Aug 132011
 

Another question I get a lot a lot a lot:

“Does being a sexpert make your own sex life better?”

It turns out I’ve never written about this, apart from like one sentence. I thought I had, but apparently not.

The short answer is… “Knowledge is power.”

That said, we sexpert-y types tend to have far more mundane sex lives than you might expect. Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but *I* have a far more mundane sex life than people seem to think.

I don’t, for example, have more orgasms or better orgasms than other people. I don’t have a magically peaceful relationship with my body – I’m a middle class woman in the 21st century and am therefore vulnerable to the same body image nonsense as every other middle class woman. I don’t masturbate everyday to “reconnect with my sexual spirit” (or indeed for any reason – like plenty of women, I’m often too busy or tired.) I don’t do wild, radical things and I don’t always communicate my needs and desires perfectly.

Here’s what lots of sexual knowledge DOES do to my sex life (and can do to yours):

It makes me more confident. I know what I like and I know how to read my partner’s body. Not having to worry about whether or not I’m doing it right (there is no right or wrong; there is only pleasure!) frees me to think about other, more pleasant things, like how my body feels.

It makes me more creative. Having seen a wider array of sexual activities than any normal person would ever care to think about, I have deeply grokked the idea that you’re allowed to do anything you want in bed. The sexual scripts that delimit most people’s choices in bed have been chucked out the window, and I’m happy to try anything I think my partner and I might both like. I can do anything I want with my hands, mouth, feet, legs, lips, nose, and hair to any part of my partner I choose. As I said above, this isn’t usually something wild and bizarre, but just elegant variations on lovely things like oral and manual sex.

It makes me more relaxed, and relaxation is the key to sexual pleasure. Social context has been stripped from my sexuality, so I rarely get tense about whether or not what I’m doing is normal, appropriate, or otherwise socially acceptable. There is only me and my partner and anything and everything that comes readily to hand.

The moral of the story is that knowledge banishes fears, and with fearlessness comes power.

Not to say I don’t get shy or feel awkward or worried or inadequate or incompetent sometimes. It happens. What’s different for me is how I deal with that: I relax into it, recognize it as an artifact of my cultural upbringing, and put it aside. Those negative thoughts and feelings are… well, they’re like your dog, really. You didn’t invite them into bed with you, but sometimes they might just jump in there on their own. You can let that shut down your sexual pleasure or you can firmly tell the dog, “No, down!” shoo the critter away, and get back to what you were doing.

greenbean in bed

This also role models to your partner what to do when such thoughts and feelings creep up for them, too.

That’s ultimately what I love about sex education, and loving sex education is ultimately why I’m getting so into having a blog!

Aug 122011
 

If you Google “lesbianville,” you find a series of website about the town where I live.

And there’s this GLORIOUS feminist sex toy shop on Main Street called Oh My. You can friend them on Facebook. I did a fellatio workshop there last spring, and I think I’ll probably do an orgasm workshop in the fall, and I’m working toward the possibility of writing some educational materials for them to give to customers who buy things – stuff about lube and anal play and multiple orgasms.

But even in this woman-centric town, this woman-centric sex toy store doesn’t get the attention it deserves. People feel awkward; they don’t necessarily want to be seen going in; they don’t know it’s there. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told to, “Go to Oh My and get yerself a bottle of silicone lube,” and they say, “Where’s that?”

HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW?!?! You LIVE here!! I’m likeNeil deGrasse Tyson, only about sex positive feminist sex toy retail – I want to grab people in the street and say, “HAVE YOU HEARD THIS?!”

But ya know, lesbian and “joyfully sex positive” don’t always go together. Lesbians are just as capable of being sexually hamstrung as everyone else; they have a wide array of reasons to feel really great about their sexuality and plenty more ways that they’ve been taught to feel ashamed. Just like everybody in America.

But at least Lesbianville has Oh My. With a place like that on Main Street, how can we not move ever closer to true sexual liberation, where we all – ALL of us – feel gloriously at home in our sexualities? I believe that such a space can serve as a hub, where people who seek toward joyful, confident sexual self-expression can find the support, the information, and the lube, vibrators, and paddles they need to achieve it.

I mean, how many of these places are there in America? There’s Babeland, there’s Good Vibes, and there’s this small, humming collection of independent, local feminist sex toy stores sprinkled sparingly across the continent. And here’s one right in downtown! I am so fuckin’ lucky to live in one of the towns gifted with a place like this, a community space where women can celebrate their sexual bodies and sexual minds.

