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Assertive sexuality – yet again, we must fight the politicisation of sex

Everyone has the right to have sex as they choose and we must make sure we protect that right

A gay couple kisses during the Gay Pride Parade in Medellin, Colombia, in 2015.

By Emily Witt

Sexual equality – the right for consenting adults to love who they want, the way they want it – is a human right. In 2017 the right to have the kind of sex we want is still under threat.

Once again gay people, single women, the non-monogamous, the kinky, and many other people whose sexuality does not conform to the heterosexual, child-producing marital bedroom, will be forced to articulate their right to sexual freedom. For many adults, merely having sex, and being sexual, will become a political act. Welcome to the year of assertive sexuality.

In the 21st century the state wields control over sexuality through access to healthcare. In the United States, Donald Trump has appointed an orthopaedic surgeon, Tom Price, as his secretary of health and human services. Price has a record of opposition to LGBTQ and abortion rights and has voted in the past to deprive non-profit organisation Planned Parenthood of taxpayer support.

Even if Trump chooses not to revoke the Affordable Care Act, it’s likely the mandate that covers contraception will be repealed. A woman’s sexual freedom depends on her ability to access affordable contraception, treatment for infections and abortion services. Trump, who has a lifetime of boasting about his sexual promiscuity (both consensual and not), wants to impose a paradigm of risk on women, who will lose autonomy and safety and will face unnecessary and prohibitive expense and inconvenience in their pursuit of sexual happiness.

The United Kingdom also saw an attempt to thwart sexual freedom by denying access to healthcare in 2016. It was only after a successful lawsuit filed by the National Aids Trust and persistent lobbying by activists that the NHS announced in December that it would fund a three-year clinical trial that will make pre-exposure prophylaxis available through the NHS to 10,000 people at risk of contracting HIV. This was a shift from earlier in the year, when the NHS had made it clear that it would limit availability of PrEP to 500 men “most at high risk”.

Denying healthcare to certain populations in a misguided attempt to influence their sexual behaviour is a form of social control and exclusion that arbitrarily codes certain sexual acts as good or bad and certain lives as more dispensable than others. The point of such efforts – and other forms of sexual censorship, like the attempts of the Conservative government to block pornographic websites that show female ejaculation or that break the “four finger rule” – is to assert a hierarchy of sexual cultures in which heteronormativity occupies a place at the top and alternative sexual preferences are maligned as risky or obscene.

Tom Price, US secretary of health and human services, has a record of opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Attempts to re-establish a notion of “normal”, “conventional” and “responsible” sexuality come at a time in which consensus about what an adult life should look like is rapidly dissolving. In the United States and the United Kingdom, adults are getting married later or not at all. In the years of their lives in which they are dating and having shorter-term sexual relationships, technology has offered new ways of meeting people, of fantasising and of finding sexual community.

A shift in cultural morals has opened space for the articulation of a broad spectrum of sexual identities, orientations and gender identifications. If the first decade of the new century was about broadening access to institutions such as marriage, the second might be about taking pride in sex as an end in itself.

The culture finds itself at a crossroads: either attempt to restore a false consensus about what constitutes a legitimate sexuality, an ideal of monogamous fidelity that always contained hypocrisy, that not even the president-elect of the United States can claim to have upheld; or embrace a more honest view of the contemporary way some people relate to each other.

For the growing population of adults who have failed in one way or another to live up to an ideal of what a “good heterosexual” looks like, either because they have never married, or have divorced, or because they are not heterosexual at all, attempts by politicians to marginalise their sex lives would be comical if they didn’t come at such a high cost.

The only response that feels right, at this juncture in history, is to dispense with euphemism. Don’t call contraception “family planning”. Don’t limit the idea of sexual freedom to the right to marry (although even that right remains threatened.)

Don’t let the enjoyment of pornography be pathologised. Don’t meekly try to make your sexuality palatable to the people who are determined to deny its legitimacy.

