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A graphic history of sex: ‘There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned’

Changes in sexuality over time have made the modern family what it is. What next? Homa Khaleeli asks the authors of a groundbreaking graphic guide, The Story of Sex

The Story of Sex … some images from the book. Illustration: Laetitia Coryn

The Story of Sex … some images from the book. Illustration: Laetitia Coryn

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Philip Larkin famously announced that sexual intercourse began in 1963 (“Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”). Being French, and a psychiatrist to boot, Philippe Brenot takes a rather longer view. In his latest book, The Story of Sex, a bestseller in France, he runs an anthropological eye over the sexual mores of human societies from prehistoric times to today. Yet Brenot believes that the sexual revolution did spark a dramatic change, creating the modern couple, which is the basis of our families today. Now, however, he thinks this partnership of equals is under assault from all sides.

The academic, who has the wonderful title of director of sexology at Paris Descartes University, has spent his life studying sexuality. The Story of Sex is an irreverent, graphic novel (in both senses), filled with fascinating – if alarming – history. Cleopatra used a vibrator filled with bees; the word “trousers” was considered to be positively pornographic in Victorian England. Illustrator Laetitia Coryn’s extremely cheeky, but never sordid, pictures liven up the page and keep the narrative zipping along. The book was a real collaboration, says Coryn, who says it was made easier by Brenot’s firm ideas – and the fact he liked her jokes.

The illustrator admits she hesitated slightly over collaborating on the book. “I told my publisher we have to be careful with the drawings and with the jokes – we have to be sensitive,” she says, because she wanted the book to have as wide an audience as possible. “I didn’t put any porn in it!” As a reader, however, the frankness of the pictures still shocked me (you, er, might not want to whip out the book on public transport or in the office).

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Philippe Brenot and Laeticia Cory.

Talking to Brenot over the phone (through charmingly accented English that becomes somewhat eccentric as he struggles with the complexities of his ideas) it’s impossible to escape the psychiatrist’s anxiety about our attitudes to love and intimacy today. We have never been freer to define our own relationships, and follow our own pleasure, he says, but despite this we are far from satisfied; and the modern couple is looking dangerously fragile.

“It’s incredible the difficulties couples have,” Brenot declares, in a tone that makes me imagine he is throwing his hands in the air in despair. Of the couples he sees in therapy, he says, “there is nothing wrong with them psychologically, but still they cannot communicate quietly, live calmly and have sexual fulfilment”.

While we think of lovers as a timeless relationship model, it has been the family that has been paramount in society for most of history, the 68-year-old says. “The couple used to get together for the sake of the family,” he explains. And the idea of equality in long-term pairings is even more recent, with “traditional” marriages putting men firmly in charge of their spouses.

“Love marriages have only been widespread for a century or so, and homosexuality was condemned until very recently,” Brenot notes.

“Since the 1970s, we have begun to invent modern couples with respect for each other and equality between the sexes,” he says. “This only came about after ‘marriage’ as a concept began dying out. Not because people stopped getting married, but because marriage stopped being seen as a sacred union – couples instead started developing on their own terms.”

Yet the rise in divorces since the 1970s and breakups of long-term relationships shows that the modern couple is not surviving, Brenot argues. In part, he says, this is because we are demanding more than ever before.

“It is difficult to live intimately, because we want perfect love and perfect sex and that is very difficult in a long-term relationship. We want a lot more than a reliable person to raise kids with.”

The solution, he says, is for us all to learn more about sex – which is where his book comes in. “It’s not possible to understand our intimate sex lives without looking at centuries of history, and even the origins of human life,” he says. “We understand what we live today if we understand from where we came.”

For instance, he says, if we look at the way relationships were formed in early human societies we can see echoes of our own problems. “We came from primates, but in chimp society there are never couples or families. There are lone males and females with children.” It was only as our brains evolved and emotions developed – including love – that monogamous relationships set in. For the first time (“somewhere between 1 million BC and 100,000BC”), it was possible to know the paternity of a child.

