Most of us don’t want to ask, but we’re curious how our sex life stacks up to our friends, colleagues, and neighbors. “How often do other couples have sex?” and, “How long do they last in bed?” or “Do they ‘change it up’ every time?” are all questions that make us wonder if we’re sexually normal. Good sexual health is contingent on understanding and embracing all aspects of our sexuality.
Sexual health is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity. Dr. Draion M. Burch, a sexual health advisor for Astroglide TCC, affirms it’s not limited to just being STD free. “It’s the emotional, physical, and social characteristics of sexual behavior,” he told Medical Daily.
It’s a mind-body connection that facilitates the possibility of having good sex. You have sex in a way that promotes health and healthy relationships. It’s about feeling good about ourselves as an individual, as well as understanding who we are sexually.
Dr. Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, reminds us we can be sexually healthy and choose not to engage sexually at all. “Sexual health does have to even necessarily include sex per se,” she told Medical Daily.
Below are 6 signs of good habits in the bedroom to rate how sexually healthy you are.
Love Your Body
A healthy sex life starts with loving our body. A 2009 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found women between the ages 18 to 49 who scored high on a body image scale were the most sexually satisfied. Positive feelings associated with our weight, physical condition, sexual attractiveness, and thoughts about our body during sex help promote healthy sexual functioning.
April Masini, relationship expert and author, believes a poor body image, or poor health and an awareness of it, can lead to a complicated sex life.
“Your body is the instrument you use to have sex, so when your body is in good health and you feel good about it, you’re less likely to feel it’s an obstacle to having sex,” she told Medical Daily.
A healthy sex life relies on the foundation of communication. It’s about communicating what we want and what our partners want in the bedroom. Good communication takes effort, and it doesn’t always go smoothly, but attempting to talk with one another about desires can make sex enticing.
“Without it, you don’t read each other’s cues and react to whether something feels good or doesn’t feel good,” said Masini.
A flirty or naughty text or whispering dirty sexual banter into each other’s ears can lead to greater sexual satisfaction for both partners. A 2011 study in the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences found specific sexual behaviors, such as kissing, oral sex, and engaging in sexual conversations, were more likely related to greater sexual satisfaction. This is also linked to the concept of good communication between both partners.
Inevitably, a happy relationship usually translates to a happy sex life. A 2011 study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found for middle-aged and older couples in committed relationships of one to 51 years’ duration, relationship happiness and sexual satisfaction were mutually reinforcing. Romantic relationships are important for our happiness and well-being.
Changing It Up
Couples will report sex can become routine; novelty is a way that increases sexual arousal, and as a result, sexual pleasure. Changing it up doesn’t have to be drastic — simply wearing new lingerie or doing your hair differently can be a way to introduce something new in the boudoir.
“Some people seem to think novelty means anal sex in your front yard, but novelty can be very subtle, like extremely slow pacing and teasing,” said Prause.
Couples may do it a few times a week or once a month, but focusing on a number will not be productive to our sex life. “The nature and quality of the sex can vary tremendously, as does frequency, but the main outcome any therapist will focus on is your satisfaction,” according to Prause.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization found increased frequency does not lead to increased happiness. Researchers hypothesize it could be because it leads to a decline in anticipation, and therefore enjoyment. Sometimes less is more when it comes to sex.
Sexual health does not pertain to just sex; it’s about how you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Recently, a British National Health Service therapist suggested that access to porn is “damaging” to men’s health, particularly their sexual health, so naturally the internet freaked out, because porn is awesome and it’d be tragic if it really was unhealthy somehow.
The claim came from psychosexual therapist Angela Gregory, who stated that watching porn too much and too often is the reason more and more men in their teens and 20s are suffering from erectile dysfunction. She told BBC:
“Our experience is that historically men that were referred to our clinic with problems with erectile dysfunction were older men whose issues were related to diabetes, MS, cardio vascular disease. These younger men do not have organic disease, they’ve already been tested by their GP and everything is fine.
So one of the first assessment questions I’d always ask now is about pornography and masturbatory habit because that can be the cause of their issues about maintaining an erection with a partner.”
To supplement her argument that porn is no bueno, Gregory mentioned a youngster named Nick, who started jerking off to porn when he was 15, and loved it so much that it ruined his life and he needed medical help. Poor Nick.