In 2016 cautious appeals for responsibility lost out to ostentation and lies; 2017 is not a time to be demure.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Straight Rural Men Have Gay ‘Bud-Sex’ With Each Other

 

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A lot of men have sex with other men but don’t identify as gay or bisexual. A subset of these men who have sex with men, or MSM, live lives that are, in all respects other than their occasional homosexual encounters, quite straight and traditionally masculine — they have wives and families, they embrace various masculine norms, and so on. They are able to, in effect, compartmentalize an aspect of their sex lives in a way that prevents it from blurring into or complicating their more public identities. Sociologists are quite interested in this phenomenon because it can tell us a lot about how humans interpret thorny questions of identity and sexual desire and cultural expectations.

Last year, NYU Press published the fascinating book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by the University of California, Riverside, gender and sexuality professor Jane Ward. In it, Ward explored various subcultures in which what could be called “straight homosexual sex” abounds — not just in the ones you’d expect, like the military and fraternities, but also biker gangs and conservative suburban neighborhoods — to better understand how the participants in these encounters experienced and explained their attractions, identities, and rendezvous. But not all straight MSM have gotten the same level of research attention. One relatively neglected such group, argues the University of Oregon sociology doctoral student Tony Silva in a new paper in Gender & Society, is rural, white, straight men (well, neglected if you set aside Brokeback Mountain).

Silva sought to find out more about these men, so he recruited 19 from men-for-men casual-encounters boards on Craigslist and interviewed them, for about an hour and a half each, about their sexual habits, lives, and senses of identity. All were from rural areas of Missouri, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, or Idaho, places known for their “social conservatism and predominant white populations.” The sample skewed a bit on the older side, with 14 of the 19 men in their 50s or older, and most identified exclusively as exclusively or mostly straight, with a few responses along the lines of “Straight but bi, but more straight.”

Since this is a qualitative rather than a quantitative study, it’s important to recognize that the particular men recruited by Silva weren’t necessarily representative of, well, anything. These were just the guys who agreed to participate in an academic’s research project after they saw an ad for it on Craigslist. But the point of Silva’s project was less to draw any sweeping conclusions about either this subset of straight MSM, or the population as a whole, than to listen to their stories and compare them to the narratives uncovered by Ward and various other researchers.

Specifically, Silva was trying to understand better the interplay between “normative rural masculinity” — the set of mores and norms that defines what it means to be a rural man — and these men’s sexual encounters. In doing so, he introduces a really interesting and catchy concept, “bud-sex”:

Ward (2015) examines dudesex, a type of male–male sex that white, masculine, straight men in urban or military contexts frame as a way to bond and build masculinity with other, similar “bros.” Carrillo and Hoffman (2016) refer to their primarily urban participants as heteroflexible, given that they were exclusively or primarily attracted to women. While the participants in this study share overlap with those groups, they also frame their same-sex sex in subtly different ways: not as an opportunity to bond with urban “bros,” and only sometimes—but not always—as a novel sexual pursuit, given that they had sexual attractions all across the spectrum. Instead, as Silva (forthcoming) explores, the participants reinforced their straightness through unconventional interpretations of same-sex sex: as “helpin’ a buddy out,” relieving “urges,” acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them, relieving general sexual needs, and/or a way to act on sexual attractions. “Bud-sex” captures these interpretations, as well as how the participants had sex and with whom they partnered. The specific type of sex the participants had with other men—bud-sex—cemented their rural masculinity and heterosexuality, and distinguishes them from other MSM.

This idea of homosexual sex cementing heterosexuality and traditional, rural masculinity certainly feels counterintuitive, but it clicks a little once you read some of the specific findings from Silva’s interviews. The most important thing to keep in mind here is that rural masculinity is “[c]entral to the men’s self-understanding.” Quoting another researcher, Silva notes that it guides their “thoughts, tastes, and practices. It provides them with their fundamental sense of self; it structures how they understand the world around them; and it influences how they codify sameness and difference.” As with just about all straight MSM, there’s a tension at work: How can these men do what they’re doing without it threatening parts of their identity that feel vital to who they are?

