Oct 202011

So I’m learning about marketing at the conference.

It’s irritating.

It’s irritating because it’s easy, in typical marketing, to describe a problem. The problems are in front of us all, every day: people feel bad about their bodies, they worry about their orgasms, they fret about lack of desire, and they don’t understand why sometimes their bodies don’t seem to be doing what their mind is telling them to do.

The solutions… well. Take the example of feeling bad about your body. The usual marketing approach to this problem is to say, “Wanna be attractive? BUY THIS!” And that feels intuitively valid; we’re used to the idea that there might be some jeans or moisturizer or technology or moisturizing jeans that will make us attractive.

But the health promotion marketing says, “Wanna be attractive? LOVE YOUR BODY!”

“Well no shit, fuckface,” says the target audience. “If I could do that, I wouldn’t be looking at your stupid marketing media.”

Or they look at it and think, “Yeah I should love my body. But I don’t. Damn it, I suck so much for not being able to love my body!”

So you (the health educator) think to yourself, “Okay, so they need to know HOW to love their bodies. They need to overcome the barriers, real and/or perceived, between themselves and loving their bodies. Um. So. How do I do that on a poster or a 30 second video or tweet or 200 word blog post?

Did I mention it’s irritating?

Marketing health behaviors is hard because we need to market ideas and behaviors (i.e., solutions to your problems) that are VASTLY more complex than the ideas and behaviors that are sold to you all day long. Indeed, the reason those simple ideas are the ones sold to you is precisely BECAUSE they are simple! Not because they’re likely to work or even because they’re easy, but because they can be communicated adequately in the given medium.

One Idea at a Time, quoth the session leader today. Like, maybe:

1. The thin ideal is a social construction of the media to make you feel like shit so that you’ll buy more shit.

2. Internalization of the thin ideal predicts negative health outcomes, both physical and mental.

3. There is no meaningful relationship between weight and health, within about an 75 pounds above the medically defined “ideal” weight. Honestly. I know that’s the opposite of everything you’ve ever been told, but it’s TRUE. So the thin ideal only hurts you and doesn’t help you to be healthy.

4. I know people judge women negatively for expressing affection for their own bodies, but if you can avoid letting that bug you, loving your body will have excellent impacts on your physical and mental health.

5. Love your body.

Or take orgasm with intercourse:

1. Less than a third of women are reliably orgasmic from intercourse. Another third are sometimes orgasmic from intercourse. The remaining third are never or almost never orgasmic from intercourse.

2. The clitoris is the primary organ of women’s sexual arousal. The clitoris doesn’t get good stimulation (on most women) during intercourse, which is why that’s not a typical mode of orgasm.

3. You may still want to have orgasms from intercourse because you’ve spent decades being lied to about it and you can’t eliminate your unrealistic expectations just because I say they’re unrelaistic, so if you want to have orgasms from intercourse, add clitoral stimulation.

4. You may not feel comfortable touching yourself in front of your partner and you may not know how to ask your partner to touch you and you may not feel comfortable using a toy with your partner, so use different sex positions to maximize pressure of your partner’s pubic bone on your clitoris.

5. Woman-on-top usually means you rock your pelvis against your partner’s; it usually DOESN’T mean what you see in porn, which is a woman bouncing vertically on her partner’s cock and making squeaking noises. That’s a show for the partner, not a strategy for increasing clitoral stimulation.

You see what I mean? It’s irritating that my messages are ACTUALLY HELPFUL but too complex to express effectively in a medium that parallels the medium whose messages I am trying to counteract. If you see what I mean.

Mainstream media poisons my students with toxic (and wrong) ideas about their bodies and their sexualities.

Being an alternative voice is my job. But I am struggling now – and looking actively for ideas – about how to make my voice as salient and interesting as the glitz and shine of Cosmo or Gray’s Anatomy. (Grey’s?)

I may have to resign myself to being a tiny alternative voice, stumbled on by those who think to look for a different way of thinking.

Oct 192011

The first thing I want to say is: Kate, how do you look? You look FUCKING HOT. You look FUCKING AMAZING. You look sexy and disreputable and rebellious and brilliant and highly, highly gorgeous.