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While the beginning of family life may sound like a wonderful moment, Brenot argues that it was also the start of women’s subjugation, with men taking possession of their female partner and offspring – which traditional marriage legalised. “Paternity is the beginning of male domination,” says Brenot simply. “The day that happened, men took possession of women.”

In the animal kingdom, Brenot argues, there is none of the domination of female partners that has been a hallmark of human societies through history, nor is there domestic violence. Instead, among animals “males fight against other males and females fight with other females,” he says.

“Violence between men and women is only in humans – because of marriage, which puts men above women.”

During antiquity, meanwhile, a woman’s role was to provide a child – and female sexual pleasure was dismissed. But this role was also a dangerous one. “There were so many impediments to female pleasure. In the 18th and 19th centuries, one in six pregnant women died in childbirth. Then there were the infections and sexual violence.”

For men, of course, things were different. “Men have always done what they wanted,” says Brenot.

Even for men, sex for pleasure was something that happened “outside the home – for instance with prostitutes. Women were seen either to provide offspring or pleasure.” In ancient Rome, these rules were so strictly upheld that women could take their husbands to court for ejaculating anywhere but inside her body during intercourse, “because sex within marriage was for procreation, and the wife’s role was to receive sperm”.

Even during periods that today we think of as being golden ages for same-sex relationships, such pleasures were “reserved for the elite” – and the reality was often less accepting than we think. In ancient Greece, for instance, it was only the man who was “receiving” who was not stigmatised in a pairing. Similarly for the libertines in the 18th century, “there was a fluid sexuality, but it was also the top end of society – the intelligentsia and aristocracy. Throughout the centuries and the world’s rural populations, to be gay – or for women to have control of their own sexuality – has always been frowned upon.”

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Today too, Brenot argues, while much has been written about more people exploring fluid sexualities, entering polyamorous relationships and breaking down gender norms, “we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is trickling down to all sections of society”. And he warns too about a backlash from “new moralists” who oppose gay marriage, and will, no doubt, do the same for trans rights and alternative relationships as they gain more legal rights. Coryn says this is one of the reasons she enjoyed creating the book. “In France, people who don’t want gay people to be married, is a huge phenomenon. It’s awful. We say in the book this is a misunderstanding of sexuality; homosexuality is normal. I hope this is one topic on which people will change their mind in reading the book.”

For heterosexual couples, relationships began to look up about the time of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Up until this period, “men were having fun outside the home – hunting animals or chasing women. While women were always at home,” says Brenot. But the new spirit of education and the pursuit of knowledge changed this. Finally, says Brenot, men and women could be friends and even have platonic love.

Yet it took contraception for men and women to gain a semblance of equality. Previously “women were immobilised by marriage. They can’t get out of it, they don’t have the possibility of working or being free. The story of sex is, first of all, the story of marriage and the difficulties [it creates] for women.”

To start combating the problems that these historical inequalities have left us with, the psychiatrist insists, we need better sexual education, and one that starts at an early age. “People think sexuality is just an instinct,” he says, “that it is natural like eating and drinking. No. There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned.”

Because of this, says Brenot, the models for our sexuality are very important. Today, talking about sex is still taboo, and the dissemination of pornography has filled the void. “People say pornography changes adolescent life. But it changes everyone’s sexuality,” he says. “We have sex differently now; we try to imitate what we see [on our screens]. People feel bad and say, ‘I can’t do what they do.’”

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To displace this dangerous model, “sexual education should teach the rules that should govern relationships; it should teach us about communication, about consent and respect. This is not natural [to us]. We have to learn this.”

Coryn says that while the Story of Sex is not a sexual education manual, “we wanted it to be uninhibited”, to make talking about sex seem as natural as it should be.

“From the time children are little girls and boys, we have to teach them that everyone should be respected and to start accepting difference,” says Brenot. But, he says, while men and women are equal, that does not mean that they are the same. Railing against the teaching of “gender studies” departments, he says that a refusal to admit this difference is allowing gender inequality to become entrenched.

“They say, ‘Don’t speak of differences – a man is the same as a woman. Society is guilty of making differences, but underneath we are the same.’”

