It’s PRIDE 2020 and included in the rise of consciousness among so many citizens in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer and the current swell of Black Lives Matter protests around the country is another reason to be hopeful. In a huge victory for LGBTQ+ employees, the Supreme Court handed down the Bostock v Clayton County decision to include legislative protection for ALL LGBTQ+ folks in America. The majority decision written by Neil Gorsuch stated:
“In Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
As a sex therapist who works with straight and LGBTQ+ clients who struggle daily with shame around their erotic desires and gender identity, this decision provides a long awaited public affirmation that their jobs are legally protected. I have heard many a client articulate why they need to keep their sexual behaviors on the down low, or dress one way at work for fear of appearing too gay, fem, butch or non-binary. As a white therapist who sees Latinx, Black, and Brown clients individually or with their partners, I’m aware that sharing sexual experiences and challenges can be a harder bridge to cross due to racist experiences they have had with the majority of past authority figures along with generational racist trauma genetically inherited through their DNA. I may also add to this load with unconscious statements that a client may feel angry about but won’t reveal to me. The fear a client experiences of being judged, blamed or dismissed by one more white expert is palpable in a session and I try to ensure the racism ‘elephant in the room’ is addressed early on by encouraging clients to let me know if I’ve said or done anything that triggers or angers them. I ask them how they feel I am white and how they came to choose a white therapist.
With this latest Bostock v. Clayton County decision, the Supreme Court justices have cleared a path for the wider protection of the Equality Act which will need to be finalized in the Senate since Congress already passed it last year. According to Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal: “We have a long way to go in securing the full and undeniable civil rights of LGBTQ people, especially those in our community who are Black, Indigenous and people of color for whom their sexual orientation or gender identity is only one of many barriers to equal opportunity in this country. But today’s victory is a necessary step forward on the journey toward equal justice for all without caveats or qualifications.”
Most American citizens understand that discrimination is wrong, so the hope is that with the Equality Act, the loopholes and cracks not addressed in this decision will be covered by comprehensive federal protections. The Equality Act updates and expands protections in the workplace not only on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but also on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion in the workplace, the marketplace, and beyond.”
Last June we celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Riots begun by gay men, and trans-women who with their protests proclaimed they had had enough and refused to be beaten, arrested and killed sorely because of who they chose to have sex with and how they identified in gender expression. Stonewall marked the beginning of the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement. Today we are in the midst of a new chapter of a multi cultural response to continued violence and discriminatory arrests of BIPOC in every American city despite facing a deadly COVID 19 viral pandemic.
However, just last year alone at least 18 transgender people the majority of whom were people of color, were murdered in the U.S.This SCOTUS decision could be the most hopeful moment in decades to pass a law that protects all LGBTQ+ folks and impacts Black and Brown queer folk at a time when the wounds of racism have been violently torn open once again. When the outside world brings confirmation, validation and freedoms into the therapeutic work my associates and I do with our clients, it is a day to celebrate, even if it is cautiously. I say cautiously because of a case that is coming down the pike to the Supreme Court next fall challenging the rights of religious organizations who feel they should have a broad right to engage in anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Remember that case brought by a bakery owner in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding because his religious opposition to same sex marriage? Yep, that one. Well that’s the issue coming up again this fall to the Supreme Court in another case and Gorsuch sided with the religious bakery owners last time. So by all means let’s celebrate but the battle for racial, sexual orientation and gender identity equality is very much a slow work in progress.
There will be a Women’s March and two Women’s rallies In New York City tomorrow supporting women’s rights. A conflict that ensued after one of the co-founders of the original Women’s March on Washington Tamika Mallory was accused of anti-Semitic views due to her alignment with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. There were also accusations of anti-Semitic remarks made by Carmen Perez, another organizer. lastly a third organizer Linda Sarsour has stated her support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.
There have been so many published articles on the conflict over the past two years between these initial Women’s March activists and co-leaders of the first 2017 Women’s March and the leadership of many community groups supporting Jewish and LGBTQ+ women. This led to a new organization called the Women’s March Alliance to take on the mantle of organizing the 2018 and 2019 marches. Tomorrow Alliance sponsored march will begin on the Upper West Side of NYC. The gathering affiliated with the original organization Women’s March group will be a rally downtown at Foley Square and is led by women of color.
There have also been women with disabilities who claim they were not granted a permit to march who have organized a rally of their own in Grand Central Station tomorrow.
I’m a family therapist who views conflict and repair through a systemic lens. What this means is that a conflict expresses a challenge and a hope for change, whether between a couple, a family or any other system. The whole system needs to change the previous patterns for full healing to take place. It’s not the fault or blame of one person or one group or one side. If there’s going to be real change it will require dialogue, empathy and compromise.
It saddens me that the American tent for the Women’s March, a reckoning the likes of which had never been seen, echoed across the globe now presents as no longer big enough for all of us. The feeling that day on 2017 after Trump’s inauguration when people of all genders took to the streets to protest all the misogynistic, sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic rhetoric that had been spewing throughout Trump’s marching side by side was cataclysmic in its enormous hope that each of us could be a change agent. Each of us could repair the world whether in our small communities, organizing politically or running for office.
When I attended fundraisers this past year to hear women run for local office for the first time in their lives, each one of them said:
“I just thought, I could no longer wait for someone else to change our lives.
I must do this”.
This to me is the sound of hope, change and healing. But it is only THROUGH conflict, engagement and action with those that have different views that longstanding experiences of hurt, hate, disenfranchisement, assault, harassment and harm to one’s body can be both authentically witnessed AND repaired. It would be immature to think that the vast differences in beliefs that women hold regarding Israel’s political policies, Zionism and Palestinian challenges would NOT unleash tremendous energy and anger. As Rebecca Traister reflected about her discussion with co-chair Linda Sarsour in her elegant piece in The Cut recently:
“The painful reflections and calls to responsibility were meant to bring anger to the surface as part of the process of marching together, rather than allowing that anger to fester and separate a group that could, united, wield power.”
But I believe that the tent has to be large enough to hold all women’s courage to address the inequities and injustice in this world for all of us.
This is why I’ll continue to march and rally. With those that come from very different places and those that come from similar spaces.
I’m marching for those who can’t.
I’m marching to protest #metoo assault and harassment.
I’m marching to support women with less/no privilege
I’m marching to support those that need a living wage.
I’m marching for those that are targeted for the color of their skin, their religion, their orientation, their gender.
I’m marching to inspire and be inspired.
I’m marching for healing because this world is fractured.
I’ll end this blog with a quote by Martin Luther King whose legacy we honor this Monday:
“We may have all come on different ships but we’re in the same boat now”
When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the world seems more fragile
When Robert Bowers, the gunman who ran into The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Saturday he murdered 11 innocent people and wounded 6 more. The event also tore into the fabric of the American community’s sense of safety, respect and collective faith in the country.
Each time there’s been a traumatic event in the US whether it’s a terrorist threat (the bomb packages allegedly sent by Cesar Soyac last week), the Las Vegas shooting one year ago at the Harvest Music Festival and the riot allegedly incited by white supremacists RAM members in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, clients come in to sessions and are palpably frightened. They are seeking a place to express their feelings of rage, fear and vulnerability (many of the bomb packages were mailed to locations all around Manhattan). The rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue described receiving letters of condolence and support from people all over the world. The media shows communities spontaneously gathering to hold candlelight vigils in cities around the USA. What does a therapist who specializes in sex therapy advise after a traumatic event that shakes a nation like this? How does this even connect with one’s sex life?
