Porn and sex ed

Listening to CBC’s The Current this morning I had a flashback to one of my earliest experiences teaching a puberty class, some time in the 1980s.

I was answering their written questions, when I came across one about a woman and a horse.  In those days, kids’ access to porn was through magazines and videotapes – you know, those things that were  supposed to be locked up in the cabinet?  If memory serves, I answered the best I could without being too graphic.  I let them know that sexual activities with a person and an animal is called bestiality, which is illegal, because it exploits the animal.  And although some adults like to watch those videos, they are not for children.

I am not sure how I made through the rest of the day.

The introductory lesson we used in puberty classes for 10 and 11 year olds included asking where they got their information about puberty and sexuality.  I began to ask classes whether they had computers at home and if they had access to the Internet.  Then I asked whether they had ever come across images that upset, frightened or grossed them out.  Inevitably, at least half of the hands would go up.

I wanted to know how they handled it.

Most of them said they would “exit” or shut off the computer.  I also suggested that they tell an adult that they had come across these images so that they could deal with their feelings and have their questions answered.  Hopefully the adult(s) at home could prevent any inadvertent re-appearance of porn sites.

Their admission gave me the opportunity to tell them this was adult entertainment, that it was not a typical representation of how people were intimate with each other; and that it was not helpful for them to continue looking at it at their age.

Back in the 1987, York University’s Dr. James Check said 12 – 17 year olds were the primary consumers of pornography (address at Humber College conference, “Sexuality ’87: Male Sexuality” April 23-24, 1987).  In the age of the Internet, it is safe to say that children and adolescents have free access to explicit sexual images (as well as some very useful information if they know where to find it).  Some kids will seek out pornographic images out of curiosity and/or because they want to masturbate to these images.

Is pornography harmful?

The adolescent/adult use and misuse of pornography has been a pretty hot topic these past few decades.  Feminists, academics (feminist or not) sex educators and religious critics have weighed in on the potential ill effects; e.g., the porn driven sexual scripts adopted by young people, the unrealistic expectations raised by perfect bodies, huge penises and never ending streams of ejaculate, the need for increased jolts upping the ante in visual violence; and the normalization of sexual activities which, although considered repugnant by some, may become an inevitable expectation.

While some adults choose the erotica or pornography with which they feel comfortable, others have become increasingly dependent on it, disturbed by their inability to relate intimately with real, live lovers.  However, while there is plenty of ink spilled on these issues, the academic literature is far from definitive.

We do not yet know for certain the effect of these images on children and adolescents.  “Not helpful” is a safe guess.

Consent and choice

Guiding principles for sexual health education include comprehensiveness.  Talking with children and adolescents about porn is part of sex education.  The cornerstone of teaching about sexual activity is, as always, consent.

When friends encourage them to watch porn, when they are asked to send sexual images of themselves or when their images are sent on for the entertainment of others there is a clear lack of consent.  Talking with older adolescents about pornographic scenarios and the portrayed lack of consent as well as the normalization of violence is critical to their understanding of how damaging some of these scenarios may be to their sexual development.

People who are raising children – and their allies in the classroom – need to face reality: children and adolescents are exposed to images which we do not feel are appropriate for their age.  Frank discussions about the reasons why they should wait until they are older to make these decisions are a critical component of comprehensive sexual health education.  We do not need to be judgmental or prescriptive; but we do need to try to dissuade them from using porn while they are children.

I look forward to the day when erotica and pornography for adults will be like fair trade coffee or chocolate: made by participants who have a stake in the game; enjoyed by people who savour what they have chosen.

In the meantime, this does not include our children.

 

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Good sex, forced sex and points in between

Before you click away from one more article on sexual misconduct, what do you think of this: gadgets as the answer to sexual violence?  The article details a number of ingenious repellants to rape.  My first thought was, while a gadget might prevent vaginal rape, the resulting rage may very well provoke physical injury or death.  Surely the answer lies elsewhere.

The article reminded me of the teaching tool I used in high schools – the continuum of consent.  I would draw a line on the board.  At the right end of the continuum, I wrote violent sexual assault.  Starting at the left side of the continuum, I wrote mutual consent, then playful seduction, coercion and so on back in the direction of forcible sex.  The current tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations lives here in the centre of the continuum: coercion due to male entitlement and power.