Unpicking these ideas, he says, is the only way to combat our most pressing problems. For example, “physical strength is different from a very young age. So [children] need to understand boys are stronger and take that into account – because that is the start of domestic violence, which is a real problem.”

If we leave this teaching too late, he says, the battle is already lost: “In children’s fairy stories it is the boy who seduces the girl, so there is power play early on.” Then there is the fact men have always been free to have multiple partners throughout history, because men don’t get pregnant. It is only by introducing the idea early on that “contraception is a joint responsibility” that we can challenge this.

Today’s modern couple, he points out, faces new challenges from the rise in options for dating to “new forms of relationship,” says Brenot. Yet Coryn stresses, as does Brenot, that there has never been a better time for people to live in terms of sexuality. Yet one thing has not changed, says Brenot – everyone still wants to find somebody to love. “People are afraid to be alone at the end of their life. They are afraid not to find the perfect person to live with. It is a difficult problem for everyone today.

“We have to learn how to live together anew.”

Complete Article HERE!

How did evolution change our sexual organs? It’s time to learn the history of sex

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Porn images are everywhere but we need better ways to teach children about love, intimacy and yes, masturbation

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At the start of this third millennium, sex seems to be all around us – within easy reach, on our screens, constantly talked about in the media. What used to be concealed, shameful and forbidden only a century ago is today regarded as evidence of progress in the freedom of thought. Artists use sex to push the limits of creativity: Paul McCarthy’s “butt plug” sculpture, for example, was installed at the Place Vendôme in Paris in 2014, even though it provoked outrage among residents.

The sexual metaphor is ever-present. Paradoxically, however, sex is rarely explained and almost never taught. Do you know how our sexual organs changed when we evolved from animal to human? When did the first couple show up? Where does our sense of modesty come from? Or eroticism? Or love, that most momentous of human concerns? What about our earliest customs? Which ancient civilisation championed equality between men and women? And why was masturbation frowned upon?

Sex is one of those realities that for a long time we neither wanted to see nor hear about. The sexual liberation of the 1970s – which was, in my opinion, the biggest social revolution in the history of humanity – signalled the transition from a traditional male-dominated society to one in which sex with all its nuances could finally be examined openly and understood. But as sex has dared to uncover itself, to live, to speak, we face the challenge of expressing what for so long has been kept under wraps. How are we to communicate what so recently caused so much shock and outrage?

In the west, the union of two individuals is in complete flux, with a drop in those getting married (in France 57% of births now happen outside marriage); same-sex marriage; and the option of “slices of life”, relationships with different partners in the course of a lifetime. But however free our customs may be, censorship persists when it comes to the communication of sex, the words, the particular way of defining sexuality and the idea of sensuality. Literature and fiction have always attempted to push the boundaries of this censorship: in the 18th century we had Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons; and in the 21st, EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. But mostly our discussions fall somewhere between sincerity and provocation as we attempt to understand intimacy and the fullest expression of sexual pleasure.

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No history book will delve too deeply into the sexual realm, yet it’s clear that history is a timeline of instructions and condemnations about sexuality. Each culture, each religion, each era has defined its own normality.

But without learning the history of love and intimacy, how can we understand the extraordinary evolution in customs that has led us from an existence ordered by family and society, and reinforced by religion, to the freedoms we know today? In his collection of aphorisms, Monogamy, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says that “most people would not live as a couple if they had never heard of it”. In this, he is reflecting the artificial nature of our customs and the need for a way to express our thoughts on sex, intimacy and being with other people.

We know today that human sexuality is not innate: it is learned and constructed through the images that society offers us. Even among our cousins, the primates, who live in a natural habitat, sexuality is learned through experience – young monkeys witness the courting and frolicking of the adults. The need for a model is evident: a young chimpanzee isolated from its peers is incapable of mating when it reaches adulthood.

Yet there is a fundamental difference: we invented modesty. Humans always make love away from the group. This is one of the great problems with sexuality: on the one hand it requires education; on the other, culture and religion collude to suppress sexual education.

The physician Thomas Beddoes was probably the first person to teach a course in sex education, complete with public demonstrations on the differences between men and women, in the early 19th century. But in the following two centuries, sex education failed to gain ground. Opposition was widespread and aggressive, on the part of the church as well as among teachers.

