Posts Tagged ‘Sex’

The Sex Myth begins with an anecdote. Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour) describes a phase in her childhood when she and her friends were in competition to discover the ‘truth’ about the naked body of the opposite sex. The girls were particularly inventive, and would look under cubicle doors in the boys’ toilets, craning their necks to get a glimpse of a fleshy member (p1-3). I found this story engaging, fascinating and not a little Freudian. For, as Magnanti states, one of the ‘sex myths’ of our age is that children are innocent and sexuality only develops with the onset of puberty in our teens. But Magnanti uses her childhood investigations of how not to do sex research. Now she is a grown up, a doctor (PhD), a scientist, she knows the difference between ‘bad science’ and ‘good science’. Or does she? This is the main question I had whilst reading her book. And, unfortunately, I think the answer has to be ‘no’.

Worryingly, I don’t even think Bagnanti knows the difference between ‘science’ and ‘social science’. Right at the beginning of the book she writes:

‘In recent years a large number of researchers have looked into areas of human experience previously assumed to be untestable. Questions such as whether porn is harmful, or how childhood is affected by sexuality, can now be examined in a way that is consistent with evidence-based reasoning. Not only that, people who study different disciplines are starting to realise the advantages of interdisciplinary study, with social science enriching the finds of quantitative methods and vice versa. [emphasis mine]’ (p5).

This suggests that ‘social science’ does not include ‘quantitative methods’ when in fact a large section of sociological study is based on quantitative (numerical) data. I found this to be a glaring error and a sign that this is a book by an academic with little interest in the complexities and value of social science. My reaction is borne out by the lack of bibliography in the book. Magnanti includes her references in endnotes, which, on close examination, reveal that she uses very few social science/theory books in her work. Most of the references are from scientific academic journals and the popular media. This is a ‘bias’ that should be acknowledged I think. For one of the greatest myths I know of in sex research is that ‘science’ is objective, rigorous and the best way to get to the ‘truth’. My experience has shown otherwise.

The most obviously ‘bad’ science that Magnanti uses is in her chapter one, where she sets out to debunk the myth that ‘when it comes to sexual attraction, men are visually stimulated and always interested in sex – and women aren’t’ (p9). To do this she uses the scientific ‘experiments’ of a group of American researchers from Northwestern University. The most well known of these is J Michael Bailey. He found his way into the news last year when he included a live sex show  in one of his lectures to students. The two adults involved were consenting, thankfully.  Serious ethical questions were raised however, over whether the audience were consenting, the value of the results from such a sensationalist method, and the effects of the media reaction on everyone involved.

But my concerns about using Bailey’s work uncritically are not limited to that one incident. You only have to google his name to find a string of controversies relating to him and his research. The most famous relates to his book The Man Who Would Be Queen: ‘The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism’. Even the title sets off alarms, with its use of such loaded terms. Basically, in this book Bailey used his ‘sex science’ (which includes hooking people up to penile plesmographs to measure their sexual response to viewing pornography) to claim that gay men’s homosexuality is genetic. And that trans women are actually gay men. Nice. Bailey was investigated by his university, NorthWestern, and was demoted. But he remains an academic at that institution. Whatever one’s views, it seems irresponsible of Magnanti to completely ignore the furore surrounding Bailey’s research, and to present it as solid, reliable ‘science’.

Another point about Bailey that Magnanti failed to mention is that only last year, he and his colleagues had to revise their theories on bisexuality in men. They were commissioned to re-do their experiments which back in 2005 had shown that bisexual men don’t exist! The penis plesmograph never lies, except sometimes it does. This latest set of experiments, surprise surprise, showed that bisexual men do of course exist. And that even ‘science’ can be wrong sometimes.  On reporting this news, [redacted] asked:

‘So why the turn­around by Bai­ley? Well, it seems the loud and angry protests from bisex­ual organ­i­sa­tions that Bailey’s 2005 find­ings under­stand­ably aroused has taken its toll -– and indeed one bisex­ual organ­i­sa­tion even funded this recent research.

They got the result they wanted, but I fear they’re wast­ing their money and merely encour­ag­ing more bad sci­ence. Some of course will hold these find­ings up as proof that this Heath Robin­son kind of bio-mechanical sex research can cor­rect itself. But they would have to be true believ­ers to see it that way. All that has been proven is that mea­sur­ing penile blood-flow in a lab­o­ra­tory is a highly reduc­tive and highly abnor­mal mea­sure of male sex­u­al­ity. Men are not just penises. They are also prostate glands. Per­ineums. Ear­lobes. Inner thighs. Brains. Nipples.

It also shows that you get the result you’re look­ing for In 2005 Bai­ley wanted to prove that male bisex­u­al­ity didn’t exist. In 2011 he didn’t. QED. Per­haps the worst thing about this new find­ing is that Bai­ley et al will now try to turn male bisex­u­als into a ‘species’ to be stud­ied and dis­sected. Bisex­ual men may quickly come to the con­clu­sion that they were much bet­ter off when they didn’t exist. Unless of course they them­selves have a bit of a fetish for penile plethys­mo­graph play.’

Could it be that Brooke just didn’t know about the controversy surrounding Bailey? Like I said if that is the case she failed in doing basic research, such as googling his name. But she blogged about his work in 2011, and both [redacted] and I tried to tell her about the problems with it. This is the reply I got from Dr Magnanti:

This is a sign that when ‘objective’ science that is not objective at all, is questioned, it and its ‘scientists’ do not stand up very well to scrutiny.

