Archive for category Sex
A couple of weeks ago, The Telegraph ran an article titled “Women’s sexual fantasies less depraved than men’s“. I didn’t see the article at the time, but it’s clearly gone on to have a big second life on social networks, remaining in the top five most read articles on the site – and with a title like that, it’s not hard to see why. After all, it hits all sorts of popular myths and memes: men are pervs, women are innocent maidens, Fifty Shades of Grey is somehow revolutionary. It’s just a shame that the article itself doesn’t back it up.
First of all, despite what the article claims, this research doesn’t seem to have been published yet. The only record I can find of it is a press release on the University of Granada website, titled “A study Shows that Men and Women Have the Same Sexual Fantasies“. That’s… well, that’s precisely the opposite of what the headline says.
Even The Telegraph admits in the article itself that:
The team said there were not “significant” differences between men’s and women’s racy thoughts, but that there were subtle differences between the sexes in the scenarios that they imagined.
Just as importantly, there’s no way of saying what’s “depraved” and what isn’t (and a Telegraph journalist would hardly be my first choice to draw the line…) Men tended to report fantasizing more frequently about group sex while women said they fantasized more about submission. Why is one more “depraved” than the other?
In fact, talking about what sound like safe, fairly common sexual fantasies in terms like “depravity” is probably just about the worst way you could report on them. As the press release says:
The University of Granada researchers point out that having sexual fantasies “favors some aspects as sexual desire and arousal”. In therapeutic terms, researchers think that it is not only the presence of lack of sexual fantasies what should be considered, but also the patient’s attitude towards them.
If The Telegraph is calling people depraved for having what seem to be fairly common fantasies, is that really going to improve their attitude towards them?
Baby boom predicted next year thanks to success of Fifty Shades of Grey books, says theDaily Mail today. It’s such nonsense that I don’t really know where to be being. Let’s have a quick rundown of the problems.
- Fifty Shades of Grey did not invent sex, nor did it invent porn. There have been plenty of erotic books written for women before Fifty Shades came along. People like Jilly Cooper were best sellers decades ago, and somehow these authors didn’t inspire baby booms of their own.
- The sort of sex Fifty Shades of Grey is credited with inspiring – again, according to the Daily Mail, quoting a poll by a dating website – is going to tend to be controlled and organised. The
Twilight fanficbook does after all focus heavily on contracts between sexual partners. It stands to reason that people would be more likely to use contraception if acting out scenes from the book.
- There’s no real evidence that Fifty Shades of Grey has led to people having more sex – a few people posting “I had so much sex after reading this!” on Mumsnet isn’t really enough. Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t just magically materialise in people’s houses, they had to go out and buy it. Presumably most of these people would have bought a similar book if Fifty Shades was not available, especially if they were looking to “spice things up in the bedroom”.
- The story comes, ultimately, from one Professor Ellis Cashmore (the only professor I know of whose website has an intro video). I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but he’s professor of culture, media and sport, not demography or statistics or anything else that you might expect someone making predictions about the birth rate to be grounded in. He’s in the papers quite a lot too, for sometimes quite disconnected stories. In the past month alone, he’s explained the psychology behind penalty shootouts, the meanings of footballers tattoos, homosexuality in sport, the place of Wimbledon in British culture and the reasons Madame Tussauds is so successful. It’s not proof he’s wrong, of course, just a reason to be a bit wary that he’s suddenly leapt out of his department to give the Daily Mail a juicy story about a particularly popular book.
- Come on, seriously, this story is nonsense meant solely to drive traffic to the Daily Mail and boost Professor Cashmore’s profile. In 2010, 723,165 babies were born in England & Wales. To be statistically significant, you’d need the book to lead to tens of thousands of extra births – i.e., ones that were not planned. Even for a book that’s sold a million or so copies, that’s a lot of babies.
Journalism is hard, guys! All that “interviewing” and “researching” and “fact checking” takes time and effort. It’s much easier if you can just nick someone’s article, rearrange the words and stick a misleading headline on it!
This week’s New Scientist has an article called “Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness” by Kayt Sukel. It’s pretty interesting – it’s about a couple of studies where women masturbated or had sex inside an fMRI machine (a type of MRI which shows which parts of the brain are active at any time), which imaged the activity in their brains to try to work out what happens in at orgasm. Interestingly, the two studies found completely opposite results. One group, led by Barry Komisaruk, found that one area of the brain – known as the prefrontal cortex or PFC – became extremely active at orgasm. Another group, led by Janniko Georgiadis, found a drop in PFC activity, and in particular, they found that the part of the PFC known as the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC shut down completely.
