Monday, January 28, 2013

Circumstantial evidence.

A vaginal photoplethysmograph. It knows what you like.
Even if you disagree.
I got about fifteen pages into Sex at Dawn before giving up. Partly because it seemed to be breaking down "monogamy is natural and therefore good" only to replace it with equally narrow thinking about "polyamory is natural and therefore good."  Partly because the opening chapter is viciously snarky about how everyone is unhappy and bad at sex these days because of their stupid monogamy delusion, which, even though I'm poly, grates on me like condescending sandpaper.  Partly because some of their evidence for universal bad-at-sex-ness is the frequency of Viagra use and female sexual dysfunction--apparently physical genital problems are just proof of your hang-ups, man.

Partly because there's a part where they make the argument that a woman's "copulatory vocalizations" are supposed to excite other men and invite them to have sex with her too, and... NO and EW and WHAT.

But mostly, I gave up on Sex at Dawn because it's full of a problem a lot of sex research suffers from--the love of circumstantial evidence.


Want to know why women moan during sex?  (Or, for starters, whether all women moan during sex?)  What would your first step in answering this question be?

Well, if you're a Serious Sex Researcher, some approaches you might take:
• Watch female chimps having sex.
• Gather media about fictional women making sex noises.
• Dissect female cadavers, searching for the sex-noise node of the brain.
• Read anthropological accounts of the sex-noise practices of women in isolated hunter-gatherer societies.
• Search the literature for historical mentions of women making sex noises.
• Hook up men and women's genitalia to "arousal-measuring" equipment and scan their brains while they listen to sex noises.
• Speculate at length about the sex noises of "cavewomen."

And one approach you would never, ever take because it's just hopelessly unscientific:
• Ask some women "hey, why do you moan during sex?"


Don't get me wrong, I don't think sex science should consist entirely of self-reports, or that cross-cultural and biological perspectives don't have a place in it.  But too often, sex research seems to consist of everything but listening to people about their own experiences.  It's the meticulous aggregation of every possible piece of circumstantial evidence--and no questions for the eyewitnesses.


I have a special hatred for vaginal photoplethysmography, and not just because it's very hard to type.  This is a device that measures bloodflow in the vagina, and therefore purportedly the sexual arousal of the vagina's owner.  Except that study after study shows that subjects' self-reports of their arousal tend to correlate very badly with their photoplethingy readings.  The photothingy says they're aroused, the human beings say they're not feeling a thing.  Naturally, this is reported in the pop-sci press as "Vaginal Blood Flow Not A Reliable Indicator Of Arousal, New Method Needed."

Haha, I'm just messing with you.  I've never seen that headline.  It's always reported as "Women Not Aware Of Their Own Arousal."  (The first link opens with chimps, too!  Oh, those fucking chimps.  Fascinating creatures and all that, but I don't understand the compulsion to study chimps to understand human sexuality, when actual humans are readily available.)  You couldn't get away with this in other branches of science.  If you measured water ice at 20ºC and declared "my thermometer is perfect; this ice must be defective," you'd get laughed out of the lab.  But when it comes to confirming gross old "they don't know what they really want" stereotypes about women, anything goes.

(Don't worry, though; if you have a penis, its degree of erection will also be trusted over your word.  Because no one ever got a hard-on when they didn't want to have sex, right?)



I'm a science nerd at heart.  I like the idea of applying science to sex.  (I'm still trying to find the right excuse to post the pictures from that time we measured my Kegel Power.  About half a kilo, by the way.)  I have no ambition to replace rigorously analyzed data and reproducible double-blind experiments with poems about lilies unfolding.  I think expanding our knowledge of human sexuality is a noble goal in biology, psychology, and sociology, and objective measures are necessary to achieve that.

But I also think that if you want to study humans, study humans.  If you want to study people's feelings, ask them about their feelings.  Cadavers and fMRIs and chimps should be secondary tools to validate what you learn from humans, not the other way around.

In nursing, the definition of pain is simply "whatever the patient says it is," and yet we've still been able to create a massive body of work about the causes, effects, and control of pain.  Our understanding of pain is human and subjective, and still manages to produce precise and meaningful data.  There's no reason we can't study sex this way as well.

137 comments:

  1. In my field, folklore, we are all about the "just ask people" method of fieldwork. However, when it comes to sex studies, things get complicated. First, there's a huge stigma on studying sex in the academy unless you're actually in sex research or sex education. Because we're Serious Scholars doing Serious Business, right? *eye roll*

    Second, it's really difficult to get proposals about sex through the Institutional Review Board. Even the "we just want to talk to/hang out with people" proposals that don't have to do with sex, like what we generally do in oral history and anthropology, are a pain to get approved. I'm all for more "just talk to people about sex" studies, but there are so many institutional hurdles it's kinda ridiculous.

    Finally, any scholar of culture can tell you that people are largely ignorant of the whole picture when it comes to understanding their own lives, motivations, and feelings. Yes, people can tell you valuable things about their own lives, and frequently, the only way to understand their lives is to just bloody ask them about their lives. But the role of the scholar is to put those facts into dialogue with bigger-picture patterns, contextual information that the being-studied-people may not have access to or may not have thought about, and so on.

    Anyway, I'm largely in agreement with your points in this post. I just wanted to point out a few of the hurdles scholars of sex face. I'm hoping to someday contribute more to this field. It might have to wait til I get tenure, though, depending on how sex research is viewed wherever I end up.

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    1. Also: Humans lie. Like frantically-lying liar-things. Particularly if it's about a subject that is at all touchy, or which has a culturally-determined "right" answer. Even if you promise them anonymity, they don't so much stop lying as they begin lying in a totally different direction. Best of all, even if you miraculously find a group of people who have absolutely no shame and are dedicated to being totally honest with the researcher, some number of them will be lying to themselves and will have absolutely no idea how or why or about what.

      They will also lie cooperatively, particularly if you're an outsider and/or they're young enough to think it's funny. Margaret Mead once wrote an entire book on, among other things, the sexual freedom of young women in the indigenous cultures of Fiji. It turned out to be 100% bullshit. Mead's notes were fine -- she just made the mistake of getting her information from a group of teenagers, who thought it would be hilarious to wind up the anthropologist lady.

      In short, it's easy to get dump trucks full of data on "what people say when you ask them what they think about sex". It's just ridiculously hard to get data on what people actually think about sex.

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  2. This is only tangentially related to your post but, how do you measure Kegel power? I am intrigued!

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    1. I've decided it's like this: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdemq2g7zL1rqb5j8o1_500.png.

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    2. Dangling static weight capacity. We used a buttplug as a "handle" and added AA batteries to an attached bag to increment the weight.

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    3. Dangling static weight capacity. We used a buttplug as a "handle" and added AA batteries to an attached bag to increment the weight.

      How do you control for the coefficient of friction on the surface of the buttplug?

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    4. That's really more of a Kegel Force you're measuring, I think.

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    5. I was going to ask "A kilo of what?" since a True Science Geek wouldn't confuse a unit of mass (The kilogram) with a unit of force (The Newton, or the old Imperial Pound), but then we start getting exclusionary and kinkier than thou.

      Also, did you take into account the weight of the "handle" and the bag? And remember, if you can't reproduce it, it's not Science!

      Ah, the joys of the Scientific Method.

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    6. A kilogram of mass, my use of the word "power" was figurative rather than in the physics sense, and yes we did weigh the handle and bag what do you take us for.

      :p

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  3. This whole post is really interesting. I agree with you broadly about Sex and Dawn, although I dislike the book for different reasons. But I do want to give an alternate point of view on the whole self-report thing, one which I'm sure you've considered.

    I think scientists who study human biology, or even just human physiological phenomena, have spent years shattering the common misconception that we humans have any idea what is going on inside our own bodies. I mean, look at vision. Scientists in the 70s trying to replicate vision in artificially intelligent machines figured that sight would be a fairly simple problem, since human sight seems to us like the only way to interpret the visible spectrum. They quickly discovered, as you're aware, that the problem of translating a two-dimensional canvas of light into a three-dimensional interpretation of the world is immensely difficult. Our intuition into our own neural processes gave us no help in understanding the complex phenomenon of sight.

    I guess what I'm saying is I wouldn't consider the sex-haver the "eyewitness" to the crime. I'd consider her/him the blindfolded victim who 1) didn't get a good look at the perp and 2) is actually more likely to give unreliable testimony because of his/her firsthand involvement (emotional, social, psychological) with the event. (This is not to say that I'm equating sex to violent crime. I'm just piggybacking off your analogy to "circumstantial evidence" and "the eyewitness".)

