Category Archives: sexuality

Over the Boardwalk

It’s Labor Day in the United States, and in the US for most people that doesn’t mean “let’s celebrate workers,” it means “let’s get to the beach” so I was pleased to find a story in this morning’s New York Times that was a beach-related public/private space kind of story that touches on issues of sexuality and human rights.

The question is whether the Boardwalk Pavilion in Ocean Grove, NJ, is public space or private space, and whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (a Methodist organization) must let the space be used by by gay and lesbian couples for the same purposes that straight couples use it: that is, for ceremonies celebrating their state-recognized unions.

The Camp Meeting Association owns all the property in Ocean Grove. Even home owners and business owners there don’t own the property their buildings sit on. According to the Times article, “all the land, beach and 1,000 feet of the sea itself” have belonged to the Camp Meeting Association starting with some purchases in 1870. Their ownership of the property is not really in question in question.

However, according to the Times, for the past 18 years the beach, boardwalk and oceanfront have been part of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s “Green Acres” program, which includes a tax exemption for the property owner in exchange for allowing privately owned space to be used for “public recreation and conservation.” The tax exemption reportedly saves the Camp Meeting Association half a million dollars in taxes per year.

Clearly the state realizes that public access to places like beaches, forests, deserts, lakes, and rivers is important. That’s why governments maintain parks. But sometimes important spaces are privately owned and then the government might create a program like the Green Acres program in order to increase public access to space that would otherwise be off limits. You can think of the tax exemption received by the Camp Meeting Association this way: The State of New Jersey is paying the Camp Meeting Association about $500,000 per year to assure that the land in question remains accessible to the public.

So, on the stretches of property covered by the tax-exemption should the CMA be able to discriminate in deciding who can use the property?

They think they can. In fact, the CMA has sued the State of New Jersey for abridging its First Amendment rights while receiving a half million dollar tax exemption for public use of its property. They make a comparison to disaster aid saying that the receipt of disaster aid money doesn’t obligate a church to operate differently than it otherwise would, and thus that receipt of this tax exemption should not require them to allow people to use their property for purposes that they would not allow in their church.

Put aside, for a moment, your visions of bikini-clad women and well-oiled men streaming in for Sunday services. We’re talking about marriage and civil union ceremonies, it is certainly true that receiving disaster aid might not obligate a church to start allowing civil unions to be performed in their building.

But the rules governing the Green Acres program cannot really be compared to those governing something like disaster relief money. The Green Acres program is all about enabling public use of private property. That’s why they give such big tax exemptions in return. Here is the definition of “Public Use” from the Eligibility document governing the Green Acres program:

“Public use” means a use or right of use available to the general public or some portion thereof for conservation or recreation purposes. Such use, and any limits thereon, shall be based on the uses best suited to the land, the capacity of the facility and the public benefits or advantages to be derived therefrom.

Further, in determining what property is eligible, the document specifies that eligible property “must be open for public use on an equal basis” (my emphasis).

And, in addressing what restrictions can be made on the use of the property, the document states:

Restrictions on the use of the real property by the public must be determined by the Commissioner to be necessary for proper maintenance and improvement of the property or because significant natural features of the land may be adversely affected by unrestricted access.

You can read a copy of the document here (MS Word file).

So back to the original question: In order to be eligible for this tax exemption can the CMA prevent some people from having civil union ceremonies on their Boardwalk but allow others to do so? That would seem to violate the “equal basis” clause of the guidelines. And it seems more than unlikely that allowing civil union ceremonies would interfere with “proper maintenance” or cause adverse affects in any way that marriage ceremonies would not. And in any case, the Commissioner didn’t make the decision. The CMA folks did.

If the CMA is unhappy with the deal it made, it needs to find a way to withdraw its participation in the Green Acres program and start paying its full share of taxes.
And the rest of us need to be mindful that the maintenance of public space is incredibly important not just so we can go to the beach, but more importantly to protect our civil rights.

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Note: This is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community-building site. If you haven’t dropped by yet, come on over!

