Archives For sex

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.

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egg relationship

I have a confession to make. You see, I’ve never been married but I’m not a virgin. What’s more is that I’ve been with more than one person. Just let that sink in for a minute and if that does not shock you or change your opinion of me, it’s probably because I’m just like 95% of adults in the real world who don’t wait until their wedding night to have sex, or their honeymoon to live with a partner, and chances are that you’re exactly like me in this regard. But according to Fox News columnist Stephen Crowder — whose "work" was recently mentioned in a Cracked.com list of all sorts of ridiculous ideas to promote abstinence — the reason why I’m not shamefully denying my sexual history is because I’m an insecure, emotionally damaged husk of a man unlike him, an ecstatic virgin who waited until his wedding night to show the world what it’s like to have sex, then gloat about his newfound prowess in marital life, and basically just be a judgmental prick.

His column sounds a little like the bragging of someone who just finished boot camp and thinks his basic training makes him SEAL Team 6 material, and provides a very handy counterpoint to my post about haughty polyamorists who look down on those in monogamous relationships as depressed shells of human beings who are just repressing their natural desires. Crowder does the exact same thing, only with high-minded abstinence talk and wants those of us who had sex more than once and had relationships beyond high school-style dates, to praise him for jumping into marriage with someone he barely knows. He bet his single life on a woman with whom he did not live in the same home, with whom he had never been intimate, and whose bathroom habits were a mystery to him until his wedding night. Maybe this will work out for him, but what he did is to leap without really getting to know his future bride and wants our applause and admiration for turning in his V card at the honeymoon suite. The man got laid, now give him a medal!

Right now, I’m sure he’s elated. But there’s a reason why we refer to periods of euphoria as the honeymoon phase. Not everything will be champagne, roses, caviar, and losing your virginity. It will only be a matter of time until the kind of compromises and decisions you only learn to make when you live with someone will have to be made, and the kind of facts you can only learn from seeing your partner day to day at home, will have to be dealt with. Our marital white belt with zero experience in any of this proudly discards these warnings as jealous rumbles from floozies and emotionally damaged men who can’t possibly understand how happy he feels right now. In that honeymoon stage they mentioned as the high point from which things will inevitably get tougher unless he’s outright manic. He’s been married for just a few weeks. I’ve shared my home with my significant other for three years. We’ve been poor together, we’ve been frustrated grad students together, and we set up our lives by each other’s’ side. Do you really think he knows his partner better than I do mine? Does he think I’m incapable of being in love without a ring on my finger or a self-imposed pledge to avoid doing anything sexual until I do?

And here’s why his column annoyed me so much. This matter actually hits pretty close to home for me. My significant other was the maid of honor for someone who refused to talk to her after learning that we didn’t just live together platonically and were happy with the arrangement. Just like Crowder, she believes that being associated with us is now beneath her superior morals, so any event at which the three of us were present at the same time quickly became torture. And a close-minded, judgmental prude like Crowder, or like my partner’s former friend is supposed to be the shining example for us to follow according to social conservatives. Rather than truly get to know each other through thick and thin and enjoy some of the pleasures of being healthy and active adults before making any wedding plans, we were supposed to jump into marriage to win their approval and learn what we’ve learned so far in a situation when a mutual parting without a lot of paperwork and lawyers isn’t an option. This is not a healthy way to have relationships. It’s an asinine fantasy by those who steadfastly ignore reality to feel better about themselves.

While those who promote comprehensive sexual education, because it solves so many social ills associated with uninformed sexual experimentation, would compare trying to stop people from having sex to peeing into a windstorm and wonder why we’re peeing into gale force winds, every abstinence-only advocate would just scream for us to pee harder and accuse us of wanting kids to end up pregnant or disease-ridden sex addicts. More than 9 in 10 adults have sex without a wedding involved in the process, but in their fantasy, everyone must be pure and asexual until a chosen partner magically falls from the sky. That’s their wish for our society, to stay ignorant and virginal until we find our soul mates. Well, when I was a kid my wish was to be an astronaut. Just because I wanted to be one doesn’t mean I ever will, and just because you have a dream of how the world should be ran doesn’t mean that it will ever happen or even that it’s a good idea. And the sooner self-absorbed abstinence-only zealots like Crowder wake up from their fantasy, the sooner we can fix a lot of major problems their denial of reality causes every day.