    The problem, of course, is that this kind of stark division between The Physiological and The Psychosocial isn't going to lead to a really satisfying understanding of sex, since sex is both deeply physiological and deeply psychosocial, and we need to learn how to unite the two. But I'm not convinced that simply asking people what they experience during sex is really going to accomplish that unity.

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    1. I think we can all agree that if you want to know what goes on in someone's body, investigate that person's body, don't ask them. However, if you want to know what people prefer and what makes them happy, asking them is a flawed method (since people can be self-delusional and what-not) but it's probably way better than measuring blood flow throw various body parts or looking at apes.

      If you want to know what causes swelling of the labia, check the labia, if you want to know what someone finds sexy, asking them is probably the least bad way to find out.

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  4. I definitely agree with this. For some weird reason, sex, gender, and relationships seem to be areas where people who say they're doing science completely forget how to do science. Like, if you think something is always true, and then you come upon evidence that it's not always true, you don't get to say 'well, that evidence should get it's act together, then!'. But with things like gender 'differences', that happens so much.

    And, it's bad enough that "sex research seems to consist of everything but listening to people about their own experiences." It's worse when that research is then used to tell people that their experiences are wrong.

    Also, why is the 'fact' that cavemen did something considered any kind of good argument for what we should be doing? Like, things we do differently from cavemen - government, economy, technology... But for sex it's suddenly like 'well, cavemen'.

    I think vaginal photoplethysmography and measuring erections and stuff is kind of another issue, in that it's confusing physical and mental arousal. Or, rather, it's acting as though physical arousal is the only kind. Like, I know about myself that I can get physically aroused while not mentally aroused at all (and probably vice-versa, though since I don't have either a penis or a vaginal photoplethysmograph-thingy, I can't be sure). And, I agree that studying physical arousal is interesting and useful too - for one thing, I'm guessing people with the mental-but-not-physical situation might want to figure out a way to fix that. But, when the studies then act like physical arousal is the only kind, then there's problems. (One rather horrid problem being the 'it's not rape because you enjoyed it' thing).

    I think this might be a symptom of our cultural issue with ignoring that stuff that happens in the mind is, in fact, real, and not something people 'make up' or 'imagine' or something.

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    1. I read The Naked Ape when I was in college, partly because my father had read it when he was in college and said it was interesting and thought-provoking. And it is. It's also hilariously wrong in several places.

      The book was written in the early 1960's, when homosexuality was still illegal, monogamy was considered to be the norm, and no-fault divorce didn't exist. He argued that humans had evolved to be naturally monogamous, and that the emotional bond between humans who'd had sex with each other was very strong, because so few marriages ended in divorce. Surprise, surprise, once the divorce laws changed, his statistics became rapidly obsolete!

      In general, the book was written assuming that Western culture as of 1963 is The Norm for humans, "because other forms of society are either very stagnant, or are changing to become like our society, therefore our societal model is the 'fittest' by Darwin's definition." Yes, he actually said that, or at least words to that effect. About the only really smart idea in the book was that because humans evolved from apes, the behavior of early hominids was probably similar to the behavior of other primates, with modifications over time to fit our adoption of hunting as a strategy of obtaining food.

      I hear his 1992 sequel, The Human Zoo, attempts to explain and correct the weird flaws in the first book, but I'm not sure whether I want to read it. I'm having too much fun laughing at The Naked Ape.

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    2. The Naked Ape is absolutely the model for all those evopsych folks who want to get taken seriously just because they're using all their cool sciencey words and shit -- regardless of whether they've actually done any meaningful research or analysis.

      I first read it when I was nine or ten. I'm pretty sure I'm still getting over some of that book...

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  5. Oh how I hear you. Just last week I read Carolyn Kaufman's popular online tips for writing good romances, and most of her texts rubbed me the wrong way like whoa. There was evolutionary psychology - all on the basis of, that's right, how "cavemen" and "cavewomen" supposedly lived -, the assumption that everyone is looking for their one, true love to "complete" them, and lots of other un-fun stuff. But if someone has a degree in psychology and talks like their opinions are facts, they must be right!

    And it bothered me so much that as far as I know no one called the author out on it, so although it's not about the same thing, this post makes me feel a lot better. Thank you!

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    1. I hate that idea that college-educated people can do no wrong. It's almost as bad as the idea that college-educated people are always wrong by virtue of having gone to those Librul Colleges and having their heads filled with That There Librul Propaganda.

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  6. I think you may have gotten the wrong impression from just reading the beginning. The whole book is not based on circumstantial evidence. Several of the later chapters do discuss multiple studies that asked people about their feelings, as well as anthropological research on cultures (present-day and historical) with much different sexual and living arrangements and ways of talking about those arrangements.

    The balance of circumstantial evidence to direct interviews may still not be to your taste but the book is not totally lacking in listening to people about their own experiences.

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    1. To my mind, Sex at Dawn ... tells a story more than it presents a case. I really enjoyed the story, but the scientist in me found their failure to present any counter evidence and explain why they felt it wasn't convincing to be ... well, an indication the book was more pop than sci, no matter how much I wanted it to be right.

      Then I found Sex at Dusk, which tears quite a lot of Dawn's evidence to pieces. Note: the author of Sex at Dusk is clearly outraged at what she considers basically a book "justifying male fantasy" - but in spite of the fact she's horribly missed the point and the tone of her writing made it extremely hard work for me to read it, a lot of the criticisms she makes seem to be valid.

      In the end, having read both, I was left with "about the only things I can be sure of are that pair bonding's been pretty common through societies, that as a species we've pretty much always been bad at monogamy, and that many different ways of reconciling these two facts have been used to cohesive effect".

      Which mostly puts me back where I started before I started reading either of them, except for the part where I can point out acceptance of out-of-pair-bond interactions either tacit or explicit as happening in multiple societies, which makes it harder for those trying to be revisionist about whether mine has done that historically to stand their ground without looking foolish.

      I've stopped recommending people read Dawn as a result, because I wouldn't consider it balanced without them reading Dusk as well and I can't really ask people to do that because ye gods the bile in that book ...

      Oh well. "If it seems too good to be true ..."

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  7. I think that, very simply, you sell books and newspapers with stories heavy in conflict. So for mono/ poly, you can never say, "People vary, and people also change over time. Some people can be very happy with X, others can be very happy with Y and still others are happy with X or Y depending on the context and the other individuals involved. Meanwhile, human sexuality has such a complicated evolutionary history that at some point, almost any sexual strategy would have been useful for survival and/ or reproduction, so pretty much anything is natural."

    You have to say, "This particular way of living is the only way, suckers!" or "Everything you know is wrong!" and it helps if you condemn great swathes of the population as you go.

    One exception that cracks me up (I'm easily amused by bad maths) is where you see it repeated, quite seriously, that straight men have had an average of 8 sexual partners and straight women average 4 (or whatever the numbers are). Of course, it is okay to describe what folks report as an uncomplicated truth here, because it makes for a story about two genders who behave very differently. Only any difference (except a very slight difference to account for a gender imbalance in the population) is mathematically impossible. Either they've forgotten to ask an extremely busy woman or someone is telling fibs.

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    1. *does the math with diagrams a few times, stares, does it some more*

      Do you think they're including people who report no sex partners at all in the average? Or do they get taken out of the pool, because they're only discussing the average sex partners of people who are having sex?

      Imagine four men and four women in the world. Alice has sex with Alan, Barbara has sex with Bill, Cathy has sex with Bill, Dorcas has sex with Bill. Charlie and Daniel have sex with no one. The average number of sexual partners among Women Having Sex With Someone is 1: the average number of sexual partners among Men Having Sex With Someone is 2, because Charlie and Daniel have been excluded from the population studied, which consists of Straight Folks Who Have Sex.

      That is the only possible way I can make the numbers make any sense, as reported.

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    2. Or they're confusing the median and the mean.

      Although I am very curious about how many of the men's sex partners going into that average are sex workers. If the fraction is significant (I have no idea) and sex workers tend to not be included in such surveys, that's your "extremely busy woman" who is not being averaged in.

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    3. The Goldfish - Yep, the "catchy headline" factor is definitely big here. Just like headlines about "important protein in liver cancer isolated" get transmuted into "POSSIBLE CURE FOR CANCER," headlines about gender differences and sex tend to turn into "MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT; HUMANS AND CHIMPS ARE THE SAME."

