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Casual Sex: Everyone Is Doing It

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Part research project, part society devoted to titillation, the Casual Sex Project reminds us that hookups aren’t just for college students.

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Zhana Vrangalova had hit a problem. On a blustery day in early spring, sitting in a small coffee shop near the campus of New York University, where she is an adjunct professor of psychology, she was unable to load onto her laptop the Web site that we had met to discuss. This was not a technical malfunction on her end; rather, the site had been blocked. Vrangalova, who is thirty-four, with a dynamic face framed by thick-rimmed glasses, has spent the past decade researching human sexuality, and, in particular, the kinds of sexual encounters that occur outside the norms of committed relationships. The Web site she started in 2014, casualsexproject.com, began as a small endeavor fuelled by personal referrals, but has since grown to approximately five thousand visitors a day, most of whom arrive at the site through organic Internet searches or referrals through articles and social media. To date, there have been some twenty-two hundred submissions, about evenly split between genders, each detailing the kinds of habits that, when spelled out, can occasionally alert Internet security filters. The Web site was designed to open up the discussion of one-night stands and other less-than-traditional sexual behaviors. What makes us engage in casual sex? Do we enjoy it? Does it benefit us in any way—or, perhaps, might it harm us? And who, exactly, is “us,” anyway?

Up to eighty per cent of college students report engaging in sexual acts outside committed relationships—a figure that is usually cast as the result of increasingly lax social mores, a proliferation of alcohol-fuelled parties, and a potentially violent frat culture. Critics see the high rates of casual sex as an “epidemic” of sorts that is taking over society as a whole. Hookup culture, we hear, is demeaning women and wreaking havoc on our ability to establish stable, fulfilling relationships.

These alarms have sounded before. Writing in 1957, the author Nora Johnson raised an eyebrow at promiscuity on college campuses, noting that “sleeping around is a risky business, emotionally, physically, and morally.” Since then, the critiques of casual sexual behavior have only proliferated, even as society has ostensibly become more socially liberal. Last year, the anthropologist Peter Wood went so far as to call the rise of casual sex “an assault on human nature,” arguing in an article in the conservative Weekly Standard that even the most meaningless-seeming sex comes with a problematic power imbalance.

Others have embraced the commonness of casual sex as a sign of social progress. In a widely read Atlantic article from 2012, “Boys on the Side,” Hanna Rosin urged women to avoid serious suitors so that they could focus on their own needs and careers. And yet, despite her apparent belief in the value of casual sex as a tool of exploration and feminist thinking, Rosin, too, seemed to conclude that casual sex cannot be a meaningful end goal. “Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women,” she wrote.

The Casual Sex Project was born of Vrangalova’s frustration with this and other prevalent narratives about casual sex. “One thing that was bothering me is the lack of diversity in discussions of casual sex,” Vrangalova told me in the café. “It’s always portrayed as something college students do. And it’s almost always seen in a negative light, as something that harms women.”

It was not the first time Vrangalova had wanted to broaden a limited conversation. As an undergraduate, in Macedonia, where she studied the psychology of sexuality, she was drawn to challenge cultural taboos, writing a senior thesis on the development of lesbian and gay sexual attitudes. In the late aughts, Vrangalova started her research on casual sex in Cornell’s developmental-psychology program. One study followed a group of six hundred and sixty-six freshmen over the course of a year, to see how engaging in various casual sexual activities affected markers of mental health: namely, depression, anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. Another looked at more than eight hundred undergraduates to see whether individuals who engaged in casual sex felt more victimized by others, or were more socially isolated. (The results: yes to the first, no to the second.) The studies were intriguing enough that Vrangalova was offered an appointment at N.Y.U., where she remains, to further explore some of the issues surrounding the effects of nontraditional sexual behaviors on the individuals who engage in them.

Over time, Vrangalova came to realize that there was a gap in her knowledge, and, indeed, in the field as a whole. Casual sex has been much explored in psychological literature, but most of the data captured by her research team—and most of the other experimental research she had encountered—had been taken from college students. (This is a common problem in psychological research: students are a convenient population for researchers.) There has been the occasional nationally representative survey, but rigorous data on other subsets of the population is sparse. Even the largest national study of sexual attitudes in the United States, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of close to six thousand men and women between the ages of fourteen and ninety-four, neglected to ask respondents how many of the encounters they engaged in could be deemed “casual.”