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black model

If you don’t know who Satoshi Kanawaza is, here’s a brief bio. He’s an evolutionary psychologist whose claim to fame are racist and sexist op-eds thinly veiled as scientific research. Last time he wrote about his supposed ironclad evidence that black women and Asians are ugly based on childish simplifications and cherry picking so obvious that you could smell the acrid stink of pure bigot through your browser, he vanished for a year, trying to escape the pillorying he swiftly and very justly received. But now, Big Think, decided to play the controversy card and got him a gig to drive some traffic and give him a soapbox to spew more of his typical bullshit. PZ has a pretty accurate dissection of his claims and I don’t think I could really add much at the detail level. The big problem comes down to this: Kanawaza looks at how many partners certain groups of people have and instead of examining cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and how they affect the subjects’ sex lives, he cherry-picks data to make them fit his stereotypes.

This is generally what racists who want to justify their bigotry tend to do. If they want to "prove" that black men are more violent and less intelligent than white men, they’ll cite how many end up in prison, do worse on the SATs, or occupy senior management posts at big companies. At the same time they’ll ignore the fact that black boys go to woefully underfunded schools where the top priority of the administrators is discipline rather than education, are racially profiled by many police departments, and discriminated against by racists who hire managers, and that decades and decades of this created a legacy of social problems that make these statistics reflect much more than just what happens to black men in the United States. Race relations are a very thorny issue across much of the world, but the racists are too busy feeling superior to others to care. In the case of Kanawaza’s "scholarship," we see a very similar cherry picking happening as he oh so conveniently forgets that there are a lot of very attractive women with few partners and a fair bit of… ahem… aesthetically challenged men whose sexual tally rivals that of porn stars.

Has he bothered to ask whether there was a reporting bias at play since women are well known to significantly underreport their number of sexual partners while men are known to do the exact opposite? What about the cultural attitudes of the subjects’ communities and their views on sex and dating? A liberal city is more openly promiscuous than a conservative town where to say that you had more than "two or three" sexual partners is taboo. Likewise, someone who doesn’t feel that casual sex is a bad thing is going to have a lot more partners than someone who thinks that having steady, long term relationships is the only proper approach to intimacy. How does he try to reconcile Ron Jeremy, the homely, beer-bellied porn star with more than a thousand sexual partners, and a Southern ultra-conservative beauty queen who had maybe three partners in her entire life? He doesn’t. Why? Because that would undermine his narrative that black women and all Asians are sexual untouchables and the only people who would object are politically correct liberal ninnies. I could go on and on and on with things he could consider for a genuine study. I once lived with an honest to goodness sex researcher so I got a really good look at what proper studies in this area ask their subjects and how they grade things like attractiveness.

The kind of pseudoscience that Kanawaza practices is best left in the 1930s where it belongs, and regardless of how much he whines about being persecuted by evil leftists and the PC police for his "research," the fact is that he’s a shitty scientist and a bigoted simpleton to boot. Just in case you needed more ammunition to despise him, note how calmly he advocated large scale nuclear bombardment of the Middle East in response to 9/11, seemingly unaware of all the U.S. assets in the region, the devastating health, environmental, political, and economic effects of a nuclear first strike against countries that just so happen to be in the Middle East, even if they’re not known for widely supporting terrorist groups. The fallout from such an attack — fallout, oh I slay me — would make World War 2 look like a minor skirmish by comparison. But when you got an enormous mouth and don’t bother to think before you speak this is the kind of stupid that will come pouring out. Kanawaza isn’t too bothered by the criticism though, he’s busy assuming the favorite position of most far, far right wing bigots: hapless victim of the liberal elites…

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punk model

As odd as it may have sounded, I’ve said multiple times that the web did not change human sexuality nearly as much as we’re often told and much of the novelty is really just well forgotten antiquity ranging from Roman orgies to the personal and highly publicized perversions of Marquis de Sade. And aside from making it easier to find and talk to our fellow perverts, not a whole lot has changed about our sexual appetites, despite threats of runaway pornography addicts from angry conservatives and alarms about men quickly becoming more sexually deviant from borderline misandrists. In fact, I’ll even bet you that transhumanist sexual fantasies of computer-assisted mind-melding is an extension of 1960s New Ageisms in which quantum vibrations along with large quantities of drugs and meditation have been substituted with machine-neuron interfaces and very big leaps in some very hazy new areas of computer science. But all this said, I’ll grant you something unique when it comes to the fantasies of futurists known as AFSR or a fetish for humaniod robots, often custom built to turn one’s wildest fantasies into reality and trained to be the perfect object of arousal. And according to new literature looking at human and computer interaction, that market could be very lucrative for a lot of people…

