2009 04 06
Recently read: Sexual Fluidity

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Lisa M. Diamond. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire

Sexuality fluidity is “situation-dependent flexibility in . . . sexual responsiveness.” It turns out that, for whatever reason, women exhibit more fluidity in their sexuality than men. This makes them more likely to fall in love with same-sex friends, even when they identify as heterosexual. Sexual fluidity, although it results in attraction to both men and women, is not be confused with a bisexual identity, or indeed with any orientation. Rather, “[t]he variability introduced by sexual fluidity is variability around” the “malleable core” of a sexual orientation.

Sexuality fluidity has been long neglected by sexuality researchers, who have tended to focus their attention on subjects with relatively fixed sexual identities. Diamond’s book aims to correct this unfortunate bias, and presents the result of following almost 100 women over ten years to track changes in their sexual identities and the genders of their partners. It’s a good book: a careful academic study of an interesting subject. Although it’s not written for a popular audience, I imagine it will be of interest to many readers outside of academia.

Comments Off

2009 02 17
Recently read: Lust in Translation

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Pamela Druckerman. Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee

Paul sent me a snarky email when I stuck this book on my Amazon wishlist a while back, and I’m self-conscious enough that I declined to carry it with me as reading material on the subway. So I can only imagine how Pamela Druckerman felt about explaining the subject of her first book to her prospective in-laws (the writing of the book overlapped with her engagement and marriage).

My (extremely high-minded) excuse (let me just say preemptively) is that primate relationships are endlessly fascinating, especially human primate relationships, and especially human relationships in cross-cultural perspective. For Druckerman that sort of fascination was clearly part of it, but her thoughts were first focused on the subject (she says, with clearly preemptive intent) by the experience of being stationed in South America as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and finding herself suddenly, repeatedly, hit on by married men.

After she got over her annoyance (which she makes very clear, lest you get the wrong idea), she got curious. People—or the men, at least—seemed to have very different assumptions about the significance of infidelity. These assumptions struck Druckerman as pretty wrongheaded, but then again her assumptions struck them as wrongheaded. And this led her to attempt to stand back a bit from her own cultural assumptions, in a manner that goes back (at least) to Greek philosophers pondering cultural difference, noticing, for example, that different cultures treat their dead differently (some bury; some cremate; some dine); that different peoples tend to regard the customs of others with disgust; and wondering where in all that is there some norm established by nature that would allow us to assess the propriety of all these customs, and how would we know it if we found it, and are we sure we’re on the right side of it, since disgust by itself seems to have a pretty low epistemic value, and what are we left with if there isn’t any such norm, etc., and etc., and etc?

Anyway, the result for Druckerman of this sort of pondering, interspersed with research and interviews, is Lust in Translation, a cross-cultural survey of infidelity. Druckerman has herself an extraordinarily complex question, one that requires a lot of thinking, not just about culture, but also about race, religious, class, and gender issues that get inevitably tangled up in an attempt to survey differences across nations on any issue, let alone one that is highly private and fraught in all kinds of ways. (Dividing up the world into national cultures can be terribly misleading. It might well turn out, just for example, that working class people in two different countries have much more in common with one another than they do with the middle or upper classes in their respective countries. We can multiply such examples indefinitely. Indeed, it is the indefinite multiplication of such examples that gives some people hives at the mention of this sort of project.)

Druckerman, to her credit, seems more aware than your average journalist of some of the methodological pitfalls in such a study, at one point explaining why it’s so difficult even to get reliable national statistics for infidelity (the figures don’t all measure the same thing, for one thing). She also displays some awareness of race, class, gender issues that makes her subject so complex.

Unfortunately, her attention to these issues seems to me selective, partial, and often inadequate. You can complain about this, but you can’t complain that Druckerman doesn’t warn you. Seven pages into the introduction she admits that although she “spoke to experts and compared [her] observations with statistics, [her] own sample of adulterers isn’t scientific. It’s quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental.” Even with this proviso, I think Druckerman could have thought and written much more deeply about some of the gender and class issues she glances up against in the course of the book. But at least she’s not peddling her book as sociology.

