This week, a new study suggested hookups might be harmful to psychological well-being, North Carolina passed a law that will force health teachers to tell students abortion causes pre-term birth, and a man was held up at knifepoint, with only his condom taken.
This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
Study: Casual Sex Linked to Psychological Distress
A new study, published in the Journal of Sex Research, found a negative link between casual sex and various measures of psychological well-being among heterosexual college students. Researchers surveyed more than 3,900 college students ages 18 to 25 who attended over 30 institutions across the country. Participants were asked if they had engaged in “casual sex”—which was defined as having sex with a partner they had known for less than one week—in the month prior to the study. Participants then answered questions designed to help researchers assess their well-being (including self-esteem, life satisfaction, psychological well-being, and sense of having found themselves) and their level of psychological distress (including general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression).
Despite the fact that the media would have us believe that college students are humping near-strangers daily, the researchers found relatively low rates of casual sex. In fact, only 11 percent of participants said they had had casual sex during the past month, though college men were more likely to report casual sex (18 percent) than college women (7 percent).
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The researchers found that the men and women who had recently engaged in casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and happiness compared to students who had not had casual sex in the past 30 days. Participants who had recently engaged in casual sex also reported higher levels of general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression compared their peers who had not had casual sex recently. Though the researchers had expected to find such results for college women, they were surprised to find that there was no differences between genders.
The authors caution that this research does not suggest that casual sex, in and of itself, causes psychological distress. Given how few college students engage in such behaviors, it is possible that the issues of self-esteem and anxiety are what lead young people to have casual sex in the first place. In addition, previous studies have suggested that factors specific to the situation—such as whether the partners were drinking and whether there was hope of a future relationship—affected whether those who engaged in casual sex regretted it later. The authors of this study, therefore, suggested that the effect of casual sex on well-being could be entirely situational.
That said, they believe this topic warrants further study and argue that it is “premature to conclude that casual sexual encounters pose no harmful psychological risks for young adults.” They go on to suggest the implications of their finding:
[P]ractitioners, STI/HIV counselors, and college administrators may wish to consider the broader health ramifications of casual sexual behaviors, given the link between mental health and sexual attitudes and behaviors. Efforts aimed at promoting positive sexual development and sexual health in college-aged individuals may wish to underscore the benefits of committed relationships and highlight the potentially negative psychological correlates of sex with relative strangers.
North Carolina Law Will Make Health Teachers Lie to Kids
Unfortunately, it is not rare for young people to hear inaccuracies about sex, contraception, pregnancy, and abortion in school, but North Carolina has taken it to a new level by forcing teachers to lie to their students. As Robin Marty reported last week, SB 132 was passed last week by both chambers of the state legislature. The original version of the bill would have required teachers to tell students that abortion causes pre-term birth in future pregnancies. There is no evidence that this statement is true, and none of the major medical associations recognize abortion as a cause of pre-term birth. Despite the facts, when legislators reworked the bill, they did not take this misinformation out—they just buried it a little. The version that passed and is poised to be signed by the governor now requires educators to list abortion as one of the things that can cause pre-term birth, along with along with smoking, drinking, drug use, and lack of prenatal care. Putting it in list form does not make it any less inaccurate.
Man Held Up at Knifepoint for a Condom?
A man who was walking out of an Erie, Pennsylvania, bar at 10:30 p.m. one evening several weeks ago says he was mugged at knifepoint by two men. They did not steal his wallet or his cell phone. Police confirm that the only thing stolen was the condom the victim was carrying. It’s unclear whether the victim was carrying anything else of value or if the thieves really were just after some protection.
There are many easier ways to get condoms, even free ones—I guess we can only hope that the thieves didn’t use the knife to open the condom as well.
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.
TLC defended its special, saying that the views it depicts are strictly those of the participants. What the network didn't say was that many of the show's participants are affiliated with organizations tied to the discredited "ex-gay" movement.
This weekend, TLC brought viewers its newest reality special, My Husband’s Not Gay, which examines the lives of three couples and a bachelor. The four men, all Mormons, have chosen to ignore their same-sex attractions in order to live within the rules of the church. Before the special even aired, critics protested, arguing that the show promoted “dangerous” “ex-gay” ideology that could prove harmful to LGBT viewers, particularly young ones. TLC, meanwhile, maintained that the hour-long show was just a glimpse into individual lifestyles and that the people featured spoke only for themselves. However, the participants’ connections to an organization with a mission to help Mormon men who are attracted to men live heterosexual, or at least asexual, existences calls that argument into question. Having watched the special in its entirety, it seems clear to me that the stars of the My Husband’s Not Gay were using the show as a platform to advance—at least implicitly—a message from a group with ties to the discredited “ex-gay” movement.
The show opens with one couple, Jeff and Tanya, making breakfast in their upscale suburban Salt Lake City kitchen. They have been married for nine years and have one son. In their first on-camera interview, Jeff explains, “One of the unique things about our relationship is that I experience SSA, or same-sex attraction.”
Tanya quickly adds, “Not gay; SSA.” The difference being, of course, that gay people act on those same-sex impulses.
