Sexual Intelligence, written and published by Marty Klein, Ph.D.
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Each month, Sexual Intelligence® examines the sexual implications of current events, politics, technology, popular culture, and the media.

Dr. Marty Klein is a Certified Sex Therapist and sociologist with a special interest in public policy and sexuality. He has written 6 books and 100 articles. Each year he trains thousands of professionals in North America and abroad in clinical skills, human sexuality, and policy issues.

Issue #215 – January 2018


The Four Challenges Couples Face In 2018

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Every year at this time I look ahead, anticipating the challenges couples will face regarding sex, love, and intimacy.

In 2018 these will undoubtedly include infertility (and the consequences of fertility treatment); erection problems (including troubling new ways it's being defined); managing menopause; and anorgasmia or painful sex in women and men.

I'm also aware of the cruel impact of criminalizing abortion; continued censorship of sex education; the barbaric punishment of teen sexual expression; the ever-expanding sex offender databases that protect no one; and the effects of health and aging on sexuality (in an increasingly older, and therefore less healthy, population).

Summing it all up, we can condense most of the sex/love/intimacy challenges that people will face next year into these four categories: Infidelity; Pornography; Desire Discrepancies; and Conflict Management.

That's not to minimize the seriousness of other issues, but these four involve aspects of them all (including guilt, shame, autonomy, body image, fear of being known, childhood trauma, and existential issues).

These four challenges are all driven by urgent concerns about what's "normal," well-defined cultural myths and social pressures, and rigid gender stereotypes (still!).

And as the internet is increasingly influential in our lives, the definition and complexity of all four of these has changed. We have more choices than ever before, including the interface with more potential partners than ever. As the internet instantaneously brings us the entire world (past, present, and even future), our own lives and relationships often seem terribly pale and limited in comparison.

And with so much of daily life happening online, most people's communication and conflict management skills have eroded—or did not fully develop in the first place. For most people, smartphone use does undermine intimacy and sexuality.

Ultimately, I see these topics as four sides of the same coin. In all of them, difficulties frequently degenerate into struggles to determine who is right, who is a good person, whose definitions of things shall prevail, and who will control the narrative of what has happened—and therefore what needs to happen now.

When people lack sufficient curiosity about how their partner feels and why they want what they do, coupled with insufficient communication skills and the ability to disagree productively, the result is relationship gridlock. Which weakens sexual connections, of course.

Couples coming for therapy often want me to understand that they definitely do love each other—as if that can be a substitute for skills, patience, empathy, self-discipline, and a genuine comfort with the messy business of sexuality. I'm afraid it isn't.

* * *

Unfortunately, most therapists get very little (or very poor) training on sexual issues such as desire and pornography. Some therapists actually reinforce harmful myths in their patients, like "Secure attachment always leads to strong sexual desire," and "Pornography use is a form of infidelity."

Other therapists see sex addiction in almost every conflict (such as in infidelity, interest in 'kinky sex', porn use, going to sex workers, contrasting sex drives), which typically punishes men without creating sexual intimacy or satisfaction for the couple.

To remedy this, I'll be offering a monthly webinar series for professionals starting in January. The topics: infidelity, pornography, contrasting desires, and conflict management skills. For more information, just go to

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Underpants In a Painting—Always About Sex?

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New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is now displaying a painting that some people don't like. In fact, some 10,000 people have signed a petition to do SOMETHING about the damn picture.

It's the 1938 painting Therese Dreaming by Polish-French artist Balthus. It shows a 12-year-old girl relaxing in a simple rustic room, eyes closed, looking away from us. One leg is propped higher than the other in a common, comfortable posture. Since she's wearing a long peasant-style skirt, the viewer can see her underpants between her thighs.

As a consumer, I'm not a fan of painting. I prefer Bach to da Vinci, Shakespeare to Van Gogh, and Hepburn to Warhol.

But I know the demonization of art when I see it. That demonization is almost always about sex. And frequently about protecting children.

