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How a Cervical Cancer Scare Made Me Take My Sexual Health More Seriously Than Ever

My doctor’s advice on how to not get HPV again threw me for a loop.

By Rachel Bowyer

Before I had an abnormal Pap smear five years ago, I didn’t even really know what that meant. I’d been going to the gyno since I was a teenager, but I never once really thought about what a Pap smear was actually testing for. I just knew I’d have a “twinge” of discomfort, as my doc always says, and then it would be over. But when my doctor called me to tell me I needed to come back in for more testing, I was pretty concerned. (Here, find more on how to decipher your abnormal Pap smear results.)

She assured me that abnormal Paps are actually quite normal, especially for women in their 20s. Why? Well, the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to get human papillomavirus (HPV), which is what generally causes the abnormal results. I quickly found out that it was the cause of mine, too. Most of the time, HPV resolves on its own, but in some cases, it can escalate into cervical cancer. What I didn’t know at the time is that there are several steps between testing positive for HPV and actually having cervical cancer. After having a couple of colposcopies, procedures where a tiny bit of tissue is removed from your cervix for closer examination (yes, it’s as uncomfortable as it sounds), we discovered that I had what’s known as high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions. That’s just a technical way of saying that the HPV I had was more advanced and more likely to turn into cancer than other kinds. I was scared, and I got even more scared when I found out I had to have a procedure to remove the tissue on my cervix that was affected, and that it needed to be done ASAP—before it got worse. (According to new research, cervical cancer is deadlier than previously thought.)

Within two weeks of finding out about my abnormal Pap, I had something called a loop extrosurgical excision procedure, or LEEP for short. It involves using a very thin wire with an electrical current to cut away precancerous tissue from the cervix. Normally, this can be done with local anesthesia, but after an attempt that went awry (apparently, local anesthetic isn’t as effective for everyone as it’s supposed to be, and I found that out the hard way…), I had to make a second trip to the hospital to have it done. This time, I was sedated. After six weeks, I was declared healthy and ready to go, and told I needed to have a Pap smear every three months for the next year. Then, I’d go back to having them once yearly. Let’s just say I’m not a great patient, so after all was said and done I knew I never wanted to have to go through this process again. Since there are over 100 strains of HPV, I knew it was a real possibility that I could contract it again. Only a small number of the strains cause cancer, but at that point, I really didn’t want to take any chances.

When I asked my doctor how to prevent this situation from happening again, her advice really surprised me. “Become monogamous,” she said. “That’s my only option?” I thought. I was dealing with the perils of the New York City dating scene at the time, and at that point couldn’t even imagine meeting someone I’d want to go on more than five dates with, let alone finding my mate for life. I had always been under the impression that as long as I was *safe* about sex, opting not to settle down wouldn’t be detrimental to my health. I almost always used condoms and got tested for STIs regularly.

Turns out, even if you use a condom every single time you have sex, you can still get HPV because condoms don’t offer complete protection against it. Even when used correctly, you can still have skin-to-skin contact when using a condom, which is how HPV is passed from one person to another. Pretty crazy, right? I didn’t think there was anything wrong with not wanting to be monogamous (and still don’t), so it was hard to grasp the fact that my ideological stance on sex was directly opposed to what was best for my sexual health. Was my only option truly to settle down at 23 and decide to only have sex with one person for the rest of my life? I wasn’t ready for that.

But according to my doctor, the answer was essentially, yes. To me, this seemed extreme. She repeated to me that the fewer partners you have, the lower your risk of contracting HPV. Of course, she was right. Though you can still get HPV from a long-term partner that could take years to show up, once your body clears whatever strains they have, you won’t be able to get it from them again. As long as you and your partner are only having sex with each other, you’re good to go in terms of re-infection. At the time, I was pretty taken aback by the fact that the best thing I could do to protect my sexual health was basically to not have sex until I found “the one.” What if I never found that person? Should I just be celibate forever!? For the next couple of years every time I even thought about having sex with someone, I had to ask myself, “Is this really worth it?” Talk about a mood killer. (FYI, these STIs are much harder to get rid of than they used to be.)

