Monthly Archives: August 2007

The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

I’m more than tired of all the uproar over whether sexuality is biologically determined or chosen. Actually, that’s not true. It’s ultimately more complicated than that dichotomy would indicate, and the answer has no place in a discussion of rights for gays.

It’s bad enough to hear the fundamentalists harp on the “gay lifestyle,” but LBGT groups also seem inclined to use the question of choice v. biology as a new potential litmus test for politicians. For example, In the HRC/Logo LBGT Presidential Forum, Melissa Etheridge asks Bill Richardson if he thinks sexual orientation is a choice or is biological. He’s been criticized for his answer but it’s actually not so far from mine: It really doesn’t matter. People should have rights whether they choose aspects of their identity or whether they are born with certain characteristics. (NB: There may be plenty of good reasons to be critical of Bill Richardson, but his answer to that question, which was essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s really complicated and so honestly I don’t really know, and besides it doesn’t really matter because people deserve rights either way.”)

You can see Bill Richardson’s segments of the forum here, and all the others here.

Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore. And sexuality should not be reduced to sexual orientation, either. Go beyond the gender of your partner and think about explorations in bondage or flogging or sex at play parties. Do we need to argue that those desires or explorations are driven biological predispositions in order to assert that we should be free to act on them and that our rights should not be limited if we choose to do so? Should it be legal to deny housing to people who are polyamorous? Should it be legal to fire a person who is into leather and whips? Of course not. So why, when we talk about LGBT rights, which are extremely important, do we end up arguing based on biological determinism?

I think we do so because it’s easier to argue that people shouldn’t be denied rights because of something over which they have no control. The comparisons to race, ethnicity, disability should not be missed. But there are other “protected categories” that are seen as sacred in terms of rights and freedom and are certainly a matter of choice. Religion comes to mind first. Religious faith is a matter of conscience and culture and not at all something you are born with. (I know, some religions are “passed on” through families but there is generally a moment when the individual has to choose to become a full member of the religious community by way of some consciously engaged-in ritual.)

And even regarding race, which is not chosen but is a characteristic others ascribe to us based on physical appearances, there is precedent for adopting “choice” as a basis for rights, especially where sexual relationships are concerned.

In 1967 the Loving v. Virginia case made it clear that it is unconstitutional for states to prevent interracial couples from marrying. Does anybody argue about whether the partners in interracial couples are “born that way” (i.e., somehow biologically inclined to sexual attraction and love of people from other racial groups) or whether they’ve “chosen” to partner with people outside their own races? No. In fact the biology of sexual attraction never entered the picture in the Loving decision. The question was one of whether or not it was legal for the state to regulate marriage by taking race into account.

We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org, our community-building site. Come on over!)

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, polyamory, public discourse, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality

Some thoughts on religiosity and sex

According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes toward premarital sex 38 percent of adults in the US think that premarital sex is always or almost always wrong (note that the question is framed in terms of heterosexual couples only).

I thought this was odd given that a much smaller percentage of people actually do wait until they are married before having sex, so I poked around in some of the charts. In terms of basic demographics, there are predictable differences between people’s attitudes depending on their age group, with older respondents being more likely than younger ones to think that premarital sex is wrong. Other demographic factors that are correlated with a greater likelihood of thinking premarital sex is wrong include income (as income goes up tolerance for premarital sex also goes up) and education (people with more education are less likely to think that premarital sex is wrong), thought the differences are small.

And not surprisingly by far the variable most strongly correlated with a belief that premarital sex is wrong is religious affiliation, but even I was surprised by the numbers. Remember, 38% of all adults surveyed believed that premarital sex between a man and a woman was always or almost always wrong. But when broken down by religious affiliation, only 8% of those who identified as “secular” felt that way, and only 29% of Catholics felt that way. On the other hand, almost half (49%) of Protestants thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.

When Protestants were broken down into White evangelical, White mainline, or Black Protestant groups the differences became even more stark. (And no, I don’t know why they broke white and black protestants down differently, except that perhaps Black Protestant churches are just much more likely to be evangelical than White protestant churches.) In any case, among White evangelicals, 71% said that they thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.

