Why Sex Education Should Start in Kindergarten

Sex ed in the United States is fraught with controversy and discomfort. Left to the discretion of each U.S. state — of which fewer than half require teaching of the subject — the subject is subsequently still overwhelmingly focused on minimizing the risk of pregnancy and STDs from conventional heterosexual intercourse, leaving out the many other dynamics of sexual relations (how to handle feeling of intimacy, the importance of granting as well as accepting consent, etc.). Little wonder why almost 40 percent of young Americans report that their sex education was not helpful, and why so many people remain uncomfortable about so much as discussing the topic, let alone the act itself.

The U.S., among other countries, should take lessons from the Netherlands on implementing a comprehensive and results-driven approach to sex ed. Granted, it would be a tough sell, given that students start learning about it as young as age four. But as a PBS report notes, the nature of the class is not what one would think. Continue reading

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What’s Behind “Odd” Sexual Fetishes?

The term “sexual fetish” was first used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by psychiatrists like Magnus Hirschfeld to describe — in a neutral fashion — the many ways that people experience sexual desire. Specifically, Hirschfeld and his contemporaries defined fetishism as the act of eroticizing any non-living object or body part. It wasn’t a mental illness, but a description of a mental state. However, in a world where wanting even the most ordinary kinds of sex can be difficult and embarrassing, having a fetish could make people neurotic. As a result, psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of the influential 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, often associated sexual fetishism with mental illness.

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Parents and the Issue of Teenage Sex

Courtesy of Slate, we take a look at how one society typically approaches the rather awkward issue of young people having sex.

Sleepovers have been normalized in the Netherlands for decades now, and as social scientist Amy Schalet’s research suggests, the results have been generally positive. By demonstrating acceptance and respect for their kids’ relationships, Dutch parents, on average, enjoy more communication with their kids about sex and relationships than American parents do, which in turn means the kids are more likely to get the health care and education they need to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Subsequently, the teenage pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is nearly four times lower than ours.

Schalet also discovered that the Dutch way helped minimize negative stereotyping about gender, love, and sexuality. In the U.S., there’s a tendency to see sex as a battle between boys and girls, with parents falling for “the stereotype that all boys want the same thing, and all girls want love and cuddling.” But because Dutch parents respect teenage relationships, they have a more holistic view, understanding that most young people of any gender want a combination of both.

As usual, it seems that taking the more open-minded and communicative route is the most effective. Demonizing and restricting sex has historically never had much of a positive impact, and this is borne out by empirical evidence.

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Hormones Make Long-Term Relationships and Sex a Catch-22

Balancing a long-term relationship with the more “primal” forces of human sexuality has always been a difficult act.

While almost everyone agrees that the ideal romantic relationship should entail both emotional attachment and sexual attraction, it’s curious to note that these two forces are often simultaneously seen to be adversarial as well.

Sexual urges can undermine fidelity, or lessen the “depth” of one’s attraction to their partner (e.g. the relationship is sustained only be base sexual attraction and nothing more. Conversely, a romantic relationship devoid of intimacy can become stale and “degenerate” into a mere friendship (not that platonic relationships aren’t valuable).

Indeed, for most people, sex is what elevates a relationship to its highest level of exceptionalism and uniqueness. It’s what demarcates the difference between any other “normal” relationship, and one that is “special.” So needless to say, like most interpersonal activities, sex is a complicated double-edged sword.

Now, some research suggests that this strange balance is not only even more complicated, but that it has an innate biological origin as well:

Studies on the length of relationships have shown that couples in harmonious, stable and trusting long-term relationships have higher blood levels of oxytocin (a chemical that regulates attachment, promotes cooperation and facilitates sensations of joy and love) than people who are [in mismatched] relationships. These happy couples also reap other benefits in terms of longer lifespan, lower rates of alcoholism, depression and illness, and more rapid recovery after accidental injury.

But there are conflicting chemicals at work in sexual relationships that sometimes prevent them from ever becoming long-term. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the limbic system – the brain’s primitive reward centre. It mediates both the sex drive and addiction to drugs. Brain scans have shown that the rapid rise in dopamine levels during orgasm is similar to that seen in a heroin high. But dopamine falls rapidly following orgasm in both males and females and is replaced with rising levels of a hormone called prolactin…

At first, rising prolactin causes sleepy post-orgasm contentment…But once this sleepy feeling of satiation has passed, prolactin may go on rising and cause problems for couples wanting to sustain a long-term sexual relationship. In both men and women excess levels of prolactin can cause loss of libido, anxiety, headaches, mood swings and depression.