Mia Merrill's complaint is a familiar one, tarted up with today's politics. The painting is "undeniably romanticizing the sexualization of a child. If you are a part of the #metoo movement or ever think about the implications of art on life, please support this effort."

"Shocked" to see the painting depicting a young girl "in a sexually suggestive pose," she notes that "Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations…in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, the Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children."

Merrill says she doesn't demand the painting be destroyed (how too too tolerant of her), she just wants it removed from view or paired with editorial comment. She'd be satisfied "if the Met included a message as brief as, 'Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus's artistic infatuation with young girls.'"

So to summarize:

• The picture needs "clarification." Viewers must be told about the picture, rather than being allowed to consume it unaided.

• Displaying it supports "voyeurism" ("perhaps unintentionally"!). It's wrong if art creates the wrong kind of response in consumers.

• The painting should be "removed from view" or paired with a message that "some viewers find this piece offensive." So consumers shouldn't have the chance to think about it or discuss it with others, coming to their own conclusions about its merit, meaning, or any larger issues.

Merrill's worst statement is describing the subject in a "sexually suggestive pose." Most people would just see a girl on a chair daydreaming next to her cat. Some would see interesting colors, lighting, shadows and textures. Apparently Merrill is one of those people who sees sex everywhere. Censors always do.

Where you or I might see casual affection between two male friends walking down the street, some see sex, and feel assaulted. Where you might ignore a tampon commercial, those uncomfortable with sex feel assaulted. Where you might be bored with a fart joke on late night TV, they feel assaulted. That's a lot of feeling assaulted.

If you're not obsessed with sex, you wouldn't even consider these three things part of a single thread. You might casually observe "friendly people + health product + dumb joke." But they perceive "sex + sex + sex." And for them, it never stops; people who obsessively construct erotic imagery (which they claim they dislike) never have a nice day.

Like kids in a candy store or at a scary movie, people obsessed with erotic imagery are simply not emotionally equipped to ignore what they see. These people deserve sympathy, but they don't get mine because they deal with their upset in such an aggressive way. They want to cleanse the public sphere of sexuality—and they imagine the public sphere as practically the whole world. It includes Greek statues in City Hall, radio ads for birth control, string bikinis on the beach, vanity license plates, lube in the drugstore—the list is almost endless.

Most of us want to end violence and exploitation, especially around sexuality. It's difficult to know exactly how to do that, and so we sometimes reach out in odd, unproductive places. Like Merrill, we can resemble the drunk guy looking for his car keys at midnight under a streetlight. Is that where he dropped them? No, he dropped them over there in the dark, but the light's much better here under the streetlight.

I'm tired of some people seeing sex everywhere, feeling threatened, and wanting to protect themselves (and everyone else) by stripping away and dumbing down the world's art, fashion, words, products, and, ultimately, eroticism itself.

I'm also tired of people simplistically claiming that practically everything can lead to sexual violence, "the patriarchy," or "rape culture." In our attempt to be insightful about sexism and clearly against actual violence (both great steps forward), we're speeding toward a Stalinist suspicion of almost everything: anything connected with gender, beauty, yearning, childhood, playfulness, courtship, pleasure, underwear, and yes, sexuality itself.

We can strip the world of The Wizard of Oz and Philip Roth, the Marx Brothers and casual Fridays, Taylor Swift and Janis Joplin, Princess Leia and Princess Diana—but the world would be far poorer than it is now.

More importantly, it would be no safer.

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Birth Control—Orphan Child of Sex?

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Millions of Americans have a bizarre attitude toward pregnancy: "If it happens, it happens."

I do understand people who want a child. I also understand people who don't want a child. I even understand people who definitely want a baby someday, but not now. This is all true regardless of whether people already have kids.

Whether or not to have a baby is the single biggest decision an adult can make. It affects you—male or female—during pregnancy, for 18 years after that, and actually, for most people, until they die. It affects your primary relationship, your sex life, your job/career, your finances, where you live, and who your friends are.