If you have a glorious, feminist, sex-positive, local sex toy store in your area, put a link in the comments section and I’ll write a post about as many of them as I can. I’ll organize a frickin’ cross-country road trip to visit all the feminist, local sex shops in America! I’ll make videos! It should be a mini-series on PBS!

And if you come to Northampton, be sure to visit Oh My. Tell them Emily sent you to buy a bottle of silicone lube.

Aug 112011
 

Multiple questions lately on what it means to have various kinds of fantasies.

“I’m totally a big gay, but I really get off on fantasies about people of the other sex.”

Or

“I’m like WAY straight, but I really get off on fantasies about people of the same sex.”

Or

“I’m a giant feminist, but I really get off on fantasies about strangers coercing me sexually.”

Or

“I’m about the most private person imaginable, I’m very selective about my sex partners, and I feel strongly about monogamy, but I fantasize all the time about having sex in a big group.”

Or some other variation on, “I would never ever ever want to do this in real life, but somehow the IDEA of it makes me launch like the space shuttle. WTF?”

I mean, I’ve heard so many versions of this question that I wonder how many people there are out there with sexual fantasies that are CONGRUENT (rather than non-congruent) with their public sexual personae. Anyone? Surely there’s someone?

Answer: yeah that happens. And no, I have no idea why.

I haven’t found any satisfactory explanation for why “forbidden fruit” is so compelling sexually. In the context of the dual control model, things that are risky OUGHT to slam on the brakes, right? And things that are unappealing should not adequately simulate the gas pedal, surely?

Well. Turn out no, apparently.

My own best guess – and it is a guess – is that it is related to the ironic effect, where the more you try NOT to do something, the more you end up doing it. Classic example: Right now, whatever you do, DON’T, for the love of god, think about a polar bear.

Dammit, I told you NOT to think about a polar bear. Stop it!

Well okay, so think about a bear, but at least spare me your thoughts about polka dotted elephants.

You see? The instruction “don’t” is only meaningful in the context of “Do.” Don’t what? “Think about a bear.” Oh, bear – oh wait, DON’T think about a bear – I did it again! See? Trying not to think about a bear inevitably results in… thinking about a bear.

What if sexual fantasy is like not thinking about a bear? Couldn’t decade or two or three of learning, “DON’T be sexually attracted to that person/situation/behavior!” turn into “sexualized thoughts about that person/situation/behavior!”?

I have another idea about fantasies we don’t want to come true. You may have read my post about the experience versus the memory.

What if the way we construct sexual fantasies parallels the way we remember the past and the way we anticipate future memories? That is, what if our sexual experience in any given moment is not related to what we IMAGINE about our sexual experience? What if there’s something fundamentally different about the central nervous system’s strategy for imagining a sexual experience than for experiencing external sexual stimulation in real life?

“The mind knows not what the tongue wants,” as Malcolm Gladwell quotes Howard Moskowitz. And I’d say the mind knows not what the phallus wants. But I don’t mean your actual phallus, I mean the various mental representations of your phallus. In short, I think that the generation of sexual fantasies is an entirely different brain process from the experiencing of sex through the senses. So what we fantasize about doesn’t have to be the same as what we actually enjoy through our senses.

Anyway. Those are two possibilities for why sometimes we get aroused by fantasies that have nothing to do with, or are indeed the OPPOSITE of, what we want in real life.

Aug 102011
 

Well, friends! It’s time to hit the way back time machine and think about a post I wrote more than a year ago, about the clitoris in your head – that is, the representation of the clitoris in your somatosensory cortex. I wondered at the time whether the cortical representation of the female phallus had an equivalent degree of hyper-innervation compared to male phallus as the actual peripheral nervous system had.

Well, now we have brain magnet evidence (paging Andrew Wilson for a rant about why fMRI isn’t anything like as useful as journalists think) that the clitoris is in the same place as the penis.

Hurray! (But no surprise!)

Yet I still haven’t found the answer to my question. Being a nerd, I went and tried to read the actual paper, but my academic affiliation doesn’t gives me access to the journal. I’ll have to ILL it.

Disappointment. (But no surprise.)

So the question we want to answer is: is the neural representation of the clitoris equivalent to the size or the innervation (or both or neither) as that of the penis? I don’t even know if it’s POSSIBLE to determine whether or not the itty bitty clit is represented more in the brain than the big wacky penis. But even if it’s the SAME in the brain, that’s still about 8 times more brain per cubic centimeter of tissue.

