Cartoonist, Erika Moen, is back today and she here to dish out even more of her signature delightfulness for this The Erotic Mind show.
But wait, you didn’t miss Part 1 of this chat, did you? Well not to worry if ya did, because you can find it and all my podcasts in the Podcast Archive right here on my site. All ya gotta do is use the search function in the header; type in Podcast #378 and Voilà! But don’t forget the #sign when you do your search.
In the prologue to her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, philosopher Carrie Jenkins is walking through Vancouver, from her boyfriend’s apartment to the home she has with her husband. She wonders at how the romantic love she experiences firsthand is so different than the model presented by popular culture and academic theory alike. “If indeed romantic love must be monogamous, then I am making some kind of mistake when I say, ‘I’m in love with you’ — meaning romantically — to both my partners,” she writes. “I am not lying, because I am genuinely trying to be as honest as I can. But if romantic love requires monogamy, then despite my best intentions, what I’m saying at those moments is not, strictly speaking, true.”
Her book examines the long, sometimes awkward legacy of philosophers’ thinking on romantic love, and compares that with a new subfield in close-relationships research — consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM. While singers and thinkers alike have been riffing on a “one and only” for decades, she argues that space is being made in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” These norms are more fluid than they appear: In Jenkins’s lifetime alone same-sex and cross-ethnicity relationships have become common.
When I asked Jenkins to describe how it feels to have both a husband and a boyfriend — she rejects the “primary relationship” moniker altogether — she said that it’s like having more loving relationships in your life, like a close family member or friend. She and her boyfriend, whom she’s been with for about five years, used to work in the same building; he was teaching creative writing on the floor above her philosophy department, though they didn’t meet until they matched on OkCupid. While both men have met each other, they’re not close; Jenkins describes the relationship as having a “V shape,” rather than a triangle. Both helped in the development of the book: husband refining philosophical arguments; boyfriend editing the writing, and helping her to sound like a normal person, rather than an academic.
Still, CNM faces lots of stigma; even the study of it is stigmatized. Yet in the limited yet rich vein of research out there, the evidence suggests that it’s a style that, in some populations, leads to greater relationship satisfaction than monogamy. In any case, the researchers tell me, the insights into what makes more-than-two relationships work can be applied to any given dyad, given the communicative finesse required when three or more hearts are involved.
In a forthcoming Perspectives in Psychological Science paper, Terri Conley, a University of Michigan psychologist who’s driven the field, defines CNM as “a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at the same time.” That’s distinguished from the “polygamy” practiced by some religious groups, where it’s not always clear whether wives can opt out of the relationship.
I was surprised to discover how common it is: A 2016 study of two nationally representative samples of single Americans — of 3,905 and 4,813 respondents, respectively — found in each case that about one in five people had practiced it during their lifetime. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men thought their ideal relationship would be CNM in some way. Other research indicates that around 4 to 5 percent of Americans in relationships are in some sort of CNM, be it swinging, where partners have sex with people outside their relationship at parties and the like; an open relationship, where it’s cool to have sex with other people but not grow emotionally attached to them; or polyamory, where both partners approve of having close emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships outside of the couple itself. People are curious, too: From 2006 to 2015, Google searches for polyamory and open relationships went up. Other data points to how sticking to the boundaries of monogamy doesn’t come easily to lots of people: A 2007 survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on their current partner.
Jenkins says that as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s in a unique, privileged position to openly talk about being in a nonmonogamous marriage. She’d been interested in being in more than one relationship ever since she can remember, but it used to seem like some sort of impossible dream situation — she didn’t realize it could be an option in her real life until she was about 30. (She’s now 37.)
Jenkins met her husband, Jonathan, who’s also a philosopher, back in 2009, at a philosophy workshop that he organized at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; they later got married in the same hall the conference took place. They took one another’s last names as middle names.
Now married for almost eight years, they talked about polyamory early on, though defining the relationship that way came later. As philosophers are wont to do, they soon wrote a bit of a manifesto about their arrangement. They observed that even if their wedding guests were woke in any number of ways — not batting an eyelid if a colleague was gay or bi, eschewing heteronormative assumptions, and the like — there’s still the shared assumption that a nonmonogamous relationship is less sexually safe and less committed than a regular ol’ monogamous one. “Even our very liberal pocket of our relatively liberal society is massively — and, to us, surprisingly— mononormative,” they write. “Acquaintances, friends, and colleagues are constantly assuming that our relationship, and indeed every relationship that they think of as ‘serious’, is a sexually monogamous one.”
To Jenkins, the biggest struggle with polyamory isn’t from managing multiple relationships — though Google Calendar is a crucial tool — but rather the strong, sometimes violently negative reactions that she gets, especially online. When I spoke with her by phone, she was struck by a comment to a YouTube interview of hers, where a pseudonymous user invited “everyone” to read her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education about having multiple loves.
“THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” the troll wrote. “Every bit as twisted and queer as the Mormons with their multiple lives [sic]. This femme-pig is the spectral opposite of Trump; a far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization.” Jenkins walked me through a deep reading of the bile: Bundling in politics — the “left-wing freak” bit — with the monogamy norms signals to her that there’s a judgment of what it means to be a good person in here, since politics is about living correctly, collectively. Plus “if you’re an animal, you’re out of the range of humanity,” she says. She’s also gets a lot of “get herpes and die, slut” suggestions, she says, which speaks to the hypersexualization of CNM. Nonmonogamy leads to lots of sex, the presumption goes, and with that STIs, and it proceeds from there. The way news articles covering CNM tend to be illustrated with images of three or four people in a bath or bed doesn’t help, either.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” she says. “For a lot of people sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies — to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them. We’re clear with that distinction in monogamous relationships, but in CNM that distinction between love and sex gets collapsed.”
Researchers who have studied stigma around CNM have found lots. In a 2012 paper, Conley and her colleagues found that monogamous relationships were better rated on every metric by different sets of the population, including nonmonogamous people. When 132 participants recruited online read relationship vignettes that were identical except for one being monogamous and the other not, the CNM was seen as riskier sexually, more lonely, less acceptable, and having a lower relationship quality. People in CNM were also seen as worse with non-relational things, like making sure to walk their dog or paying their taxes on time. Amy Moors, a co-author on the paper, says it had some of the biggest effect sizes she’s seen in her research. Elisabeth Sheff, a leading polyamory researcher who left academia for lack of grant funding, now frequently serves as an expert witness in custody battles; she says that often a grandmother or a former spouse will find out that a co-parent has multiple relationships, be scandalized, and demand to take the kids — even though her longitudinal research, reported in The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, indicates that kids who grow up in polyamorous families aren’t any more screwed up than average American children.
That same paper finds that there were no differences in relationship functioning between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. People in CNM had lower jealousy and higher trust — yet also lower sexual satisfaction with their partner. Polyamorists were more satisfied than people in open relationships, perhaps because it’s hard to block of feelings for people you sleep with frequently. Polyamorous people were a special case, with higher satisfaction, commitment, trust, and passionate love than monogamous individuals, though they had lower sexual satisfaction. CNM people also had higher sexual satisfaction with their secondary partners than their primary partners, though that difference fell away when controlling for relationship time, with primary relationships averaging three times the length of secondary relationships.
“Overall, the standard for human responses for relationships is habituation,” Conley says. “That involves a loss of sexual attraction, and we can tell that from stats from therapy. And to the extent that a couple is frustrated sexually, it spills over to other parts of life.”
There are other explanations for high satisfaction scores for polyamorous people, she adds. It could be that they’re just acting out a social desirability bias, given that they’re participating in a study about CNM and want the lifestyle to look good; it could also be that people who enter into polyamory have self-selected themselves into a hypercommunicative population — all the poly self-helpbooks emphasize the importance the need to explicitly talk things out. “People interested in polyamory are more relationship-y than the average person,” she says. “They like thinking about relationships, talking about relationships. That’s great in monogamy, but needed in polyamory.”
All this suggests the kind of people that are the right fit for CNM. Beyond being relationship-y, a Portuguese study out this year found that people with a high sociosexuality, or disposal to casual sex, had less relationship satisfaction when in a monogamous relationship, but those effects disappeared if they were in CNM. Still, they were just as committed to their relationships — signaling that exclusivity and commitment may not be one and the same. Harvard sexologist Justin Lehmiller has found that people who are more erotophilic — i.e., that love sex — will be a better fit for CNM; same with if they’re sensation-seeking.
Amy Moors, the Purdue psychologist, has found that people with higher avoidant attachment — where you’re just not that into intimacy — have positive feelings about and a willingness to engage in polyamory, but they were less likely to actually partake of it. While a correlational study, Moors explained that from a subjective perspective, it makes sense: “When you have avoidant attachment, you like a lot of emotional distance, physical distance, time by yourself,” Moors says, which is not a fit for the relationship-y remands of a poly lifestyle. Also, there’s reason to believe that folks who have relational anxiety, and are thus sensitive to separation, might be prone to the jealousy that’s known to flare up in CNM, though it’s not like that doesn’t happen in monogamy, too.
What motivated Jenkins to write What Love Is, she says, was a gap — or silence — in the philosophical literature, that polyamory was rarely discussed or even acknowledged as a possibility. “Noticing these philosophical silences and denials, while simultaneously being made aware of how society at large viewed me for being a polyamorous woman, made me realize there was something important here that I needed to do,” she says. “To do it meant bringing my personal life and my philosophical work into a conversation with one another. The familiar slogan says that the personal is political, but the personal is philosophical, too.”
