Archives For sex and sexuality

woman on bench

Once in a while, the internet remembers random things, such as a woman who wanted to trim the male population by at least 90% and use the survivors as breeding stock to reduce gender inequality across the world. While MRAs believe that this is what all feminists secretly want and most people understand that this is little more than a joke that went too far and has absolutely zero chance of happening, ever, all of the online discussions on the subject have focused on a trip down the histrionics-laden minefield of gender politics instead of a relevant scientific issue that should be front and center. Sure, being one of the few males left on Earth and given a life filled with relative luxury and constant sex sounds like the plot of a particularly wishful porn film which I’m sure has been made a few hundred times by now. But would it actually work? What’s the consequence of eliminating up to 99% of men from the gene pool? Well, it could very likely doom our species in the long run, even with heavy reliance on artificial insemination and gene therapy. We thrive thanks to variety, and reducing our genetic diversity will only harm us.

Let’s say that 90% of men are somehow culled. With about 10 women for every remaining man we’d quickly end up with the same problem as Iceland worldwide. In just a few generations, the attractive stranger with whom you’re flirting is likely your half-sibling. Sure, you can curate who gets to reproduce and how, but the sheer lack of new male genes will quickly have you trying to fight math. Artificial insemination using same sex donors is possible and has been done, but it’s still a very touchy, expensive process that doesn’t always work. Women in poverty or in remote, undeveloped parts of the world are going to have extremely limited access to this resource and women in wealthy nations will be looking at high costs and failure rates. Nature got really, really good at this whole reproduction thing over 3.5 billion years and re-inventing the wheel is not an easy feat. Today, the best we can do with tried and true technology is successful about 15% of the time per implanted zygote on average. After just ten generations, there’s going to be a very serious threat of a genetic bottleneck which spells evolutionary doom for any organism.

An even more base, but still relevant question in the face of us no longer being able to just out-breed our way through genetic defects and weaknesses as we do today, is what about women who want monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationships? That’s close to 90% of those on the planet in this post-male apocalypse world. Instead of having a boyfriend or a husband they just plain want, they’re now on waiting lists among rationed men who also can’t have any sort of meaningful relationship. While more women than men admit to same-sex fantasies, and acting on them, you might end up with artificially high same-sex pairings among women simply out of emotional and physical necessity. It’s one thing if you’re homosexual and have your choice of a partner everywhere you look. But if you’re not, your choices are to get on a waiting list for some person to whose gender you have a strong innate attraction, pair up with a same sex partner to release some stress until you can’t do it anymore, or be lonely. Again, there are good reasons why nature prefers a 50/50 ratio between the sexes, one of which is more choices in mating.

For better or worse, the survival of humanity depends on having plenty of men available, and a significant amount of genetic diversity. Look at every successful species in history. They thrived in enormous numbers because they reproduced efficiently and had many mates available on a moment’s notice. Small, inbred populations nearly always die out because they lack the genetic diversity and numbers to absorb a change in diet, or the environment, or new diseases to come out on the other end as strong as ever. Humans survived a supervolcanic eruption which left an uncomfortably small population that might have dropped to as few as 10,000 individuals, awful plagues, and an ice age. Had we become too dependent on over-structured breeding systems, or had our species grown far too sex-lopsided, we would’ve went extinct. So an idea involving a reduction of up to 99% of one sex shouldn’t just be met with political and social objections, but it should be first dismissed from the most important point of all: that of evolutionary biology.

porn starlet

PornHub has a grand vision, a vision of a man and a woman having sex on camera just as they reach the edge of space and feel the grasp of our planet’s gravity loosen for half an hour. It’s a vision that’s been proposed to the only company that may have been willing to do it in 2008 and was promptly shot down, but PornHub was undeterred and started a crowdfunding campaign to bring zero gravity porn to the horny masses. Considering the challenges of sex without the help of gravity would be extremely amusing to watch, and if humans want to live in space, we’ll need to learn how to have sex on a spacecraft, I have no doubt this vision will be brought to life. Just not for PornHub, and not right now. No one is sending passengers into suborbital space and it’s simply not practical for the first commercial passengers to be a porn crew since no one from the crew will want to invest time in blocking, timing, and the necessary rehearsals. Just getting a few tourists floating around the cabin at the Karman line is going to be difficult enough as it is.

Now, a few dozen flights in, when the mechanics of the flights are settled and the crews can get more ambitious with their missions, this idea can actually work. Of course the problem for even the most accomplished and capable porn star would be the difficulty of getting an erection after the redistribution of fluids in zero gravity, and trying to actually maintain a position for cinematic intercourse when the slightest push will send them bouncing around the cabin. And there a lots of questions about how the money shot would be executed as well as whether 30 minutes can be enough to get a decent video, or whether multiple flights would be required. Perhaps they’d be interested in hiring Zero G to wrap their heads around the necessary blocking and physical limitations. None of these challenges are insurmountable, mind you, and they could actually do science a solid and perform research that would never be funded otherwise.