Of course this fits in with the abstinence-only sex ed agenda that has been driven by the white evangelical Christians, but it’s interesting to see the numbers so starkly laid out there. It tells you just what segment of the population those policies appeal to, and it tells you who is left out.

I was thinking about this all the more because of the conflict this must create for people who believe so strongly that sex before marriage is wrong, but then who have it before marriage anyway (because most people do, according to the most recent sex research). The feelings of shame and guilt must be tremendous! And then there are the sex scandals that ooze out of the evangelical churches with some regularity. Remember, it isn’t the extramarital sex per se that causes the scandal. It is the apparent hypocrisy that causes the scandal.

And it makes me wonder why it is that that branch of religious folks so vocally and visibly hangs on to a belief that is so extraordinarily hard for so many to live up to.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way even for deeply religious folks. There are coalitions of Christians who believe strongly in their Christian faith but who make room for openness around sexual diversity. I’ve recently learned a little bit about the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, for example. They’re an interfaith organization that works on helping congregations to create sexually healthy environments for their members. They focus on things like sex education, sexual and reproductive health, and gender and sexual diversity. Their web site contains statements like this one, from the Gender and Sexual Diversity page:

“All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”

and

“While religious denominations continue to debate issues of sexuality, the silence and condemnation of clergy have led to destroyed relationships, suicidal despair and discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. Denying that God created diversity as a blessing is denying Biblical teaching”

I’m not a religious person, myself, but I’ve often thought that much of what is missing from progressive politics is a recognition of the potential strength of the “religious left.” Just as among conservatives there are different voices (ranging from the free market fiscal conservatives who couldn’t care less about the social issues of the religious conservatives, to the evangelical conservatives whose interests don’t always mesh with the deregulation logic of the fiscal conservatives) on the left there is also a range. But ironically, I think sometimes that the atheists, secular humanists and religious leftists have more in common in terms of their positions on actual issues than do the conservatives. What would happen if the religious left could really tap into the same kind of political power than the religious conservatives have tapped into? What if the religious left could motivate the same kind of voter turnout and political urgency? Would the rest of us on the left support them? Would we see our interests as at all in line with theirs?

Click here to read the Institute’s “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing”

It gives me hope that deeply religious folks can be allies in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual justice.

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(Note: This is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org — check out our community-building site!)

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Filed under culture, Pew Research Center, public discourse, Religion, research, sex, sexuality

Pink Ghetto Blasters — A new sort of superhero or a SXSW Panel?

That depends: It will only be a SXSW panel if enough people vote for it, so head over to our SXSW panel picker page and vote! (You’ll need to register there to vote, but I promise you it isn’t a terrible process, and it’s not like you’ll have to remember the password for long!)

SXSW (which stands for South By Southwest) is a week-long annual music, film and “emerging technologies” festival that takes place in Austin, TX. The SXSW Interactive festival focuses on the emerging technologies part.

So what’s this Pink Ghetto Blaster stuff all about? You can get a great description of the Pink Ghetto problem in the writing of Lux Nightmare and Susie Bright. Our panel, if chosen, will explore ways to “blast” the ghetto using the networking, organizing and publishing power that the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies make broadly accessible.
Our panel, as officially described in 50 words or less:

The Internet has increased access to sexually explicit material and also created a new category, “NSFW” (not safe for work) with which to stigmatize sexual material and the discussions around it. We discuss specific strategies used to resist and challenge the stigmatization of sex.

Some key points:

  • Stigma around sexuality is still a social problem, and the very blurry category “Not Safe For Work” reinforces that stigma.
  • The networking and organizing power of Web 2.0 technologies provide a tremendous source of power and cultural leverage for marginalized groups.
  • Everybody can learn to use these tools!

And most importantly, the panelists:

So, unless you want us to don pink catsuits with shiny black boots and long black latex gloves, and start flying from sea to shining sea using our sex-destigmatization ray guns, go over and vote for our panel at SXSW Interactive.

On second thought, why don’t you vote for our panel anyway. We can discuss the superhero costumes later!

(And RC, I hope you’re ready for company in Austin!)