“I found that when I was lying next to a girl a lot that I just wouldn’t be horny at all, despite being really attracted to the girl and wanting to have sex with her, [because] my sexuality was completely wired towards porn. At my peak I was probably watching up to two hours of porn every day.”
That’s a lot of porn. In fact that does soundexcessive and potentially harmful.
However, there’s a small problem with Gergory’s claim: there’s no factual evidence. Hers is a subjective interpretation, therefore only a theory. So calm down. Porn isn’t bad for you, and it’s not messing up your junk’s ability to do its job.
The article published by BBC announcing Gregory’s theory even started out saying, “There are no official figures, but…” so readers should have known right then to not take it to heart. After all, if you’ve been beating off to porn for years and your equipment still functions and you have not turned into a sex offender, it must mean porn isn’t bad for you.
If it helps, there are actually studies that prove porn is beneficial. One Danish study from 2007 found that pornography has positive, yet minor, effects on sexual health. Another large study also definitively determined porn is not bad for you, and has literally no negative impact on men’s sexual health.
“Contrary to raising public concerns, pornography does not seem to be a significant risk factor for younger men’s desire, erectile, or orgasmic difficulties,” the authors wrote in the report.
See? You love porn, and porn loves you back just the same, so keep watching.
“Illustrations of it resemble a swan with an arched neck,” Barmak writes. “When I saw an illustration of the clitoris’s true shape for the first time I felt like a blind man finally seeing a whole elephant when all he’s ever known was the tip of it’s trunk.” I realized while reading those sentences that no one in my Catholic high school health class ever bothered to show me such an image and I’d never thought to seek one out.
I consider myself a feminist and a sexually liberated woman. Yet, there are still surprising gaps in my understanding of my own body. And that’s why a book like Barmak’s is important. Closer tackles its subject with eloquence, intelligence and humour.
The book is split into five essays that tackle the “fear of pleasure,” the history of female sexuality, the science and psychology of the orgasm, the “female sexual underground” and the politics of acknowledging female desire.
While each essay has its own strengths, I think the most effective chapter is “A History of Forgetting.” This section aligns the historical “discovery” and “loss” of the clitoris with the individual experience of a woman named Vanessa — an actual interview subject.
We first meet Vanessa on the table at the doctor’s office filming herself masturbating in order to prove to the doctor that she can indeed ejaculate. We learn that Vanessa has been having a series of problems — pain after sex, recurring yeast infections and so on — that no doctors can figure out.
From here Barmak momentarily leaves Vanessa’s story behind and turns her attention to the clitoris itself, noting that “the mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003, years before we got around to doing an ultrasound on the ordinary human clit.”
While the tendency is to see history as ever moving forward and progressing, Barmak counters that “women’s sexuality began by being celebrated, then was feared as too potent, before being downplayed and denied in the scientific era.”
The Christian church, the scientific revolution and various other factors resulted in a demonization and rejection of female bodies. It’s a generalized historical account to be sure, but Barmak does point readers in the direction of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, a much more comprehensive book on the subject.
What makes this essay so powerful is the way it revisits and concludes with Vanessa and her struggle. Her story held up against the larger history of the clitoris itself demonstrates all too well an overall contempt for and neglect of the female genitalia.
Along with research and anecdotes, Barmak amasses a diverse collection of interviews with doctors, researchers and sex educators. I was excited to learn many factoids that I will surely whip out at dinner parties in the future — for instance, vaginal self stimulation actually blocks pain in women, and even women who are paralysed can sometimes still feel sexual pleasure because of nerves which bypass the spinal cord and communicate directly with the brain!
Barmak combines this research and traditional journalistic writing with first-person narration, bringing her own experience into the story. This means attending seminars and workshops, watching a demonstration of a female orgasm at Burning Man, and getting a vaginal massage.
Barmak is open about her own skepticism and trepidation during these investigations. “I like to consider myself open to new things,” she writes. “Yet, the idea of a strange lady’s gloved fingers all up in my jade palace falls somewhat outside my personal boundaries.” She goes through with it and the personal account makes for a richer narrative overall.
