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Toddler play may give clues to sexual orientation

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A controversial study finds children who engage in more gender-stereotypical play are more likely to self-identify as heterosexual later in life.

By Michael Price

The objects and people children play with as early as toddlerhood may provide clues to their eventual sexual orientation, reveals the largest study of its kind. The investigation, which tracked more than 4500 kids over the first 15 years of their lives, seeks to answer one of the most controversial questions in the social sciences, but experts are mixed on the findings.

“Within its paradigm, it’s one of the better studies I’ve seen,” says Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor emerita of biology and gender studies at Brown University. The fact that it looks at development over time and relies on parents’ observations is a big improvement over previous studies that attempted to answer similar questions based on respondents’ own, often unreliable, memories, she says. “That being said … they’re still not answering questions of how these preferences for toys or different kinds of behaviors develop in the first place.”

The new study builds largely on research done in the 1970s by American sex and gender researcher Richard Green, who spent decades investigating sexuality. He was influential in the development of the term “gender identity disorder” to describe stress and confusion over one’s sex and gender, though the term—and Green’s work more broadly—has come under fire from many psychologists and social scientists today who say it’s wrong to label someone’s gender and sexuality “disordered.”

In the decades since, other studies have reported that whether a child plays along traditional gender lines can predict their later sexual orientation. But these have largely been criticized for their small sample sizes, for drawing from children who exhibit what the authors call “extreme” gender nonconformity, and for various other methodological shortcomings.

Seeking to improve on this earlier research, Melissa Hines, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, turned to data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The study includes thousands of British children born in the 1990s. Parents observed and reported various aspects of their children’s behavior, which Hines and her Cambridge colleague, Gu Li, analyzed for what they call male-typical or female-typical play.

An example of stereotypical male-typical play, as defined by the study, would include playing with toy trucks, “rough-and-tumble” wrestling, and playing with other boys. Female-typical play, on the other hand, would include dolls, playing house, and playing with other girls.

Hines and Li looked at parental reporting of children’s play at ages 2.5, 3.5, and 4.75 years old, and arranged them on a scale of one to 100, with lower scores meaning more female-typical play and higher scores more male-typical play. They then compared those results to the participants’ self-reported responses as teenagers to a series of internet-administered questions about their sexuality.

Beginning with the 3.5-year-old age group, the team found that children who engaged mostly in “gender-conforming” play (boys who played with trucks and girls who played with dolls, as an example) were likely to report being heterosexual at age 15, whereas the teenagers who reported being gay, lesbian, or not strictly heterosexual were more likely to engage in “gender-nonconforming” play. The same pattern held true when they expanded the teenagers’ choices to a five-point spectrum ranging from 100% heterosexual to 100% homosexual.

Teens who described themselves as lesbian scored on average about 10 points higher on the gender-play scale at age 4.75 (meaning more stereotypically male play) than their heterosexual peers, and teens who described themselves as gay men scored about 10 points lower on the scale than their peers, the researchers report in Developmental Psychology. Questions of transgender identity were not addressed in the study.

“I think it’s remarkable that childhood gender-typed behavior measured as early as age 3.5 years is associated with sexual orientation 12 years later,” wrote Li in an email. “The findings help us to understand variability in sexual orientation and could have implications for understanding the origins of this variability.”

The paper “is just a well-done study in terms of getting around some of the problems that have plagued the field,” says Simon LeVay, a retired neuroscientist whose 1991 paper in Science sparked interest in brain differences associated with sexual identity. “It shows that something is going on really early in life and points away from things like role modeling and adolescent experiences as reasons for becoming gay.”

Others dispute the paper’s methods and significance. Parents’ own beliefs and biases about gender almost certainly influence how they described their children’s gendered play, which could skew their reporting, says Patrick Ryan Grzanka, a psychologist who studies sexuality and multicultural issues at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. But more worrisome to him are the cultural assumptions underlying the study itself. The authors appear to regard gender nonconformity as the primary marker of gayness, which doesn’t align with current research suggesting that your individual preferences for either stereotypically male or female behaviors and traits has little to do with your sexual orientation, he says.

Grzanka is also dismayed that the paper fails to critique the history of similar research that investigated whether childhood behaviors lined up with eventual sexual orientation. It wasn’t long ago that such research was used to stigmatize and pathologize gender-nonconforming children, he says. “I think it’s important to ask why we’re so invested in this purported link [between gender conformity and sexuality] in the first place.”

Complete Article HERE!

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How your sex life can be improved with mindfulness

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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!

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Time to make room for sex in our care homes

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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.

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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!