      I think the math problem with the number of sexual partners is more likely a product of "men are studs, women are sluts" than a cause. There's a lot of pressure on men to overreport and women to underreport.

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    4. I think there are various questions raised by the maths, questions that would be interesting to ask straight men and women; Would you ever be tempted to lie about the number of sexual partners? If so, in what contexts? Why? Do you ever judge other men or women by the number of sexual partners they've had? etc. But the results might be more insightful than sensational.

      (I think I find this interesting because I really struggle with the idea of lying about this - except perhaps to your mother. Certainly not to an anonymous researcher. I've known female friends who cut the number back dramatically - one from "genuinely lost count" to three, including two previous husbands, for the benefit of a man she was discussing marriage with! I understand why teenagers lie about whether they've had sex or not, but grown ups? Baffling.)

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    5. Well, I'm in the rather ridiculous position of not being able to remember just how far things went with a couple of my decades-ago partners. Like, I know we messed around, but I can't recall whether either of us came. (It's not because I was drunk or anything, either.) And I refuse to count only PIV (well, of course if a researcher asked specifically about PIV I'd answer in the terms of the question, but in my own estimation), because I'm a firm believer that if it would have counted as sex with a woman, it should count as sex with a man. So anyway, I'd count those guys just to be sure, but a lot of folks wouldn't -- quite possibly not the guys themselves!

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    6. I recall one study that was able to solve this problem, although it was so long ago that I can't recall it. Basically, it has to do with how certain groups of women (namely sex workers) get left out of these studies on "average numbers of partners" so the numbers are then higher for the men then the women. Once sex workers are accounted for, then the numbers are able to align.

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    7. http://www.pnas.org/content/97/22/12385.full

      Well, my google fu skills paid off pretty quickly.
      -Jeremy

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    8. Apparently the slut/stud thing does play into it. I'm in a social psych class right now, and my prof was telling us about an experiment (can't recall the authors, I'll have to look it up) where telling the experimental group that they were hooked up to a lie detector fixed the disparity - men ended up reporting fewer partners and women, more.

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  8. The idea of studying chimps to learn about human sex is to get an evolutionary perspective to see what roles certain types of sexual behaviors play in other primates, and what roles those behaviors might have played in human evolution or at an unconscious human level. Chimps are probably not the best model though, because there are other primates with social systems and sexual practices much more like our own (bonobos, macaques). Their claim about human female sexual noises is based on macaques I think, but I guess what they might not have said is that female macaques will moan more and louder when they copulate with a larger male, and when their genitals are more swollen, so it could very well be just a reaction of pleasure rather than serving some ulterior function.

    I don't generally think that the problem is in the methods themselves but in the interpretation of those methods. Like your example about the physical versus perceived arousal, its not the finding is inherently wrong or is not telling us something, but its interpretation and presentation is probably wrong.

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    1. Well, macaques also have tails, so I submit to you that they are not as good a model of human behavior as humans are.

      I think the evolutionary perspective is fascinating, if you're actually interested in learning about evolution. But if you want to learn about what modern humans do--or worse, try to determine what modern humans should do--it's not so helpful. There's a lot of traits we had in our evolutionary history that we (obviously) evolved out of. When macaques and humans differ, I think it makes more sense to assume "well, yeah, we're different species," than to assume "so that's what humans are secretly like on the inside."

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    2. I also don't understand why it seems assumed that "primitive man" or cavemen or whatever lived in some sort of technology and socio-cultural vaccuum. Like, I'm sure that their society and their culture and customs dictated what they did just as much as it does now. So what really is the benefit of trying to rely on them as some sort of "base model" ? At best, you're making some wrong assumptions about early humans, and at worst you are trying to place the practices of an entirely different time and culture into a society and culture where it doesn't exist (which is actually what ends up happening).

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    3. Lain: Yeah, this is also a really good point. It doesn't seem particularly plausible to assume that first there were "natural" human beings, and then, at some point in time, perhaps at the same time as we invented agriculture, we also invented a thing called "culture". And from that one, our behaviour was culturally affected.

      You could also question the dichotomy between "natural" and "cultural". Isn't having a culture pretty natural for human beings? Like, we talk about battery hens living under unnatural conditions... because a different species (us) forced them into their cages. But it's not like Martians came down to Earth and forced people to be monogamous and have various sexual taboos. So although you can argue that various ideas about sex are bad and ought to be abandoned, it's a bit weird to call them unnatural.

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  9. I'm a biologist of the non-human-studying variety (jellyfish, to be precise), and man oh man, my job would be easier if I could just ask my organisms a few questions. Self-reported data have their limits, but a lot of the methods I use (dissection, comparative anatomy, field observations, genetic studies) are basically work-arounds for having no way to study these critters experiences directly. When I see pop press writers acting like my methods are more scientific, or a more accurate way to look at humans, I roll my eyes til they hurt.

    It's like telling someone doing a history of the cold war to cut it out with the interviews in favor of digging through old office building trash heaps, because archaeology is a 'harder science.' You might learn a couple things you wouldn't find out otherwise, but you miss so much more it's ridiculous.

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    1. As a social scientist (Anthropology), THANK YOU.

      I can't stand the division of methods according to simplistic dichotomies like: good/objective/scientific and bad/subjective/unscientific.

      "Is it a good method?" needs to be preceded by "what do you want to know?" Plain and simple.

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  10. Thank you. I'm a researcher, I'm non-monogamous, and I absolutely hated that book, including for some of the reasons you brought up. The social social bits were absolute drek, and that cast doubt for me on the science bits as well. For instance, the study that they cited about how poly people have happier relationships was actually about swingers - the researcher specifically noted that these weren't poly people, they were swingers - and the swingers were also different from average in a variety of ways that are positively correlated with happiness. (For instance, they were married and higher-income.) Their citation for the number of people involved in nonmonogamy was a magazine article that provided no clarity about where the number came from. They couldn't even get the divorce rate right.

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  11. That book sounds familiar. I suspect I leafed through it in a bookstore and put it back largely for the reasons that you mention: I'm as tired of pop-evo-psych books that tell us we evolved to be happy happy poly swingers as I am of pop-evo-psych books that tell us we evolved to be monogamous nuclear families. They all seem to take such a sneering, condescending tone too, as though the reader has to be bullied into taking their side to avoid being ridiculed as well. And the persistent reiteration that all people are miserable today and need to be shown the light to have any hope of happiness just makes me sad.

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    1. They all seem to take such a sneering, condescending tone too, as though the reader has to be bullied into taking their side to avoid being ridiculed as well.

      Yeah, that was really what turned me off Sex at Dawn. The whole opening chapter is just a parade of "everyone's sex life is awful these days!" and, um, not really? And when it is, it's often for identifiable reasons which are not "failure to be poly like a monkey."

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    2. They're knocking you down so they can pick you up again and tell you what you need to do with your pathetic self to be worthwhile.

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  12. "(I'm still trying to find the right excuse to post the pictures from that time we measured my Kegel Power. About half a kilo, by the way.)"

    I assume Kegel Power here is the amount of mass you could suspend using your pelvic floor muscles and some kind of... handle? I'm curious to know how much literal kegeling power (energy per unit time) people can produce. I am not, however, quite sure how to hook up any kind of practical watt-meter to that part of the body.

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  13. No excuse needed. Post the picture, it sounds *awesome*.

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    1. Agreed. Besides, you already have a perfect excuse: discussing methods for the study of human sexuality, based on goals and cost and what you want the data for.

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  14. It's odd that you criticize pop ev-psych without addressing its main failure: the confusion between "Why do people do this thing?" and "Why did people evolve to do this thing for this reason?". Asking women why they make noise during sex will get you answers like "I moan when sex feels good, I can't help it", but not tell you why that response exists in the first place. Nobody is going to answer "I thought about what would propagate my genes best if I lived a million years ago, and moaning seemed like it would help".

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    1. That whole "moaning to call other males" idea made my head explode, I swear. (Terrible messy it is to type like that, too.) Hello, physical pleasure, nerves being stimulated, all that sort of thing - is it really so complicated and, frankly, really so important? As for calling other males, um, no, sorry fellers, it's not that for me at all. It's love and delight at making love with my one and only, who does happen to be a man; but the feelings and sound effects would probably be much the same if he happened to be a woman.

      For that matter, what about the blokes who moan during sex? What are they doing, asking women to line up?