The article discusses a couple of possible reasons for this – Georgiadis suggests that since the PFC shuts down because the brain “loses control” at orgasm and enters an altered state of conciousness, while Komisaruk suggests that the PFC lights up because brain is investing heavily in controlling fantasy and pleasure. Since their experiments were slightly different, it’s of course possible that they’re both right – in Georgiadis’s experiments, the women had their partner with them in the fMRI machine, while in Komisaruk’s experiments, the women masturbated, and it’s possible that the two lead to very different patterns of brain activity (if the PFC plays a role in fantasy and imagination, it makes sense that it would be more active during masturbation).
At the end of the article, Komisaruk suggests that perhaps “anorgasmia” (the inability to have orgasms) might be treatable by having women “teach” their brains to have the right patterns of activity (one person New Scientist quotes, Kenneth Casey, compares this idea to the placebo effect – using the power of the mind to change the effect things have on the body), but since these are very early days, it’s certainly not a solid proposal. We don’t know which way round cause and effect are in this case anyway; perhaps changing the activity of the PFC causes orgasms, or perhaps orgasms change the behaviour of the PFC, and as Georgiadis notes:
I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect
Anyway, all very interesting, but quite vague, being more theoretical than practical at the moment. Unless you’re the Daily Mail, that is!
Yes, for the Mail, these aren’t tentative – and confusing – first steps towards understanding the mental pathways that lead to orgasm, this is NEW HOPE FOR WOMEN WHO CAN’T CLIMAX. And also an excuse to show a model in her underwear miming either an orgasm or a sideways migrane. But mostly the NEW HOPE thing.
Interestingly, the Daily Mail ignores Komisaruk’s work completely – although he gets quoted at the bottom of the article, nowhere does the Mail mention his contradictory findings, presumably because that would mean that things are a tiny bit complicated and science can never be complicated!* This makes it a lot easier to pass the musings about a “cure for anorgasmia” as cold hard scientific fact, of course… but they’re not, they are just musings.
For some reason though – presumably because it’s the picture New Scientist used – they use a picture from Komisaruk’s experiment showing Sukel‘s brain, even though it shows exactly the opposite to what the Mail claims (the area in the image labeled “A” is the prefrontal cortext, and instead of being shut down it’s lit up like a Christmas tree). Not only is Daily Mail Reporter misrepresenting New Scientist‘s article, it’s doing a terrible job of it.
It’s not quite as terrible as “New theory could be “greatest discovery since chemotherapy”” or “Ten easy ways to beat cancer“, but it’s still a classic example of the press taking preliminary findings and twisting them into into “NEW HOPE” where hope may not (yet) be warranted.
* It’s also possible that the Daily Mail didn’t want to mention the possibility that people (even *gasp* women) might masturbate, but perhaps that theory’s a bit too Daily Mail Island (NSFW).
Happy new year to everyone!
I don’t normally mention TV news here, but they can slip up too. Channel 4 News yesterday ran a big, scaremongering piece about one simple statistic: 584 people with contraceptive implants became pregnant.
This might be newsworthy, except Channel 4 forgot to mention two rather important things, subsequently picked up on by the BBC.
First of all, the data in question covers 11 years, not just one year.
Secondly, over that time, the implant has been used by around 1.4 million women.
Now fair enough, presumably not everyone who got pregnant after using Implanon reported it, and contraceptive failure is always regrettable. 584 pregnancies among 1.4 million users however means that the implant did not fail in 99.95% of patients. That is very, very reliable in medical terms.
For comparison, vasectomy is 99.9% effective, an IUD is 99.8% effective, the pill is 99.7% effective (when taken properly; people missing doses means that in real life, it’s only 92% effective on average) and condoms are 98% effective (again, when used properly).
It’s always good to make sure people are completely aware of the relative risks of any type of contraceptive (and indeed any medicine), but using these 584 pregnancies as a sign that there’s something wrong with the implant, without any kind of context or an explanation, isn’t going to do this. All it will do is scare people – as Channel 4 have now realised. They’ve since released another article, “Implanon implant: what to do if you’re worried“, which explains:
You do not need to speak to your doctor unless you are very worried and need to have your mind put at rest.