Violet Blue’s Sexual Privacy Online

Lisa Vandever’s The Porn Police: Know the rules

Cory Silverberg’s The Future of Sex in Interactive Narrative and also When No means 01001: Sexual Ethics and Interactivity

George DeMet’s Content Management System Roundup

Erin Denny’s Sex, Trees and Gun Control: Cause-related movement building
__________________________
(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org)

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Filed under Chris Hall, culture, Lux Nightmare, pink ghetto, public discourse, Rachel Kramer Bussel, sex, SXSW, technology, Violet Blue

Viviane212’s Flickr Photos of the SitPS “Coming Out” Party

These photos are just a sampling from Viviane212’s Flickr set. Thanks Viviane!


Me, with co-founder Chris Hall and Rachel Kramer Bussel
Audacia Ray, Lux Nightmare and Rachel Kramer Bussel
Audacia Ray, Lux Nightmare and Rachel Kramer Bussel
Ignacio Rivera explaining the section of
Ignacio Rivera explaining the sections he is about to perform from his one-person show “Dancer”
Michele Capozzi, director of Pornology, with Miss Veronica Vera, dean of Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys who want to be Girls

Michele Capozzi , director of Pornology, with Miss Veronica Vera, dean of Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys who want to be Girls


Elizabeth Wood and her mom Judy at the SitPS party
Me and my mom, Judy. I’m so happy to have a mom who would come to this party!

All photos courtesy of Viviane, of The Sex Carnival.com


You can see other comments on the Sex in the Public Square “Coming Out”/Launch Party at SexInThePublicSquare.Org.

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Filed under Audacia Ray, Chris Hall, community-building, Elizabeth Wood, Ignacio Rivera, Lux Nightmare, Michele Capozzi, public discourse, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Rapture Cafe, sex, Sex in the Public Square, Veronica Vera

Canada, Church, Charters and Choice

I’m back in the city, which means I’m back in the country.

I just returned to NYC from Alberta and British Columbia where I spent six days meeting cousins on one branch of my partner’s family tree, seeing beautiful countryside. We put over a thousand miles (1707 km) on our rental car, saw the oil industry service sector outside of Edmonton, the ranch land west of Calgary, the mountains separating Alberta and British Columbia, the lush greenness of British Columbia’s Shuswap Lake region, and even got a peek at some of the disappearing glacier behind Lake Louise. And of course, as all my travels do, this one generated some sex-related insights.

One of the most unexpected was this: Conservative Christians sometimes sing very passionate songs in church! We went to a Christian Reformed Church service with my partner’s uncle and aunt (the CRC being nearly as close to Dutch Calvinism as one can get in an organized church in the US or Canada). The CRC congregation that my partner’s mom belongs to doesn’t sing much that doesn’t come straight out of the Psalter Hymnal in the back of the pew in front of you. But the CRC congregation in Red Deer sings Christian Rock type songs that include verses like this one from Beautiful One by Jeremy Camp:

You opened my eyes to your wonders anew
You captured my heart with this love
Because nothing on Earth is as beautiful as you
You opened my eyes to your wonders anew
You captured my heart with this love
Because nothing on Earth is as beautiful as you are.

(chorus) Beautiful one I love you
Beautiful one I adore
Beautiful one my soul must sing.
Beautiful one I love you
Beautiful one I adore
Beautiful one my soul must sing.

All the singing was led by the youth chorus (one young man on the piano and five young women: three singing, one on the keyboard and one playing flute). The singing was passionate. The young people in the front of the church had exactly the look that the singers of love songs have in their music videos: full of longing and desire and adoration. And it wasn’t just the young people. At times I could hear passion in the voices coming from the pews around me.

I wondered about the wisdom of inflaming desire through music, a very powerful medium. On the one hand, the collective singing of music binds people together in really powerful ways. On the other hand, there was no denying the undercurrent of sexuality running through these songs. Another song focused on the act of giving one’s heart, and ended with the word “come” repeated insistently as the music faded:

Come, now is the time to worship
Come, now is the time to give your heart
Come, just as you are to worship
Come, just as you are before your God
Come

(Come, Now is the Time To Worship, by Brian Doerksen.)