So what does she find?

We all know the American script. One part of it says a cheating husband is supposed to tell his mistress that he’s unhappy with his wife. This means he’s not a lousy two-timer but rather a sensitive soul who is understandably searching for the love and affection he deserves. In China, however, I discover married men routinely praise their wives to their mistresses, to prove they respect women and to set boundaries for the affair.
People everywhere may have the same menu of emotions. But cultural scripts teach us which emotions to invoke on a particular occasion. A married Japanese woman was confused when I asked her if she felt guilty about having a lover. I had to repeat the question several times. Feeling guilty hadn’t occurred to her, since she was meeting her obligations to her family. A Frenchman was taken aback when I asked whether he had gone into therapy to sort out his double life. In fact, he had dropped out of therapy soon after meeting the woman who became his mistress, since he was finally happy.

(Druckerman’s interviews complicate some of these national stereotypes a bit, but probably not enough to satisfy someone whose methodological scruples leads her to find this sort of survey appallingly simplistic.)

When Druckerman looks at American society, she finds that the statistics don’t really bear out the impression that the US is a hedonistic nation of cheaters. In the United States, in 2004, among married or cohabiting couples, only 3.9% of men and 3.1% of women had had more than one sexual partner in the past year. (The impression that the figure is much higher is due partly to older and less reliable surveys.)

When Americans do cheat, however, the fallout is often more severe and prolonged than in other countries. It’s not that anyone, anywhere in a committed monogamous relationship is thrilled to find that their spouse has been with someone else. It’s just that Americans are, according to Druckerman, relatively highly primed for long sagas of guilt, obsessive rehashing of details, and oodles of therapy (much of that therapy being of questionable value).

Druckerman surveys a number of couples who, she thinks, are following the particular American cultural script on infidelity. Frankly, some of these couples seem so extreme that I wonder whether they’re chosen more for the Jerry Springer-like effect they give to these passages in the book than to any insight they shed on the broader culture. At any rate, Druckerman thinks that the script is encouraged by what she calls the Marriage-Industrial Complex, an enormous multi-billion dollar industry of counseling, self-help books, seminars, web sites, etc. that caters to these elaborate rituals of infidelity, guilt, excruciating quantities of disclosure, and (sometimes) redemption. “Marriage-Industrial Complex” is a decent enough label for an interesting notion; failing to follow it up a bit more seemed to me one of the lost opportunities in the book.

When she turns to a country like France, where she lives (or lived while writing the book; I don’t know where she is now), Druckerman doesn’t find quite what she (or I) expected. For one thing, the French don’t seem to cheat all that much either. In France, in 2004, among married couples between the ages of 18 and 54, 3.8% of men and 2% of women had had more than one sexual partner in the past year. In other words,

Most French adults are boringly, staggeringly faithful. They pair up in their late twenties or early thirties and then spend the rest of their lives having trusty marital sex with the same partner, over and over again.

(If you’re wondering about high-profile exceptions like Mitterrand, Druckerman has an interesting discussion of his case.) On top of this, those French prudes allegedly do less sexual juggling than Americans during the dating phase of a relationship. When they do cheat, however, the French seem not only less consumed by guilt, but much less inclined to make the American assumption that cheating is a social offense, that is, an offense in which others have a genuine interest, on the grounds that it gives away a general character flaw which is bound the affect the cheater’s performance of other social roles (professional, for example).

And so it goes. As the book progresses, Druckerman packs her suitcase again and again for Russia, South Africa, Japan, and so on. Once there, she interviews a few people, rehashes some stats, and reflects (briefly and superficially—how could it be otherwise given the massive scope of her inquiry?) on the possible social and cultural determinants of the attitudes she finds there.