Sex education classes were subsequently written into law, but, in reality, rarely delivered. Sex education is today well established in Quebec and the Scandinavian countries, where primary school-age children are educated about gender differences and roles, as well as sexual orientation. In the Netherlands, where a complete programme of sex education is delivered from primary school, the rates of teenage pregnancies and abortions are among the lowest in the world.

But other western countries such as France and the UK provide little more than a perfunctory discourse on contraception and safeguarding against STDs. In France, a 2001 law stipulates three classes of sex education a year in middle and secondary school. However, as teachers have no training in this very particular field, it is often organisations such as those devoted to family planning that ensure these classes go ahead. In most cases, they rarely take place at all, and when they do they are limited to the three Ps: “prevention, pill, protection”, in other words, information on fertility and STDs. In this educational void the internet and porn offer themselves as models.

This is quite evidently the worst possible model, and the reason why a more reliable source of knowledge is indispensable, from primary school through to the last year of secondary. The average age at which children are first exposed to pornography is 11. Such an artificial vision of sex has altered our most intimate behaviour and has become the frame of reference not just for our teenagers but for us all. It makes us ask ourselves: am I sexy enough, am I the best lover?intimacy2

Nothing could be more damaging than these images devoid of explanation. We can’t stop young people from encountering porn, but a formal, educational approach would allow our society to explain its context and prevent misunderstandings that could otherwise compromise a fragile or still developing personality.

A genuine sex education should take the bio-psychological, emotional and social aspects of sexuality into account, should allow children to understand differences between the sexes, interpersonal relationships, the importance of developing critical thinking, an open mind and respect for the other. We must banish negative terms (sin, adultery, prostitution, Aids and STDs) in favour of positive schooling that allows children to understand desire, pleasure and excitement; the importance of sensitivity in love; the importance of masturbation, even. We must understand that everything can be taught, even the practicalities of how people live together, and we should start in primary school with discussions not only of genital differences but about the variations between boys and girls, the significance of love and of respect that may help with later relationships, notions of gender equality and domestic violence.

Only by speaking frankly, lightheartedly and wide-rangingly about sex, love and intimacy can we provide an education that enables adolescents, both boys and girls, to begin their lives with a better understanding of human relationships.

Complete Article HERE!

Heightened Awareness: Anxiety Can Lead to Pain During Sex

Clearly anxiety can be an obstacle to a healthy sex life and needs to be talked about.

By Carrie Weisman

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Screw Science: The Futuristic Sex Tech Aiming to Penetrate Your Bedroom

From fully customizable vibrators to bioelectronic headsets, smart sex toys are on the way up. But does personal pleasure necessarily make for better health?

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Pleasure is personal, mostly because it has to be, and not least because female scientists continue to face grinding discrimination regardless of their area of research. And when it comes to sexual health, breakthroughs are few and far between: in spite of increasing documentation of associated health risks, birth control hasn’t really been reformulated since the 60s, and last year’s much-anticipated release of Addyi, a pill meant to fix female sexual dysfunction, only worked for ten percent of the women who tried it.

It’s clear that sexual emancipation has not yet been freed from the bedroom. In spite of its roots in scientific misogyny—the vibrator was developed in the 19th century to cure women of hysteria, after all—a swathe of new devices have people looking hopefully to sex tech (or sextech, as it is also known) as the answer to systemic gaps in sexual health. History, it seems, is coming full circle; where the 1960s saw the vibrator de-medicalized and uncoupled from science, today’s consumer market is beginning to see pleasure and health unified in the pursuit of wellness. Yet what we call “sex tech” is tied more to the lucrative sex toy industry—worth $15 billion this year—than it is to scientific institutions, with much of its promise linked to idea that personal pleasure makes for better health.

These days, more people than ever understand that a woman’s ability to understand what turns her on and why is a crucial step in developing a healthy perspective on her sexual life. So it makes sense that we’re seeking out masturbatory experiences that are more tailored than your average stand-in phallus. It’s the driving force behind the popularity of devices like Crescendo, the first-ever fully customizable vibrator, which raised £1.6 million in funding to date and shipped out over 1,000 pre-orders after a successful crowdfunding round.