Meanwhile at roughly the same time as this passionate singing other young folks were out distributing sex ed materials, answering questions and promoting sexual civil rights for young people in Canada. From Canada.com:

Throughout July and August, the Know Your Rights street team — made up of young people — travelled across Canada stopping at county fairs, music festivals and a regatta.

Not only did they answer questions youth might have about sexual health or contraceptives, but they also gave out an estimated 6,000 condoms, held condom rolling contests and demonstrations and collected more than 500 signatures for a petition.

These young folks wrapped up their tour this past Sunday as I was listening to the passionate voices of CRCers in love with their God. The petition the Know your Rights team is supporting is directed at the House of Commons, pressing them to adopt the Charter for Sexual and Reproductive Rights for Youth, which is being drafted with direct input from young people across Canada.

These young activists are proudly and vocally pro-choice, and they have a pretty nuanced take on that label, too. They believe, and the Charter expresses, that ” choice encompasses all ideologies, even if that means choosing abstinence or being anti-abortion.” The charter is really very clear and very simple. It lists the “fundamental rights” that youth must have in order to “have and maintain their sexual health.” Among those rights are the right to accurate information about sex (something that some religious organizations interfere with), the right to decide when and if to have sex or bear children (something that many laws interfere with), and the right to confidentiality and care without seeking permission from parents or guardians.

This put me in mind of our discussion a while back about Michelle Vitt and whether she had been raised in a way that allowed for choice or not. It made me wonder how to reconcile the choices of parents with the rights of children and teens. It made me think back to the singing I’d witnessed Sunday morning, and the way that it very likely helped to redirect the passions felt by the young singers away from boys or girls or sex and toward the church and ideas of holiness. Another song, Refiner’s Fire, by Brian Doerksen, sung with the same kind of fervent passion, included this chorus:

Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire
Is to be holy,
Set apart for You Lord.
I choose to be holy,
Set apart for You my Master
Ready to do Your will

How likely is it that one of those singers would feel free to choose other than “holiness” as defined by the congregation gathered there that day? Certainly some rebel and are rejected, while others rebel and are ultimately accepted at home even if not in the Church, and certainly the passions ignited or fanned by these songs can set a person on a very thin double edge: bonding them closely to their community on the one hand, and then on the other hand enflaming emotions that can easily be sexual and unruly and difficult to contain.

This strange confluence of events, my sitting in church listening to passionate love songs as young people toured the country promoting sexual rights for youth, really focused my thoughts on the tensions between our various rights and freedoms. Sexual freedoms, religious freedoms, parents’ rights and rights for youth, these are territories that overlap. If you map the boundaries of one so that they lie just where you think they should, you have probably taken over some part of one of the others.

I come down on the side of sexual rights and accurate information for youth over parents’ rights to limit their kids access to information or to limit their informed decision-making. But would I go so far as to say that a parent did not have the right to raise her child in the faith that she chose? I can’t bring myself to say so. But, I would be more than willing to insist that regardless of faith all kids must be exposed to scientifically accurate information about sex and health and given access to nonjudgmental and independent sources of advice about sexual behavior.

That exceedingly sharp double edged passion that is ignited by religious fervor can slip, even in the hands of the faithful, and those youth need the information necessary to protect themselves when it does.

(Note: This post is also published at SexInThePublicSquare.Org)

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Filed under Canada, Charter for the Sexual and Reproductive Rigths of Youth, culture, pro-choice, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality, sexuality and age

O Canada…

I’m headed north and west for 6 days. I’m going to a land where marriage is legal for couples regardless of gender or sexual orientation, and where the national anthem starts with a great big O.

I’m going to Canada. Specifically, I’m going to Alberta and British Columbia.

I’m going to see family. I’m going to see wilderness. I’m going to see glaciers (before there are no more). I’m going to spend lots of time driving through mountains in a rental car with my partner and I’m going to face the fact that my sabbatical is just about over.

And when I come back we’re having a party, to which you are all invited. It’s our Sex in the Public Square coming out party. Join us!

