I couldn’t help but wonder, how has sex affected tech? Is this useful for our sexuality?
In a year of unprecedented time indoors, limits of where we can go, travel/eat/socialise etc., this has inevitably limited our abilities to interact (and maybe even have sexual activity) with partners, strangers, or the old ‘friends of friends’. In the face of these limitations, technology has supplemented our lives in ways many of us wouldn’t have thought possible.
Where a virus restricts our movements (something those born pre-80s HIV epidemic will remember), we now have to reorient the way we have sex: now being coined ‘sexual distancing’ (Sexpression, 2020). In times where we are recommended to have sex with a new partner with condoms (hopefully not a newsflash to you all), masks and if you’re having PIV sex, ‘doggy’, technology not only supplements sex, but enables or even creates it.
We can see this from the wapping increase of lockdown sex toy purchases (40% more than usual (Mellor, 2020)), the rise of the Zoom date, Tinder (30% increase for under 30s – love in the time of corona am I right) and Hinge downloads and record pornography consumption (some countries like India experienced a 95% spike in usage). In the absence of spending time together, we seek new ways to engage with and enact desire; my favourite lockdown story HAS to be someone being gifted £300+ of sex toys to keep themselves entertained at home. It truly is a wild time to be alive.
Sex tech is now valued as a $30 billion dollar industry. Some interest in this region, a la Karley Sciortino’s Slutever series, focus on some of the more generally ‘outrageous’ aspects of sex tech, such as AI technology in robots, VR porn and odd machinery fetishes, to name a few. Strictly speaking, sex tech refers to any form of technology that is associated with sexuality. Under this umbrella is anything from sex toys to robots, apps to wellness websites and resources. Technology has long been considered the aspect of humanity that began to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom; it is no surprise our ingenuity has been used to further our social (and sexual) lives.
Much of sex tech has been around for millennia. The oldest of which is the sex toy, originating 30,000 years ago. As some of you might already know, Venus of Willendorf (a voluptuous female statue smashed in fertility festivals) was on the scene saucing stuff up 28,000 years ago (she is counted as the birth of pornographic material). So pretty much as long as we have been rapidly advancing and revolutionising, be it manufacturing, farming/hunting with tools, or creating material culture intended to bring us sexual pleasure, we humans are certainly adaptive to our needs.
Arguably, following the birth of the internet, the creation of the smartphone, and the keen-ness of developers globally to create apps for any human need possible, sex tech has proliferated from material to virtual culture. Now, we can date online, have sexual activity through online spaces (sexting/pornographers/camming/OnlyFans/internet connected vibrators etc.), track our fertility, sexual fantasies and MORE! You could literally have some form of sex life from the comfort of your own home, without even physically meeting a new partner.
Certainly, sex tech can be considered useful, and indeed is used frequently. But how do young people of the world use it?
Although data certainly exists to represent app usage, sexting, pornography etc., there is not a significant amount of data on how the sex tech industry as a whole impacts us.
Your thoughts: has it made your life better/worse etc.:
Met my boyfriend through Tinder and it’s our four year anniversary next week!
Hinge has revolutionised dating! And long distance made so much easier by sex tech
I’ve had more sex thanks to the apps than off the apps…. not always better but more
Better better BETTER
Period tracker has been very helpful
I think it sometimes makes real sex dissapointing as it can’t always live up to it
It serves a purpose. Dry spell, if you can’t get out much, kids etc.!
Mainstream porn has kinda ruined sexuality for me
I would say better, it def opened a lot of perspectives and got me to learn about myself and others!
The proliferation and infusion of technology with our lives undoubtedly has side effects that have very real implications for our mental and even sexual health. Given that such technology exists, it might serve to replace human interaction, or at the least raise our anxieties about anything from sexual performance, body image, or a heightened awareness of just how big the dating pool, and incidentally how little fish there might be out there. Spending more time online can lead to an increased engagement with behaviours that can develop into unhealthy habits for some (frequent social media and screen time generally leads to higher levels of anxiety).
Insidious sides of technology do exist – how might some of this serve to perpetuate issues that are already clear in current sexual lives and sexuality concerning: the consent of individuals? The unrealistic and largely unethical production of mainstream porn? An increasing price gap where poorer consumers are priced out (as ingenious as sex toys are, many aren’t cheap)? Celebrities crashing OnlyFans and limiting income streams for sex workers?
