Tag Archives: Sexuality

Updates: Sex and Beer

Two quick updates on some of my recent posts–

First up:

I recently posted commentary on Stella Artois’s print ad campaign, featuring the slogan, “She is a thing of beauty.” Since then, Stella Artois launched their TV commercial campaign.

The ad, directed by Wes Anderson, is both clever and appealing. Still, my objection to the print campaign holds true in the televised version.

Here, there is an interesting conflation of all the subjects—the gadgets, the beer, and the woman. Only the man is exempt.

But the end of the ad is what’s making me grind my teeth.

As the gadgetry gets out of control, the woman is literally consumed by the couch. When the man comes back, he finds his girlfriend replaced with his beer. (Unfortunately, he seems pretty happy about that). Their quick cut to the slogan, “She is a thing of beauty,” again fuses the beer and the woman (the beer even seems to win out here).


I also wrote a post arguing that a female Viagra could negatively impact women’s sexuality and mental health. Some of the reasons I cited, as well as a number of others, are outlined in this excellent interview with the author of Sex, Lies, and Pharmaceuticals, also summarized here.


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Double Cliqued: W’s Guide to Stereotypes

Last weekend, I was flipping through W Magazine when I stumbled on a back-to-school style guide that deserves detention. The line-up shows five girls, mostly pretty classic high school staples: the party animal, the valedictorian, the prepster.

But then, at each end, we have our outcasts.

First, let’s take the curvy girl, far left. What did they choose to call their voluptuous vixen with “plenty of attitude”? Read it and weep: This buxom broad is “The Girl Who Eats Her Feelings.”

Principal’s office. Now.

This title invokes the girl who eats a box of cookies one night when she feels lonely or downs a whole container of Betty Crocker rainbow chip frosting while crying over a breakup (yes, I’ve been there too). In a word, she over-indulges.

Which got me thinking…are women “allowed” to do that?

I have a 1950s magazine article posted on my fridge that teaches girls how to say no. More specifically, how to say no to chocolate cake, cigarettes, kisses, hands wandering “out-of-bounds,” laziness, chatty phone calls, and a cute red coat instead of a practical tweed coat–basically, to all of life’s little indulgences.

W Magazine’s biting nickname expresses the same expectation: women should show restraint.

But we walk a fine line because the flipside is just as demonized.

Enter the skinny girl, at the opposite end of our line-up. She got a pretty harsh report card too: This sandal-clad, ethnic-knit-loving hippie child is “The Virgin Suicide.”

This girl is all restraint. Her muffins are vegan and gluten-free (which, Babycakes aside, sucks all the joy out of muffins); she’s totally untouched by either sex; even her hair is “studiously messy.”

But her unclogged arteries and intact hymen don’t seem to work out so well for her. She’s the “virgin suicide;” the one whose life is apparently not worth living—that’s harsh! While there’s disgust for the curvy girl, there’s bitterness, with a hint of jealousy, for the skinny girl.

That’s a tough spot to be in, always trying to walk the perfect line that’s just restrained enough to be acceptable but not too limiting.

But I’m hopeful that W might be out of touch with its audience.

I notice myself and my friends starting to resist having our bodies and our behavior micro-managed. Starting to say yes to hooking up on our terms, treating ourselves to chocolate cake, and buying that cute red coat. Starting to ask which limits we want to set in our own lives based on what feels right for us, not what others think is “good for us.”

Trust us. We’ll find our way.


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To the Moon, Baby

A new essential oil blend called Zestra claims to restore sexual pleasure and drive for middle-aged women. It’s the first female arousal-enhancer I’ve seen on the market, but in the aftermath of Viagra’s success, scientists have been racing to create the first female Viagra. The pharmaceutical versions are sitting in FDA purgatory, but they’re a sure bet to make a buck, so you’d better believe they’re coming. I, for one, am not looking forward to that day.

Think of a guy trying to decide whether he needs Viagra. He wants to get it up; it’s not up. There’s very little room for debate. But for a woman, knowing whether there is a even a problem in the first place is much more complicated.

Until recently, women’s sexuality has been understood in terms of the male experience. This includes our experience of arousal, which is just starting to be understood on our own terms. In her now-famous bonobo study, Meredith Chivers showed women a series of videos, including videos of both humans and bonobos having sex. While women thought they were only into the humans, they were pretty into those bonobos too. Chivers’ results showed that women can accurately identify when they’re psychologically turned on, but are often unable to identify when they’re physically aroused. As it turns out, our bodies and our minds don’t quite connect (I’ll write a post on why that might be adaptive later).

