Monthly Archives: May 2011

Surprises in Indiana University Sex Survey

Sex, sex, sexResearchers at Indiana University have completed the most comprehensive sex survey since 1994. It yielded some surprising results:

  • Young women were more likely than young men to report having had sex in the last year
  • Young women are increasingly likely to report masturbating
  • 85% of men report that their partner had an orgasm the last time they had sex; but only 64% of women said they had reached orgasm. Hmmmmm
  • Men were more likely to reach orgasm if they were in a relationship than with a casual sex partner

Read the rest of this entry

Baby Named “Storm.” Sex Unknown

Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto have chosen not to announce their new baby’s sex, at least for now, as “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation.” The parents would like to give the baby, named Storm, the freedom to choose or discover who she or he wants to be.

A Canadian couple is keeping the gender of their 4-month-old baby under wraps. Are they helping or hurting their child?

Other than their two sons, a close friend, and the two midwives who helped deliver the baby, no one knows the sex.

Because kids are bombarded by so many messages from society, the Witterick-Stocker’s are hoping to knock off a couple million of them, at least for a while.

If they want to treat their baby gender-neutral, Kathy and David will need to keep guard, themselves, because gender creation begins even before birth.

Typically, parents begin to develop ideas about what their child will grow up to be like as soon as ultrasound reveals the sex. Once they hear, “It’s a boy” dad gets visions of playing ball and coaching his son in little league. Or mom imagines playing dollies with her daughter or dreams of her future wedding gown.

Once they’re born, parents perceive boys as being strong and alert, while little girls seem delicate and pretty.

Parents treat sons rougher. Dad grabs Teddy Bear and threatens, “Teddy’s going to get you!” But tucking his daughter in at night, he’ll bring Teddy in for comfort and good dreams.

I’ve found myself mimicking these gender notions. When I was learning about all this in grad school, I agreed to babysit my two-year-old nephew. I’d roar at him. And for some reason I thought it might be fun to take a beach ball (it was very light!) and bang him on the head with it (but just once!). As soon as I did, I realized I would never do that to my little niece. She would be too delicate.

Parents even talk to their daughters more, and use a wider variety of emotion words. They use more questions, numbers, and action verbs with sons.

Girls are kept closer, and helped more. Boys are given more latitude and expected to help themselves, with just a little aid from mom and dad.

Meanwhile boys’ toys, like blocks, develop spatial skills while footballs and baseballs build muscles and a sense of competition. Girls’ dolls encourage nurture while tea parties hone social skills. Barbie teaches girls all about beauty, fashion, and the importance of dating Ken.

As kids watch cartoons they learn that boys are more active and aggressive, and are more likely the main character. There are a few exceptions, like Powerpuff Girls. Sailor Moon is another girl character who is active, fighting crime. Yet she’s an oddly sexy fourteen-year-old.

Hard to know whether the parents, brothers and friend’s knowledge of Storm’s sex might have some effect. And unfortunately, parents are rarely aware of how much they do treat their children in gender specific ways.

If little Storm gets any whiff of his/her sex, s/he’s likely to be highly influenced by the outside world: TV, billboards, other kids…

A lot of people are upset by all this. Maybe you are, too. But I’d like to know what’s wrong with trying to keep limitations away from a child so that s/he can become who s/he is with fewer restrictions.

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Homophobes Aroused by Gay Porn

You’d think homophobic men would be the least likely to get aroused by homoerotic images. Think again.

Researchers at the University of Georgia surveyed young men on the degree of homophobia the felt, as measured by their self-described levels of aversion to gay men, and specifically, the intensity of “dread” they experienced interacting with them.

Then they wired them up and showed them gay porn, lesbian porn, and straight porn. Eighty percent of the homophobes experienced arousal at the homoerotic screenings. The non-homophobic men did not.

Are these men unconsciously deceiving themselves? Or are they consciously trying to draw attention away from their homosexuality? Who knows?