One of the more recent summations of how comes from Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars’ scenario for a robot brothel that would substitute advanced versions of Real Dolls we have today for flesh and blood women, a scenario that could put a real dent in the amount of human trafficking, misery, and woe that’s inflicted on many sex workers shuttled around the world to staff illegal establishments ran by organized crime groups. No need to torture a human and subject her to countless risks when one can just buy a robot and sanitize it after every use, then simply pay for the maintenance and amortized depreciation. And the manufacturers would certainly make plenty of male models too because contrary to popular opinion, women do pay for sex to ensure they’ll get the experience they want and you will be hard pressed to find be a more certain return on their investment than a robot. Now you could still imagine an illegal industry trading in real humans for added kink, but when a much safer, legal, and human option is within easy reach, it would more likely become a niche market. Try to outlaw robotic call girls and boys and you’d have to bring a case which would put any sex toy under threat of a swift illegalization and create an uproar from voters. As for the robots themselves, they’re just doing what they will be programmed to do and nothing you can do or say will hurt them since they’ll lack real emotions.

Not for long though, says David Levy in his 2007 book which declares that with enough advancement in AI, a whole string of human-robot relationships and even marriages will take off. From a psychological standpoint, his thesis is sound. There are numerous people out there who crave attention from other humans but simply don’t know how to get it, using Real Dolls and products like them as not only sexual but emotional surrogates which actually serves to make them even more befuddled by the seeming irrationality of who they sometimes call "organic partners," creating a cycle of co-dependence on their synthetic substitutes. Add some AI that will make those machines more animated, give them perceived moods and ideas, and voila! Why even look for a bothersome, unpredictable, hormonally driven organic partner when a controllable synthetic one is right here and could be fine tuned to be exactly what you’d like? And if you spend years taking care of this machine, why not somehow commemorate the bond just like the organics do? Well, that’s where we enter the legal realm’s difficulties for this scenario. You won’t be able to marry a robot for the same reason you can’t marry toasters or cell phones. Even AI-enabled machines are not entities with free will that can give their consent. If you write a boyfriend or girlfriend routine, of course the robot will consent to whatever you want. It’s in the code.

Also, what about the courts’ idea of whether the human can legitimately even consider marrying or being in an emotional relationship with a robot? It would be one thing if humans didn’t seem to show a preference for the company of other humans, but we do. And as we’ve seen, those who may be the most likely to treat a robot as we would treat a significant other could well be substituting human contact. Would a judge consider someone who finds himself — because let’s be honest, it’s usually males who experience this — unable to relate to girls or women around him and turns to inanimate objects for emotional and sexual gratification, as mentally fit to have a legal relationship with any entity other than another person? On the other side of the argument, I could see activists making the claim that we can’t force someone to conform to whatever the social custom is at the time because that’s discriminatory, and argue that a sufficiently engaging AI should have personhood and be allowed to give consent for things like marriage. But these are not going to be easy arguments to make and if there ever are official human-robot marriages or a big explosion in human-robot relationships, expect there to be a lot of acrimony about it in the media. There won’t be smooth transitions and any incident in which human users of sex bots get injured or an AI goes haywire will be agonizingly dissected during the debates.

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One of the things I encounter most in my line of work is the need to look at the big picture of what’s going on. If a piece of software is acting oddly, it’s not enough to make generic, overriding statements about how it has to function out of thin air. No, you have to roll up your sleeves, set up your breakpoints, and get to work to slowly, and often tediously, make your way through the logical layers to find the bad loop or misplaced variable. That’s how you tackle and solve complex problems, by considering the whole picture and it’s many facets. But were I to go by Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s ability to tackle the intricate topic of sexuality in The Atlantic, I think I’d be quite safe in wagering that she’d never be able to produce any complete research project. Her lengthy article’s vacuity on par with the simplest and worst thought out pop evo psych isn’t just a perfect example of how utterly dysfunctional the conversation about sex can get in the United States, but its thesis verges on being offensive to nearly half the human population. Here’s the short version of her argument: men are depraved and sexually aggressive creatures who hunt women down as conquests, and internet porn is making them even worse.