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Childhood cancer treatment may hinder later-life sexual relationships

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Neurotoxic treatment for cancer during childhood may influence sexual activity and relationships in adulthood, according to new research.

Study co-author Vicky Lehmann, Ph.D., of Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University – both in Columbus, OH – and colleagues found that adults who received high-intensity neurotoxic treatment for cancer as a child were less likely to meet certain sexual and romantic milestones.

However, the team found that childhood cancer treatment did not affect overall satisfaction for sexual and romantic relationships in adulthood.

Lehmann and team recently reported their findings in the journal Cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that around 10,380 children aged 15 and under were diagnosed with cancer in the United States last year.

Leukemia is the most common form of childhood cancer, accounting for around 30 percent of all cases, followed by brain and spinal cord tumors, which make up around 26 percent of all childhood cancer cases.

Childhood cancer treatment and psychosexual development

While cancer was responsible for more than 1,200 childhood deaths last year, over 80 percent of children diagnosed with the disease will survive for at least 5 years. This is due to significant advances in cancer treatment, which include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

However, such treatment is certainly not without risk. For example, studies have shown that cranial radiation – often used to treat brain tumors – may cause harm to the developing brain, leading to long-term neurocognitive impairment.

Previous research has shown that neurocognitive impairment as a result of childhood cancer treatment may impact social interaction in adulthood, but studies investigating the effects of such treatment on psychosexual development are few and far between.

“Psychosexual development entails reaching certain milestones, such as sexual debut, entering committed relationships, or having children.

It is a normative part of becoming an adolescent or young adult, but only comparing such milestones without taking satisfaction into account falls short. These issues are understudied among survivors of childhood cancer.”

Vicky Lehmann, Ph.D.

To address this gap in research, the team enrolled 144 survivors of childhood cancer aged between 20 and 40. A further 144 participants who were not treated for childhood cancer (the controls) were matched by age and sex.

All participants completed questionnaires on psychosexual development, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction.

To determine the brain toxicity of cancer treatments in childhood, the researchers used data from the participants’ medical charts.

Neurotoxic cancer treatment might predict later-life psychosexual issues

Overall, the team found that adults who were treated for cancer in childhood did not differ significantly from the controls in terms of psychosexual development, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction.

However, on analyzing subgroups of childhood cancer survivors, the researchers found that those who previously received treatments high in neurotoxicity were less likely to have had sexual intercourse, be in a relationship, or have had children, compared with controls.

The type of cancer treatment in childhood did not appear to affect sexual satisfaction, the team reports. “This highlights the subjective nature of psychosexual issues, and the importance of addressing any concerns in survivorship care,” notes Lehmann.

The researchers say that their findings indicate that the neurotoxicity of cancer treatment in childhood may predict the likelihood of psychosexual problems in adulthood. They add:

“Additional research is needed to delineate how neurocognitive impairment undermines social outcomes for survivors, as well as other related factors.

Given the findings of the current study, healthcare providers should assess romantic/sexual problems among survivors, especially those who received high-dose neurotoxic treatments. Referrals to psychosocial care could prevent or reduce potential difficulties.”

 
Complete Article HERE!

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Have you ever had ‘unjust sex’?

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Unthinkable: Examples include ‘women being pressured – not quite to the point of outright coercion – to have sex, or to have sex without contraception’, says philosopher Ann Cahill

“We need to remember that sexual assault is not the only kind of sexual interaction that is ethically problematic,” says author Ann Cahill.

By

Uncertainty surrounding the boundaries of ethical sexual activity is not confined to boozed-up young adults or American presidents. Among academics there is discussion about what distinguishes rape and sexual assault from another category of “ethically problematic” sex.

Examples of “unjust sex” include “women being pressured – not quite to the point of outright coercion, but pressured uncomfortably nonetheless – to have sex, or to have sex without contraception,” explains Ann Cahill, author of a number of books on gender issues including Rethinking Rape.

Cahill, professor of philosophy at Elon University in North Carolina who is visiting Dublin this week, says she has tried to “figure out in more detail” what distinguishes sexual assault from “unjust sex”, drawing on the work of New Zealand psychologist Nicola Gavey.

Her analysis has led her to challenge the traditional feminist concern with “objectification”: treating women’s bodies as objects. Instead, she uses “derivatisation” – treating women as “stunted persons, persons whose identity and behaviour is primarily or entirely limited by the desires of another person” – as a standard by which to measure actions.

Cahill says “we need to remember that sexual assault is not the only kind of sexual interaction that is ethically problematic. Too often our approach to sexual ethics is limited by relying solely on the presence of consent, a reliance that obscures other crucial elements in sexual interactions that are ethically relevant”.

