Jan 312012

Trigger warning. Discussion of attitudes supportive of sexual violence.

Here’s a TED talk of Melinda Gates talking about how Coke does things that human services can learn from. Coke, she tells us, uses real-time data, local entrepreneurs, and aspirational marketing.

What she doesn’t mention is that Coke has a product that is chemically addictive (caffeine) and filled with glycogen-ready sucrose. Human bodies/brains respond to table sugar in much the way they respond to cocaine. I’m pretty sure Coke doesn’t need to make us feel good with aspirational marketing, because it makes us feel good with sugar and caffeine.

In contrast, when it comes to prevention interventions around sex, it really doesn’t matter how “aspirational” your marketing is or how good your data are: condoms interfere with pleasure. They require a skillset separate from (and potentially interfering with) the skillset for being good in bed and enjoying sexual pleasure. They do. Condoms don’t feel as nice as skin, and anyone who says differently probably works for a condom company or a public health office.

I’m a sex educator; it’s my job (among other things) to persuade people to use condoms correctly and consistently. What are the good things and the not-so-good things about using a condom?

Good things: not getting a disease, not getting pregnant.

Not so good things: fumbling around, feeling embarrassed, potential loss of erection, making your partner think you don’t trust them or that you think they have a disease or that you cheated on them or think they cheated on you, not to mention reduced sensation.

Young people in particular have a hard enough time communicating about sex, but add to that communicating about condoms and you just have a shitshow.

What is there but fear – and POWERFUL fear, to overcome the perceived unlikelihood of negative consequences – to force someone to use a condom, given that laundry list of hassles and worries and angst?


This fell into my head after a series of conversations with a variety of people that can be summed up this way:

In Europe, there are small pockets of immigrant, Muslim men who believe that women who wear t-shirts and show their knees are no better than they should be and it’s completely fine to do anything you like to them, including sexually harass and assault them. Just small pockets of them, but they’re there, and they’re convinced by their cultural beliefs (emphatically NOT their religious beliefs or their families’ beliefs, but by specific cultural rules of men in impoverished and marginalized communities) that what I call violence against women is completely acceptable.

So tell me, Melinda Gates, what does Coke have to teach us about changing that? What aspirational marketing, local entrepreneurship, or real-time data will convince these men that their behavior is in fact morally reprehensible, not to mention criminal?

This, at a time when my mandatory sexual harassment training tell me that if a coach touches his athlete in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable and asks her personal questions that make her feel uncomfortable, this might not be harassment if (a) it’s common for coaches to do these things (b) he treats all his athletes this way or (c) other athletes don’t agree that she’s being harassed.

That’s what MY LAWYER is telling me.

(NB: If it’s common for coaches to touch their athletes in this way, then there’s systemic abuse happening; if this coach treats all his athletes this way, then he’s a serial perpetrator. And if the other athletes don’t agree she’s being harassed, they’re participating in rape culture, with its victim blaming/survivor stigmatization, its gender stereotypes, and its rape myth acceptance.)

Sometimes you can’t be nice. Sometimes you just have to make laws and enforce the hell out of them and manage the inevitable resistance that arises, and eventually you WIN and then people settle into a new normal.

Toby on West Wing said it: They’ll like us when we win.

Condoms are not the answer to STIs: cures and vaccines are the answer. People can’t be relied on to protect their long term interests in the face of short-term loss.

And collaborative, developmental conversations are not the answer to changing the culture of objectification of women: shaming and imprisonment are the answer. People can’t be relied on to retain respect for others when everything in their culture and their meta-culture tells them that others are not really human.

There are days when I’m not interested in creative solutions or getting the buy-in of the stakeholders. There are days when I just want to blow people off the face of the earth. They’ll like us when we win.

Jan 282012

Did a relationship talk today. Walked away realizing that I really ought to have spent the entire 50 minutes having them practice the basic sentence we all need to know in order to solve conflict in relationships:

“When you say/do X, I feel Y.”

Not blame, not anger, just a statement of reality. It just happens to be true that “When you X, I feel Y.”

That sentence is the single one that you need to communicate with your partner when they’re doing something that hurts you.

If their response is anything other than, “Oh I see, what you’re saying is that when I X, you feel Y” (i.e., anything other than reflection that they understood and have empathy), then what you do is: repeat yourself.

“No, listen. I need you to understand this. I need you to understand that when you X, I feel Y.”

