Human Sexuality, Part 2
Copyright © Dorian Scott Cole, 2002
This article series explores:
Part 2 - Exploring sexuality
Part 2 - Exploring sexuality
What types of sexual activities are there?
From recent CNN headline: "Polygamists angry at gay link." Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum criticized homosexuality, in an interview with the Associated Press about a pending Supreme Court case over a Texas sodomy law. Santorum said (according to CNN),: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family."
Did Santorum shoot himself in the foot by angering both bigamists and homosexuals? Not likely. According to the dictionary, no one knows what sodomy really is - it can be defined as any sexual act that anyone finds objectionable, which is most of them. The Texas law before the court, however, undoubtedly takes a narrower view.
While we may see sex through the lens of our own small field of reference, such as the marriage bed, there are actually a lot of ways to have sex. Legitimacy of sexual activity depends on the beliefs of the group and the individual. This article isn't about legitimacy, but explores the dimension of human sexuality, including types of sexual acts, but not the explicit acts, while raising questions about incongruities.
The following are not formal classifications, but simply ways of exploring the topic: masturbation (defined as individual and between two people, often married, and some other group practices), procreative sex, homosexual sex, heterosexual sex between unmarried adults, prostitution, erotic fantasy play, and sex that is injurious.
When I was a teen, masturbation was regarded by many as a sin. Today, as yesterday, some give masturbation second seat to sex with others outside of marriage, a view that I think is connected with male conquest, esteem, and social pressure; and masturbation is often derided by some so that it is still often laden with guilt and self doubt.
Most cultures historically approved of masturbation, but begin to frown on this activity when it begins to include other people. The dividing line isn't clear, and homophobic fears and fears of promiscuity (sleeping around) leave the question hanging. The dividing line may be drawn by either intention or perception.
Procreative sex, within marriage, obviously is approved by everyone. Sometimes the morality of different acts are questioned.
Heterosexual sex between unmarried adults is something that cultural mores seem to be changing about, especially when it concerns premarital sex. Before wide spread birth control use, sex before marriage was a problem since it brought children into the world with a father being legally attached. It still is a problem, but if so many people didn't have birth control, the problem would be gargantuan. A high percentage of the women in my rural high school graduating class in a rural US area in the '60s, with very conservative values, got pregnant and had to get married, ignoring the social stigma attached to unwed parenthood at that time.
Parents today are more likely to watch for signs, and put their sexually active young adults on birth control. Other sexual activities, such as petting and abstinence, that have been substitutes for penetration, have lost ground. Heavy petting (masturbation) seems to have lost ground because of social pressure to have penetration. The effect of abstinence is largely social, as abstinence doesn't have a negative effect on any teen. In the UK, as noted in Part 1 of this series last week, these sexual activities are being suggested as alternatives to penetration, and are having some success in lowering the pregnancy rate among teens.
The great risks associated with penetration seem to be ignored by many in the face of social and relationship pressure. People flirt with creating a baby with no responsibility or preparedness for its welfare and no responsibility for the impact on the parent's future. Similarly, they flirt with diseases that may be with them for a lifetime. This acceptance of penetration, or tolerance of it, doesn't indicate endorsement of the practice, but indicates just how much control society feels we have over what we believe or can tolerate.
How far can tolerance be stretched? While we tolerate unmarried people experimenting with each other, flirting with creating a baby without responsibility and getting disease, we make things like selling sexual acts illegal. It is an interesting paradox. Perhaps it is because of religious injunctions. Perhaps prostitution is banned because marriages create an exclusive relationship, and this casts a shadow over all people, even unmarried ones. Perhaps because it is thought to be a habit forming practice that might be carried into marriage, and married men, when attracted to prostitutes, form emotional or erotic bonds and financial commitments, robbing these commitments from the marriage. These are all valid concerns.
There are also arguments for prostitution, since sex with a prostitute is largely a tactile experience (a release which men often want), and men often see prostitutes for companionship and discussion of marital problems. But most men seem to feel that in today's world if you want sex with a woman you can get it without paying, if you have the time. We deride prostitution as "paid," and are more tolerant of sex between consenting adults, but perhaps we miss the intent in both relationships.