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    2. Yeah, in addition to other completely valid and smart things people have said in the post and comments (like you can't deduce an ought from an is, and if monkeys behave differently from people it might because they're actually different and so on), this so much.

      I always try to stress this when talking with students about the popular meme that "everyone is an egoist". Firstly, you can't evaluate the truth of that statement unless you define precisely what you mean by "egoist", and it's surprisingly hard to come up with a definition that makes the statement controversial and plausible at the same time. Secondly, if you want to bring in evolution as some kind of evidence, you MUST separate evolutionary causation from reasons (even subconscious, Freudian reasons).

      Example I like to use: My friend asks me to help her carrying furniture when she moves to a new apartment. I say yes. Possible REASONS I have for saying yes
      - I expect that if I help her, she might help me in the future.
      - I simply like to help my friends.
      - I like to picture myself as a nice altruistic person, and does these kinds of things to help build this self-image.
      Maybe my real reason, deep down inside, is something other than what I like to tell myself. Anyway, all these are possible reasons, some egoistic and some not.

      Now, suppose the reason IS that I simply like to help my friends. Possible evolutionary cause of this preference:
      At the dawn of time, some people liked to help their friends. Other people didn't like to help others. The former people, in praxis, usually ended up helping others who shared many of their genes, because they usually interacted with family rather than non-family. The former people therefore ended up helping their own genes to spread throughout the population when they engaged in helping behaviour (although, of course, they had no clue about what a gene was, so this was completely unintentional). Therefore, "helping genes" became more and more common.
      Therefore, today, I feel like helping my friend when she asks.

      This is a possible causal explanation of why I want to help my friend. But evolutionary causal explanations are different from reasons. If this evolutionary story is true, it does NOT imply that I secretely, subconsciously, merely want to spread my genes, and that my subconscious is confused enough to believe that moving furniture will somehow accomplish this goal.

      Delete
    3. I think any student that answers with "well, I'm an egoist, and that's all that matters" should get points for consistency.

      If this evolutionary story is true, it does NOT imply that I secretely, subconsciously, merely want to spread my genes, and that my subconscious is confused enough to believe that moving furniture will somehow accomplish this goal.
      YES THIS.

      "I feel inclined to help people I like because reciprocal altruism is an evolved trait" is not the same thing as "I feel inclined to help people I like because some part of my brain literally believes this will cause me to have more babies."

      (Also, while we're at it, I could rant for a while about how much pop-evo-psych confuses "conceives more embryos" with "spreads genes further," but I have to go to clinical.)

      Delete
    4. This moaning during sex to attract other males notion is remarkably silly. I give you the simplest, therefore (according to Occam's razor) most likely to be accurate, theory: women (and men) moan during sex for the same reason women (and men) often make a noise when they are hurt. Whether the sensation is pleasure or pain, it's still an intense nerve stimulation that is likely to cause a vocal reaction.

      Delete
    5. I have another simple theory. We moan during sex so that our partner knows we are enjoying ourselves. (Vocal reaction doesn't seem right, because usually the thing with vocalizing is that there's the idea that someone might hear you and this would be somehow nice).

      This is supported by the fact that when people are faking moaning during sex, this is generally the goal.

      It also makes way more sense to say that the moaning is intended for the person who is clearly there to hear you than from some hypothetical other people who may or may not be there.

      Delete
    6. I also note that a lot of women will deliberately suppress their moaning if they think someone besides their partner might overhear. Not that humans don't have lots of ways we repress and reshape our instincts, but still... seems counterproductive.

      Delete
    7. Uhh...doesn't this also forget to mention that men ALSO moan during sex? It's probably communication, like anything else. But the whole "moaning to call other males over" makes no sense if the male is moaning as well, unless they really are trying to get a huge orgy going which - I don't think too many animals work that way.

      Delete
    8. Extrapolating outward, if I moan during sex because I secretly want other people to come over and have sex with me, too, then clearly when I make pleasure-sounds while eating really good chocolate I must secretly want other people to come over and take my chocolate away and eat it.

      Wait, what?

      Delete
    9. I think I understand how evolution works. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's no way this moaning thing a direct evolutionary trait in that way, because this is how human biology would have to work in order for that to be true:

      Women who moan during sex attract more males, and having sex with more males at one time makes the woman have more babies (or more viable babies, or more protection to keep her babies alive long enough to have their own babies*, or something like that). Each time she copulates, the woman ovulates, thus, the more times she has sex, the more babies she has the potential to have. Women who moan loudly would then have more babies than would women who moan quietly, and "moaning" as a trait would saturate the population more thoroughly. Evolution.

      But humans don't work that way.

      Therefore, this theory is wrong.

      Science.

      *If it were like this, then the men who gathered around to have sex with this woman at this time would stick around for the next five years or so. They would be biologically compelled to do so--they wouldn't quite HAVE to stay, but they wouldn't, as a whole, WANT to leave. Marriage wouldn't be a thing, because there wouldn't be any need for an external force to tie men to women. Humans don't work this way either.

      Delete
  15. Is it just me, or does this boo/the research it uses sound really skeevy? I mean, telling women their minds aren't important, it's all about that blood flow in the vagina (so much for the brain being the biggest sex organ); telling us we're all supposed to be poly ... do they even acknowledge that other types of people exist? If I couldn't have my beloved, I'd have nobody, because I am not. sexually. attracted. to anyone else, and never have been in my fifty-odd years. Poly would not be happiness for me, it'd be ... well, easy to connect the dots, I don't need to use the words. The whole thing just sounds like stuff I've read here and elsewhere about creeps who misuse the poly or BDSM scenes to manipulate people into sex because it's what they "should" be doing.

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  16. BOOK. That was meant to be book, not boo. :P

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  17. But real humans aren't controllable enough! We can't raise humans in a controlled lab environment to eliminate other variables, and clearly this is the only way to study the way humans behave in the wild, because those guys over there in the lab coats said so!

    The idea of studies on "normal" wild-animal behavior that rely on animals born and raised in captivity always seemed a bit flawed to me. But somehow, people view such studies as "more scientific" then actually observing the species in question in its natural environment.

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    1. Well... you COULD... but you'd have to build a miles-deep underground laboratory and recruit homeless people for $60. Only until you could start the breeding experiments you never tell anyone about, of course.

      Delete
    2. Ain't that the truth! Didn't that whole "alpha wolf" thing come from a flawed study of wolves in captivity? The researcher refuted it eventually, after realising that their behaviour was totally different from wolves in the wild. "Alpha" isn't "boss" ... it's just "parent".

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  18. "And one approach you would never, ever take because it's just hopelessly unscientific:
    Ask some women "hey, why do you moan during sex?""

    This isn't accurate sex researchers actually do ask people how they feel and don't just rely on circumstantial evidence alone. That and it's pretty much accepted amongst sexologist that genital arousal is not necessarily a sign of sexual arousal

    http://www.thedirtynormal.com/2010/03/11/taint-what-you-do-its-the-way-that-you-do-it/

    The "science" that gets published in the mainstream media and in pop science books is usually not indicative of what mainstream science believes. It's usually what gets the most sales.

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    1. I was going to link to the same post. But it also says that for men, objective measures that correlate well with subjective arousal are known. I guess such measures may exist for women, but those currently used, don't.

      Delete
  19. Love this post. Great job as usual Cliff!

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  20. I'm a little confused about the hatred you have for this book. The fact is that our cultured DOES have toxic, unhealthy, damaging attitudes about sex. Sure, the book isn't perfect. I felt that there was too much emphasis on differences between the sexes and I wished that they had written more about gender roles in different cultures. But it is a huge step in the right direction when you compare it with books like The Naked Ape.

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    1. Just because our culture does indeed have "toxic, unhealthy, damaging attitudes about sex" doesn't mean that every book that says so is ipso facto worthy of respect. To take an extreme example, I've seen at least one NAMBLA pamphlet that said the same thing, and as far as that went, it was right, too. But, y'know, the rest of it...

      Delete
    2. Yes, exactly. Pretty much every book that touches on sex says that; it's what comes after that really matters to me. If it's anything like this book, I'm not going to be very impressed.

      Delete
  21. Cliff -- it's been a while since I read the book but I don't think it "seemed to be breaking down 'monogamy is natural and therefore good' only to replace it with equally narrow thinking about 'polyamory is natural and therefore good.'" I agree with the first part you wrote -- Christopher Ryan's stated thesis was to challenge the evidence for the viewpoint held by some evolutionary psychologists who believe that humans evolved to be monogamous. But one thing that struck me about the book, and that was frustrating to other readers that I know, is that it *didn't* draw any conclusions about what the evidence says about how humans should behave in their relationships. Is there a particular portion you were most bothered by?

