We know that President Trump has an interesting relationship to facts. When it comes to sex he's not alone.
People believe the darnedest things about sexuality, as if it's a relief to "know" that sex is bad for you, dangerous to others, and so powerful that we're all just one step away from civilization collapsing under the urgency and blind selfishness of desire.
But there are things that are known—not just felt, not preferred, not imagined or opined on. They are things about sex that are known. They're measurable. They're called facts.
Here are some facts, Mr. Trump, of which you should be aware when formulating policy. You particularly need to know these facts when those around you express their own fear of sexuality by urging you to control everyone else's sexuality.
* FACT: Comprehensive sex education reduces teen pregnancy (and therefore teen abortion) and teen STDs.
True, many people are uncomfortable acknowledging teen sexuality. Such people can just say that, without denying the science showing that the more accurate information teens have, the more responsibly they behave.
* FACT: Children who grow up with two parents of the same gender have the same mental health and educational outcomes as children with parents of different genders, when families are matched for income.
True, many people think it's creepy that gay people couple up, and even creepier that they raise kids, and super creepy that such kids think their household is normal. I understand that many such people don't feel free to say so these days, because it's now considered boorish and prejudiced to do so. Nevertheless, people can feel it's creepy without denying the facts. In twenty years, there will be so many dentists, high school teachers, and grocery clerks raised in gay households that almost no one will make a fuss about it.
* FACT: There is no increasing epidemic of rape on college campuses or anywhere else in America.
True, there's too damn much rape in this country. But according to the FBI, the rate of rape is decreasing, not increasing. Yes, rape is under-reported, but it was even more under-reported ten and twenty years ago than it is now.
The "one-in-five college women are sexually assaulted" meme now cited so often is the result of a study using terrible methodology. Instead of asking women "have you been sexually assaulted," the questionnaire asked about their experiences. The scientist then decided what to code as sexual assault, including unwanted kissing. Unwanted kissing is definitely disgusting, but grouping it together with rape trivializes rape.
In the Congo today, hungry, enraged, and crazy-high soldiers rape women and girls as an instrument of war. One in five women in the Congo has been raped. To imagine that Ohio State or Harvard are as dangerous as war-time Congo is not only a bizarre fantasy, it does nothing to reduce actual sexual violence in America or anywhere else.
* FACT: The overwhelming majority of women who get legal abortions are glad they did, and suffer no emotional or health problems.
True, some people are against legal abortion whether women suffer or not. Still, it would show more integrity if anti-choice people would acknowledge that most women who get abortions—and their partners—are glad they did so.
* FACT: Patrons of strip clubs don't commit sexual violence at a higher rate than men who don't go to strip clubs.
Strip club patrons are a cross-section of Americans—the good, the bad, and the ugly. When matched for age, education, and income (which are primary predictors of criminal behavior), club patrons and non-patrons look remarkably similar. People can be against strip clubs—you can say they're immoral, they're disgusting, they reinforce gender roles, they're a waste of everyone's time—without trashing the people who go there or the people who work there.
* FACT: Adults convicted of sexually exploiting children have a substantially lower rate of re-offending than adults convicted of armed robbery, arson, or violent assault.
Obviously, no one is more loathed than an adult who sexualizes a child—regardless of how much a child is affected by his or her experiences. But people are free to loathe without inventing stories about how molesters pose a lifelong threat to every child on earth. The rate at which child molesters can actually grow beyond their previous horrible choices is actually quite impressive. They could even become productive members of society—if they weren't forced to live under freeway overpasses and homeless encampments on the edge of town.
* FACT: The overwhelming majority of internet pornography is not violent, and depicts consensual sex.
There's a simple reason for this: of the 60 million Americans who regularly watch porn, most of them want porn that depicts consensual rather than violent sex. Activists who claim that most porn is violent are saying that most people who watch porn want to watch violent sex. That's a bizarre assertion, since porn watchers are our husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, and friends. Activists are free to hate porn—to hate the masturbation that accompanies it, to hate the range of sexual choices it depicts, to hate the reality that so many marriages include inadequate sexual lives.
But every activist who claims that most porn is violent needs to answer a simple question: of the men in your life, which ones do you believe prefer porn that shows violence to porn that shows pleasure and consent?
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Public policy regarding sexual issues like these is, sadly, usually more about perception than fact. This makes sexual issues a perfect fit for one of President Trump's worst approaches to governing. In a sense, sexual issues will be the canary in the coal mine that lets us know just how committed Trump and his advisors are to a fact-free administration—no matter how much it harms the Americans whose lives they have pledged to make great again.
Two of my upcoming lectures involve childhood sexuality. In March I'm speaking to a group of Catholic high school parents, and in April I'll be training a few hundred family therapists in Arizona.
Not to be overly sentimental, but doing this is a privilege. Every time I'm asked, there's a group of people trusting me with their reputations, or even their jobs. It's a responsibility I take seriously.
Here are some of the key points I'll be making in both talks:
* Healthy sexual expression in children is varied, messy, a bit unpredictable, and entwined with a kid's culture, psychology, and biography—just like in adults.
* When it comes to childhood sexuality, adults have two primary tasks:
a) to manage our own emotions about it, and
b) to support young people in finding healthy ways to understand and express themselves.
* Young people now live online, so we have to address their online experiences and expression. Most adults probably need a few technology lessons from the kids they want to support.
