Alfred Kinsey said it best in 1948: the world is not so easily divided into sheeps and goats.
In his ground-breaking surveys of Americans' sex lives, Kinsey discovered that many "straight" people were not entirely straight. This finding has been confirmed many times by subsequent studies of both men and women.
Back then, you were either 100% hetero-erotic in behavior, fantasy, and curiosity, or you were "queer," a bucket of miscellaneous identities at the edge of the world. But Kinsey realized that sexual orientation isn't that simple. And so he devised the Kinsey Scale, on which sexual orientation is not a fixed binary, but is rather located on a continuum.
Suddenly, we had more ways to describe ourselves.
Now multiply that by time—who we are sexually at 40 is often slightly different than who we were at 20. Now add the uncertainty of the future—we don't really know what opportunities, challenges, contingencies, and near-death experiences lay around the corner for us.
As people say on those dating sites, "it's complicated."
And that's why the whole gay-transsexual-queer-whatever thing matters to straight people.
Because those "other" folks are paving the way for everyone else to accept themselves as they are, rather than each of us searching for a sexual category to squeeze ourselves into.
And that's true not only of sexual orientation regarding gender, but of other sexual categories. "Kinky" and "queer" are the new non-categories, used by thoughtful and lazy people alike. No problem. Terms like "bottom" and "slut" are also getting used, twisted, and are in the process of becoming meaningless as well.
Sex is one of life's few arenas where we really can create our own story and evolve our own truth. Except for that pesky little detail of unintended pregnancy, sex has very little objective reality. We can configure it as we wish, collaborating with a partner to create forms of expression that suit who we are, or wish to be. There's no need to select an off-the-rack sexual identity—"bisexual," "eco-sexual," "vanilla," or anything else.
And so straight men watch porn of men sucking each other's penises. Straight women fantasize about kissing a woman when they want to climax with their husbands. People do, or imagine, sexual activities that don't fit into "normal" categories. They're sometimes troubled by this. As long as behavior is consensual, they needn't be. Fantasies don't even have to meet that requirement.
And remember, you don't have sex with "men" or with "women," you sleep with George or Maria (or with as many unique individuals as you do). No one sleeps with all men, so we don't need to categorize you as "a person who sleeps with men."
So what do you call a lesbian who has a weekend fling with a man? Sonia. What do you call a guy who likes to spank his partner one night, and be spanked the next night? Morgan. What do you call yourself? Anything you like—and you don't need a category.
And that's why it doesn't exist.
But let's back up a few steps.
On March 27, 1998 the FDA approved Viagra as the first oral treatment for erection problems. It went on sale later that year, and was soon followed by Cialis and Levitra, variants of the same drug. All three are now currently in use.
As my essay in Playboy back then predicted, the drug was hugely successful, misunderstood and misused, and expected to perform miracles. It hasn't.
It doesn't make angry men sweet, doesn't make clumsy men graceful, doesn't make weak backs strong, and doesn't make drunk men sober. As the manufacturers themselves will tell you, these drugs aren't aphrodisiacs, and so they don't make bored men randy.
They make it easier for blood to hang out in the penis, facilitating erection under certain rather narrow circumstances.
Because only a small fraction of sexual frustration is caused by erection problems—and only a fraction of erection problems can be fixed with Viagra—the search has continued for other sexual enhancement products. These have ranged from vibrators to testosterone creams to porn to SM gear to shares of Apple stock. Each has advantages and drawbacks. Since none is a panacea, the search continues.
More specifically, people want a drug that can increase desire. People have wanted this for at least 3,000 years of recorded history, presumably longer. The Bible, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bronte sisters have all discussed the need for such a product.
And so less than ten years ago, our very own FDA was asked to evaluate the already-existing drug Flibanserin as a "pink Viagra"—a treatment for "female sexual dysfunction," a vague condition that variously featured low desire, low enjoyment, or genital discomfort or lack of feeling.
Exactly five years ago, after huge campaigns both promoting and denouncing the drug, the FDA rejected it, citing Flibanserin's side effects and limited efficacy. Health activists cheered, grown men wept, venture capitalists tore their hair, and life went on.
At the time, I wrote that the process of defeating the drug had reinforced the myth that female sexuality is more complex than male sexuality, and that the "comprehensive approach" that anti-drug activists were suggesting was already being tried by mainstream sex therapy, and proving inadequate. At the same time, I was skeptical about the drug's usefulness.
Now Flibanserin is back in the news, as the FDA is reconsidering its rejection. This is the same drug, but the conflict now has a different narrative: pro-drug activists are condemning the FDA's alleged sexism, demanding that women have as many options as men for treating sexual difficulties.
What nonsense. There is no drug to enhance sexual desire or enjoyment in men. And the FDA's rejection of Flibanserin for women has nothing to do with sexism. The FDA isn't pro-men or anti-women. It's pro-pharmaceutical corporation. It will approve every drug it possibly can, given the available clinical data and prevailing political pressure (see its handling of Emergency Contraception and at-home abortion drug RU-486).
Anti-drug activists are complaining about Big Pharma's "disease mongering," an oversimplification. There IS unexplained loss of desire in both women and men, along with loss of desire and physical discomfort. After we rule out the usual suspects—depression, lousy relationship, poor body image, toxic religion, medication side effects, mommy & daddy issues—neither medicine nor psychotherapy has much to offer people. And yet this problem undermines the quality of life for millions of adults.