Homosexual sex is between same sex couples
It is interesting how we define this. We narrowly define this, leaving other relationship styles unmarked. For example, when two people of the same sex live together for convenience, often for life, we approve. The specific nature of the relationship is irrelevant to us. Perhaps people in this type of relationship don't get along with the other sex, don't like the opposite sex, haven't or can't find a mate, and have found a satisfying and supportive relationship. If they masturbate as individuals, most people generally approve. If they begin to have sex with each other, some frown. Certain sex acts that are common to homosexuals, but also to some heterosexuals, are still illegal in some states, as the Supreme Court case against sodomy illustrates.
People become concerned about homosexual activity because of perceived religious restrictions, or because of frightening differences in sexual conduct, and are more concerned about with whom others find sexual relationships, rather than the fact that they have found an overall satisfying relationship. In the view of some, it is better to have a lonely empty home or the hell of a difficult and unsatisfying marriage than to find companionship with the same sex that includes sexual compatibility.
Sex is always a choice, and when two people are involved it has to be a choice of both of them and without social consequences. Rape, even when the couple is married, has bitter consequences. Over 500,000 women in the US are raped each year. Approximately 28% of rape victims are raped by husbands or boyfriends, 35% by acquaintances, and 5% by other relatives. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. National Sexual Assault Hotline (confidential) 800-656-HOPE.
Sex outside the marriage relationship (meaning the couple is married and someone is "cheating") is also very injurious. It not only breaches trust, which is "a" or "the" basis for a marriage agreement, it also forms conflicting emotional commitments and risks pregnancy, with corresponding financial and emotional commitments, which aren't consistent with most marriages.
Breach of trust often breaks the marriage even if the new emotional alliance doesn't. Sexual acts with those outside of marriage are usually intimate and emotional acts, even if the risk of pregnancy is not there. I think that this is the type of injurious sexual activity that religion is most against. It is a bit different than sex before marriage, which is an act that is often overlooked.
Sexual acts with children can be injurious to them emotionally, and is abuse that society can't permit. Young adults are even more at risk. Unfortunately 7% of young women on their first sexual intercourse didn't choose to have sexual intercourse. But even consensual sex with young adults results in life-changing pregnancy, 78% of which are unwanted, with 10% of all US women aged 15-19 becoming pregnant. If this was a disease, it would be a major epidemic. The numbers are lower at age 15, and much higher at age 19, but sex with young adults creates major problems, whether abusive, tolerated, or consensual.
One can speculate that sexual education is the answer, however because younger people have less life experience, they have more difficulty appreciating long-term consequences, and are therefore more willing to do risky behavior. Additionally many people feel social acceptance pressure, and they also identify sex acts with love, making sexual activity almost inevitable. I'm not sure that young people have the perception of choice, or feel that reserve is a good thing. Since mores on sexual conduct are in limbo, we live in a sexually saturated world, and there is strong pressure to have sex. Engaging in sex seems almost a given.
Those feeling less of a sense of purpose or acceptance are also more motivated to do risky behavior. Even the threat of social disapproval, incarceration, or other punishment has little effect on people motivated to do risky behavior at this age. Youth is a time of exploration. The problem for our culture, in this area, is addressing the sense of purpose and acceptance of young people at this age, plus educating about sex and relationships. Additionally, mores and moral values, sadly lacking in many people, are influential.
One injurious sexual act to children that has a long history, and continues in the present day, is bringing young boys into sexual relationships with men, which clearly injures them. This practice has a wide proven history, and the extent of the injury is becoming very evident today in several forums. The most widely publicized is the ongoing revelation of child abuse by priests and other clergy, and the resulting lifetime damage. But the activity takes many forms.
Historically this man/boy sexual practice occurred in Ancient Greek culture and many others, and is evident today in the secretive "Man/Boy" club. The very worst effects of this practice is seen throughout the US and other countries in luring at risk (throw away) young men into relationships with adult men. The relationships create companionship and shelter, but are predominantly sexual, a lifestyle from which the young men never recover and in which the majority irrevocably remain for life (according to programs in Chicago). The men who want sexual relationships with young men believe that society is wrong for outlawing it.