Because we’re not totally in tune with our bodies, I would venture to say–tentatively–that women may be more susceptible to psychological pressures and cultural expectations (which, in our society, are full of contradictions). One recent study surveyed 964 women receiving routine gynecological care and found that a whopping 87.2% believe that they have an abnormally low sex drive. At a percentage like that, they’re normal! But such an enticingly ready market for the drug lords.

Our sex drive is complicated. We need some attention, some time, some vibe. Sometimes we’re stressed out, depressed, rushed, insecure, or dissatisfied in our relationships. Sex drive is a reflection of our mental state. Remember when Samantha Jones lost her mojo until she finally let herself cry? Our bodies are telling us something. Instead of popping a pill, maybe we should learn to listen.


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Sexing It Up: ‘Grease’ and Our Aversion to the Good Girl

Last week, I happened upon the following, rather disturbing headline: Experts Say Selena Gomez Needs to be Sexier.  Now, I have no idea who Selena Gomez is.  But apparently she’s a young starlet trying to make it in Hollywood with a good-girl image.  And that just will not fly.

Sexualization of young women, and the myriad mental health problems that come along with it, is no doubt a major problem (outlined in a recent APA report).  However, an excellent critique of the report challenged the assumption that sexualization is necessarily harmful, and that’s where I think the meat is.

When I think about sexualization in the context of social relationships, I notice an often-overlooked function of sexualization.  Namely, that sexualizing others affirms and protects our sense of personal integrity, morality, and adequacy.

Let’s take a classic good girl: Danny Zuko’s heartthrob, Sandy Olsson (from Grease, obvi).  Sandy starts out as the perfect “Sandra Dee,” but then surprises everyone by showing up to graduation in high heels, teased hair, a leather jacket, and pants so tight they literally had to be sewn onto her body.  No one has ever sexed it up better than Sandy.

For the most part, Danny doesn’t push Sandy to be sexier.  Rizzo does.  So why would Rizzo care?  I propose that Rizzo cares because Sandy challenges her sense of self.  Or more specifically, Sandy’s ability to abstain from carnal pleasures makes Rizzo feel guilty for all the things she does indulge in—premarital sex, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.

Rizzo’s mocking solo aims to build support among her friends to affirm that having sex, smoking, and drinking are okay.  However, her tone also assumes Sandy’s judgment (likely incorrectly), revealing Rizzo’s own insecurity.  Like most of us, Rizzo judges herself for wanting to do the things she “shouldn’t,” and wants others to validate her choices.  (If you want to see this in action, watch a dinner table where one person wants to drink and no one else does).

Later in the story, we hear Rizzo’s struggle to maintain a positive sense of self with her bad-girl image.  But we also hear Sandy’s struggle to let go of her high necklines and ponytailed hair because she feels too “scared and unsure.”  Each needs a little bit of the other.

This highlights an important point: sexualization is not necessarily bad.  It can also be liberating.

Unfortunately, the lusty side of sexuality is still seen as part of our ‘dark side.’  Especially for women, this has strong cultural roots, many of which trace back to religious teachings that moralize women’s sexuality.  In this context, Sandy’s purity is rooted in insecurity just as strongly as Rizzo’s indulgence is, though both are striving to accept their sexuality.  Both are looking for balance.

So perhaps our wholesome starlet, Selena Gomez, is pushed toward sexualization because we want other people to have “dark sides” too.  We want them to indulge with us, or for us. We cannot be perfect, no matter how much we might try, so perhaps we feel guilty when the Sandra Dees of the world suggest that perfection is an attainable, or desirable, reality.

Seeing balance (or extremity) in others can normalize our own drives and affirm our humanity.  Hopefully we eventually get comfortable with our own blend — a little bit Sandy and a little bit Rizzo, in whatever proportions we choose.

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Mucus vs. Semen: Up Close and a Little Too Personal

Jesse Bering, of the Scientific American column Bering in Mind, has taken a bit of a man-hating beating this week.  Over what?  Cervical mucus.  That’s right.  Women’s post-sex discharge mucus, used to expel excess semen.

In a recent column, Bering half-jokingly commented that researchers poring through two-day-old female cervical mucus must have “stomachs of steel.”  In response, a sex educator and blogger, Dr. Nagoski, went on a rant about his anti-feminist attitudes that undermine the supposed glory (or, in her words, “intelligence”) of female cervical mucus.

His amusing response is the backlash that his critic deserved.  However, it still leaves something to be desired.