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, heterosexism, Homophobia, marriage, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

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

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

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

Why Young White Unmarried and non-cohabiting Humans in Psychology Classes Have Sex (In America)

That should probably be the title of the new study by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss of University of Texas at Austin (PDF).

The study is an important one because it does begin to explore people’s conscious, expressed motivations for having sex, a subject that has been largely ignored or taken for granted in the past. We know much more about what kinds of sex people have than we do about why they have it (or why they think they have it).

And when I read the New York Times article about the study and saw that there was such a wide range of reasons people gave, I was excited: it seemed that the researchers were breaking open some interesting ground and finding lots of diversity.

The news coverage only mentioned a few of the reasons, and I wanted to see the whole list of 237, so I downloaded the study, which you can do here (PDF). I skipped straight to the Table 1 (p. 481) labelled “Top 50 reasons why men and women have sex.” And while I was not at all surprised to find pleasure-oriented reasons among the top reasons for both men and women, I was rather surprised that nowhere in the top 50 for either gender was “conceiving.” Then I read the methods section.

Always read the methods section!

The study occurred in two phases. In the first phase, where the actual list of reasons was generated, the sample was slightly more diverse. It included undergraduate and graduate students in psychology and “community volunteers who were participating in several other ongoing studies in the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas.” (The demographic characteristics of these respondents are not broken down in the methods section of the article so we can’t say much about them.)

These participants were given an opportunity to respond to the following prompt: “Please list all of the reasons you can think of why you, or someone you have known, has engaged in sexual intercourse in the past.” Collectively they came up with 715 reasons, and after the repetitious ones were weeded out the researchers were left with the 237 “distinct” reasons they took into phase two of the study.

It was in phase two, the one with the especially skewed population, that respondents were asked to look at each of the 237 “distinct reasons” and, using each one to complete the sentence “I have had sex in the past because…” to indicate whether that statement was true of “none,” “a few,” some,” “many” or “all” of their sexual experiences. For those who had not had sex in the past (27% of women and 32% of men for whom sexual experience data were available reported not having had sexual intercourse, for example) the instruction was to use that same scale to rate the “likelihood that each of the following reasons would lead you to have sex.” In their published study the authors do not distinguish these responses from those of people who were reporting on actual experience, and while I can’t tell whether that had any major influence on the data, it seems to represent a seriously flawed assumption that guesses about what might motivate one to have sex are the same as reports on what actually has motivated one to have sex.

The respondents in that part of the study, the part where the “reasons” were analyzed for frequency and relatedness, the participants were 1,549 undergraduate students enrolled in Introductory Psychology courses. This kind of sampling is fairly common in academic studies, especially psychological ones, but in this case it makes, I think, a very significant difference in the results. And it means that the title of the study, “Why humans have sex,” and the overall interpretation of the data are rather overstretched. I don’t think that the motivations college students might have for having sex are the same as the motivations that married non-students might have, just for example.

The sample is interesting in its homogeneity in other ways too. Ninety-six percent were between 18-22. And most were not married or living with a sex partner. (Only 4% of the women and 2% of the men were married. Only 6% of the women and 5% of the men were living with a sexual partner.)

So at the time these people were filling out their surveys, they represented a group that is generally young, single or dating students who are focused on their educations and perhaps the beginnings of their careers.

This doesn’t sound like “humans” to me. And it doesn’t sound like a good way to make conclusions about the reasons that people have sex.

While the range of 237 reasons that people have sex might be broad enough to encompass most people’s experience, I don’t think that the priorities or motivations of 18-22 year old college students is representative of the priorities or motivations of, say 30-35 year old people in long-term relationships.

And none of this begins to address the hubris of claiming that any study performed on an American sample represents “humans” in general.

Now, the authors of the study do devote two paragraphs in the discussion section (always read the discussion section) to the limitations of their study. Specifically they mention the fact that their study is based on people’s “expressed reasons” thus can’t account for subconscious or unconscious motivations, and that social approval of some reasons and stigma around others might have affected what people were willing to claim about their own motivations. They also mention the limitations of their sample. They write:

“A third limitation pertains to the relative youth of most of the sample. Reasons for engaging in sexual intercourse undoubtedly differ by age cohort … and would be expected to change over the life span. For example, compared with the student sample assessed in this study, we would expect having sex for reproductive purposes to be endorsed much more frequently among 30 and 40 year olds and having sex simply to gain social status to decline with age.”