Once socially isolated young men are emotionally bonded and experienced in this man/boy sexual lifestyle, they are not able to be rescued from this lifestyle. Unfortunately abuse victims are more likely to repeat their abuse on others. This permanent change in their sexual preference that occurs because of their vulnerability and because of sexual activity at this age is a clear warning flag.
What about exploring sexual identity?
Here is a problem that I see with the very delicate time of when sexual identity is discussed and explored among young adults. Experimentation in youth may present a problem for developing sexual identity. In our sexually aware culture, young people are exploring their sexuality and sexual identity at a very early age - I think probably too early for many of them.
Exploring and experimenting seems to be tolerated, if not approved and encouraged by some, and sexual exploration is a reality we can't ignore when talking with youth. Ignoring youth sexual activity and leaving young people unprepared has been, and is, a major cause of unwanted pregnancy. Birth control pills have saved many young people from unwanted marriages and unwanted children. Yet we know little that is conclusive about the psychological effects of emotional bonding, fixation, and erotic fantasy at these young ages in which the impressionable mind is not well formed and is easily moldable.
The mind has ultimate control of sex, whether or not it is genetically or hormonally influenced, but it may be very unlikely that some things can be changed or overcome. What we do know is that there has been no success in changing the sexual preferences of socially isolated young adults experienced in man/boy relationships. The men who perpetrate this fail to see how this restricts the boys sexual choices just as much as the practice of castration would. And those who abuse children fail to see how this will be interpreted later by an adult mind and the resulting crippling feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
The mind is not an easy thing to change. Incarceration of pedophiles prevents recurrence of the crime except for 7 to 13% of them. Within that 13%, as badly as we want counseling, behavior modification, and incarceration to work, these influences have been shown in some studies to even have the reverse effect with some pedophiles. These pedophiles fantasize even more about molesting children, and there is a slight increase in their crimes. Castration of that 13% reduces their recidivism rate to 2%. While changing the behavior of most pedophiles generally is successful, changing their minds may not have been accomplished at all.
Why is it possible that some things cannot be changed? Since genetic composition and hormone level (testosterone, estrogen) is different in every individual of both sexes, it is very likely that the biological influence exists as a continuum over humanity, so making everyone subject to one sexual stratum, especially those at the extremes, is very improbable. Additionally, those who abuse were often abused themselves. Traumatic experience makes things very difficult to change. Experience is often a process that indoctrinates attitude, or causes a strong emotional connection with the abuser (in attitude development, behavior that can't be refused often gets accepted and mentally justified).
We are not yet certain of exactly how influential some of these influences are. Studies of the hormone testosterone, shows many paradoxes and intriguing results. It is beginning to look like testosterone is a significant hormone that influences sexual attraction in both men and women (disregarding for the moment the emotional relationship). In men, studies of sexually active eunuchs indicates that in general they lose sexual desire for women, but commonly remain responsive to tactile stimulation, and can regain sexual desire by taking hormone shots.
Low levels of testosterone, in some studies, is indicated as a cause of low sex drive in both men and women, but paradoxically, higher levels of testosterone don't increase sex drive in either. Lowering testosterone levels often reduces aggressive behavior, while low levels are also associated with low energy level and depression. Increasing testosterone levels hasn't been shown to increase aggressive behavior. Like most hormones and neurotransmitters, the body needs a high enough level, but more doesn't necessarily enhance response.
Indicative of the problems of out of balance hormones is the problem of baldness. Testosterone is normally converted to di-hydro testosterone, which normally causes no problems. However, if the level of di-hydro testosterone becomes higher than the level of testosterone, it blocks hair follicles and baldness results. As the body ages, the production of hormones changes, and processing and elimination changes, which may change important balances.
The capability of the mind to shape sexual response isn't fully understood. Attempts to turn gays into straights have had limited success, and some would say none (while still others would ask, "why bother?"). While the mind can override any biological sexual response and decide which sexual trail to follow, the persistent biological (genetic) influence in some people may be fully determinative of sexual preference. Again, while sexual activity is a choice, some choices that defy preference, while not impossible, are highly improbable.
