Last Mother’s Day, news had just broken that then-Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner had tweeted a picture of his erect penis to a woman, thinking the tweet was private. The blogosphere immediately erupted in debates over the relative merits of women over men, the moral weight of adultery (Weiner is married), and the need for public officials to stop thinking they understand new media.
For me, however, a central question raised by the event was never fully addressed: what is it with men and photos of their erect penises?
In the 12 months that have passed since the Weiner incident, I have received unsolicited penis pictures from several men I wasn’t dating, didn’t plan on dating, and in some cases didn’t even really know.
And I am not alone. Only just this week, a friend of mine received an erect-penis picture via text from a coworker who had intended it for his girlfriend but then thumbed in the wrong number.
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In fact, a quick poll of those of my (male and female) friends who cared to answer the question shows that un-solicited penis pictures are not all that uncommon. Interestingly, the women I asked all said they had never sent photos of their genitalia to anyone. Absent more representative polling (and somehow I don’t think this question has ever made it into a survey), let’s just say for now that men are more likely to take and send photos of their genitalia than women.
The question is why? And… so what?
Here’s my theory.
Men and women are taught to deal with social situations differently. Men and boys are overwhelmingly taught to depend on themselves, to be direct, and to celebrate their physical strength. Women and girls, on the other hand, are taught the value of social coherence and politeness, and are often not encouraged to celebrate their bodies at all. Whether these are innate sex differences or acquired characteristics is an open question, but socially, for most people, and in varying degrees, the sciences agree that gender (i.e. learned norms), if not sex (i.e. biological distinctions), makes a difference.
This is the framework that makes a man more likely than a woman to think a photo of an erect penis is a good way to communicate something positive about a man’s body. And it is the same framework that makes a woman more likely than a man to worry if she is overweight or unattractive (which according to prevailing norms often is seen as synonymous).
Like most internalized behavioural patterns, the difference is the starkest when the individual feels threatened.
In the context of an inter-personal relationship this means — to be slightly clichéd about it— that men are more likely to react to insecurity by reasserting their physical superiority (“You have never seen a bigger dick than mine!”) and women are more likely to react by begging for approval (“Does this dress make my ass look big?”). Both proclamations get old fast, not least because anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of either knows there is only one appropriate answer, regardless the truth: “Of course not.”
But even if you transplant this dynamic to a professional or other public arena, these somewhat primitive reactions are problematic. Men are more likely to assert their superiority — despite and often because of any insecurity they might feel — whereas women are more likely to phrase statements as declarations of submission — despite being experts in their field and sometimes precisely because they are.
This very real gender difference is at least partially at fault when it comes to companies and society more generally valuing women’s work less than men’s: women, themselves, tend to play down their own value.
To be sure, there is no research on the relation between penis pictures, gendered social cues, and how it relates to job performance and pay rates. Moreover, I am certainly not trying to blame women for the discrimination they suffer. And I don’t believe any of these tendencies are universal, absolute, or inevitable.
However, there is more than enough science to support the existence of gendered reactions to threats and insecurity, and to point out the different ways in which boys and girls are taught to think about and enjoy their bodies, even today.
Perhaps more to the point, male (sexual) aggression — even when solicited, welcomed, and enjoyed — is part of a gendered framework that, if imposed in a general and mechanical manner, hurts us all. In fact, research shows that gendered norms make men much less likely than women to seek medical or other help for physical and mental health issues, with very real consequences for their health and happiness.
So, gals, next time you put on your favourite dress, ask yourself how you feel, not how someone else might think you look. And guys: if you find yourself about to snap a picture of your junk, ask yourself if that really is your best side, and if you wouldn’t rather be known for who you are.
Many men pretend to have orgasms to make their partners feel better—and report higher levels of sexual satisfaction, at the same time. Another study suggests that the more ejaculation, the better if men want to reduce their prostate cancer risk. And there may be more help for women with sexual arousal problems.
This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
When Men “Fake It,” Their Motives Are Often Altruistic
In the pilot episode of the TV show Masters of Sex, Dr. William Masters seems shocked to learn that women might fake orgasms. When he asks his new assistant, Virginia Johnson (who becomes his research partner and later his wife), why women might do such a thing, she replies: “To get a man to climax quickly. Usually so the woman can get back to whatever it is she’d rather be doing.”