But again, this is a little premature. (Make your own jokes, I refuse.) We need to get people into suborbital space reliably in the first place, and then to orbital hotels where they could shoot just about anything and everything they’d want. Don’t get me wrong PornHub, although I know your porn business is your own real concern in this, you’re actually helping humanity in the long run, and your efforts to shoot naked people putting things into their own or others’ bodies could one day help start a family on the Moon or Mars. And really, your only problem here is being five to ten years ahead of your time. Though maybe you can also make your pitch a little less obvious as to its commercial value and a put in some things regarding advancing human understanding of sex beyond our planet, really sell it as an experiment, get in depth interviews with some blow by blow, and thrust by thrust commentary, and really advertise them when you try this again in probably six years or so when we have this whole commercial suborbital flight figured out.

[ illustration: porn starlet Ariana Marie ]

robot kiss

When you grow up in a religiously conservative household and discover that you’re gay, there’s often a lot of pressure for you to change your ways because many conservatives either cannot cope with the idea that homosexuality is not just a choice people make on a whim, or if they can manage to accept the science, refuse to see it as anything other than a defect to be cured. And as a result, numerous conservative communities have established infamous pray-away-the-gay camps and pseudoscientific “treatment centers” which promise that a few years of behavioral or cognitive or talk therapy will let patients overcome their gay urges. Both these practices have an abysmal rate of success, and while the former is often immune from lawsuits thanks to religious exemptions, the latter can be sued, which is what the Southern Poverty Law Center is doing on behalf of one such group’s former patients, alleging consumer fraud. Since you can’t cure a gay person, anyone claiming to be able to do so for a fee is in fact breaking the law. Knowing that it can’t win on the science, the group’s lawyers are going for the following red herring…

“I support the right of an adult to seek help from a licensed professional and to live their life as they choose and not as the SPLC says that they have to,” said Maggie Gallagher, the founding board chairwoman of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is defending JONAH. For certain gay people, “their identity in their religious faith is more important to them than their putative sexual identity, and that’s a choice that people are entitled to make.”

Which is all well and good, except that the SPLC is arguing, correctly in my view, that the group in question, JONAH, founded by Orthodox Jews in New York, isn’t so much helping gay men or women who come to it because they’re terrified of the next time an urge to have sex with same sex partners will hit, they are under pressure to do so from their communities. In a twisted way, what Gallagher is saying is correct, for certain gay people being a part of their community is so important that they’re willing to forsake their sexuality to stay in it. But she’s also admitting that staying in some communities can only happen through conformity, forcing people who might be happy being gay into an existential crisis in which they have to make tough choices they should not have to make. Then, these distressed souls come to JONAH or organizations like it where a councilor with dubious credentials spouts pseudoscientific claptrap at them, fails to make all but a handful of patients stop being gay, and puts the blame on them for the failure.

This is very much the typical alt med/faith healing model, claim to perform miracles, fail since all of biology is against the treatment, something well known to the experts, and then, when failure inevitably rears its ugly head, accuse the patient of not trying hard enough for the miracle he or she has been promised to happen. It’s fraud plain and simple, and we have laws against it. The patients’ consent or willingness to attend JONAH sessions is irrelevant as far as most consumer protection laws are concerned and, in another strike against Gallagher’s defense, the issue is if the councilors at JONAH were selling a false bill of goods, because if they did, the courts should find for the SPLC’s clients. Of course JONAH claims that gay conversion therapy actually works because they can find instances of people switching their sexuality and can summon someone who considers himself ex-gay to testify that hey, this gay-no-more therapy thing is legit…

Doyle, who considers himself a former homosexual, is now married with children. He was a sensitive child, he said, and he had trouble bonding with his father. He was later abused by an older female cousin, and “that caused me have a disdain toward women…”

“When I resolved those issues in my early 20s, my same-sex attractions really went away,” he said. “I realized that for some people, this wasn’t simply just something that they had to accept, they could actually work through these issues if they wanted to and go on to live a heterosexual life. I don’t have disdain for the LGBT community, I chose a different path.”

For those of you wondering about the science part of all this, here it comes. Doyle’s abuse is of course highly regrettable, but to argue that it turned him gay until he dealt with the trauma does not fit in with the scientific literature on this exact topic. Victims of sexual abuse can exhibit a lot of contradictory behaviors. Some become asexual, afraid of having any urges or any contact in any way, shape, or form to prevent future abuse. Others can become hypersexual, initiating as many of their future sexual encounters as possible, and constantly looking for new chances for sex with either a committed partner or a stranger, staying in charge of their sex lives. The main goal for these seemingly paradoxical responses to the same kind of trauma is staying in control. Post-abuse asexuality and hypersexuality are really just two ways to accomplish that. In Doyle’s case, he may well have seen women as predators and wanted to stay away from them sexually not to get abused again, also as a form of maintaining control of his sex life.