In some of the subcultures Ward studied, straight MSM were able to reinterpret homosexual identity as actually strengthening their heterosexual identities. So it was with Silva’s subjects as well — they found ways to cast their homosexual liaisons as reaffirming their rural masculinity. One way they did so was by seeking out partners who were similar to them. “This is a key element of bud-sex,” writes Silva. “Partnering with other men similarly privileged on several intersecting axes—gender, race, and sexual identity—allowed the participants to normalize and authenticate their sexual experiences as normatively masculine.” In other words: If you, a straight guy from the country, once in a while have sex with other straight guys from the country, it doesn’t threaten your straight, rural identity as much as it would if instead you, for example, traveled to the nearest major metro area and tried to pick up dudes at a gay bar. You’re not the sort of man who would go to a gay bar — you’re not gay!

It’s difficult here not to slip into the old middle-school joke of “It’s not gay if …” — “It’s not gay” if your eyes are closed, or the lights are off, or you’re best friends — but that’s actually what the men in Silva’s study did, in a sense:

As Cain [one of the interview subjects] said, “I’m really not drawn to what I would consider really effeminate faggot type[s],” but he does “like the masculine looking guy who maybe is more bi.” Similarly, Matt (60) explained, “If they’re too flamboyant they just turn me off,” and Jack noted, “Femininity in a man is a turn off.” Ryan (60) explained, “I’m not comfortable around femme” and “masculinity is what attracts me,” while David shared that “Femme guys don’t do anything for me at all, in fact actually I don’t care for ’em.” Jon shared, “I don’t really like flamin’ queers.” Mike (50) similarly said, “I don’t want the effeminate ones, I want the manly guys … If I wanted someone that acts girlish, I got a wife at home.” Jeff (38) prefers masculinity because “I guess I perceive men who are feminine want to hang out … have companionship, and make it last two or three hours.”

In other words: It’s not gay if the guy you’re having sex with doesn’t seem gay at all. Or consider the preferences of Marcus, another one of Silva’s interview subjects:

A guy that I would consider more like me, that gets blowjobs from guys every once in a while, doesn’t do it every day. I know that there are a lot of guys out there that are like me … they’re manly guys, and doing manly stuff, and just happen to have oral sex with men every once in a while [chuckles]. So, that’s why I kinda prefer those types of guys … It [also] seems that … more masculine guys wouldn’t harass me, I guess, hound me all the time, send me 1000 emails, “Hey, you want to get together today … hey, what about now.” And there’s a thought in my head that a more feminine or gay guy would want me to come around more. […] Straight guys, I think I identify with them more because that’s kinda, like [how] I feel myself. And bi guys, the same way. We can talk about women, there [have] been times where we’ve watched hetero porn, before we got started or whatever, so I kinda prefer that. [And] because I’m not attracted, it’s very off-putting when somebody acts gay, and I feel like a lot of gay guys, just kinda put off that gay vibe, I’ll call it, I guess, and that’s very off-putting to me.

This, of course, is similar to the way many straight men talk about women — it’s nice to have them around and it’s (of course) great to have sex with them, but they’re so clingy. Overall, it’s just more fun to hang out around masculine guys who share your straight-guy preferences and vocabulary, and who are less emotionally demanding.

One way to interpret this is as defensiveness, of course — these men aren’t actually straight, but identify that way for a number of reasons, including “internalized heterosexism, participation in other-sex marriage and childrearing [which could be complicated if they came out as bi or gay], and enjoyment of straight privilege and culture,” writes Silva. After Jane Ward’s book came out last year, Rich Juzwiak laid out a critique in Gawker that I also saw in many of the responses to my Q&A with her: While Ward sidestepped the question of her subjects’ “actual” sexual orientations — “I am not concerned with whether the men I describe in this book are ‘really’ straight or gay,” she wrote — it should matter. As Juzwiak put it: “Given the cultural incentives that remain for a straight-seeming gay, given the long-road to self-acceptance that makes many feel incapable or fearful of honestly answering questions about identity—which would undoubtedly alter the often vague data that provide the basis for Ward’s arguments—it seems that one should care about the wide canyon between what men claim they are and what they actually are.” In other words, Ward sidestepped an important political and rights minefield by taking her subjects’ claims about their sexuality more or less at face value.