Vulnerability and Sex
One of the main challenges for clients in my group practice Center for Love and Sex, is the longing they have for more meaningful sex. This can come in the form of wanting more frequent sex with their partner or spouse. It can also present as the desire to express a long-held fantasy to a partner in order to feel more whole in their sexual expression. It also can be described as the wish to lower one’s anxiety so as to feel more present and freer in partnered sex. For many of these presenting problems, anxiety is a large contributor to the challenge. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million US adults aged 18 and older.
One might not be surprised that folks who already suffer from anxiety will feel a spike in their anxiety levels when a mass shooting or terrorist attack occurs. According to a Gallup Poll taken soon after the Las Vegas mass shooting 39% of Americans are either very worried or somewhat worried that they or someone they love will become a victim of a mass shooter. These levels were similar to a poll taken right after the San Bernadino mass shooting. So how do people with anxiety seek out comfort? What is interesting to me is that while most of my female clients (whatever their sexual orientation) feel comfortable in seeking out comfort verbally from their partner or friends, most of my male clients are reluctant to ask their partner/spouse directly. However, they may ask indirectly by initiating some type of physical touch, whether a cuddle, a hug or some sort of more direct sexual signal. Why might that be?
Men and Comfort, an oxymoron?
Most men are acculturated to repress their fear outwardly. They’re taught that to be “real” men they need to be tough and indifferent because that is the way you win and get ahead. Never show your hand when it comes to cards, in business and at times in romantic relationships. Thus there’s a small menu of emotions that are socially sanctioned in American life (although there’s some variance depending on your cultural background). Some of these common emotional expressions include: anger, rage, disdain, belittling others (either in humor or with aggression), frustration, disgust and physical extensions of these emotions.
American men (this includes those that identify as gay, bisexual and queer) are taught that they have to be the ones that their partners can lean on. But in the years I have worked with men from diverse ethnic, cultural, religious and orientations, I have witnessed there’s one place they can experience a wider menu of emotions. This is in the sexual and erotic realm. Through a sexual scenario a more vulnerable side (even if most men aren’t even conscious of it) emerges, and sex isn’t just something he is performing or doing. It becomes the place he goes to be held, rocked, whispered to allowing him to feel accepted, loved and yes comforted.
Meaning of Sex and Death Anxiety
When I work with men I help them become more aware of their own fears and how they might learn how to express their worries and concerns to their partners in other ways beside being withdrawn, belligerent, complaining or in some cases angry when their partners turn them down for sex. I help them uncover what sexual activity with their partner means to them in the larger significance of their lives. For some it is a return to connection that is beyond having to prove themselves, for others it’s a space they can be gentle givers of pleasure, for others it’s where they’re given free reign to lead which quiets their fear of lack of control in the outside world. And for others it’s a haven from death.
Death Anxiety and The Lack of Living Fully
Irving Yalom, the famous existential therapist and writer has written about his theory of death anxiety can keep people from truly living deeply, including shutting off their sexual desires. He wrote: ““…the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.” But when faced with death either through a terminal illness or at the top of the World Trade Center, a man urgently calls their partner and/or family to tell them in an emotionally authentic voice how much they love them, finally freed of society’s chains of decorum.
Ask for Comfort without Shame
When a massively violent event occurs like the Tree of Life Shooting last weekend, it tears into our day to day lives and threatens our own sense of safety. It is the human condition to want to reach out, to hold a partner close and to give and get comfort through touch. It’s our primal urge when we’re born and it’s a haven against our own fears regarding our own eventual deaths. I always let clients know that inside all of us are the children we used to be; playful, eager to learn, and longing to be comforted when we’re frightened. This need is not something to be ashamed of. The increase in mass shootings are fear-inducing for all Americans and for all humans. If you have a partner, let your guard down, tell them of your fears and invite them to comfort you and offer yours to them. If you don’t have a partner, reach out to friends, your community, attend one of the hundreds of interfaith vigils that are still occurring across the country and offer to give and receive a hug. The only way through this is to confront pure hate with pure love and authentic comfort.
Modern sex, digital dating, hookups and contemplating past sex with a partner are all topics covered in THE LIST Kirra Cheers’ upcoming immersive photography project in NYC. I am so looking forward to leading a talkback after the May 19th show which poses the question “what would your exes say about you?” after a friend gave her a list he had made of all the sex partners and experiences he had had.
Here’s a preview interview with her. For those of you who don’t know Kirra’s work, she is the photographer behind the viral sensation Tinderella in which she photographed the men with whom she went on dates gleaned from Tinder to explore different aspects of modern digital dating life.
SC: It seems like this piece flowed out of your first show Tinderella, that was a study on digital dating, what was the initial spark that was triggered when you were gifted the List? What were some of the questions about sex you were looking to answer?
KC: I saw the list of names as a puzzle. Each name represents a moment in time they shared together. I wanted to know, if I could piece together the moments, what would the narrative of his life look like? As with Tinderella, I play the role of the unreliable narrator, calling for the audience to reflect on their list and how people might judge them based on their time together. This experience of self reflection is different for everybody based on age, gender and individual experiences. Where one person might question, how many is too many? Another might reflect on how much they have changed as a person or who they may have hurt along the way.
SC: In the work of sex therapy, we help clients get comfortable, get embodied, and help them articulate what it is they’re looking for in a sexual scenario? Did you find that the majority of partners with whom K had sex were open about their needs with him?
KC: As a society, we are used to being fed this lie that men want sex more than women. I think that women are more sexually adventurous than we give them credit for. There was definitely this conversation about wanting sex and expecting so be satisfied but there seemed to be a communication breakdown in exactly how to achieve that goal. This might be because they didn’t feel comfortable expressing their needs or perhaps they were still exploring their sexual desires.
SC: Often I hear from men who are single and dating that they aren’t as concerned about their partner’s sexual pleasure if they’re clear the sex is a hook-up and they’re not interested in getting emotionally close with them. Did you hear a range of reflections on how giving K was in the bedroom? Did it tend to coincide with how long they saw one another?
KC: Reviews on his sexual performance vary greatly. Everything from, the sex was “transactional” to it’s “the craziest sex I’ve ever had”. Hard to believe they were talking about the same person. I think it had more to do with how attractive he perceived them to be and therefore, how much time and effort he was willing to invest.
SC: Given the viral nature of the #CatPerson story in the New Yorker this past December, were there many women who expressed ambivalence during the act that they felt unable to express? Did many partner regret the experience? It sounds like one woman felt that the hookup was not consensual on their part? Did she ever tell him?
KC: I spent some time reflecting on why she opened up to me and chose to share her experience. I think that this was her way of telling him. It’s a hard read and unfortunately an experience that I believe most women will relate to in some way. There seems to be this accepted grey zone where it’s ok to pressure someone into an experience they’re not comfortable with. I used to think it was a matter of education but I’m not so sure anymore. Men understand consent, they just choose to ignore it. I think the problem lies in a power dynamic that has been exploited for far too long.
SC: Were these hookups freeing for some of the women who, like K were looking for sexual expression without commitment? What else did they discover about themselves in the process?
KC: Absolutely – many of the women on ‘The List’ are at a stage in their early adult life where they are exploring what they like and don’t like. It was refreshing to hear about women taking control of their sex life and feeling “empowered” by the experience.
SC: When sex therapists conduct what’s called a sexual history in therapy, we are looking to find out the influences on the way a person regards themselves as a sexual person, the influences of home, culture religion and how they explored their desire if they were allowed to. Did you feel his journey through these encounters/relationships had an intention behind it, questions he wanted answered or was their more emphasis on proving something to himself or others?