On a call-in show today, I heard the phrase “feminist agenda” regarding the latest misconduct allegations against local politicians.  The caller blamed media’s political leanings and feminists for ruining careers.  Callers also wanted to know why women do not just walk away from a bad situation.  “She was of age”, is the argument.  Susan Cole writes, “…women tend to want to ‘solve’ the situation rather than remove themselves”.  She adds, “How about talking?  Ask a woman what she wants and when she answers, take her seriously”.

But even mutual consent on the left of the continuum is not always straightforward.

After an early dismissal from jury selection the other day, a young woman recognized me from puberty classes I had taught about two decades before.  She said she had thought of me lately as she was trying to figure out what consent means. To celebrate this unexpected gift of time, we decided to continue to chat over coffee.

She believes one should ask for consent every time.  I asked her, “every time what?  Every time you kiss, every time you seem to be heading towards intercourse?”  She is married and said that her husband knows her so well that consent for any intimate activity is unspoken.

As an educator, my question is, how do we promote affirmative, ongoing consent for adolescents, for adults who have just met, and, yes, even for couples that have been together for years? How do we engage all genders to desire true intimacy and the communication skills to find it?

People who were brought up in a society where rape culture is prevalent may experience misguided expectations leading to miscommunication: mixed signals coupled with a lack of self awareness and clarity.  Even if one has overtly agreed to a particular form of sexual intimacy, there may still be discomfort, distaste or regret during the act – or afterwards.

Zosia Bielski quotes Karen B. K. Chan, a Toronto-based sex and emotional-literacy educator. “We have been saying for a while now that consent is a low bar. It is the lowest bar there is. After that, we need to talk about sexual pleasure and good sex – sex that you actually want to have…” .  Her article raises the notion of good sex .

Lili Loufbourow takes up the issue writing about pain during vaginal sex.

Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and ‘large proportions’ don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.”

During classes on sexual assault I would pose the following question: Is it OK to say no at any time?  In other words, is it ever OK to interrupt sexual activity once it has started?  Most students were ready to acknowledge that one could.  The question remains, do we actually do this?

While there may not be pain during a sexual activity, there may not be pleasure either; for example, it may be boring.  If it is not pleasurable, what is the point of continuing?  We agree to sexual activities for a variety of reasons; and we may not be proud of all of them.  We may acquiesce because it is expected, or because of our partner’s needs; we may not want to hurt their feelings; we may not want to jeopardize the relationship; we may hope that it will start to feel better soon – as it sometimes does.  While we may have progressed beyond the Victorian dictum “close your eyes and think of England”, we want a great deal more.  Why should we have to work ourselves into a state of desire with a partner who is unaware of its absence?

I remember an incident with a long-term partner.  I had lost interest in the proceedings and told him so.  He got very angry, sat up in bed and said in a menacing voice, “But I want to”.  That incident could have ended up quite differently than our turning away from each other in distress and anger.

The WHO definition of sexual health includes “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”.   No gadget will get you there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women in Lust – The Sex Goddess Project

In April of this year, I attended the Toronto International Porn Festival.  I spent a few hours watching films – and clips of films – curated from the last ten years of feminist pornography.  I am not a consumer, but I figured any sex educator worth her salt should dip in every now and again.  I’m glad I did: There was fun; there was joy; and consent was the order of the day.

My views of pornography had evolved over the years.  Consumer prevalence remains high.  An article in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality reports that, when asked about their recent online solitary arousal experiences, 91.7% of the men interviewed said they had watched sexually explicit videos involving men and women; and 47.4% of the women.  The sample: 239 young adults at a Canadian university.  Current mainstream heterosexual pornography, where the scenes are rough and misogynistic, appeals particularly to young adult males.  While they work for self-pleasuring, they are not so good at helping men figure out how to be good lovers.

There is quite a difference between what one considers to be great sex and popular depictions of sex aside from pornography.  On TV doc-and-police shows, the scene goes straight from the mutual recognition that two people want to get it on, to ripping off each other’s clothes at the nearest opportunity.  No slow build and little context.  And standard, gorgeous bodies.