These concerns are valid, although I’m positive the sexual health and education communities are rightly quick to highlight and unpick the alarming nature of some forms of sex tech.
Alas, sex tech does have its problems with sexism and unfair standards of sexuality: many women have had to fight for female sex toys cum robotics to be allowed in a ‘turn’ against ‘morality’ amongst an industry deep in VR porn (placing a user as the male in the scene) (Ramani, 2020). Along with lots of things that are centred around sex, it can be harder for the female dominated industry to maintain/obtain investment.
Sex tech should be treated as a supplement, an addition to pre-existing desires and relationships. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to engage with it – although as sex is one of humans favourite activities (surpassed only by drinking coffee apparently), we will continue to see sex tech grow.
Ultimately having the tools available to explore sexuality (many vulva owners have never had an earth-shattering orgasm until their first vibrator), kinks, fetishes and desires through safe online spaces is an educational and empowering opportunity. The fact that we can enhance our sexual knowledge through technology means that our real life experiences can be richer and more personalised.
For BDSM and LGBTQ+ communities, and those of you following sexual health and the city, many of our connections are created online. The online space is often one that favours marginalised communities, or at the least can serve to redistribute power and amplify voices. This is very Donna Haraway-esque: where the lines between real and virtual spaces become blurred, perhaps allowing women (and others!) to subvert some of the embodied restrictions of gender that impact sexuality.
The question for the future really is: will real-life sex, sexuality and bodily needs continue to shape tech, or will tech begin to shape and dictate us?
I couldn’t help but wonder: why wasn’t there a male contraceptive? No seriously, why do people with female reproductive systems have to struggle so, when our penis-owner peers live blissfully in the world of condoms, pulling out, or abstinence?! I think this needs some investigation…
What is commonly referred to as ‘The Pill’ refers to the combined hormonal contraceptive pill containing synthetically produced oestrogen and progestogen, that work to prevent ovulation (the release of an egg) and essentially make the uterus less friendly to sperm. These are therefore for people with female reproductive systems (regardless of your gender identity, contraceptive use is currently divided by biological sex categorisation). Arriving in the UK in 1961, married women were taking daily pills that had up to 7 times the potency of today’s. It is currently the UK’s most popular contraceptive, with 151 million global users.
Interestingly in 1957, Gregory Pincus (one of the men who designed the original contraceptive pill) tested the same hormones on men. Let that sink in. The technology, the ideas, were really there. Many barriers stand in the way of a male contraceptive pill: science, money, culture, politics, the lot. Before we begin looking at the (heavy) science, it must be noted; barrier methods of contraception are the only method that protects against both STIs, and pregnancy. Condoms, as far as I’m concerned, reign supreme in their powers, at 98% effective. However, in broader terms of both hormonal and long-term contraception options, they don’t quite make the popular cut.
Chewing gandarusa, a shrub, in Indonesia, showed promise of deactivating protein on sperm that helps them enter an egg during the process of fertilisation. Lack of funding, again, failed to drive this any further beyond local, herbal usage.
Again, in 2016, some hope peaked again, via a hormonal contraceptive injection. Despite its efficacy, the side effects reported were significant enough again, to halt the trial. Many of these side effects are routinely recognised as common effects of the female pill, such as depression (found 70% more diagnosed amongst Danish women in one of the largest studies conducted).
A significant difference in the development of female vs. male reproductive system contraceptives are the scientific rigour attached to male contraceptives. In contrast, the female pill was tested on poor, uneducated women in Puerto Rico without their informed consent, with much more lethal effects.
Today, it is very uncommon for uterus-owners to be fully satisfied with their contraception options, with many hoping for the release of more non-hormonal options. When surveyed on Instagram (April 2020, Lockdown 1), 70% of people surveyed (around 80) said they would be open to relying on a male contraceptive, which mirrors the general consensus of men surveyed. However, it appears to be much harder to produce male contraceptives given that penis owners are fertile (mostly) all the time, vs, the typical monthly ovulation for people with uteruses. More women then men are concerned their partners wouldn’t reliably take the pill; and even further so, given that people with uteruses carry pregnancies and thus should be afforded the right to have/not have and safely raise children (see the Reproductive Justice movement), many would still use female contraceptives.