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    1. Hey Frank! The part that bothered me was the very opening, where the authors go on an absolute tear about how unhappy monogamous people are these days, with a really snarky superior tone.

      They don't spell out "THOU MUST BE POLY," no, but between their (often rather shaky) arguments that cavemen were all free-lovin' poly types and their open disdain for people who believe in monogamy, it sorta comes through.

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    2. Gotcha -- I see what you mean and I agree about the tone (which is something I also dislike about the book).

      Here's an interesting snippet from an interview with the author, where I think he articulates his viewpoint more clearly:

      "There are very few 'shoulds' in Sex at Dawn. Our book isn’t an indictment of monogamy or a call to open relationships. We say (and strongly believe) that monogamy can actually be a very honorable option. But it’s like vegetarianism. Just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian, don’t expect bacon to stop smelling good. And maybe you can find a way to make exceptions for the occasional pepperoni pizza and still consider yourself (and your partner) essentially a vegetarian. All we really advocate in the book is tolerance, communication, and a more realistic approach to these issues that incorporates a more accurate sense of what kind of creature Homo sapiens really is."

      http://unbreakablemanlaws.com/2010/11/29/ask-christopher-ryan-ph-d-is-monogamy-natural-an-interview-with-sex-at-dawn-author/

      Delete
    3. I think it's a fallacy that all vegetarians secretly crave bacon--some of them legit don't like meat.

      And ditto for monogamy and polyamory. I don't think every monogamous person is secretly dreaming of sexy bacon and painfully repressing the urge, and I think it is awfully poly-mandatory to claim that.

      Delete
    4. I can see how what he's saying would be awfully resonant with repressed poly (or potential poly or however you describe that state) people--people who really aren't happy with monogamy, but think it's their only option, might find this very liberating.

      I just don't like the way he phrases it as universal.

      Delete
    5. RE: Frank G

      Just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian, don’t expect bacon to stop smelling good.

      Uh, I'm mono, and this doesn't hold true for me. I don't WANT anyone else. I'm not repressing anything or being a prude, I just honestly don't want anyone but my husband. I know HE still gets the hots for other people, but I'm a vulture guy; I seem to mate for life.

      That's what I really am. I don't appreciate the implication that I'm just some poor repressed little boo-boo who doesn't realize how good the sausage is.

      Delete
    6. *lol* I'm a vegan since sixteen years, and monogamously married since twelve years, and I used to really like a) eating meat and b) sleeping around in an open relationship, so this sort of should be aimed at me.

      I became a vegan for ethical reasons, and it was tough at first, particularly since I grew up on meat and potatoes pretty exclusively and wasn't used to eating vegs. But the more I learnt about vegan food the more I appreciated it, and the longer it were since I ate animal food the less I craved it. A couple of years ago I spend some time in a country where it was hard enough to come by lacto-ovo-vegetarian food, so I ate milk and egg for a while. But at least the milk products tasted AWFUL now, since I wasn't used to that kind of taste or texture any longer. Coming home and going back to vegan products again was lovely.
      And as for the mono thing, it was something we decided on for various reasons that I'm not gonna go into here. Worked differently than becoming a vegan since I still get the hots for other people, but I don't think these hots are a big deal, since I know that mono was the right decision for us. To call back to an earlier post of Cliff's, my ladyboner isn't a werewolf. I can just mentally observe that "oh, now I've got the hots for that person", and that's it. I don't have to do anything about it, it's not a big deal, and it doesn't make me unhappy, since I know mono is right for us.

      It's not just that some people genuinely don't like meat or sleeping around, it's also the case that you can be perfectly happy with your lifestyle even if you've chosen it, even if it wasn't your "orientation" so to speak.

      I think the problem is that people often don't make conscious choices, but just slide into monogamy because that's expected of them. But it would be just as bad if people slid into poly because that were expected. There are people who do poly because that's the thing in their circles, although they'd be happier in a different kind of relationship, and if everyone became convinced that "APES! POLY! NATURE! CAVEMEN! there would probably just be more of those.

      We should rather stress that there isn't one way which is the right way, and people's capacity to CHOOSE how they wanna live.

      Delete
    7. Never longed for bacon. Never really considered poly, but I can at least speak up for vegetarians.

      Delete
    8. "There are people who do poly because that's the thing in their circles ...
      Yup. I know some people in their twenties who are sleeping with multiple partners and loudly proclaim that this means they are poly. When I was sleeping with multiple partners in my twenties, my term for that was "dating."

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    9. Same anonymous as "I am not sexually attracted to other people" comment here. That whole "monogamy can actually be a very honorable option. But it’s like vegetarianism. Just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian, don’t expect bacon to stop smelling good" doesn't seem any better than saying people *should* be poly. They're still pushing it as natural and monogamy as unnatural - "the honorable option" FFS? No, it is WHAT I WANT. It is natural to me. Other people =/= tasty bacon I'm nobly denying myself. Honour has nothing to do with it. Screw that idea. The idea of sex with other people - however attractive, likable, or whatever they might be - is about as appealing as the idea of drinking a bucket of blood-tainted piss. Why are they so damnably blinkered about the variety in human sexuality?

      Delete
    10. We say (and strongly believe) that monogamy can actually be a very honorable option. But it’s like vegetarianism. Just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian, don’t expect bacon to stop smelling good. And maybe you can find a way to make exceptions for the occasional pepperoni pizza and still consider yourself (and your partner) essentially a vegetarian.

      This doesn't sound very respectful at all.

      I understand that they are tired of monogamy being pushed as the only right, 'natural' way to be. I am also. But this is so condescending and patronizing and strongly implies that monogamous people are needlessly denying themselves the joys of poly and secretly long for it at night. It doesn't trust people to recognize their own desires.

      Delete
    11. Yah that explanation is still very condescending. It STILL suggests that sexuality is a choice, that one way is "more" natural than the other, which is bologna.

      Delete
    12. I know some people in their twenties who are sleeping with multiple partners and loudly proclaim that this means they are poly. When I was sleeping with multiple partners in my twenties, my term for that was "dating."
      That's really not what we're talking about at all, and also, maybe you're not the judge of which relationships "count" as poly.

      ...also you know there's such a thing as poly dating.

      Delete
    13. Lain: "It STILL suggests that sexuality is a choice" Although it IS a choice whether to be poly or mono at least to some people; it was for me. I don't feel like I have an "orientation" at this point, one way or the other.

      I think ONE of several problems here is a false dichotomy between a) choosing what one's relationship is gonna be like because REPRESSION and then be unhappy forever and b) merely following one's natural instincts and be glad.

      It's possible to actively choose a certain life-style for GOOD REASONS, and then be happy with that choice.

      (Although the reasons me and my husband had for choosing to go mono didn't include "we're gonna be so honourable if we do that!".)

      Delete
    14. Adding: It's not that I'm a special unique snowflake, there are lots of people besides me who's chosen whether to be poly or mono. The most common case is probably a person who a) likes to have sex with different people, not just one, and b) feels terribly jealous if zir partner has sex with someone else. Assuming this person is basically decent (so no pretending to be monogamous while cheating), zie can either choose to have mono relationships, thinking foregoing sex with others is worth it in order not to feel jealous, or choose to have poly relationships, thinking struggling with jealousy is worth it in order to have sex with different people.
      There are also people who think pursuing several romantic relationships at once spice up their lives, and people who think having just one romantic relationship at a time (even if they do get crushes at several people at once) is easier and require less time and energy.

      The fact that lots of people DO choose whether to be poly or mono is a reason why I think you can't make an analogy between being mono/poly on the one hand and homo/hetero/bi on the other hand.

      Delete
    15. Yes, there are people who can be happy in either a mono or a poly situation, as well as those with a very strong (even absolute) preference for one or the other. And that's fine. Bisexuality doesn't mean there's something wrong with being exclusive homosexual or heterosexual, either.

      Delete
    16. There's a lot of "we're all secretly bisexual, just repressed!" crap out there too, especially for women.

      I think we're so used to talking like the human race is homogenous and that the only way for a desire to be real is for it to be universal, that we just don't feel legitimate enough saying "some people are bisexual/polyamorous/bacon-eaters but repressed."