Now, I’ve written about the bizarre place porn has in American society, and tackled some of the trumped up charges against it in pop culture, as well as the dreaded "addiction to porn" ominously whispered by many self-appointed crusaders for our decency. Vargas-Cooper doesn’t fit any of the above molds, of course, but in her slash and burn across the world of sex, she has apparently decided to turn her mixed experiences into an indictment against men, casting them as predatory creatures who use sex as a means of subjugation that all women must struggle to escape. She even mentions an explicit episode from a one night stand in that quasi- profound way which lets the reader know that this article is very personal but framed as a long and deliberate meditation on a question. And it is, though the meditation itself is an attempt to come up with supporting logic for the pre-existing conclusion of the author that men are all pigs. But hey, don’t blame them, Vargas-Cooper rushes to add, it’s not their fault. They’re just born sexual deviants and can’t help themselves. If the ignorance of this piece could only manifest itself, I’m sure it would take the form of a monster from a tentacle rape hentai and go after the author threatening to do things best left to your imaginations. Why a self-respecting and high brow publication like The Atlantic published this little ode to low level misandry, larded with the kind of cheap, self-indulgent pseudoscience that would make any sex researcher fume, I don’t know.

We’ve encountered this type of pseudo-expertise before when it comes to sexuality. It’s what made psychology treat anything kinkier than the missionary position as a dire pathology until the middle of the last century, the kind of expertise that’s based on absolutely nothing but the author’s personal grudges and opinions being masqueraded as fact. Even worse, we have to go along with Vargas-Cooper’s ridiculous assertion that using the most extreme and hardcore porn on the web is a perfectly valid way to research men’s attitudes towards a woman they find sexually attractive. By this logic, we could measure the effectiveness of CSI teams based not on the actual efficacy of the CSI teams working in law enforcement agencies, but on TV shows and say that in the last five or six years there’s been a sudden and incredible jump in arrests and convictions made solely on the weight of iron-clad forensic evidence. Of course there would be. The characters on CSI shows will always, always catch their killer, even if it takes them a few story arcs to track down that one mad genius foe who lives to create tension for a few seasons and give the show more cohesion. In the real world, too many crimes will go unsolved and the quality of forensic evidence from a stray hair or drop of blood will always be inconclusive to some degree and allow for the jury to acquit. It’s even been studied as the CSI effect. Likewise, whatever a person can find on the many pornorgraphic -tube sites won’t say anything about about his sex life. You could have a subject who goes out of his way to catch some of the roughest, most explicit BDSM porn and yet insist on only the most vanilla sex in the bedroom, even if his partner really wants to give sadomasochism a try.

Speaking of which, I have to ask if Vargas-Cooper has even met a sexually aggressive woman or a woman in search of someone who could play a dominant role in bed because that’s what turns her on? Did they simply vanish from her radar? Is she unaware of the so-called "cougars," older, well-off, single women for whom sex isn’t so much about reproduction but recreation? And on the flip side, is she unaware of sexually submissive men who go out looking for a dominatrix? How does her perpetually sexually aggressive men theory explain a population of males who hand over control to females? Human sexuality is a far more complex and elaborate topic than Vargas-Cooper seems to be even willing to acknowledge with a passing phrase when she boils it down to sexist clichés which just so happen to neatly fall into some of the lowest quality dreck from evo psych studies trumpeted by the media. If her goal was a cathartic growl at the men who wronged her, she absolutely succeeded. But if she was trying to provide a factual analysis of human sexuality in modern times without odd and unnecessary fixations on the subjects of anal sex and kinky fetishes, she failed spectacularly.

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Once upon a time, eons ago as far as the web is concerned, and just a few years ago for the real world, there was a very popular game called Second Life, the goal of which was to create virtual communities from players who represented themselves with custom avatars. Basically the Sims in an MMORPG format. It had plenty of press coverage and several of its players even made it to the covers of magazines. And back in those days of Second Life's media reign, the long forgotten year of 2006, a rather odd interview appeared on a blog about the game, an interview about the coming of the Technological Singularity. Only neither Ray Kurzweil or any of his partners in the Singularity Institute were involved. Instead, it was an attempt at a prophetic vision from the game's famous cybersex performer who looked forward to a time when she can not only play her character in an online world, but become one with it. Very Matrixy, Ghost in the Shell stuff which begs an odd question…

