In 2008, the Mayo Clinic published a case study of treating compulsive sexual behaviors with pharmaceuticals:
A male patient first presented to a psychiatrist (J.M.B.) at age 24, with the explanation, “I’m here for sexual addiction. It has consumed my entire life.” He feared losing both marriage and job if he could not contain his burgeoning preoccupation with Internet pornography. He was spending many hours each day chatting online, engaging in extended masturbation sessions, and occasionally meeting cyber-contacts in person for spontaneous, typically unprotected, sex.
The story is a familiar one. A young man seeking sexual activities outside of his marriage or relationship experiences guilt because of his compulsive behaviors. He feels he cannot stop and is at a loss for solutions. He wants to be good, by whatever measure his culture dictates, but feels he can’t.
The term “sex addiction” is the new darling of sensational media. The narrative of an addict is a compelling one, their struggle with external forces in the world leaves much room for pity. After all, this isn’t their fault but the fault of the pesky stimulus hijacking their tender neurological reward circuitry. Right?
Not really. The picture of compulsive sexual behaviors is far more complicated than (male) brain + (non-monogamous) sexual stimulation = addiction. Dopamine may indeed play a role in all compulsive behaviors but the narrative of porn as an external factor that takes over your system is a false (and overwhelmingly Christian) explanation that fails to recognize sexual histories and user conceptions of sexuality.
Media coverage of sex research is often misleading and sensational. Whether stating that sex aids prostate health when the real benefit comes from an orgasm (which can be had alone or with a partner) or representing one researcher’s interpretation of data as absolute fact, reporters tend to drop the ball and reinforce long-held stereotypes about sexuality.
But then there are times when they just make shit up.*
A commenter recently posted what I consider an excellent example of fake (as in completely fabricated overstated) sex research news. Let’s use this wonderful hoax as a case study to learn critical thinking about sexuality research.
The tired trope of aggressive male sexuality is a pervasive one. The story goes like this: because men are full of testosterone and sperm as well as unhindered by the consequence of pregnancy, their sexuality is naturally brutish and promiscuous. Testosterone fuels aggression, billions of sperm want hundreds of outlets and nature failed to offset these desires with physical dangers associated with reproduction.
The compliment to this heterocentric sex story is that women, with their limited eggs, lack of testosterone and pregnancy burden are naturally chaste and self protective. Any sexual adventurousness or licentiousness is only done to please men and keep them around so they will help with the child rearing.
A recent study about men faking orgasms came out last week and sparked the usual reactions about “faking it”: personal admission, condemnation, and advocating for more communication to battle this scourge.
People love explaining human sexual behavior with evolution. If a behavior exists, it must be because of evolution…right?
In a recent study, among 827 women who self-reported on sexual behavior and fantasies, those women in the 27-45 age range reported the highest frequencies of sex and fantasy. The study authors explain this with evolutionary theory: older women compensate for their aging uterus by being hyper-sexual. Essentially, they’re saying an aging female brain incites more sexual desire in order to compete with younger (and ostensibly more attractive) females.
Here are my critiques of this analysis:
Nulliparity. If the evolutionary explination is correct, you would find that nulliparous women (those that have never borne a child) would have higher rates of sexual fantasy and behavior than women in their age cohort with one or more children. Pregnancy and childbirth are hard on the human body so it makes sense to level off sexual desire with age if a woman has already had children and women with no children would have more of an impetus to be hypersexual. An earlier study by the same researcher found no difference on account of having children or not.
Does not account for fecundity. Women with higher fecundity (fertility) would be less likely to need this adaptation because they get pregnant easily.
Fails to address social factors. The social taboo against female desire for the sake of desire can compel younger women to avoid sex and actively resist fantasies. Factor in roommates, ability to assess or obtain a sexual partner and sexual confidence, and an argument for social conditioning emerges.
Simplifies evolutionary theory to explain one strategy. Multiple mating strategies and behavioral adaptations exist within the same species. I’ve written about oversimplification of evolutionary theory in media before.
No cross-cultural or longitudinal comparisons. If the “cougar” approach to mating is indeed an evolutionary adaptation, you would find this phenomenon in many locales and points in history. I checked into data from the Kinsey Studies and the evidence is a bit muddled concerning frequency. Women reported a gradual rise in solitary sexual practices (ie jillin’off) but the website summary does not state when that behavior begins to level off.