So the first chapter of The Sex Myth showed its methodology and ‘theoretical’ basis to be seriously lacking. I read the rest of it with a sceptical arched eyebrow. I also did not learn much that was new. As another reviewer, Heresiarch noted,

‘I find a lot of this yawningly familiar by now, but many people won’t and Magnanti’s book provides an entertaining compendium of tabloid myths, as well as a source of ammunition. Whether it can do much against the juggernaut of the Daily Mail, currently engaged in a crusade to introduce compulsory web-filtering, remains to be seen. ‘

The chapter on the false correlation between rape statistics and the increase in adult entertainment establishments was the best (p79-99). I had read some of it on Brooke’s blog before, but it stood up as a tight piece of research, in comparison to some of the less rigorous work in the rest of the book. However even in that chapter, and the one questioning the motives of people campaigning against the sex industry (p209-222), Magnanti was very vague about politics. An uninitiated reader of The Sex Myth might come away from it thinking Brooke was the first person to criticise ‘feminism’ and its views on sex/sex work.  This is of course not the case.

Magnanti fails to acknowledge the politicisation of sex workers, who have been campaigning for years against anti-sex work feminists such as Julie Bindel. She also makes no reference to Sex Positive Feminism which has too been going for years, and has posed a direct challenge to draconian ‘conservative’ anti-sex feminism.  And, even in the realm of science, Magnanti ignores the ‘skeptic’ movement and the critical approach to science and science reporting employed (often very selectively I might add) by people such as Ben Goldacre.

It seems to me as if Magnanti is trying to reinvent the wheel. And to stand alone as a unique ‘sexpert’ in the field of sex, science and politics. Well she is actually one of many women (and men) who has staked a claim as having knowledge in this field. I was particularly disappointed in The Sex Myth because I actually think Magnanti is a very able writer. Of all the ‘sex bloggers’ and sex writers I have read including Zoe Margolis, Susie Bright, Bitchy Jones and Hugo Schwyzer I think Belle de Jour was one of the best. I would have been happy for Magnanti to have continued from her childhood anecdote that she began the book with, rather than promoting herself as a scientist as she did. Especially since she has relied upon and peddled such bad science.

‘According to a new study by researchers at Ohio State University, the oft-cited statistic that men think about sex, on average, about once every seven seconds can safely be put to bed—in a college-age population of 163 mixed-gender respondents, the median frequency of sexual thoughts for men was just 19. Women, meanwhile, weren’t far behind at a median of 10 naughty thoughts per day.

The lead author on the study, Dr. Terri Fisher, explained in a press release that the impetus for the research was partly to dispense with the notion that men are slaves to their more carnal instincts, as well as to show that women aren’t so innocent, either.

“It’s amazing the way people will spout off these fake statistics that men think about sex nearly constantly and so much more often than women do,” she said. “When a man hears a statement like that, he might think there’s something wrong with him because he’s not spending that much time thinking about sexuality, and when women hear about this, if they spend significant time thinking about sex they might think there’s something wrong with them.”’

This news confirms what I have thought all along – that men and women are not so different when it comes to our approaches to sex.

Whilst I have some scepticism about all research that aims to ‘measure’ people’s sexual interests and responses, I welcome the findings. I also hope there may be a study soon that shows men are not massively ‘more visual’ than women when it comes to sexual stimulation.

As I have said before, people do not fit the gender binary imposed upon them. And when we try and mould our attitudes to sex(uality) around that binary we fail. This is borne out by the closure of Filament Magazine, which aimed to cater for the ‘female gaze’ on men by women.

I think even the great anti-gender-essentialism thinker, Mark Simpson, sometimes slips into this men v women binary. Here, in trying to show how gay men are not actually that different from straight men in their sexualities (I agree), he ends up creating a mother/other out of women. He says:

‘The real problem with gay men, even the campest variety, is that they’re men. Men without wombs in their lives to take responsibility for or slow them down – or give life a point. But instead, lots of testosterone and spunk and spare time. It’s this that makes them homo. Why do so many gay men have so much sex and take so many drugs, often – and this is something Fanshawe utterly failed to acknowledge – even when they are in a relationship?

Because they can’.

I have had plenty of casual sex in my life, and my womb has not got in the way at all. Simpson forgot for a moment the wise words of his friend Steve Zeeland:

Behavior is an unreliable basis for sexual categories. Desire is immeasurable. Sexual identity is a joke.


‘I tried to explain to Mr X that it would only be really fun for me if they really genuinely hated it. And he said what about consent? And I said er…

That’s why I shouldn’t be allowed out to explore my sadistic side. I am quite a literal person.’

That in fact sums up my whole problem with sex. I have to hate it to enjoy it but that is hard to arrange, without risking genuine debasement/assault/despair. And all the feminist submissive books and blogs in all the world have not told me how to reconcile that paradox. And neither has Mr Foucault.

Also- why hasn’t anyone just said that? Why do they write such convoluted justifications and ruminations on such a simple problem? I guess Wilde and Crisp and Vidal have said it. But hetero women never do. Not even Anais Nin. Especially not her.

Is it because women need to hang on to ‘victim status’ for when it all inevitably goes pear shaped?

Is it because they need to hang on to the myth of the Great. Dark. Man?



Posted: May 29, 2010 in Porn, Writing
Tags: ,

I have recently been in receipt of some mindblowing academic porn. I am open to all sorts of methods and media for turning me on. But nothing beats a full-on, intellectual analysis of my favourite topic of enquiry: sex.

I have come over all Dr. Ross of Scrubs fame, because I want to have sex with these ideas, this argument; it makes me want to cheat on all the other ideas and arguments I  have been dating all these years.

We live in anti-intellectual times. We live in very prescriptive, censorious times. Our bodies and minds are not respected as the beautiful, free, intelligent organs that they are and could be.

So writing and thinking about, and analysing sex has the potential to be a revolutionary act.

Except for one small detail.

If we don’t actually fuck, this whole subject becomes completely academic.