A note about the term “woman”: Barmak uses it throughout the book to generally refer to the cisgendered female experience. If I have any strong critique of the book it is that by celebrating the distinctly female anatomy, the book sometimes verges on unintentionally emphasizing a gender binary. This is something Barmak herself seems aware of. She notes on pg. 21 that “the word woman can refer equally to cisgender, intersex, genderqueer and transgender women all representing varied shades of experience.” While it’s good that the acknowledgement is there, I think a declaration like this belongs even earlier on as a note for readers to keep in mind before the book even begins.
That said, Barmak does make an effort to include the experiences of typically marginalized women such as trans women and women of colour in her narrative. “Being white affords privileges even in non-mainstream spaces of revolt such as sexuality,” she notes.
The topic is something “that requires far more depth and attention than this little book can offer,” Barmak says and while this seems like a partial cop-out for having only a few pages devoted to women of colour and trans women specifically, Barmak makes a valid point. Issues regarding sexuality faced by marginalized women warrant entire books altogether, preferably penned by a writer who has lived those experiences.
Nevertheless, I think this book would have been more complete with a sixth section devoted specifically to these issues.
At its core this book is compassionately optimistic, celebrating the innate complexity of sexual pleasure itself and arguing in favor of orgasms for all, something I can definitely get behind.
Sex educator and vlogger Lindsay Doe has a motto she repeats at the end of each of her videos: “stay curious.” Closer isn’t the definitive book about female sexuality and it doesn’t claim to be. But it made me curious about my own body, and even more curious about the wonderfully vast array of experiences we humans have between the sheets.
I recommend it to my friends of all genders, my boyfriend, my sisters, and especially the woman who started it all, my mother.
In the last two decades, dozens of scientific papers have been published on the biological origins of homosexuality – another announcement was made last week. It’s becoming scientific orthodoxy. But how does it fit with Darwin’s theory of evolution?
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s hit song Same Love, which has become an unofficial anthem of the pro-gay marriage campaign in the US, reflects how many gay people feel about their sexuality.
It mocks those who “think it’s a decision, and you can be cured with some treatment and religion – man-made rewiring of a predisposition”. A minority of gay people disagree, maintaining that sexuality is a social construct, and they have made a conscious, proud choice to take same-sex partners.
But scientific opinion is with Macklemore. Since the early 1990s, researchers have shown that homosexuality is more common in brothers and relatives on the same maternal line, and a genetic factor is taken to be the cause. Also relevant – although in no way proof – is research identifying physical differences in the brains of adult straight and gay people, and a dizzying array of homosexual behaviour in animals.
But since gay and lesbian people have fewer children than straight people, a problem arises.
“This is a paradox from an evolutionary perspective,” says Paul Vasey from the University of Lethbridge in Canada. “How can a trait like male homosexuality, which has a genetic component, persist over evolutionary time if the individuals that carry the genes associated with that trait are not reproducing?”
Scientists don’t know the answer to this Darwinian puzzle, but there are several theories. It’s possible that different mechanisms may be at work in different people. Most of the theories relate to research on male homosexuality. The evolution of lesbianism is relatively understudied – it may work in a similar way or be completely different.
The genes that code for homosexuality do other things too
The allele – or group of genes – that sometimes codes for homosexual orientation may at other times have a strong reproductive benefit. This would compensate for gay people’s lack of reproduction and ensure the continuation of the trait, as non-gay carriers of the gene pass it down.
There are two or more ways this might happen. One possibility is that the allele confers a psychological trait that makes straight men more attractive to women, or straight women more attractive to men. “We know that women tend to like more feminine behavioural features and facial features in their men, and that might be associated with things like good parenting skills or greater empathy,” says Qazi Rahman, co-author of Born Gay; The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation. Therefore, the theory goes, a low “dose” of these alleles enhances the carrier’s chances of reproductive success. Every now and then a family member receives a larger dose that affects his or her sexual orientation, but the allele still has an overall reproductive advantage.
Another way a “gay allele” might be able to compensate for a reproductive deficit is by having the converse effect in the opposite sex. For example, an allele which makes the bearer attracted to men has an obvious reproductive advantage to women. If it appears in a man’s genetic code it will code for same-sex attraction, but so long as this happens rarely the allele still has a net evolutionary benefit.
There is some evidence for this second theory. Andrea Camperio-Ciani, at the University of Padova in Italy, found that maternal female relatives of gay men have more children than maternal female relatives of straight men. The implication is that there is an unknown mechanism in the X chromosome of men’s genetic code which helps women in the family have more babies, but can lead to homosexuality in men. These results haven’t been replicated in some ethnic groups – but that doesn’t mean they are wrong with regards to the Italian population in Camperio-Ciani’s study.