They also acknowledge the limitation of conducting their study “within a single culture” and simply say that researchers should explore these same issues in a range of other cultures.

If the authors acknowledge these limitations at the end of their study, why am I harping on them? Mostly because the vast majority of folks who hear about this study won’t have read the study itself. They’ll have read news coverage or commentary that quotes from the body of the results, or directly from the tables, and the authors of the study are not terribly cautious with their language in those sections. They talk about “men” and “women” and “people” but not about “male college students” and “female college students” for example. It will be very easy for these findings to be widely misinterpreted.

Still, the authors of the study raise excellent questions for future research to explore, and those questions acknowledge the limitations of their own work. For example, the authors suggest that future research examine whether or not the 13 major clusters of reasons found in this study are found as primary sexual motivations in other cultures as well, and “to what extent do the reasons for having sex change across the life span.”

It would be just as interesting to ask the question “Are we really motivated by the things we think are motivating us. Ironically, on the same page of the Times was an article suggesting that is not likely to be the case!
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Note: In another post I’ll try to address some of the actual findings. It is interesting, for example, how few of the reasons are “common” in the sense of representing most people’s experience much of the time! Even among the top 50 reasons, for example, most had mean scores that indicated that people said they were true only for “a few” or “some” of their sexual experiences!
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This is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org

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

Sex in the Public Square Launch Party!

Join us to celebrate the launch of SexInThePublicSquare.org!

August 17, 2007
7-10 PM
Rapture Cafe
200 Avenue A between 12 St. and 13 St.
Manhattan, NY
United States
See map: Google Maps

Sex in the Public Square.org is dedicated to expanding the space for public discussion of sexuality. Blending the techniques of blogging and social networking (think Blogger meets MySpace — but all open source!), Sex in the Public Square.org is a space on the Internet where members can explore which parts of sex are private, which parts are public, and what happens when private and public collide. We believe that sexuality is a fundamental component of human life, and that by excluding it from “polite conversation,” we lose an important element of democratic participation.

With forums, blogs, reviews, resource lists, calls for action, and a nationwide calendar of events dedicated to sexualities of all genders, colors, and persuasions and with thousands of visitors and new contributors joining each week, we’re ready to celebrate our “birth” and we want you to join us!


Help Keep Sex Out Of The Closet!

Readings and performances by:

Audacia Ray

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Lux Nightmare

and more!

Plus screenings of film clips from Cinekink and some old sex ed films too!

Click here to check out Rapture Cafe.

And check back here for updates on the festivities!

The party is free and all are welcome. Invite your friends. And we hope you’ll help us support Rapture by enjoying their coffees, teas, and bar offerings.

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Filed under Audacia Ray, community-building, culture, Education, feminism, Gender, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex education, sexual orientation, sexuality

Democrats vote to increase funding for abstinence-only “education”

I don’t know how I missed this item posted on the Advocates for Youth web site last week:

Democrats INCREASE Funding for Discredited Abstinence-Only Policy
Ignore Findings that Programs Don’t Work

WASHINGTON, DC (July 19, 2007) Today, by a vote of 276 to 140, the House of Representative passed the Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill which included an unprecedented $27.8 million increase for failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, bringing the total annual funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) to $141 million.

“In one spectacularly cynical move, the Democrats turned their backs on science-based public health and chose political expediency over the health and well-being of young people,” said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. “With friends like these, who needs conservative Republicans?”

Democrats who have been ardent critics of abstinence-only voted to increase the very programs they opposed when Republicans controlled the Congress.

“With this vote, reproductive health ‘champions’ like Representative Nancy Pelosi and Nita Lowey have aligned themselves with ultra-conservative abstinence-only proponents,” added Wagoner. “They are now complicit in funding programs that promote ignorance in the era of AIDS.”

Since 1982, Congress has allocated over $1.5 billion for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that censor information about birth control and the health benefits of condoms in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. A 10-year congressionally mandated evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and released in April, 2007, found that “youth in the [abstinence-only] program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.”