Masters and Johnson, whose real-life work and relationship was fictionalized in that Showtime series, were pioneers of sex research in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who follow in their footsteps today are still trying to answer some of the same questions.
A new study from two Canadian researchers looks not at why women fake orgasms, but why men do—and what, if any, correlation there is between faking it and relationship satisfaction.
Researchers surveyed 230 young men between ages 18 and 29 who had admitted to faking an orgasm at least once in their current relationship. Using an online survey, they asked these men at what point in their relationship they began to fake orgasms, how often they did so, and why. They also measured sexual desire and relationship satisfaction.
On average, the men began faking orgasms 14 months into the relationship. On average, the men said they faked an orgasm in about 30 percent of their sexual encounters; 71 percent of participants reported having faked an orgasm during penile-vaginal intercourse; 27 percent during oral sex; 22 percent during anal intercourse; 18 percent during manual stimulation by a partner; and 5 percent while being stimulated with a sex toy by a partner.
Many of the reasons the men gave for faking orgasm revolved around making their partners feel better—including giving their partner an ego boost, feigning simultaneous orgasms, or avoiding upsetting their partner.
Interestingly, men who faked it for these relationship reasons tended to report higher levels of sexual desire. The authors theorize, “It is possible that men feel good when giving a partner pleasure, either out of love and generosity, or because it provides indirect reassurance of their own sexual adequacy, leading them to associate this reward with sexual activity, further leading them to seek more sex (i.e., experience higher levels of sexual desire).”
Men who faked orgasms also had higher levels of relationship satisfaction, though the authors point out that pretending might not lead to relationship satisfaction; those who are already satisfied may be more likely to fake orgasms for the sake of their partner’s feelings.
While it’s reassuring to know that some men fake orgasms for altruistic reasons, we here at This Week in Sex are not big fans of the fake orgasm, regardless of the gender or the reason. Once in a while is understandable “to get back to whatever it is [you’d] rather be doing,” as Johnson said. But, for the most part, we think it’s better to talk to partners about why you didn’t have a real one this time and what could be different next time.
Is Frequent Ejaculation a Cancer Prevention Method?
Another new study found that men who ejaculated more frequently were less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer. Researchers followed about 32,000 men for almost 20 years, using the national Health Professionals Follow-up Study at the Harvard School of Public Health. The men were all in their 20s when the study started in 1992 and therefore their 40s (or close to it) when it ended in 2010. They filled out questionnaires that asked about their sexual behavior (including masturbation), and researchers also looked at the men’s medical records.
During the course of the study, about 4,000 of the men were diagnosed with prostate cancer. The researchers’ analysis showed that men who ejaculated at least 21 times a month in their 20s were 19 percent less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than men who ejaculated no more than seven times a month at that age. Similarly, men who ejaculated more often in their 40s were 22 percent less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer diagnosis.
There are some limitations of the study, including the possible inaccuracy of self-reported data on ejaculation and the lack of diversity among participants. In addition, one urologist who spoke to Reuters questioned the fact that the relationship between ejaculation and prostate cancer applied mostly to less invasive forms of the disease. Dr. Behfar Ehdaie of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who was not part of the study, noted: “If ejaculation frequency was truly a causal factor for prostate cancer development, we would expect to find the association across all prostate cancer risk categories.”
And, of course, correlation does not equal causation. There could be other reasons that men who ejaculate less often are more likely to get prostate cancer. Specifically, as study co-author Dr. Jennifer Rider points out, men who ejaculate less than three times a month may be suffering from other health issues.
Still, there could be a prevention strategy in the findings. Rider told Reuters in an email: “The results of our study suggest that ejaculation and safe sexual activity throughout adulthood could be a beneficial strategy for reducing the risk of prostate cancer.”
Given that ejaculation tends to be enjoyable, it seems like a pretty good idea to try even while more research into the correlation is being conducted.
Emerging Options for Women With Sexual Arousal Issues
When the drug Addyi was under development, people referred to it as “female Viagra” because it was intended to address women’s sexual dysfunction. But the two treatments actually work very differently. While Viagra causes an erection by increasing blood flow to the penis, Addyi (or flibanserin) works on chemicals in the brain to increase sexual desire.