We can talk about all the reasons why uploading your mind to a virtual world couldn't happen, but for just a moment, let's pretend that it is and you really can live out a virtual life. You look exactly like you want to look. All aging, disease, and lack of resources are things of the past. You can always create more of everything with a flip of a virtual switch. But consider for a second what our Singularitarian Second Life resident was doing. Very soon, human needs are going to start manifesting themselves and one of them will be sex. Humans are hard wired to seek out sexual satisfaction, and it's actually good for us. People with healthy sex lives tend to have a stronger immune system, suffer less from depression and mood swings, and if some experiments on rats in laboratories can be fully applied to humans, the stress of sexual encounters triggers the birth of brand new neurons. Our evolution runs on sex and we're basically programmed to seek it, just as we are generally wired to seek the company of our fellow humans. So it's no wonder that social networks and porn are by far the top destinations for web surfers, with the former eclipsing the latter only recently and by a slim margin, and if we decide to digitize ourselves, our virtual worlds will need to simulate or trigger the same rush of emotions and cascade of health benefits on us, otherwise, we'll hardly even consider it.

Second Life was no exception to this rule. Adult content was so popular, Linden Labs actually had to build its own version of a red light district to accommodate the demand, and there's a good number of Second Life knock-offs based almost solely around cybersex encounters to which I'm obviously not going to link here. So any virtual world where post-Singularity, digitized humans are supposed to live is supposed to accommodate that need. But what would happen to our future digital society? Are we going to have areas of the digital realm monitored, censored, and cordoned off and travel to virtual red light districts when we want to do something a little more adult-oriented? Would computer viruses become the new STDs? How would we address our deep seeded drive to become parents? Are future digitized humans going to be raising virtual children? How would they feel about having a virtual child, an entity that's not real as far as many humans are concerned? So in no time at all, we start traveling deeply into the territory mined by The Matrix Trilogy, trying to decipher what is and isn't real and trying to sort out perception and reality, something many of us often can't seem to do now, much less in a virtual world with a potential identity crisis just brewing in the back of our digitized heads.

Sure, you're an immortal set of bits and bytes capable of navigating whatever amazing world you can think of, then whenever the mood strikes you, spending some time exploring the adult areas of the web. And for some people, that stay is going to be really, really lengthy since everyone is now young, athletic, and attractive, and if your date isn't into that, you can morph into anything he or she wants. But the question will persist. Is this real and does it matter? We've been attached to our bodies for millions of years and living in a world where we're well aware that everything we see, hear, feel, and do is actually managed by lines of code on huge, sprawling server farms would be a major cognitive challenge. What happens if there's a power outage? A comet strike? A huge solar storm? Our electrical infrastructure is very fragile and we might find ourselves in a rush to return to our soft, squishy bodies or a suitable substitute. Maybe it's a good thing that the scenario above could only happen in abstract discussions. Maybe living virtually just isn't something most of us could handle…

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Granted, it’s been a while since I read the Bible and my education in theology consisted of alternative religions and comparative studies. However, I’m pretty sure that there’s no commandment about laying with robots as one would with a spouse or a cautionary parable about a city of technophillic fornicators who incur the brunt of God’s wrath. But that didn’t stop Rich Deem who runs a fundamentalist anti-science site, from writing a long column that warns us about the immortality of sex with machines while heavily borrowing from retro sci-fi novels and anime with techno-romantic overtones. And along the way, Deem drops the kind of technobabble that would be really funny if you forgot for a moment that he was being completely serious in his ravings.

cyborg duo

From the summary of the future given to us over the first half of the article, it becomes abundantly clear that the writer knows pretty much nothing about computers or robotics, casually adding artificial intelligence to future androids, making them out of materials that won’t be anywhere close to being ready for mass market use by the time he predicts, and dropping gems of technical incompetence like this…

Besides, the new FACAs were much more realistic than the old ones, since the technology had developed to provide cooling to all the internal computers and simultaneously make the robot warm to the touch by providing fluidics through the computers to dissipate heat through a network of “capillaries” located just under the “skin.”

How exactly would the same fluid intended to cool the internal computers simultaneously make a robot warm to the touch? Clearly the principles of thermodynamics don’t apply in Deem’s universe, which is odd because his inability to understand the difference between warm and cold makes you wonder how much research and scholarship went into his articles about the proof for God’s existence and refutation of evolution. Generally, if you can’t do arithmetic, you shouldn’t be lecturing people on calculus. Oh and could somebody tell me why in the world would fluidics be necessary in a machine that relies on digital signals in the first place?