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell our friends from our opposition these days,” concluded Wagoner. “The majority of Democrats say they oppose these ineffective programs because they withhold life-saving information, yet they failed to act on those beliefs. Shame on them!”

Cynical? Cynical doesn’t even come close.

Now I know these provisions are buried in huge appropriations bills. And this one is interesting because in at least some states (New York, California, I haven’t checked them all!) it is the Democrats who tended to support the bill and Republicans who tended to it. So clearly the vote wasn’t “about” abstinence-only “education.” It was more likely about the funding of things like public schools and hospitals, for museums and libraries, public broadcasting, programs for the blind, for Medicare, for the National Labor Relations Board, and other important stuff. (Click here for the text of the bill, its provisions, and the programs it funded.)

But Democrats certainly had an opportunity in moving the spending bill through the House to amend it or alter provisions to which they objected, and they certainly could have cut funding for abstinance-only programs and allocated money instead for comprehensive sex education programs (which, by the way, also promote abstinence as the best policy for teens).

Here is the section of the bill that deals specifically with “abstinence education”

Provided further, That $136,664,000 shall be for making competitive grants to provide abstinence education (as defined by section 510(b)(2) of the Social Security Act) to adolescents, and for Federal costs of administering the grant: Provided further, That grants under the immediately preceding proviso shall be made only to public and private entities which agree that, with respect to an adolescent to whom the entities provide abstinence education under such grant, the entities will not provide to that adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct, except that, in the case of an entity expressly required by law to provide health information or services the adolescent shall not be precluded from seeking health information or services from the entity in a different setting than the setting in which abstinence education was provided: Provided further, That within amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, up to $10,000,000 may be available for a national abstinence education campaign: Provided further, That in addition to amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, $4,500,000 shall be available from amounts available under section 241 of the Public Health Service Act to carry out evaluations (including longitudinal evaluations) of adolescent pregnancy prevention approaches: Provided further, That up to $2,000,000 shall be for improving the Public Assistance Reporting Information System, including grants to States to support data collection for a study of the system’s effectiveness.

We are now spending almost 137 million dollars to teach teenagers that abstinence is the only acceptable method of preventing STDs and pregnancy, and we are prohibiting organizations that accept grants from this allocation from offering “any other education regarding sexual conduct.”

Ironically, or not, this same bill in Title V section 517 b provides that “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to disseminate scientific information that is deliberately false or misleading.”

Click here to find out how your legislators voted (once there, click on your state to see each of your legislators’ votes) and then call them or email them and let them know you’re outraged that they didn’t address the problem of abstinence-only funding but instead voted to increase funding for the very programs they claim are harmful to kids. You can use the “Speak Out!!” box on the left side bar to find contact info for your representatives.

By the way, this same bill in Title V section 507, continues the ban on spending federal money to provide abortions (so they aren’t covered for poor women, or for women insured under federal health insurance programs).
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This is posted here and also at SexInThePublicSquare.org

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Filed under abstinence only, activism, Education, Health, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

The good news and bad news about the new teen birth rate data

A new study by the Federal Inter-agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reports that the teen birth rate is at an all time low. The current birth rate for teens between 15-17 in the US according to the study is 21 per 1000.* (That’s down from a high of 39 per 1000 in 1991). The same report gives a teen pregnancy rate of 44 per 1000 in 2002, the most recent year for which they give a rate, and some of the drop is attributable to an increase in condom use. You can see a PDF version of the report here.

Any drop in the teen pregnancy rate, the teen birth rate, and any increase in the rate of condom use is certainly very good news. But the good news is hardly unqualified. There is a fair bit of bad news that surrounds those important bits of good news.

One bit of bad news is that the teen pregnancy rate in the US is still much higher than it is in other western postindustrial societies. In the Netherlands and in Switzerland there were only 5 births per 1000 women between 15 and 19 in 2002 according to UN data. (There were 53 per 1000 young women in the US that same year according to the UN figures). The UN data I found did not report pregnancies, only births. Data from the Guttmacher Institute indicate that the pregnancy rate in the Netherlands was 12 per 1000 in 2001.