“But I –”

“I need to know that you heard this, and I can’t talk about anything else until I know that. When you X, I feel Y. Can you just say that back to me, so I know you heard it?”

“Of course I heard it. What I want to say is –”

“No. Listen. Please. I really need to hear you say it back, so that I know for sure you get what I’m saying.”

“You don’t think I understood?”

“I just need to hear you say it back to me. When you X, I feel Y.”

“When I X, you feel Y.”

“That’s right. When you X, I feel Y.”

“Well but that’s not my fault! You’re the one who…[whatever].”

“But the fact remains that when you X, I feel Y.”

“…Well… Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

And then you can figure that part out together. But it starts with knowing that your partner actually understands what the problem is.

The other key skill, of course, is being able to say, “When I X, you feel Y” too.

Jan 272012

I am working on the first few lecture of my class for the spring semester. Lecture 2 is anatomy, and this year, in response to last year’s surprise interest, I have a whole PPT slide on the hymen. To write that slide I’ve been doing research.

And it turns out that everything culture teaches us about the hymen is wrong.

The closest thing to true is the idea that the hymen can be painful when it’s not used to being stretched – it’s one of a number of potential causes of pain with penetration, but it is by no means the most common.

However: the hymen doesn’t break and stay broken forever, like a freshness seal (with accompanying “use by” date). If a hymen tears or bruises, IT HEALS.

And the size of a hymen doesn’t vary depending on whether or not the vagina has been penetrated. It’s about 2.75mm. There, now you know roughly how big your hymen is.

And it usually doesn’t bleed. Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication.

What does change when a woman begins having the hymen stretched regularly is that it grows more flexible. Um, is it appropriate to say that, metaphorically, vaginal intercourse is like yoga for your hymen?

So. Pain with first penetration might be the hymen stretching, maybe. Or it might be a variety of other things. And chances are first penetration will just feel really complicated and novel and nothing like what you expect.

We know from research that a small amount of pain over a longer time span results in lower perceived pain than a large amount of pain over a short time span (in other words, tear the band-aid off slowly, don’t rip it off in one go). So if you want to break your own hymen, do it gradually and gently, teaching it to stretch, rather than forcing it to break.

Side note: this is my 400th post!

Jan 232012

Aaaaaand, two weeks later…

It’s January.

Scratch that. It’s FUCKING JANUARY.

This same thing happened last year. I spend the month of January sitting in a dark hole. It’s not as bad this year because there’s much less snow and also there is the romantic euphemism to bring me news of the outside world (and chocolate and alcohol) without my actually having to go out into it.

Last year I suggested somatic mindfulness as a strategy for coping with seasonal mood stuff. This year I want to return to the idea of the monkey that lives inside each of us and motivates most of our behaviors.

What does the monkey need? What does the monkey want?

Well, sex is about the creation and survival of the next generation. The monkey doesn’t actually NEED anything from sex; as the brilliant Frank Beach once noted, no one ever died for lack of sex. (Insert predictable joke here.) There is no need, only want.

So what do they want?

Of course, boy monkeys and girl monkeys have different sex wants, due to different reproductive roles, so let’s take girl monkeys for now.

The Girl Monkey – let’s call her Alice – Alice the Girl Monkey wants, ultimately, to make babies (from an evolutionary perspective), but (1) she doesn’t want babies with any old genetic partner and (2) she doesn’t want babies at any old time. Fortunately, she’s hardly ever fertile – one day in every 28, roughly – and loses fertility when she’s already pregnant, when she’s breastfeeding regularly, when her body fat gets dangerously low, and when she’s generally very very stressed. The reproductive part of sex is moderately well in hand (from a biological point of view, anyway).

But then there’s the other aspect of sex, all of its social functions. It bonds Alice to her partner, she can use it as currency in exchange for social favors, she can diffuse conflict with it, she can, indeed, reduce her own stress level with it. And just as Alice the Monkey needs physical challenge and a variety of nourishment, she needs to keep her stress hormones balanced.

But at the same time, those stress hormones might keep her sexual interest flatlining.

Looks like we need to understand about stress.

As I’ve mentioned before stress is not just a response, it’s a cycle. Your body responds to a perceived threat with adrenaline and cortisol, which activates motivation to fight, flee, or freeze, and when you do what your body is pushing you to do and thus escape the threat, it rewards you with all the happy chemicals it can throw at you, activating the relaxation response.