In the new TV series, The Good Fight, so far, there is only one loving, ongoing intimate relationship – Maia and her wife – and sadly, their sexual intimacy gets splashed all over the Internet in retaliation for her father’s Ponzi scheme.  Maia’s mother has a long-term adulterous relationship with her brother-in-law.  Lucca the lawyer, (remember her from The Good Wife?) seems to be as cold blooded as The Good Wife’s Kalinda.  Diane Lockhart sleeps with her ex-husband, which she says the next morning, was nice, but then refuses to renew their relationship beyond friendship.

Perhaps the lack of relatable intimate relationships is a metaphor for the series’ theme of whom to trust.  After all, trust is the hallmark of a positive relationship.  And from vanilla to kink, consent needs to be the order of the day.

Enter Ricardo Scipio

Ricardo contacted me about his newest book, “The Sex Goddess Project”.  Huffington Post recently interviewed him about it and  included some of his photos.  I liked what I saw and willingly posted excerpts from his press release on my professional Facebook page.

Says Scipio,

“If sexual images were food, people would be inundated with cheap junk food. I wanted to create a body of work that offers something more nutritious and satisfying for the health conscious, more discerning palette.”

He sent me a preview of photos from his latest book.  Lucky me: I had the opportunity to peruse dozens of images of women having a lusty old time doing all kinds of sexual activities in a variety of positions with a variety of partners.  These images reminded me of those I had seen at the porn festival – except they are not porn.

Scipio is not producing porn, which he doesn’t watch and whose messages he abhors.

“I’m a lover of all things authentic, and porn isn’t authentic.”

“Women have for too long, and in too many cultures, had their sexuality suppressed – only to be pseudo-released within the stiflingly unkind world of porn. I’m extremely humbled and proud to provide a vehicle for women to unapologetically express themselves with love and authenticity; something porn cannot offer. Sex is way too important to leave in the hands of pornographers.”

His photos portray real people of all body types, skin tones, genders and orientations. One of his models said,

“This was important.  It was a chance to be an activist in the sensual world. To reclaim sex for the othered bodies. The fatties, the people of color. To call bullshit on the ones who say ‘we’ don’t do this simply because they had never seen it done.”

Many of the women in his photos are looking straight at the camera with a huge smile on their face.  It is not the come-on of porn: It’s “Look at me; I am having such a good time”.  Most of the focus is on their pleasure.

To be honest, I did not get a buzz from the photos; my pleasure as a viewer was aesthetic and political.

His models understand this:

“Let’s just say that the bloom is beginning to fade. I’m a 51-year old woman who is 150 lbs overweight…  After Ricardo asked if I would be photographed for his Sex Goddess book, I realized that showing the inner me – the one who loves sex and feels that it is her special, healing gift – should be shown in full daylight. Yes, I’m fat. Yes, I’m older. However, I don’t want to be shamed into feeling badly about my body because our culture deems it ‘ugly’ or ‘gross’ to be sexual if you’re of a certain age and size…”

I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the collection.  The book is not available to the general public – just to Scipio’s supporters and those who collect his work. However, in order to showcase the “ethos” of the project, he is planning an invitation-only online gallery screening for Canadians on May 20 and 21. Anyone can request an invitation.  I recommend that you do.

 

 

Aging and sex – what do we really want?

Recently over coffee, a friend complained that none of her friends seemed to want to talk about their sex lives any more.  Bear in mind, we are both hovering around 70.  You might be thinking: of course your peers don’t want to talk about their non-existent sex lives.

And you would be wrong.  Several of my aging women friends have healthy libidos and a strong sense of themselves as sexual people.  But they are sad that health issues get in the way.

Despite my friend’s regret that her friends did not want to open up, because I am a sexual health educator, other women have been very chatty with me.

“I miss it”, said one.  “It’s not like we aren’t loving with each other, but I miss sex, the way we used to enjoy it.

“I feel a sense of loss”, said another.  Because of my partner’s medication, his libido is completely gone.  He is happy to please me when I initiate, but it feels so one-sided”.

“We’ve worked something out,” said a woman whose husband is disabled due to a stroke.  In other words, they have figured out how to be sexual by getting around the impediments.

“My partner is like a teenager.  In his early ‘70s, he is ready – and able – at any time.”