I think the main problem I had with this book is that—a bit like a certain type of unsatisfied spouse—I kept wanting it to be something that it wasn’t, and never claimed to be. Cross cultural surveys are fascinating, but “quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental” surveys tend to drive me sort of nuts. I don’t want to imply that it’s rigorous sociology or bust for me. I think a good novel featuring infidelity might be a valuable source of insight into the subject. Perhaps a more thoughtful, less frenetic meditation on the subject might have gone over better. But casual pop surveys of a subject seem to fall in an uncomfortable intermediate zone in between highly particular fictional studies and rigorous sociology. Anyway, all this is just to say that even though Druckerman sets her methodological cards out on the table in a frank and honest way, I have no idea whether anything much she contributes to the subject is actually true. And in the end, though she made me no promises, that makes me feel a little, well, cheated.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 01 11
Recently read: Bonk

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Mary Roach. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

As the title indicates, this book is about the science of sex, but unlike the recently reviewed Science of Orgasm, the science is presented in a way that is much more accessible to a lay reader. Not content to offer a clear and readable overview of modern sexology and its many intriguing questions, Roach was also clearly aiming to write a funny book. In this she certainly succeeded, but, as they say, ymmv. Roach can be funny—indeed, at times, absolutely hilarious. But the book is so chock full of jokes and wisecracks, which are, I’m sorry to report, of vastly varying quality, that at times it was almost too much even for me (of all people). At times. But in the end the book is undeniably a lot of fun and certainly worth reading. And if I’m going to report that I groaned over a few of the jokes, I should also admit that I found it very difficult to put down.

Comments Off

2009 01 03
Recently read: The Science of Orgasm

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple. The Science of Orgasm

This fascinating book has everything you ever wanted to know about orgasms, and possibly even more. The authors are, respectively, a neuroscientist, an endocrinologist, and a sexuality researcher. The team approach has resulted in an unusually comprehensive look at the subject. The authors detail not only the mechanics of organism (from the point of view of physiology, neurology, and endocrinology), but also at the effects of disease, aging, medication (especially anti-depressants and anti-psychotics), and illicit drugs on orgasm. And the recent publication date, 2006, means that we’re treated to a pretty current look at what science has to tell us about this process, at once so very, very, very, very familiar, and yet still so mysterious.

Also mysterious is who exactly this book is aimed at. For reasons I no longer remember, I was under the impression when I got it out of the library that it might be aimed at a popular audience. But although the chapters vary a lot in terms of how demanding they are, more than a few of them are awfully tough on a lay reader. This is especially so in discussions of the nervous system. Take this paragraph, chosen almost at random:

Dopaminergic axons that project to the paraventricular nuclei originate from a small group of neurons, termed the A-14 dopaminergic group, which constitute the incertohypothalamic pathway. In rats, the axons originate in a forebrain area, the subthalamus, and project to the hypothalamus. In the paraventricular nucleus, D2 receptors are located on oxytocin-synthesizing neurons . . .

I found these passages a bit more accessible than I might otherwise have because by happy coincidence I only recently finished reading Eric Kandel’s memoir, which spends a lot of time discussing neuroscience. That said, I’m not going to pretend I understood everything in this book, and until you present your credentials, I’m not going to pretend that I think you’ll do much better.

Even if dense scientific prose isn’t for you, parts of this book make for more accessible reading. I imagine too that the book will be of considerable use as a reference for both laypeople and health practitioners looking to understand orgasms, and a host of related issues.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 02 01
Bleg, or, phleg: Aristotle, catharsis, porn

It’s a philosophy-bleg!

My colleague is teaching Aristotle on catharsis this afternoon. The cartoon view of catharsis is that drama (or just? mainly? tragedy) is useful because it allows us to purge our harmful emotions by getting emotionally wrought over a fictional situation. My colleague is wondering whether Aristotle could say pornography is useful for purging the bad emotion (or, excess emotion?) of lust, or whether Aristotle would be required to say that porn is bad because it forms bad habits. So, Aristotle: for or against porn?