One gay man told a story about attempting the latter. Writing for Scientific American, Jesse Bering said, “My earliest conscious tactic to hide my homosexuality involved being outlandishly homophobic. When I was eight years old, I figured that if I used the word “fag” a lot and on every possible occasion expressed my repugnance for gay people, others would obviously think I was straight. But,” he continued, “although it sounded good in theory, I wasn’t very hostile by temperament and I had trouble channeling my fictitious outrage into convincing practice.”

Maybe it helps to be mean and angry, too.

Jesse went on to cite the Freudian concept of reaction formation which occurs when repressed desires become manifested in sharp emotional reactions and hostile behaviors toward the thing desired.

Plenty of gay homophobes screech against the so-called “sins” of the orientation, but end up outed, anyway: Evangelical Ted Haggard, George Rekers of the Family Research Council, and anti-gay megachurch pastor Eddie Long are a few who come to mind. The whole scene is reminiscent of the homophobic gay man from American Beauty attacking what he feared – his own gayness.

“Thou dost protest too much,” to paraphrase the bard, Shakespeare.

Really, who are you trying to convince?

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Anything Good About Being A Sex Object?

cans1When I ask my students if they can think of anything good about being a sex object they think there must be something positive, since so many women put a lot of effort into being sexy, with some aspiring to “sex symbolness.” Here’s what they say:

  • Sexy women get attention. They feel attractive and admired, so it’s a source of self-esteem.
  • It’s nice to feel wanted and desired. It’s easier to attract mates or just get sex.
  • It can be fun to feel sexy.
  • Sex is a historic source of power for women. Sexiness can gain women resources, whether through marriage or getting men to do favors. It puts women in control over men.

Then I ask if there’s a downside. More comments:

  • It can be uncomfortable being gawked at. You can feel like you’re only a sex object – and that’s all, like you’re not worth a lot.
  • You can feel disrespected. Guys just want one thing. You get used.
  • When women are seen as all about sex, and they don’t want to put out, they’re seen as bitches.
  • You aren’t seen as intelligent. You aren’t taken seriously.
  • Your personality disappears.
  • It can feel inauthentic, feeling pressured from friends or society to look sexy.
  • Sexual objectification leads to sex trafficking. Treating young women and girls like they are nothing but objects that exist to pleasure men. They have no lives. They’re all about sex and nothing else. And they’re not given an opportunity to be anything else.

But there are problems when you don’t meet sex-object standards, too:

  • You feel like you’re constantly being judged, and not coming out well.
  • You may starve. Or get implants and die (that does happen). You have false hope, and when you don’t meet the standard you lose self-esteem.

So much contradiction. Is there any way to get some of the positive upside without all the downside? I’ll admit to feeling the world would be a bit dull without any spice of sexiness.

How about distinguishing between sexy and sex object. And broadening our notion of what “sexy” means?

Objects are treated as little more than a means to others’ pleasure. They are not people with lives, goals, thoughts or emotions. It’s one-dimensional. A limited box. And who cares how you treat an object?

So if a woman does have – and is seen as having – a life, goals, emotions and intelligence, and sexiness is one part of all that, then she can be a full person – who is also sexy.

But still, can we move outside the narrow notions? Who’s sexy to me? Women and men who are classy, smart, talented, confident, and who make a difference in the world.

I nominate:

Nancy Pelosi, Thandie Newton, French politician Marie-Ségolène Royal, Helen Mirren, Angelina Jolie, Jackie O, Jennifer Lopez, Toni Morrison, Queen Rania of Jordan, Barbara Walters, Sandra Bullock,  Zhang Ziyi, America Ferrera, Diane Sawyer, Jennifer Aniston, Queen Latifah, Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts, and Maria Shriver.