There are certainly some good reasons for sociologists and others to not examine individuals’ claims about their identities too critically. But still: Juzwiak’s critique is important, and it looms large in the background of one particular segment of Silva’s paper. Actually, it turned out, some of Silva’s subjects really weren’t all that opposed to a certain level of deeper engagement with their bud-sex buds, at least when it came to their “regulars,” or the men they hooked up with habitually:

While relationships with regulars were free of romance and deep emotional ties, they were not necessarily devoid of feeling; participants enjoyed regulars for multiple reasons: convenience, comfort, sexual compatibility, or even friendship. Pat described a typical meetup with his regular: “We talk for an hour or so, over coffee … then we’ll go get a blowjob and then, part our ways.” Similarly, Richard noted, “Sex is a very small part of our relationship. It’s more friends, we discuss politics … all sorts of shit.” Likewise, with several of his regulars Billy noted, “I go on road trips, drink beer, go down to the city [to] look at chicks, go out and eat, shoot pool, I got one friend I hike with. It normally leads to sex, but we go out and do activities other than we meet and suck.” While Kevin noted that his regular relationship “has no emotional connection at all,” it also has a friendship-like quality, as evidenced by occasional visits and sleepovers despite almost 100 miles of distance. Similarly, David noted, “If my wife’s gone for a weekend … I’ll go to his place and spend a night or two with him … we obviously do things other than sex, so yeah we go to dinner, go out and go shopping, stuff like that.” Jack explained that with his regular “we connected on Craigslist … [and] became good friends, in addition to havin’ sex … we just made a connection … But there was no love at all.” Thus, bud-sex is predicated on rejecting romantic attachment and deep emotional ties, but not all emotion.

Whatever else is going on here, clearly these men are getting some companionship out of these relationships. It isn’t just about sex if you make a point of getting coffee, and especially if you spend nights together, go shopping or out to dinner, and so on. But there are sturdy incentives in place for them to not take that step of identifying, or identifying fully, as gay or bi. Instead, they frame their bud-sex, even when it’s accompanied by other forms of intimacy, in a way that reinforces their rural, straight masculinity.

It’s important to note that this isn’t some rational decision where the men sit down, list the pros and cons, and say, “Well, I guess coming out just won’t maximize my happiness and well-being.” It’s more subtle than that, given the osmosis-like way we all absorb social norms and mores. In all likelihood, when Silva’s subjects say they’re straight, they mean it: That’s how they feel. But it’s hard not to get the sense that maybe some of them would be happier, or would have made different life decisions, if they had had access to a different, less constricted vocabulary to describe what they want — and who they are.

Complete Article HERE!

4 Steps To Having Open And Honest Talks About Sex With Your Kids

If you don’t, let me tell you who will…

By Lori Beth Bisbey

Many parents find it difficult to talk about sex and intimacy with their children. No one ever taught them how, and it’s understandably uncomfortable. But like anything else, as a parent you need to figure out how and when to discuss sex and intimacy with your child before society does.

Today’s children are at greater risk of developing a warped view of sex and intimacy than ever before. They desperately need you to explain to them your view of what healthy sex and intimacy look like.

When I use the phrase ”warped view” I’m not referring to kinky sex practices or alternative sexuality. I’m far more concerned about the average views regarding sex and sexuality and how they are communicated.

Research shows that young people receive most of their modeling around sexual behavior from the media —  in particular, pornography.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not an anti-pornography stance. My concerns here revolve around the fact young people are getting the majority of their information from such an impersonal source.

While attending the recent TED Women Conference, what I heard from speaker Peggy Orenstein chilled me to the bone.

 


 
Orenstein conducted research focused on girls and sex. She performed an in-depth interview with a group of 70 racially and ethnically diverse girls between the ages of 15 and 20 who identified as either college bound or already in college. Among the group, 10 percent placed themselves on the sexuality spectrum as being either lesbian or bisexual.