Problem is that Doyle apparently wasn’t attracted to other men throughout his life without some traumatic event, unlike the SPLC’s clients who just realized they were gay when they hit puberty and simply weren’t attracted to women. Therefore, his case is just not applicable here. Likewise, human sexuality is a very complicated thing which depends on environmental triggers, genetics, behavioral modeling, and a whole host of other factors. For some, sexual orientation is a pretty fluid thing and they could switch from homosexuality, to bisexuality, then to heterosexuality over the course of their lives. For others, orientation is extremely rigid. For others still, there is a brief experimentation phase. My bet is that people who claim to be successfully freed from same sex attraction either had a fluid sexuality, or were caught in their experimentation phase, diagnosed as gay, then credited their natural stabilization on the sexuality spectrum with age to the pray or talk-away-the-gay efforts to the delight of their religious communities. Why do I say that? There is zero evidence of people who never had heterosexual urges being successfully “cured.”

Herein lies the whole reason why we should not be judging people by their sexuality. People do not fit into binary right/wrong, straight/gay categories with which religious zealots are obsessed to the point of driving themselves into a tizzy over non-existent crises of morality. That’s just not how nature works. Roughly a third of all men and half of all women admit to having some forms of same sex attraction, and while women are more likely to act on them, more than 90% of both genders stay heterosexual. Telling someone not to act on urges they statistically wren’t going to anyway, or with whch they were only going to experiment once or twice isn’t “curing patients of unwanted homosexual urges,” but just letting nature take its course, and to make money off of this from people desperate to stop being who they are to win back their friends and family is not just fraudulent, it’s unethical and predatory. And what about people who at a loss to pin down a precise sexual orientation and gender preference, who will always exist along the middle of the sexual spectrum? Organizations like JONAH can only mislead and harm them.

And here’s a really great thing about this particular lawsuit. The court taking up the case will not be entertaining “expert” witnesses who plan to give scientifically debunked pseudoscience from many decades ago, and we’ll get a full accounting of the methods these organizations use and public explanations of why they do not, cannot, and will not work on the vast majority of patients sent to them to change something far outside of their control. The only humane thing to do with people who are confused or troubled by their sexual orientation is to listen to them, find what’s really troubling them about it, and help them come to terms with who they are, not what you, or their family, or their friends, or their religious figureheads want them to be. It won’t always be all sunshine and roses at the other end of the process, there might be some serious issues to deal with, but the point is that it’s no one’s place to “fix” you to a particular stereotype. Your decisions regarding your sexuality have to be your own and take who you really are into account.

couple

Yesterday’s trip into world of bleeding edge physics and what makes up the fabric of space and time may have been a little out there, so why don’t we take a stroll right back into exploring our more base, human appetites? Just two days ago, we took a look into the world of sex-obsessed fundamentalists who are taught that premarital sex causes cancer, and it’s their job to bring all the fallen whores and heretics into God’s good grace with offensive, demeaning metaphors for their sexual pasts. Now, of course we’ve long known that more than 9 out of 10 adults who live in the real world had premarital sex, so obviously society is doomed according to them because all these lustful sinners do is exchange detailed notes about their previous partners, spending a hedonistic lifetime in a state of perpetual disappointment. Or something like that. But my snarky skewering of hot and bothered zealots aside, this does raise an interesting question. How many sexual partners do people actually have through their lives, and has this changed with the dawn of what the media trumpets as “the hookup culture” it blames for the death of relationships?

Now, it’s at this point that we would be expected to whip out some averages and should most of the media be correct, we’d find that from the Boomers, to Generation X, to the Millennials, more and more partners are being registered. But surprise surprise, that’s actually not at all what we see from the data. In fact, the number of average lifetime sexual partners has been declining in the last half century. With the unmistakable help of the 1960’s sexual revolution, baby boomers more than doubled their parents’ tallies to 11 partners, Generation X had one partner less than that, and the over-sexed youth of today tops out at 8 sexual partners on average. Contrary to a constant hysterical screech in the media, we’re not having more sex than ever. In fact, we have something like 27% less of it, having it later, and using protection more and more. Again, unlike we’re constantly told by the morality police, the real world results of comprehensive sex ed are very clear; those exposed to it delay sex, stay healthier, and have fewer partners.