The Sonic Screwdriver

And YES, my friends, that IS a sonic screwdriver. And YES that is Kate Frackin’ Bornstein (pron. Stine, just so you know, not steen) across a dinner table with me, holding a SONIC SCREWDRIVER. YES.


Do I have a magical life? I have a magical life.

I am in Saratoga Springs at a college health education conference and Kate Frackin’ Bornstein was the keynote speaker after lunch and she is even more brilliant than her several brilliant books would indicate. Here are the notes I took during her talk:

Emily's Plenary Notes

Two things I want you all to know from the talk:

1. Bullies use binaries as a weapon, forcing people into either/or scenarios. You can ask a young person (or anyone, really), “Are you being forced into an either/or scenario?” as a way to assess whether or not they’re being bullied.

Do I think binaries can be used in a loving, supportive way? I do. But I also think they can be used as weapons. Scalpels can be used for surgery or for sex or for threats; it’s not the tool (as the Dog Whisperer says) it’s the intention behind the tool that matters.

2. Postmodern theory can save your life. How? Well, we’re all constructing and reconstructing our Selves (our “who”) based, alas, on the Hierarchical Vector of Oppression (class, gender, race, sex, religion, etc etc etc) as we try to find a “Who” that best attracts the people we want to attract, and we do this when we allow our attempt to create a “who” for which FEWER PEOPLE WILL GIVE US SHIT, rather than a “who” based on WHAT MAKES LIFE MORE WORTH LIVING, viz, identity (who are you? for whom do you want to be a role model?), desire (whom you do want to fuck?), and power (having access to the resources that make life worth living). Suicidal thoughts are giant, important taps on the shoulder to say that one of those “who’s” really needs to die; your PHYSICAL SELF doesn’t need to die, just the identity you need to shed in order to create space for a more genuine Who.


So postmodern theory, which is approximately the idea that things can have more than one meaning, and mutually contradictory meanings too, at the same time, saves your life when you realize that suicidal thoughts are not about killing your body but about killing an identity construction that coexists poorly with the others. So there’s never a need to kill your body, just a need to find things, anything, that make life worth living.

BTW, Kate gives out Get Out Of Hell Free cards, so that you can do whatever you need to do in order to make life more worth living and not kill yourself, and if that includes things that mean you have to go to Hell, she’ll do your time. See in the picture? The only exception is being mean. You can’t be mean. Other than that, do anything you need.

Read Kate’s blog

Follow Kate on Twitter

See Kate’s It Gets Better video

Buy Kate’s books.

And in case any question still remains, yes I am utterly smitten.

Oct 182011

A couple people wrote blog posts, some emailed, and one commented that my “Is He a Cheater” assertion that “monogamy is hard” is wrong if (a) you’re with the right person and/or (b) you’re “oriented” toward monogamy.

I’m not even going to touch the “monogamy orientation” idea right now – suffice it to say that there is no such thing as “monogamy orientation,” except perhaps in such a loose conceptualization of either of those two words that no English-speaking human could disagree. Like, sometimes you’re only in love with one person; then monogamy is pretty easy. For some people.

For now, let’s just think about “the right person.” “The right person” implies that a single individual will, at all times and without exception, create an emotional environment in which no one else seems more appealing, or in which you are never tempted to retaliation, “seeing if you can get away with it,” or being beguiled by someone’s crush on you, or in which you feel so sexually satisfied that the idea of sex with someone else fills you eternally with blank indifference or active repugnance.

At its worst, the “not if you’re with the right person” argument can be turned into blaming your partner for your violation of their trust. “If you were more attentive…” or “If we had sex more often…” or, god forbid, “If you were more attractive…” are scofflaw excuses that attempt to make someone else responsible for something that you would otherwise have to feel ashamed of: the betrayal of trust with a person whom, in theory, you love and respect.

It is never your partner’s fault that you broke their trust. And it is never your fault that your partner broke your trust. Everyone always has a choice.

So when does monogamy become hard, even with “the right person”?

In any healthy relationship, there will be phases of close intimacy and communion and others of emotional distance. And if your need for intimacy at any given time happens to coincide with a phase of emotional distance in the relationships… then monogamy is not easy.