Research shows a high prevalence of sexual assault occurs on college campuses. Even in our modern culture we still have difficulty navigating discussions of consent without the inevitable spiral into talk of “false allegations.”

As the mother of a 14 ½-year-old son who has been raised in a complicated family, I strive to give him the tools necessary for negotiating the minefield of sexual and intimate relationships.  

  • He has a variety of people he can talk to about these decisions who I know will always have his back.
  • He knows that he needs to discover his own desires, likes, and dislikes.
  • He knows that his body belongs to him.
  • He knows about consent.
  • He knows to treat his partners with respect and not to be judgmental.
  • He also knows that talking about these things, though potentially embarrassing, is essential to having healthy and satisfying long-term sexual relationships.

As an intimacy coach and a psychologist, I remain concerned for those kids raised in homes in which their parents never even mention sex, the children whose parents are never physically affectionate in front of them, and those in homes in which too much adult sexual behavior is seen.

Paul Bryant, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington, highlights the trouble faced by children learning about sex through pornography in his “sexual script theory” regarding the sexual socialization of teens.

For today’s teen, pornography lays down internal scripts for a variety of sexual behaviors and scenarios.

If parents do not present an alternative view, the only model for how to behave in sexual relationships will come from media — not just pornography, but from music and music videos as well. Without the safeguard of knowing they have a non-judgmental parent to discuss with what they see and learn, they have no meaningful way to understand and consider the positives and negatives among the variety of sexual scripts they see in order to weigh their feeling about the perceived possibilities.

There is no easy fix to this discussion.

As adults, we need to examine the way we relate to sex and how we talk about it with each other. As we become more comfortable talking about sex with our own partners and peers, we will become more confident about discussing it as a parent as well.

To get you on your way, here are 4 steps you can take to begin addressing the problem and have conversations with your child about sex — starting right now.

1. Take a look at your own experiences of sex and sexuality.  

If you have experienced sexual trauma, this is the time to resolve any issues that remain charged or live for you. You may need help to do this or you may already get help through your social support network.

If you haven’t experienced sexual trauma, this is the time to look at any issues, stuck places, and/or negative thought patterns you have in relation to sex and sexual relationships. You can work through this on your own, with your partner, or with your social support network as well.

2. Learn about what is normal for your children at each stage of development.  

Try to do this without judgment. Have a look at what your children are being exposed to in your wider culture. Each of us has our own moral code, and moral codes are constructed whereas sexual development is built as part of a biological process.

You may believe that masturbation is a sin, but this is a moral belief. Biologically, ALL children discover that when they touch their genitals, it feels good. This is the way human beings are constructed. Healthy and comprehensive personal development depends on the combination of biological, psychological, spiritual, and moral development, as well as development that is culture specific.

3. Create a safe space to have intimate conversations with your children.

This may seem like a given, but many homes offer no safe space for a child to bring up issues around sex and sexuality. In many families, these topics are dealt with by simply handing children reading materials. There are some excellent books out there to help children with all manner of topics relating to sex and sexuality, but books are not a substitute for a home environment that fosters safe conversation.

Your children need a place where they can get questions answered. Start creating that safe space to talk about emotions first (if you haven’t already). Once your children are used to talking about more difficult topics and you are used to dealing with these without judgment, with acceptance, and in a way that fosters growth, then you can begin to have the talks about sex.

4. Find out what is age appropriate for your child and pitch your conversation to that level.  

Talking to a five-year-old who asks where babies come from is very different from answering a question about how you get pregnant from a 10-year-old. Keep the conversations short and sweet. Do use videos, audio recordings, and books as aids, and encourage your children to come back to you with questions.

Set up a consistent routine so your child knows there will always be a time and a place to bring up these topics. If you’re not comfortable having these sorts of conversations with your child OR your child is too embarrassed to talk to you, make sure you have an alternate trusted adult (or a few) the child knows they can feel free to approach. Children thrive when they have more than one viewpoint to consider about this amazing, yet complicated part of life.