And men? My list includes:

Ezra Klein, Benico del Torro, Ed Harris, New York Times columnist, Princeton professor and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, CNN anchor T.J. Holmes, Tom Brokaw, Brad Pitt, Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, Gabriel Byrne, Japan’s former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, JFK Jr., Antonio Banderas, Sidney Poitier, Javier Bardem, and White House corresspondent, Jake Tapper.

Yeah, sexiness can be fun and alluring, when moving outside narrow limits. But sex objects are just trapped.

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Rape: As If Female Sexuality Were Male Sexuality

“It’s just he said, she said,” opined one of the ladies of The View, discussing IMF Managing Director, Dominique Strauss-Khan’s alleged rape of a hotel maid.

That is true. We don’t know for sure whether Strauss-Khan committed the crime. But sometimes it seems that talk of rape allegations sees female sexuality as if it were male sexuality.

Strauss-Khan admits to having sex with the housekeeper but insists it was consensual. Yet the scenario he asserts hardly matches female sexuality, as it is typically manifested in the Western world.

Just to note a few recent studies, which I have written about in greater detail in other posts:

Women are rarely interested in having sex with a stranger. Men are much more likely to accept a stranger’s proposal. For women, it doesn’t matter whether the offer comes from someone they know and trust or from someone they don’t. Most times they just aren’t interested. Unless the offer comes from Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. Maybe it’s just me, but Dominique Strauss-Khan seems a bit lacking in Depp/Pitt appeal.

Women and men typically watch different types of porn, too. Men like the sort that matches Strauss-Khan’s version of events. Something to the effect of: “She saw me naked when I came out from the shower and we had amazing sex.” Yet women who watch porn usually like a story line with a little character development.

Women are much more likely to read romantic erotica than to watch porn, anyway. Even more story and character development! Sex is not for its own sake, and not with impersonal strangers. And this matches most women’s interest in the real world, where they unconsciously scrutinize all evidence about their lovers, with sexual arousal igniting only when everything is in place.  

Even when they go to bed with a man, women are likely focused on how they, themselves, look – “So hot!” if they are proud of their appearance, or “Does my butt look too big?” if they aren’t – than great sex.

Why the difference? For one, women don’t learn to objectify men in our culture, leaving us less likely to get hot at the mere sight of a naked male. In fact, one study found women getting more aroused by a nude woman than a nude man, when measuring blood flow to the vagina. Perhaps due to lopsided objectification?  

Meanwhile, women’s sexuality is more repressed. Women are more likely to be labeled sluts for enjoying sex, or seen as “giving it up” while men seem to be gaining something, like status. Products that aid women’s sexual enjoyment are less likely to be advertised, as with Viagra versus vibrators.  

Not surprisingly, women report less sexual interest and enjoyment, on average.

Plus, women need foreplay.

All said I find Strauss-Khan’s version of events unlikely. Of course, not all women are the same. Some enjoy sex with strangers and seek the kind of porn that men enjoy.

But most don’t.

I’m not saying this proves that the hotel maid was raped. But when people think it is just as likely that she made wild love to this unfamiliar man, it feels like male sexuality is being projected onto women.

Georgia Platts

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The Perfect Islamic Porn Stash

The perfect Islamic state was Osama Bin Laden’s stated goal. The Taliban’s too.

In the name of Islam, women under the Taliban (who still control large parts of Afghanistan) are forced to cover themselves, head to toe, mesh hiding their eyes. Women may be punished even for laughing or walking too loudly and drawing attention to themselves. In the home, windows may be painted over to protect men from unwittingly catching sight of an unveiled woman.

All this to keep men pure.

And now we learn that Osama Bin Laden had a porn stash.

In like hypocrisy, a U.N. report says the Taliban has forced women into prostitution.

So is the concern really that women will trample all over men’s purity? Or do Bin Laden and the Taliban just want to control women? And feel empowered, themselves?

The so-called Islamic state the Taliban fashioned when fully in power didn’t seem to have much to do with Islam. The Quran gives women the right to work. Not the Taliban. The Quran gives women the right to consent to marriage. And yet young girls were (and still are) married off before they had even begun to menstruate.