Awhile ago, I went to an acupuncturist for help with irregular and intensely painful periods.  She asked me point blank what types of mucus I excrete at different times of the month.  I was like, lady, I have no idea.  So she taught me the different types of mucus, which stages of my cycle they indicate, and how to tell if I’m ovulating.  It was like a revelation.  In all my science classes, sex-ed, or gynecology appointments, the practical daily functioning of women’s bodies was never discussed (and I never asked).  So I had no idea if my body was normal, and I sort of assumed I was weird.  Turns out, I wasn’t weird at all.  Just a little ignorant.

I would imagine that there are many other women who are also a little bit ignorant, assuming that sex ed hasn’t dramatically improved in recent years (which I highly doubt given the plethora of abstinence programs in schools now).  The result, if we aren’t adequately educated about our own bodies, is that we naturally struggle to engage in a cultural dialogue that could imbue women’s mucus with a benign sense of normality, rather than the fear or repulsion that often comes with otherness.  In our silence, we remain distinctly ‘other,’ and our own perspective on ourselves takes on a judging and shameful quality.

So yes, Dr. Nagoski was way over the top (can anyone really “LOVE the word mucus”?).  But what if we operate under the assumption that she is responding out of frustration toward a broader cultural dialogue and that her reactivity may also arise out of an honest soft spot of insecurity?

In many cultures (arguably including our own), semen is seen as an essential life force.  It is revered and imbued with power.  Women’s fluids, on the other hand, get no such status.  Menstrual blood is commonly seen as ‘unclean,’ and vaginal discharge is widely described as gross or smelly (remember middle school?).

In fact, women are often expected to actually want to swallow semen (given, most men will give us a break on this one).  But would men ever willingly swallow a teaspoon or more of vaginal fluid, shot projectile into the back of their throats?  I highly doubt it.  Most of them are probably cringing at the thought.  It’s okay, I am too.

Bering’s comment could be perceived as upsetting because it fits into a larger cultural dialogue that tends to assign power to men’s bodily fluids and deviance (or even disgust) to women’s.   I would argue, though I don’t have anything more than anecdotal evidence, that this attitude is so pervasive that women often adopt it unwittingly, causing the insecurity that Dr. Nagoski’s rant betrays.

Let’s step back and be honest for a minute:  Neither women’s nor men’s fluids are particularly savory.  So there’s no need for a contest over whose is better.  And there’s no need to pretend like both are so amazing that they should be revered.  But perhaps we can all agree that both are equally natural, sexual, and sometimes a little bit gross?

Unfortunately, nothing is communicated in Dr. Nagoski’s post because she’s too reactive to sound rational.  She sounds like that cringe-worthy brand of man-hating feminism that most women do not identify with, no matter how ardently we support women’s rights and equality.

To illustrate the impact of her attitude, Bering cites an interesting study, which showed that men and women alike associate negative words with feminism, suggesting that the negative connotations of a feminist identity might deter women from calling themselves feminists.  (Note: This gets to some of the issues discussed in the comments section of my Lady Gaga post, about why Lady Gaga might hesitate to call herself a feminist).

You certainly won’t find me loving the word mucus, or demanding recognition for my cervical mucus’ “beauty and wonder.”  But perhaps Bering could be moved to admit that he’s prodding a soft spot when he calls cervical mucus cringe-worthy.  We’ve heard that a bit too often.


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The Tightrope

A friend of mine started seeing a new guy about a month ago.  She likes him, he’s good to her, and she’s gone a solid two years with nothing but a Rabbit to help her out.  Every time I see her, we debate whether and when she should finally stop saying “not yet.”  Can you imagine a guy in this situation?  He wouldn’t think twice.  But there she is, on her doorstep at the end of the night, and she has to be the gatekeeper.  For women, this is a familiar tightrope.  If she lets him in too early, she’s “loose,” but if she waits too long, she’s “frigid.”

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense.  Women bear the burden, so women are the naysayers.  Clearly, a huge part of this is also cultural.  The messages that women receive about sex are a convoluted mess.  But in today’s modern world of birth control and supposed female sexual liberation, is there a biological vestige that keeps us on the tightrope?

New research from Utrecht University in Holland suggests there might be.  A NY Times article recently summarized their research, which shows that increases in testosterone levels are associated with decreases in interpersonal trust.  When women are ovulating, our sexual desire increases, but our testosterone also increases, making us less trusting.

The article jokes, “So guys, you knew women were complex, but it is even worse than you thought: at the moment you are most desired, you are least trusted.”  True, for a guy who wants to get laid tonight without having to build our trust first, that’s a less than optimal scenario.  But think for a second about how confusing that is from our perspective!  Just when our bodies say, “go for it,” our brains say “mmm not with him.”  It’s no small wonder that we have such a hard time getting out of our heads—we’re just trying to keep our balance.


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