And last week I saw a unicorn too.

I can’t help but interrogate attempts at benign support to help women with their potential sexual satisfaction problems through the use of faulty and piecemeal analysis and using exceptions to prove a point. Famed sex counselor doctor Ian Kerner writes last Thursday for the CNN blog that perhaps women could have sex “like a man”, she just shouldn’t. Kerner in his own words,

Sometimes we treat sex lightly, but sex doesn’t always treat us lightly in return. In biological terms, the female orgasm releases a burst of oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin helps facilitate a sense of attachment. But if there’s nothing to attachto, if there’s no deeper emotional content or meaningfulness, orgasm could become a regretful reminder of the hollowness of the sex that preceded it. Some sexolgists call this phenomenon post-orgasm regret, and it typically manifests itself in the form of sadness or anger.

As Jaclyn Friedman just said to me over gchat, “I think anyone who cites oxytocin so irresponsibly is a hack and a jackass.” Or in other words, its more complicated than that. Heather Corinna took to task the oxytocin debate rigorously a few months ago parsing the science from the actual politics of how oxytocin is used by the purity pushers to suggest that sex must happen within the context of a traditional relationship. After looking at a variety of studies she concludes that there is no way we can make any assumptions about the role that oxytocin plays in our feelings of attachment after sex. And if women are less likely to have orgasms during casual sex, how are they able to create this bond during casual sex, if the big oxytocin rush doesn’t even happen? She writes,

One of my favorite oxytocin fables is that it is why when men and women have casual sex, women are apparently thereafter waiting, lovelorn, by the phone, feeling they just lost the great love of their life after one hookup, while men apparently go skipping off casually, having experienced no feelings at all and having developed no attachment whatsoever to the woman they just slept with. That might well be so if that’s always what happened, if oxytocin was the only thing that drove or influenced any of those feelings or experiences, and if oxytocin was something that only occurred in women. But those things are not true. It’s also often suggested that it’s female orgasm that’s the big oxytocin power surge. However, more women than men are inorgasmic, and with casual sex specifically, it’s more common for women than men not to experience orgasm, especially with brand-new partners. That given, it becomes an even stranger supposition, because the roles should then be reversed, right?

Kerner goes further in his slut-shaming by suggesting that one woman (in one study from a doctor who also found this behavior in men, in fact moreso) got teh sadness post-orgasm aka the post-coital blues. Again, a very complicated and uncommon occurrence that can hardly be used to suggest that the norm for women is that they are not able to “have sex like a man.”

But my larger issue is not just the strategic use of faulty evidence but the denial of social pressure and power in how we understand and experience sex. What does “having sex like a man,” even mean? Men don’t even have sex like “men.” Many guys will tell you that the best sex is when you are invested in someone or communicating with them clearly, when you respect each other or when you have agreements as to the extent of your relationship. Communication makes sex better for all sex having parties, irrelevant of whether it is within a serious relationship or a casual connection. Kerner quotes additional research suggesting that, “female sexual arousal is more complex than a male’s and depends more intensely on factors such as relationship satisfaction, self-esteem and previous sexual experiences…” What? Last I checked knowing what is going on your relationship, having a healthy self esteem and your previous sexual experiences impact all your sexual experiences irrelevant of your gender. It is assumptions like this that also keep silent men’s sexual needs. Many, many (more than you realize) men need the same factors to feel sexual satisfaction, both long-term and short-term.

I’m not going to say that biology is not a factor in how we experience sex. I’m not a scientist. But as someone that studies the way power functions in society and as a young person who engages in casual sexual activity, I have asked myself a lot of these questions and have found time and time again they vary not only by partner, but where I am in my life, what I want out of a partnership and how I feel other people are going to respond to my sexual choices. We are impacted more by social circumstances and power than we realize and passing off faulty supposedly empirical evidence in the guise of helping women find their sexuality better is harmful for young women that are already internalizing so many mixed messages about their sexuality. These seemingly benign pieces about how women should have “sex like men,” but can’t because they are too emotional hinge on gender essentialist frameworks of understanding sexuality that just don’t effectively give the full story and focus more on slut-shaming and gender binaries. We all have feelings and we all like to fuck. How that looks is going to be different for all of us. Deal with it.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    It is true that the release of a particular chemical post-coitus does encourage cuddling afterward. Yet, the conclusions drawn here go well beyond medical fact and enter alarmist critique world, a place where we are encouraged to think that we have GONE TOO FAR! Oh, the horror.

  2. Posted December 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I, actually, AM a scientist (or at least, an advanced science student), and I can tell you this much:
    a) The function of neurotransmitters varies ENORMOUSLY depending on the circumstances. The same molecule can be responsible for both food addiction, correctly processing visual stimuli, and choosing your words when you speak. All of this “cuddle hormone”, “parenting hormone”, “aggression hormone” stuff is total garbage, and real neurobiologists admit that. This means that even if there really IS an “oxytocin rush” in the female orgasm, there’s no reason to assume that it actually causes feelings of affection in women–in all likelihood, that rush has something to do with the orgasm itself, and once that oxytocin has played its role in the orgasm, it gets reabsorbed or “put away” since it has no further use.
    b) Even if we assume both that 1) women do get these oxytocin rushes at orgasm, and 2) that said rushes actually do cause attachment, there is absolutely NO REASON to assume that this situation is “biological”. Psychology has been proving for decades that people have an incredible capacity to genuinely feel what society tells them they SHOULD feel. So it’s very likely that women who are raised in a society that insists that sex is soooo special and something they can only have with someone they love will feel loving feelings after sex, entirely because of social programming. Just because you can describe the biology of those loving feelings—oxytocin rush!–does NOT mean those loving feelings are “biological destiny”.

    • Posted December 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      You tell ‘em!

    • Posted December 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      damn. Where were you (an advanced student of science) when I was arguing about this on the Jaclyn Friedman “deconstruction” thread?

  3. Posted December 13, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Ha! If men could only have access to casual sex like women do, meaning without much effort and basically whenever they wanted to, there would be a lot less articles like this.

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