How do you distinguish “unjust sex” from rape?

“Briefly, I argue that examples of unjust sex and incidents of sexual assault share an indifference to women’s sexual preferences, desires and wellbeing, and that’s what explains how unjust sex perpetuates and upholds rape culture. In both cases, the specific sexuality of the woman is not participating robustly in the creation of the sexual interaction.

“What distinguishes the two examples, I then argue, is the specific role that the woman’s sexual subjectivity plays. In the case of examples within the grey area of unjust sex, women’s agency plays an important role: if a man repeats a request for or invitation to sex multiple times, for example, that very repetition indicates that the woman’s consent is important.

“However, I also argue that the role that the woman’s agency plays is a problematically stunted one that limits the kind of influence she can have on the quality of the interaction that ensues, and does so to such an extent that it renders the interaction unethical.

“In the case of sexual assault, the woman’s agency is either overcome – by force, or coercion, or other methods – or undone entirely, by use of drugs or alcohol.”

Where does “objectification” come into this, and does sexual attraction always entail some element of it?

“Feminists have long used the notion of objectification as an ethical lens, and specifically, as an ethically pejorative term. And certainly I do think that many of the social and political phenomena that feminists have criticised by using the term ‘objectification’ – dominant forms of pornography, oppressive medical practices, common representations of women’s bodies – are worthy of ethical critique.

“However, I worry about what the term ‘objectification’ implies, and when I dug into the philosophical literature that sought to really unpack the term, my worries only intensified. If objectification means, roughly, to be treated as a thing – a material entity – and if it is virtually always ethically problematic, then it seems we are committed to a metaphysics that places our materiality in opposition to our humanity or moral worth.

“But what if our materiality, our embodiment, is not contrary to our humanity or moral worth, but an essential part of it? If we approach embodiment in this way, then to be treated like a thing is not necessarily degrading or dehumanising. In fact, having one’s body be the object of a sexualising gaze and/or touch could be deeply affirming.

“Getting back to your question: does sexual attraction require objectification? The short answer is yes: sexual attraction requires treating another body as a material entity. But that does not mean that sexual attraction is necessarily ethically problematic.”

You say women “are encouraged, and in some cases required, to take on identities that are reducible to male heterosexual desires”. How do women avoid being so “derivatised” while in a relationship?

“This is a tricky matter, because human beings are intersubjective.

“Equal and just relationships among individuals require the recognition that they have a substantial contribution to make to those relationships, and that no relationship should position one of the individuals involved in it as the raison d’être of the relationship itself.”

Is the power dynamic always working in one direction, however? Women are capable of objectifying men. Should that concern us too?

“As I state above, objectification is not necessarily ethically problematic. And so to the extent that women have the capacity to treat men’s bodies as material entities, yes, they can objectify them.

“However, in our current political and social situation, women’s objectification of men’s bodies is far less common than men’s objectification of women’s bodies; even more importantly, it rarely amounts to derivatisation and does not serve to undermine men’s political, social, and economic equality.

“When I say that it does not amount to derivatisation, I mean that heterosexual men are less likely to view their bodies solely or persistently through the lens of how they appear to heterosexual women, and they rarely see male bodies represented in dominant media as defined primarily or solely through how those bodies appear to heterosexual women.

“While it’s not impossible for women to derivatise men – one can imagine, for example, a woman evaluating a man as a sexual partner solely on the basis of whether he matches her sexual preferences – structurally, those examples of derivatisation don’t add up to the kind of persistent inequality that still tracks along gender lines.

“For example, as political candidates, men don’t suffer for failing to meet the aesthetic ideals of heterosexual women, while women do suffer for failing to meet the aesthetic ideals of heterosexual men. Of course, they also suffer for meeting those ideals too well, because feminine beauty, while allegedly admirable in women, is also associated with shallowness and lack of intellect.

“Although I haven’t written about this before, however, it seems to me that hegemonic masculinity does have a derivatising effect on heterosexual men, to the extent that it requires them to derivatise women. In this sense, the subjectivity of heterosexual men is stunted to the extent that it is required to engage in the kinds of behaviour that demonstrates disrespect of women as moral equals – behaviour that is necessary for other heterosexual male subjects to be confirmed or affirmed in their own forms of masculinity.

“To the extent that heterosexual men can find their standing within homosocial relations threatened or troubled if they refuse to derivatise women, or at least pretend to, then they are also subject to a failure to recognise their own ontological distinctness.”

Complete Article HEREvi!

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