Which seems to me to be question worth answering.

Aug 092011
 

In “Social Network,” the idea of the “Relationship Status” is presented as the cherry on the sundae, the finishing touch that makes facebook Ready, makes it Cool. The college student perspective was that it was a way to advertise being single or to find out if a love interest might be available.

In the world of grown ups, though, it has instead taken on the role of communicating to people about a big ol’ life event that would otherwise require cumbersome phone calls and emails or clumsy mass emails (“sorry for the mass email, but I wanted all of you to be the first to know…”) or even, god forbid, sending MAIL. Hardly ever does anyone send an email or call, and they definitely don’t send announcements in the mail to let the world know about these things. They post it on Facebook.

That little red heart and a single sentence “X is in a relationship with Y” or “X is engaged to Y” or “X is married to Y,” stands in place of the mountain-top cry of “I found them! They were there waiting all along!” Or it might mean, “See, I’m NOT a failure, a loser, a freak, or a jerk; someone likes me!” Or it might mean, “Leave me the fuck alone; I am claimed.” Or it could mean, “I Claim This Person. Hands Off.” Or all of those things, or something else. What the friends receive is simply a sentence and a little red heart.

I’ve watched it happen to my friends and family – my sister and brother both went from “in a relationship” to “engaged” to “married” in the past few years, and Andrew and Sabrina, too, went from soup to nuts on FB, and the stories behind each were complex and varied and deep. I’ve seen it happen to friends I know less well, too; and I’ve built stories in my mind about each little red heart, and I’ve felt a warm happy twinge to see just a little more love in the world.

(Always the stories I invent are about love, never fear. Why assume someone is in distress when the scant available information just as easily supports an assumption of joy?)

Now, for the first time since I joined Facebook, I’ve experienced a change in my own relationship status. The only people I called were my mom and my sister. I emailed a couple other people. And everyone else got “Emily is in a relationship with Rich” – seven words and a little red heart. Which, for me, meant something along the lines of, “It’s like I accidentally slammed my face into a door or fell down the stairs – I was looking the wrong way when all of a sudden THERE IT WAS WHAM and I’m off my feet and shaking my head to clear my vision – but in a good way.”

The person on the other end of my facebook status change has way way way more FB friends than I do, and he pretty much instantly had a couple dozen “likes” and a number of comments about his status change. It was more low-key for me; indeed, in a fit of self-consciousness I “removed post,” so that it wouldn’t be too much of a public proclamation, ya know?

(Though now I’m writing a blog post about it, and many more people see this than my FB, so what the hell, Emily?)

It’s a strange thing, the facebook declaration of relationship. A call or an email (or indeed a blog post) lets us tell the true story. But maybe it’s a gift to let people invent their own stories from that single sentence and the little red heart. It’s like handing them the perfect romance novel, custom tailored to the individual’s romantic inclinations, all in seven words.

Aug 082011
 

I’ve been looking for an upside to the seemingly endless stream of mediocre, banal, pointless, or incorrect sexuality information available on the internet. (This is quite apart from the insulting, deliberately misleading, profit-driven, or plain old stupid information available.) I think I have found it.

Take this for example: Andrew and Sabrina sent me this BBC radio show, an episode of “Am I Normal?” that investigate sexual desire.

It’s accurate, it’s well written, it’s maybe even helpful… maybe. Those are my three criteria, and I only question whether or not it meets this third because I worry that the take-away message from the radio program is, “Once a week is normal, unless you’re older; anything less is illness and anything more is BONUS!” Which just underscores rather than delegitimizes the idea of “normal” applying to sexual behavior.

Apart from that worry, the information presented feels, to me, so basic, so obvious, so “But everyone already knows that.”

But everyone doesn’t know that.

And what they don’t know isn’t the facts – though often they DON’T know those – but rather the attitude. In this case, the necessary attitude is, “I’m not broken. I am normal.”

Which brings me to the upside of all this probably well-intentioned mediocrity. Last year, NYT reported that the most-emailed stories were uplifting, surprising, and/or awe-inspiring. These stories had a message that drew the reader out of their mundane existence and into a new, enriching point of view about the world.

How’s this for uplifting: Hardly anyone is broken, and pretty much everyone is normal. Mostly people’s belief or feeling or worry that they are broken or abnormal is the most dysfunctional aspect of their sexuality. If they weren’t worried about it, there would be nothing wrong at all.