From its beginnings, sex research has been limited by a social stigma. The field’s pioneer, Alfred Kinsey, spent decades interviewing people about their sexual behaviors. His books sold, but he was widely criticized for not having an objective perspective: like Freud before him, he believed that repressed sexuality was at the root of much of social behavior, and he often came to judgments that supported that view—even when his conclusions were based on less-than-representative surveys. He, too, used convenient sample groups, such as prisoners, as well as volunteers, who were necessarily comfortable talking about their sexual practices.

In the fifties, William Masters and Virginia Johnson went further, inquiring openly into sexual habits and even observing people in the midst of sexual acts. Their data, too, was questioned: Could the sort of person who volunteers to have sex in a lab tell us anything about the average American? More troubling still, Masters and Johnson sought to “cure” homosexuality, revealing a bias that could easily have colored their findings.

Indeed, one of the things you quickly notice when looking for data on casual sex is that, for numbers on anyone who is not a college student, you must, for the most part, look at studies conducted outside academia. When OkCupid surveyed its user base, it found that between 10.3 and 15.5 per cent of users were looking for casual sex rather than a committed relationship. In the 2014 British Sex Survey, conducted by the Guardian, approximately half of all respondents reported that they had engaged in a one-night stand (fifty-five per cent of men, and forty-three per cent of women), with homosexuals (sixty-six per cent) more likely to do so than heterosexuals (forty-eight per cent). A fifth of people said they’d slept with someone whose name they didn’t know.

With the Casual Sex Project, Vrangalova is trying to build a user base of stories that she hopes will, one day, provide the raw data for academic study. For now, she is listening: letting people come to the site, answer questions, leave replies. Ritch Savin-Williams, who taught Vrangalova at Cornell, told me that he was especially impressed by Vrangalova’s willingness “to challenge traditional concepts and research designs with objective approaches that allow individuals to give honest, thoughtful responses.”

The result is what is perhaps the largest-ever repository of information about casual-sex habits in the world—not that it has many competitors. The people who share stories range from teens to retirees (Vrangalova’s oldest participants are in their seventies), and include city dwellers and suburbanites, graduate-level-educated professionals (about a quarter of the sample) and people who never finished high school (another quarter). The majority of participants aren’t particularly religious, although a little under a third do identify as at least “somewhat” religious. Most are white, though there are also blacks, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups. Initially, contributions were about sixty-per-cent female, but now they’re seventy-per-cent male. (This is in line with norms; men are “supposed” to brag more about sexual exploits than women.) Anyone can submit a story, along with personal details that reflect his or her demographics, emotions, personality traits, social attitudes, and behavioral patterns, such as alcohol intake. The setup for data collection is standardized, with drop-down menus and rating scales.

Still, the site is far from clinical. The home page is a colorful mosaic of squares, color-coded according to the category of sexual experience (blue: “one-night stand”; purple: “group sex”; gray: the mysterious-sounding “first of many”; and so on). Pull quotes are highlighted for each category (“Ladies if you haven’t had a hot, young Latino stud you should go get one!”). Many responses seem to boast, provoke, or exaggerate for rhetorical purposes. Reading it, I felt less a part of a research project than a member of a society devoted to titillation.

Vrangalova is the first to admit that the Casual Sex Project is not what you would call an objective, scientific approach to data collection. There is no random assignment, no controls, no experimental conditions; the data is not representative of the general population. The participants are self-selecting, which inevitably colors the results: if you’re taking the time to write, you are more likely to write about positive experiences. You are also more likely to have the sort of personality that comes with wanting to share details of your flings with the public. There is another problem with the Casual Sex Project that is endemic in much social-science research: absent external behavioral validation, how do we know that respondents are reporting the truth, rather than what they want us to hear or think we want them to say?