Designed to cater to the inherent complexities of female arousal, the vibrator can be finely customized, equipped with six motors and the ability to be bent into any favorable shape. An accompanying app allows users to control each motor individually; it remembers favorite behaviors, provides pre-set vibration patterns, and responds to mood-setting music.

“We were inspired by the concept of tech designed for the human, rather than the human having to adapt their behaviour to tech,” says Stephanie Alys, the co-founder of Crescendo creators Mysteryvibe. “Human beings aren’t just unique in terms of our size and how we’re put together genetically, but also in terms of what we like. What turns us on can be different from what turns another person on.”

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Mysteryvibe’s flagship product is the Crescendo, a customizable sex toy.

But in spite of the life-improving promises of consumer sex tech, the reality is that official, peer-reviewed studies remain crucial to reforming policy and education. Founded by Dr. Nicole Prause, Liberos Center is one of the few sex-centric research institutions in the United States. Much of its work investigates the relationship between psychology, physiology, and sex, with an emphasis on the hard data that is often lacking in sex tech.

Liberos presses on in a particularly antagonistic climate; the American government is famously skittish about sexual content. Sexual material is banned from government-funded computers, says Prause, making it difficult for researchers to, say, screen porn to test subjects as part of a study on arousal. She adds that congressional bodies actively seek to pull funding from research that addresses the topic head-on—four recent studies that had already been awarded funding were re-opened for assessment because of their sexual content.

“People report having certain types of experiences all the time,” says Prause. “But they’re often poor observers of their own behaviour, and don’t see anyone’s behaviour but their own. They don’t really have that external perspective, which is why I think it’s important to take both a psychological and laboratory approach. For example, in science, people haven’t been verifying that orgasm actually occurs. So we’ve been developing an objective way of measuring that, and of measuring the effects of clitoral stimulation—on how to best capture the contractions that occur through the orgasm.”

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Liberos is also investigating the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and direct current stimulation (tDCS) on sexual responsiveness. Both are non-invasive treatments, meaning anyone seeking a cure for low libido may not require anything more than the use of a headset. TMS holds potential for long-term changes to a person’s sex drive; the technique, which uses a magnetic field generator to produce small electrical currents in the brain, has already been used to treat neuropathic pain and otherwise stubborn cases of major depressive disorder. DCS, on the other hand, uses a headset to deliver a low-intensity electrical charge, stimulating the brain areas where activity spikes at the sight, or touch, of a turn-on.

If using the brain’s electrical signals to control the rest of the body sounds like a dystopian fantasy, the reality is that these medical treatments aren’t far off. Bioelectronic firms are now backed by the likes of Glaxosmithkline and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and similar applications have already been established for hypertension and sleep apnea, while chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, and arthritis are targeted for future development.

According to Dr. Karen E. Adams, clinical professor of OBGYN at Oregon Health and Science University, anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of women experience varying degrees of sexual dysfunction. Medication that targets neurotransmitters, like the SSRIs used to treat depression and anxiety, can fluctuate in efficacy depending on the unique makeup of the person using it.

Combined with the trickiness of locking down the nebulousness of desire (and lack thereof), it’s no wonder that Addyi, a failed antidepressant pursued because of its unexpected effect on serotonin levels in female mice, was a flop. Non-sex-specific studies have shown that electrical stimulation can be more adaptive to the brain’s constantly-shifting landscape than medication that interacts with its chemistry. For the 90 percent of women who found Addyi to be a sore disappointment, bioelectronic treatments could soon offer an alternative solution to low sexual responsivity.

“By giving women information about their bodies that they can decide what to do with, we’re enabling more female empowerment,” says Prause. “And by allowing women to decide which aspects of sex they want to be more responsive to, we’re giving people more control, and not with charlatan claims. We actually have good scientific reasons that we think are going to work, that are going to make a difference.”

