IU Sexploration – Fall 2013 (Part Two)

Incase you missed it, I discuss anthropologist Helen Fisher, erotic photographer Barbara Nitke, & “hooking up” in Part One.

11/4 – Dr. Kand McQueen: Breaking the Gender Dichotomy: Why Two Are Definitely Not Enough

McQueen is a public speaker spreading knowledge & societal acceptance of individuals who do not neatly fit into the categories of “male” or “female” in sex and/or gender. At this event, McQueen presented a brief overview of different transgender identities that people often confuse: cross dressers (dress as opposite sex), drag queens/kings (perform/entertain as opposite sex), gender queer (identify as neither, both, or moving between sex/gender), and transsexual (identify as the opposite sex).

Transsexual rights, or the lack thereof, were also addressed. McQueen shared stories that broke my heart; terrible injustices done to human beings simply because their gender wasn’t male OR female. For example, Robert Eads, whose experience was documented in the film Southern Comfort, was a female-to-male transsexual individual diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because of societal concerns, over two dozen doctors denied him treatment, allowing the cancer to spread and cause his death. Unfortunately, his story is but one of many.

Despite the fact that intersex condition rates may be as high as 1 in every 100, the rights of intersex individuals are rarely talked about. McQueen addressed them directly. For those unfamiliar with the term, “intersex” is used when chromosomal or anatomical variation occurs, complicating the biological distinction between male or female. Historically, doctors have often been the ones to decide which sex the child should be raised as…and their decisions have not always been healthy for the children in question. For years, biological boys born with what is called a “micropenis” (exactly what it sounds like) would have their penis and testicles amputated and be raised as girls. Doctors would then advise parents to keep this a secret, even from their child. Talk about being confused about what’s happening with your body. Plus, early surgery like this can drastically reduce genital sensitivity, robbing individuals of sexual pleasure — for life!

Overall, McQueen’s keynote address (including personal narrative) promoted education, acceptance, and social justice in a very candid and accessible manner. For a thought provoking experience on gender identity, I would highly suggest attending or scheduling a talk by Dr. Kand McQueen.

11/20 – How to Survive a Plague (Screening and Q&A with director David France)

If you keep up to date on film news, you may have heard about this Oscar-nominated documentary on the AIDS epidemic. How to Survive a Plague follows two New York-based organizations, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and their fight to find an effective treatment for HIV/AIDS.  First-time director David France had just moved into NY when the epidemic began. Although he never contracted HIV himself, he dedicated this film to the lover that he lost to the disease. Combining his own footage with clips from media coverage and other members in ACT UP & TAG, France created a raw portrayal of minority struggle and community activism.

As part of a generation that was born in the middle of the AIDS crisis, I wholeheartedly believe that every 20-something should see this movie. It’s a part of history that should not be forgotten, but yet the story has ceased to be told. Growing up, I never heard about how the government largely ignored AIDS until it was out of control and had already killed thousands. I never knew how many people in positions of power openly spoke out against AIDS victims like they didn’t even deserve to live. And I never saw the diversity of people affected or involved, because in the rural Midwest “AIDS is a gay man’s disease.” (This still seems widely believed, despite the fact that globally, more than half of the people living with HIV/AIDS are women.)

AIDS awareness and prevention continue to be overlooked in sex education and the media. That condoms don’t protect against HIV or that AIDS can be transmitted through saliva — or even by shaking hands — are just some of the still prevalent paranoid myths. On the other hand, some complacent individuals view AIDS as a battle that has already been won. (The NY Times recently reported on the increased rates of unprotected sex among gay men and how this nonchalance may factor in.) The sad truth is this: there is no vaccine and millions die every year because they cannot access or afford treatment. Despite the need to focus on prevention instead of damage control, I almost never hear about the amazing new discoveries that have been made or are still developing, like the pre- and post- exposure prophylaxis or the contraceptive vaginal ring with HIV and herpes protection that is scheduled for clinical testing in 2014.

If you have Netflix, How to Survive a Plague is available for streaming at the time of this post. Watch it. Learn about the amazing activists who made a difference. If you feel inspired, check to see if an ACT UP chapter or another organization dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS is near you.

IU Sexploration – Fall 2013 (Part One)

Each year, the Kinsey Institute partners with various student organizations and health services to provide students (and the greater community) with a series of events that celebrate knowledge of sexuality & gender. Different from years past, Indiana University’s 6th annual Sexploration was spread out over two months, making it much easier to attend.  (I still couldn’t go to everything, but I was so close.) While I’m awaiting next year, here’s a recap of my Sexploration 2013 experience.