But even that’s not the whole story. Should you actually look at some of the raw data from both formal sexual behavior surveys and casual opinion polls on the web, you’ll find that the average number of partners is actually a very misleading statistic. In reality, “kids” today are having even fewer sexual partners than they appear to from the macro picture. When raw data is plotted on your typical bell curve, putting the number of reported partners on the Y axis and the number of respondents who gave this number on the X axis, you’ll find that the curve peaks quickly and its right side has a long asymptotic tail. In fact researchers who looked into data for 33,000 people to measure our attitudes about certain sexual norms and acts, noted this rather prominently as evidence that most people actually have relatively few partners. If you’ll play around with Slate’s handy little sexual history calculator, you’ll find that the typical 25 year old has just 6 partners or so, just slightly more than his or her grandparents back in their sexual prime.

When you explore the available stats, for all their minor flaws, far from the world ending not with a bang, or well, too much banging, the only change has been that we have become much more open about sex. The media, religious zealots, and helicopter parents are mistaking the youth’s more liberal attitude to talking about sex for their interest in having more sexual partners, when in fact more of them are having sex in the context of relationships, and hooking up less. There’s no hookup culture, no college sex clubs with weekly orgies on every campus, and experiments with the likes of Tinder or hookup sites are over after just a few encounters for the vast majority of Millennials. The scandalous, shameless hooking up right and left is mostly in the minds of the media and the self-appointed, attention-starving morality police, which has a talent for creating salacious and ridiculous rumors about teenage sex that a media hungry for clicks and ratings at any cost is eager to splatter everywhere without even the simplest fact-checking.

Certainly, none of this means that there are no young swingers or millennials who had so much casual sex, they have to make full blown spreadsheets to calculate their final sexual tallies. But they’re a very small minority. In fact, the aforementioned 25 year old today with 50 partners will find him/herself in the 95th percentile, and no one in that age group reports triple digits. While I admit this is totally anecdotal, I have met several people who could credibly claim between 100 and 200 sexual partners, and all but one of them were Gen Xers. And even in an environment where such matters can be discussed freely, this is still rather uncommon and requires a rather long-term dedication to hooking up since the majority of their potential partners would not want to have sex outside the context of some kind of relationship. So with all this considered, can we please drag the myth of an anonymous hookup culture ensnaring young adults through its evil social media and smartphone tentacles behind a shed and put it out of its misery? Please?

surreal woman

Sunlight, to borrow from an old saying, makes a terrific disinfectant. While over the last several weeks we’re been exposed to more coverage of the Duggars and their Quiverful cult than most of us would like, the upside has been that the media’s glare has finally given those who believe that the fundamentalist lifestyle is all about betterment through faith and teaching kids a higher moral standard for themselves, a peek at religious zealotry’s ugly underbelly. Abuses routinely covered up and silenced, dysfunction re-branded as normality, and scientific illiteracy wrapped into vapid technobabble that comes to the inescapable conclusion that you are a dirty, amoral, disgusting wreck of a human being and should be listening to the fundamentalists tell you how every facet of your life should be lived. This obsession with controlling others is why they loathe people learning about cosmology, evolution, and human sexuality from actual scientific data. A message to broaden one’s horizons and taking control of one’s life doesn’t reserve a place for petty self-appointed tyrants who think they’re special enough to get direct orders from God.

But if the fundamentalists close their ears and scream really, really loudly when confronted with facts they don’t like, what do they actually learn? Well, the muckrakers at Gawker got a hold of one of The Advanced Training Institute’s Wisdom Booklets about sex written by a cult preacher who has a long and colorful history of aiding and abetting sexual abuse in his flock, and went to town mocking it as is their custom. Yes, the temptation to simply mock this booklet is a perfectly understandable one because it’s a work of abject inanity which sounds as if it was written by an exceptionally guilt-ridden preteen who only recently found out about the anatomical differences between men and women, was left alone with the internet for a few weeks, and then proceeded to write down every wild, off the wall idea about human reproduction that came to mind with no filter whatsoever. Realizing that a senior citizen with a family is behind this only makes it worse, especially when it’s full of asinine assertions like this, posing as legitimate medical research…

Doctors have discovered that the seed of the man is an alien substance to the woman. It triggered responses similar to those of an allergic reaction. A woman who has a husband is able to develop “immunity” to this reaction; however, a promiscuous woman’s immune system becomes confused and unable to distinguish alien substances. This confusion is a key to the development of cancer.

Relax, reading this as a non-fundamentalist and exhaling expletives under your breath is pretty much the exact reaction those of us who actually took a science class and remained conscious during it should have. No, there’s no way you can get cancer from semen. It is possible to catch one of the carcinogenic strains of HPV through unprotected sex and then develop cancer, but it is a stretch simply for the sake of being scientific here. And even if exposure to semen could be carcinogenic in and of itself, wouldn’t the humble condom eliminate the risk for all those unwed hedonists? Of course, not only do fundamentalist-driven abstinence only sex ed materials treat reliable prophylactic measures as if they either don’t exist or never work, but groups associated with them actually want them banned because when people know about them, they make their own choices on how to plan their families. And the zealots can’t have that. No, they need you to get married, quick, and start popping out soldiers for your deity, no matter the consequences of doing so under their control because the alternative is to give you real freedom.