KC: I ended the project at no.38 because I felt that he was beginning to have experiences just so they could be documented. In fact, I would go as far to say that he enjoys having an audience and has continued to explore that thrill in his sex life. As a somewhat quiet or shy person in his day to day life, I think he enjoys exploring a different side to himself when it comes to sex.
SC: What most surprised you about the way your own relationship changed with K over the period of the project? Did you discover further vulnerabilities of his as you delved further into the project? Do you feel his choices of partners reflected a wide palette of facets to his personality or were they more similar than you could have guessed?
KC: We definitely became closer friends over the time that I worked on the project. He allowed me full access to his personal life and at no time seemed embarrassed or uncomfortable with the information that was shared. I was very impressed, if the tables were turned I may have had a crisis of identity. He seemed content to accept that this was their experience, even if it differed from his own.
SC: Why do you think K gifted the list to you in the first place?
KC: K enjoys surrounding himself with interesting or eccentric people that can orchestrate different experiences for him. For K, this was the ultimate walk down memory lane. He is now in a committed relationship and I often wonder whether the experience was somewhat of a sexual renaissance, allowing him to grow in a new direction. Perhaps we should all reflect on our list and learn something along the way.
THE LIST runs for a limited engagement Fridays & Saturdays, May 18-26 at 10pm at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre (115 MacDougal Street). Tickets can be purchased online for $20 at https://thelistbykirracheers.com/.
While I’m not sure in what order they should be listed, I have spent years helping people say the unsayable, articulate what turns them on, and supporting their journeys in coming to terms with the particular consensual erotic interests they find most compelling. At CLS, we also help those who tell us they have a porn addiction or who find that their porn gazing has become out-of-control. In a recent performance called “Prurience” created and performed by Christopher Green at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process Series, Green created a space in The Wright restaurant that while not a safe therapeutic environment, still encouraged some participants/audience members/performers to communicate what they are erotically drawn to when watching porn or how their porn watching became what they deemed to be an addiction.
Green invited participants into an unusual immersion/theater which was a combination of a 12-step sex addiction meeting, a confessional, a one-way-mirror-interrogation, and a-funhouse-mirror-maze. I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Green during his show’s run in NYC given how it reflects on some of the issues our clients are confronting given their porn use whether as an out-of-control behavior on their own or wanting to incorporate the fantasies they enjoy with a partner or spouse
I wondered if the impetus to create the piece coincided with the changes in UK laws regarding pornography. Green stated: “Funnily enough no, it happened all at the same time. Suddenly when I was writing it, David Cameron became obsessed with it and started legislating and talking about porn all the time.” In 2013 Prime Minister Cameron proposed having all porn blocked by internet providers in the UK, where Green grew up.
The audience is invited by the person we think of as the leader of the Prurience group, an American artsy-man with an effeminate inflection in his speech played by Green, to make a circle with the chairs as usual before the “meeting” begins. He is apologizing for being late and haphazardly setting up the product table in the corner, offering up swag printed with the Prurience logo. Once settled, he begins the group by asking participants to share their first memory of seeing porn for the first time. This question aligns with many of the questions we ask at CLS when conducting a Sexual History as part of a full bio-psychosocial assessment to learn about our clients, their families of origin, their education regarding sex (formal and otherwise) both through self-pleasuring and/or partner sexuality.
In this immersive theater experience, several participants shared the discovery of their father’s Playboy, or a friend’s older brother’s stash of videos, or searching online at sites like Pornhub. In our practice, clients express how they watched their parents hold hands, or kissed a “crush” for the first time in 5th grade at a friend’s house party or happened upon porn online at age 14. The firsts of our lives leave an imprint, and at times it is so strong that it becomes a go-to fantasy that one seeks to recreate again and again whether in one’s imagination, online, or with a partner.
In “Prurience” we are led to believe that the members of this so-called self-help group are struggling with so called porn addiction. While the term sex addiction was not accepted as a formal DSM5 diagnosis, nor has it been accepted by the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), the terms sex or porn addiction has been popularized enough by people like Patrick Carnes, the unscientific YourBrainonPorn site and the many rehabs that continue to charge thousands of dollars to help people with sexual behavior they may find out of control, sinful, shameful and unfaithful.
At CLS we work with people who struggle with Out of Control Sexual Behavior or hyper-sexual behavior that have put their relationships, family and livelihoods at risk. In a structured, thorough assessment process we discover what other overlapping challenges, potential diagnoses, past trauma and/or relationship dynamics are contributing to the behavior and collaborate with the client on the treatment goals and individualized plans we recommend.
In the Prurience porn addiction meeting one soon hears from people who are revealing ever more detailed descriptions of what they like to watch, what they desire and the level to which these desires haunt their waking and sleeping hours. The comments are sharp, humorous, disturbing, self-flagellating, erotic, disgusted and intriguing.
SC: How important was it for you to create an Uber-reality of a 12-step meeting?
CG: “Yeah, I wanted to unsettle people because one of the effects of porn as we know one of the effects of porn is it’s deeply troubling, or arousing in the fundamental sense of the word. It alerts us and wakes us up…I wanted to try and replicate that in a theatrical setting”.
SC: “Like in a parallel process kind of experience?”
CG: “Yeah, absolutely.”
The term I used in this last question, “parallel process” is a psychotherapeutic term to express the feelings or dynamics that crop up in the relationship between a supervisor and a therapist who is telling the supervisor about a particular client. While relaying the issues, the dynamic may well unconsciously mirror the dynamic that is occurring between the therapist and their client.
In his run on the West End in London, Green told me that some audience members got up at the break and walked out, never to return. They were too disturbed, or embarrassed or uncomfortable to stay through the 2nd part. The topic of porn is still rarely brought up in general therapy but in sex therapy, we try to help clients describe what turns them on so that they can articulate it to their partner(s). If a person is into porn, or erotic novels or other fantasy-type trigger, describing a scene or exchange can help them formulate what it is that fires up their erotic ignition.
Green wondered how I felt at witnessing his role as group leader who didn’t really “hold” the members of the porn addiction recovery group in a safe space by setting clear boundaries on the length of people’s contributions or the intensity of what was shared even when someone seemed to be in a high risk situation. I thought it was an astute question since in fact I was quite aware that the experience was theater and that his playing the role in a passive manner was intentionally done. It certainly unnerved some folks who felt unsure of what was to come. Much like getting on a roller coaster that might make you nauseous, many audience members were rattled by the tea break.
This lack of structure and support that one sees in the group is NOT like a professional therapeutic experience where a therapist lets a client know what comes next in the process, allows the client to ask questions, holds their fears so that they don’t become overwhelmed and may stop someone who becomes hurtful to another. The therapist closely monitors the clients’ experience, and checks in to ensure that the sessions are going at an emotional pace that they can handle.
I asked Green about the fact that the group didn’t seem to have a performer playing a partner who has suddenly discovered their partner/spouse’s compulsive sexual habits and come to the group to express their shocked, hurt and angry reactions. He let me know that in fact in the original version of the piece there had been a female character who had discovered her husband’s porn use and ostensibly came to the meeting as almost one would go to AlAnon to get more education and support but that in the final edits made by the dramaturge, he lost this character which saddens him at times.