As long as you can feel the implant, there is no cause for concern. The implant is still a very popular, safe and reliable method of contraception.
No method is 100 per cent effective but only a tiny number of women using the implant have got pregnant.
Good advice, but they should have put that in the actual article yesterday.
Posted by atomicspin in Conflicts of interest, If you tolerate this then your children will be next, Sex, Unpublished research on Friday, 24th December 2010
The Daily Mail and the Daily Express both have rather similiar articles today, under the headlines “Want the secret to a happy marriage? Don’t have sex before the wedding” and “The secret of a happy marriage? Save the sex for the honeymoon” respectively.
COUPLES who marry the old-fashioned way – shunning sex until after the wedding – enjoy happier marriages, a study has found.
Researchers say delaying the joy of the wedding night not only results in better relationships but also improves sex itself.
Odd, since most other studies either find no connection between sex and later relationship satisfaction or a non-causal connection (i.e. the sort of person who has sex while not married is also the sort of person who would prefer to get a divorce rather than remain in a loveless relationship, but the two are not directly related); it’s interesting that The Express and The Mail never publish articles about these studies.
The paper itself has not yet been published, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the science, apart from that by only asking married people about their sex lives – as opposed to people who cohabit or people who don’t want a long term relationship – it would seem to be impossible to tell whether there is legitimately a cause-and-effect connection between premarital sex and happiness, or whether couples who are happy and unmarried are simply more likely to remain unmarried than couples who are unhappy and looking to recapture their “spark”.*
More interesting though is the background. The research was carried out at Brigham Young University, a Latter Day Saints university with notoriously strict rules regarding the sex lives of its students, and was led by Professor Dean Busby, co-founder of the RELATE Institute specialising in marital advice, and author of a book called “Pathways to Marriage”. There are quite a few conflicts of interest of there.
Busby is, and should be, free to carry out research as he sees fit (within ethical limits, of course), just as any academic can – I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone banned from performing research because of their religious or personal views – but it would have been nice to see an acknowledgement from either paper that a university which places an absolute ban on extramarital sex and all same-sex relationships is going have a vested interest in proving that marriage is the “best” state for a relationship.
* Presumably the researchers did not ask same-sex couples at all – Brigham Young University is in Utah, where same sex marriage and civil partnerships are not just unrecognised, but specifically banned in their constitution. While this doesn’t disprove their research, it does limit its validity somewhat.
Edit: It turns out that Brigham Young University can prohibit staff from making any statement that “contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy” , as well anything deemed “unchaste” – and has used this power to dismiss staff who’ve come out in favour of same sex marriage – which puts validity of this research under more strain.
This is mostly just a a collection of thoughts that were too long for Twitter.
In an interview with Attitude magazine, Stephen Fry claimed that women do not enjoy sex, saying “The only reason women will have sex with [men] is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want“. The evidence he gave to back up his assertion?
“Of course a lot of women will deny this and say, ‘Oh, no, but I love sex, I love it!’ But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?
“Gay men are the perfect acid test. If they want to get their rocks off, they go into a park where they know they can do it.”
Well, luckily, there’s a nice big data set we can use to test Fry’s claims. Recently, the dating site OKCupid performed a survey of its users to analyse the how the dating habits and sex lives of gay and bisexual users varied from those of straight users. Obviously this will not be a perfectly unbiased survey – people who are members of dating sites are perhaps more likely to be looking for sexual partners than average, for instance. Still, it’s a very big sample – 3.2 million people in fact – and the bias should affect gay people as well as straight people.
If Stephen Fry is right, we should find two things. Firstly, that gay men would have way more sexual partners than straight women (and indeed straight men), and secondly that gay women would essentially be celibate. After all, if women don’t enjoy it, lesbian couples have no reason to have sex.
In fact, here are the results. Gay men have had, on average, 6 partners. Straight men have had, on average, 6 partners. Gay women have had, on average, 6 partners. Straight women have had, on average, 6 partners.
There is no statistically significant difference between the sex lives of men and women, nor between gay people and straight people. Stephen Fry’s comments are simply not backed up by the science.