According to the cult that spawned the Duggars and many more families like them, you are not supposed to be free to make your own choices in life. Should you have sex before marriage, or even engage in some heavy petting, and you’re dirty and used, unworthy of love or finding real relationships. Their obsession with your purity would be considered a genuine pathology, with a real DSM V diagnosis to go along with it if we weren’t so accommodating of anything claimed to be a religious belief. People this obsessed with sex, who’s having it, and in what position, don’t need to be placated or reasoned with, they need to be seen by a mental health professional. At the same time, I understand why they have conniptions when a set of genitals does something it’s not supposed to in their minds. After all, they deny themselves a healthy sex life and commit to relationships in which power is allocated by arbitrary translations of an ancient book and the non-anointed ones must do the bidding of the ones who were without question.

Stuck in a world where everything is a sin, they imagine life outside of it to be an endless buffet of consequence-free base pleasures while they mortgage their lives on the tenuous premise of some sort of divine reward as they shed their mortal coils. But the more they’re tempted to quit their faiths or even question it, and the less they feel able to do so, the more they lash out with portrayals of those not like them as dirty, sinful, and used up. And as those of us who refuse to ascribe to fundamentalism are being compared to worn out, beat up bikes, chewed up gum on the sidewalk, and portrayed like the flea-infested rats carrying the Black Death by Satan’s evil orders, are supposed to fawn over these under-educated would-be theocrats, and praise their “superior morals” in return. Then, when we predictably fail to be grateful to them for rhetorically defecating on us and voice our complaints, we’re “angry atheists who don’t realize what’s good for them,” decried in the media. At least these self-appointed moral guardians are finally being exposed for what they are and the inanity they preach is being dissected with mockery.

despondent man

Blaming the web and porn for the demise of courtship and proper masculinity has become one of the favorite hobby horses of old pundits who just entered the hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn phase of life and want to seem scientific about it. Unlike the proper manly men of the middle of the last century, we waste our lives playing video games, watching porn, and not having kids to hand off to our wives to raise soon enough. Now, back in the days when Philip Zimbardo was coming of age, that’s when real men roamed the Earth, aimlessly wandering around on a bike, climbing tress, playing soccer, and feverishly masturbating to lingerie catalogs when mom and dad weren’t looking, growing up to have full, rich lives of children and fulfilling marriages. If you ignore that 50% divorce rate and numerous societal ills caused by a complete lack of sex ed in any way, shape or form. Sounds like an asinine thesis? Well, it is, but sadly that’s exactly what two TED talks, a study, and a book by Zimbardo claims. Men today barely qualify as men.

You know when a study about masculinity is bad when Slate’s Amanda Hess, a writer who one would easily place among those echoing the meme of porn turning men into evil lusty beings, if we go by her past articles, swiftly decimates both the premise and methodology behind it. The study itself was an exercise in cherry picking so textbook, no wonder the only media outlets so eager to cover it are tabloids. Zimbardo created an arbitrary definition of porn addiction, asked enough young men about their video game and porn habits to hit his target numbers, and went on to declare that we’re suffering through an epidemic of porn addicted gamers clogging up the gene pool. Even worse, he primed them with his conclusions, already embedding the idea that young men today were useless shells of what they were back in the day, then asked subjects to more or less agree with negative stereotypes of said young men who were just declared to be worthless by someone in a lab coat. This is not a study. This is punditry masquerading as data with even less objectivity than a political talking head on prime time news would feign.

Still, there is a small germ of an interesting question buried in this pseudoscientific hatchet job, and that’s the question of how porn affects young men since access to it is easier than it ever was, and it can be found at younger and younger ages. Do men indeed have unrealistic ideas about sex by a large margin as is so often claimed? Do they really suffer from penis envy at an alarming rate that’s somehow different than throughout recorded history? You won’t find these questions actually researched by Zimbardo, merely taken as truisms not to be doubted, which really is worse than doing no study at all. He doesn’t care about the science or the data, all he’s interested in is promoting his self-glorifying, I-hate-young-people-with-penises thesis. Just like daytime quacks, like Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil, old fogeys with scientific credentials need to be ignored by their would-be audience and excoriated by actual experts. Instead of helping us understand the world around us better, like scientists should, they’re opting for cheap, easy minute of fame for regurgitating nasty stereotypes that make other geezers feel warm and fuzzy inside. That is not what real men do. Real men actually do their jobs and try to find out the truth.

woman in bed

Over the years, this blog took the occasional stab at the way Americans deal with sex, and how downright bipolar the relationship often tends to be. Until the last few years, watching porn was far and away the biggest use of bandwidth on the web, and even now, with social media taking adult entertainment’s crown, it’s still gathering billions of views every week. If anything, we can safely argue that porn has been spilling over into social media as well with the sheer number of sexually explicit content across virtually every social platform, and find a way to show that it still remains the web’s top activity. At the same time, prudes across the world want pre-marital sex punished, or at the very least severely stigmatized, tout the virtues of having only one partner in your entire sexual life for absurd reasons, crusade against education that actually prevents the very diseases and unplanned pregnancies they want to stop, blame everything they hate about men on porn, and howl like apoplectic banshees if women who work in porn aren’t portrayed as damaged, abused, and helpless, but as active participants in their career choices.