* An approach centered on fear and danger, or shame and guilt, won't equip young people for the decision-making challenges they will face.
When I speak about the healthy sexuality of children and teens, I focus as much on parents as I do on kids. Parents (and other caring adults) have so much to offer young people: explaining what's happening to their bodies, telling them what to expect, calming their anxieties about not being normal, validating the confusing complexity of their feelings, and helping young people be a little less grim about the whole thing.
One of the greatest gifts that adults can give young people around sexuality is talking about how males and females have a lot in common. This is a different approach than the more typical "OK, here's what girls want" or "This is what boys are thinking." While such a gender-stereotypical approach may calm both kids and parents in the short term, in the long term it undermines empathy and heightens performance anxiety.
We all want our kids to see others as humans first, and their gender (and everything else) second; rather than seeing half the population as alien or "other," we should encourage our kids to see females and males (and other gender identities) as more similar than different.
This isn't mere devotion to political correctness. Rather, it makes the answers to many kids' questions more down-to-earth and even obvious. What should I say or do with that special person over there? Well, how would you like to be treated? How would you treat them if they were your friend instead of part of an alien group?
Of course, most adults still struggle with trying to figure out "men" or "women." So it's no surprise that they encourage young people to see the world as populated by two "opposite sexes" who, well, come from different planets.
Young people and healthy sexuality? Oh yes, we need to cover menstruation, wet dreams, conception and contraception, kissing, privacy, morality, teasing, porn, abstinence, alcohol and pot, arousal and desire. And more.
But most centrally, we need to remind young people that those females or those males who seem so alien are actual people. And that every body part we see, whether we find it attractive or unattractive, is attached to an actual person—so we need to behave accordingly.
And that real sex does not FEEL like porn LOOKS.
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For more on this subject, see my DVDs "Talking with our kids about sex" and "Enhancing porn literacy in young people."
As I've said before, I think people expect too much from erection drugs. If you're chronically angry with your wife, you'll still be angry after you take Viagra—and almost certainly won't get an erection.
However, when men say they plan to start using Viagra, I encourage them to test-drive it alone first. That is, use it to masturbate once or twice to see what it's like: how long does it take to get erect? How does the erection feel? What about ejaculation? Any unpleasant side effects?
This test-drive provides information and experience without the pressure of trying to please or impress a partner. It gives a guy the chance to stop sex (i.e., masturbation) right in the middle without having to explain or apologize. And he can experiment all he wants without having to think about frustrating, disappointing, or annoying someone else.
If he likes how Viagra enhances masturbation, he can try it with a partner—and again, I'd encourage them to use it a few times with low-pressure stuff like a handjob or self-stimulation, seasoned by plenty of kissing and caressing. By the time they have intercourse, they'd both know what to expect from Viagra. If he isn't telling her he's using it, at least he'd have the information before proceeding.
This approach could make other "first times" more enjoyable and relaxed. Young men could masturbate with a condom a couple of times before using one in intercourse. They'd learn how it feels, and could experiment with lube. To be really smart, I'd have these masturbating guys open the condom package after they're already excited to see what that's like. If they masturbate using lube they'd surely learn to keep a tissue or towel nearby to wipe off their hands before trying to open the package.
It's hard to experiment with oral sex alone, of course. But for women who've never experienced cunnilingus but think they soon might, they can take some lube and stimulate their vulvas—learning what kind of pressure and pace feels best. If they feel inhibited about having someone "down there," they can think about what might make them more comfortable. I'd start with the mantra that "if someone volunteers to lick me there, chances are they're planning to enjoy it." And, like a person rehearsing a new speech alone out loud, rehearsing a few instructions (like "a little slower, please" or "a tiny bit higher would be great") alone out loud can be very comforting when the time comes.
For couples in which neither partner has much experience with oral sex, I suggest starting with a partner-guided genital tour—with the lights on. This would be for educational, rather than erotic, purposes. As a sex therapist, I am continually stunned by how many people are willing to poke around nervously with various sexual behaviors in the dark, rather than putting a bit of light on the subject. Too nervous to have your body seen by your partner? Perhaps you're not ready for sex—not relaxed sex, anyway.
New toy? Get to know it (either alone or together) before you get excited, rather than springing it on an aroused partner straight out of the box. Spanking? Talk about it first—what do you each imagine you'd like about it? Some of the pleasure might be physical, some of it mental. Again, I suggest doing it first with the lights on so people can see what they're doing.
When patients ask me if they should share their fantasies with their lover, I suggest a meta-conversation first: rather than "wouldn't it be hot if your sister were here with us?," try "how do you feel about us sharing fantasies?" If a partner is interested, you could explore some details: "are there any limits (ex-lovers? relatives?)? Does one of us tell a story, do we build a story together, or are we talking one-liners here?
When I discuss the idea of test-driving or rehearsing various erotic behaviors, some patients say this approach "isn't romantic." They're absolutely right. When "romance" means everything has to be a surprise, or people need to pretend they weren't planning something, or things just happen by accident, "romance" can undermine sexual intimacy, pleasure, and relaxation.
We don't do any other important activity while pretending we weren't thinking about it, or refusing to get some helpful information first. We shouldn't disrespect sex that way, either.
Surely you've heard about the man visiting New York who walks up to a cabbie and asks "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Replies the cabbie: "Practice."
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