Is the mechanism of low desire and low enjoyment different for men and women? My guess is that there are several bio-psycho-social mechanisms driving the problem, with some unique to each gender, while others are the same for both genders.
Should we take a pill for this? Should we need a pill for this? Should we demand a pill for this? Viagra was a genuinely disruptive technology, abruptly inserting erections in couples that hadn't seen one in years. It helped some relationships, and made others way more complicated.
But that's nothing compared to a drug which will increase desire. If that ever comes to pass, the politics of how it will be used in a given couple will make the bloody Roman Empire look like Woodstock.
Another woman leaves my office, broken-hearted that her husband looks at porn. Or enraged that her husband looks at porn. Or terrified, confused, or ashamed.
I understand the anguish, I do. It's all the more poignant because it's so unnecessary. Although porn feels like the problem, focusing on that rarely brings domestic peace or more intimacy. It certainly doesn't bring more or better sex.
Here's what various women say they feel in this situation:
- "I hate that he keeps secrets. I feel left out."
- "I can't compete with those damn women who perform in porn films. I'll never have a body like that, and I won't do some of the fancy stuff they do. Even if I did, I'd look ridiculous."
- "I feel ashamed that this is what he's fallen into—a dirty little habit that I'm certainly not proud of."
- "I think he's probably a porn addict—and if not, I bet he will be soon."
- "I don't like the ideas he's getting about sex or women. They're not normal."
And, sometimes, "How often does someone need to masturbate? I know men do it more than women, but once or twice a week should be plenty."
* Let's start with that last one. Of course, almost all porn watching is done as part of self-pleasuring. Thus, when someone objects to a partner (or teenager) looking at porn, my first question is, "what about masturbating without porn?" If they feel OK about it, we can proceed to talk about porn; if not, there's no point in talking about porn. It would be like discussing objections to watching The Daily Show with a person who thinks that TV watching is bad.
In such a case, I ask something like "Please explain why you object to someone in a couple masturbating as part of their sense of autonomy and relationship with pleasure and their own body." Some people feel very strongly that partners in a couple surrender their sexual autonomy—not just regarding other people, but regarding internal sources of stimulation, fantasy, or satisfaction. Few people make this explicit during courtship, so it doesn't come up until later when one person feels resentful.
* Then there's the sense of exclusion or secrecy, of "watching porn is his private thing, and I don't get to be a part of it."
Well, yes, you probably don't.
Very few couples share porn. If you want to, you can ask, and he might agree. But most women upset about their partner's porn watching don't want to watch with him, they want him to stop watching.
So the question is what you make of his secrecy about it.
Some people say the porn consumer's secrecy is proof that there's something wrong with consuming porn. But people keep secrets primarily to avoid consequences. If someone believes he'll get criticized or punished for disclosing porn watching (or anything else), of course he'll hide it. So don't expect to ban it or criticize it, and then have him talk about it openly.
Although it's great when couples desire openness, most people believe in adult privacy. Virtually every pair of adults has a don't-ask-don't-tell policy covering, depending on the people, the past, the present, or even the future. Whether or not they respect this in others, most adults expect it for themselves.
* The idea that a woman has to compete with the women or activities in porn films is fascinating. Of course, some women feel they have to compete with Scarlett Johansson and Beyonce; that's a fool's errand that no one should attempt (they are professionals; do not attempt to do their job in your home).
If you try to compete with mega-stars of course you'll try to compete with Rosie Cheex; but if you're smart enough to realize you can't match the Beyonce machine, please let go of Candye Kisses as well.
While making superficial comparisons is inevitable, most men know that porn is a fantasy, not a documentary; no one actually expects his girlfriend to pay the pizza delivery man with oral sex, and no grownup really expects his partner to look or act like a porn star.
Porn or no porn, every man and woman has to figure out how to feel OK with themselves when they don't look as good as others, have as much money as others, or have jobs or children as prestigious as others. This is the fundamental existential task of all people who want to enjoy life, and porn didn't invent it.
* As for the recently invented "porn addiction," there's simply no such thing. If you want to say your guy watches more porn than you want him to, or even that he watches more porn than he intends to, go right ahead. You may be right—lots of guys have trouble regulating their porn consumption. But we already know what overconsumption is like regarding chocolate chip cookies, Facebook, and TV football games, so let's not invent a new clinical category just for porn. If you think your guy is out of control, just tell him. Don't diagnose him—tell him you're concerned.
* Finally, exactly what ideas is hubby getting from watching porn? How do you know? How do they affect his behavior or mood?
If hubby doesn't approach you for sex as you'd like, it's not because of porn. If you want to know why that is, you need to ask him. Most women don't; when they do, men often lie. That's a couples issue, not a porn or even a sex issue.
If hubby is always demanding sex, or is rough or selfish during sex, it's not because of porn. It's because he's a jerk or he doesn't like you or he's desperate for something that he isn't talking about. To start solving this problem, stop having sex you don't like, and find a way to get your guy's attention so you can discuss this.
If hubby is grumpy or depressed, it's not because of porn. If you want to know why, you need to ask him. If you're concerned, tell him so, rather than criticizing porn. If hubby treats you or other women disrespectfully, it's not because of porn—it's because he's a jerk, or he's in pain, or both. To find out, you need to ask.
The problems in our lives usually have more than one simple cause, and require more than a simple solution. And our problems are rarely solved by telling our mates what they're doing wrong and what they need to do instead. Concerned about something? Don't blame porn—talk to your partner.