So, if a developing mind is presented with too much homosexual experience, will it be able to change that orientation if desired, and the preference is not a biological imperative? Probably, if the experience is a choice and not cemented in place by trauma or other emotion, then natural urges will likely encourage the person to continue experimenting until the more biological imperative is found. But...
Results of life experience in developing youth are unpredictable. Some abused children report as adults, no ill effects from sexual abuse, while others are crippled. However, studies of children raised by homosexual parents don't show that this environment or modeling is any influence over their sexual preference - in fact these children are usually even better adjusted than children raised in homes with heterosexual parents. We don't know for sure about experimentation, and in an impressionable mind, early sexual and emotional bonding and erotic fantasy may also be as strongly influential as biology. (See Part 3 on fantasy.)
The experience of socially isolated young men lured into the man/boy sex culture indicates that we should be very cautious about what we encourage with young adults. It might be better to simply let them discover as they mature that they have a clear conflict with heterosexual preferences, that they have a clear desire for the same sex, and that their preference isn't just prompted by the need for exploration and by the usual feelings of rejection by the opposite sex that all young adults (and older ones) endure.
Young adults, while impressionable, are very savvy. They look for cues in what adults tell them, and if something isn't outright outlawed, they feel free to explore. Yet while banning may work for the risk averse, banning something often evokes a different response in risk takers and explorers. They are curious about the experience, and are lured into exploring it simply because it is off limits. While I typically don't think that education, while important, is a determining influence in most things (attitude is), in sexual experimentation I think that guidance needs to be educational, with less emphasis on saying yes or no, especially among at risk children, risk takers, and explorers.
Perhaps the sexual enslavement of young children, as in man/boy relationships, is what the ancients saw when they felt compelled to speak against homosexual practices. In those earliest recorded days, even sex within the family was common. There was nothing else except social and religious pressure at that time to curb these practices. But today, it is becoming more possible to understand what is damaging, what is influential, understand the difference between sexual predators and those who just have different intimate and sexual relationships, and we at least give ourselves the ability to be tolerant, if not to endorse many of the sexual practices that in the 20th. Century we strongly opposed. At least people should leave their hands off of children and young adults to give them the freedom to discover and decide on their own.
When sexual dysfunction strikes a marriage, it inevitably creates doubt and guilt feelings that can eat away at a good relationship. It reportedly is a cause of marriage breakup. It affects 1 in 3 women, and 2 in 5 men, with the incidence increasing with age. It often sends men and women looking for a way to increase penis size, or looking for Viagra or some other sex pill, or for sex toys that usually won't address the primary problem. (Viagra is made by Pfizer, and increases blood flow to sexual organs that are blocked by disease.)
Whatever the cause, sexual dysfunction should be investigated by a physician - preferably one who can take time to investigate the cause and if necessary refer to other professionals. But unfortunately sexual dysfunction is often only mentioned to a physician as the patient is leaving the examining room. "Oh, by the way..." Or his wife brings it up. The pressure to move on to the next patient intervenes negatively, and the doctor turns away. Sexual dysfunction masquerades as unimportant to both the physician and the patient, but it is of high importance in most relationships.
Loss of sexual desire has roots in three different directions. It may be a relationship problem masquerading as a physical problem. This happens a lot. It may be a misunderstanding about anatomy and what each other need - a very common occurrence. It may be a physical problem, of which there are many. Both men and women tend to just silently suffer their fates, typically blaming themselves or the other person, often too embarrassed to discuss it with a friend or physician. If this article compels these people to look further, it has served one purpose.
Caution has to be used in determining what is a dysfunction. Women typically find it difficult to orgasm with just vaginal stimulation - something like 70 to 80% of them. Over 46% of the women in the US experience little or no sexual satisfaction from vaginal orgasm and only 25% achieve orgasm with vaginal intercourse. And it isn't just because of the brevity of the male's intercourse. It's partly because women are sexually stimulated in other areas, like the clitoris, and partly because women often need emotional warmth and foreplay for an extended time prior to the culminating act.