Now, researchers are developing a new treatment for women that is actually much more similar to Viagra. A company called Creative Medical Technologies filed a patent last week for a treatment that uses regenerative stem cells to increase blood flow to the vagina. Unlike Addyi, this treatment is designed for women who desire sex but are having trouble becoming aroused. Increasing blood flow to the vagina can cause the clitoris to become erect and the vagina to lubricate, both of which are important parts of the arousal stage of sexual response.
The treatment still needs more research and, of course, FDA approval, which was a very controversial process for Addyi’s maker. Moreover, it’s not clear how big the market is for female sexual dysfunction treatment, as prescriptions for Addyi have been low since its market release last October.
Some advocates are calling the Food and Drug Administration's historical hesitation to approve a drug that would treat low sex drive in women sexist; others are saying the development of the medication itself is sexist. Who's in the right?
Last week, Sprout Pharmaceutical resubmitted its New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the approval of flibanserin, a medication designed to increase sex drive in women suffering from what has been called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). The FDA has rejected the drug twice before, asking for more research on its safety. This has prompted some people—many of whom identify as feminists—to call the agency sexist and to argue that if the medication were for men, it would have been on pharmacy shelves already. Other advocates, however, think drugs like flibanserin should never make it to market at all, because they believe that HSDD was made up by companies trying to profit off of women’s sexual insecurities. So, what is this pill, why are so many people fighting about it, and is there a happy medium here?
Flibanserin, which will likely have a sexier name if or when it is available for sale, was originally developed as an anti-depressant. As such, it works on neurotransmitters in the brain—increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and decreasing levels of serotonin. In trials, this rebalancing of brain chemistry seems to also increase women’s desire for sex. “Cara,” a woman who has become a bit of a spokesperson (albeit one going by a pseudonym) on behalf of the company’s efforts with the FDA, explained to Marie Claire that she and her husband had wonderful sexual chemistry before kids, but that all but disappeared once she became a mother: “That broke [my husband’s] heart. He’d be lying next to me and I could just feel his anger and sadness in the air.” After she joined the drug trial, she says, her libido returned. As she noted, “Flibanserin helped me remember that person I used to be.”
But, like other antidepressants, flibanserin has side effects—most notably nausea and sleepiness—which were reported by 10 percent of the women, some of whom said their drowsiness was intense enough to interfere with their ability to drive. The FDA cited side effects like these as the main reason for rejecting the drug the first time it was up for review in 2010. At the time, a panel of experts unanimously voted against it because they believed the benefits did not outweigh the risks. The drug’s initial developer, Boehringer Ingelheim, then sold the drug to Sprout, which conducted additional efficacy and safety studies before resubmitting an application for approval. This second application was rejected in 2013; after a formal dispute of the decision, the FDA asked the company to provide more data on flibanserin’s interactions with other medications.
One particular concern is how the drug will combine with a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications increase serotonin in the brain, which is the opposite of what flibanserin does. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, doctors consider SSRI use to be linked to many women’s low sex drives. The application Sprout filed last week included more information on drug interactions like these.
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Ahead of the filing, Sprout and supporters have been lobbying hard for the drug’s approval and gone so far as to call the FDA’s rejection of the earlier applications sexist. Several prominent women’s rights groups, as well as some lawmakers, have joined with a group of drug companies all working on this issue to create the Even the Score campaign. Those behind the campaign argue that men have 26 drugs to address sexual dysfunction, while women have none; they say, “Treatments for women’s sexual dysfunction seem to be held to a different standard for approval at the FDA, and women suffer the consequences due to lack of access to safe and effective treatments.”
As Coco Jervis of the Women’s Health Network explains in a recent piece for Rewire, however, these arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny very well. First, she points out that men only have 26 drugs if you count every duplicate drug (a brand name and all of its copies)—in reality, men have about six solutions for sexual dysfunction. And while this is six solutions more than women have, this doesn’t mean sexism is at play.