Two key themes emerge from reading the book: that love is dual-layered, with social scripts overlaying evolutionary, physiological impulses. And that the “romantic mystique,” like the feminine one before it, assumes that love is mysterious and elusive and corrupted from examination — a sentiment that protects the status quo. But with investigation, and conversation, the mechanics of love reveal themselves, and norms can change socially, and be tailored locally. Like Jenkins, you can custom-fit your relationships to your life — if you dare to talk about them.
Whips. Chains. Paddles. Rope. Thanks to the pop culture explosion that is 50 Shades of Grey, these words are now part of the mainstream sexual lexicon. But while the book and film franchise has increased awareness about kink, many people are still keeping their bedroom habits secret, and it’s impacting their health.
Amy in Winnipeg has lived the BDSM lifestyle (that’s bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism) and she’s the first to admit that, “it’s nothing like the tame version of the books or movies.” She’s experienced, abrasions, rope burn, sciatic nerve pain and spankings that left her so raw that “it got to the point where I had huge pieces of flesh missing…I couldn’t sit for a week.”
As Amy explains, “if not looked after properly, abrasions can lead to bacterial infections,” which is exactly what happened to her after a particularly painful spanking injury. “I went to the doctor to get cream and I explained myself,” she says.
While Amy wasn’t afraid to open up to her healthcare practitioner, she’s in a minority. According to a new study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine titled “Fifty Shades of Stigma: Exploring the Health Care Experiences of Kink-Oriented Patients,” less than half of individuals surveyed were open with their doctors about their kinky sexual practices. The main reason for keeping quiet? Fear of judgement. Also, as the study highlights, many individuals are afraid their physician will misinterpret their consensual sexual acts as partner abuse.
It makes sense. While my experience with anything kink-oriented is extremely limited, years ago I sustained some gnarly carpet burns after an encounter with an ex. When I went to see my family doctor for my annual exam, I blurted out, “I slipped while playing a game of Twister with friends!” I have no idea why I thought this sounded remotely plausible to anyone, but it was the first thing that came to mind. In retrospect, I think she knew what the deal was, but chose to be discrete. However, not everyone is so lucky.
Despite increased visibility in pop culture, the stigma associated with BDSM is still very real. However, so are the potential risks. Injuries that arise from BDSM can potentially mushroom into more serious issues if left unattended. Anna M. Randall, LCSW, MPH, is a San Francisco-based sex therapist and the executive director of The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance (TASHRA), the team behind the study. As she told Cosmopolitan magazine recently, “big bruises can develop into hematomas, for example.” She goes on to say that “there are rare injuries from rough sex that may lead to serious complications, such as torn vaginal tissue or scrotum injuries, and because more risky sexual BDSM behaviors may include controlling the breathing of
a partner, those with asthma face real risks if they’re not treated for attacks immediately.”
However, for Cassandra J. Perry, an advocate, researcher and writer, her injuries were all due to health conditions she didn’t realize she had at the time. Perry’s first injury occurred when she shredded the cartilage in her left hip joint (an injury called a labral tear.) She says, “even if you think you’re sex-savvy smart, you could probably be and likely should be safer!” Also, as she points out, “If we practice bdsm, that’s a good reason why we should have our annual physicals. And it’s a really good reason to pay attention to what our mind-body tells us. If something seems off, we need to be persistent with getting answers and care (when possible) and to be cautious when engaging in BDSM activities that may interact with some part of our health that concerns us.”
However, as Stella Harris, a Sex Educator & Intimacy Coach explains, “The risks of BDSM aren’t just physical.
Make sure to look out for the emotional implications, as well. Some of this play can be very intense, and you want to make sure you’ve planned all the necessary aftercare.” This is going to look different for everyone and can include everything from cuddling with your partner to routine check-ins with them over the following days.
Lastly, Harris reminds us, “I always advocate honesty with your medical professionals. When you’re finding a doctor, screen for someone you can be open and honest with, who has passing knowledge of kink, and who isn’t judgmental. If you go to the doctor with visible bruises, just be honest about it and tell them the bruises are from consensual kink activities. They might have questions, but it’s best to be clear and upfront, before they assume the worst.”
Sexuality encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction and what we think, feel and believe about them. It has been a research focus for over a hundred years, and highlighted as an important part of the human experience. Since the first studies on human sexuality in the 1940s, research has consistently demonstrated that sexual interest and activity are sustained well into old age. However, only a fraction of the research has explored sexuality in the later years of life.
Most of the early research on sexuality and ageing looked at the sexual behaviours and biology of older adults, generally ignoring the wider concept of sexuality. When researchers did discuss sexuality more broadly, many referred to sexuality as the domain of the young, and emphasised this was a major barrier to the study of sexuality in older adults.