Gay people were ‘helpers in the nest’
The fa’afafine of Samoa dislike being called “gay” or “homosexual”
Some researchers believe that to understand the evolution of gay people, we need to look at how they fit into the wider culture.
Paul Vasey’s research in Samoa has focused on a theory called kin selection or the “helper in the nest” hypothesis. The idea is that gay people compensate for their lack of children by promoting the reproductive fitness of brothers or sisters, contributing money or performing other uncle-like activities such as babysitting or tutoring. Some of the gay person’s genetic code is shared with nieces and nephews and so, the theory goes, the genes which code for sexual orientation still get passed down.
Sceptics have pointed out that since on average people share just 25% of their genetic code with these relatives, they would need to compensate for every child they don’t have themselves with two nieces or nephews that wouldn’t otherwise have existed. Vasey hasn’t yet measured just how much having a homosexual orientation boosts siblings’ reproduction rate, but he has established that in Samoa “gay” men spend more time on uncle-like activities than “straight” men.
“No-one was more surprised than me,” says Vasey about his findings. His lab had previously shown that gay men in Japan were no more attentive or generous towards their nieces and nephews than straight, childless men and women. The same result has been found in the UK, US and Canada.
Vasey believes that his Samoan result was different because the men he studied there were different. He studied the fa’afafine, who identify as a third gender, dressing as women and having sex with men who regard themselves as “straight”. They are a transgender group who do not like to be called “gay” or “homosexual”.
Vasey speculates that part of the reason the fa’afafine are more attentive to their nephews and nieces is their acceptance in Samoan culture compared to gay men in the West and Japan (“You can’t help your kin if they’ve rejected you”). But he also believes that there is something about the fa’afafine way of life that means they are more likely to be nurturing towards nieces and nephews, and speculates that he would find similar results in other “third gender” groups around the world.
If this is true, then the helper in the nest theory may partly explain how a genetic trait for same-sex attraction hasn’t been selected away. That hypothesis has led Vasey to speculate that the gay men who identify as men and have masculine traits – that is to say, most gay men in the West – are descended from men who had a cross-gendered sexuality.
These figures may not be high enough to sustain genetic traits specific to this group, but the evolutionary biologist Jeremy Yoder points out in a blog post that for much of modern history gay people haven’t been living openly gay lives. Compelled by society to enter marriages and have children, their reproduction rates may have been higher than they are now.
How many gay people have children also depends on how you define being “gay”. Many of the “straight” men who have sex with fa’afafine in Samoa go on to get married and have children.
“The category of same-sex sexuality becomes very diffuse when you take a multicultural perspective,” says Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Hawaii. “If you go to India, you’ll find that if someone says they are ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ then that immediately identifies them as Western. But that doesn’t mean there’s no homosexuality there.”
Similarly in the West, there is evidence that many people go through a phase of homosexual activity. In the 1940s, US sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found that while just 4% of white men were exclusively gay after adolescence, 10% had a three-year period of gay activity and 37% had gay sex at some point in their lives.
A national survey of sexual attitudes in the UK last year came up with lower figures. Some 16% of women said they had had a sexual experience with another woman (8% had genital contact), and 7% of men said they had had a sexual experience with a man (with 5% having genital contact).
But most scientists researching gay evolution are interested in an ongoing, internal pattern of desire rather than whether people identify as gay or straight or how often people have gay sex. “Sexual identity and sexual behaviours are not good measures of sexual orientation,” says Paul Vasey. “Sexual feelings are.”
It’s not all in the DNA
Qazi Rahman says that alleles coding for same sex attraction only explain some of the variety in human sexuality. Other, naturally varying biological factors come into play, with about one in seven gay men, he says, owing their sexuality to the “big brother effect”.
This has nothing to do with George Orwell, but describes the observation that boys with older brothers are significantly more likely to become gay – with every older brother the chance of homosexuality increases by about a third. No-one knows why this is, but one theory is that with each male pregnancy, a woman’s body forms an immune reaction to proteins that have a role in the development of the male brain. Since this only comes into play after several siblings have been born – most of whom are heterosexual and go on to have children – this pre-natal quirk hasn’t been selected away by evolution.