All this isn’t just an unhealthy social dissonance to be discussed in purely academic terms, this active campaigning against treating sex like adults costs people their lives, literally. The Vatican and its many Christian detractors are complicit, directly or indirectly, in countless deaths caused by the spread of HIV and AIDS in the developing world by preaching against the use of what is pretty much the most effective and recommended way to combat new infections: condoms. We don’t have to turn into what’s best be described as these self-absorbed prudes’ hypersexual, I-have-more-sex-than-thou-so-I’m-better counterparts, but if we want to improve many people’s lives and health, we need to talk about sex like adults, and in our conversations about sex and sexuality, ask some important questions. One such question is why people don’t use condoms despite their proven medical efficacy, and our awareness of how risky it is to have unprotected sex without taking the proper precautions first.

Part of the answer lies in old world tradition of being only as sexually impressive as how many kids one has, so men in the developing world say that it makes them feel less masculine to use condoms, and enjoy sex far less. Since many of the cultures where this is prevalent also often treat women as property or something they win when they become proper men, they rarely get some say in the matter. While a long term solution would be empowering women to make their choices heard and enforceable in the afflicted societies, to the WHO, the easiest fix is to reform the men’s opinion of condoms. This is where it runs into the second most often used excuse to leave them in their wrappers. Modern latex condoms are often uncomfortable and deaden the sensations so much that they take a lot of the fun out of sex. Unlike reforming a culture toward gender equity, this is a purely technical problem, something we should be able to address very quickly and efficiently, right? Well, apparently, no, says Slate’s L.V. Anderson.

Typically given the unenviable job of editing a you’re-doing-it-wrong column, Anderson plunged into the world of longform popular science journalism and came out with a very well researched and deftly argued thesis that modern condoms are due for a serious upgrade and what stands in the way of this isn’t the technology or the science, but the FDA and its bureaucratic inertia, or rather lack thereof. While I highly recommend to read the whole article to get a detailed history of testing protocols and research into how to make a better condom, let me give you the main, err, thrust of the problem at hand. The reason why condoms take away so much sensation is a materials problem. Only tests for latex and different types of latex have been created and there is no desire to change protocols for anything other than testing the standard latex condom or a synthetic latex substitute. This means we’re stuck with latex and its poor ability to transfer body heat, which can dampen sensations so much that sex becomes thoroughly unenjoyable.

Now, the obvious solution is to experiment with other materials which conduct body heat much better and don’t have to sacrifice reliability for thinness or comfort for standardization. We have these materials and versions of far superior condoms have been in stores until the FDA put out an order to stop selling them after their testing protocol, which was designed for a one size fits everyone product made of the same material family, judged them to be riskier than the current latex standard. In response to the manufacturers’ notes, they refuse to change anything about the tests even when it’s obvious that they’re using the wrong tools for the job. And as an added problem of the aforementioned bipolar prudishness in our culture, condom manufacturers also don’t want to do real world studies on the wear and tear of their product for anything other than vaginal sex simply because they don’t want to be associated with studies of anal sex. So we’re basically at an impasse that can only be fixed by an adult conversation.

Publicly questioning the FDA about their obstinacy in modifying testing protocols in the press to force the agency to respond, and showing that we can mention anal sex without snickering on one side and fainting from moral outrage on the other to give companies incentive to study real world uses of their product, we may actually end up with a better condom. And that will not just help developed nations’ reproductive health but save hundreds of thousands of lives across the world. Yes, yes, the prudes will screech that giving people the tools to be “irresponsible” is evil and should be somehow punished or discouraged. But they’re only interested in helping those who share their ideology and believe that those who do contract an infection or have a surprise pregnancy deserve whatever they get. If our healthcare system and medical science followed their thought process, the world’s population would be far smaller and a lot sicker than it is now so we should feel very comfortable listening to their opinions and summarily dismissing them. If you’re going to tackle reproductive health, you can’t do it from the fainting couch.

model with glasses

When last we left Pat Fagan, he was aghast that premarital sex was legal and demanding that a country in which more than nine in ten adults had sex before marriage punish all the fornicating sinners lest society fail. As you probably won’t be surprised to find out, his delusion is so strong that he’s proclaiming momogamous, one-partner fundamentalist Christian couples to be masters of all things sexual in the same manner as a certain Fox New contributor decided that losing his virginity in a honeymoon suite made him a sexual and relationship black belt. Now, unlike almost every argument in his verbal assault on premarital sex, Fagan actually managed to cobble what seem like real numbers and real data to add an undertone of possible sanity under his claims of fundamentalist couples getting the best of porn stars in bed. You see, according to a survey of adult sexual habits, some 88% of married couples say they enjoy their sex lives, which is a 22% gain over divorced couples and a 14% advantage over singles. Unfortunately for Fagan though, these numbers are exceedingly unlikely to mean what he thinks they mean.