Truthfully, it didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing. Whenever I decided to have sex with someone in the years after that, not only did I follow safe-sex practices to the letter, but I also knew that I had strong enough feelings about the other person for it to be worth the risk I was facing. Basically, that meant I was genuinely emotionally invested in every person I slept with. While some would say that’s how it should be all the time, I don’t really subscribe to that school of thought—in principle. In practice, however, I did save myself a ton of heartache. Since I had fewer partners who I got to know better, I dealt with less post-sex ghosting. Some people might not mind that, but even when I wasn’t super-invested in someone, the ghosting part almost always sucked.

Now, five years later, I happen to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. While I can’t say that it happened directly because of my experience or my doctor’s advice, it’s certainly a relief when what your heart wants and what’s best for your health happen to match up. And not having to constantly worry about HPV the way I once did? Love.

Complete Article HERE!

How our culture of kink-shaming is making us much less sexually liberated than we think

Why do people with fetish preferences feel stigmatised despite the success of Fifty Shades of Grey?

By Olivia Blair

We now live in a society which is more open and positive about sex than ever before, but one expert says we’re not as sexually free and liberated as our post-1960s society would have us believe.

In his new book, Modern Sexuality: The Truth about Sex and Relationships, Dr Michael Aaron suggests that there is still widespread stigma surrounding sexuality in the modern age. People who have unconventional sexual fantasies are forced into the shadows, and often do not reveal them even to their partners.

He adds that the dialogue around sex in society is often one layered with shame, regulation and restriction.

“I think that laws and attitudes towards sexuality are one of the clearest reflections of the level of freedom afforded in a society. That’s because sexuality is so core to our identities, that censoring it also inevitably has the effect of censoring individual expression,” Dr Aaron told The Independent.

The doctor, who lives in New York City, actually singles out UK laws as one of the most prominent examples of ways in which our sexuality is supposedly restricted. He hones in on the Digital Economy Bill which is currently going through the House of Lords.

The bill proposes to ban a large number of “non-conventional sexual acts” in pornography which is believed to include female ejaculation, sexual acts involving menstruation and urination, and spanking, whipping or canning which leave marks.

He says the inclusion of female ejaculation, menstruation and fisting on the ban-list is “nonsense” and says “it is no coincidence that these laws are introduced at a time when British politics is veering more hard right”.

Dr Aaron also points to laws which regulate, and in some cases criminalise, sex work as examples of infringes upon sexual freedoms.

“Perhaps nowhere else is the government regulation of sex more apparent than in the area of sex work,” he writes arguing that government crackdowns on any kind of sexual behaviour “prevent for the possibility for an honest and open discussion on what sex work means for its participants and how society can provide appropriate resources for those who do choose sex work”.

Laws surrounding pornography and sex work are extreme examples of where sexuality is marginalised in society. However, Dr Aaron says in his therapy sessions he encounters lots of patients who feel shamed over their sexual preferences even when it is no longer considered taboo in society.

“I still have a number of clients who have difficulty coming out and are conflicted about their orientation even though same-sex marriage was approved by the US Supreme Court almost two years ago and issues around homosexuality have been brought into public awareness. Similarly, I see a number of individuals ashamed of their fetishistic interests even though Fifty Shades of Grey just came out with a sequel and the trilogy has sold over 100 million copies.

“There is a big difference between externally accepting something and truly believing it and feeling internally congruent. As a result, even though society has made tremendous progress, I believe most individuals, even the most liberated by all appearances, still carry internal remnants of sexual shame and stigma.”

So how do we liberate ourselves and challenge both internal and external restrictions on our sexuality? Dr Aaron says education is key.

“Right now, a number of young adults and teenagers get all of their sex education from porn, which is like trying to learn about geopolitics by watching the latest Bond movie. In many ways, trying to protect individuals from sex only hurts them further.”

He argues education will also ensure those with less mainstream sexual desires experience less shame and stigma and feel part of the conversation.

“Transparency around sex leads to a more humanistic, supportive, and nurturing society, that is accepting of individuality and unique consensual behaviours, rather one that is authoritarian, patriarchal, and punitive. I think our challenge as a society is to evolve past basic group needs that may be anachronistic and no longer necessary.”

Complete Article HERE!

How Straight Men Who Have Sex With Men Explain Their Encounters

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The subject of straight-identifying men who have sex with other men is a fascinating one, in that it shines a light on some extremely potent, personal concepts pertaining to identity and sexuality and one’s place in society. That’s why some sociologists and other researchers have been very eager to seek out such men and hear them explain how they fit same-sex sexual activity into their conception of heterosexuality.