 

…this may go some way towards explaining why many relationships are burnt out after a year. In reproductive terms, 12 months is long enough for fertilisation to take place.”

Needless to say, the implications of these studies are interesting, if not concerning: does this mean that most humans are innately incapable of having long-term monogamous relationships, as we seem to be finding out ourselves through experience and social trends? What are your thoughts?

Clearly, more research should be done.

 

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How a German Elementary School Taught Sex Ed

This is sexual education done right, and although many German parents found it controversial, it’s refreshing to see such creative efforts being attempted. Teaching children properly about sex is undoubtedly vital, as it reduces the incidences of STDs, teen pregnancy, and — by extension — abortion.

Then there’s this excerpt:

[A] 2012 study…asked children in the U.S., the Netherlands, England, and Sweden to draw pictures explaining where babies come from. The Dutch boy who drew the above picture did better than most — American kids got nowhere near as close to understanding what was going on, and invariably invoked God in their explanations. One U.S. boy said, “I think [babies] are made by a mom and a dad, but I am not sure how; maybe during special time when they are alone.”

The study’s authors concluded that it is possible for kids that young to understand the concepts of conception and birth, and argued that “In these countries [like the Netherlands and Sweden] with more open attitudes toward sexuality and greater recognition of the need to educate young people, there are higher rates of contraceptive use by both male and female teens and lower rates of teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion.”

Where the depiction of contraception in a book aimed at such young children runs into trouble, of course, is that it equates sex primarily with pleasure. The other thing that high school teacher from Idaho is being investigated for is explaining the biological mechanisms of an orgasm to his students. That seems like something that can end up being a lot more damning than using the anatomically correct name for female genitalia. It’s also a lot less common. I remember seeing lots of sex ed materials throughout adolescence that were filled with images and detailed explanations of how it all works, but I can’t remember any of it talking about how it’s supposed to feel: “So good that it can’t get any better,” according to Wo kommst du her?; then, in the afterglow, “nice and tingly and warm.”

Controversial or not, sex education has practical societal benefits that are measurable. On that basis alone, we should work strongly to implement effective and comprehensive sex education in grade schools — rather than investigating a high school teacher for using proper anatomical terms like vagina.

Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Roles

Though I don’t discuss it on this blog as often as I should, human sexuality is a fascinating topic to me. Indeed, I think it deserves far more attention and open discussion than it receives, and I lament how taboo and misunderstood our sexual natures are (though our society, at least, seems to be increasingly open to talking about these things).

Indeed, as much as many of us don’t care to admit it, sexuality is a central concern in human existence: like all animals, we are sexual by nature, and like all social animals in particular, sexuality is a major component in our identity, relationships, and well-being. We’ve been socially-conditioned to view sex as a debased or even unfortunate aspect of human nature, to the extent that many of us don’t even like to confront our sexuality privately.

Needless to say, all this can have some unhealthy implications and consequences, so I’m pleased to see a well-written article in AlterNet that addresses not only the unfortunate result of our sexual misapprehension, but that also reveals how dated concepts of gender roles only complicate matters further. The article discusses the long-existent (but of course largely undiscussed) disparity between male and female sexual satisfaction — what it curtly calls the “orgasm gap” — in which less than 25% of women actually orgasm from “traditional” intercourse.

Freudian echoes, anatomical mischaracterizations and gender stereotypes are part of the logic naturalizing the orgasm gap, but there is nothing natural about it. We know this because women who sleep with women have many more orgasms than heterosexual women, almost as many as men who sleep with women. Women also have no problem experiencing orgasm through masturbation and the same women who frequently have orgasms during masturbation report many fewer orgasms when they’re with a partner. Men are also not faster to climax than women; it takes women the same amount of time to orgasm during masturbation as it takes men, on average, to have an orgasm through intercourse: four minutes.