While I’m gone, here are some things to read, ponder, get excited about or get outraged about:

Susan Mernit — the Yahoo! Personals guru — divides up the “sex and relationship” bloggers at the BlogHer conference in to three differently fascinating groups:

those for whom sex is always political and often tied into gender politics; others for whom sex—and writing about it—is a personal narrative; often if not always erotic and fun, and those for whom sex and sex information is a filter for just about everything that happens in the world (yeah, the obsessive)

I’m very happy that she puts us in the last category and even happier that she said the goings on would have been “enhanced” by the presence of the inimitable Violet Blue, the brilliant Melissa Gira of Sexerati and yours truly. Any day one gets mentioned in the same set of keystrokes as Violet Blue and Melissa Gira is a good day. Susan, I promise I’ll do my best to be there next year. I was sad to miss it!

Carole Joffe, a sociologist at UC Davis, wrote in a piece that was published both on Alternet and Reality Check, that Bush’s promised veto of the expansion of the State Child Health Insurance Program is more about abortion politics than it is about children’s health care or concerns about big government programs. It begins to seem like fetuses are more equal than the rest of us.

Kayla is going to join us at SexInThePublicSquare.org as a teen correspondent. I invited her because of this piece that I read on her blog, Another Sad Song, in which she roundly chastises grownups for thinking that teens are dumb and thoughtless about sex. Then she roundly chastises those of her peers who are dumb and thoughtless about sex. But mostly she talks about why teens need accurate information if they are going to be smart and thoughtful. We’re looking forward to having her on board.

(One last thing: comments will be slow to be moderated, please be patient. I expect to be rather off the grid most of the time. Those of you who have commented before shouldn’t notice any difference, but those who are new here, you might need to wait until I’m back for your comments to appear.)

Now, I need to finish packing. Have fun while I’m gone and try not to make a mess, okay!

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Why Young White Unmarried and Non-cohabiting Humans in Psychology Classes Have Sex (in America): Part II

Part two of my critique of the new sex study everybody is talking about! Part one is here.

Yesterday I wrote about my methodological concerns regarding the study by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, “Why Humans Have Sex,” published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Today I’m looking at the reasons themselves and discussing some of the conclusions they drew, and some of the conclusions I’d draw looking at the same data.

First of all, I want to dispense with the notion that there were 237 reasons. Quantifying things is an important part of scientific research, of course, and coding data (fitting responses into categories, etc.) is a process that can never be wholly objective. (Somebody at least has to create the categories!) In this case, my criticism arises because the authors indicate that they whittled 715 initial “reasons” down to 237 by eliminating or merging responses that were “too similar” to other responses. That, they claim, produced a list of 237 “distinct reasons”.

I disagree. How distinct is “I wanted to experience the physical pleasure” from “I wanted the pure pleasure,” or “It feels good”? All three of those made the top 15 for men and for women. For the women in the study these were reasons 2, 13 and 3 respectively and for men they were reasons 3,12, and 2.

I’m also not really sure how “I wanted to keep a partner from straying,” is different from “I was afraid my partner would have an affair if I didn’t have sex with him/her” or how “I wanted to get my partner to stay with me” is different from “I wanted to prevent a breakup.” (All were less common than the top 50 but more common than the bottom 50 for both the men and the women in the study.) There are other examples of very similar “distinct reasons” but you get the idea.

Now sometimes researchers use similar answer options to test whether respondents are consistent or not in their reporting of whatever is being studied (personality traits, motivations, what have you). But that doesn’t mean these are “distinct reasons.” Also usually in that case the similar items are scattered throughout the list of items. In this study similar answers are generally clustered together on the list of items raising both a methodological and analytical problem: were people more likely to give consistent answers because they were faced with similar choices clustered close together?

I have not gone through the list of 237 and figured out how many “distinct reasons” I’d come up with, but is clearly fewer than 237. if you’ve downloaded the study (which you can do in PDF form here) it would be interesting for a bunch of us to try it and compare notes!