Meanwhile, the Taliban forbade all sorts of things without any scriptural backing: educating girls, television, radio, movies, or even the keeping of birds, whose chirping is unduly musical.

Most people don’t know that the only thing the Quran tells women to cover are their bosoms. Something Bin Laden went out of his way to see uncovered. Perfect Islamic Bin Laden? I think not.

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Men Watch Porn, Women Read Romance. Why?

Years ago I met a man who intrigued me. He was my first real love. But I didn’t go headlong into a relationship, I wanted to get to know him, understand him.

I became the detective, trying to determine whether he was right for me. Was he devoted, caring? Empathetic? Did he appreciate me? Was he in love with me or was I just a passing fancy?

He thought understanding each other was overrated.

My sleuthing confirmed my initial attraction – that he was deep. Unless the subject was sex and relationship, which he thought were the same thing. Big problem!

I eventually learned that this dynamic – men seeking sex and women seeking answers – is not unusual. It is even reflected in the erotica we seek.

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Ogi Ogas says that men search the internet for two-minute clips that are all about skin and explicit sex. Women’s erotica is more like detective novel meets romance, and takes hours to read and digest. (The number of women romance readers and male online porn viewers are about the same. And keep in mind that one in 10 men are into romance while one in 10 women check out porn clips.)

The men’s interest is simple, uncomplicated. But women more likely want character-driven stories that reveal the lover’s nature. Sex is not for its own sake, and not with impersonal strangers.

As Ogas notes, the female cortex is highly developed and skillfully scrutinizes all available evidence – social, emotional and physical, somewhat consciously but largely not. All this leads to a general feeling of favorability or suspicion: Is he committed and kind? Is he a rouge? A player? Only if the detective work leads to a stamp of approval will physical and psychological arousal unite.

Men’s desire has been likened to an on/off switch, while women’s to a complex circuit board.

Why? Who knows? Some will point to evolutionary psychology: To best reproduce themselves women need a man who will stick around and support their children with resources. So women must be careful, picky. But men (having a great deal of sperm) best reproduce themselves by willy-nilly spreading their seed. It’s a popular theory, but I have my doubts since women in some cultures behave a lot like our sexual stereotype of men. American Indians prior to European contact, for instance.

Others say that in a world where women have less power, women’s lives are more affected by men than vice-versa, so they need to be more careful, even if their sleuthing isn’t very conscious. Women are more likely to follow husbands who are transferred in their careers than vice-versa, for instance. Also, men’s social status affects women more than women’s status affects men’s. When a waitress marries a dentist, her social status immediately rises to his. Not so much for the trucker who marries a female business executive.

And since men are typically bigger and stronger, abused women suffer greater injuries and have more difficultly defending themselves.

Women are also more likely to depend on men, financially, because they are more likely to stay home full-time with kids. Is he dependable? Can he keep a job? If men leave, women in our society bear all the responsibility for children (versus Ancient American Indians who parented communally).

Also, women’s sex drive is typically lower in our culture (largely due to repression), perhaps leaving women wanting emotionally connected sex more than variety and experimentation.

And of course, women were raised on a diet of Disney princesses living happily ever after with their one and only true love. Could have an effect.

Meanwhile, because men are bombarded with sexually objectified women, they come to see women’s bodies as objects that are all about sex, with women’s body parts as sex-signals. Hence the simple look-arousal response. (Surprisingly, the breast fetish seems to be learned, not natural.)

When women and men so often have contradictory ways of seeing and being, you have to wonder why (for about 95% of the population) women and men are thrown together in the first place.

That said, guys are getting more romantic. So while there are reasons why women are more likely to read romance novels and men are more likely to look at two-minute porn clips, in real life there is a bit more coming together.

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I Can’t Believe I Ate A Whole Head Of Lettuce!