The latest such research comes in the journal Sexualities, from Héctor Carrillo and Amanda Hoffman of Northwestern University. They conducted 100 interviews, with men who identified as straight but sought out casual sex with men online, hoping to better understand this population. A big chunk of the article consists of snippets from those interviews, which were primarily conducted online by three female researchers, and at the end Carillo and Hoffman sum up what they found:

They interpret that they are exclusively or primarily attracted to women, and many also conclude that they have no sexual attraction to men in spite of their desire to have sex with men. They define sexual attraction as a combination of physical and emotional attraction, and they assess that their interest in women includes both, while their interest in men is purely or mainly sexual, not romantic or emotional. Moreover, some perceive that they are not drawn toward male bodies in the same way as they are drawn to female bodies, and some observe that the only physical part of a man that interests them is his penis. Men in the latter group do not find men handsome or attractive, but they do find penises attractive, and they thus see penises as ‘living dildos’ or, in other words, disembodied objects of desire that provide a source of sexual pleasure. Finally, as a management strategy for judging that their sexual interest in women is greater and more intense than their interest in men, they sometimes limit their repertoires of same-sex sexual practices or interpret them as less important than their sexual practices with women. That way, they can tell themselves that their sexual interest in women is unbounded, while their sexual interest in men is not.

All this contributes to their sense that they qualify as being called straight or heterosexual, even when some also recognize that their sexualities do indeed differ from exclusive heterosexuality, which in turn leads them to adopt secondary descriptors of their sexual identities. As indicated by the variety of terms that they used, those descriptors often reinforce a perception that, as a sexual orientation category, heterosexuality is elastic instead of rigid — that some degree of samesex desire and behaviour need not automatically push an individual out of the heterosexual category. And while some men are willing to recognize that their sexual behaviours might qualify their being called bisexual — and they may privately identify with that label — they feel that there is no contradiction between holding a private awareness of being bisexual and a public persona as straight or heterosexual. Again, this conclusion is strengthened by a lack of social incentives to adopt bisexual identities.

It’s interesting to keep that interpretation in mind as you read the interview snippets. Take, for example, the men who sought to make it very clear that while they sometimes got with men, they really liked women:

I know what I like. I like pussy. I like women … the more the merrier … I would kiss a woman. ANYWHERE. I can barely hug a man … I do have a healthy sexual imagination and wonder about other things in the sexual realm I’ve never done … Sometimes I get naughty and explore … That’s how I see it. [Reggie, 28]

Women are hot … I can see a beautiful woman walk down the street and I instantly can become hard and get horny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy walking by and got a boner. Also, I would not want to kiss or make out with them or love them. They would be more like a sexual experience. [Charlie, 32]

Some of the men did think that their behavior possibly qualified them as bisexual, but didn’t quite want to take the step of identifying as such:

I think everybody is a little bi. Isn’t that what this research is about? There’s the Kinsey scale … It’s not like Bush saying you’re either with us or with the terrorists. I think I’m probably bi but what I present to the world is a heterosexual man. Internally I’m bi, but that’s not something most people know. I’m not ashamed, but the majority of people are ignorant and close-minded. [Simon, 27]

I am not openly bisexual to society except in sexual situations … I don’t have relationships with men; I am in a relationship with my wife and only love her. [I’m bisexual] only with men behind closed doors. [Dustin, 28]

In addition to being perhaps the first instance in recorded history of someone comparing their sexual orientation to George W. Bush’s counterterrorism doctrine, Simon’s statement contains an important point: Carrillo and Hoffman note that many of their respondents simply “see no real personal or social advantages that would stem from publicly adopting an identity as bisexual or gay.” In many cases, it may not be in their interests to do so — hence the compartmentalization of their same-sex encounters.

Another reason for such compartmentalization is that it allows some men the opportunity to explore parts of their identities they feel they couldn’t safely in heterosexual settings:

For most of my sex life I’m in control of things. I’m not a boss at work anymore but I’ve been in situations where I’ve managed a hundred people at a time. I take care of my family. I take care of my kids. I’m a good father. I’m a good husband in providing material things for my wife … I’m in charge in a lot of places … There’s times when I don’t want to be in charge and I want someone to be in charge of me … that’s what brings me over [to] the bisexuals … it’s kind of submitting to another guy or being used by another guy. [Russell, 54]

“Interestingly,” write Carrillo and Hoffman, “being dominated by a man seemed to them less threatening than being dominated by a steady female partner, perhaps because it could be construed as a temporary fantasy, instead of meaning a permanent change in the gender balance.”

