Tag Archives: sex

Pre-Marital Abstinence Programs Leave Men Dissatisfied

Photo by James Prescott.

Notions of masculinity and purity encouraged by abstinence groups make transitioning to married life difficult for many men. Photo by James Prescott.

Religious groups are known for championing an abstinence-only approach to pre-marital life, and groups both national and local have been set up to promote and support this lifestyle. Sociologist Sarah Diefendorf spent a year with one – a small support group for young Christian men – and in a recent interview with the New Republic she explains how the abstinence-only approach did not necessarily make for a healthy sex life after marriage. This was in large part due to the severely gendered environment that Diefendorf encountered in which masculinity was equated with sexual restraint and femininity was equated with sexual disinterest – beliefs that led to long-term struggles even after marriage. Diefendorf told the New Republic:

For these men, to be a good man and a man of God meant saving themselves for the wedding bed. Amy Wilkins, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, also interviewed men who pledged abstinence before marriage, and she argued that these men are asserting their masculinity in different ways. Rather than saying, “I’m a man because I engage in a variety of sexual activity,” they’re saying, “I’m a man because I can avoid that temptation; I can control these things.”

When it came to abstinence-only support for women, Diefendorf found that there was none. The men she talked to believed that women do not “naturally” have the sexual urges that men do, thus eliminating a need for female support groups in the church. She said:

The church, and the men that I interviewed, don’t believe that women would need a space to talk through these issues. They believe that men are highly sexual beings and they have “natural urges” that need to be controlled, but they don’t believe that women have that natural desire to be sexually active. Women are the providers of sexual activity for their husbands.

These notions of purity and masculinity, however, made for a difficult transition into married life for most of the men. Diefendorf followed up five years later and found that the men from the group who were married were still struggling with sexual urges that they felt were “beastly” and, without a support group to talk through these issues, they often turned inward and stopped talking about, and in many cases enjoying, sex altogether. Diefendorf explains:

When you spend the first twenty-plus years of your life thinking of sex as something beastly that needs to be controlled, it’s very difficult to make that transition to married life and viewing sex as sacred…The idea is that once you’re married, it’s all good— you’re supposed to be enjoying sex with your wife…But as one of the guys said, once you get married, the “beastly” doesn’t disappear. They still struggle with issues like excessive pornography viewing, masturbation. A few of them were worried that they might want to have an affair. They’re still struggling with these things, but they no longer have an outlet to work through them. They didn’t have the tools to engage in a healthy sex life.

For a great read on how abstinence-only groups target women by making abstinence “sexy”, check out this post by Soc Images.

Guilty Pleasures No More?

A Showtime ad for Gigolos.

A Showtime ad for Gigolos.

Women watch porn and go to strip clubs. They also pay for sex. Sociologist Kassia Wosick from New Mexico State University says this reality is now becoming part of the television canon, making it more “real” for the rest of society. Shows like HBO’s Hung and Showtime’s Gigolos revolve around women as sexual consumers. In an interview with Las Cruces Sun, Wosick explains her motivation:

I wanted to do research like this as opposed to just going out and asking women about their experiences to see the way the media constructs this, because media is essentially supposed to be a reflection of our everyday lives….

Still, we might ask, is this what women want to watch or what they’re given to watch? Through content analysis and focus groups, Wosick has found that women do feel connections with the shows. The racy viewing might be exactly what they need to chip away at a taboo of sexual consumerism and enjoy some the same pleasures that men are allowed—in fact, the images might be empowering and support egalitarianism:

Women participating as sexual consumers challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality, which I argue is key in equalizing gendered power dynamics within society.

Do Your Chores (Whatever They Are)

We all love when our partners help out around the house, but the type of tasks we’re doing might affect our sex lives. A recent study by Sabino Kornrich and her colleagues found that married, heterosexual men who do traditionally masculine chores, like mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, reported more frequent sex than those who tackle traditionally feminine chores, like cleaning. The findings imply that heterosexuals are essentially “rewarded” for sticking closely to socialized gender roles.

He might want to think about this. Photo by Heather Harvey via flickr.com.

But what about the married men who enjoy cooking and shopping? Ultimately, a couple’s sex life depends on the happiness and satisfaction in the relationship. There are plenty of couples that don’t divvy up their chores along rigidly gendered lines and still manage to be sexually fulfilled. The dealbreaker, even Kornrich says, is when the man doesn’t play any part in the script—masculine or not.