And yet, for all these flaws, the Casual Sex Project provides a fascinating window into the sexual habits of a particular swath of the population. It may not be enough to draw new conclusions, but it can lend nuance to assumptions, expanding, for instance, ideas about who engages in casual sex or how it makes them feel. As I browsed through the entries after my meeting with Vrangalova, I came upon the words of a man who learned something new about his own sexuality during a casual encounter in his seventies: “before this I always said no one can get me of on a bj alone, I was taught better,” he writes. As a reflection of the age and demographic groups represented, the Casual Sex Project undermines the popular narrative that casual sex is the product of changing mores among the young alone. If that were the case, we would expect there to be a reluctance to engage in casual sex among the older generations, which grew up in the pre-“hookup culture” era. Such reluctance is not evident.

The reminder that people of all ages engage in casual sex might lead us to imagine three possible narratives. First, that perhaps what we see as the rise of a culture of hooking up isn’t actually new. When norms related to dating and free love shifted, in the sixties, they never fully shifted back. Seventy-year-olds are engaging in casual encounters because that attitude is part of their culture, too.

There’s another, nearly opposite explanation: casual sex isn’t the norm now, and wasn’t before. There are simply always individuals, in any generation, who seek sexual satisfaction in nontraditional confines.

And then there’s the third option, the one that is most consistent with the narrative that our culture of casual sex begins with college hookups: that people are casually hooking up for different reasons. Some young people have casual sex because they feel they can’t afford not to, or because they are surrounded by a culture that says they should want to. (Vrangalova’s preliminary analysis of the data on her site suggests that alcohol is much more likely to be involved in the casual-sex experiences of the young than the old.)  And the old—well, the old no longer care what society thinks. For some, this sense of ease might come in their thirties; for others, their forties or fifties; for others, never, or not entirely.

This last theory relates to another of Vrangalova’s findings—one that, she confesses, came as a surprise when she first encountered it. Not all of the casual-sex experiences recorded on the site were positive, even among what is surely a heavily biased sample. Women and younger participants are especially likely to report feelings of shame. (“I was on top of him at one point and he can’t have forced me to so I must have consented . . . I’m not sure,” an eighteen-year-old writes, reporting that the hookup was unsatisfying, and describing feeling “stressed, anxious, guilt and disgust” the day after.) There is an entire thread tagged “no orgasm,” which includes other occasionally disturbing and emotional tales. “My view has gotten a lot more balanced over time,” Vrangalova said. “I come from a very sex-positive perspective, surrounded by people who really benefitted from sexual exploration and experiences, for the most part. By studying it, I’ve learned to see both sides of the coin.

Part of the negativity, to be sure, does originate in legitimate causes: casual sex increases the risk of pregnancy, disease, and, more often than in a committed relationship, physical coercion. But many negative casual-sex experiences come instead from a sense of social convention. “We’ve seen that both genders felt they were discriminated against because of sex,” Vrangalova told me. Men often feel judged by other men if they don’t have casual sex, and social expectations can detract from the experiences they do have, while women feel judged for engaging in casual experiences, rendering those they pursue less pleasurable.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise: the very fact that Vrangalova and others are seeking explanations for casual-sex behaviors suggests that our society views it as worthy of note—something aberrant, rather than ordinary. No one writes about why people feel the need to drink water or go to the bathroom, why eating dinner with friends is “a thing” or study groups are “on the rise.”

It is that sense of shame, ultimately, that Vrangalova hopes her project may help to address. As one respondent to a survey Vrangalova sent to users put it, “This has helped me feel okay about myself for wanting casual sex, and not feel ashamed or that what I do is wrong.” The psychologist James Pennebaker has found over several decades of work that writing about emotional experiences can act as an effective form of therapy, in a way that talking about those experiences may not. (I’m less convinced that there are benefits for those who use the site as a way to boast about their own experiences.) “Often there’s no outlet for that unless you’re starting your own blog,” Vrangalova points out. “I wanted to offer a space for people to share.”

That may well end up the Casual Sex Project’s real contribution: not to tell us something we didn’t already know, or at least suspect, but to make such nonjudgmental, intimate conversations possible. The dirty little secret of casual sex today is not that we’re having it but that we’re not sharing our experiences of it in the best way.

Complete Article HERE!

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Undoing the STIgma: Normalizing the discourse surrounding STIs

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April is STD/STI Awareness Month.

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Let’s talk about sex. It’s fun, it’s natural.