In our work with a client wanting help with their compulsive sexual behavior at Center for Love and Sex we at times work with the individual and refer the couple to another therapist for couple/marital counseling. in other cases we’ll work with both the couple and each partner individually if it seems like a better plan. Like any secret kept hidden for years, the ripple effect after the discovery of an out-of-control porn problem has tremendous impact on both the partner with the issue and the relationship. For many of our clients the recovery of Out-Of-Control sexual behavior includes the opportunity to speak about all sorts of issues (including their sex life) which had been swept under the carpet for years.
We help them understand the behavior, treat the underlying or coinciding disorders that might have contributed to the behavior and then help them and their partners begin the long road to rebuilding trust, expressing hurt, articulate anxiety, and describe erotic desires. The split-off part of their self that was continually numbed out through the compulsive behavior can now emerge and be known not only to the individual but to their partner. And the therapist helps them stay grounded through the at times painful, anxiety-ridden process.
I’ll quote Chris Green with his perceptive reflection on therapy and theater to end this blog:
“I think a lot of therapy is sitting with discomfort isn’t it? It’s being able to turn your face towards the thing you normally turn away from. And it’s.. to put that into theater you have to sit with discomfort, you have to encourage people to sit with discomfort. And it’s only through that that we make any breakthroughs in life” .
In the recent viral slew of reactions to Kristen Roupenian’s short story “The Cat Person” in the The New Yorker Magazine, many readers have projected their own unsatisfied, frustrated and angry reactions of past sexual encounters, creating a hashtag #CatPerson and linking it to the #metoo movement on Twitter.
The original “me too’ movement was initially begun 10 years ago by social justice activist Tarana Burke (who attended last night’s Golden Globe awards) as a tribute to girls and women of color who were survivors of sexual abuse. The #metoo movement that went viral this past fall was due in part to the Twitter hashtag and invitation to share that Alyssa Milano posted in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein expose in the NY Times which featured reports by many women in Hollywood dating back years of alleged sexual harassment, coercing, assault and legal non-disclosure agreements made by Weinstein to buy accusers’ silence.
However, I think to conflate “The Cat Person” short story with both Burke’s “me too” movement and Twitter’s #metoo campaign (while they may be connected under the large umbrella of the power imbalance embedded in the patriarchal system) misses many important lessons we can glean about dating and modern digital sexuality illustrated in the fictional story. These lessons include ingredients of erotic mating and issues of consent and entitlement. The Cat Person story has stirred a lot of controversy due to the fact that many Millennials feel like the encounter authentically reflects what it’s like in the dating/hookup culture they experience on a regular basis. Roupenian has expressed that the story stemmed from experiences “accumulated over decades, not drawn from a single bad date.”
I completely believe Roupenian’s and the readers’ experiences due to the fact that for many years as an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist and founder of Center for Love and Sex, I have seen many women who discuss how they felt like they told themselves they might as well have some sexual activity (give a guy oral sex, agree to vaginal penetration, give a “hand job”) even when they felt more undecided, had mixed feelings or were completely sure they didn’t want to have any sexual touch. Many of these women felt unable to harness the words needs to express these feelings and experiences to the date, hook-up or partner.
In the story, Margot is a college student and meets Robert, a man some years older than she while working at a movie theater concession stand. The story is told from Margot’s perspective and the reader hears much of her internal dialogue throughout the story so that we come to understand Margot more intimately than we do Robert. The beginning of the story gives us the first lesson about dating in the digital age.
Limit How Long You Flirt exclusively through text, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook Before Meeting In Person
“While she was home over break, they texted nearly non-stop, not only jokes but little updates about their days. They started saying good morning and good night, and when she asked him a question and he didn’t respond right away she felt a jab of anxious yearning.”
Margot is admits internally that she has developed a crush on this man with whom she has spent very little in-person time. And while it is true that part of meeting someone new is the fantasies one creates about them is as much part of the erotic excitement than the actual time spent with them, I have found that some people spend too much time communicating digitally rather than in-person. Some of my clients prefer the online flirting, seduction, or revelation of private thoughts because it keeps their mood afloat and helps them avoid potential disappointment in what the ‘real life’ person might actually be like. Given their past painful break-ups or mediocre dates, these clients are seeking treatment to recover, heal and gain some hope in their efforts to create new connections.
Some of our clients suffer from social anxiety and the back and forth texting exchange allows them to be more confident, forthright, or overtly sexual than they would ever feel in person with someone to whom they’re attracted. Koupenian wrote of Margot’s experience in #CatPerson:
“She still didn’t know much about him, because they never talked about anything personal, but when they landed two or three good jokes in a row there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing.”
However, research conducted on young adults has shown that higher rates of texting for people already stressed or anxious only leads to further agitation. What I recommend is to keep a bit of digital flirting in the sexual menu to get both your juices flowing erotically but plan a phone call soon so you can speak hearing one another’s voice. For some people the voice itself increases the romantic pull and for others can be a complete “no go” turn off. This allows a person to use their time wisely in their efforts to find a person with whom they’ll be more compatible. In sessions and on my webshow Sex Esteem®, I always ask clients to figure out their top 3 erotic triggers and if sound is up there in the top 3, then the sound of the person’s voice, laugh, moan will most likely make or break an erotic attraction.
The Pace of Texting May Cause Anxiety & Lack of Good Planning
#CatPerson illustrates the rhythm Margot notices of the initial texts between she and Robert : “Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did.”
Clients commonly complain of the anxiety they feel when their texts aren’t responded to as quickly as they would like. They begin to feel more vulnerable and less in control of the relationship.
While some people might like this experience of dominant seducer and longing chaser (it’s the erotic trigger I refer to as “psychological trigger” BTW), for others it just raises their anxiety to a level that’s turn off and may cause them to agree to something they normally wouldn’t including: sending a sexual photo in an effort to gain control, agreeing to a date that doesn’t especially excite them (a late night booty call as a first “date”), or meeting them in a place that doesn’t provide enough safety back ups.
Set up Expectations for Your First Meeting/Date
Due to her anxiety caused by Robert’s seemingly busy schedule, she quickly accepted his invitation to a movie. The problem here is that she asks to go to a movie theater that isn’t in her neighborhood (guaranteeing they won’t see any of her friends), that she would be going in his car (since she doesn’t own one), and that in fact she has barely spent any one on one in-person time with him.
“On the drive, he was quieter than she’d expected, and he didn’t look at her very much. Before five minutes had gone by, she became wildly uncomfortable, and, as they got on the highway, it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.”
For first meetings I encourage clients to meet in very public restaurants, cafes or bars and to let their date they can only meet for a period of time. For example, meeting for a coffee between 4-5:30 on a weekend due to dinner plans, or a drink after work from 6-7 PM. It allows both people to:
a) find out if there’s chemistry
b) there’s more to talk about then one-liners or quips about some social media meme and c) limits physical intimacy opportunities in case you’re not so into the person erotically
d) leave room for you to finish the first meeting wanting more.
Sexual Consent Begins with First Touch/Kiss
Robert first hugs Margot after she begins crying out of shame after she’s turned away from a bar because she’s underage. “ She let herself be folded against him, and she was flooded with the same feeling she’d had outside the 7-Eleven—that she was a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break. He kissed the top of her head, and she laughed and wiped her tears away.”
If we are going to improve the many layers of consent that went missing in #CatPerson, here’s could have happened. Margot could have talked about her expectations of the first date in a more explicit way like:
Thanks for the invitation, I would like to go to the movies (my preference is a comedy) and holding hands in the dark.
I would be up to going out to a bar for a drink afterwards but since I’m underage it would need to be at a place that doesn’t card me.