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    17. Redbird, that's not really analogous. I'm bi, but that doesn't mean that I sit down and think through the pros and cons of gay and straight relationships respectively, and then chose one based on those pros and cons.

      Cliff, right.

      Delete
    18. There is such a thing as poly dating, but there's also such a thing as just shagging around, and there's nothing wrong with either if everyone involved is on board. I think some of the folks I know are doing the latter, but feel the need to kind of dress it up, however, as though saying that they're polyamorous with everyone they're seeing is somehow more respectable than just dating people and having sex with them.

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    19. We say (and strongly believe) that monogamy can actually be a very honorable option. But it’s like vegetarianism. Just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian, don’t expect bacon to stop smelling good.

      1. The smell of bacon makes me nauseous.

      2. Polyamory sounds like hell to me. It is not tempting. It is not something I secretly long for or fantasize about but have never had the courage to try. It sounds hellish. I'm an introvert with a very low sex drive and a very large personal space bubble. Letting a bunch more people into my emotional and sexual life sounds horribly stressful and stifling.

      Delete
    20. @Dvärghundspossen, I can see how it might be kind of analogous, or at least have parallels. Being bi would be parallel to being able to be both poly and mono in the sense of 'having options'. Someone who can be both poly and mono *can* sit down and choose based on pros and cons, or can just go with whatever their partner needs, etc. While, someone who's 'oriented' toward one of the other can't, because they'll end up fundamentally unhappy in that way, like LG people who were closeted in straight relationships.

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    21. @Anonymous: I guess what I should have said that okay, it's partly analogous, but it's also partly not...

      So, adding to my previous post: Thinking through pros and cons presupposes that there ARE cons as well as pros. For many people, that's the case with poly/mono. Whichever option one chooses will have some advantages but also some drawbacks, as outlined in my previous post.
      That's usually not really the case with homo/hetero. Or, rather, the hetero option has ONE special pro which is that it's the privileged one in society. But if you cut that out, well, the option "having relationships with the gender you're attracted to" (whether that's homo or hetero) is the good option and the other one is the bad option. If you're bi, then both options are good for you. There are really no particular drawbacks with either one.

      So yeah, if you're naturally completely non-jealous while getting attracted to and falling in love with multiple people, you could be said to have a poly-orientation, there are no drawbacks with poly. And if you're naturally demi-sexual or whatever one wants to call it, there are no drawbacks with mono. And if one is demi-sexual and completely non-jealous, one could be just as happy with either kind of relationship. One wouldn't actually have sex with others if the relationship was poly, but one would be perfectly fine with one's partner having sex and romances at the side, just as one with be fine with one's partner not doing this.

      But if one is, for instance, both jealous and attracted to lots of people, then it's a choice one's gotta make, which is gonna depend on how one weighs the pros and cons. And yeah, one might obviously go with what one's partner wants as well, because one values one's partner so much. But then one would be making certain sacrifices for one's partner - which is different from being bi, and then ending up in a gay relationship because one happened to fall in love with someone of the same gender, for instance.

      Delete
    22. And what I really wanted to stress was that making a decision to do what you think is all-things-considered best for you (and your partner(s)), even though that decision has certain drawbacks, is different from being repressed or a closet-case.

      Delete
  22. I'll keep your words in mind. I've just gotten a copy of Sex At Dawn and already I don't like it.

    I love your blog. Your blog inspired me to do my own Cosmocking blog post:
    http://www.insufferableintolerance.com/cosmocking-intolerance-style/

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  23. Its a good book, but it's far from perfect. The tone *is* annoying at times, but the material is one that stirs up a lot of emotions, and skewers a lot of sacred cows, so that's to be expected.

    I suggest you finish the book. There are a lot of interesting gems hidden through out it, which in my opinion, makes it worth reading. Just think of it as a thought provoking read, as opposed to a new Gospel.

    There are a lot of points that I don't completely agree with, but I do buy the basic premise that early man did indeed live in small poly groups.

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    1. The tone *is* annoying at times, but the material is one that stirs up a lot of emotions, and skewers a lot of sacred cows, so that's to be expected.

      Are you saying that when someone's writing about highly charged subjects, it behooves them to be abrasive for some reason? Or that a person reading about highly charged subjects is more likely to interpret the tone as abrasive, even if it's actually a totally clinical presentation of facts?

      If it's the latter, let me just point out that Cliff himself found the book's tone patronizing and ridiculous and Cliff is poly. It's not like he was offended by his worldview suddenly being turned upside down. He's already living pretty far outside the box.

      If it's the former, all I have to say is "Buh?"

      Delete
    2. Man, I don't have enough time to read books that are all good, you think I've got time to poke through one that's:
      a) Annoying
      b) Partly wrong
      but
      c) Probably right about some things somewhere?

      (Okay, the "no time" thing is a blatant lie as I read Cosmo every month, but still. "A stopped clock is right twice a day!" is a terrible sales pitch for a book.)

      Delete
    3. Nah, none of us have to read it now - Emily's doing it for us:
      http://www.thedirtynormal.com/category/sex-at-yawn/
      She suffers so we don't have to!!

      Delete
  24. I don't moan much during sex. Um. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that it's considered one of the benchmarks of how much fun a woman's having (along with nipple-rections, which I also don't get) it probably wouldn't have occurred to me that I was supposed to be doing it. It's something I feel kind of weird and guilty about, even after meeting (and sleeping with) other women who have the same deal. I mean, it's something I do more than I used to as I've become less self-conscious, but it's not like I just needed to get over my hang-ups and unlock this repressed urge for the primal sexy mating call - it just didn't occur to me to make low tonal noises as an indicator of feeling pleasure.

    I'm sure the blood doesn't flow right in my vagina either.

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    1. I also fail to moan or achieve hard nipples when aroused. And the moaning thing has caused problems in the past as my partners feel like their actions are having no effect, and I can't seem to convince them that my silence does not mean I'm not enjoying it. I am so glad you exist.

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    2. Yep, me too. I don't like raising my voice much at the best of times (so possibly I am omg repressed!!!) but it honestly never occurred to me to moan (or make sexy mating calls) during sex.

      Delete
  25. I have not read Sex at Dawn. I kind of hate the book on principle, mostly because everyone who recommended it to me basically said some variation on "Y'know how I'm a raging asshole who can't keep his dick in his pants? Well this book says it's actually totally normal!!! It turns out that all this time, I've just been the victim of a misunderstanding! Go read the book and then you'll understand that I'm actually totally awesome."

    I'm not saying poly people are assholes (I'm poly). I'm saying that the specific people who told me to read that book were icky, rapey, cheating opportunists (who sometimes masqueraded as poly) and that this book made them feel justified in their sketchy behaviours.

    I'm also saying that I'm never going to condone cheating just because I read some book about a bunch of chimps or some shit. Cheating is shitty because it means breaking a promise that you agreed to uphold. Why they broke that promise doesn't matter. And yet, these guys who recommended the book to me are totally like "this will explain everything!" as if I'm gonna read it and go "Ohhhh, I get it now, you can't help being a prick!"

    Feh.

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    1. LOL! I have had that experience also. No one who has recommended Sex at Dawn to me is anyone whose behavior I respect.

      Delete
    2. I know some perfectly nice people who like the book! :(

      They're still wrong about the book though.

      Delete
    3. Polyevangelism seems to have changed a lot during the years. Back in 1994 when I was first exposed to polyevangelism (although the word "poly" wasn't invented yet) the argument was that... uh... monogamy is bad because capitalism? Capitalism is sort of about owning things, and monogamy is about two people owning each other? And Engels had some theory about this? Whatever. I became poly simply because I didn't like, back then, to be monogamous, so I guess I didn't listen too closely to those political arguments.
      Anyway, as stupid as a "monogamy is bad because it's analogous to capitalism" argument is, at least it's unabashedly normative and ideological, rather than pretending to merely describe what people are like and then proceed to kick Hume's law in the nuts.

      Delete
    4. The term "poly" was around in the late eighties, I am positive. I'm less sure about "polyamory," but wouldn't be surprised.

      Delete
    5. @Irene - in Oz I think poly meant polyester, then. ;)

      Delete
  26. I didn't read all the comments, so it's probably been stated before:
    There are some papers saying the vaginal photoplethysmograph measures the "physical" arousal, while the womens "psychical" arousal is subjective. There are even some papers trying to explain this with evolution as a mutation securing the surving after a rape. They argue, that womens bodys tend to somtimes react to fear, pain, stress and such with wetness without actual sexual arousal, so that they don't get hurt as much during a rape and thus survive it. (I know it's not properly expressed and evolution is random and not "for" something, but I'm not a foreign speaker ; )

    Still, with sentences like "probably it is important for the sexual arousal of women if the arousal is physical or psychical" I could throw up. And that in a paper from 2000-something and two women in the research team!