Now, considering that April is STD/STI Awareness Month, let’s take it one step further and talk about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, or STDs/STIs.

They’re not so fun and not “natural,” per se, but they can and do happen to many people. In fact, according to the American Sexual Health Association, or ASHA, “one in two sexually active persons will contract an STD/STI by age 25” and “more than half of all people will have an STD/STI at some point in their lifetime.”

Yet for the most part, society hasn’t entirely accepted the reality of STIs. Instead, mainstream conversations about STIs rely on seeing them as punchline. This quote from “The Hangover” is a good example: “Remember what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit’ll come back with you.”

If STIs aren’t portrayed as comical, then they’re seen as shameful.

“Some people believe that having an STI is horrible and people who have them are bad,” explained John Baldwin, UC Santa Barbara sociology professor and co-author of “Discovering Human Sexuality.”

In other words, there is a stigma associated with STIs.

“It’s not a death sentence.”

– Reyna Perez

Reyna Perez, the clinic lead for UC Berkeley’s Sexual Health Education Program, or SHEP, defined STI stigma as “shame with oneself (about) having an STI or amongst other people.”

“(They think) they’re ‘dirty’ or (use similarly) negative terms,” Perez said.

She went on to explain that campus students often think contracting an STI is the end of their sex lives and lives in general. But this is not true.

“It’s not a death sentence,” Perez said. “Most of them are curable or at least treatable.”

Despite the prevalence of STIs, people don’t know much about them. This lack of understanding reinforces the misconceptions surrounding them.

To help resolve this issue of ignorance, Baldwin first shed light on the difference between STDs and STIs.

“STD is the common language that a lot of people use and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC) uses because it communicates with large numbers of people, but medical doctors sometimes like to use ‘STI,’ ” Baldwin explained.

According to Baldwin, the term “STI” is more inclusive because it also considers people who don’t have symptoms but are infected and could infect others.

It’s true: People can be asymptomatic and transmit STIs to their partners.

“Large numbers of Americans have HIV and no symptoms and have sex with lots of others and infect others,” Baldwin said.

Additionally, sexual intercourse isn’t the only method by which STIs can be transmitted, a fact that more people should be aware of. There are many ways in which STIs can be spread, but they often go unnoticed.

According to Perez, “(People) don’t realize how you can contract them and there’s a gap in knowledge.”

Perez said STIs can be transmitted through oral sex or, in rare instances, fingering, which many people are unaware of. She also pointed out that HIV can be spread through non-sexual bodily fluids such as blood and breastmilk.

STIs can also be transmitted by something as simple as skin contact — Elizabeth Wells, lead and co-facilitator of the Sex 101 DeCal, said genital warts and herpes can be spread this way.

Even when it comes to sexual intercourse, the way by which most people believe STIs are spread, people don’t always take preventative measures.

“It’s not like everyone is consistently using condoms or barrier methods,” Perez said.

Another notable fact is that some STIs aren’t even viewed as STIs at all. For instance, cold sores on the mouth region are a form of herpes.

“They don’t realize it until someone brings it up to them,” Perez said. “Once you attach the title of ‘STI,’ suddenly it becomes something to be ashamed of. But it shouldn’t be that way.”

When the facts are laid out like this, it becomes apparent that there’s no reason to make STIs something to feel ashamed about. Many people contract them at some point, and although there are preventative measures such as condoms and other barrier methods, there are many possible avenues through which people can get them.

“Shit happens,” Wells said. “Who are we as individuals and society and people who are sex positive to vilify people that made decisions in the heat of the moment, or it just happens (that) the condom breaks?”

Yet the stigma surrounding STIs persists, largely because of the long societal tradition of suppressing discussions surrounding sex as a whole.

Baldwin expressed his belief that the stigma stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Judeo-Christian culture has been a prominent force that has shaped society’s views for hundreds of years. It frowns upon sexual activity, and looking down on STIs — perceived to be spread through sexual means alone — is part and parcel of that general disapproval.

“Society doesn’t evolve very fast in terms of thinking that I think you still see that mindset permeating today,” Wells said. “(STI stigma) is rooted in this idea that we’re not going to be talking about sex.”