Setting aside how surprising a lot of that data must be — given that it’s contrary to everything we learn and understand about the sexual nature of men and women — what accounts for such a seemingly unusual disparity? Well, the article offers an interesting explanation:

Instead of being driven by biology, women’s rate of orgasm relative to men is a function of social forces. For one, we often bifurcate the sexual experience in line with gender norms: men are sexual (they experience desire) and women are sexy (they inspire desire). The focus on men’s internal wants and sensations also draws our attention to his satisfaction. Thus his orgasm, but not necessarily hers, becomes a critical part of what must happen for a sexual encounter to be successful and fulfilling. This is part of why intercourse – a sexual act that is strongly correlated with orgasm for men – is the only act that almost everyone agrees counts as “real sex,” whereas activities that are more likely to produce orgasm in women are considered optional foreplay.

Meanwhile, the idea that women’s primary goal in sex is to deliver a sexy body can focus her attention on how she looks instead of how she feels. This can lead to spectating, being worried about how she looks from her partner’s perspective, which decreases the chance a woman will have an orgasm. It can also lead to active avoidance of orgasm because of worries her face or body might do something unattractive.

I recommend reading the whole piece so as to get detailed understanding of the issue and its proposed solutions. Basically, the takeaway seems to be that we’ve created this artificial notion of what counts as “true sex” at the expense of women and, by extension, men (since one sexually unfulfilled partner can lead to a troubled relationship). Instead of obsessing over what supposedly should be done based on what social norms dictate, we should simply be pragmatic and do what works for both partners. That includes being honest about what works and what doesn’t.

Granted, I think a lot more people are more avant garde about their sexual lives than they’re willing to admit. The problem is that there is this pressure to conform to a certain social norm that a lot (if not most) people privately know is untrue. It’s sad to see relationships suffer because we’re trying to appeal to some arbitrary, dated, and sexist (to men and women) notion of sex that shouldn’t matter in the bedroom anyway.

Regardless, I’ve seen men and women alike feel guilty about not being able to orgasm through traditional intercourse, even though they pull it off just fine through other means. Basically, if it’s not “real sex.” it doesn’t matter whether or not it works — it’s still upsetting to the individuals pride or sense of masculinity/femininity.

 

Insight on Human Sexuality from the Aka People

Sex is a difficult subject to discuss, especially here in the US. Though we’re viewed as being exceptionally prudish about the topic, most societies more or less treat it as an impolite or vulgar thing to talk about, especially in a frank or open way. This is very curious given how much sexuality pervades every aspect of our lives. Like it or not, we’re sexual beings, and all aspects of sex – relationships, self-pleasure, fetishes, fantasies, etc – occupy our minds and dreams at one point or another.

Unfortunately, this ambivalent and ambiguous approach leaves us ignorant to a comprehensive understanding of sexual issues, despite how much they concern us deep down. Much of what we do learn about sex tends to be novel and unscientific, or based on folk tales and mere intuition. This partly accounts for why Americans seem particularly more uncomfortable about homosexuality, transgender people, and other manifestations of so-called “abnormal” or “deviant” sexuality. We hardly know sex well enough in general to truly know what accounts for “acceptable” sexual behavior.

For all these reasons, I took great interest in a recent article in Slate that followed a very unique anthropological study of the subject (I’m a huge anthropology buff to boot). Even the basic introduction presents and intriguing claim:

A husband-and-wife team of anthropologists at Washington State University named Barry and Bonnie Hewlett believe that they’ve found a society without gay sex—and that there other societies, too, in which some presumably universal behaviors, such as homosexuality and masturbation, are nonexistent at all levels of analysis.

Almost immediately, many of you may believe that this would claim to validate the position held by religious conservatives thatf non-heterosexual copulation is aberrant. As it turns out, however, the conclusion of this study ends up, surprisingly, pointing to the opposite direction.

The Hewletts work amid a group of peaceful net-hunting foragers in central Africa known as the Aka, who live in migratory camps of about 25 to 35 individuals. Other ethnographic details, such as the Aka’s sociopolitical organization (minimal-control chiefdoms) and gender relations (men and women are relatively equal) certainly aren’t irrelevant to their sex lives, but in a report published last year in African Study Monographs, the researchers focused on the Aka’s bedroom behaviors. It was the Aka’s apparent hypersexuality that inspired the Hewletts’ research. “We decided to systematically study sexual behavior,” they explain, “after several campfire discussions with married middle-aged Aka men who mentioned in passing that they had sex three or four times during the night. At first we thought it was just men telling their stories, but we talked to women and they verified the men’s assertions.” That’s right—three or four times per night.