I would like to perhaps kiss tonight but would like to keep the experience light and would prefer going home alone since it’s our first date.
I don’t have any STIs just so you know.
Robert could have said:
I’m looking forward to taking you out to this movie
I’m getting cleaned up a bit, wearing a nice shirt.
Hope you have time to go out afterwards for drink.
Would love to finally kiss you tonight, been admiring your lips for a while.
If you’re into it we can come back to my place, I don’t have a roommate so have the place all to myself.
I was most recently tested 4 months ago, am negative on all counts and haven’t been with someone since that time.
What happens in the story though is that after the hug, Robert does initiate a kiss and it’s not what Margot expects: “he came for her in a kind of lunging motion and practically poured his tongue down her throat. It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad;” Although perhaps the kiss could have been the red flag for some women that the chemistry might be off, Margot warms up to Robert at this point because she now feels she has regained some of the power in their relationship and perhaps feel a bit sorry for him which arouses her erotically.
Part 2 of this blog will focus on other lessons gleaned from “Cat Story” in this aftermath of #metoo, #timesup, “me too” so that we can begin to help one another reach that #NorthStar (Laura Dern’s quote from last night’s Golden Globes) of dating and respectfully relating with sexually without losing the eroticism.
As a Certified Sex Therapist I’m always encouraging my clients to consider their intimate relationship as an entity in itself that needs feeding, nurturing and growth by both/all partners to continue a vibrant long-term erotic sexuality. I know it’s last minute shopping week for the holiday season and you’re hoping to get everyone in the family that special something they’ll love when they unwrap their gift. I suspect though that the last person you may be thinking of is a) yourself and b) your sexual relationship.
And because erotic triggers can be psychological, visual, auditory (hearing), emotional, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell) as well as tactile (touch) as described in my Sari Cooper Sex Esteem webshow, I wanted to present a smorgasbord of holiday gift ideas for couples who want to take their sensual life to another level. You could even think of it as a series of stages to take you through the erotic and sexual experience.
Thanks go to The Pleasure Chest, the upscale sex toy shop and online store that carries beautiful items in a sex friendly atmosphere for sending me these wonderful items to review. Here are this year’s line up of holiday gifts to be either slipped under your partner’s pillow or in a private stocking hidden in the bedroom closet.
Gift List for the Happy Couple:
Kinky Truth or Dare: This is a like Pick-Up Sticks for adults with each stick containing either a truth question or a dare invitation. I used to love pick-up-sticks as a kid and love the fact that the container and the sticks are black and red, reminding me of a tango dancer just demanding your focus. This is a great way to transition into a playful, flirtatious mood and perhaps find out some things about your partner that you actually didn’t know. An example of a truth question might be:
“Tell me about a part of your body I should get to know better” or
“Would you rather try a threesome or an orgy? Why?”
If you flip over the stick to the red side, a dare might declare:
“Pretend we’re in the back row of a crowded movie theater. Get me off with no one knowing”
“Take your phone and disappear. Call me for some dirty phone sex.”
While these requests are on the tamer side of what some people might call kinky they do get a couple flirting, revealing and whetting their appetite for sexy scenes outside their usual sexual script. It utilizes the psychological trigger to imagine scenes that play with consensual power and expanding where and how a couple can be sexual*
*Note it may be illegal in some states to be sexual and/or exposing certain body parts in public so do your research and make conscious choices.
If you need to be teased through the tactile and psychological triggers to get into an erotic zone, Pleasure Chest creates an Awaken Your Senses Kit. The container is black, metal cylinder that looks like it holds a candle but inside are items to increase the sensitivity and anticipation of a power exchange game. It contains a black blindfold, 2 red satin wrist/ankle ties, a black and red feather tickler, a pinwheel and a mini massage candle. (A pinwheel creates sharp pricks sensation that might be experienced as painful for some and alerting to others). I love the way the candle wax melts into massage oil that can also be used to give massages or dripped on certain erogenous zones to get things heated up. The kit has enough to set up a warm-up scene in which one partner can take control and play out different types of sensations on the other’s body. I like the packaging that is not blasting its contents and the fact that it might be a convenient take-a-long when you go out of town for a night or a vacation. It would have been nice to include something tasty to suck on for those that like oral stimulation and a small thumb drive with music to set the scene.
For those that are into jewelry and having a great vibrator, the gift that is modern, seductive, and handy when out on the town is the Vesper Necklace by Crave. For women who want their empowered sexuality combined with a beautiful necklace, the Vesper is an elegant gift. It comes in 3 finishes; silver, gold and rose gold and has a single small button that offers 4 types of vibrations and is quiet yet powerful. It’s long, sleek cylinder shape looks like something you’d find in an expensive designer shop or a modern museum gift store. It can be used with water based and oil based lubes (but not with silicone lubes) and can easily be washed gently with soap and water. It charges through a USB cable and can be used for both solo and partner play. This is a piece of jewelry that will make you feel full of Sex Esteem® on a date, a night out dancing with your girlfriends or brunch with your bestie. By wearing it you’re reinforcing your own pleasure, power and priorities in taking your desires into your own hands (and around your neck).
Lastly, the latest vibrator created for hands-free stimulation during intercourse or for solo play or for long-distance play (I know you’re thinking what is she talking about? Don’t worry I’ll explain), the We-Vibe Sync is a beautifully shaped U-shaped vibrator that can be used during penetrative sex with a partner. It has one smaller arm for insertion into the vagina to stimulate your G-spot while the second arm has a flat rounded pad at the end that hooks up and rests on the clitoris and vulva area to give you double bang for the buck. Speaking of dollars, this baby will set you back about $199. 95 but may just be the best investment you make in your couple sex life.
In this latest model, the wearable vibrator has a stronger hinge that is able to be used by all types of body to attain a tight fit so that when you switch positions with penetration it doesn’t come popping or slipping out (a huge improvement on the older versions of this toy). It retains the position you set and different pulses can be chosen by pressing one button on top or by using the remote offering you more convenience and fluidity in the movement. The motor is powerful but quiet offering a variety of rumbly kinds of sensation that emanates out from the point at which it sits on your clitoris.
The other super feature is that it connects through an app called We-Connect which allows you to choose music, specific pulses or to have your partner who is out of town on a business trip choose these so you can have hot Facetime sex while physically in two different locations. I see many couples who are separated due to jobs being in different cities, work travel requirements or family emergencies. This app and toy allows for intimacy to continue and keep the ‘glue’ of your sex life to continue in a seriously fun sexy way.
It is rechargeable through a USB cable and the stand has a lovely egg shaped cover that can be left on a night stand and look like an air freshener. Finally, esthetically the design of the vibrator is made of a sleek smooth silicone either in purple and turquoise packaged in a beautiful box with a ribbon on top making it look like a classy candle.
This should be a fun-loving and sex holiday in addition to being one that also celebrates family. Ensure you leave some time for some erotic delight and play this holiday season.
Mandy Len Catron recently published her book: How to fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, which explored the ingredients of closer intimacy. The book is based on her popular NY Times piece “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”, where she reenacted the famous social experiment by psychologist Arthur Aron, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, In the original psychological study, pairs of strangers spent 45 mins asking a series of 36 increasingly deep and personal questions in a lab setting. The purpose was to see if a sense of intimacy could be established in a relatively short amount of time. When Mandy Len Catron completed the questionnaire, she ended up forming a romantic relationship with a casual acquaintance.