Yet the field’s burgeoning successes are only as good as the social environment they take hold in. Sociopolitical hurdles notwithstanding, money remains a significant roadblock for developers, as the controversial nature of sex research has many investors shying away from backing new projects in spite of consumer interest. Whether they’re seeking government funding or VC investments, sex start-ups and labs alike are often forced to turn to crowdfunding to raise money for development.

“It’s pretty unsurprising that heavily female-oriented tech products do so well on crowdfunding sites; these are solutions to problems faced by half of the population, that are overlooked by a male-dominated industry where male entrepreneurs are 86 percent more likely to be VC funded than women,” says Katy Young, behavioral analyst at research firm Canvas8. “But the audience is clearly there—Livia, a device which targets nerves in order to stop period pains, raised over $1 million on Indiegogo.”

Outdated sex ed programs, which emphasize procreation and normalize straight male sexuality without addressing female sexual development, are ground zero for unhealthy social perspectives on sex. Acknowledging that change can’t just come from devices alone, New York’s Unbound, a luxury sex toy subscription service, is teaming up with “campus sexpert” app Tabù to bring both sex education and affordable masturbation tools to colleges across the country.

“There’s a national discussion right now surrounding consent, which is 100 percent needed and super important,” says Polly Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of Unbound. “But for women to be able to engage in sex and address consent as equals, they need to learn about female pleasure—they should understand their own bodies so that when they are engaging in sexual activities with someone else, they know what feels good to them, they know how to communicate that, and they don’t feel uncomfortable about it.”

It’s tempting to buy into the idea of tech as freeing: that the increased presence of smart devices in our lives will help us form healthier habits and a better understanding of our ourselves, or that the availability of medically-approved tech will be a panacea in the intricately fraught landscape of female sexual dysfunction—which is as socially determined as it is biological, and as cultural as it is psychological.

But sex tech is still far from being paradigm-shifting. Its success will be dependent not only on consumer dollars but on government policies and public attitudes; at a level of engagement this intimate, tech is only any good if people feel free to use it.

Complete Article HERE!

Is casual sex bad for your wellbeing?

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Up to 80% of undergraduates have hookups.

Up to 80% of undergraduates have hookups.

Casual sex, hookups or one-night stands: whatever you call it, more than half of us will have sex with someone we barely know or don’t expect to date in the future. We’re most likely to do this at university, where up to 80% of undergraduates have hookups. Sex within relationships is said to improve cardiovascular health, reduce depression and boost immunity, but social science research has often linked casual encounters to feelings of sexual regret, low self-esteem and psychological distress, especially among women. Studies show that while men regret the sexual opportunities they missed, women often regret some of the casual sex they did have.

The solution

A Canadian study of 138 female and 62 male students who had casual sex found that men selected physical reasons for regret – such as their partner being insufficiently attractive. Women’s regrets focused on shame and self-blame. But the evidence as to whether casual sex, when done with protection against sexually transmitted diseases, is actually bad for anyone is unclear. The studies are overwhelmingly on heterosexual American university students and have varying definitions of hookups – from knowing someone for less than 24 hours, to sex in a “friends with benefits” relationship. Some show both men and women feel depressed, used and lonely after hookups; others find casual sex promotes more positive emotions than negative ones. In a study of 832 university students, only 26% of women compared with half of men felt positive after a hookup. Nearly half of women and 26% of men felt negatively about the experience.

Some factors are associated with an increased risk of feeling bad afterwards – these include having sex with someone you have known for less than 24 hours, drinking heavily or taking drugs beforehand, feeling you ought to rather than you want to, and hoping for a relationship afterwards. Interestingly, the Canadian study found that high-quality sex rarely led to regret.

Zhana Vrangalova, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, New York, who runs the Casual Sex Project – a website where people graphically share their encounters – argues that casual sex can improve wellbeing by increasing confidence, sexual pleasure and making people feel desirable. She points out in a TEDx talk that a study of 20,000 college students found that only 42% of women, compared with 78% of men, had an orgasm in their last hookup. This “pleasure gap” may partly explain the difference between men and women’s feelings about casual sex. But however pro-casual sex she is, Vrangalova warns that you shouldn’t hook-up if you care about seeing them again. Casual sex is not, she says, like doing the laundry.

Complete Article HERE!