Women's sexual stimulation cycle is often different from a man's. They need stimulation outside of the vagina. But too many women are unfamiliar with their own bodies and can't communicate with their partners about their needs, or they are too embarrassed or don't have the knowledge. So, short on time, they give up emotional intimacy and foreplay, they satisfy their partner in a few minutes of sexual revelry before saying "good night," and go to sleep, unsatisfied, frustrated, and lacking in physical stimulation. (Note that for some women, satisfying their partner is sexually satisfying, and is all that they desire. But this is not an escape clause for most men.)
Is some pill that increases blood flow to the genitals the answer? Studies have not been promising. Some women report that these drugs are helpful, but many women report increased sensitivity but still no climax. Sex is not in a pill, and increasing blood flow to sexual organs doesn't mean that there is sexual arousal.
Birth control pills, which contain estrogen, can actually lower a woman's sex drive. Hormones are a delicate balance. Pregnancy and child-birth can lower sex drive. The busy schedules and pace of life can keep women from having time for sex, or even wanting it. Their self image, if it is not an image of being "sleek" enough in appearance, can squash their desire for sex, and 25% of women have been abused and it negatively affects their sexual experience. Physical exercise improves sexual response in about 30% of women.
In women age 18 to 59, 43% have sexual dysfunction problems, while 31% of men do. Problems with low sexual desire affect 22% of women and 5% of men, while problems with sexual arousal affect 14% of women. Men are more affected by premature ejaculation, at 22%. Sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction profoundly affects more women than men. Source: Jama Med Line, Sexual Dysfunction 30 million American men need help, and while some of their problem is blocked arteries, some of it is that they just need a spark to re-ignite them sexually. For information on potential treatments for women, visit Suite 101.com, Women's Sexuality.
If the source of the problem is in the mind, the mind is simply overriding the biological sexual response. Things that can completely extinguish sexual desire, are problems like the relationship is dying, chronic tiredness (may be caused by low testosterone levels in either sex), financial problems, constant conflict, a build up of resentment, and depression. There are so many potential impediments to sex that blaming and guilt can actually take the place of sex. The real problem needs to be identified and resolved. Sometimes people just need to break away from the busy, every-moment-filled-treadmill of life and take time to think about each other and focus on sex.
Sex drive is very influenced by hormones and neurotransmitters. Levels of these can be a problem that affects sexual functioning. Low levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine have been linked to lower sexual drive, and these can be inhibited by a variety of things, such as medication, so increasing these is sometimes helpful. However, there are over 300 identified chemical neurotransmitters in the body, and having enough of the one in question is usually effective. To say that any one neurotransmitter is singularly responsible for sexual dysfunction is probably a gross exaggeration. Taking supplements that are touted to increase any specific hormone or neurotransmitter level may increase fantasy expectations and therefore performance, but probably make no real biological difference. (See Part 3 on fantasy.)
For example, while the neurotransmitter serotonin affects the release of hormones, such as estrogen, the level of the hormone estrogen affects the release of serotonin. The level of hormones is created through a process that is interactive - the body attains a certain level, and this level varies according to the point in the menstrual cycle, and by sexual activity. It is a very complicated process requiring patience and trial and error to intervene in.
Studies have shown that increasing the testosterone level in women experiencing sexual dysfunction can significantly increase sexual desire. See New Perspectives in the management of Female Sexual Dysfunction. The level of testosterone in women is much lower than in men, and increasing it too far can cause male physical characteristics such as facial hair growth.
Sex is a "use it or lose it" function. Regular sexual activity improves blood circulation to the affected areas, increasing responsiveness, and keeps the fluids (such as vaginal lubrication and semen) at a higher level, preventing vaginal dryness and the associated pain during penetration. The desire for sex wanes when sex is not used for lengthy periods. Desire can simply disappear with age if allowed to. However, typically the body is very versatile and can rebuild over time when called upon to do so.
