life, and therefore should be protected under the law as a person – protected, in this case, from murder.

Which is fair enough; when “life” begins might not even be open to empirical investigation, it truly may be a matter of moral opinion. And if you hold that opinion, that a fetus is alive, then abortion is murder.

And if a fetus is alive and should be protected under the law, then, just as it’s against the law to injure your child, why aren’t the anti-abortion folks also lobbying for laws against pregnant women smoking, which we know for sure damages the fetus? Or setting limits on drinking for pregnant women? Or not wearing a seatbelt? Because if it’s a life and we KNOW these things increase risk or do outright harm, ought they not to be against the law? Following the logic of prohibiting abortion, shouldn’t a woman be REQUIRED to make choices about her body that do no harm to the person inside her?

And if a fetus is NOT alive, well then. Well then I’ve got a couple of things for you to watch…

From Freakonomics: It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life:

This is the thing I mentioned yesterday – some nice person has isolated it and posted it on Youtube, bless their cotton socks. 11:28 that will give you something really interesting to talk about at the next party you go to.

And from the Guttmacher Institute, some crucial reality checks about who it is who gets abortions in the United States

May 022011

It was a bizarre weekend for world events, made more bizarre by my unplanned Netflix viewing.

So first there was the Royal Wedding, of which I watched exactly none, cos, like, who gives a shit about the most privileged of the privileged doing the same thing that us regular folks do, only in funnier hats and on television? Sex and marriage and love and shit.

And then yesterday I watched the second series of the PBS documentary African American Lives, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In the context of Prince William’s wedding it was a MAJOR mind-fuck: ultra-privileged white people marrying each other contrasted with genealogical investigations into the families of people who are descended from slaves. Example: Maya Angelou is the direct descendant of a white man who raped a woman he owned.

Then this morning I was walking the dog at 6:30am and saw a NYT on someone’s doorstep, with, well, this morning’s headline about the death of a dude who used the incentive of virgins, virgins, and more virgins in heaven for those who blew themselves up in the name of whatever it was they were blowing themselves up in the name of.

And finally this evening I watched the 2010 documentary version of Freakonomics. Did you know that Steven Levitt attributes almost half of the massive decrease in crime at the end of the 80s to Roe v. Wade? Because unwanted children are vastly more likely to get into some seriously bad shit, whereas wanted children are more likely to go to school and have jobs and stuff.

It’s all sex. The royal wedding, genealogy of African Americans, al Qaeda, Freakonomics. And putting it all in my brain at once has made me a little vertiginous, a little dizzy with the pervasiveness, the variety, the sheer ubiquity of sex in human history. Sex and marriage and love and babies who grow up to have sex and get married and fall in love and have babies (not necessarily in that order, but also not necessarily NOT in that order), who grow up to…

Virgins as a reward for service to a god. Women as property to be used for sex. Control of fertility as a strategy to build socioeconomic stability. And the uber-rich blowing literally millions of dollars to do something I could do for 40 bucks. It’s all sex – courtship, display, mating, reproducing… love?

One of the remarkable questions in the African American Lives documentaries was whether or not an enslaved black woman might actually LOVE a white overseer. If slave and overseer have children before Emancipation and then they live next door to each other (they can’t marry, of course, not legally) for 30 years, having more children together… does he love her? Could she love him? Is it strictly sexual on one side and strictly economic on the other? Or does affection grow?

Being human is complicated, not least because of our experience of sex. Between the hard-to-kill notion of women as property or status symbols and the not unrelated power of a woman’s control over her own fertility, we live in a constant state of dissonance. Are we free? Is there justice? What would that even look like, a world where no one sees anyone else as an object of possession or conquest?

But the tangle of these wildly disparate ideas has left one shining thought in my mind: that amid the noise and haste of the political world – a world of race and religion and economics and gender – two people may, astonishingly, implausibly, gloriously, connect. They may look into each other’s eyes and see the infinity of each other, and all the rest of it, the war and the injustice and the property and poverty, may wash away like dust under a rainstorm. Two humans, cleansed of culture and economy, can find the entire universe in each other’s eyes.

I hope Kate and William are happy. I hope everyone who was born an unwanted child has the opportunity to have only the children they want. I hope bin Laden’s widows find peace. I hope that you, all of you, can connect sexually with someone you care about without getting snared in the spider’s web of culture.

It’s been a bizarre weekend, friends. Take care of each other.