And in any relationship there may be people with insecure attachment styles, avoidant or anxious or disorganized, who try to manage distance by keeping their options open (avoidant) or never being able to say no, in case someone goes away, even if that someone is not your partner (anxious).

And in any relationship, there is the risk of getting trapped in a cycle of “zero-sum” thinking and conflict escalation that predicts relationship doom, making it easy to feel that other options are both available and appealing.

I think “not if you’re with the right person” is claimed by people who feel they are, or have been, with the right person. It’s a kind of “It’s easy for ME,” claim, without malice or judgment, just a calm, not to say smug, sense of, “Why would anyone need to look elsewhere if they’re in a good relationship?”

Good relationships have rough patches, and good relationships are simply fundamentally DIFFERENT from NEW relationships; they meet different needs. One does not necessarily preclude the other.

Monogamy is hard. It’s a choice, every day, every moment. It’s not the rightness of your partner but your own evolving sense of the role of your relationship in your life.

I’m not a monogamy advocate. It works for some people, not for others. But whether or not it works is not predicted by being with “the right person,” as though there’s a magical person who can eliminate your motivation for extra-dyadic sexual connection.

Just, ya know, for the record.

Oct 172011

I started about 5 posts about social issues or relationship dynamics or whatever, before I finally gave up and realized that what I want to write about today is the fornix of the vagina. Good old sexual anatomy.

The fornix (Latin for “arch”) is a neglected aspect of female sexual anatomy that deserve a bit of a spotlight. Actually you have two of them, anterior and posterior. So, your vagina is this potential space, these folds of tissue that form a channel up to the uterus, which is planted at the top like the cork in a wine bottle. Only it’s an organic wine bottle. When you’re highly aroused, your vagina, in addition to lubricating and lengthening, “tents” around the uterus, creating space both in front of and behind the uterus.

If you’re in missionary position, your partner can actually penetrate up, deeper, into the anterior fornix. From behind, at the appropriate angle, they can penetrate into the posterior fornix. The two experiences may feel totally different.

Not all women like it – for some women, it may actually hurt, and for others it doesn’t feel much different from any other vaginal penetration. And let’s take a moment to remember that the majority of women are not reliably orgasmic from penetration, so if you want to create orgasm, add clitoral stimulation and leave fornix stimulation for added bonus pleasure, not necessarily for orgasm.

Also, bear in mind that it’s a space to explore primarily when she is ALREADY quite aroused, not as foreplay or early on in stimulation.

Here’s an anatomical drawing:

vaginal fornix

And here’s as close to a photo of it as I could find:


Oct 162011

So a bit of the feedback from the relationship talk:

…There were an overwhelming number of things that I found out I am doing wrong that will lead to the end of my relationship, and fewer hopeful messages about how I can actually change. It just felt like, if this is what you learned, you’ve got a long, hard road ahead of you.

This was actually an unexpected bit of feedback, though in retrospect I ought to have anticipated it. If you watch the video, you’ll find there are lots and lots of hopeful messages about how to change; nevertheless, if you were raised in an emotionally toxic home you might easily walk away from that talk feeling overwhelmed and helpless. This has at least as much to do with your lack of skill at managing those feelings (due to be being raised in an emotionally toxic home) as with the amount of change you’re confronting.

And is simply true that “if this is what you learned, you’ve got a long, hard road ahead of you.” I couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself.

Change is hard, especially when it comes to patterns of relating to other people. The foundations of that behavior were built before you could speak; they are old and entrenched and so familiar and comfortable that, like your digestive system or your skin, you barely notice they’re there until they go HORRIBLY WRONG.

Well, this seems like the right place to say what the “what you learned” things are that could result in your having that long, hard road. I’ll just introduce each, and then do a post for each one, to give it more thorough treatment.

Criticism. Of yourself, or of others, practicing unhelpful strategies for expressing your attitudes about the other person’s behavior or beliefs is one of the strongest predictors of negative outcomes. The most important rule of giving criticism is: if it’s none of your business, don’t criticize it. Addendum: Caring does not make it your business.