Deem’s description of the sex bots makes me think that he just read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or watched the movie Bladerunner, got all excited about the love scene between Rick and Rachel, then decided to type out his cautionary parable and tie it to something else he finds scintillating, but forbidding and immoral in the extreme. To answer the question of who would develop androids wired for sex with humans, he re-casts a reliable old villain into a mad inventor hell bent on profit by any means necessary…

Not content with merely an online presence, the adult entertainment industry soon realized that androids, properly constructed, could earn them billions of dollars in additional revenue. Top programmers and engineers were hired away from the automakers and computer companies with offers of up to ten times their average salaries, similar to what had been done with their movie businesses in the late 2010′s, when they had hired away Hollywood’s best CG programmers to turn out realistic-looking virtual pornography movies.

Ah, so it was all a big porn conspiracy! Ok, I see what he’s doing here. After giving us a science fiction parable infused with all the creativity and originality of the fine print for credit card privacy statements, Deem descends into a stereotypical rant against pornography and our gall to tolerate it as an acceptable form of entertainment for adults. If we disagree, he has a laundry list of nine hackneyed and factually incorrect charges against porn based on nothing more than what’s already thrown out there by groups that want to control our sexuality. And again, painful bursts of woeful ignorance come at you from every line of his screed.

Why in the world would adult video outfits, the vast majority of which operate on a small budget and run a tight ship, possibly pay more than ten times the average salary of an expert programmer or a graphic artist (which would come to about $1 million per year) to create photorealistic renders of something for which they have no lack of volunteers already? Today, you can take a small group of erm… actors, film them having sex, edit it in a few days and have a video out by the end of the week. Meanwhile, recreating this in CG would require a major server farm, millions of dollars of equipment and about a year of production and rendering. Again, we’re sitting in a calculus lecture by someone who doesn’t know how to add two and two. And just to complete this unique mix of technophobia, ignorance and self-righteousness, Deem displays what we’re all supposed to take as a dire warning to go along with this article…

This page is going to seem rather far out and unrealistic, given today’s moral standards. However, the standards are rapidly changing, and within a few years the human race will be in a position in which sexual immorality could exist on a widespread scale.

No Rich, it’s going to seem far out and unrealistic because you haven’t the slightest grasp of the technology or the economics involved and your porn-will-make-you-have-sex-with-robots theory is totally asinine at best and raises all sorts of Freudian questions about the author. If all the sex toys in the world can’t replace a person, a few hundred pounds of heavy machinery with a very rudimentary pretence of AI sure isn’t going to be the death knell to human sexuality as we know it. And if you really think that any of this is feasible, you really need to get out more or find a hobby. Preferably one that doesn’t involve robots and computers. Just in case…

[ illustration: X and Y from the Artiphyciel series by Emmanuel Lepas, story via PZ Myers ]

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sex ed metaphorQuick, what’s the definition of insanity according to Albert Einstein? It’s trying the same thing and again again and expecting a different result. And this sums up what I try to explain in my latest essay for BusinessWeek.com on the constant hot topic in the culture wars, contraception. Since the dawn of sex education, the social conservatives who generally set the agenda for school districts kept trying to bombard teenagers with moralistic dogmas about the “evils” of sex outside of marriage. In all that time, they never managed to start paying attention to the fact that our bodies are wired for sex and our teenage years are actually a transition to sexual maturity, which means that teens will experiment with sex regardless of what we tell them and how much we seem to mean it.

Trying to stop some 40 million years of evolution with a pious message that will fall flat in reality, is like standing in front of an oncoming tsunami and expecting it to stop and turn back into the ocean because you give it an angry glare. And not only does the abstinence-only crowd propose we do just that, but they also tend to counter all the evidence that their approach isn’t working by telling us to just keep glaring with more anger. As we realize that sex is a natural part of our lives and a good sex life outside of moralistic legalities is actually healthy and normal, social conservatives incessantly complain about how our culture is sliding into a spiral of moral decay, coming up with ever more fanciful gloom and doom tales that are less reflective of reality than their vivid paranoia.