I told him I knew the man for this job, and then I thought other people might be interested too so I’m posting this rather than emailing you, CY.

Howls of outrage (9)

2007 03 16
Ooh baby! My rights!

Posted by in: Gun control, Sex

A nice piece from Amanda at Pandagon about pleasure and its role in American political discourse. (Psst Chris – guns, sex, and housework can be the segue from Aristotle on pleasure to contemporary political philosophy!)

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 11 16
The pasilalinic-sympathetic compass

Posted by in: Gadgets, Sex

This reminds me a bit of the particles in the Bell experiment, except, of course, in this case instead of subatomic particles it’s snails who have fucked.

Comments Off

2006 10 20
Hume on wood

Posted by in: Philosophy, Sex

From Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Chapter VI (Of Qualities Useful to Ourselves):

What derision and contempt, with both sexes, attend impotence; while the unhappy object is regarded as one deprived of so capital a pleasure in life, and at the same time, as disabled from communicating it to others. Barrenness in women, being also a species of inutility, is a reproach, but not in the same degree: Of which the reason is very obvious, according to the present theory.

That’s awfully raunchy by the standards of the 18th Century British moralists, isn’t it? At least, I don’t remember anything in, for example, Butler’s sermons on the importance being able to maintain an erection.

Howls of outrage (8)

2006 07 13
And let me guess, his nickname is “Rigid”

Posted by in: Sex

Taking a little break, I just stumbled across this page of reprints of various journal articles. Anyway, I couldn’t believe these two were real, but apparently they are:

Cocks, Harry G. (2002) “Sporty” girls and “artistic” boys: friendship, illicit sex, and the British “companionship” advertisement, 1913 – 1928. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 11 (3). pp. 457-482. ISSN 1043-4070

Cocks, Harry (2002) Naughty narrative nineties: sex, scandal, and representation in the fin de si�cle. Journal of British Studies, 41 (4). pp. 526-536. ISSN 0021-9371

How do you live down a name like that? How do you live down a name like that when you work on sexuality?

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 06 14
The relevance of her pleasure

Posted by in: Aristotle, Sex

From a discussion in Book X of Aristotle’s History of Animals on the causes of infertility:

There are various signs by which you can tell that the man is not responsible [for a failure to conceive]; and it is very easy to tell this if he has intercourse with other women and produces children. And it is a sign that they do not keep pace with one another if, although all the conditions described are met, he does not produce children. For it is plain that this alone is the cause; for if the woman too contributes something to the semen and to the process of generation, it is plain that the partners must keep pace with one another. Thus if the man ejaculates quickly and the women with difficulty (for women are for the most part slower), that prevents conception; and that is why partners who do not produce children with one another do produce children when they meet with partners who keep pace with them during intercourse. For if the woman is excited and prepared and has the appropriate thoughts, and the man has previously been pained and has grown cold, they must necessarily then keep pace with one another.

I’m having trouble squaring that passage with Book II, chapter 4 of the Generation of Animals, where Aristotle says that conception is possible even if the female does not take the pleasure in sex that she typically takes.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 04 28
On the ancient recognition of the problem of beer goggles

Posted by in: Classics, History, Sex

From the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems, Book XXX (on melancholics):

Wine also makes men affectionate; this is proved by the fact that under the influence of wine a man is induced to kiss one whom no one would kiss, if he were sober, either because of their appearance or their age.

Comments Off

2006 03 31

Posted by in: Metablog, Odds and ends, Sex

I just noticed that I consistently spelled “polyamory” incorrectly in a recent post on the subject. This is embarrassing, since the post probably got more hits than any other single post I’ve ever written, both from the polyamory community and from the National Review.