This same dynamic popped up the last study on this subject I covered — the idea that men “get” something about sex that women don’t, and that because there’s a fully mutual understanding that what’s going on is just sex, same-sex experiences can be set off safely away from the rest of one’s (heterosexual) identity. You can be a “good father,” which many men imply to mean being a strong, straight man, while still messing around with men on the side. From these men’s perspective, they can have it both ways — the privileges of identifying as straight and the pleasure and excitement of same-sex relationships on the side — without their identity being threatened.

Complete Article HERE!

How your sex life can be improved with mindfulness

Being more present with each other can lead to better sex, therapists say

 

By Olivia Blair

People have turned to mindfulness to make them happier, less stressed and even more able to deal with their mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression – but could it improve your sex life too?

Being mindful essentially means being present and aware of both yourself and your surroundings. The brain is trained to deal with negative and anxious or depressive thoughts through breathing and meditation exercises all stemming in part from ancient Buddhist philosophy.

While therapists are increasingly using it as part of their individual counselling, sex and relationship therapists have also adopted the advice.

“In its broad terms, mindfulness means focusing on the present moment so with couples, because they are often so distracted, stressed and over-committed, it can lead to lots of couples’ mind being elsewhere. A classic complaint is that a partner is distracted,” Krystal Woodbridge, a psychosexual therapist and a trustee of the college of relationship and sexual therapists says. “Mindfulness can mean you are really present with your partner and actually experiencing them in the moment and really paying attention to them.”

This in turn can then lead to better sex – because when partners really feel like they are being listened to, focused on and paid attention to is when better trust is going to be built so they are more likely to be intimate with someone.

“Really being in the moment, noticing their partners body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and what is actually being said is hard to do but it is being present,” Woodbridge says. “… It builds rapport. It you don’t have rapport, you don’t have trust. If you don’t have trust you are not going to be intimate with that person as you are not going to allow yourself tp be vulnerable with them.”

When clients put mindfulness into practice with each other, even if it is a struggle because they are so used to being distracted, it often has a “massive impact on their relationship and sex lives”, Woodbridge says.

Additionally, if someone is struggling with an issue in their sex life such as a performance issue like impotence or the inability to orgasm, mindfulness can also help in this aspect.

“In a sexual scenario what can happen is ‘spectatoring’, which is when a person is not paying attention to arousal or enjoyment and are instead observing and over-analysing themselves fearing the worst. If it is an erectile problem they will be hoping it does not fail or will feel anxious about whether their partner is enjoying it,” Woodbridge explains. “Spectatoring is often quite self-fulfilling so the person might not be able to maintain their erection, will experience sexual pain or they will just feel completely unconfident so they get into a horrible cycle.”

Sex therapists will therefore instruct the client to be mindful and to notice how they are feeling, even if that feeling is anxiety. Once they are aware they feel anxious or nervous they can focus on bringing the mind back to the physical feelings, such as arousal, and divert their focus to this instead.

“Mindfulness gets the person to notice when they are ‘spectatoring’, notice that they are distracted and not focusing on their arousal and physical sensations. It is hard in that moment as the person is anxious but if you don’t the mind will wander and go elsewhere,” Ms Woodbridge explains.

Ammanda Major, a trained sex therapist and head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate told The Independent they regularly introduce mindfulness to their sex therapy sessions for couples.

“We use mindfulness in sex therapy to help people experience more pleasure by being able to relax and stay focused and present in the moment.  Mindfulness can also benefit our relationships as a whole by relieving stress, building intimacy and enhancing inner peace. This in turn allows us to have more positive interactions with our partners,” she said.

She says couples can try mindfulness exercises at home, such as the following:

Individually: 

“Set some time aside every day to focus on your breathing. It doesn’t have to be long to begin with – maybe start with just five minutes a day and work your way up to 20. 

A good way to start is on your own with no distractions.  Close your eyes, relax and start to become aware of how you’re breathing. Breathe in slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this and gradually become aware of sensations in your body. Recognise and welcome them and then allow those thoughts to drift away to be replaced with other feelings as they arise. Notice what you’re experiencing and feeling. The aim is to let go: rather than reject intrusive thoughts, just let them drift away.”