The complicated part is when your stressor goes away but your stress is still there! Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor – say, a relationship conflict – doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress. And it is the stress itself, not the presence of the stressor, that disrupts sexual interest. Alice the Human can resolve a conflict rationally. Alice the Monkey needs to run or fight to lie still and shake for a while, to move all the way through the stress response and into the relaxation response.

The ladies among us are likely (like, 90%) to recognize the experience of feeling desirous of sex under circumstances of relationship happiness: when you feel cared for, understood, supported, special, safe… ya know, loved. And you may recognize the experience of NOT wanting sex when you feel stressed, threatened, overwhelmed, exhausted, or under-appreciated; then sexual interest, like a shy ferret, hides behind the sofa and won’t come out until everyone goes away.

I’ve been playing with this simile lately: emotions are like tunnels. You have to move all the way through them or you’re stuck just sitting there in the dark.

Monkey are good at moving through their emotions to get to the calm and peace at the end of them. Humans in the industrialized west are TERRIBLE at it. It’s a skill well worth learning. Okay.

Jan 102012

Ugh. So this has been me sick in bed with some horrible plague that’s going around campus. TWO WEEKS of snot and aching and struggling to keep my lungs where they belong, in the face of great resistance on the part of said lungs. UGH!!

Anyway. That’s how I’ve been lately. How are you?

calm submissive

While I’ve been lying in bed, I’ve been listening to John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense, which is chock full of fascinating stuff about the science of dogs, how they evolved, how they develop, how they learn, etc. It’s not a training book, isn’t trying to be a training book, but it does offer critiques of various training methods, inevitably supporting Ian Dunbar’s positive reinforcement approach and maligning Cesar Millan as scientifically deficient. Which is true, Dunbar totally has the science and Cesar has no science.

Then yesterday I completed a mandatory online sexual harassment training and I had the response that I imagine Ian Dunbar has when he hears Cesar talk about dog psychology: “GAAAH! NOOOOO, THAT’S NOT RIGHT OH MY GOD THIS IS GONNA MAKE PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW BETTER THINK ALL KINDS OF WEIRD THINGS!!!”

But. I mean. Maybe it’s okay?

A while ago I wrote me and Cesar Millan. I read his stuff and watched his show when I got a dog. I read Ian Dunbar’s book too, and watched lots of his videos, and it was helpful – ish. He taught me how to shape my dog’s behavior through reward and denial of reward. Nice.

But Dunbar’s advice was to get a puppy that had had lots of contact with humans, and train it from scratch. Which I didn’t do. I did what every dog advocate in the world would want me to do: I adopted a 7 year old dog that had been tortured and then had lived in an orphanage for 5 years. He had fears and insecurities and poor social skills and worse leash manners.

So what did I learn from Cesar Millan’s book that I didn’t learn from the science? I learned that my dog needs me to create a stable, secure psychological structure, so that he knows where he belongs in the world. I learned that needs me to stay calm. I learned WHY being calm and patient is important, which motivated me to do it. It turns out that reason is technically wrong, but it’s close enough to be very very helpful.

As a person who is wrapping up writing a guide about relationships (it’ll be available sometime in February I think, at goodinbed.com), this is a really useful bit of insight:

Just because something is grounded in the best science (Ian Dunbar) doesn’t mean it’s the thing that will be most helpful to people in an imperfect situation. And just because something is technically wrong doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry the important message.

It’s weird for me because I LOVE science and I share with John Bradshaw a puzzlement that the people who get TV shows as “experts” are hardly ever the people with academic credentials and scientific expertise. Yet the guy with the credentials and the expertise (Dunbar) hasn’t been anything like as helpful to me in having a positive relationship with me dog as the guy with unsubstantiated ideas but a dazzlingly useful approach (Millan).

So maybe – maybe – the sexual harassment program, despite being wrong, is actually helpful for people who don’t know about these kinds of things.

I can’t even tell you how foreign that idea is to me.

My guide is all science. I think (I hope!) it’s also really helpful. It happens to have very much the same message about human relationships as Cesar has about dog relationships: stay calm, listen, don’t assume that what your partner needs is the same as what you need, and don’t make your feelings more important (or less important) than your partner’s.

And if the science doesn’t work, turn to folk wisdom. I’ve also been watching a lot of West Wing, and there’s a whole episode grounded in Ephesians: “Be subject to one another.”

If you can’t do it because the science says so, maybe do it because it’s in the frackin’ Bible.