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Jeff continues, “We’re Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, and the only acceptable expression of sexuality and romantic feelings is within a marriage between a man and a woman.”
The next couple to be introduced is Pret and Megan. They explain that they’ve known each other since they were 15. Megan instantly had a crush on him. Pret, meanwhile, explains that he was not attracted to her: “Growing up, I thought for a long time that I was gay. I thought these feelings defined me. I didn’t think I would ever get married. I wanted to.” After what the couple describes as an on-again-off-again romance, he and Megan married eight years ago.
In addition, we meet Curtis and Tera. They have been married for 20 years, but it wasn’t until four years ago that Curtis acknowledged his SSA. And then there’s Tom, a really friendly bachelor who makes a lot of jokes about being gay and thinks he’s ready to get involved in a relationship with a woman. All of the men talk openly about being attracted to men, about being more attracted to men than they are to women, and about their commitment to not acting on these feelings.
I’m sure many people will see this special as sad and say these men are not being true to their identity, or that they are lying to themselves and their wives. Having watched it, I’m not so sure. I do think it’s sad that anyone feels as if they have to choose between their faith and their innate sexual desires—and I can’t say I would have made the same decision as these devoutly religious men. Even so, I can’t fault them for making the choice.
However, I do fault them, and My Husband’s Not Gay’s producers, for the disingenuous nature of the program. Savvy—but certainly not all—viewers know that all reality television is, by its nature, insincere. Producers do not turn cameras on and let life roll. They set up situations that promise awkward exchanges, confrontation, and drama. And this show is no exception.
In this special, we see both a prayer group and a hike to which outsiders who had not heard of SSA were invited, the cameras filming the newcomers’ initial reactions. We watch a game of basketball between the guys and a group of attractive straight men who agreed to be “skins” so we could see the SSA in action. Then there was the brunch with the hot waiter, to whom the men rated their attraction on a “danger scale” from one to four; the shopping trip where the men just happened to run into an acquaintance who had decided to leave the church and be openly gay; and the tense conversation between Jeff and Tanya about whether he should go on an overnight camping trip with the guys.
Even as the structure of the show tried to claim that these men’s heterosexual lives were healthy and happy, these scenes made it evident—at least to me—that battling with their underlying sexual desires is apparently a constant struggle. And in the interview scenes, rather than acknowledge this battle, the men instead talked constantly about SSA, each having an identical explanation of how it was different from being gay. Overall, the participants came off as if they were sticking to pre-determined talking points, mostly about how identity is different from action.
Perhaps that is not surprising, though, considering their affiliations. Jeff never makes this clear in the special, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, he is the spokesperson for North Star International, an organization that exists to help Mormon men who are attracted to men live within the confines of the church. Jeff also identified himself as North Star’s co-founder in a 2013 op-ed for the New York Post. Though North Star claims not to practice reparative therapy—which is designed to change someone’s orientation to heterosexuality—last year it absorbed the work of Evergreen International, an organization that did, in fact, promote this kind of treatment. Moreover, in his op-ed, Jeff noted having been through the therapy himself, which he refers to as Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE); he called it a revelation.
The Salt Lake Tribune also reports that Pret was the chairman of Evergreen before North Star absorbed it; he is now on North Star’s board. His wife Megan has worked with both Evergreen and North Star, in addition to a third organization called People Can Change, which, according to its website, exists to “support and guide men who seek to transition away from unwanted homosexuality, by courageously and compassionately sharing our own first-hand experience with change.” And although Curtis and Tera do not have positions at North Star, they have both given testimonials about its effectiveness that appear on the site.
Again, North Star argues that it does not practice reparative therapy outright. But given that the participants of My Husband’s Not Gay seem to be guided by its ideologies, it is vital to consider how its rhetoric is similar to that historically used by proponents of the now-discredited, sometimes dangerous “ex-gay” movement.
Similarities to the “Ex-Gay” Movement
The “ex-gay” movement, which used the aforementioned SOCE to help men “pray away the gay,” essentially began in the mid-1970s, when mainstream psychiatric organizations finally acknowledged that homosexuality was not a mental illness and changed the goal of working with homosexual clients from changing their sexual orientation to helping them live in a society that wasn’t always accepting of them.
A small group of psychiatrists, however, clung to the belief that sexual orientation could be changed and formed a new professional organization called NARTH (the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) to support colleagues who wanted to continue using SOCE.
In truth, though, most people who have been through reparative therapy have not done so with a licensed therapist. As mainstream mental health professionals moved away from treating homosexuality as a disease that needed a cure, the baton was picked up by religious organization and ministries.
Some organizations offered guided Bible study and prayer sessions; some practiced aversion therapy, in which patients were subjected to electric shocks or other unpleasant sensations if or when they reacted to homoerotic material; and some guided clients toward heterosexual relationships and experiences. Most “ex-gay” ministries, such as the largest one, Exodus International, were created by and for evangelical Christians, but it seems clear that Evergreen International and People for Change played similar roles for Mormon men.