With a partner:

“Once you’ve practised the breathing exercise a few times on your own, why not with your partner?  Sit facing and look into each other’s eyes.  Breathe slowly in through your nose and exhale through your mouth as before but this time synchronise your breathing.  Do this for several minutes – it may feel a little strange at first but stick with it and it can have powerful results, increasing feelings of relaxation and intimacy.”

Complete Article HERE!

Time to make room for sex in our care homes

We need to open up to the significance of love and sexuality in later life

The persistence of romantic love in long-term relationships is, unsurprisingly, associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction.

By

Although Valentine’s Day is often criticised as a cynical creation by florists and the greeting cards industry, it is a useful focal point for considering love and sexuality as elements of human wellbeing that often escape attention in healthcare.

This neglect is most marked in later life, when popular discourse on late life romance is dominated by simple notions of asexuality or by ribald jokes

There are many reasons why healthcare professionals need to learn more about human love and sexuality, not least of which is a fuller understanding of the nature and meaning of ageing.

exuality is a core element of human nature, encompassing a wide range of aspects over and above those related to genital functions, and the medical literature has rightly been criticised for taking too narrow a vision of sexuality.

We need to open up to the continuing significance of love and sexuality into later life

This narrow vision is paralleled by a steady trend in the neurosciences of “neuroreductionism”, an over-simplistic analysis of which parts of the brain light up in sophisticated scanners on viewing photos of a loved one.

We need to open up to the continuing significance of love and sexuality into later life, understanding that sexuality includes a broad range of attributes, including intimacy, appearance, desirability, physical contact and new possibilities.

Studies

Numerous studies affirm sexual engagement into the extremes of life, with emerging research on the continuing importance of romantic love into late life. There is also reassuring data on the persistence of romantic love in long-term relationships, unsurprisingly associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction.

A growing literature sheds light on developing new relationships in later life, with a fascinating Australian study on online dating which subverts two clichés – that older people are asexual and computer illiterate.

The challenge in ageing is best reflected in the extent to which we enable and support intimacy and sexuality in nursing homes. Although for many this is their new home, the interaction of institutional life (medication rounds, meals), issues of staff training and lack of attention to design of spaces that foster intimacy can check the ability to foster relationships and express sexuality.

For example, is the resident’s room large enough for a sofa or domestic furnishings that reflects one’s style, personality and sense of the romantic? Are sitting spaces small and domestic rather than large day rooms? Do care routines allow for privacy and intimacy? Is there access to a selection of personal clothes, make-up and hairdressing?

Granted, there can also be complicated issues when residents with dementia enter new relationships and the need to ensure consent in a sensitive manner, but these should be manageable with due training and expertise in gerontological nursing and appropriate specialist advice.

Supports

A medical humanities approach can provide useful supports in education from many sources, ranging from literature ( Love in the Time of Cholera), film ( 45 Years or the remarkable and explicit Cloud 9 from 2009) or opera (Janácek’s Cunning Little Vixen, a musical reflection of the septuagenarian composer’s passion for the younger Kamila Stösslová).

We, as present and future older Irish people, also need to take a step back and consider if we are comfortable with a longer view on romance and sexuality.

The Abbey Theatre did us considerable service in 2015 with a wonderful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a nursing home. We were struck by a vivid sense of the inner vitality of these older people, suffused with desire, passion and romance.

This contemporary understanding of companionship and sexuality in later life was enhanced by casting Egeus as a son exercised about his mother’s romantic choices instead of a father at odds with his daughter.

We can also take heart from an early pioneer of ageing and sexuality, the late Alex Comfort. Best known for his ground-breaking The Joy of Sex, he was also a gerontologist of distinction, and wrote knowledgeably about the intersection of both subjects with characteristic humour.

He wrote that the things that stop you having sex with age are exactly the same as those that stop you riding a bicycle: bad health, thinking it looks silly or having no bicycle, with the difference being that they happen later for sex than for the bicycle.

His openness and encouragement for our future mirror Thomas Kinsella’s gritty poem on love in later life, Legendary Figures in Old Age, which ends with the line: ‘We cannot renew the Gift but we can drain it to the last drop.’

Complete Article HERE!