Second, it’s important to note that most of the reasons were not reasons most of the time for most of the students in the study. Even in the top 50 for both men and for women, most items have a mean score of less than 3. Remember, individuals were asked to indicate whether each of the 237 reasons was true for “none”, “a few”, “some”, “many”, or “all” of their sexual experiences. (This raises a separate methodological issue in that fatigue sets in for lots of survey takers well before they’d have reached their 237th item on the survey!) Those categories were numerically coded 1-5 with “none”=1 and “always”=5. So an item with a mean score of 3 would be true, on average, for “some” of respondents’ sexual experiences. Of the top 50 reasons for women, only the top 8 had mean scores of 3 or above. For men the top 10 did.

Bracketing the methodological problems for a minute, this is interesting because it indicate that people’s self-reported reasons for having sex are pretty varied, and it would seem that few people always have the same set of reasons.

An aside: In a disheartening interview on the Brian Lehrer show I heard Lehrer, who I usually think asks pretty good questions, as “Did we really need a scientific study to show that?” As if the scientific confirmation our hunches about sex is somehow unimportant! When we have hunches about other things, global warming for example, we certainly expect to use science to confirm whether our hunches are accurate. Why would we not do the same for sex?

(Here’s a link to the Lehrer piece. If you listen to the clip, at 7 minutes 51 seconds you can hear Leonore Tiefer, noted sex therapist, researcher and sex educator, call in to raise the same methodological questions I raised in my blog entry yesterday. Leonore, I wish I’d heard the piece in time to site it in yesterday’s post!)

Anyway, given those variations, and still bracketing the methodological issues for a moment, it’s interesting to look at the top 50 reasons with a purpose slightly different from that of the researchers. Their interest was to categorize peoples’ reasons. Mine is to examine what they mean. Remember that these are self-reported reasons. They are self-reported at two levels: first, the list itself is the result of people’s own reports about why they have sex. Second, the ranking comes from people’s reports about the relationship between their thoughts and their behavior. (Our self-reporting is not always accurate but it is interesting because it does represent the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do.)

I’m pleased that actual desire to have sex and enjoyment of sex is reported as often as it is (the second and third most common reasons for both men and women in the study). I’m pleased that affection, attraction and love are mentioned as often as they are (all rank in the top 20 for students of both genders). I’m pleased that the students in the study were able to acknowledge and own their horniness (the seventh most common reason for women and men in the study).

That said, there are some troubling reasons in the top 50 for both the men and women students who participated in the study.

For male students in the study, the 34th most common reason was “The person was too ‘hot’ (sexy) to resist” (mean score of 2.17), 38th most common reason (with a mean score of 2.15) was “I saw the person naked and could not resist” and the 42nd most common reason (with a mean score of 2.11) was “The person was too physically attractive to resist.” Framing one’s sexual activity in terms of “being unable to resist” is troubling if it is accurate because it implies a lack of ability to control oneself. In addition, pointing to another person’s characteristics (attractiveness, sexiness) as the cause of one’s own inability to control oneself reinforces the victim-blaming that often surrounds rape, and acquaintance rapes particularly.

That for women students in the study the 49th most common reason (with a mean score of 1.89) was “I was drunk,” certainly doesn’t make the situation easier. And the fact that both men and women cited “heat of the moment” (mean score of 2.84 for the men and 2.89 for the women), “it just happened” (mean score of 2.23 for the men and 2.21 for the women) and “my hormones were out of control” (mean score of 2.20 for the men and 2.11 for the women) is only reassuring in that I’m glad the students were aware of those things as factors in their own sexual behavior.

Sexual motivation is complicated and deserves serious study. This study, though disappointing in many ways, at least has us talking about the need for better research on why people have sex. Understanding people’s sexual motivations, both their conscious motivations and their unconscious motivations, could be important to designing effective public health campaigns, and address the still-too-real problems of sexual abuse in our society.

So lets move beyond this study. Let’s move beyond the trivializing focus on how many people said they had sex to get rid of a headache, or the focus on the number 237 and what the 238th reason might be, and lets start talking about the different ways to design really good sexual motivation research.

(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org)

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Filed under Archives of Sexual Behavior, Cindy M. Meston, David M. Buss, psychology, public discourse, research, sex, sexuality