I promise that the next time I’m held up as a defender of a lifestyle, I’ll make an effort to learn to spell the name of the lifestyle properly.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 03 28
All links, great and small

Posted by in: Political issues, Sex

This post on William Saletan has gotten a lot of hits from a bunch of sites interested in polyamory relationships. Just now I noticed that the National Review has linked to the same post. Makes me wish I’d written a better, clearer and more comprehensive post.

Anyway, one of the things that interests me about the response so far is that the post seems to have been taken as a straightforward recommendation of polyamory relationships. Indeed, the National Review writer seems to imply that I’m coming at it from a straightforwardly polyamory perspective. If you read the post, though, you’ll see that I’m pretty clearly declining to get into any quick and easy judgements about the prudence of any of the sorts of arrangements that get lumped under this heading. Indeed, I even say things in the post that might well offend people currently in polyamory relationships. My main beef in that post was with crude and silly appeals to nature. That’s because a) lots of crap gets justified through such appeals; and b) contrary to the impression produced by a), carefully qualified and coherent appeals to nature seem to me to be philosophically promising. The second, related, worry had to do with epistemological barriers to reliable judgements about unconventional relationships. But making a point about epistemological barriers to judgement doesn’t imply an endorsement of anything in particular. (Nor does the last point imply a negative judgement. I’m making a general plea for humility and caution in judging other people’s lives.)

Comments Off

2006 03 25
Syntactic ambiguity

Posted by in: Language, Sex

From the abstract to “Time for sex: nycthemeral distribution of human sexual behavior” (pdf) by Roberto Refinetti in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms:

Background: Nycthemeral (daily) oscillation has been documented in a variety of physiological and behavioral processes. The present study was carried out to evaluate the existence of a nycthemeral rhythm of human sexual behavior and to identify environmental factors responsible for the rhythmic pattern.

Methods: Non-traditional university students (ages 18 to 51 years) recorded the times of day when they went to sleep, when they woke up, and when they had sex for 3 consecutive weeks. They also answered a questionnaire designed to identify the causes of their selection of time for sex.

Emphasis is mine.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 03 24

William Saletan’s latest piece in Slate tackles the question of how to draw a principled line between same-sex unions and polygamy, which is apparently what deep thinkers on the right are scratching their heads about these days. Forget about that question though. I’m interested in the way that Saletan invokes nature in his argument. His basic idea is that two is the natural number for both mixed and same sex-unions, and it’s natural because jealousy is natural. Oh sure, many of us want a little on the side, but we dislike our partner getting a little on the side more than we like to get some ourselves:

The average guy would love to bang his neighbor’s wife. He just doesn’t want his wife banging his neighbor. Fidelity isn’t natural, but jealousy is. Hence the one-spouse rule. One isn’t the number of people you want to sleep with. It’s the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.

For all I know, and for all I’m going to say, that could all be perfectly true. But Saletan’s piece is still irritating because he’s just so damn sloppy with his subject matter.

Saletan’s research seems to have consisted in reading a few articles on polyamatory unions which reported that polyamatory unions had . . . many of the same problems that monogamous (in either theory or practice) unions have. Now, it seems to me that if you wanted to take an honest look at non-standard behaviour of this sort you’d want to keep an eye on a few issues. Among them:

1. Am I falling prey to confirmation bias?

It’s ironic that Saletan shows so little awareness of this potential problem in an article sympathetic to same-sex unions, since much of the explicitly homophobic opposition to same-sex unions gets into the same damn problem. Here’s how it works: People observe heterosexual unions breaking up over various issues, including infidelity, and think, “How terrible,” and then they see a same-sex union break up for similar reasons, and think, “Ah ha! It’s not natural.” There’s – ahem – a natural tendency to slip into this trap when evaluating nonstandard arrangements like polyamatory unions, so we ought to be highly suspicious of anecdotal or impressionistic results of the kind that Saletan has lazily scrounged up for his article.