The difference between having a child and not having a child is huge. It's not like the difference between, say, coffee and tea. Or a PC and a Mac. It's huge, right?

So I always find it disconcerting when a patient says, "If it happens, it happens." They usually explain, "We're not trying to make it happen, but we're not preventing it, either."

While I'm working to keep my feelings off my face when I'm told that, I do ask people to amplify. Here are some typical things men and women say:

"I'm not so sure I/she can get pregnant anyway."
"Birth control is such a hassle."
"We're just letting nature decide."
"Talking about it is totally unromantic—it just ruins the mood."
"It's unfair that it's all on the woman. Why isn't there a really good male method?"

There is a 'really good male method,' of course. Vasectomy is incredibly effective, incredibly safe, and incredibly practical. And while a half-million American men get one each year (generally middle- and upper-class men), that number could be much higher with just a bit of cultural support.

It's amazing to me that people put so much effort into controlling their lives—watching their diet and exercise, tracking their finances, protecting their passwords—and then pretend they're powerless in this crucial area.

To paraphrase, they're saying "We aren't comfortable making a decision, so we're leaving the outcome to chance. We'll accept whatever chance hands us–even though the two outcomes (pregnancy and not) are wildly different."

People who say some version of this are telling the truth: they aren't comfortable making this enormous decision. They'd rather tolerate the ambiguity and unpredictability than experience the discomfort of confronting this serious adult stuff: Maybe we want two different futures. Maybe it's time to say goodbye to a dream. Maybe I/we won't have everything I/we want. Maybe my desires have changed—maybe I'm not who I've always been.

Playwrights and other artists tell us that people have tried to cope with (and avoid) these feelings for thousands of years. Today, various strategies include buying lots of stuff, getting a new partner, changing countries or careers, and getting involved in spirituality or religion. Some people even find peace through one of these methods, whether short-term or long-term.

Trying to avoid facing complicated existential truths (like 'no one can have everything') using a sexual vehicle puts a person at risk for the most serious consequences—having an unplanned child. If someone isn't going to confront their life head-on, they're probably better off, say, buying a Porsche, growing dreadlocks, changing careers, or learning to play the flute. Becoming a Life Coach or a politician are also options.

* * *

Some cultures resist the idea that people should actually shape their own fate. In most Muslim countries, health workers have learned that most people reject the idea that "You can choose how many children to have." It's more acceptable to say "God, of course, chooses how many children we will have. But we can decide when to have them."

Some Americans resist family planning because it isn't "natural." Interestingly, they don't apply that same reasoning to other health issues—like cancer, the common cold, chronic pain, or cataracts. There's nothing "natural" about intervening to ameliorate these things and improve our lives. There's a double standard about what's "natural" that only applies to sex.

In fact, that neatly describes the Religious Right's position about sexuality—a double standard.

Ultimately, social conservatives and political Christians are against birth control for the same reason that they're against abortion, the morning-after pill, adult entertainment, comprehensive sex education, and marriage equality.

They're against sexual autonomy. They're against people using common tools to make sex safer, more comfortable, or more enjoyable. Limiting sexually-oriented information, health care, and entertainment is their way of limiting how much people can control their lives—and, by the way, separate sex from reproduction.

When people say "Pregnancy? If it happens, it happens," they're buying into a narrative of powerlessness—one promoted relentlessly by social conservatives. Not surprisingly, of America's six million pregnancies each year, half are unintended.

Unintended pregnancies are as "natural" as car accidents—and even more preventable. Prevention would start with people being honest with themselves about who they are and what they want, and then discussing that with their partner. Prevention continues with the understanding—sad but true—that adulthood involves closing door after door. After that, a variety of contraceptive technologies await.

Meanwhile, let's remember that intercourse is the only kind of sex that requires birth control. Regarding possible conception, ambivalent couples take note: there are lots of ways to make love where the outcome is absolutely predictable.

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