Exposure to unusual levels of hormone before birth can also affect sexuality. For example, female foetuses exposed to higher levels of testosterone before birth show higher rates of lesbianism later on. Studies show that “butch” lesbian women and men have a smaller difference in length between their index and ring fingers – a marker of pre-natal exposure to testosterone. In “femme” lesbians the difference has been found to be less marked.
Brothers of a different kind – identical twins – also pose a tricky question. Research has found that if an identical twin is gay, there is about a 20% chance that the sibling will have the same sexual orientation. While that’s a greater likelihood than random, it’s lower than you might expect for two people with the same genetic code.
William Rice, from the University of California Santa Barbara, says that it may be possible to explain this by looking not at our genetic code but at the way it is processed. Rice and his colleagues refer to the emerging field of epigenetics, which studies the “epimarks” that decide which parts of our DNA get switched on or off. Epimarks get passed on to children, but only sometimes. Rice believes that female foetuses employ an epimark that makes them less sensitive to testosterone. Usually it’s not inherited, but occasionally it is, leading to same-sex preference in boys.
Dr William Byne, editor-in-chief of the journal LGBT Health, believes sexuality may well be inborn, but thinks it could be more complicated than some scientists believe. He notes that the heritability of homosexuality is similar to that for divorce, but “social science researchers have not… searched for ‘divorce genes’. Instead they have focused on heritable personality and temperamental traits that might influence the likelihood of divorce.”
For Qazi Rahman, it’s the media that oversimplifies genetic theories of sexuality, with their reports of the discovery of “the gay gene”. He believes that sexuality involves tens or perhaps hundreds of alleles that will probably take decades to uncover. And even if heterosexual sex is more advantageous in evolutionary terms than gay sex, it’s not only gay people whose sexuality is determined by their genes, he says, but straight people too.
I have been married for 13 years. We have had a pretty healthy, fulfilling sex life. My husband does not like to admit to his insecurities but i think he has some insecurity about his penis size and lately, his problem with not lasting very long. He has developed an obsession with stretching my vagina and pulling my labia. He knows I don’t like it. The other night, he introduces a dildo he has secretly purchased. I have enjoyed dildos, even larger ones, in the past, but this one was ridiculously too big. It was over 12″ long and the circumference was as big as a baseball bat. I told him that it was hurting and that it was impossible. He forced it in me. I was crying in pain and he tells me later that he hasn’t been that aroused in years. I am hurt. It hurt me physically, I bled a little, but it hurts more emotionally. What do you think is wrong with him? He has never hit me or been abusive with me, in the past.
Jeez darlin’, that’s fucked up…big time.
Here’s the thing about men who have sexual insecurities. They can and often do project their perceived inadequacies outside of themselves and then act out. And almost always this projection and acting out is aggressive and abusive.
I suppose you know that what we’re talkin’ about here, Lola is sexual assault, right? I mean let’s not mince words. Your husband assaulted you. It was premeditated and worst of all he took pleasure in it. This is extremely disturbing, because, despite his non-aggressive past, he has just upped the ante exponentially. You know what they say about domesticated animals that inexplicably develop an aggressive steak. Once they get a taste for blood there’s no trusting them ever again.
I think your old man has severe anger issues. Issues that if left untreated will…not maybe, but absolutely will…escalate into more aggressive and abusive behavior. Your guy needs help. He needs to know that he stands on a precipice. That he is making a cognitive and affective connection between violence and pleasure and this is very dangerous for all involved, especially you, Lola.
You don’t mention that he had any remorse about this assault. This too is disturbing. Because you can’t precisely pinpoint the cause of his acting out, you’ll never really know when you’re safe and when you’re not. I encourage you not to treat this lightly. Confront him about this. Make it clear to him that he has violated the bond of trust between the two of you. He may try and shift the blame for this incident to you. But remember, you’re not at fault. Insist that he seek professional help immediately. Anything short of him doing that will nullify your relationship.
No waffling on this, Lola! You do not want him to get the message that this incident can be winked at or overlooked. Your wellbeing hangs in the balance.
All unwanted, forced, manipulated, or coerced sexual contact or activity is sexual assault. Sexual assault is not about sex, eroticism or desire; it is about power, control and abuse.