Remember that this is a process that will continue to take shape throughout your child’s development.

If you do so, then your young adult will also come to you with questions and your adult child will be much more likely to create satisfying intimate relationships for himself or herself.

Children who have self-knowledge and an understanding of the joy and dangers of sex are at lower the risk of becoming victims of sexual assaults.

The more knowledge you possess, the more quickly you are apt to take a firm stance, and therefore the more likely you are to be seen by a perpetrator as a difficult target. Perpetrators go for the softest targets they can find, so the harder a target you make yourself, the more you lower your risks.

So go have that talk!

Complete Article HERE!

Five things that everyone should know about sex

The internet has changed sex and relationships forever. So if your education in the subject stopped at 16, here’s a refresher for the modern world

sex-education

 

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What was your sex education like? Did you get any at all past the age of 16? Given that only a quarter to a third of young people have sex before they are 16, but most will have had sex at least once by the age of 19, it seems remiss not to provide high-quality sex education for the 16-25 age range (especially since that is the age group most at risk of contracting STIs such as chlamydia).

Unfortunately, sex education hasn’t moved on much from puberty, plumbing and prevention, and is often reported as being too little, too late and too biological. In the new internet world order where porn and internet hook-ups prevail, and the use of dating apps by perpetrators of sexual violence was reported last week to have increased sharply, it is time we provided sex and relationships education fit for the 21st century, to help us to enjoy our bodies safely.

So if you missed out on quality sex education, or could do with a top-up, here are five things relating to sex and relationships you might want to think about:

1. Sexuality – We live in a heteronormative world, where gender binary and heterosexual norms prevail. Fixed ideas about sexual identity and sexuality can be limiting. We all need to understand sex as something more than a penis in a vagina and recognise that sex with all sorts of different body parts (or objects) in all sorts of wonderful configurations can be had. That’s not to say you have to experience kinds of sex outside your own comfort levels and boundaries. Be aware of how media, cultural background, gender and power dynamics influence sexuality. Monogamous heterosexuality does not have to be your path.

2) Consent – what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like. Enthusiastic consent should be a baseline expectation, not an aspiration. Without enthusiastic consent then sex is no fun (and quite feasibly rape). If consent is in any doubt at all, you need to stop and check in with your partner. You might even want to think about introducing safe words into your sexual interactions and ensuring you and your partner are confident using them.

‘Taking time to challenge and explore ideas around pleasure will help with your sex education.’

‘Taking time to challenge and explore ideas around pleasure will help with your sex education.’

3) Pleasure – sex can be one of the most awesomely fun things you do with your body. All sorts of things can affect your ability to give and receive pleasure, including your upbringing, self-confidence, physical and mental health, and communication skills. If sex isn’t pleasurable and fun for you, what needs to change? It is worth noting that male pleasure is generally prioritised over female pleasure. Consider, for example, when you would consider a penis-in-vagina sexual interaction to be finished – at male orgasm or female orgasm?

Taking time to challenge and explore ideas around pleasure as well as deepening your understanding of your own body (in other words, masturbation) will help with your sex education. Always remember, you don’t have to have sex if you don’t want to.

4) Health and wellbeing – Love your body and know what is normal for you. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. There are all sorts of pressures on us to make our bodies look a certain way, but take some time to appreciate the non-photoshopped, non-pornified variation in our bodies. Your shape and size (of penis, or breasts) do not matter – sex can be the best jigsaw puzzle, and genuine confidence in your body can help you figure out how to use it as an instrument for pleasure.

Knowing what is normal for you is also really important. There are women who continually get treated for thrush bacterial vaginosis and cystitis because they do not understand vaginal flora and the natural discharge variation in their monthly cycle. Nobody told them that having a wee shortly after sex is a good idea.

5) Safety – We are often taught to override our gut feelings. This sometimes stems from childhood, when adults have ignored our bodily autonomy. However it is vital we remember to tune into our gut instincts, especially given the rise in internet dating and internet dating-related crime. Being aware of your own personal safety and sexual boundaries when internet dating is essential.