“Men who refuse to help around the house could increase conflict in their marriage and lower their wives’ marital satisfaction,” Kornrich said.

“Earlier research has found that women’s marital satisfaction is indeed linked to men’s participation in overall household labor, which encompasses tasks traditionally done by both men and women.”

Darwin Was Wrong

How to have more sex?

Well, at least about dating, according to Dan Slater’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times.  Charles Darwin, who is famous for his theories of evolution, argued that through competition for mates, natural selection encouraged man’s “more inventive genius” while nurturing women’s “greater tenderness.”  So, he suggested that the gender roles he saw in Victorian England—men making money and women staying home—dated back centuries.

Decades later, social scientists applied Darwin’s theories to ideas about mating and concluded that men are less selective about whom they’ll sleep with, men like casual sex more than women, and men have more sexual partners over a lifetime.  These assumptions persist today, and many evolutionary psychologists have studied them and argued in their favor.  For example,

  In 1972, Robert L. Trivers, a graduate student at Harvard…argued that women are more selective about whom they mate with because they’re biologically obliged to invest more in offspring. Given the relative paucity of ova and plenitude of sperm, as well as the unequal feeding duties that fall to women, men invest less in children. Therefore, men should be expected to be less discriminating and more aggressive in competing for females.

Critics of this theory (and many other evolution-based theories) argue that cultural norms, not evolution, impact human behavior.  This argument is quite sociological, though it has also found support in the work of psychologists.

Take the question of promiscuity. Everyone has always assumed — and early research had shown — that women desired fewer sexual partners over a lifetime than men. But in 2003, two behavioral psychologists, Michele G. Alexander and Terri D. Fisher, published the results of a study that used a “bogus pipeline” — a fake lie detector. When asked about actual sexual partners, rather than just theoretical desires, the participants who were not attached to the fake lie detector displayed typical gender differences. Men reported having had more sexual partners than women. But when participants believed that lies about their sexual history would be revealed by the fake lie detector, gender differences in reported sexual partners vanished. In fact, women reported slightly more sexual partners (a mean of 4.4) than did men (a mean of 4.0).

A more recent study challenged the idea that women are more selective.  In speed dating, the social norm instructs that women sit in one place while men rotate tables.  In 2009, Psychologists Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick conducted an experiment in which the men remained seated and the women rotated.  By switching the role of the “rotator,” they found that women became less selective while men appeared more selective.

Slater’s opinion piece, found here, cites several other studies that cast doubt on the notion that evolution dictates gendered behavior.  But, that doesn’t mean that Darwinians are backing down. The debate will likely continue, but Slater gives the last words to those who challenge Darwinian ideas:

“Some sexual features are deeply rooted in evolutionary heritage, such as the sex response and how quickly it takes men and women to become aroused,” said Paul Eastwick, a co-author of the speed-dating study. “However, if you’re looking at features such as how men and women regulate themselves in society to achieve specific goals, I believe those features are unlikely to have evolved sex differences. I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist. But many evolutionary psychologists don’t think this way. They think these features are getting shaped and honed by natural selection all the time.” How far does Darwin go in explaining human behavior?

Anxiety and Egalitarianism in the Bedroom

Photo taken from the Sociological Images Blog

I never thought I’d be writing the words “fellatio” or “cunnilingus” for an academic purpose (or frankly ever), but here I find myself exploring recent musing on the decline of the, ahem, blow job. Near the end of March, Esquire’s Geoff Dyer reported that the act has fallen on hard times: in an informal survey of 10 of his male friends, 8 preferred pleasing their partners to receiving oral sex.

It’s easy for sociologists to pooh-pooh the methodologies of this “survey,” as surveying 10 friends is hardly scientific.  Further, an increase in cunnilingus does not necessarily signal a decrease in fellatio.  But still, several intellectuals have recently explained why they think Dyer’s article might be on to something.  In an essay on his own website, Pasadena City College history and gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer explained,

In an era of rising male body dysmorphia, we know that more men than ever before are self-conscious about their appearance; it’s conceivable that anxiety about their size (driven by comparison to well-hung porn stars) or even how their penises’ smell has some guys anxious to avoid the intense focus that comes with a woman’s mouth on their manparts.