“When my husband was in his early ‘80s, he found that he was unable to have an orgasm after his prostate surgery, so intercourse went on too long and too painfully.  We finally just gave it up.”

When I told one of my friends that I wanted to quote her in this article, she wrote:

“I would add that it isn’t just “health” issues per se that gets in the way, but our naturally aging bodies.  I don’t consider my thinning vaginal wall that makes sex painful a health issue as much as one of the unfortunate consequences of my body – at this age, biologically speaking – not needing so much estrogen anymore.”

Quite the range of responses.  And I haven’t even asked my lesbian friends.

What does the research say?

I have written before about sexuality and aging  as well as the “joys” of online dating and the sexual pleasures of aging.  I have given workshops on the issue and spoken at conferences, but I can’t seem to let this topic go.  And the personal stories are so compelling.

The studies tell their own stories.

“One such study noted that, “61% of all women in this cohort were satisfied with their overall sex life. Although older age has been described as a significant predictor of low sexual satisfaction, the percentage of…sexually satisfied women actually increased with age, with approximately half of the women over 80 years old reporting sexual satisfaction almost always or always.” This confirmed an earlier study by the National Council on Aging which concluded, “Seventy-four percent of the sexually active men and 70% of the sexually active women reported being as satisfied or even more satisfied with their sexual lives than they were in their 40s.”

And lest we forget, no matter how we define “sex”, intimacy generally trumps sensation.  Alex McKay of SIECCAN  said in a talk on mid-life sex and STIs, that there was, in his opinion, a “six-minute rule”.  Quoting a study on heterosexual use of condoms, he said 71% of women who had 6 – 10 minutes of post sex affectionate behaviour rated their last penis in vagina (PIV) intercourse as ‘very pleasurable’ as opposed to 44% of women who experienced 0 – 5 minutes.

Health Canada is encouraging us to carry on as is the Canadian Public Health Association.

“Along with better health and active aging comes sex! A nationally representative sample of 3,005 Americans between 57 and 85 years of age revealed that nearly three quarters of seniors aged 57 to 64 were sexually active; while more than half of seniors aged 65 to 74 and more than a quarter aged 75 to 85 reported being sexually active.”

However, medication can interfere with one’s sex life at any age.  For example, “currently available antidepressants may aggravate sexual dysfunction and make depression worse, a new survey of US adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) suggests.”

There are other meds that can get in the way of sexual functioning.

And people get scared to become “active” after an illness like a heart attack.

“Although most younger patients are sexually active 1 year after an acute MI [AMI], one in 15 women and one in 20 men never resume one of life’s greatest pleasures, a new report finds.”

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want

Another factor in maintaining sexual relationships into our ‘70s and ‘80s may be loss of interest, especially for those in long-term relationships.  Like lesbian bed death, for heterosexuals, the statistics are just a bit less “drastic”.

Then there are those older people having great sex, by which I mean at least connection and intimacy.  Others may be having more PIV sex because of erectile dysfunction medication, which may bring its own problems, like oppressive demands.  According to a study  back in 2003, “few studies have focused on the possible detrimental effects for women of Viagra use within a heterosexual relationship”.

“We argue that while previous medically-oriented research in this area has generally assumed an unproblematic link between Viagra use and the resumption of penetrative sex within heterosexual relationships, more attention needs to be paid to partners’ perspectives and desires, and to the specific dynamics of any given relationship.”

One wonders which people would choose: great sex without intimacy or intimacy without full sexual functioning.

I guess we want it all.  Love.  Intimacy.  Good sex, however we define “sex”.

Surely when there is open communication and a willingness to please, there is pleasure to be had.  If we see ourselves as desirable, some of that can translate into – if not desire and the mechanics that go with it – at least the desire to please.  And while some of us are wistful, others may be envious of others’ good fortune, however much of it “all” we have.

I look forward to hearing your stories.

Here are some disability resources that may be useful to people who are aging.

The sexual pleasures of aging

There are plenty of articles about sex and aging.  I have written a few myself (http://www.cwhn.ca/en/networkmagazine/olderwomenandsexuality).  For women, the advice seems to boil down to “use lube”; and for men, “consider Viagra”.  But erectile dysfunction is not inevitable; neither are dryness and vaginal atrophy.