Basically, his thesis is that couples who had no other partners besides each other to compare a sexual relationship’s overall quality, are happy because they can’t make those comparisons. But that’s kind of like saying that Weird Things is the best blog on the web because Weird Things is the only blog you’ve ever read. Or that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food in the world because that’s the only Mexican food you’ve ever tried. How do you explain how ridiculous this is to a man who says this out loud and actually means it? At least we could take a crack on why he says this based on the horror-fantasies religious fundamentalists have about sex in the secular world. You see, they seem to assume that secularists have sex all the time. Life, outside of work and family, is just a big orgy for us with no complications, feelings, or attachments because we don’t care to emotionally support each other and if something goes wrong, we can just turn to antibiotics and have an abortion since the evils of modern science have enabled this kind of terrifying life away from Godly consequences to exist, and we secularists bask in the resultant debauchery.

Of course when you think that non-fundamentalists are living a life somewhat along these lines you’re going to assume that they spend every other sexual experience comparing it to the last, and rating partners on some sort of complicated scale. In reality, premarital sex is kind of a test drive for many couples, and after establishing general compatibility and tying the knot, of course they’ll report being happier than singles or divorcees. They’re having sex with someone able to satisfy them and had time to learn what they want and what they need. By contrast, singles are just trying to find the person to push all their buttons and divorcees are still dealing with a fallout from their last marriage and getting back into the game. This explains Fagan’s numbers far, far more plausibly than first-timers in sex and marriage being zapped with divine prowess in bed, so much so that they can give adults with many years of relationship and sexual experience under their belts a run for their money. I still have no explanation for what compels Fagan to open his mouth and say the things he does, but then again, I think I never will…

newlyweds

There’s been a bit of a splash by a new study which says that meeting your spouse online could mean a longer, happier marriage, and confirms that far from being the last refuge of lonely shut-ins, online dating is now one of the top ways to meet your mate. Now, the numbers do bear this conclusion out. Out of a representative sample of 19,131 people, the researchers found that a couple that met online is 28% less likely to divorce than their offline matched counterparts, and that the happiest marriages start with a meeting in MMORPGs and on social networks. However, and you knew this was coming, the differences are statistically significant but far from huge, and there are several caveats to taking the findings too close to heart, caveats which result directly from the study’s design. Basically, they’re collecting some demographic information if a subject was married between 2005 and 2012, asking how the subject met his or her spouse, and how happy the marriage seems, then looking for any statistically notable trends to emerge.

Here’s what the data mining found. A smidgen more than a third of the subjects (35%) married a person they met online. Half of those meetings happened on a dating site, usually eHarmony or Match.com, which each claim a quarter of these dating site meetups. So if you’re looking to get into a serious relationship or get married, those sites are probably a very good bet. Likewise, a few very interesting data points jump out from the results. The more well educated and gainfully employed you are, the more likely you are to meet a serious partner online. Those who earn at least $75,000 per year and have a college education represent some 57% of relationships that started online. Oddly enough, those with graduate degrees have the lowest share of marriages to partners they met online, under 15% of the total. The data doesn’t show why, but I would be interested in figuring this out. Why is this finding so worthy of attention? Because it may have a connection to the so-called leisure inequality and tell us more about why online dating grown so much in the last decade or so. But I digress. Now, what about that marriage satisfaction?

Well, again, the numbers do show that people who married their online friends report a better marriage, especially those who met playing online games or on social networks (which could or could not include dating sites, the paper isn’t specific on this). On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the equivalent of "I’m ready to file for divorce this second" and 7 being "this marriage is perfect," these subjects reported an average satisfaction score of 5.72, which is pretty damn good. But if we consider the score of the most miserable married couples who met offline in a bar or through a blind date, they still post a very respectable 5.35 average. Yes, the online couples are happy and they’re happier than many other couples, but not by leaps and bounds. Could you really tell the difference between a 5.35 and a 5.72 happy when general contentment is 3.5? If we indulge in paraphrasing Futurama, these researchers are techncially correct, the best kind of correct in science. But practically, they just found close to 20,000 happy couples, a third of which just so happened to have met online and got married in a certain time range.