1_23_012607_skinnyOnce upon a time I wanted to look like a cover girl, despite whatever feminist consciousness I may have had.

It had not occurred to me that that wasn’t a possibility. It’s what my culture said I was supposed to look like. What I needed to look like to be truly valued.

Full of contradictions, I began my supermodel project. But in a healthy sort of way, I told myself. Wasn’t going to starve. No anorexia or bulimia for me.

I later came to see that I did end up with an eating disorder.

I became obsessed with food. How much had I eaten that day? Constantly counting calories. My worth depended upon how well I had eaten.

At times I swung between overeating and starving. Very little starving – I wasn’t good at it.

I next developed an exercise obsession. You can’t get too much exercise, right? After developing a knee injury from jogging, I tried Nordic Track. Another knee injury. Next, I began walking three miles a day at a brisk pace. Yet another knee injury. Apparently, you can rub your cartilage too much from over-exercise and lack of rest. My physical therapist told me to start biking instead – and don’t overdo it! No more than four days a week, and no hills.

After all the food and exercise mania, I still looked nothing like a supermodel. One day standing in line at a grocery store I picked up People Magazine and read a story on how supermodels did it. I finally understood why I didn’t look like them, and never would.

Kim Alexis had tried every fad diet and at one point starved herself for four days straight.

Carol Alt went on a fruit-only diet. Later, she drank eight cups of coffee a day, and ate salad for dinner.

Andie Macdowell said many models took drugs to deal with the stress of starving.

What struck me most was when Kim Alexis said,

When I first started out, I was rooming in a New York City hotel with (supermodel) Kelly Emberg. One night I came home, and I was eating only a head of lettuce for dinner. Kelly walked in and said, “You’re eating a whole head of lettuce? How could you?” I cried and said, “But it’s all I’ve had all day. It’s not even 50 calories!”

To which I say, “Are you freaking kidding me?!” That big “cheat” would be insane dieting in my book. In anyone’s book, one would hope.

That’s when my hopes for supermodel slim were dashed.

Yes, I had been insane. But not that insane.

And it’s not just me. It’s society. What kind of crazy culture says women must feel guilty about eating nothing but a head of lettuce to “look good”?

So I determined to gain my mental and physical health back. I’ve had ups and downs, but so far so good.

Georgia Platts

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Making Relationship Violence Sexy

The blogosphere was abuzz last week with talk of TV’s Gossip Girl where antihero, Chuck Bass, humiliated ex-girlfriend, Blair Waldorf, by tattling on her sexual past in front of her new boyfriend’s mother. He followed up by telling Blair she couldn’t be with anyone else because, “You’re mine.” Enraged, he wrestled her onto a sofa before hurling his fist through a window, a shard of glass cutting Blair’s face.

A reporter from E! Entertainment called the cut, “the most perfect, beautiful, dainty injury.”

Are Chuck’s violence and controlling ways meant to be seen as “perfect” and “beautiful,” as well, set within the passion of unrequited love?

As the story goes along, it appears that Blair isn’t the one who’s hurt. Chuck is. He loves Blair too much for his own good, according to the show’s producers and this week’s episode.

Unfortunately, sexualized violence is hardly a new story. Popular romance novels are commonly called “bodice rippers.” The hero fears his love of the heroine and the vulnerability his affection might bring. He must stay strong and resist, in part by treating the object of his desire poorly. Finally he gives in in a torrent of ripped clothing.

In these stories the heroine reforms the rouge and wins in the end.

What message do young women get while watching abusive lovers in Gossip Girl or reading romance? That a lover’s harm exposes his love? That she will ultimately transform him? That it’s all so romantic? That it’s all so normal?

Maybe. Along these lines it’s interesting that one-third of abused women expect to marry their abuser. Why? First, they take the jealous rage as a sign of deep love and passion. Second, they believe that marriage will end his abuse-causing insecurity. Yet after marriage, violence escalates.