But where their denial of reality turns into a public menace is their insistence on trying to badmouth contraception. In their bizarre view, pre-marital sex should be awkward, messy and downright dysfunctional. But when teenagers are able to use condoms or birth control pills as an important safety measure against STDs and unwanted pregnancies, they panic because they can no longer control the sex lives of others in search of personal validation for their ideology. The abstinence-only activists then cast contraception as enablers of moral decay, things which help teens get away with trying to have a normal sex life. It’s basically like saying that a car with seat belts, airbags and crumple zones encourages people to drive recklessly. And their effort in infesting sex education classes with pseudoscience and religious overtones is helping to reduce the number of teens using contraception, opening the door to more pregnancies and infections. They’re slowly but surely achieving the exact opposite of their goal, then proclaiming the woefully ineffective curriculum they advocate is the only way to fix the problem they created in the first place.

In the real world, outside of the noxious and often hypocritical moralistic haze, we have two options. We could give teenagers the tools to protect themselves and recognize that we should be teaching them what sex really is and what it entails. Or we could scare them, lie to them and pretend they’re not going to go out and have sex even though they do anyway. If you’ve ever spend any time in rural areas, you’d note that places without a lot to do and filled with religious, abstinence-only zealots, also tend to have plenty of teen pregnancies and quite a few sexually active young people. The only difference from an urban setting is that the sex is never discussed so the moralists can pretend it’s not happening right under their noses while they’re powerless to stop it.

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Not too long ago, I found myself reading a blog post which called for skepticism in sex. How skeptical do you have to be to advocate the scientific method in the bedroom? Well, according to Greta Christina, the author of the post and a full column on the subject, even when people see sex as something natural, healthy and very important in life, there’s still a tendency to inject a large dose of the supernatural into it. To find out a little more about spirituality in sex and the culture which embraces it, I asked Greta for some insights…

Q: What prompted you to write an article about acknowledging materialism in sexuality?

A: I’ve been in the sex-positive community, the community of people who write about sex or who are activists promoting sexual liberation and sexual civil rights for a long time and one of the things that I’ve been noticing in that community since I’ve been identifying myself as an atheist, is how much the community views sex in a very spiritual light. It’s not the same as a traditional religious attitude. The sex-positive community rejects the traditional religious view since it tends to be hostile towards sexuality. Instead they view it in a New Age way, with chakras and goddess worship and so on, and so I just wanted to write a piece which presented another view on sex. Something to say that you can be very positive about sex and embrace all the wonderful things in sexuality, but in a way that doesn’t frame it as a metaphysical experience.

Q: Why do you think so many people in this community view sex with a spiritual, New Age reverence?

A: First off, I want to preface this by saying that it’s just speculation on my part. I think it’s reasonably informed speculation though. There are basically three things going on. First is that the idea that spirituality is good and that the spiritual world is the more important world is very pervasive in our culture. It’s taught to us early in our childhoods and even when you reject the traditional version and embrace sexuality as something positive, it’s natural for people to create their own spirituality to frame sex as good.

The second thing is that the sex positive culture is overwhelmingly a progressive culture which tends to reject mainstream institutions. And we see this in the way that this community accepts alternative medicine despite the fact that conventional medicine has been very rigorously tested. But to them, science is The Man and they are pretty much throwing the baby out with the bathwater and embracing alternative medicine. They embrace intuition and feeling and personal experiences, values they want to uphold over “establishment” ideas.

The third thing has to do with the nature of sex. When sex is good, especially when it’s very, very good, I think it can feel a lot like what people describe as a spiritual experience. It transports you in an extraordinary way out of your normal experience. Again, even if we reject traditional religion, we tend to frame these experiences as metaphysical. But at the same time, they’re still physical experiences. We’re just shifting the way the brain is processing information. So I think that when people start embracing sex and sexuality as something positive, they tend to frame it in this mystical, spiritual way.

Q: What exactly do you mean by a sex-positive community? Is there a sex-negative community?

A: I would say that the Religious Right is a very sex-negative community which actively promotes the idea that sex is bad, sex is trivial, sex is something that has to be prescribed in a certain way and there’s a very small number of cases where you’re allowed to have it. And that can extend to any community where sex is seen as just a trivial thing that can only happen in certain cases. By contrast, sex-positive communities are people who through writing, through art and activism try to promote the idea that sex is an important part of our lives.

Q: How do you think religious communities reconcile their religious commandment to be fruitful and have sex with their attempts to control sexuality and inject legality into sex?

A: I think the answer they would give is that they don’t think sex is bad. On the contrary, they think sex is great and wonderful but God only wants you to have sex under these very specific circumstances. You have to get married, it has to be an opposite sex marriage, obviously, and you have to be willing to have children so birth control is out. But the reality is that they promote a lot of fear and hostility towards sex, telling women that men are just horny wolves and telling men that women are temptresses who will lead them astray. So what really ends up happening is that they promote a very mixed view of sex, that sex is bad and evil but then, when you’re married, it’s wonderful. And of course it doesn’t work that way.