North Star seems to be selling itself as a kinder and gentler version of these reparative therapy practitioners. It does not try to change members’ underlying sexual attraction; instead, its officials say it helps them live in accordance with Mormon rules, which means either being celibate or entering into a heterosexual marriage. The organization’s mission is “to provide a place of community for Latter-day Saints who experience homosexual attraction or gender identity incongruence, as well as their family, friends, and ecclesiastical leaders.” In its values section, it claims that it “takes no official position on the origin or mutability of homosexual attractions or gender identity incongruence but supports all efforts consistent with the gospel that help individuals live in more full harmony with their covenants.”
This seems to leaves a lot of room for SOCE. Even if the organization has moved away from the harsher reparative therapy practices, there’s still an underlying tone of shame throughout its literature that is reminiscent of other “ex-gay” groups’. Though it allows for members to have same-sex attraction, it says that these urges should be resisted and redirected and continues to remind members that homosexual behavior is a serious sin. It suggests that same-sex relationships can provide only temporary comfort, but that sacrificing this for greater righteousness is the path of true happiness. Like People for Change, North Star suggests that being more masculine and spending quality time with other men can help men overcome their same-sex attraction but tells its members not to worry if they still don’t like sports, as many straight men don’t either. More importantly, it frequently mentions change—there is hope, it says, because you can change.
Overall, while North Star might not be supporting reparative therapy in the sense of offering direct services to change one’s sexuality, it is also definitely not saying, “Don’t worry, you’re just fine the way you are.”
Appealing But Dangerous
It is understandable that people who are committed to a faith that doesn’t accept homosexuality would turn to an outside organization for help or comfort. In a 2002 article, psychiatrist Jeff Ford, who both went through and provided reparative therapy as part of an “ex-gay” ministry, likened it to a strict cult: “The followers are sincere and devout; they believe what they are saying with their heart, mind, and soul.” He explains that in the beginning, finding the “ex-gay” ministry gave him hope and a forum for acknowledging what he had been going through all his life: “To move from feeling isolated and alone into a community where others have shared similar life experiences is overwhelming. It’s right up there with falling in love or tasting chocolate for the first time.
Ford’s experience, however, quickly soured as he was subjected to aversion therapy. “The process, in my opinion, was barbaric and abusive. I felt ashamed and embarrassed waiting in the outer office with patients of other therapists. I would try to hide my arm or wear long-sleeved shirts so others wouldn’t see the burn marks as I left,” he wrote. It also didn’t work. Ford fell in love with a man during his therapy.
This is not uncommon. Many leaders of the “ex-gay” movement have since come out—either voluntarily or involuntarily—as having relationships with men. Michael Bussee, who created the first “ex-gay” ministry, EXIT, before helping to found Exodus, acknowledged that he fell in love with a fellow male counselor. Eventually the two men left their wives and married each other. In 2006, Bussee apologized for his role in the movement, saying: “Not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight. Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart—sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing.”
Similarly, John Smid, the former director of Exodus affiliate Love in Action, told MSNBC host Chris Matthews in 2011 that he is gay and that it actually impossible to change one’s sexual orientation.
In those decades, another blow to the “ex-gay” movement came in the form of a report by the American Psychological Association, released in 2009. A special committee found that therapy grounded in religious beliefs that see homosexuality as sinful “are not based on theories that can be scientifically evaluated.” The task force went on to note, “The results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex sexual attractions or increase other-sex attractions through SOCE (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts).”
More importantly, the report concluded that SOCE was potentially harmful. The task force said it had concerns about the safety of SOCE and the unintended harms noted by some participants including “loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety.”
The Movement Largely Crumbled
After many leaders came out as still gay despite reparative therapy, and others got caught having same-sex affairs, many “ex-gay” organizations shut down. As Rewirereported, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, announced in 2012 that the organization would no longer practice reparative therapy because, as he and other leaders were realizing, it didn’t work. Then, in 2013, the organization closed for good.
And after Evergreen International closed last year, it announced that North Star would take over its mailing lists and some of its other operations. Interestingly, Pret was the one who made the announcement. (The website MormonWiki.com calls the transaction a merger of the two organizations.)
Again, North Star doesn’t explicitly seek to outright reduce same-sex attraction the way SOCE organizations do. Still, as the men of My Husband’s Not Gay assured viewers that they’d accepted their same-sex attraction without actually being gay, the whole special took on an air of propaganda, as though it had been put together by North Star International to breath life into the dying “ex-gay” movement. In fact, six of the participants also have videos on the organization’s site as part of a series called Stories of Hope. The stories they tell there are similar to what we saw on TV but more focused on the role of religion, the immorality of homosexuality, and, again, the possibility of change.
While I respect these couples’ right to live their lives as they see fit, I think it’s unfortunate that TLC gave them this platform. TLC can say what it wants about the opinions being solely those of the participants, but it doesn’t change the fact that by putting a glossy and, in my opinion, insincere version of these men’s lives on display, the network is suggesting that it’s possible for men with same-sex attraction to simply choose not to be gay. The history of the “ex-gay” movement, and the very men who started it, says otherwise.