Medications can interfere with sexual desire. For example, antidepressants that use Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are noted for lowering sexual desire. One of the effects of serotonin is to signal sexual "satiety." So medications for depression and anxiety that use serotonin to elevate mood (most of them), also tell the body that it has had enough sex. This affects as many as 50% of those who take these medicines.
Additionally, birth control pills increase the level of estrogen, and lowers sexual drive in some women. An abnormally high level in men of the hormone prolactin, produced by the pituitary gland, also reduces sexual desire. Blocking prolactin with medication has been shown to elevate desire.
Probably the biggest sexual dysfunctions are simply knowing what your partner wants, and taking the time to provide it.
Questions worth thinking and writing about:
Is prostitution a good outlet for men? Women? Does any kind of sex outside of marriage interfere with the marriage relationship, and should be discouraged? Is having sex prior to or early in a relationship any sign of real love? Are casual sexual encounters good for men and women? (Studies indicate that at least a fourth of women, and at least half of men who go out for fun at night, expect to have sex.) What do we know about the real consequences of these choices?
Are people on a futile quest for magic potions to make themselves more erotic, more responsive, more sexy? Is there simply too much emphasis on sex, so it is driving people to extremes for diminishing returns. Or are the benefits of sex worth it? What do we know about the real consequences of this?
Are we an overmedicated society that has its sexual desires ruined by pills, and we should be relieving minor depression and anxiety with a good healthy dose of sex? Or are these same people not finding any relief, even from sex, and medication is a blessed relief to them? What do we know about the real consequences of these choices?
Should child sexual abusers be publicly noted and scorned? Or are they already being properly dealt with, as shown by recidivism rates? Are they really being changed by incarceration? What should be done with those who seduce socially isolated young men into man/boy sexual relationships? What do we know about the real consequences of these choices?
Given the importance of sexual activity to relationships in all ages, what should be done to change the attitudes of both physicians and patients to encourage treatment for those with sexual dysfunctions?
At what age is sexual experimentation and the exploration of sexual identity appropriate in young people. Should this exploration be encouraged, or simply be restrained but tolerated? Is the permanent change in sexual preference found in at risk young men seduced into man/boy relationships a model that advises us on other sexual behavior in young people? Or is this an isolated phenomenon?
1. The facts about the benefits of sex in the three paragraphs were based on the magazine article Sexual Healing, by Kristin Von Kreisler, Redbook, April 1993.
2. Mental models.
Our brain (which is a different concept than a "mind"), has various ways of representing things. Objects and mapping are two of them. I commonly write about "objects," which to me are structures in the mind that reflect what we know about some outside reality. A chair is both an object and a category. We have some notion of what chairs are all about, and include everything that looks like a chair in that category. A specific chair, an object, has attributes that we use to flesh out our picture of a chair. An object might be a mystery, or question, represented by an empty space that we fill in. An object might be a word, and the word's experiential attributes, such as experiences and emotions, and definition by other words, flesh out the mental picture that we have of the word.
Mapping is another thing that I often write about. Our minds map things to create mental models of our world (See: http://www.ted.ie/psychology/neuro_cog/index.html. We map spaces, we might map the interface elements of software, a group of words, a picture, a narrative... I think that a mental map shows the relationships between things, allowing us to project thoughts, feelings, and meaning into it. I think of maps as coming from basic patterns, a locus of connectivity and continuity. When we map objects in a space, our brain automatically defines the relationship as position and distance. When we map other things, we determine what the relationship is.
We purposefully manipulate mental models of things in the theoritician's laboratory, in scientific and creative thinking. (See: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/aimosaic/faculty/neressian/papers/in-the-theoreticians-laboratory.pdf We take what is known, and ask, "What if?" How would changing this or that change our model?
I think that sexual desire is a mental model, and fantasy is the creative "what if?" that modifies the map of our sexual experience.
Notice and disclaimer:
I'm not a sexologist or other qualified professional; I don't represent the medical community; and no advice is intended in this article. While references are given for some things, and some things are very accurately reported, some (such as fantasy) is my opinion based on the study that I do, and should be taken with skepticism. This is a platform to encourage further research and discovery.
Other distribution restrictions:
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