You get couples having really bad sex and unhappy sex lives because there’s this barrier to talking about sex, getting information about it and absolutely no mention of female satisfaction. But then you also have a culture of teenagers not using birth control. They grow up thinking they’ll reject sex but since they have hormones as we all do, they end up having sex and they don’t use birth control. There are a lot of statistics which show that in states where right wing religion is very prominent, teen pregnancy is very prominent. So I think the upshot is very mixed messages and a very conflicted, messed up culture about sex.

Q: Imagine your ideal world in terms of sexual culture. What would it be like?

A: I thought about that a lot and the best metaphor I came up with for treating sex and sexual preferences is to treat them the way we treat music. Different people have different musical tastes. Some like opera, some like rap, some like country, some people like a wide variety of music. To some people, music just doesn’t matter a whole lot and to some people it’s central to their lives and we pretty much accept that. We might have our own negative opinions about certain musical types but we generally accept their right to enjoy their music as long as they’re not forcing others to listen to it against their will. And in fact we celebrate the diversity in music, that musical tastes change over time and that we have the right to choose the music we like for ourselves.

And I would like people to treat sex the same way. I would like to see people treat sex as something important in life and something that’s powerful and shouldn’t be trivialized. We should acknowledge the fact that it could potentially do some harm, but that basically, it’s a central part of life that we should accept, and that we should accept others’ sexualities even if they’re different from ours.

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So a chemist, a film and television expert and a psychologist walk into an S&M club to watch couples play a little rough… No, that’s not the beginning of a joke but an actual, honest to goodness study about the relationships of couples which practice a variety of sadomasochistic activities. And as it turns out, bondage and domination can bring couples closer together provided that both partners enjoyed themselves. This sounds like a no brainer at first, but we have to consider how S&M play was originally perceived by psychology.

family guy s&m

Until the late 1980s, sadomasochism was always viewed as a psychosexual disorder and doctors saw all relationships which included bondage, domination, consensual pain and power exchange as pathological. The third edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, or the DSM III, labeled pretty much all kinds of sadomasochistic activities as proof that the patient had a sexual dysfunction to be treated. But a number of research projects started finding that relationships in which S&M play was a form of intimacy, weren’t actually as uncommon or as rough as most early treatises on sexual health had assumed and that sadomasochism was enjoyed by many people in stable partnerships, with good education and perfectly normal childhoods. As the researchers try to politely note, the original ideas of BDSM in general were based more on the societal opinions of the enthusiasts than factual evidence.

Now, just watching S&M enthusiasts enjoying themselves is more of a fun Friday night than an actual research project which is why the researchers analyzed the production of testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol in those who engaged in bondage, spanking, power exchange and pain and pleasure routines. Their findings were a little surprising. Instead of both partners reacting to the stress of the activities with extra testosterone and cortisol, only the submissive men and women registered a hormonal reaction. The dominant partners maintained the same baseline levels before and after their S&M play. On the psychological end of the study, the men and women who said that their experience that night went well, reported that they felt closer to their partners and were happier with the relationship than those who were left unsatisfied. So in other words, a good night of consensual masochism brings a couple closer together says the study’s conclusion. And the survey data seems to support this idea.

But I wonder if that’s really so. Usually, the main component in S&M play is the trust. Couples in the lifestyle have a lot of faith in their partners and for that to happen, they generally need to be close and have a good baseline level of relationship happiness before experimenting with S&M, bondage or power exchanges. If the experience is a letdown, it’s a disappointment for both the dominant partner (the top) and the submissive (the bottom) and can be seen as a breach of the trust that got them to agree to the experiment or even suggest it in the first place. But even though it’s disappointing, it doesn’t mean that it leaves a permanent mark on the relationship. The disappointment might last a day or two and closeness can come from other activities both partners enjoy. Provided that this study was a convenience sample of 58 people over one night and recorded their impressions for that one night only, you might not want to rush to the S&M club nearest to you in hopes of repairing wounded relationships with a little rough play just yet. Unless your partner suggests it of course, and you’re into the idea…

See: Sagarin, B., et al. (2008). Hormonal Changes and Bonding in Consensual Sadomasochistic Activity Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38 (2), 186-200 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9374-5

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