Delving even deeper into the issue of STI stigma shows that it is further problematic because it is linked to racism.

According to a 2015 report by the CDC, STIs are more prevalent among certain racial or ethnic minorities than they are among white people. Being part of a racial or ethnic minority group also entails a plethora of issues that make it generally more difficult to find and receive appropriate sexual health services.

“It’s largely an issue of access, and you’re seeing a lack of comprehensive sexual education in those areas,” Wells said.

To vilify someone for getting an STI when they don’t even have the resources to know how to prevent them is to vilify them for not having access to sexual health resources. It is to vilify them for structural inequalities in access to education — inequalities which they did not ask for and cannot control.

“Being part of a racial or ethnic minority group also entails a plethora of issues that make it generally more difficult to find and receive appropriate sexual health services.”

Not only is it problematic to treat STIs as a taboo subject when this attitude stems from sexually repressive and prejudiced notions, but STI stigma also is harmful because it inhibits people from seeking medical treatment.

“If someone has an STI, we shouldn’t stigmatize them,” Baldwin explained. “We should try to help them get the best medicine and treatment.”

STI stigma also causes “intense emotional distress,” according to Perez.

“It’s so difficult to start support groups at the Tang Center because there’s stigma,” Perez said.

Considering all these facts and issues, the obvious final question is, “How do we get rid of the stigma surrounding STIs?”

One key component is awareness.

Awareness that people with STIs can and do lead normal lives helps. Modern science has allowed for medication that can either cure or treat STIs.

“It’s a world changer,” Perez said.

When engaging in sexual activity during an outbreak, there is also world of possibilities.

“There are creative ways to have sex while having an outbreak,” Perez explained.

She expanded upon this statement to say that, for instance, partners could use strap-on dildos when the involved parties are having a herpes recurrence.

“I believe that we are moving away from the preceding era of ignorance and successfully moving to have more scientific knowledge of STIs and their treatment so that more people are, in fact, getting good care,” Baldwin said. “Our society is moving in the right direction.”

“The need for action if you are diagnosed with an STI is further reason to destigmatize STIs –– so people can recognize the symptoms and be unafraid to seek help.”

To promote awareness, according to Perez, the Tang Center and SHEP offer programs for people who are curious to find out more about STIs as well as for people who have already been diagnosed with an STI who desire health coaching and/or emotional and mental support.

Awareness includes being conscious of preventative measures.

“Just being aware of sexual health resources (is) also really important,” Wells said. “A lot of people don’t know about it because it’s not talked about, because sex isn’t talked about.”

Wells explained that, for instance, people can take pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, before having sex with someone who has HIV or AIDS. This will lower the chance that the partner without HIV/AIDS will also get the infection. Similarly, taking post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, after sex with someone who has HIV/AIDS will help prevent transmission of the disease.

Although STIs aren’t the end of the world, if left undiagnosed or untreated, they can become serious health risks. The need for action if you are diagnosed with an STI is further reason to destigmatize STIs –– so people can recognize the symptoms and be unafraid to seek help.

According to Wells, on the last Friday of every month, the Tang Center offers free STI tests that take approximately 20 minutes. She clarified that there is, however, a six-month period after the initial infection in which the tests might not detect its presence.

Another key factor to destigmatizing STIs is simply talking about them. To emphasize this point, Wells quoted a SHEP saying: “Communication is lubrication.”

In other words, people need to start talking about STIs so that it will become acceptable to talk about them as well as to prevent them.

“It shouldn’t be uncomfortable for people because the way I see it, it’s mutual respect within relationships,” Perez explained. “I’m respecting my partner and getting myself tested and taking preventative measures, and my partner should respect me back by also being open to talking about STIs and … getting tested and (taking) those preventative measures as well.”

The way in which the discussion around STIs is being framed is also something to consider. For instance, discerning between STDs and STIs is important. Likewise, it’s crucial not to define people by their STIs.

“We don’t even like to use the word ‘HIV-positive,’ ” Perez said. “We like to use the phrase ‘a person living with HIV’ because they’re a person first before their STI.”

Awareness and communication aimed at undoing the stigma around STIs are imperative for the sake of public health but also for the sake of true sex positivity.

Complete Article HERE!