Why did the 36 questions work so well for Catron personally and for many of the original study’s participants? I commented on this article when it first appeared on CBS This Morning but would like to expand on my observations here. The questionnaire starts off with seemingly innocuous inquiries, for example asking people to describe a perfect day scenario. Soon enough, the tone shifts to asking more serious questions such as best and worst life memories and views about death and mortality. Toward the end of the experiment, people are asked to share what they honestly feel about their partner and what they would like their partner to know if they wish to become close with them. After all the questions are answered, both participants then stare in each other’s eyes for about four minutes in silence. With each question, each participant is slowly becoming more vulnerable, exposing parts of themselves about which they feel embarrassed or anxious. These are aspects of oneself rarely shared with an acquaintance, let alone a complete stranger. As researcher Brene Brown has expressed: “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think”. And for those moments when one is finally truly seen, the desire to merge with them sexually may be activated as a further way to retain this emotional union.
In Catron’s original article she admits she was in a bar and drinking bar while undertaking this experiment. As an aside, many shy or introverted folks commonly use alcohol or recreational drugs as a social lubricant.
Unfortunately it may lead folks to a sense of false intimacy and potentially a consensual sexual experience that both people regret the next day. While I am not writing about non-consensual assault or rape here, I am clarifying that even with consensual sex under slight influence, the element of intimacy can be shrouded or missing.
Why This Works:
There are also some biological reasons as to why the study works in bringing people feeling closer. For example, research has shown that when people speak with direct eye gaze the listener is more likely to trust the speaker compared to a speaker looking elsewhere.
The ancient practice of Tantra includes eye-gazing as a method to encourage more relaxation and connection. Many partners find their breathing becomes aligned when gazing at one another’s eyes. In fact, our first instincts as babies is to look into our caretaker’s (parent’s) face for comfort and this is our way of calming our system and finding confidence in our world.
In a recent study out of the Kinsey Institute, researchers found that “over 50% of respondents ages 18-24 indicated that their most recent sexual partner was a casual or dating partner.” but they also found that “for all other age groups, the majority of study participants indicated that their most recent sexual partner was a relationship partner”. Even more fascinating, “men whose most recent sexual encounter was with a relationship partner reported greater arousal, greater pleasure, fewer problems with erectile function, orgasm, and less pain during the event than men whose last sexual encounter was with a non-relationship partner” . In another study, the researchers stated: “Men and women both were likely to report sexual satisfaction if they also reported frequent kissing and cuddling, sexual caressing by the partner, higher sexual functioning, and if they had sex more frequently.”
And for middle-aged men who reported having had more casual sex partners in their lifetime, they also reported less sexual satisfaction leading one to consider how deeper connections if combined with what I have coined as Sex Esteem® can lead to better discussions on what one desires, how one wants to grow in their sexual connection, and perhaps an emotional comfort that increases frequency.
This data illustrates that for many people, romance combined with sexual intimacy is an important recipe for sexual and relationship satisfaction for men and women (most of this research was based on heterosexual relationships). Does this mean that fulfilling sex cannot or should not occur outside a romantic relationship? Does it tell us that casual dating, sex with outside partners in a non-monogamous lifestyle or friends with benefits will not fulfill a person sexually? My answer is that it reports that for most straight folks, intimacy enhances their sexual pleasure AND that perhaps for some people sex without emotional intimacy is also pleasurable.
The clients we see at Center for Love and Sex range from monogamous couples who are so intimate it restrains their courage to request their desires, or couples who are locked in power struggles, bitter arguing or cold avoidance due to unresolved conflict so their sex life has been put on a shelf. We see people who are working on maintaining trust and intimacy in their primary relationship while openly exploring more sexually oriented partnerships outside the relationship.
Although American media frequently sets up a premise of casual sex as a titillating option in many movies, however the conceit quickly falls apart as the main characters “fall in love” by the end of the story. One can see examples of these situations in films like: Friends with Benefits,No Strings Attached or About Last Night. There is too often a one-size-fits-all script in terms of love and romance in Hollywood in which casual sex is shown to be too frail, less acceptable or not a true goal by the heroine or hero as the case may be. As a sex therapist I help clients discover what level of intimacy they’re looking for whether they’re single, married, or in a long-term relationship (whether it’s monogamous or contracted as non-monogamous). Some people rush into casual sexual agreements so quickly that they don’t spend time anticipating what feelings might get stirred up, or how to set up boundaries so that each partner doesn’t have ulterior or unconscious desires for a more romantic relationship. We use the therapy or coaching sessions to help people make realistic decisions given the type of person they are and what they’re looking for at this time in their lives.
Catron mentions another reason to her experiment’s success, which is the experience of love as an action as opposed to something that merely happens to someone externally . According to her, both she and her partner came to the experiment open and willing to take the steps to meeting someone new and falling in love. In addition, the study itself asked a series of questions that many long-term couples do not routinely ask one another, such as the last time a person cried alone or with another person. These types of questions may be considered too vulnerable even for couples who have been together for years. So I recommend learning to take the leap to connect deeply with vulnerability to someone through practicing vulnerability on a regular basis. Whether they’re your long-term partner, your spouse or someone you’ve recently began to see., the feeling of freedom and connection could be equally important to your emotional bond and increased sexual pleasure.
Given that it’s June and peak wedding season begins this month, I invited my associate Lauren to contribute a blog about the erectile issues that might cause havoc as a straight or gay couple ready themselves to walk down the aisle.
With the peak of wedding season approaching for the spring and summer, heterosexual and homosexual couples that are getting ready to tie the knot may begin reflecting more on their relationship and their issues within it. Some feel like it’s crunch time and instead of avoiding these concerns, couples might want to finally tackle them before taking on married life. Sexual issues such as erectile dysfunction (ED), which is the difficulty to attain or maintain an erection or remain firm enough for penetration can frequently be put off by a couple and/or a groom because it is a vulnerable and sensitive subject for most partners to address. This procrastination can also lead to avoidance of intimacy in general, which is not a beneficial way to begin a marriage.
What I have found in my clinical work providing sex therapy at Center for Love and Sex is that ED is a common presenting problem for younger men as well as older men. Research has shown that 26 percent of men 40 years of age and younger are effected by ED, with half of them having severe ED. Given that men are getting married at older ages, the fact that a quarter of these men (and their partners) may be secretly suffering from ED is a concern and one that we see frequently as couples are in the throes of planning their weddings. Men are also well known avoiders of getting an annual physical. As part of the CLS model we ask our patients to get a physical, as medical conditions can be a factor in the persistence of ED. The following medical conditions have been associated with ED: high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, side effects from medication, and treatment of prostate cancer.
The young men I see coming in struggling with ED usually discuss performance anxiety, low self-esteem, relationship problems, anxiety, depression, stress, guilt, fear of intimacy, difficulty transitioning between porn and masturbation to partnered sexual experiences, as well as excessive alcohol intake. Other contributing factors may include questioning their sexuality, having had a negative sexual experience, childhood trauma or worry over the lack of control they feel with their climax. It has been shown that ED and PE (premature or rapid ejaculation) often are presented together and that “ED is increasingly being recognized as the single greatest risk factor for PE”
Many young men who come in for help at Center for Love and Sex report that when they first begin talking about the problem, they feel vulnerable and at times worried about what their partner thinks of them, they feel a lower self-esteem. However once I let them know these are common feelings that most men have when confronted with ED and that I will guide them slowly on how to address the issue, they begin to open up about the consequences this issue has had on their relationship. Having sessions with both partners is critical to allow for the partner w/o ED to express their own concern, ask for guidance from the therapist and offer support to their fiance.