Signs of an abusive lover include controlling behavior, pushing for quick involvement, persistent jealousy (especially jealousy that leads to verbal or physical attacks), constantly checking up, isolation (cutting off family and friends), blaming others for his problems, insulting yet easily insulted, unrealistic expectations (you must be perfect and meet his every need), and rigid gender roles.

Should you choose to leave an abuser, contact a shelter or hotline to form a plan of action. Do not tell the abuser you plan to leave, as this is the most dangerous time. Knowing he’s lost control, he may seek to take ultimate control: your life. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800 799-7233.

Helping friends who are in abusive relationships can be difficult, for victims are often in denial about how bad the situation is, or about their ability to leave. Experts say that it helps if friends “continually counter with messages like ‘It’s not you. You didn’t cause this. This is not a normal relationship.’”

One battered woman who eventually left credited her friends, saying, “They saw the signs from the beginning. They would tell me I would go missing and my picture would end up on a milk carton. Over time, it slowly sank in.”

Of course, it might be a good idea to stop romanticizing and normalizing violent relationships in the first place.

Georgia Platts

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Vibrators and Women’s Sexuality: Out of the Closet?

Vibrators, once steeped in shame and secrecy, are going mainstream. Does this mean women’s sexuality has thrown off the covers, too?

As a culture, we are of two minds.

Vibrators were once illegal in several states, including Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama, or found only in seedy sex shops. But as the New York Times reports, today they may be purchased at your neighborhood drug store. Out in the open, even Oprah has pitched the helpful tool. And who can forget the “Rabbit Pearl” popping up in Sex and the City?

And yet, they aren’t quite out of the closet.

As one seller described the problem, “I can sit with my 10-year-old daughter during prime-time TV and watch a commercial for Viagra,” she said, “but I can’t advertise our OhMiBod fan page within Facebook.” Nylon Magazine won’t run her ads and the Small Business Administration refused her loan application because vibrators are a “prurient” business.

Ambivalence over tools and meds that enhance women’s sexuality reflects the larger cultural view. On the one hand the media glamorizes women’s sexuality. And plenty of porn approvingly portrays women with voracious sexual appetites.

But porn is off-limits. And women are told “Keep your legs together,” as if open legs were an open invitation.

Male sexuality is something to brag about, but female sexuality is something to hide. Men are praised as players and pimps. Women are called sluts, whores, tramps, and skanks… What positive word applies to women who enjoy sexuality?

Slang for penis and vagina says a lot, especially “cock” and “down there.” Cock: Cocky, boastful, swaggering. “Down there”? Unspeakable. Shameful.

This all reminds me of Zestra’s difficulty getting ads on TV for a product that arouses women. TV networks, national cable stations, radio stations, and Web sites like Facebook and WebMD all resisted. Yet “An erection lasting more than four hours” is O.K.?

Is it any wonder that sex surveys find mixed experiences among women when it comes sexual pleasure?

Indiana University’s comprehensive survey found that while 91% of men had an orgasm the last time they had sex only 64% of women did. These numbers roughly reflect the percentage of men and women who say they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit”: 66% of women and 83% of men. Only 58% of women in their 20s had “the big O” on their last occasion.

As I’ve recently posted, 30-40% of women report difficulty climaxing. Women who lose virginity are also likely to lose self esteem, largely because they’re so focused on how they look (bad, they apparently think) and so unfocused on the sexual experience. And one-third of women under 35 often feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex, while 10 percent frequently feel sad after intercourse.

On the other hand, many women do enjoy sex a lot, and frequently orgasm.

Does all this reflect that ambivalence, with enjoyment perhaps affected by which message gets most drilled into a woman’s mind?

Women’s sexuality kept in shadow and suspicion has an effect. Time to come out of the closet!

Georgia Platts

Ms. Magazine cross-posted this on their blog May 16, 2011.

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