On a biological level, men and women function very differently when it comes to sexual arousal and performance. Viagra—and medication like it—is all about the plumbing. Men who get aroused but fail to get erections take the pill when they want to have sex, and it increases blood flow to the penis. That is far simpler and more direct than a treatment like flibanserin, which is trying to change how women’s brains are wired and must be taken every day. In a statement made last year, the FDA said, “We do not believe there has been any gender bias with regard to our review of this drug.”
Jervis brings up another important point about the “score” that the campaign is trying to even. She notes that it is unfair to directly compare women’s sexual dysfunction—which is a wide-ranging and not well-defined concept—with men’s impotence. She writes:
The word “dysfunction”—medical jargon for anything that doesn’t work the way it should—suggests that there is an acknowledged norm for female sexual function. That norm has never been established. Although male sexuality is more complex than sheer physical arousal, erections are quantifiable events that scientists can measure in objective terms. By contrast, cis women’s sexual response is, by and large, qualitative, and difficult to subject to clinical trials. Furthermore, as we all already know, sexual desire differs over time and between people for a range of reasons largely related to relationships, life situations, past experiences, and individual and social expectations—and “normality” can vary widely from person to person.
In fact, there is not widespread agreement about whether HSDD, the disorder filbaserin is designed to treat, even exists. In an op-ed for theNew York Times, sex educator and author Emily Nagoski points out that HSDD was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 and replaced with female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD). The reason, she explains, is that women often follow a different pattern of sexual desire than expected. Rather than experiencing sexual desire as a spontaneous, frequent occurrence, Nagoski says, many women need to be aroused first. Then, she says, desire will follow. Sexual desire, in this case, is reactive. FSIAD is intended to describe women who have neither spontaneous or reactive desire, many of whom, according to Nagoski, can be helped with non-pharmaceutical treatments like therapy.
Which brings us to those sexual health experts who believe the drug would do a disservice to women. Leonore Tiefer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, has been an outspoken critic of efforts to create drugs to treat women’s sexual health. She told NPR, “The misrepresentation that everybody should be having it—needs to have it, wants to have it, has a problem if they don’t have it—is to change, really, what sexuality is into more of a medical thing.” And, as she added in Marie Claire, “The pharmaceutical industry wants people to think that sexual problems are simple medical matters, and it offers drugs as expensive magic fixes.”
Those who take this view would often prefer to see a concentration on the emotional and relationship components of sexuality, which may very well be at the core of women’s lack of sexual desire. They also point out, again, that all women are different and there is no “right” amount of sexual desire to be “fixed” with medication. Adriane Fugh-Berman, who studies drug companies at Georgetown University, told NPR, “There’s really been a move toward medicalizing normal human experience. And while there are certainly some women who have very troublesome symptoms of low libido, it’s not at all clear that medication is a good answer for them.”
Drug companies indeed stand to profit off women—that is an unmistakable consequence of the availability of a “Viagra for women” on the market. But caught in the fight between them and the scholars who think this medicalization of sexuality is the wrong direction for society are the women themselves. And many of them, like Cara, just want to see their sex drive—which is often buried under kids, laundry, and a full-time job—return to what it used to be.
To me, there seems to be a pretty clear middle ground here (though I realize those on each side of the issue will likely disagree). If a drug can help a woman want and enjoy sex again, that is not in of itself a bad thing. It seems almost cruel to deny her pharmaceutical relief on the grounds that she’s a victim of society’s unrealistic expectations about female sexual desire. It’s dismissive to suggest that her feelings on the issue are not at all her own. And it is demeaning to suggest that a woman didn’t notice her lack of sexual desire until drug companies came along with a solution.
Of course, at the same time, the FDA needs to be extremely cautious (as it has been) before approving any drug that is working on something as important and complicated as brain chemistry. And, if it takes a lot longer to get it right and effective than it did for drugs that make men hard, that’s not sexism—that’s just reality. If it does hit the market, health-care providers should help women carefully decide if this is the right choice.
Women deserve sexual desire and pleasure. For some, it will come easily. For others it may take therapy, relationship counseling, or finding a better partner. And, someday, for others it may come in an easy-to-swallow pill. It’s time to stop bickering and slinging accusations and instead let women find their sexual satisfaction through whatever means works best for them.