Helping a client track their thought patterns during the sexual scenario with their partner can be extremely helpful. Here are some thoughts that frequently occur before or during a sexual experience: “I’m not a man if I cannot get an erection,” “I am disappointing my partner because I cannot give them pleasure,” “this is all my fault that our sex life isn’t good,” or “my partner must want someone else because I cannot get an erection.” It is also common in gay relationships for the partner who identifies as the top to have more pressure to obtain and maintain an erection more than the partner who identifies as the bottom. The anticipatory anxiety (the anxiety leading up to an event) can be just as stressful as the anxiety a man experiences during a sexual experience because it is setting oneself up for failure before anything even happens.
American society in general contributes to many of these negative thinking habits. For most straight teenagers and more recently gay young adults the dream of your wedding night, honeymoon, and marriage is presented like a Hollywood movie, complete with endless love making, excitement and passion. There is a lot of pressure on getting every detail down for the ceremony, ensuring your relatives get along, making sure the first dance goes off without a hitch that thinking about the penis responding properly can be overwhelming. Given that many young men are now growing up with porn available at any time, comparing oneself to the exaggerated bodies and pharmaceutically assisted behavior of porn actors can only offer more heartache since one can never live up to one’s own and one’s partner’s expectations. In films and porn men are presented as totally in control, exuding confidence and pleasuring their partner, at times for extended periods of time.
When you come into Center for Love and Sex, ED will be initially be addressed with both members of the couple if this is possible. This is important because sometimes there is unresolved anger or conflict, and difficulty in communication that could also being playing a role in sustaining the problem. It is also important to realize what effect each person has on what is going on in the couple’s system. ED can be the symptom that hides or exacerbates other behaviors, such as the non-symptomatic partner rushing to orgasm very quickly before their partner’s erection is lost. Therefore, not only does this put pressure on the man with ED, it also puts pressure on the partner to rush through their pleasure.
Lastly, ED could also be masking a lack of sexual desire that one of the partner’s may have, so the man expressing the erectile issues may be in fact reacting to insecurities he feels around his partner’s lack of sexual desire towards him. In order to address these issues, we would discuss and evaluate the feelings each person has around ED, how they feel about their sex life as a whole, and help each partner understand the relationship between their anxiety and the symptom of ED. It is easy to forget that the partner usually also exhibits anxiety during sexual experiences wondering if things will work out this time or thinking about how the partner with ED is feeling. So the couple must become more mindful of the pleasure of the sexual feelings, instead of putting themselves in a negative thinking pattern which diverts their focus away from the sexual arousal. In addition to that, it is important that when given home exercises to practice between sessions, they do it together in a non-judgmental, relaxed atmosphere where the couple learn to be better intimate partners and use the home exercises to increase pleasure and decrease anxiety as a team. So CLS and I invite you to a place of better understanding, more intimacy, and better communication that can help you not only on your honeymoon but for years to come.
As Director of Center for Love and Sex, I am frequently helping Millennial’s with their dating and romantic relationships. I was excited to interview Lisa Wade, author of the most recent book titled: American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus to discuss hookups and how this college culture affects millennials’ in their post-graduation romantic and sexual relationships.
I wanted to hear more about her research regarding the state of hookups on campus and she was curious to hear about the issues that millennials are grappling with once they get out into the working world and begin to date. What does dating look like, is it similar to generations before them, how are they approaching emotional relationships? Do they continue the pattern of hooking up? How do apps and dating sites affect their dating habits and are they able to integrate emotional, psychological desires with their sexual and/or erotic needs?
The interview begins with my questions for Lisa and her responses and then concludes with her questions and my answers.
Sari Cooper interviews Lisa Wade
Given that hookups have been criticized in the larger American culture and media for some time now, I thought I would begin our conversation on a constructive thread. What have you found are positive emotional. psychological and physical outcomes/by products reported by young adults engaging in hookups during their college years?
Most students arrive on campus eager to experiment with casual sexual contact, even if just a little. They see sexual activity as a natural part of being human, are increasingly tolerant of a wide range of sexual orientations, and largely reject the idea that it’s okay to judge sexually active women more harshly than men. Thanks to the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation, the stigma of sexual activity has largely lifted.
In that environment, many young people enjoy “first times” — first kisses, first blow jobs, first one night stands — and honing new sexual skills. Many find it exciting to be participating in a part of life that is new to them (puberty was just a few years ago and 50% are virgins when they arrive on campus). It’s pleasurable to indulge one’s desires, to do new things, and to improve, no less with sex than with anything else in life.
Hookups offer these things to young people and, for a nontrivial minority of students, hookups are everything they want. For up to a quarter of students, hookups are incredibly gratifying. Research shows that students who claim to thrive in hookup culture really do: the more they hookup, the higher their self-esteem and sense of well-being.
What intersectionalities did you find in your research regarding status in terms of desirability with racial, gender and LGBTQ culture? When research is done is it mostly skewed towards white, cisgender heterosexual sexual behaviors?
Students of color, women, and non-heterosexual students report more dissatisfaction with hookup culture and hooking up less than their counterparts, as do students who grew up poor or working-class. Non-heterosexual students often find that hookup culture is indifferent or hostile to their sexualities, so some avoid the hyper-heterosexualized spaces of hookup culture. LGBTQ students, especially if they are men, are much more likely to seek hookups off-campus.
Students of color simultaneously face a white supremacist standard of attractiveness and the possibility of being eroticized as “exotic.” This tends to play out differently for different kinds of students. Black men and Asian women are often fetishized, while black women and Asian men are often actively avoided. On average, then, white students hookup more than nonwhite students.
The other thing that I have found interesting in my work with clients is the vague aspect of the term hookup. How did your research subjects define hookups? And what behaviors were more frequently engaged in during hookups on campus?
Students generally agree that any sexually charged activity can count as a hookup, so long as there is no expectation of future sexual or romantic interaction. In practice, 40% of hookups include intercourse, 12% include only what we might call foreplay (nudity and some touching of genitals), 13% proceed to oral sex but don’t include intercourse, and 35% don’t go any farther than kissing and groping.
What were the most common emotions young people stated they experienced during and after a hookup?
Two psychologists -– Elizabeth Paul and Kristen Hayes -– asked students what emotions they thought their peers felt when they were in the midst of a typical hookup. Their respondents listed emotions as wide-ranging as excitement, embarrassment, regret, fear, anxiety, confusion, and pride, but the most common answer—mentioned by two-thirds of their sample—was lust. The next most common answer, though, wasn’t any of the other emotions listed, it was “nothing,” the absence of emotion. So, students tend to believe that their peers are feeling turned on, but not much else.
Of course, in practice students are experiencing all kinds of emotions — positive and negative, strong and weak, wanted and unwanted — but when they do they often feel bad about it. Believing that their peers are much better at having “emotionless sex,” they feel like they are failing at hookup culture.
What percentage of your study opted out of hookups entirely? Did you have numbers on whether these young people remained celibate, and/or chose to be in longer-term relationships that involved emotions?
A third of students opt out, reporting zero hookups at graduation, but many of these students don’t end up in relationships instead. On college campuses today, most relationships form out of a series of hookups. Students hook up together once, then twice and then three times, and eventually they start breaking the rules of hookup culture (they begin to like each other and say so). At that point, students will often go on dates and consider beginning an emotionally committed relationship. For students who aren’t willing to hook up, this can’t happen, so relationships can be elusive.