    Also, I'm sorry not to be able to name you my sources, because I can't find the text I wrote about that for university. It had something to do with conditioning human sexual arousal, if you want to look for that yourself.

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    1. Oh goody, another bit of "science" explaining why rape is natural and normal. Look - women are evolved to be raped! NO wonder so much rape happens! Sorry to get a bit snarky I just dislike this -- there ARE cultures in the world with little to no rape, believe it or not, and I can't help but take this with a grain of salt. All this is just conjecture and in the meantime potentially very damaging for women.

      Delete
    2. Lain: But it could be very helpful to rape victims too, depending on how you spin it.
      Women are often accused of "actually wanting it, so it wasn't real rape", and some women accuse THEMSELVES of this if they happen to get wet or even orgasm while they're being violated. For that reason, the message that it's totally possible for your body to react in these ways even though it was TOTALLY RAPE and you did NOT consent in any way is an important one.

      Delete
  27. Man, I've never had an experience with a medical professional who asked me "hey, why do you XXXX?" or "how do you feel about XXXX?" It seems like more often than not, they think their impersonal science is more accurate than your personal experience.

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    1. We're actually taught not to say "why do you XXXX?" in nursing school. The idea is that it could come across as accusatory--"why did you do this terrible unhealthy thing? TELL ME WHY"--but I think it also cuts off the chance to have an open-minded discussion.

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  28. Re moaning.

    Urghh. Why do people even publish things like this and claim it to be science?

    Science isn't about looking for evidence to support pet theories, be they everyone should be mono or everyone should be poly* or anything else.

    A more reasonable approach would be to ask "do people moan during sex?"

    If yes, there are more questions - Do men moan more or less than women? Do people make noises during sex differently to noises made due to other sensations?

    If yes, one starts to ask whether it is a physiological thing or a cultural thing? To do so one must look at people from various cultures, and to ask people why they moan during sex, and do a whole host of other experiments and surveys and data collecting.

    In short, one would have to gather an awful lot of data and do a lot of research before one were even in a position to ask what the evolutionary reason for moaning during sex is. Perhaps then one could consider their argument as a hypothesis. What does one do with hypotheses? Test them, not publish them in books for the general public. One could equally well construct a hypothesis that people are evolved to be mono because women moan during sex. I'm not suggesting that is the case, merely highlighting the fact that the claim that people are evolved to be poly because women make noise during sex is, without a great deal of supporting evidence, utter rot.

    There's nothing wrong with the concept of evolutionary pressures affecting human behaviour. There is a great deal wrong with this pop "science" rubbish making unsupported claims and presenting them as fact, and a great deal wrong with the idea that because a behaviour has its roots in evolutionary pressures, we should treat that behaviour as a model for modern society.

    *Besides, the naturalistic fallacy is, well, a fallacy.

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    1. I keep wondering why it MATTERS if people moan during sex. And how one gets a grant to study stuff like this. ;)

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  29. Cliff; this isn't the main subject, but i have to ask;

    are *DOCTORS* taught that "pain is what the patient says" line?
    because i've almost never had a nurse not believe me about my pain, but doctors? they almost never *DO* believe. even when they see the REASON for the bloody pain and it's OBVIOUS that it would hurt!

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    1. They're taught it. They're also taught a lot of other stuff they don't necessarily do in practice. :(

      But I think research, at least, documents actual patient reports of their pain levels.

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    2. Yep, we are taught this. I don't know about former generations of med students but quite a few things have changed and are still changing in education right now.

      On a side note: In research, pain is currently measured on a "Visual analogue scale". This means there is a line with two endpoints representing "completely pain-free" and "worst pain imaginable ever" and the patient rates where hir pain is between these two. Then the distance between the mark and one endpoint is measured to obtain a numerical value. Subjective AND scientific. :-)

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    3. We actually have six different pain scales where I work!

      1. The ol' 0-10 scale, which is what we mostly use in practice. People seem to waver between saying 10 is "worst pain imaginable" and "worst pain you've ever had"--both have problems, since they depend on the patient's imagination and personal history, but I use "imaginable" because maybe this person just has never experienced much pain before.

      2. The visual analogue scale, which is just a line on the patient side and has 0-10 numbers on the nurse side.

      3. The Wong-Baker Faces scale, which has little cartoons of a smiley face looking gradually more and more distressed.

      4. An objective scale (i.e., tally up various non-verbal signs of pain) for babies.

      5. An objective scale for severely demented patients.

      6. An objective scale for comatose/sedated patients.

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    4. then why are doctors so, well, rude? i could easily give a hundred stories. like the time something was hurting me enough that i ended up flinching and yelling, and the doctor watching gave me a lecture on "proper behavior" and told me if it actually hurt as bad as i claimed, i'd have passed out. the vomiting on part was ignored. as were the tears, flailing, and yelling.

      anyway.

      i also have a problem with the scales, because i hurt more now at all times than i could have conceived of a decade ago. today's "8" is WELL past then's- 10. and how do you explain that?

      sigh.

      don't mind me - i'm bitter and not sure what to do.

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    5. well... for some people it is part of their "professional distance" to show no signs of empathy towards patients. For others it's the result of years of seeing terrible things or burn out. Other docs *had no* empathy to begin with. :-(

      Sadly, I see that even with fellow med students. It certainly is disheartening, even scary sometimes. I just hope it will get better with more women studying and working in the field (at least here in Europe).

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    6. yeah, i'm not talking just professional distance or a lack of empathy. i'm talking about just plain fucking disbelief. not just of me - couple months ago, i was in the ER [not for ME, for once] and i saw a doctor scream at a girl of maybe 12, calling her a "crying brat" when she flinched at him jerking on her arm - the arm that was VISIBLY BROKEN. he said things like "I KNOW it can't hurt THAT much" and "Why are you acting like a baby, it's not that bad". there was VISIBLE BONE STICKING OUT, and he was telling her that it COULD NOT HURT.

      that's an extreme example because even the most sociopathic individual would realize that there'd by physical pain involved in that.
      but not this intern.

      and it seems to be the younger ones, if my past 6-year fight with doctors is any indicator - the older doctors may be burned out and NOT CARE at my unrelenting burning pain, but they also don't sit there and say "it's not possible for you to hurt like that. i KNOW, i'm a doctor."

      the screwed up thing is, i've been to through almost every class an RN would take. not always, or even often, as a registered student - when my mom went to college, i went with her, because i was her "helper" [she's VERY dyslexic, for one, and had gone through several surgeries herself and needed physical help] and when she went back, a decade ago to become a Nurse Practitioner, i again went with her. i didn't take the tests [official - i DID take lots of them, and if i'd been graded, i'd have at almost straight-As. but, you know, i wasn't] but i have the EDUCATION. i'm smart. i read.
      but i'm utterly dismissed, because i didn't "go to college to become a doctor". they treat EVERYONE like that, like ONLY doctors can know what's going on in a body, and doctors know BETTER than the person living it? t seems to be WORSE in newer doctors. is it just the shiny newness of it, combined with the INSANE ways internships are run?

      i'm sorry - i'm not meaning to rant. but i lost my primary care doctor a few months ago [i still don't understand why. something about they don't take medicare, when they DO take medicare, it's everywhere in their office about how they do. they'd taken it and taken, then one day i got a call telling me they NEVER took it. it was weird and i didn't have the energy to try and figure it out] and i'm terrified of trying to go to a new doctor. i'd JUST got this last one to the point of believing me about the things that are ALREADY diagnosed and that have records. if you have a chronic illness - at least here in the US if you aren't rich - and are female, the assumption is just that you are a hypochondriac. period. no matter HOW much proof you have that whatever it is exists and is real.
      then, if there's pain, and pain management [which i'm in] on TOP of that, you're an ADDICT. no matter that fentanyl patches don't make you "high" [if used right, anyway. that's WHY i wanted to be on fentanyl] no matter that i NEVER take all the oxy i get every month, sometimes don't take it for DAYS at a time. i'm an "addict" and ALL i'm doing is exhibiting "drug seeking behavior". because saying "i'd like to NOT take this shit anymore, are there ANY other options?" is "drug seeking behavior". somehow.
      so is my BP dropping to 0/20, and i somehow - in the hospital, while asleep - somehow deliberately did that. and when i changed my DNR orders to include "NEVER gibe me the drug Narcan again ever, i'd RATHER die than have it", well, THAT was "drug seeking behavior" and i was overruled and they gave it to me again, when my BO randomly dropped again. after illegally drug testing me THREE TIMES [without my consent] searching my stuff, and subjecting my boyfriend to being searched, because i MUST be doing drugs, i MUST BE!


      erm. sorry. done.