In essence, Schwyzer thinks that cunnilingus has become a new way for men to demonstrate sexual competence and deal with performance anxieties.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel also believes that Dyer may be on to something, though he finds some fault with an assumption in Schwyzer’s article: that giving and receiving head mean the same thing.  In fact, sexuality research suggests that the meaning of the act may not be symmetrical.

When straight men describe their experiences with oral sex, they talk about power. This holds whether receiving fellatio: “I feel so powerful when I see her kneeling in front of me,” or performing cunnilingus: “Being able to get her off with my tongue makes me feel so powerful.” Heterosexual men tend to experience the giving and receiving of oral sex as an expression of their power. By contrast, straight women perceive both giving and receiving oral sex from the position of powerlessness—not necessarily because they are forced into these acts, but because “it makes him happy” to receive oral sex and to perform it. So oral sex, like intercourse, allows him to feel “like a man,” regardless of who does what to whom.

So what happens to men’s sexual experience when women desire reciprocity and actually want to perform oral sex?  According to Kimmel, in a traditional sense, sex was a conquest for men.  But is there still victory if women like the “conquering”?

It’s difficult to say, though if the answer is “no,” perhaps we need to rethink what sex means to straight men.  Kimmel asks,

Can we both conquer and surrender to pleasure? Or can we dispense with martial metaphors… entirely, and simply pleasure and be pleasured? In other words, can heterosexual men embrace the liberatory promise of queer sex—the freeing of sexual pleasure from gender inequality?

As Kimmel puts it, can there really be anything sexier than equality?

 

Have Boys Become More Romantic?

Photo by Dan Vitoriano via flickr.com

According to well-worn stereotypes, boys who have sex are “players” or “studs,” while girls who have sex get stuck with nastier labels. But in a recent New York Times editorial, sociologist Amy T. Schalet argues that boys in the U.S. seem to care much more about romance—and avoiding pregnancy and disease—than they did 20 years ago.

Rates for 15-to-17-year-olds who report having sex have dropped since the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “And there are virtually no gender differences in the timing of sexual initiation,” Schalet writes.

She offers a few rationales for the change, based on survey data and her own research:

Fear seems to have played a role. In interviewing 10th graders for my book on teenage sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands, I found that American boys often said sex could end their life as they knew it. After a condom broke, one worried: “I could be screwed for the rest of my life.” Another boy said he did not want to have sex yet for fear of becoming a father before his time.

In fact, Schalet writes, boys seems to be more preoccupied with negative outcomes than girls. She suggests these fears grow out of sex education and an awareness of AIDS, while the drive to have sex with another person might be, in part, quelled by access to Internet pornography.

Schalet suggests there could also be a positive reason American boys are hurrying less to have sex. It might be “because they have gained cultural leeway to choose a first time that feels emotionally right. If so, their liberation from rigid masculinity norms should be seen as a victory for the very feminist movement that Rush Limbaugh recently decried.”

Female Olympians

london 1

The Summer Olympics in London could be a watershed event in sports, as every country is expected to send female athletes to participate.  In the past, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei have only sent male athletes, according to the New York Times.

Saudi Arabia, a monarchy whose legal system is based on Islamic law, is considered the most significant of the three, given its size, international oil influence and severe restrictions placed on women in daily life. While female athletes from Qatar and Brunei have participated in national and regional competitions, Saudi Arabia has essentially barred sports for women, according to Human Rights Watch.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, women in Saudi Arabia are systematically discriminated against when it comes to sports.  There is no physical education for girls in state schools, and gyms were closed for women in 2009 and 2010.  So, while senior Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke welcomes the participation, he notes that the International Olympic Committee should work toward more systemic change.

However, even this change might have effects beyond Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia’s sending of female athletes could put pressure on other countries with similar restrictions to do the same, said Martha F. Davis, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law.

“I think it’s a savvy move,” she said. “It’s trying to make sure there isn’t a groundswell of Arab Spring-like activities and being responsive to those yearnings to participate. It’s being proactive.”

Professor Erika George (S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah) noted that there may be some negative reactions as well.

“There are people who may think it’s inappropriate,” George said. “But there’s precedent for this. It’s going to be hard to argue that a woman can be an Olympic champion but not be behind the wheel.”