Remember that no matter how you have been socialised, you do not need to be polite to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable. No is a complete sentence. If someone does not respect your right to bodily autonomy and violates your consent, it is never your fault; the blame lies entirely with them. Always trust your “spidey” sense – if it is tingling, it is trying to tell you something isn’t right, be that a relationship with unhealthy elements, or plans to meet up for a blind date. If a situation doesn’t feel right, think about what needs to change.

Complete Article HERE!

How do women really know if they are having an orgasm?

Dr Nicole Prause is challenging bias against sexual research to unravel apparent discrepancies between physical signs and what women said they experienced

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It’s not always clear if a woman is really having an orgasm, as Meg Ryan demonstrated in When Harry Met Sally.

It’s not always clear if a woman is really having an orgasm, as Meg Ryan demonstrated in When Harry Met Sally.

In the nascent field of orgasm research, much of the data relies on subjects self-reporting, and in men, there’s some pretty clear physiological feedback in the form of ejaculation.

But how do women know for sure if they are climaxing? What if the sensation they have associated with climax is actually one of the the early foothills of arousal? And how does a woman know when if she has had an orgasm?

Neuroscientist Dr Nicole Prause set out to answer these questions by studying orgasms in her private laboratory. Through better understanding of what happens in the body and the brain during arousal and orgasm, she hopes to develop devices that can increase sex drive without the need for drugs.

Understanding orgasm begins with a butt plug. Prause uses the pressure-sensitive anal gauge to detect the contractions typically associated with orgasm in both men and women. Combined with EEG, which measures brain activity, this allows for a more accurate picture of a woman’s arousal and orgasm.

Dr Nicole Prause has founded Liberos to study brain stimulation and desire.

Dr Nicole Prause has founded Liberos to study brain stimulation and desire.

When Prause began studying women in this way she noticed something surprising. “Many of the women who reported having an orgasm were not having any of the physical signs – the contractions – of an orgasm.”

It’s not clear why that is, but it is clear that we don’t know an awful lot about orgasms and sexuality. “We don’t think they are faking,” she said. “My sense is that some women don’t know what an orgasm is. There are lots of pleasure peaks that happen during intercourse. If you haven’t had contractions you may not know there’s something different.”

Prause, an ultramarathon runner and keen motorcyclist in her free time, started her career at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, where she was awarded a doctorate in 2007. Studying the sexual effects of a menopause drug, she first became aware of the prejudice against the scientific study of sexuality in the US.

When her high-profile research examining porn “addiction” found the condition didn’t fit the same neurological patterns as nicotine, cocaine or gambling, it was an unpopular conclusion among people who believe they do have a porn addiction.

The evolution of design of the anal pressure gauge used in Nicole Prause’s lab to detect orgasmic contractions.

The evolution of design of the anal pressure gauge used in Nicole Prause’s lab to detect orgasmic contractions.

“People started posting stories online that I had falsified my data and I received all kinds of sexist attacks,” she said. Soon anonymous emails of complaint were turning up at the office of the president of UCLA, where she worked from 2012 to 2014, demanding that Prause be fired.

Does orgasm benefit mental health?

Prause pushed on with her research, but repeatedly came up against challenges when seeking approval for studies involving orgasms. “I tried to do a study of orgasms while at UCLA to pilot a depression intervention. UCLA rejected it after a seven-month review,” she said. The ethics board told her that to proceed, she would need to remove the orgasm component – rendering the study pointless.

Undeterred, Prause left to set up her sexual biotech company Liberos, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, in 2015. The company has been working on a number of studies, including one exploring the benefits and effectiveness of “orgasmic meditation”, working with specialist company OneTaste.

Part of the “slow sex” movement, the practice involves a woman having her clitoris stimulated by a partner – often a stranger – for 15 minutes. “This orgasm state is different,” claims OneTaste’s website. “It is goalless, intuitive, and dynamic. It flows all over the place with no set direction. It may include climax, or it may not. In Orgasm 2.0, we learn to listen to what our body wants instead of what we think we ‘should’ want.”