10/1- Dr. Helen Fisher: Lust, Romance, Attachment: The Drive to Love & Who We Choose

Fisher is an anthropologist who studies love and attraction. She has written several books, including Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. She also works closely with Match.com to develop questionnaires that utilize science for finding romantic compatibility.

Fisher has derived 4 styles of human thought/behavior from compounds present in all of us: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, & estrogen/oxytocin. Forming these groups from common traits, she has observed attraction trends. (Ex: The estrogen/oxytocin group, “negotiators,” are described as intuitive and empathetic. They are generally attracted to “directors” from the testosterone group, who are ambitious and competitive.)

She also distinguishes between 3 separate drives: lust/libido, romantic attraction, and attachment. This reminded me a lot of Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, but Fisher did not use these drives to gauge the strength of a relationship. Instead, she states that while they can occur within a single pairing, a relationship may also be formed on only one or two drives. Individuals may have separate partners to meet separate needs. And a relationship can evolve in any order. (What starts as “friends with benefits” may lead to an exclusive relationship and vice versa.)

Although her recent work on personality traits kept my attention, I am much more intrigued by her older research on love from an evolutionary perspective — which unfortunately wasn’t the focus of this lecture. However, if you want to find out what style you might be, Chemistry.com offers a free questionnaire. And if you would like to learn more about Fisher’s work in general, she has done some excellent TED talks.

10/10- Barbara Nitke: American Ecstasy: A Photographic Look Behind the Scenes of the Golden Age of Porn

Nitke began her artistic career on porn sets in the early 1980s, taking promotional photos. In between scenes, she began to focus on the reality of adult film instead of what the promo materials idealized, taking photos of stars in un-airconditioned rooms (which interfered with sound quality) or moments of boredom. She later worked for mail-order fetish companies, where many previously mainstream porn stars transferred during the AIDS epidemic. This work led to her involvement with the Eulenspiegel Society where she met real-life couples to photograph more intimately.

As a fan of Nitke’s work, I was very excited for this event. She talked about her career while showing beautiful photographs from her new book American Ecstasy, her first book Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism, and other unpublished collections. When she showed her work on body suspensions, there was an audible gasp from the audience and I could feel the discomfort around me. Without missing a beat, Nitke provided a very positive and candid explanation of endorphins and the experience of pleasurable pain within a trusting environment/relationship.

Perhaps what I most appreciate about Nitke and her work is how open she is to different behaviors and ideas. She is a respectful observer, motivated by genuine curiosity, who explores sexuality through her camera. If you are interested in Nitke’s erotic photography, she offers substantial previews on her website.

10/14- Sex Ed: A Real Conversation About Sexual Hookups in College

Dr. Justin R. Garcia and Dr. Kristen Jozkowski led a very rewarding discussion on hookups. With the help of the application PollEv, the audience could even anonymously interact. Despite the fact that 65-85% of college students are “hooking up,” it quickly became clear that the term is very ambiguous. Some define it with intercourse, while others argue that kissing or touching warrants the same title. The only consistent factor is the context; lack of romantic commitment. (Although some do wonder if hookups are becoming the new first date.)

For sex positive individuals, the problem is not casual sex. The problem is a lack of communication about both pleasure and consent. In a hookup, individuals (especially women) are more uncomfortable communicating what they desire and what they find pleasurable. A gender gap also divides what people are comfortable doing in a hookup, with women being somewhat less comfortable with all activities compared to males. (Men, however, are reported as disproportionately uncomfortable giving oral sex.) When comfort levels are down, so are reports of sexual satisfaction.

More important is the issue of consent. Men and women interpret expressions of consent differently. While women use and expect verbal consent, men often use and rely on non-verbal cues such as body language. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where one person, expecting to be explicitly asked for their consent before having intercourse, continues along what the other person interprets as the “all clear.” Add in alcohol and this miscommunication gets much more pronounced, possibly attributing to the high rates of sexual assault on college campuses.

So how do we fix this? A simple answer is for women to speak up, and for men to verbally ask for consent. But this isn’t so easy for a lot of people. In our society, women are still not supposed to enjoy sex or demand their own pleasure. A persistent fear of “ruining the mood” by asking questions also exists. We need to assure ourselves and others that sex should be a pleasurable experience for all involved, and that everyone has equal rights within a sexual encounter. 

If you’re interested in more of the current research about hooking up, Jozkowski wrote a wonderful supplementary article about consent at Kinsey Confidential, The NY Times recently reported on the lack of female pleasure in particular, and ScienceDaily shared some of the reasons behind hookup behavior.

I review the documentary ‘How to Survive a Plague’ & Dr. Kand McQueen’s discussion on gender in Part Two.