I freely admit my bias when it comes to evolutionary explanations, especially concerning desire. The biggest reason is that the evidence is contrary to my experience as well as many of my female friends. When I was a teen my sexual desires came into conflict with basic social acceptance. I felt horny but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even realize that masturbation was an option for me. Instead, I supressed everything I felt between my legs and was constantly frustrated. One time, at 16, I was so horny I actually cried.
And no wonder. If the recent public outrage and ridicule of Taylor Momson’s vibrator comment is any indication, young women are still being shamed about their sexual desire.
I’m not in Time’s “old lady” category just yet (27-45, WTF?) but I definitely fantasize more and have more sex. Why? I don’t feel ashamed about it. Simple as that. Cheers to getting older and learning when to not give a fuck about others’ opinions.
Note: I am not saying that biological factors are meaningless in this case. Rather, a completely biological explanation is insufficient to explain human sexual desire.
In everything-you-think-you-know-is-wrong news, Dr. Alfred Kinsey was not the pioneer of sex surveys. Before Kinsey moved from a taxonomy of gall wasps to a taxonomy of human sexual behaviors, Dr. Clelia Mosher (pictured above), Dr. Katharine Davis and Dr. Robert Lou Dickinson had already collected survey data on early 20th century sexual attitudes and behaviors.
Dr. Katharine Davis worked in New York as a corrections officer and social reformer during the early 1900s. Sexual studies were not the focus of her career but in 1929 she published the results of 2,200 questionnaires filled out by educated women. The most interesting finding (according to me)? 71.8% of women felt that an abortion “should ever be performed”. Compare this to a current poll finding “57 per cent of respondents think abortion should be legal in all or most cases”.
The numbers were roughly the same in both studies but though Davis had more total responses, all those responses were women. I wonder if the inclusion of male respondents tipped the data in the most recent study? In a CBS/NYT poll, more men supported abortion than women (by a small margin) so modern attitudes may have become more conservative or women’s attitudes may have been influenced by witnessing higher maternal and child morbidity rates. Abortion might not seem like such a big deal when babies or mothers giving birth died more frequently.
An East Coast gynecologist and researcher during the early 20th century, Dickinson pioneered the practice of large-scale sexual histories. He studied sexuality in marriage, personal sexual histories of his female patients, was one of the first doctors to use vibrators on female patients and used his impressive drawing skills to catalog diverse appearances in sexual physiology, namely genitals.
In his survey of one thousand married women he found that they most frequently complained about failure to reach orgasm and that obstacles to sexual pleasure were primarily inorganic, ie. not physiological in nature. Essentially, attitudes towards sex impacted the ability to enjoy sex, findings on female sexual response echoed in later research. He also had a kick-ass middle name.
In the category of kick-ass full names and all-around character is Clelia Duel Mosher. While Davis and Dickinson toiled on the East Coast, Dr. Mosher conducted possibly the first known female sexual attitudes survey in 1892 in the Midwest. Her study was meant to fill her own knowledge gaps for a married life presentation for the Mothers Club of the University of Wisconsin.
She continued conducting surveys into 1920 but only created 45 profiles that remained buried with other paperwork until Carl Degler discovered the work in 1973, decades after Mosher’s death. The papers became a sensational peek into Victorian female sexuality, affirming that the public record of values often disappears in private conduct. The majority of women in the 45 profiles reported enjoying sex and experiencing sexual desire, contrary to popular belief.
Mosher achieved recognition in her lifetime for menstruation studies. Common knowledge at the time assumed women to be naturally frail but Mosher’s work proved that binding corsets, bad diet and socially prescribed physical inertia contributed to women’s breathing issues and menstrual pain. She was far ahead of her time and recommended abdominal and breathing exercises (called Moshers!) in addition to being physically active during menstruation.
Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher is a fascinating figure, though ultimately lonely because she was so far ahead of her time. I strongly recommend reading the in-depth American Heritage article on her or the recent Stanford article on her life and work.
Thanks to my friend David for sending me the Stanford article on Dr. Clelia Mosher that reminded me about pioneering sex researchers!
A big THANK YOU to everyone who participated in my thesis! 700 responses in a little over 3 weeks. Not bad for a lowly grad student. My data collection is closed now and I will spend the next couple of weeks rolling around in the data like a kitten in fresh catnip. Meow.
In the meantime, sex ed colleague and all around force of nature Heather Corinna is collecting data on experiences with and attitudes towards non-casual/casual sex. The survey has a little under 100 questions, mostly multiple choice. I took it yesterday and found the questions fascinating. Important work going on here.