 

Leveling Women’s Bodies to Level the Playing Field

If anything positive came from the debacle that surrounded the International Association of Athletics
Federation’s attempts to ‘determine’ South African runner Caster Semenya’s sex, it is that it brought to light the crude methods that were being used to enforce the male/female binary in sports (See David Zirin and Sherry Wolf’s article in the Nation for critical coverage of the initial controversy).

Two years later the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federation, the governing body for track and field, have released a new policy to regulate athletes whose sex development is considered unusual to avoid a repeat of the nightmare that Semenya faced.

In a recent editorial in the The New York Times, Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, provides a critical read of the new policy. Dreger explains that initially the policy seems like an improvement because:

The new policy no longer allows any room for a simplistic “I know it when I see it” approach to who counts as a female athlete.

The new system relies on setting the ‘appropriate’ levels of functional testosterone a female athlete should have. However, as Dregger argues, this policy is fundamentally sexist. Both men and women naturally produce testosterone.

Yet despite the fact that testosterone belongs to women, too, the I.O.C. and the I.A.A.F. are basically saying it is really a manly thing: “You can have functional testosterone, but if you make too much, you’re out of the game because you’re not a real woman.”

Dregger explains that men are free of any equivalent biochemical policing and can take full advantage of any ‘mutation’ that gives him an advantage. In efforts to create ‘the mythical level playing field’ the committee has taken another step in a now rich history of controlling and categorizing women’s bodies. For women athletes who have more functional testosterone than is considered appropriate for a female the only option is to “submit to being made sexually ‘normal’ through hormone treatments” or they cannot compete.

While Dregger is sympathetic to the difficulties that I.O.C. and I.A.A.F. face, she finds little progress in the decision

this newly proposed biological reduction of women to a hormonally disadvantaged class of people — one medically made disadvantaged, if necessary — struck many of us as regressive from the standpoint of women’s rights. Indeed, it reminds me of those itty-bitty shorts that college women’s volleyball players must wear. They each sexualize the bodies of female athletes as a requirement of play. They each insist that a woman never be manly.

Perhaps the biggest take away point from Dregger’s article and the debates surrounding how to define and separate male from female in the sporting arena is that:

There is no perfect solution, one that is reasonably objective, universally applicable and universally satisfying.

 

 

 

fleshing out the flesh trade

male's eye  (mental masturbation)In February’s issue of Wired (now available online), Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh helps us understand the life of a prostitute in New York City and how the trade has been transformed by advances in technology.

While Venkatesh’s initial goal was to examine how the gentrification of Times Square and other areas of New York City would impact the sex trade, he quickly found himself documenting the rise of a new type of sex worker.

The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and “wellness” goods. In the process, “dating,” “massage,” “escort,” and “dancing” have replaced hustling and streetwalking. A luxury brand has been born.

The shift has resulted in an increase in both the price of, and level of respect for, prostitutes. Technology has played a large part in this as it allows clients to find companionship without resorting to driving the streets.

The Internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade. Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue.

Most exciting about this short piece was the amount of information conveyed in about ½ a page of writing through the use of a wide array of supplemental graphics. A map is used to show the movement of sex workers to trendier, more upscale districts in Manhattan. And a compilation of images, statistics, and well-chosen quotes demonstrate the divide between types of sex work, as well as the infusion of technology into the escort services. For instance, Facebook is quickly becoming a medium for advertising adult-services and a BlackBerry phone has come to symbolize a professional (and disease-free) status.

Hooking Up

MessyUSA Today recently reported on a controversial new study that surveyed 642 heterosexual adults in Chicago and found that casual hook ups can lead to rewarding, long-term relationships.

University of Iowa researchers analyzed relationship surveys and found that average relationship quality was higher for people who took it slowly than for those who became sexually involved in “hook-ups,” casual dating, or “friends with benefits” relationships.

Yet, according to sociologist Anthony Paik, having sex early in the relationship did not cause the disparity.

When he factored out people who weren’t interested in getting serious, he found that those who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship were just as happy as those who dated but delayed having sex.

To measure the quality of the relationship, the respondents answered questions about how much they loved their partners, their satisfaction with intimacy in the relationship, the relationship’s future, and how their lives would be different if the relationship ended.

While the study did suggest that rewarding relationships were possible for couples who delayed sex, Paik noted that:

It’s also possible for true love to emerge if things start off with a more Sex and the City approach, when people spot each other across the room, become sexually involved and then build a relationship.