And that brings us to the biggest caveat with this study. Only 8% of these subjects are divorced which is both, a lot lower than the national average, and only shows the short term trend. If you look at marriages 10 years out rather than the seven for this survey, the odds of a divorce are about 30% or so. Get 20 years out and the odds increase to 48% on the high end. The sample here just hasn’t been married long enough and it’s probably a safe assumption that a lot were caught in their early phases of marriage. But the goal for getting married generally tends to be staying married for life, which means roughly half a century, going by the typical life expectancy figures. The researchers are, in a sense, catching people a mile or two into a marathon when a whole lot usually hasn’t happened yet and the biggest bumps in the road are still ahead, getting a general thumbs up from some 92% of the respondents, and splitting hairs about who gave the most enthusiastic thumbs up. True, this doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with a marriage to someone you met online and yes, maybe these couples are happier. But it’s too soon to tell.

Likewise, we should also point out that marriage rates keep on falling and the domestic partner has been slowly becoming the new spouse. After witnessing messy divorces and confronted by general antipathy for marriage from many sides, a lot of people who would’ve already tied the knot are deciding to forgo the whole affair altogether. Now, this could mean that what the survey captured is a trend of people who get married staying together longer and being happier while more and more of their peers are opting out of married life, balancing out the high divorce rate over the next decade or so, but this is just an idea after looking at the data. Marriage as we are used to it in the modern world is changing. It’s becoming less commonplace, involves those who are more financially secure, and alternative households are becoming the new norm. So in light of all these changes, maybe the better question to ask is not what makes for a happier marriage but what makes for happy long term relationships, or at least what today’s long term relationship looks like from an academic standpoint. Work in that area is only beginning…

See: Cacioppo, J., et al. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110

[ photo illustration by Carlos Zangheri/flickr ]

exposed brain

Psychology has occasionally been called "the study of college undergraduates" and while that would usually be a joke in the psych department, a few writers are raising red flags that it’s too common of a practice and might be affecting the quality of the science. The study they chose to highlight? A survey trying to make the link between someone’s first sexual experience and what sexual activity follows based on 319 heterosexual college students who started having sex only about two years prior to the study and were asked to describe their intimate activities with some very positive and some very negative adjectives from a proscribed list. While the critics ask why the population was so homogeneous and the responses were so limited, this actually makes a lot of sense. If you’re not sure of your hypothesis, you want to have the most uniform samples you can find and limit inherently qualitative feedback into more quantitative form. From there on, you can test if the theory holds for more sexually experienced and diverse populations. So why are science writers harping on a perfectly legitimate, well done hypothesis fishing study?

Probably because it’s recent and it found that the students’ first sexual experience tended to be indicative of how they’d describe their future ones. And when limited to the population studied, it does make sense. Many of them are still relatively wet behind the ears and having finally had a real sexual encounter, they’re wondering what others will be like and comparing it to their first as they get more and more experience because it’s usually one of their few points of reference. At the same time, however, as the first experience fades into memory, new highlights come to take its place and a terrible first time gets forgotten in favor of the last mind-blowing experience and that might go on to color future encounters. We could also wonder about couples who lost their virginity to each other and haven’t had sex with anyone else. So why didn’t the researchers take cases like this into account? Well, they’d be outside the scope of the study, which basically just points out the obvious that yes, there’s a mental link between what you thought of your first time and your future preferences and expectations, as it applies to the sample population.

And that last phrase is really the crux of the matter because while human sexuality is so diverse and complex that questions about it could easily fuel centuries of studies and experiments, the pool of people willing to be studied is limited and the external factors they’d bring into the study makes it complicated to tease out complex and minute differences that might hint at something more, something that merits further research. College undergraduates are easy to recruit, easy to find close to the researchers’ labs, and fairly easy to homogenize, so they make for a simple, convenient set of test subjects in pilot studies. They’re a classic go-to convenience sample, and if you want to study special populations, you’ll go and study those special populations when you have the resources to do so. It’s just not fair to expect a narrow study to account for everything and use it a s springboard to pontificate on the limited utility of convenience sampling in basic psychology published for the public. And here the media has to take some heat as well.

How many pop sci writers just copy and paste the press release? How many of them wrote click bait headlines that sound as if an exhaustive study settled the question of just how special your first time is to you and what role it plays in your sex life? And how many of them trying their best to be contrarians put words in the researchers’ mouths and criticized them for making claims not actually made by the study? My guess? Quite a few. In fact, the links to a critical review of three other studies in the referenced critique were papers uncritically hyped by the media to become the viral stories they became. We can certainly argue about how much psychologists are relying on convenience samples of white, college educated students in the West, and what this does to the field as a whole. However, if the initial studies seem to be suffering from a bad sample or are way too limited to be applied outside of a very narrow socioeconomic group, the media klaxon is making the problem a hundred times worse. For writers to then wag their finger at the scientists, saying "tsk, tsk on your sampling techniques" without acknowledging that their colleagues have been running away with inconclusive and narrow studies for years is very disingenuous.