2. Are the allegedly dysfunctional or harmful effects of the practice under investigation intrinsic to the practice itself or (partly?) the result of prejudices against the practice?

I’m reminded of the Philip Roth novel in which the parents of a Jewish-Gentile marriage oppose the marriage because such marriages tend not to work out, and some of the marriage’s troubles are traceable to the opposition of the parents and their complete lack of support. Again, this pattern ought to be familiar to us from the debate over homosexuality. Homophobes like to justify disgraceful treatment of homosexuals by pointing to data apparently showing how unhealthy homosexual lifestyles are (e.g., greater incidences of depression) – without asking first whether any of that is attributable to the disgraceful treatment! Given that polyamatory unions face a lot of social resistance and don’t have the kind of social acceptance and support that regular unions have, it’s worth asking what effects that might have on polyamatory unions as they exist in this culture.

3. Does the rarity of the practice under investigation skew our observations of the effects of the practice?

Related to this is the worry that because polyamatory unions are less socially acceptable, the subset of people who engage in them will be more adventurous, more transgressive, and possibly wilder, than they would otherwise be if this sort of arrangement were more common. An unmarried 20-something year old woman in the 1950s who slept with several men over several years is a very different case from an unmarried 20-something year old woman in NYC right now who has slept with several men over several years. The former was engaging in fairly non-standard behaviour, the latter in something she might casually mention to her mother in conversation. Same behaviour, but we would be less surprised to find the former case associated with other sorts of unhealthy activities (drinking too much, for example), since sleeping with several men over several years isn’t the sort of thing that good girls did back then, whereas it’s perfectly normal now. It would have been arguing in a circle back in the 50s to point to our adventurous lass and her problems as evidence in favour of sticking with 1950s pre-marital sexual mores, since those problems were arguably at least in part artifacts of the fact that wilder people tend to be the ones deviating from the mores. Once the behaviour became more widespread, it began to attract more conventional types, the sample size increased, and many of our (using “our” tendentiously, of course) worries subsided. And it’s very difficult to know if this might also be the case with polyamatory unions. (Obviously I’m simplifying a lot here in order to get across the basic idea.)

4. Are we projecting our own cultural quirks onto our image of human nature?

The piece under discussion isn’t quite as bad as this earlier one, in which Saletan kept referring to what “men” and “women” preferred exclusively on the basis of American opinion polls, since at least in his latest reflections on human nature Saletan reached for his Bible as an aid to speculation. But still, it’s annoying that Saletan doesn’t indicate more puzzlement about this very tricky problem.

5. In discovering what is natural, have we discovered the limits of what is possible without undue strain?

There’s an odd assumption that many people make that if an activity is unnatural in some interesting sense of the word, then engaging in the activity will necessarily result in an intolerable strain. That’s not necessarily so. To borrow Frans de Waal’s example, it’s natural for a tiger to kill a dog. But if you raise a tiger with a dog in a zoo (dogs are sometimes used to socialize tigers) then the tiger won’t be interested in killing its adopted mom or siblings. This is highly unnatural, but it’s hardly an intolerable strain on the tiger. (Similarly, there’s no easy inference from the fact that something is a strain to the claim that it’s unnatural. Lots of things we recognize as natural are strains on us.)

And so on. There’s a lot more to say about Saletan’s piece, but I’m well over my alloted blogging time for today. Again, I’m not taking any position on polyamatory relationships or polygamy or polyandry or jealousy or whether you should always wear matching socks. Also, since liberals are often accused of having a radically pared-down blank slate conception of human nature, let me just point out that what sensible liberals object to is not (necessarily) attempts to ground normative claims about humans on claims about human nature, but rather crude and unreflective appeals to human nature to ratify whatever prejudices a writer happens to have. Indeed, there’s a venerable tradition in Western ethics, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Philippa Foot of looking to human nature to draw far stronger and more interesting conclusions than Saletan does in his article.

Update: More here.

Howls of outrage (12)