Another bit of bad news is that in the US there are significant differences in birth rates for girls of different racial and ethnic groups. The lowest teen birth rate is found among Asians (including Pacific Islanders). That group has 8 births for every 1000 girls between 15 and 19. For non-Hispanic White teens, the rate is 12 per 1000, for Native Americans (classified as American Indian/Alaska Native) the rate is 31 per 1000, for non-Hispanic Blacks it is 35, for Hispanics it 48 per 1000.

These differences must reflect, at least in part, access to health care, contraception, accurate sex education, and abortion services. The differences are not likely to be primarily related to differences in sexual activity between groups. A study published by the National Center for Health Statistics reporting on National Survey of Family Growth data from 2002 finds that Hispanic girls between 15-17 are less likely than their non-Hispanic black or white counterparts to have had sex. The same is true for 18-19 year olds. In the first age group 30% of non-Hispanic white girls, 41% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 25% of Hispanic girls report having had sexual intercourse with a male. In the second age group 68% of non-Hispanic white girls, 77% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 59% of Hispanic girls report having done so (p. 24). And, of those girls who had had sex in the previous four weeks, 19% of non-Hispanic white girls had had sex 4 or more times in that period compared with 13% for both black girls and Hispanic girls.

Why do white girls have lower pregnancy and birth rates if they’re having sex more frequently? This same study found inequality in use of contraception (which may provide some support both for the observation of unequal access and also of the observation of cultural barriers to use). White girls were more likely than either other group to be on the pill at the time of their first intercourse (18% compared to 13% of black girls and 10% of Hispanic girls), and were also more likely to use both pills and condoms together during their first time (15% compared to 9 % for black girls and Hispanic girls). This may speak at least in part to their access to multiple methods of contraception and to their ability to gain access to birth control pills before becoming sexually active.

In fact, when asked whether they had ever used specific methods of contraception, the study found that only 37% of Hispanic girls had ever used birth control pills (compared to 68% of white girls and 55% of black girls). Given an intersection between ethnicity and religion, and the prohibitions against contraception by the Catholic church, some of this difference might be explained by religion and culture. But given that Catholics around the world use birth control pretty regularly, I think that inequality of access to health care and prescriptions is a big part of the story.

There is no teen sex crisis in the United States, but there is a sex education and sexual health care crisis in the United States. If we want to bring our levels of teen pregnancy and teen births down to rates that are in line with those of countries like the Netherlands, we need to start addressing teens sexual health as a serious matter, treating teens with respect, and giving them the tools they need to make smart decisions and creating an environment in which those decisions are respected.

We need to do this while paying attention to race, class and ethnic inequality. Teen parenthood is associated with long term disadvantage for parents and for their children. Girls who become parents in high school are less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to college. Children who start their lives in poverty are less likely to make it into the middle class. They’ve got all kinds of structural factors working against them.

The answer is definitely not to continue promoting abstinence-only sex education. The answer is complicated, but it certainly requires promoting sound, accurate sex education where the values of abstinence are taught in conjunction with the importance of contraception, relationships skills, and emotional well-being. It involves providing support for teen parents so that they are not so disadvantaged. It involves making sure that access to emergency contraception is secured for everyone, and that abortion remains a legal option for young women. It involves providing equal access to health care. And it involves the acknowledgment that we can’t talk about inequality without talking also about sex.

*The original version of this post incorrectly labeled that rate as the “teen birth rate” which would have been the rate for girls between 15-19. The error was brought to my attention by a very careful reader, Carole Joffe, of UC Davis, who continued:

“…the overall figures from 15-19 (birthrate) was 40/thousand–in fact, nearly identical to the year before. This fact aside, I think your analysis of the Report is right on. I look forward to reading more of your postings. Best wishes from a fellow sociologist, Carole.”


Return to the corrected sentence.

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Filed under abstinence only, culture, Education, Family, feminism, Gender, Health, inequality, moral panic, News and politics, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

Thoughts on Fathers Day

What are you doing for Fathers Day? My partner, a father of five children all adopted or conceived long before I entered the picture, is off sailing for two days on the Schooner Pioneer and enjoying parts of the Clearwater Festival. (Check his blog for an account, probably Tuesday.)