Sexuality in later life ignored
Towards the end of the 20th century, research expanded to include attitudes towards sexual expression in older adults, and the biological aspects of sexuality and ageing. Consistently, the research showed sexual expression is possible for older adults, and sustained sexual activity into old age is more likely for those who had active sex lives earlier in life.
By the late 1980s, there was a strong focus on the biological aspects of ageing. This expanded to include the reasons behind sexual decline. The research found these were highly varied and many older adults remain sexually active well into later life.
But despite evidence adults continue to desire and pursue sexual expression well into later life, both society in general and many health professionals have inadvertently helped perpetuate the myth of the asexual older person. This can happen through an unintentional lack of recognition, or an avoidance of a topic that makes some people uncomfortable.
Why does this matter?
These ageist attitudes can have an impact on older adults not only in their personal lives, but also in relation to their health needs. Examples include the failure of medical personnel to test for sexually transmissible infections in older populations, or the refusal of patients to take prescribed medications because of adverse impacts on erection rigidity. We need more health practitioners to be conscious of and incorporate later life sexuality into the regular health care of older adults. We still have a long way to go.
By ignoring the importance of sexuality for many older adults, we fail to acknowledge the role that sexuality plays in many people’s relationships, health, well-being and quality of life. Failure to address sexual issues with older patients may lead to or exacerbate marital problems and result in the withdrawal of one or both partners from other forms of intimacy. Failure to discuss sexual health needs with patients can also lead to incorrect medical diagnoses, such as the misdiagnosis of dementia in an older patient with HIV.
It’s not about ‘the deed’ itself
In a recent survey examining sexuality in older people, adults aged between 51 and 89 were asked a series of open-ended questions about sexuality, intimacy and desire, and changes to their experiences in mid-life and later life. This information was then used to create a series of statements that participants were asked to group together in ways they felt made sense, and to rank the importance of each statement.
The most important themes that emerged from the research encompassed things such as partner compatibility, intimacy and pleasure, and factors that influence the experience of desire or the way people express themselves sexually. Although people still considered sexual expression and sexual urges to be important, they were not the focus for many people over 45.
Affectionate and intimate behaviours, trust, respect and compatibility were more important aspects of sexuality than intercourse for most people. Overall, the message was one about the quality of the experience and the desire for connection with a partner, and not about the frequency of sexual activities.
People did discuss barriers to sexual expression and intimacy such as illness, mood or lack of opportunity or a suitable partner, but many felt these were not something they focused on in their own lives. This is in line with the data that shows participants place a greater importance on intimacy and affectionate behaviours such as touching, hugging and kissing, rather than intercourse.
These results help us challenge the existing stereotype of the “asexual older person” and the idea intercourse is necessary to be considered sexually active. They also make it clear researchers and health practitioners need to focus on a greater variety of ways we can improve the experience and expressions of sexuality and intimacy for adults from mid-life onwards beyond medical interventions (like Viagra) that focus on prolonging or enhancing intercourse.
Today in news that may leave you joyous, exuberant, and otherwise rapt with passion: All the numbers point to Americans having lots and lots more sex than they used to — at least according to this infographic produced by sex psychologist Dr. Justin Lehmiller, based off research reported to the General Social Survey.
Lehmiller’s chart breaks down how American attitudes and sexual behaviors have shifted in the last 30 years, and if you’re a person who enjoys sex, there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful. Here are the highlights from the Lehmiller’s breakdown:
The number of Americans who report having had casual sex in the last year jumped by 10%. In the ’80s 26.7% of responders copped to no-strings nookie, compared to 37.9% in 2012. Note that the numbers end with 2012; dating apps have only skyrocketed in popularity and cultural acceptance since then.
Friends with benefits: Up
The amount of acquaintances people report having sex with has also jumped almost 10%. In the ’80s 32.1% of respondents said they’d had sex with a friend in the last year. By the 2010s, that number’s grown to 41.2%.
Not a huge discrepancy on this one. The number of folks who say they get the dirty business on the regular from one partner grew from 92.3% to 93.1%. True love is still on top.
Paying for sex: Still not a thing most people do (or admit to)
This one’s gone up from 1.8% of respondents in the ’80s who said they paid for sex in the past year, to 3.2% — not a significant change.
Attitudes have also shifted
Premarital sex and and same sex activity are more widely accepted now than they were before, the chart reports — but teen sex and extramarital sex are still far more likely to be seen as “Always Wrong.”
All this might not exactly be surprising in the age of Tinder and wide-release films with names like Sausage Party. American society’s views on sex have come a long way since the time of the AIDS epidemic, and way further since sexual frustration in women was classified as “hysteria.” Despite how depressing the national dialogue on these topics can be sometimes, we’re lucky to live in a time where sex education and conversations about sexuality aren’t nearly as repressed or reductive.
The next time your (well-meaning) friends in relationships give you a hard time about how many Tinder dates you’ve been on this year, point them to this data and tell them to keep stepping.