I forget, and I shouldn’t. I invested literally hundreds of hours writing and giving lectures for my Women’s Sexuality class last fall, and what the students told me they got from it was simply: I am normal. (That’s my favorite of all my blog posts, right there, and I didn’t write hardly any of it myself.) 40% of the students in the class gave THAT answer.

All I have to do to write the kind of post (or indeed, as is becoming increasingly my priority, the kind of BOOK) that will cause you to send the link to everyone you know, is tell you about the many ways in which you and/or your partner(s) are normal. Which is a virtually endless source of content.

In a way, then, the failures of modern education, of mainstream media, and indeed of person-to-person communication about sexuality, make my job embarrassingly easy.

You’re normal. Your body won’t always do what you expect it to; that’s normal. Your partner won’t always want sex when you do; that’s normal. Your desire for sex may go away when you’re stressed, anxious, or depressed, but it might also increase under those conditions; both are normal.

Normal.

You’re fine.

I’ll prove it.

With SCIENCE.

Aug 052011
 

One edge of the touchscreen on my smartphone is non-responsive. The phone is about a year and a half old.

These things happen, I suppose.*

(*This is BULLSHIT! A year and a half and it just stops WORKING? Fuck that!)

Which made me think about sex and aging.

Bodies change over time, folks. In some ways they get unambiguously better and in some ways they kind of deteriorate and in some ways they change in ways that are good or not-so-good, depending on how we think about them. (Hamlet said something similar, I believe, only in iambic pentameter.)

Some things everyone can expect, to varying degrees, as they age:

A decrease in the concordance between physiology and experience. What you feel may not match what you body does; erections, lubrication, and orgasm will probably become less reliable and a bit more effortful. This is due largely to hormonal changes.

A change in the color of your desire. Globally, people tend to report lower frequency of desire for sex (or possibly for orgasm), but that doesn’t take into account variability in sexual life arc – some people experience a liberation from sexual expectations as they age – nor changes in what you want when you want sex.

Sundry changes to your body. In women, fat moves north from the hips and thighs to the abdomen; gravity has its wicked way with your breasts; the skin of your face, chest, and neck in particular lose elasticity, and tissue of the vagina becomes fragile as estrogen levels change. In men, muscles shrink; hair moves south from your head to your ears and back; erections fly at half mast; your post-ejaculatory refractory period lengthens.

Now. What do you do about these things. Do you:

Accept the changes as the inevitable, progressive failure of the organism? (“These things happen,” as above.)

Rage against the dying of the light? Do everything you can to keep your sex as “the same” as you can? (“This is BULLSHIT!” as above.)

I’m inclined to say neither.

Either option seems to assume that younger sex – younger desire, younger arousal, younger orgasm – is somehow the standard, normal sex against which all other sex should be measured.

The attitude I recommend is curiosity. Bodies are these life-long science experiments that we can observe with affectionate but detached curiosity. “Oh, that’s new!” is all you need to think when things change.

I know we’ve been trained by mainstream culture to view the changes that time commits as degradations, and christ knows we’ve been trained to worry that our sexuality is somehow broken; I know that we’ve all been taught that there’s a kind of sexual pinnacle that we achieve and then pass, never to regain.

But will you believe me if I tell you that that’s all just a lie?

We like it when it’s easy. We like it when things meet our expectations. But that doesn’t mean that it’s SUPPOSED to be easy or that our expectations are anything other than socially constructed, unreflective myths we’ve swallowed and integrated, undigested, into our psychologies.

It’s not supposed to be easy all the time – easy isn’t a measure of anything in particular. And isn’t supposed to meet our expectations – the things that violate our expectations, that surprise us, are often the most fun, as long as we can view the surprise with affectionate curiosity.

Aug 042011
 

Out of the top hat

Can you please talk a little about sex dreams? (Why people think they happen, when girls “usually” start to have them / anything else you think would be good for us to know)

Well, so there’s the “dream” part of the question and then there’s the “sex” part of the question.

Dreaming itself is still a bit of mystery. We mostly dream during REM sleep, with its deep, slow brain waves and total physical paralyzation (except for your eyeballs, of course). All of us dream every night. Many people don’t remember our dreams, but everyone dreams every night, unless there is something seriously wrong.

