sex

Helsingborg Waterfront, Sweden. Photo by tsaiproject, Flickr CC

Sweden has a long tradition of supporting its citizens with protective regulations and social services, including 480 days of paid parental leave, universal health care, and free higher education.  But now, a new proposal has come forward in the Swedish town of Overtonea: to give municipal employees a paid hour break during the week to go home and have sex.  A recent article in the New York Times explains that the policy, a brainchild of councilman Per-Erik Muskos, could help with the decreasing population in Overtonea, improve marriages, and improve employee satisfaction. 

Muskos’ idea has garnered as much praise as criticism. Many believe that it will encourage single workers to go on dates that will take longer than the one hour. And many wonder how such something like this could be enforced. Others believe that it is an excellent idea, as it will help with work-life balance. Lotta Dellve, sociologist from the University of Gothenburg, believes that her research supports Muskos’ plan. Her findings show that short bursts of physical activity during office hours are correlated with work satisfaction and productivity. Dellve believes that sex can fulfill these needed bursts, but noted that a lot of people might struggle to find the motivation to come back to work. 

Photo by Tina Franklin, Flickr CC

Though “hookup culture” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, an article in the Washington Post describes a recent report that finds Americans are having less sex. Published in Archives of Sexual Behaviorthe study authors find that Americans of all races, religions, and education levels are having less sex than in the past. While in the 1990’s people were having sex about 60 times a year on average, that number dropped by 53 times on average by 2014.

Apart from other factors, such as the rise in depression and declining rates of marriage and cohabitation, the tightening wallets of two-income-families may also be a factor driving this change. As explained by sociologist Pepper Schwartz of University of Washington, a product of the 2008 recession is that both people in partnered couples are more likely to be working. The resulting stress from these economic concerns could be behind the overall drop in sexual activity. Schwartz explains,

“You have many more women and men working to create a two-income family to stay middle class or above … People’s minds are occupied with things other than the physical connection, and that has increased in modern life, and especially from the ’80s and ’90s and forward.”

Frank and Claire Underwood House of Cards Promo

Spoiler alert! This season the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” got a bit more radical. Main characters and power couple Claire and Frank Underwood are unapologetically, consensually non-monogamous. In fact, sociologist Mimi Schippers says the show portrays “one of the best television representations of an open/poly relationship I’ve seen.” In the fourth season, Claire, married to the President of the United States, becomes sexually involved with Thomas Yates, a writer. While many shows depict “extramarital affairs” as inherently negative, “House of Cards” Frank affirms that Tom can “give” Claire things he can’t.

In a blog post for NYU Press, Schippers argues that the Underwoods go “beyond” marriage, monogamy, and dominant gender norms. According to research she conducted for her upcoming book, men in polyamorous relationships tend to shift their understanding of masculinity because they must forgo jealousy and control over the women in their lives. The openly non-monogamous relationships on “House of Cards” thus challenge more than just ideas about what relationships should look like. It confronts gendered expectations for men to be competitive and possessive and grants women sexual autonomy, independent of men.

[T]he Underwoods distinguish themselves from society’s ideas of the “perfect couple” by being both child-free and consensually non-monogamous. They are something else–something beyond “perfect”, beyond marriage, and beyond traditional gender arrangements. Rather than representing bad character or immorality, Claire’s increasingly intimate relationship with Tom and Frank’s enthusiastic acceptance of it (the very definition of polyamory) punctuates and solidifies the strength of their marriage as one between equals.

When the time comes... Jane Mejdal//Flickr CC
When the time comes… Jane Mejdal//Flickr CC

Traditional norms of feminine behavior encourage women to pledge sexual abstinence before marriage, instilling values of female sexual innocence and purity. In contrast, these norms suggest male sexual activity before marriage legitimizes their masculinity. Men who choose to abstain from sexual activity until marriage remain largely unexamined. In 2008, Ph.D. sociology candidate Sarah Diefendorf studied a male abstinence support group called The River to explore male beliefs about sexuality and masculinity in relation to sexual abstinence. Diefendorf discussed her findings in a recent Huffington Post article.

Men within The River used the group as a support network to resist various forms of sexual temptation, including masturbation, pornography, and same-sex attraction. While the resistance of sexual desires often proved difficult, these men believed that by waiting for sex, an act they believed God deemed sacred, they would enjoy fulfilling sex lives as married men. And by sharing their struggles with sexuality, the men in the group still “reinforce the norm that they are highly sexual men, even in the absence of sexual activity.”

During interviews conducted three years later, Diefendorf discovered that most of the men were still wrestling with their sexual urges even now that they were married. They no longer had a peer support network holding them accountable and did not feel comfortable speaking to their female spouses, since their group as taught that women are nonsexual.

Diefendorf explained, “After 25 years of being told that sex is something dangerous that needs to be controlled, the transition to married (and sexual) life is difficult, at best, while leaving men without the support they need. Women, meanwhile, are often left out of the conversation entirely.”

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In debates about whether to ban porn, it’s interesting to consider what a world without legal “adult entertainment” would look like. Sociologist Chauntelle Tibbals, author of the forthcoming book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society and Adult Entertainment, talked to MTV after the show “Guy Code” made a video called “Life Without Porn.” The video, embedded below, mocked the mundane situations that often serve as the opening for pornographic films—a visit to the auto repair shop, a pizza delivery, or a visit from the TV cable provider—where, instead of ending in an erotic encounter, the actors’ teasing dialogue ultimately ends with advice on how to reheat pizza or another item to add to the car repair bill.

Tibbals argues that a world completely devoid of porn is not possible. From cave drawings and carvings to Renaissance paintings to avant-garde photography, humans create images of sex and sexuality:

“Us wanting to visually represent sex has been around since humans have been around, and porn is just another medium to do that. I don’t think it’s possible for there to be no erotic representation,” Tibbals told MTV.

But what if we bracketed erotic representation and just eliminated commercial porn? Tibbals says it’s not so simple. Billions of people watch billions of dollars worth of porn:

…if you limit other people’s capacity to professionally produce and legally produce that content, the demand for it is not going to go away.

Instead of disappearing, she believes a black market would expand, putting people who work in pornographic film creation at higher risk of sexual exploitation:

Right now, when people watch porn legally made, they know that they’re watching consensual sex on a safe set run by professionals. That’s not to say that every set is perfect, but consumers can watch that content and know that the people working on it want to be there.

By Thomas8047 via flickr cc.
By Thomas8047 via flickr cc.

 

Picture a family holiday dinner. Food is on the table, everyone is gathered together, and a high school or college student is text messaging under the table. Upon prodding questions about the recipient—“Are you dating?”—the irritated adolescent might glance up just long enough to mumble, “We’re just talking.”

Sociology professor Kathy Hull shares her thoughts about the changing relationship landscape with the Star Tribune. A generation or two ago the word “dating” often meant a casual, nonexclusive relationship involving the occasional dinner and movie without commitment. That idea has changed. Hull explains,

“Going on a date now has more significance, when the option of hooking up or just hanging out in a group-friend setting is more prevalent. When people say they’re dating someone, it usually means they’re in a relationship.”

Hull suggests the shift in terms has come out of an extended transition to adulthood, with more young adults pursuing college and delaying marriage and family until they’ve secured a stable job. After graduation, Hull says, many millennials decide to start dating in the traditional sense.

“It’s not until they leave college that some people go back to the idea of using dates as a way to check out potential partners, rather than a way to get into a committed relationship.”

With so many waiting to play the game of love, it appears they may, to some degree, forget how—perhaps one more driver behind the rise of online dating.

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.

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.

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.”

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?