Still, funds and enthusiasm are clearly lacking. And frankly, we want to see results.
We couldn’t help but wonder, what were the links between gut and vaginal health?
This post has been created with the wonderful @umamimami__, otherwise known as Tamara!
This one might seem like an obscure question, but bear with us. Having only come to the surface more recently in sexual health, this topic was one certainly unbeknownst to us. One immediate similarity that came to mind however is that both have bacteria that manage the environments to keep them healthy. So maybe this question isn’t so bizarre after all? Interestingly (but unfortunately), people with IBS may already be very aware of the relationship between gut and sexual health; – it can result in higher rates of erectile dysfunction, and anxiety around sex can bring on IBS symptoms.
Essentially both the gut and the vagina are environments that undergo a balancing act of good and bad bacteria. As one may (or may not!) imagine, when too much of the bad bacteria is present there can be negative consequences. The healthier the vaginal environment, the lower the risk of STIs (sexually transmitted infections), gynaecological cancer and positive birth outcomes (Cassano, 2020). This environment consists of lots of the good stuff – lactobilli produce lactic acid that makes the vagina more acidic, similar to that of wine’s acidity – that protects against infections like thrush or bacterial vaginosis (BV) (ibid). Curiously, thrush and BV can get lumped with STIs, as they might have similar symptoms – such as a burning sensation when you pee, or irregular smelling or consistency of discharge. But perhaps getting aggravated by good old PIV (penis and vagina) sex, thrush and BV have another likely culprit – the gut.
Understandably, many attribute vaginal hygiene products and sex as the no.1 suspects. Often containing perfumes, these are marketed in a noticeable way to women, who may be socialised to feel more ‘dirty’ or shameful towards their genitals. These products, along with unprotected sex, etc. can throw off the vagina’s natural pH by making the vagina more alkaline, which in turn allows the bad bacteria to flourish. This can lead to infections. It is important to differentiate between the vagina (internal) and the vulva (everything external) – both of which do not need washing with anything other than warm water.
Our friend lactobilli can also be found in the gut, where the same thing can happen – lower levels of lactobilli means that more bad bacteria can gather there. If the gut is off-balance, with lower lactobilli and bad bacteria runs rife, emerging studies have found that this can impact the bacteria in the vagina, given the closeness of the anus and the vagina (Cassano, 2020). Presence of E Coli in the gut is thought to be one of the main causes of a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Having BV, for many vagina-owners, can be a result of having penetrative sex, although this is not the only way. This infection is extremely common and 1 in 3 vagina owners will get it at some point in their lifetime. Many experience bouts of BV during their period (blood can throw off the vagina’s pH), after using perfumed hygiene products or for seemingly no reason at all. It is not fully understood yet the ways in which diet and our gut health impact our chances of getting BV however some studies have found that they are indeed linked.
We know that the largest impact on our gut health is our diet. It has been observed that the consumption of certain foods may consequently increase or decrease our likelihood of getting BV. There was a significantly lower risk of severe BV in women with high intakes of folate, vitamin E, and calcium.
Similarly, for many people who get thrush – known as candida albicans – it is often recommended to cut out yeasty/sugary foods that are literally considered to feed the infection. This bacteria is in the body already, and can grow more extensively. These foods might be some of the most glorious – beers, bread, ice-cream etc. Some suggest consuming probiotics – which can help to keep the gut healthy. There are now even proviotics, which are more directly marketed for the vagina. Probiotics can often be costly and not accessible to everyone so why not try foods that are naturally rich in probiotics like yoghurt, fermented vegetables, miso, kombucha etc.
Additionally, if you’re feeling shitty (no pun intended) from gut issues, it’s also thought to impact sex, as some hormones are produced in the gut such as serotonin which regulates our moods and can control and make blood flow better (which is very essential for erections in the penis or clitoris). This area is essentially severely under-researched, but nonetheless fascinating! There is much more to be done in the overall research around how our gut acts as a microcosm of our overall health.