What makes it your business? When it directly affects you. If it IS your business, the next most important rule for giving criticism is to be as nice, gentle, kind, respectful, supportive, caring, and affectionate as possible while giving it.

Conditional Positive Regard. Believing that your own lovability is contingent upon some quality, skill, behavior, attitude, or other condition leads to pretending to be something you are not. Pretending to be something you are not results in incomplete, insincere, and otherwise essentially doomed relationships, because the other person isn’t actually in a relationship with YOU, they’re in a relationship with a part of yourself you’ve allowed them to know.

Insecure Attachment. I’ve written a variety of posts about attachment, including what attachment is, how it relates to heartbreak, and different attachment styles. Read those.

Overfunctioning. Particularly, but not exclusively, relevant to women because feminine socialization includes the dictum that your worth can be measured by the stability/longevity of your relationships, overfunctioning happens when one person in the relationship doesn’t carry an equal share of the work, and so the other person begins progressively to take over all the work. They “Make The Relationship Work” by DOING all the work.

Now, my grandmother used to say that “If each person in a relationship gives 50/50, you have half a relationship! You have to give 100%.” And I believe that. But BOTH people have to give 100%. If someone starts giving 80% and then the other person gives 120% to compensate, that second person starts to get burnt out while the first person actually gets weaker and less autonomous. Overfunctioning is bad for BOTH people in the relationship.

If you learned all four things in your family of origin and you’re only just now hearing that they’re not actually functional, that in fact they predict relationship dissatisfaction and failure, then yeah. You’ve got a long, hard road ahead of you.

But surely it’s better to be on the road than it is not to know the road exists, eh?

Oct 132011

On a long drive I started listening to Bill Bryson’s entertaining (and at times ghastly) “At Home: a short history of private life.” The book travels through the rooms of a house and recounts interesting tidbits from history that made that room what it is.

In Chapter 15, The Bedroom, he writes about the 19th century:

…[W]omanhood was automatically deemed to be a pathological condition. There was a belief, more or less universal, that women after puberty were either ill or on the verge of being ill, almost permanently. “The development of breasts, womb, and other reproductive apparatus drained energy from the finite supply each individual possessed,” in the words of one authority. Menstruation was described in medical texts as if it were a monthly act of willful negligence.

‘Whenever there is actual pain at any stage of the monthly period, it is because there is something wrong either in the dress or the diet or the personal and social habits of the individual,’ wrote one (male, of course) observer.

He goes on to describe the medical treatment of sexual thoughts by “the thorough scouring of her vagina with borax” and the treatment of nearsightedness with hysterectomy.

Just remember that, would you, when you consider whether or not a medication might be the appropriate treatment for your low sexual desire, slow orgasms, or lack of lubrication. Just remember the centuries of pathologizing of everything female or feminine, that constitutes our cultural inheritance. Just remember that when you or your partner can’t just WANT SEX spontaneously or doesn’t get wet as soon as foreplay starts. You can’t just want sex or get wet because you’re a WOMAN; being woman and being broken are not the same thing, no matter what your doctor, a magazine, or your parents tell you.

So into this books falls the recent Jezebel piece about men who like to give women orgasms because they like to give women pleasure, not as an ego boost.

How does it relate?

(Some stereotypes get used here, so just take a deep breath and be okay with it for argument’s sake:)

For men, orgasm and pleasure are closely linked. They’re practically the same thing. They can enjoy arousal without orgasm, sure, but basically they can tell if they had a good sexual experience by whether or not they’ve had an orgasm.

And they apply that standard – THEIR standard, the male/masculine standard – to their women partners. As though women are men, and as though to be anything else is to be broken.

So even if a guy wants his female partner to have orgasms because he wants to make her feel good, which is lovely and very nice, why can’t he just MAKE HER FEEL GOOD because he wants to make her feel good, without the performance demands of orgasm?

Orgasm is often slower and more effortful for women than for men; it’s more variable from woman to women, more variable from day to day in an individual woman. Sometimes orgasm just isn’t there for her; she can still experience truckloads of pleasure, though.