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    7. Someone mentioned pain scales. I thought of this: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.ca/2010/02/boyfriend-doesnt-have-ebola-probably.html

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    8. I've found this pain scale fairly helpful in figuring out where my pain is on 0-10 number scales: http://lane.stanford.edu/portals/cvicu/HCP_Neuro_Tab_4/0-10_Pain_Scale.pdf

      I don't know how useful it is for medical professionals though.

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  30. You know, I'm taking a class about what makes good/bad science and evopsych is starting to seem like one big adaptive story to me.

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    1. Or a just so story, maybe. ;)

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  31. I think you might enjoy this article -- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19493290 -- It's about an alternative measurement of female arousal that is not as invasive and that actually reports good concurrence between measurements and self-report! So don't knock ALL of the sex researchers ;-) just some of them!

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  32. I like the sound of your blog, but I don't respect your opinion. Writing the entire book and all the studies they cite in it off as dribble after 15 pages really doesn't seem scientific. This is science, not politics(although the 2 are usually depressingly inextricable). Sides, if it really is bad science wouldn't you be able to write something far more impactful and cutting if you deconstructed the entire thing as bad science rather than pointing out your own ignorance on the topic? I've always been taught that the times when you want to tune out or ignore a voice is exactly when you should listen the most intently. Course what do I know? I've only actually read a whole book or two...

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    1. I've always been taught that the times when you want to tune out or ignore a voice is exactly when you should listen the most intently.

      That is the most bizarre use of non-logic I've seen today. Sometimes you don't want to listen to what someone is saying (or, as in this case, read their book) because it forces you to confront some deep truth that makes you uncomfortable.

      Sometimes, it's just because they're a snide, condescending jackass.

      Take politics, for example. I could, if I was so inclined, read Ann Coulter's latest book in its entirety, deconstruct the faulty logic, misinformation, and outright lies, and write a long, incisive critique. And if I was getting paid, I might do that.

      If I'm writing for my own entertainment, though, I'm probably not going to bother. I don't need to read 300+ pages of shit to recognize that it's shit.

      Delete
    2. "I like the sound of your blog, but I don't respect your opinion. "

      Did you read her ENTIRE blog, or just this one post? Because otherwise your comment is invalid by your own logic.

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    3. Writing the entire book and all the studies they cite in it off as dribble after 15 pages really doesn't seem scientific.
      It's not. I'm not doing science here. I'm doing opinion writing.

      And my opinion is that I'm not obligate to eat an entire shit sandwich just to see if the very last bite turns into foie gras.

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    4. " I've always been taught that the times when you want to tune out or ignore a voice is exactly when you should listen the most intently."

      So do you think you should give time to the KKK? Or misogynists who want women denied the vote? Those are voices I want to tune out, and it's sure as hell not because they have anything worthwhile to say. Disagreeing with someone does not automatically mean they have something wonderful and insightful to say which your poor unworthy self should be listening to.

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  33. Holy Jesus yes. Thanks Cliff, that was a great post. I have wondered why stuff like Sex at Dawn bothers me, also a scientist, and couldn't really put my finger on it. And yet, I scour the internet for personal experiences, almost voraciously. I want to LEARN and get to the truth, with the truth leading to the possibilities and the beauty and all that jazz. However, books like that always irked me. You just very nicely described the reason. Thanks!

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  34. Why would anyone expect "I don't respect your opinion" to convince you to go back, read more crap, and write about it at greater length in order to please a stranger who has said he doesn't respect your opinion? I can disagree with someone and still respect their opinion, if I think they've come to it in a reasonable way. (That of course includes things with a large subjective element, like how ripe a banana is best.) But if I don't respect someone's opinions in general, that includes subjective things: there's a difference between "we like different amounts of pepper" and "you haven't even been there, you just heard they hired a trendy designer."

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  35. How does this feel: " I read one paragraph of this blog and gave up. Now I am gong to write an opinion about why the entire blog is stupid and ill informed. This is one of the worst book reviews I have ever read, and I read a lot of them.

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    1. Opinion piece mentioning a book ≠ book review

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  36. If you had actually read the book, you would see that great deal of it is devoted to the reality that people's personal and cultural basis screw up science all the time. Particularity in regards to sexuality--people's vision of what it is supposed to be and what we are told about human nature may not actually be true. It is just another cultural belief. Whether you agree or not about the research is one thing but there are other bits of very interesting information in the book beyond whether humans are naturally inclined toward monogamy or non-monogamy. It's really a book about scientific research, culture, history, evolution and societal narratives.

    For example, I read it during the height of the occupy movement and found the parts about the values of a hunter gather society relevant to the spirit of Occupy and the potential for a cooperative society.

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  37. I understood that things like vaginal blood flow, swelling of the breasts and vasodilation were common symptoms of arousal. It seems to me that the logical fallacy here is the idea that if effect b, therefore cause a - without stopping to consider that causes c, h, n, p and jellyfish also result in effect b.

    I do hope the degrees held by the people who wrote this paper aren't in medicine, I don't want to imagine my doctor making mistakes like that.

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  38. My horrible horrible unethical ex-therapist loves Sex At Dawn and recommends it on his website.

    This makes it all the happier for me to see it debunked. :)

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  39. I think the thing that disturbed me most about sex at dawn was it's omission of the possibility that sexual behaviour is polymorphic.

    Sure, we have people that feel lost without attention and people who feel extremely uncomfortable when everyone's looking at them. Sure, we have people that are sadistic murders and others who are complete pacifists. Sure, we have people that love to cook, eat, and enjoy food as an art form... and others who would rather take a nutrient pill and see the need to eat as a hassle. But sexual behaviour? Noooo that fits into one rigid box.

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  40. Have edited the Wikipedia page for http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaginal_photoplethysmograph - added an 'issues' section so people can at least look at the article that shows such a poor correlation between reported arousal and measured blood flow (not measured *arousal*, damnit).

    Have tried reading Sex At Dawn, and I have to say I'm pretty disappointed too. *This* is the book my sex-positive friends kept recommending to me? It seems like just a blend of cherry-picked pop science and evo psych like all the other 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' crap, with the twist that it's advocating for polyamory, not monogamy. I like that they recognise how people's own culture and biases will affect what's perceived to be 'natural' in sex and relationships - but then they completely ignore their own advice! And I agree with the poster above - why do we have to think of 'human sexuality' as a monolith? The question of whether all humans are naturally inclined toward poly or monogamy makes about as much sense as asking whether we're all naturally straight or gay. People are different, y'all.

    ~owl_coffee

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  41. On the subject of Kegel Power - I saw this and thought of you.
    www.toymakerproject.com/hammer/

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  42. *But I also think that if you want to study humans, study humans. If you want to study people's feelings, ask them about their feelings. Cadavers and fMRIs and chimps should be secondary tools to validate what you learn from humans, not the other way around.*

    I think you're being too hard on sex scientists. The vast majority of sex research IS self-report from humans - just pick up any academic sex journal. It's all self-report about what people feel, want, think, and do. (BTW, cadavers and fMRIs are also measurements of humans, just because they're not measures of what living, humans consciously say doesn't make them any less valid or 'human').


    It's only a small subset of only a small subset of sex research that uses hard measurement and we shouldn't be shutting them down the minute the results don't fit our ideals about how the world should be.. I don't like that men might be more aware of what their cocks are doing than women are aware of what their pussies are doing, but if that is the reality, then I would please like to know about it. (and I'm not saying that it is, perhaps VPG is not the best method for measuring female genital arousal - only time and more research will tell.)

    To accuse sex scientists of doing only or mostly non-self-report science is simply wrong.

    To discard non-self-report science as irrelevant or invalid is narrow-minded and extremely unscientific.

    humans are not ice, so there are no perfect measurements for them. subjective and objective measurements may be telling us different things about us, but they are both real and relevant, and we should measure and study both.

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  43. Hey Cliff,
    do you know the dirty normal?
    If not, it kinda ties in nicely to what you write.
    cheers
    p.

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