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“Coming out” as a parent of a gay child

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By Alison Walsh

My elder son David was fifteen when he told us he was gay – not that he had actually intended to tell us quite then.

He said he was meeting someone but was evasive as to who this might be? I forced the issue never expecting to hear that this was some guy he had met on line through a gay website.

Alarm bells rung at the possible danger!

David must have guessed we might find the news of him being gay difficult as he kept repeating, “It’s OK Mum, there’s nothing wrong”.

My husband’s first thought was “I love my son. I don’t want to lose my relationship with him”.

As for me, I have an unfortunate knack of sometimes putting my big feet in things.

Whilst reeling from the shock, thankfully I avoided saying anything that my son would feel hurt or rejected by.

We both understood that what mattered most was for David to stay believing in himself and to know that our love and support was unconditional.

David appreciated the way we had accepted his sexuality and to stop us feeling anxious, he agreed to cancel the internet date.

David and Alison

Having “come out” to his friends and immediate family, David visibly looked happier by the day.

Now the ball was in our court. Was it our turn to “come out” as parents of a gay son? Would that be fair to David? Was it for him to decide who and when to tell others or not? At the young age of fifteen, we felt it was. That made it much harder because I wanted to feel accepted too.

Up to the point when David told us he was gay, I had no knowledge or experience of what being LGBT+ meant.

My head was full of fears which were further fuelled when I went on-line and came across far right materials discounting LGBT+ as wrong and blaming being gay on abuse or an unhealthy mother-son relationship.

Was I a bad Mum? I feared being judged. I was worried now how David would be treated. Would his school teachers who had praised him as a role model now think less of him?

Would he find himself rejected as unsuitable to be an RSY Summer Camp Leader?

Having brought my boys up to feel strongly Jewish, I now felt anxious that this might not sit comfortably with fully accepting and supporting David’s sexuality.

My Jewishness is all bound up in family and home, celebrating Friday night and all the family traditions. So for validation and support, I turned to my Jewish roots. As I said, I wasn’t ready to “come out” publicly and so like my son before he “came out”, I turned to the privacy of the internet for help. I tapped into Google “Jewish Mum of gay son” and up came “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” with a number you could phone in confidence.

Going for the first time to the group “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians”, I was scared as to quite who I would find there.

The wonderful thing was how unbelievably just like the two of us the other parents all were. They could have come straight out of any Shul – parents anxious to do right by their children. We were no longer on our own.

Hearing from other parents and sharing our own story in a Jewish group in which we felt understood and accepted, helped us feel better. The first pernicious lie it immediately destroyed for me was the idea that being gay had anything to do with upbringing or by extension anything I had done or not done. It was a fact of life, period.

A Dad said that the last thing he would ever wish on his son would be to be imprisoned in an unhappy marriage hiding his sexuality. That hit home and made me rethink the dream I had been nurturing of one day seeing my son under the Chuppah with grandchildren to follow. My son had his own life to lead. I just wanted him to be happy and true to himself. And so in the group we parents chatted on into the night. We discussed why it was that so many of our LGBT+ children were going to Shul less? Did our LGBT+ children no longer feel they could count themselves as proper members of the club?

Perhaps like me before I became aware of LGBT+, our kids assumed by default that within Shul life their sexuality was taboo and that they would not be understood or accepted unless they hid their sexuality.

To be fair, if I joined any club, I would want to feel that there was someone there a bit like me and that I wasn’t just going to be tolerated, but actually wanted by the club.

My journey has been much easier than for some as being of my own making – struggling with my own prejudices. Thankfully the positive attitude of both our Shul and my son’s school explains why David has never felt ashamed of his sexuality and why both his friends and our Shul friends when told have had no issues.

In the twilight zone before feeling ready to come out to the world as a Jewish parent of a gay child, it helps to share feelings in the trust of absolute confidentiality with likeminded parent souls who understand. I am now Co-Ordinator for the parents’ group, “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” which helped me so much and which I would like to see there for other parents.

It is a really important group not just for the parents but also for LGBT+ children as “happy parents make happy kids”. Unfortunately the group is hardly known about so if you get a chance to tell others about the group, I would ask you to please do so.

Complete Article HERE!

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

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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!

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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!

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