Prause wants to determine whether arousal has any wider benefits for mental health. “The folks that practice this claim it helps with stress and improves your ability to deal with emotional situations even though as a scientist it seems pretty explicitly sexual to me,” she said.

Prause is examining orgasmic meditators in the laboratory, measuring finger movements of the partner, as well as brainwave activity, galvanic skin response and vaginal contractions of the recipient. Before and after measuring bodily changes, researchers run through questions to determine physical and mental states. Prause wants to determine whether achieving a level of arousal requires effort or a release in control. She then wants to observe how Orgasmic Meditation affects performance in cognitive tasks, how it changes reactivity to emotional images and how it compares with regular meditation.

Brain stimulation is ‘theoretically possible’

Another research project is focused on brain stimulation, which Prause believes could provide an alternative to drugs such as Addyi, the “female Viagra”. The drug had to be taken every day, couldn’t be mixed with alcohol and its side-effects can include sudden drops in blood pressure, fainting and sleepiness. “Many women would rather have a glass of wine than take a drug that’s not very effective every day,” said Prause.

The field of brain stimulation is in its infancy, though preliminary studies have shown that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which uses direct electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain, can help with depression, anxiety and chronic pain but can also cause burns on the skin. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a magnet to activate the brain, has been used to treat depression, psychosis and anxiety, but can also cause seizures, mania and hearing loss.

Prause is studying whether these technologies can treat sexual desire problems. In one study, men and women receive two types of magnetic stimulation to the reward center of their brains. After each session, participants are asked to complete tasks to see how their responsiveness to monetary and sexual rewards (porn) has changed.

With DCS, Prause wants to stimulate people’s brains using direct currents and then fire up tiny cellphone vibrators that have been glued to the participants’ genitals. This provides sexual stimulation in a way that eliminates the subjectivity of preferences people have for pornography.

“We already have a basic functioning model,” said Prause. “The barrier is getting a device that a human can reliably apply themselves without harming their own skin.”


 
There is plenty of skepticism around the science of brain stimulation, a technology which has already spawned several devices including the headset Thync, which promises users an energy boost, and Foc.us, which claims to help with endurance.

Neurologist Steven Novella from the Yale School of Medicine uses brain stimulation devices in clinical trials to treat migraines, but he says there’s not enough clinical evidence to support these emerging consumer devices. “There’s potential for physical harm if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “From a theoretical point of view these things are possible, but in terms of clinical claims they are way ahead of the curve here. It’s simultaneously really exciting science but also premature pseudoscience.”

Biomedical engineer Marom Bikson, who uses tDCS to treat depression at the City College of New York, agrees. “There’s a lot of snake oil.”

Sexual problems can be emotional and societal

Prause, also a licensed psychologist, is keen to avoid overselling brain stimulation. “The risk is that it will seem like an easy, quick fix,” she said. For some, it will be, but for others it will be a way to test whether brain stimulation can work – which Prause sees as a more balanced approach than using medication. “To me, it is much better to help provide it for people likely to benefit from it than to try to create fake problems to sell it to everyone.”

Sexual problems can be triggered by societal pressures that no device can fix. “There’s discomfort and anxiety and awkwardness and shame and lack of knowledge,” said psychologist Leonore Tiefer, who specializes in sexuality. Brain stimulation is just one of many physical interventions companies are trying to develop to make money, she says. “There’s a million drugs under development. Not just oral drugs but patches and creams and nasal sprays, but it’s not a medical problem,” she said.

Thinking about low sex drive as a medical condition requires defining what’s normal and what’s unhealthy. “Sex does not lend itself to that kind of line drawing. There is just too much variability both culturally and in terms of age, personality and individual differences. What’s normal for me is not normal for you, your mother or your grandmother.”

And Prause says that no device is going to solve a “Bob problem” – when a woman in a heterosexual couple isn’t getting aroused because her partner’s technique isn’t any good. “No pills or brain stimulation are going to fix that,” she said.

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