Anyway. We’ve certainly come a long way if in 150 years we’ve gone from improving eyesight by removing a uterus to using male standards to judge female orgasms, right? Not bad.

BTW, the commenters at Jezebel said a lot of sensible things about enjoying the journey and not worrying about the destination, to which I would only add, pleasure is a destination, not a journey; if you feel good, you have already arrived.

Oct 112011

Hi again!

It was a hard September.

But I just got back from fall break at the beach and I feel much better now, and fortunately all the HELLA BUSY WORK I did in September has left me with an overflowing pond of blog material.

The first example of that is the “Family Tree to Love Nest” talk I did, which I followed up with a survey, asking people what they learned and what they were hoping to learn. That “hoping to learn” item is handy because I can teach it over the blog! Hurray. So there will be about a half dozen relationship skills type posts in response to that.

There will be another half dozen posts about body image, following up the same survey question from the “She’s Eating That?!” workshop I led, which was about media literacy and fat talk. (PS: Next week is FAT TALK FREE WEEK!

But in the meantime, I’d like to say these two things:

1. There were students in that workshop about body image who did not realize that the images they see in magazines are Photoshopped to make the models look (even) thinner. I thought I was being hideously redundant and boring to talk about the manipulations of images by mainstream media, but no, it turns out there are still intelligent, well educated, highly literate young women who believe that that’s what those women’s bodies actually look like.

There are two things you can do with this fact: first, just know it. Know that the PICTURES you see of women’s bodies don’t have any particular relationship with ACTUAL women’s bodies. A room full of women, with their various bodies is what women actually look like. Mainstream media’s images of women’s bodies are fictional and rhetorical, designed by advertisers to make you feel shitty so that you’ll buy more shit. Looking at those images makes you feel bad. Looking at real women’s bodies should, capitalism’s manipulation aside, make you feel good, calm, happy, celebratory. Don’t confuse the two. And second, don’t stop talking about it. Say it out loud any time you encounter an image of women that is bad for women. You never know who might be learning it for the first time.

2. People apparently have no idea how to separate “being healthy” from “being thin.” Women’s bodies (and men’s bodies, but women’s bodies especially) VARY from each other in a vast number of ways. One of them is their natural, healthy weight, body composition, and shape. Boobs, bellies, and butts all vary in shape and size from woman to woman, and that variation has no particular relationship with health. (Minor caveat: storing fat around the middle of your body is generally correlated with cardiovascular health problems and insulin resistance, but since this will show up in actual measures of health, like blood lipids and blood sugar, you don’t need to worry about the fat if your actual HEALTH is fine.)

Health simply can NOT be predicted from body shape or size, up to about 75 pounds over the medically defined “healthy” weight. “Thin” doesn’t mean “healthy” any more than “Christian” means “kind.” Sometimes there’s overlap, sure, but one does NOT predict the other, no matter how much the culture says it does. (Please ignore any morality crap that might appear to be embedded in that analogy; there isn’t any.)

So how can you tell if you’re healthy, and therefore forget about your fat as a measure of health? Resting heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood lipids, aerobic pace or VO2 max, and of course various lifestyle measures: are you getting physical activity? are you eating something green and leafy every day, and plenty of protein? are most of the carbs you eat whole grain rather than refined? Then whatever body you have is what health looks like.

But wait, why am I writing about fat, health, and body image on a sex blog?

Oh my god.

Both the physical health and the psychological health implications of body image impact women’s sexual functioning. Physical health: shit, having low energy, not to mention poor muscle tone, limited flexbility and strength, and inadequate cardiovascular fitness can all prevent you from having the ebullient sex life that people who are physically healthy can have. Psychological health: in my experience, negative body image is the single most common source of sexual problems among young women. Not liking your body, not valuing it for what it does, rather than degrading it for what it (doesn’t) look like, will impede your sexual pleasure like nothing else, and all for no medical reason.

Confidence, my darlings. And joy. It is – or ought to be – a pleasure simply to live inside a body. If you find yourself hating living in a body that is functional and healthy, it’s time for a mental tune up.

Love your body; treat it with respect and kindness and compassion. And it will give you boundless pleasure in return.