Indeed, these people are not as stuffy about sex as the initial impression may have suggested. They’re remarkably sexual, and that is reflected in more than just their rate of intercourse. It permeates throughout their very fabric of society.

The other important thing to note with the Aka and Ngandu is that, by Western standards, they are extremely open with respect to sexuality. Children mimic intercourse publicly and without being reproached by their parents, the lyrics to a popular Aka children’s song are the orgasmic vocalizations of two people having sex, and adults discuss sexual matters freely in camp.

Furthermore, the Aka are known for their extremely flexible gender roles and near absent gender stereotypes. The women are just as likely to hunt as are the men, and men are heavily involved in childrearing. (In fact, the Guardiandubbed Aka men “best fathers in the world” a few years ago.)

This is hardly an oppressive environment, which is why the apparent absence of homosexuality and masturbation in these societies came as a surprise to the Hewletts. “[These behaviors] are rare or nonexistent,” observe the authors, “not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either group.”

Given this uniquely progressive attitude to both sexual expression and gender roles, it may seem contradictory to imagine that the Aka do not engage in many other kinds of sexual acts: oral and anal sex is absent, as is any notion of foreplay. As noted before, same-sex relationships are unknown to them: the Aka people don’t see homosexuality as taboo or unacceptable, because it is literally an alien concept to them. The same applies to “self-stimulation,” of which even the mechanics, as simple as they are, simply don’t translate.  In fact, no words remotely exist to describe these acts (and they’re not alone in this regard either).

Much of this stems from their attitudes towards sex, which isn’t as carnal as you might think.

To begin with, they’re having a lot of married sex. On average—and remember, this isn’t just newlywed teenagers, but also middle-aged couples we’re talking about—the Aka reported having sex three times per night, and the Ngandu twice per night. According to the Hewletts, these groups consider sex as being more like work than recreational activity. Given the importance placed on having many children—coupled with a high infant mortality rate—the Aka and Ngandu view sex as an exercise in gathering offspring, a form of nocturnal labor that is just as important as their subsistence activities during daylight. “The work of the penis is the work to find a child,” said one Aka informant. “I am now doing it five times a night to search for a child,” said another. “If I do not do it five times my wife will not be happy because she wants children quickly.” It’s not that sex isn’t pleasurable to these people, the Hewletts emphasize. Rather, pleasure just isn’t their primary motive.

It may seem unusual to imagine that such a hyper-sexual society would view pleasure as a secondary concern, if not merely a by-product, let alone see it as actual labor. But that’s just it: what is strange as far as sexual norms are concerned is largely a subjective and relativistic matter, something that wasn’t lost on the researchers, given that they’re anthropologists.

“One of our fears in writing this paper,” emphasize the Hewletts, “was that the Aka and Ngandu might be viewed as ‘others’ with unusual and exotic sexual practices … [but] overall, the Euro-American patterns are relatively unusual by cross-cultural standards.” In other words, although widespread Westernization creates the impression of a species-wide sexual homogeneity, when one takes the sheer number of living and extinct cultures into perspective, it’s us—not them—who are weird.

This is pretty much the crux of most anthropological studies. While some universal norms exist, the sheer diversity of human culture and experience leaves us with very little in the way of objective standards of what is “natural” or “normal.” Most of us unknowingly view the world through our own social and cultural prism, and construct our notions of what is “right” or “ideal” based on this benchmark. Every society does this, and even those of us that try to be conscious of this bias and overcome it have a difficult time doing so in practice (bear in mind that morality is a different matter for me entirely – I am not a moral relativist).

I think the article wraps it up rather well as far as attitudes to sex in particular, and views of different cultural mores in general.

In any event, the point is not to suggest that homosexuality and masturbation are unnatural and therefore wrong, but that “deviance” is a relative term. Let’s not forget there are certainly cultures for which homosexual behavior is the norm rather than the exception…The examples above should remind us that there are as many sexual differences between cultures as there are similarities. It may astonish Westerners to realize that societies with these practices exist elsewhere in the world, but just imagine all of the other variations in human sexuality that must have been lost through the ages. Even today, there really are societies in which homosexuality does not exist.

Basically, there’s a lot about our very nature we simply don’t know, and we should keep this in mind before we make any generalizations or assumptions concerning who we’re “supposed to be.”