According to this article on testosterone therapy for women (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/855874_1?nlid=95444_1842), “Although sexual problems generally increase with aging, distressing sexual problems peak in midlife women (aged 45-64 y) and are lowest in women aged 65 years or older.”  Lest one might think distress is lower in this age category because we have given up on sex, some of us who are 65 and older are having regular and satisfying sexual activity with no need for aids of any kind.

Granted, older people may be ambivalent about aging and sexuality.  Slyly, or perhaps subconsciously, some of us seek compliments by making constant reference to our age.  Some struggle mightily to maintain health through diet and exercise; and sexiness through cosmetic surgery, fast cars, high heels and hip replacements.  Some (women) work really well with their aging beauty; for others, it’s a fight to the death.

Still others cultivate the sexlessness of old age.

Distaste about sex and aging are fuelled by stereotypes.  Robin Williams’ brilliant bit on Viagra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFM11SmoxfI) is funny but also disparaging: the comic juxtaposition of sex and age.  The Cat in the Hat on Aging is not much better (https://medicalhumour.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/the-cat-in-the-hat-on-aging/).

In his book of poetry, The First Little Bastard to Call me Gramps, CBC broadcaster Bill Richardson bemoans aging in the same vein (http://www.westender.com/news-issues/vancouver-shakedown/bill-richardson-west-end-bard-1.2122654).  Mr. Richardson and his interviewer laughed heartily over “pizza dough” skin and the horror of imagining older people having sex. (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thenextchapter/farzana-doctor-on-the-dark-side-of-vacationing-and-bill-richardson-on-the-funny-side-of-aging-1.3383121/bill-richardson-on-late-middle-age-1.3383129).  I was not amused.

Because we do.  Have sex.   

Granted, everyone’s definition of “having sex” is different.  LGBTQ people do not have the monopoly on opening up the language.  As long as we have skin and nerve endings, we can delight each other with languorous kisses, caresses, genital and anal play – and call it what we like.

There may be challenges to some of our sexual activities: physical challenges like disabilities; specific conditions like diabetes, stroke or high blood pressure and changing hormones; there may be pain, limited mobility, incontinence, difficulty with erections/lubrication.  There may be societal challenges, like body image, lack of privacy, societal disapproval or expectations.

But there are also some real advantages.

  • If pregnancy was once an issue, it is no longer.
  • If you don’t conform to the societal version of beauty, neither does your partner.
  • We’ve learned to take our time.
  • By now, we have a pretty good idea of what pleases us.
  • Over time, we have developed more skills to please others.
  • We are learning to be more creative.

The newly single can put old routines aside

Many older people have lost their long-term partner to divorce or death.  With a bit of courage and a lot of luck, they can seek and find a new partner.  A new partner can really get the juices flowing no matter one’s age.  It’s exciting to explore a new body and see the delight in someone’s eyes as they explore yours.  Moreover, with a new partner, we have a chance to finally get it right, communicating about safer sex, for example; but above all – communicating about pleasure.  While the need for accommodation may require discussion, we can also talk about what’s on or off the menu.  We can try new out sexual positions, fantasies, role plays – that we may never have had the courage to mention in a previous relationship.  We can see the beauty in each other and feel free to say it out loud.  (I don’t know what their sex life will be like, but when Downton Abbey’s butler, Carson says he finds Mrs. Hughes beautiful, we see it too.)  We can savour long sessions of lovemaking in the privacy of our older adult cocoon.

What about orgasm?

Orgasm is lovely.  Multiple orgasm is lovelier.  The goal of “getting there” is controversial http://dodsonandross.com/blogs/eric-amaranth/2014/09/about-trip-or-about-orgasm.  The language itself is goal-oriented; viz., “achieving orgasm”.  I would argue that enjoying the moment – the long, lovely moment of a sexual session – is the goal rather than any particular sensation.  Watching your partner’s pleasure, or keeping your eyes closed to concentrate on those sensations, paying attention to each other’s ongoing pleasure, are in themselves a satisfying turn-on.

Like any two people making love, having sex, or whatever they choose to call it, older people seek to give and to take pleasure.  Our generation remembers Alex Comfort’s original “Joy of Sex” and we are now quietly (or not so quietly) contributing to the latest edition.