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.

 

I feel tremendous sympathy towards the victim of the Steubenville rape case. Were it not enough that she was sexually assaulted and humiliated — and will live with the subsequent trauma for the rest of life — that she was also subject to a litany of stigmatization, blame, and even threats by both local residents and people all over the country (I can only hope she hasn’t seen the horrific things said about her on social media).

This poor girl, not yet an adult, has to live with both the violation of her sexual and personal autonomy, and with the shame, isolation, and ostracizing that often befalls such victims. She’ll no doubt develop severe social and psychological problems. I’ve had to work with rape victims like her, and I’ve seen the horrific consequences: often times, the reaction towards — and treatment of — rape victims seems as awful and damaging as the act  itself. Imagine amplifying that on the national scene  with millions having seen you humiliated and abused, and many of them believing you’re a terrible person who deserved it.

I wish I could reach out to this girl and help her. I wish I could show her she’s not alone and has support. I’m glad this open letter was written. It’s small comfort, but every little bit counts.

Weekly News Wire

  • Is rapid population growth to blame for rising violence and terrorism in certain countries? An article in Foreign Policy cites a correlation, suggesting that the that problem requires not a military solution, but a public health one. 
  • A recent study shared by Raw Story found that, contrary to popular belief, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus – in other words, neither gender is inflexibly different from the other. While gender differences exist to some degree, they’re hardly iron law.
  • The BBC reports that bonobo apes, long known for their human-like display of empathy and emotion, demonstrate seemingly complex emotional behaviors – such as hugging and having sex for pleasure – even at a young age. It was previously believed that it would take sophisticated cognitive skills to do such things.
  • NBC has obtained a chilling Department of Justice memo that outlines the legal case of assassinating American citizens through drone strikes. The document concludes that the US government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force,” regardless of whether there is any evidence that they are engaged in an active plot to attack the US.
  • A study by the VA , reported in the Washington Post, has found that veteran suicides have hit record highs. Most of these veterans are in their 50s and served in Vietnam. What’s even more distressing is that this reflects a much wider national trend – suicides in the US increased 11% between 2007 and 2010.
  • To make matters more complicated, another report in Foreign Policy raises questions about whether the growing media attention on veteran and military suicides is actually making the problem worse. Known as the “contagion” or “Werther”  effect this long-observed phenomenon links increased reporting and publicity of suicides to an increase in suicides. The reasons are poorly understood, but it certainly makes an already difficult issue more challenging.

On Sex and Status

Women who are sexually active and assertive, even when it is of their choosing, are regarded either as sluts or as sex-crazed degenerates, if not both. Notice that in popular culture, women who pursue sexuality are usually portrayed as femme fatales, villains, psychos, or otherwise unusual cases.

So for women, having “too much sex” or being sexual in any way is a bad thing. They’re taught to value virginity and sexual prudence above all else, whether they like it or not (mind you, there’s nothing wrong if a woman genuinely likes such things, just if they’re forced).

Men (who, mind you, don’t have it anywhere near as hard as women in this regard) nonetheless suffer the opposite problem: patriarchy makes it so that a man’s status is partly contingent upon whether he asserts his heterosexuality. A man who is queer, feminine, or gay is often ostracized for lacking “manliness” just because they’re not attracted to females.

In any case, men who fail either at getting a partner or having some sort of sexual relationship are looked down upon. I experienced this attitude during my single-hood, and I’ve seen other men struggle with an inferiority complex due to their lack of success with women (similarly, some men with girlfriends develop a superiority complex over their male peers who are single).

In short, patriarchy punishes women for being sexual (even if they are responsible, independent, and perfectly happy about it) and punishes men for not being (hetero)sexual enough (which may partly account for chauvinistic and sexually abusive behavior). I think feminists are right to assert that patriarchal attitudes are detrimental to both sexes. What do you all think?

Now, it’s been argued that there is an evolutionary aspect to these attitudes: men who fail to propagate their genes are, for obvious reasons, deemed failures as far as biology is concerned; similarly, women who give competing men the opportunity to spread their genes are looked down upon for their promiscuity for similar reasons. I’m not not sure how much stock to put into these explanations, but they’re something to consider.