Edit: Stephen Fry claims to have been misquoted. The journalist who interviewed Fry on the other hand has said “he delivered [the comment] with certainty and it was clearly something he’d thought about.” It’ll be interesting to see who turns out to be right.
Here’s another game of “spot the difference”.
Headline in the Telegraph:
First sentence of that article:
Having a large number of female siblings makes men no less heterosexual but their mannerisms and body language may be seen as less butch than those who have been brought up amid the rough and tumble of a male dominated household.
If you answered “Butch and masculine is not always the same thing as sexy”, you’d be right.
In fact, it gets worse. The study in question (paywalled – here’s the press release) didn’t look at humans at all, but rats, and found that males raised in largely female litters mounted females less often – though interestingly, the number of times the rats actually mated, instead of simply mounting the female then falling off straight away, was the same regardless of how they were brought up.
Once again, the psychology of animals is not necessarily the same as that of humans. The study suggests the difference in mating may be caused by rats with many sisters smelling different, or finding less “novelty” in female rats. Nothing in this study shows that men with sisters are less attractive or less masculine than those without, and it’s dishonest of the Telegraph to suggest otherwise.
Damn, I wish I hadn’t wasted the headline “Sexing up” yesterday.
“School children face GCSE sex test… at the age of 11“, according to yesterday’s Mail, while its stablemate Metro tells us “Schools to teach ‘sex GCSE’“. If you just went by the headlines, you might assume that this means 11 year old children are doing an intensive GCSE-level course on the details of sexuality – you don’t have to be especially cynical to suspect that might be a load of rubbish.
In fact, both stories revolve around the Level 1 Award in Sexual Heath Awareness offered by the Northern Council for Further Education. According to the NCFE, the course takes all of 9 hours to teach, and is aimed at “pre-16″ children. Now, “pre-16″ could mean an 11 year old, but it could equally mean a 14 or 15 year old and, sure enough, the Mail admits deeper in its article:
The Department for Education has also agreed to give schools public funding to teach the qualification to 14-year-olds, but it could in theory be offered to pupils as young as 11.
So any schools that do provide it to children that young do so outside the DfE, and it seems unlikely that headteachers would choose to burden 11 year olds, fresh out of primary school, with extra exams anyway.
Yesterday, a couple of news outlets reported that a neuroscientist, Prof. Gina Rippon, claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times (annoyingly paywalled) that the differences between the brains of men and women are overstated, and that neuroscientists are often naive about the damaging effects their research can have when hyped up by newspapers – there’s a particularly interesting debate on the subject between her and Prof. Robert Winston from the Today Programme if you’re interested. So far, so reasonable. After all, she’s hardly the only person who’s made that claim lately.
Today however The Daily Telegraph carries not one but two attempted rebuttals of Rippon’s claims: “Why would society want men to be blind to their worn socks?” by Michael Deacon, and “Do men and women really think alike?” by Cristina Odone. Who are these people? Science journalists? Renowned neuroscientists? Leading psychologists?
Three-quarters of French people report some dissatisfaction with their sex lives. How does the Daily Express report on this story? With grace? With sensitivity? With tact?
No, of course not. Instead, it runs with the headline “Frenchmen admit they’re a flop in the bedroom“
FOR A country that prides itself on being a nation of lovers, French egos took a blow yesterday when it was revealed that three-quarters of them have miserable sex lives.
I can’t find the survey itself online, but according to the article, the survey in fact found that around a quarter of those polled (men and women, not just men) reported turning down sex because they were stressed or unwell, and half reported they sometimes (but apparently not all the time, or even necessarily often) had “no desire”.* That’s not “Frenchmen are a bad in bed” (sour grapes much, Express?), that’s “French people sometimes experience sexual dysfunction, which is not exactly uncommon among older people in any country”. Pointing and laughing at someone else’s health problems is not funny or dignified.
The comments by the way are classy. There are two on this article:
PS. There seems to be some churnalism going on with this story. The Daily Mail‘s article is almost exactly the same as The Telegraph‘s with the last couple of lines of The Daily Express‘s added on at the end. As far as I can tell, the story went Telegraph > Mail > Express.
* Without looking at the survey, I can’t tell whether those groups are mutually exclusive – in other words, whether people can be in both groups or not. If they’re not, then simply adding the quarter to the half to make three quarters is wrong and overstates the problem.