Our fathers and grandfathers have all passed away (my father when I was a child, my partner’s father just a few months ago) but my partner is himself a father and today I thank him for helping to shape the lives of five truly unique and wonderful individuals. I am honored to know them, and glad that they came into my life as adults so that we could develop relationships based on something other than a step-parent/step-child dynamic. (Don’t get me wrong, step-families can be wonderful! I had an amazing step-mother myself for a while, but I’m grateful for having the chance to know these people without the inevitable difficulties that come with any kind of parent/child relationship.)

I thank my partner too, on Fathers Day, for having done his child-raising before our relationship began, because this has freed me to decide not to be a parent without denying him his chance at parenthood.

Neal Watzman commented back in May on my Mothers Day Post, pointing out that the things I wished for mothers were equally applicable to fathers. I absolutely agree, and today I’m giving you a very slightly modified version of that post, tailored for fathers.

-Sexual openness, sane sex laws, and training in communication about sex so that men can enjoy their sexuality and share it fearlessly with their partners. Through sex we express desires, we communicate, we connect, and we feel pleasure. If men are socialized into a restrictive — albeit privileged — sexual role, they are less likely to be able to experience the fullness of their sexualities or to share themselves as openly, without shame, with partners. In fact, the privilege that comes from masculinity (with all its restrictiveness) makes it even harder for men to challenge the limitations placed on them, making it all the more difficult for them to experience their sexuality fully, openly and shamelessly.

-Access to contraception and recapturing the right to abortion when needed — without restriction — so that all motherhood is by choice. Men need this security as much as women do, and men need easy, affordable access to reproductive health care and education about “women’s health care” so that they can support their women parters when their women partners need care.

-High quality, affordable — dare we even say government subsidized — child care so that all parents who work outside the home — including those for whom work is a necessity and not a choice — can do so without economic penalty or fear for the safety of their children.

-Realistic part-time and flexible work options so that parents have more choices about how to divide the labor of wage-earning and child-care. I don’t mean part time with no stability and low pay. I mean part time with reasonable wages that would exceed the child care costs incurred while working those more flexible hours.

-Universal health care — not just health insurance — so that employers are no longer the ones who provide our access to health care. This isn’t just a matter of concern for the poor, either. Plenty of middle income people end up financially devestated even if they do have health insurance because the part of the medical bills that the health insurance doesn’t cover is still more than they can afford. (This is especially awful for people who have fallen prey to the “two income trap” where two parents are both working to pay for meeting the basic needs of the family and then one gets sick and the other can’t make up the difference.) Oh, and of course this health care has to cover treatment for addictions and mental illness just as it covers physical illness.

-Fair wages for all workers. This means eliminating the wage gap, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, and providing living wages to all workers. Living wages mean that parents can work reasonable hours and spend time with their kids. And we also need reasonable paid leave policies so that people don’t lose out when they need to take care of a child.

-Marriage rights for all fathers. To exclude fathers with male partners from marriage is to exclude their children from the kinds of benefits that marriage confers on couples. While I would still dispute that these benefits ought to be attached to marriage in the first place, as long as they are attached, marriage needs to be available to all who want it.

-Peace. The costs of wars, in dollars and in lives, is too great to justify, and the paying of that cost is keeping us from doing the kinds of things suggested above — things that would make economic security a reality for many more people. War touches everybody, but in the United States men still bear the largest part of the awful burden of actually killing people in war. Men need peace because we all need peace, and men need peace so that they can stop killing people.

All people, regardless of economic status, must be entitled to sexual freedom but sexual freedom feels like a luxury when you are too exhausted from working your second job and making sure the kids got to school to even think about having sex with your partner. When we work for sexual freedom we must take into account the needs of the poor and working class as well as the needs of the middle class and the wealthy.

Health care, child care, contraception, fair wages, peace, and sexual freedom. They’re all connected.

Happy Fathers Day!

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Filed under culture, Family, Fathers Day, feminism, Gender, inequality, Relationships, reproductive freedom, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sexuality