Lastly, what percentage of those that participated in hook-ups reported being in the following states:
had had some alcohol,
had had no/minimal alcohol
Most students are at least a little bit drunk when they hook up because inebriation is a primary way that they signal to one another that what they are doing is meaningless. Being drunk is a sign that they are being careless, both about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Sober sex, in contrast, is heavily weighted with meaning. As one of my students explained: “[If you are sober] it means you both are particularly attracted to each other and it’s not really a one-time thing. When drunk, you can kind of just do it because it’s fun and then be able to laugh about it and have it not be awkward or not mean anything. Many of my sexually active students, then, had actually never had sex sober.
Lisa Wade interviews Sari Cooper
Many parents are worried that their children no longer value emotional closeness, committed relationships, or building a family life. Should they be worried that they’ll children will choose never to marry or have children?
This is a many-layered question. I actually think once young adults are out in the working world for a few years, some of these millennials are yearning for a close intimate relationship because they see how much they need the comfort and consistency of an ongoing partner. In my practice Center for Love and Sex, we see people in their mid to late twenties and early thirties who are either seeking a meaningful, emotionally close relationship or those that are already in a committed relationship but need help. But the meaning of commitment to this age group may look similar or different to their parents. In other words, some couples are committed to one another as primary bond partners but choose to have a non-monogamous agreement, or decide not to marry or decide to marry but live in different cities while building their careers.
I think parents need to ask themselves what value they place on their children having children, is it a desire to be a grandparent and have that experience, or is it that they think it’s the religiously, or traditionally correct thing to do? I have found couples who have discussed their desire to have children before getting married while also working with couples who are figuring out what neighborhood to live in together without discussing
a) what moving in together means in terms of their commitment to the relationship, or one another or
b) seriously whether each person is aligned with the other around having children in their future.
Lastly, I think many of the college-educated millennials I see in my practice are so focused on their careers that having children may be put on the back burner. These are the couples I see later on in their life when they have trouble with fertility and going through infertility treatments, or have children one right after the other and are struck by the huge toll raising small children while keeping up with both of their demanding jobs has on their romantic and sexual connection.
What kind of sexual culture are young people out of college encountering? Is the hookup script still powerful? Is the dating script? Is monogamy still the assumed frame for emotional commitment? Or have polyamory and open relationships gone mainstream?
For those millennials who have gone to college, the first few years on their own may still include hook-ups or casual dating as they are spending more time on establishing themselves professionally and/or living on a modest salary with their parents or roommates. However, the dating is pretty commitment-free and at times frustrating for those looking for a relationship since much of the app-driven “dating” is texting with someone for weeks on end before actually meeting. Some reasons might be that the texting over weeks provides a person with the banter or insight as to whether they actually want to devote time to an actual date (the equivalent of talking to someone at a bar or party for a while before asking or getting asked for a phone number). However, either while this chat-texting is going on the person may “ghost” you, that is, they may just stop texting back. While this no-show experience would happen in the pre-cell phone days, the “ghosting” may also occur after people have dated a few times, perhaps hooked up or even had intercourse together. The person being ghosted becomes more and more skeptical of what real attachment can really be gained from their next “match”.
I find that people don’t begin dating seriously till their later twenties. Monogamy is still the assumed frame of emotional commitment once the couple has had “the exclusion talk”. However the millennial cohort seems more open to talk about having alternative arrangements monogamy-wise. Navigating this agreement is a presenting issue with which couples come in to CLS to get help negotiating since they recognize it can bring up jealousy and are not sure how to establish boundaries that will work for both partners. While I don’t think it has gone mainstream, I do think that traditional agreements are being questioned.
Students say that the skills and strategies for negotiating hookup culture are essentially the opposite of the skills and strategies they need for negotiating committed relationships. After graduation, when students seek out more meaningful relationships, do you find that they struggle with emotional openness, closeness, and risk-taking?
I find the skills needed to develop relationships in the early stages are a bit different than the ones later on so I’ll answer these questions separately. I think because so much time in college is spent either opting out of the hook-up culture or participating in it usually under the influence of alcohol, emotional vulnerability with someone to whom you are also erotically attracted hardly ever occurs. However college students usually develop close platonic friendships.
Some of these friendships can even develop into love relationships later on. However, they may never have been erotically attached to these partners. So some of these young adults may know how to be good partners, considerate roommates, and love one another but there is very little sexual fizz in that occurs. These couples come in as they’re about to become engaged, get married or decide to have a baby. They are what I call companionate couples and they are open about most everything except their sexual desires and so they are not having much if any sexual contact at all.
Since they haven’t had a lot of practice negotiating compromise over long periods of time, if someone does meet someone with whom they have sexual chemistry, they don’t know how to manage day-to-day conflicts like:
Can you shower before you come on to me?
Do you expect me to walk the dog every day you’re off on this bachelorette trip?
Why are you not saving more money?
If they haven’t developed constructive communication skills, these conflicts can head south quickly and then they may look at their partner and wonder where did my erotic attraction for them go? They may get scared and end the relationship before understanding that to get back into their erotic groove requires patience, openness to listen and practice empathy to come to a connection again. Hookups don’t help in the sustaining enough patience to feel like you’re going to come through it to the other side and find your partner attractive again.
If they do, is this something to be overly concerned about? Do they learn these skills effectively despite their experience (or lack of experience) in hookup culture? Or are they inhibited from doing so in a way that they wouldn’t have been had they not adapted to this new college context?
I would say that they’re just starting later and need more practice at the integration of emotional intimacy and sexual connection since they have begun later. For a portion of these millennials, their life online has become more primary to their face-to-face relationships or dates. Whether it’s swiping right or left as a self-esteem sport to see how many matches one gets, or masturbating to porn which doesn’t require expertise, courage to make mistakes or consideration of a partner’s needs/feelings, some young adults prefer to remain on their own as a protective expression against vulnerability, performance anxiety or rejection.
Do students in committed relationships struggle specifically with sexual intimacy? Some of my students worried that the imperative to make sex “meaningless” would later interfere with their ability to experience it as “meaningful.” Acts of tenderness — like cuddling, prolonged eye contact, and gentle kisses — are off script in hookup culture; many of my students had never experienced those things, despite being sexually active. Is it challenging for them to learn how to incorporate tenderness into their sexualities?
This is a good question. I should preface the answer that sexual intimacy is like beauty, it’s in the eye and body of each individual. I think that acts of tenderness can be challenging for some, especially if you’ve spent years compartmentalizing your emotions from your sexual practices. After the novelty of a relationship dies down, a couple really does need to dig deeper to find out what kinds of sexual activity they like and how they become able to enter the erotic zone. One can’t rely only on intrinsic horniness because for many reasons (stress at work, lack of sleep, hormone changes) this may not be as regularly available. So learning to practice intimacy (which is unique to each person) and relaxation as an entryway into erotic connection are skills that people can learn. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first (remember the first time you French-kissed?), but with practice incorporating emotional intimacy (which may or may not include some of the acts you described) into sexual connection can gradually feel more syntonic.
What is some of the most important advice that young people need to hear? If you could get a message to each and every young person transitioning out of college, what would it be?
I would say to the millennials to educate yourself about your erotic triggers to increase your Sex Esteem®. This education can be gleaned from this blog and the following sites: my webshow Sex Esteem® with Sari Cooper, Columbia University’s site Go Ask Alice and the vast list of sites on Dartmouth University’s site, Gay Men’s Good Sex Guide, and the following books: Guide to Getting it On, Sex For One, She Comes First, The New Male Sexuality, Come as You Are, and SexSmart.