Sex dreams tend to happen most during REM sleep. REM dreaming in general, runs my preferred theory, probably functions as worst-case-scenario type preparation – taking all the things that happened today and all the things that led up to those things, along with all the things that may happen tomorrow, loading it all up like a neural trebuchet, and firing it – BLAM – across the brain. The result is a bit of a mess as far as your rational mind is concerned, so when you’re remembering it in a conscious state you’re like, “What. The. Fuck?” but ultimately it’s like rehearsal for life.

So much for REM dreaming.

Now, throughout the sleep cycle, your brain oscillates through degrees of disinhibition. (See the dual control model for full explanation, but briefly this means turning off the sexual “brakes” that stop you from being aroused during inappropriate situations.) This is the best explanation I know for why REM is also when people with penises experience noctural penile tumescence (LOVE. LOVE. LOVE that phrase).

(Morning wood is waking up around a REM phase; it has nothing to do with being horny and everything to do with just being asleep and healthy. The horny in the morning thing is actually about testosterone levels being highest at the start of the day and gradually lowering as the day ages.)

So, during REM, your brain is disinhibited and there’s this BLAM of life happening in your brain. Sometimes sex is the dominant thing in the BLAM. Sometimes it’s school or family or a movie you just saw or a book you just read or whatever. Sometimes it’s food. But sometimes it’s sex.

Non-REM (NREM) dreaming, on the other foot, tends to be more about motor coordination, rehearsal, and integration. Anyone who plays a sport or an instrument, who is learning a motor skill or memorizing anything will rely on non-REM sleep in order to maximize their potential. If you’re practicing the stop-start technique, NREM is probably when your brain is rewiring to make you better at ejaculatory/orgasmic control. So you might have sex dreams then, too.

When do people start having them? Well, dreams that APPEAR sexual to adults typically begin around puberty, with the onset of hormonal changes. But children have their own brand of sexuality and I’m totally sure they sex makes it into their dreams, but in a totally different, self-centered, charmingly childish way. In the way that children masturbate at nap time, they dream sexually. It’s not sexual in the way that adolescents and adults are sexual, but it’s its own kind of sexual.

Altogether, dreams don’t mean much. They don’t indicate anything about you as a person, you can’t interpret them in any organized way. Dreaming about doing some sexual thing does not necessarily mean you want to do that thing in real life; dreaming about sex with someone does not mean you want to have sex with them in real life – though it also doesn’t mean you DON’T want to have sex with them in real life. It just means that that person and sex were in the neural trebuchet together. It happens.

That said, how you feel about the dream as you remember it may indicate something or other. Like, “Wow, last night I dreamt that Gender Neutral Jamie and I got it on. Damn, that was HOT. Jamie is HOT. Maybe I want Jamie!” What indicates the wanting is not the fact that you had the dream nor even the fact that you remembered the dream, but the emotional experience you had in response to that memory. Dig? Okay.

Aug 022011
 

So I’ve just read (had read to me – audio book) Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”

It’s a rare foray into literary fiction for me; literary fiction often pisses me off for the pretentious, ignorant, showy way it deals with sex; the sex is always sick, deviant, dysfunctional, uncomfortable, boring, or perfunctory, where the sex in romance novels is deceptively ecstatic. (Which would you choose to read about for recreation, if you’re a sex educator who spends large chunks of her day thinking about the ways sex goes wrong?)

The title, “Never Let Me Go,” derives from a fictional song performed by a fictional torch singer. The lyrics of relevance are: “Oh baby, baby, never let me go.”

The main character has one interpretation of these lyrics, other characters have theirs, and I have my own. Mine is, of course, the best one.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the book is the history of some students at a school where they live all the time, parentless, familyless, with teachers (“guardians”) as their only adult caregivers.

In other words, it’s a HAVEN for attachment disorders.

Therefore when the main character, around age 13, listens to this song, “Never Let Me Go,” over and over again, and imagines herself holding a baby, ache you feel is for an early adolescent whose early attachment experiences made her necessarily avoidant.

Unsurprisingly, her first forays into sex follow an avoidant pattern: there are times when she just WANTS sex in an overwhelming way, she’s just STARVING for it and will go anywhere to get it. Well yeah. One thing she wants when she wants sex is the basic feeling of human connection. Which she’s desperate for.

It’s a beautiful book that lingers inside you after you’ve read it. I recommend it just on its own account. But if you’re interested in seeing what avoidant attachment looks like – especially its peculiar and seemingly paradoxical dynamic of wanting desperately to connect and at the same time not knowing how, not feeling safe, not being able to hold on it – and how that attachment style can enact itself in sexual decision-making, this is a superb illustration.