I couldn’t help but wonder: what was the difference between kink and fetish? In the ages of 2020, words such as ‘kinky’ and ‘rough’ sex are often thrown around with not much care for the nuances and histories of kink. Such content is not taught in sex education – this is arguably not the same core tenets as consent, pleasure healthy relationships and STI safety. Regardless, young adults are interested in this kind of play (many a TikTok I’ve seen of people screaming “you’re honour I’m a freak!!!”).
Kink has had a long history – from Goddess Inanna from the Mesopotamian era, to Mr Sacher-Masoch’s tales of being kept by a dominant woman – although it has still seen a large amount of stigmatisation in the world of sexuality (no doubt abetted by Freud and his theories). It was as recently as 2010 that in America, distinctions were made between consenting adults choosing certain sexual behaviours vs. adults who had pathological tendencies/disorders (Gerson, 2015). In short, choosing to engage in pain play with consenting adults did not differ from the same act without consent – a want to perform ‘abnormal’ sexual play and behaviours was considered a mental illness, rather than a sexual preference. And in law courts, social situations like work, and even in relationships with people outside of kink communities, the social stigmatisation is enough to threaten shame; taking children away and losing work posed the largest threat.
Luckily, kink is more openly discussed than ever before; note this does not necessarily mean practised more. However, considering research that people are up to 2.5X more likely to fantasise about kinks rather than enact them, there is more for us all to learn. Let’s dig in…
What is kink?
Kink is considered anything outside of the ‘normal’ realms of sexual intercourse; throughout history, essentially men have decided what forms acceptable sexuality, whilst profiting from the freedom of being sexual subjects (read my sarcasm here). Of course, what has been established as normal throughout time means that morality, social acceptability and exclusion has governed how we think about sex. Acts including “loving touch, romantic talk, kissing, vaginal penetration, masturbation, and oral sex” (Aswell, 2020) are all considered ‘normal’ (and are thus what some in the kink community might refer to as ‘vanilla’). As we can see, this depends on being a ‘romantic’, able-bodied, and heteronormative person. While this does it for some, others are more on the experimental side.
Things that fall under the kink umbrella are:
BDSM – Bondage, Discipline, Dominant/submissive, Sadism (pleasure from inflicting pain/humiliation), Masochism (pleasure from pain inflicted on you). This might include being tied up, pain play, dominatrixes, master/slave relationships etc. People drawn to BDSM might have an interest in power in relationships (Alptraum, 2019). Some people find themselves enjoying ‘switching’ also; where they play both roles
Fetishes – considered kink ‘play’ – there are literally hundreds. Having a fetish involves treating something ‘inanimate’ like feet/hands/urine etc. in a sexual manner, often becoming an essential part of sex for fetish-holders (ibid)
These can all overlap too! Kinks can be something practised often, with certain people/one-time partners, or compromise a community individuals can be part of. Fetish more specifically, is something required for sexual release (Borresen, 2018). Some fetishes can be practised in a kinky-way, such as wearing heels during sex; but if it is more of a one-off play, it would fall under the wider umbrella, as opposed to the spoke of fetish.
There are many benefits of BDSM – clear communication, openness, higher subjective well-being (ibid). So far from being dangerous or an example of your poor mental health, people who experiment with BDSM experience better than average mental health. You heard it here first.
Queer communities have long regarded kink and BDSM spaces a safe place for marginalised communities, particularly one that has been impinged on by straight white men (Pan, 2019).
There are, of course, notable trends in kink; it is not unanalysed in the community that men tend to be more dominant, and women submissive. More women are interested in pain play, more men interested in feet (Aswell, 2020). Kink interests can be related to childhood play or even traumas (in a reclaiming manner), or they’re developed as an adult/through experimentation (Alptraum, 2019). Wherever they arise from, they’re generally speaking a healthy expression of sexuality; and for many, a space where they feel truly free.
Lessons from kink
Whilst it is important to make space for kink in sexual imagination and sexuality, many feel that it is imperative not to equate being sex-positive with being kinky. The practising of kink needs to be safe, well-discussed, consensual, thought-out, and of equal interest. Certainly embracing the presence of kink is sex-positive, but it is not something everyone has to try. Vanilla sex has just as much value, and of course changes throughout time (Sloan, 2020).
However, despite sexuality (particularly female) compromising shame throughout the ages (bad sex education, religion, politics, culture, ‘the good wife’ dialogue etc.), it is very important for kinky people to feel accepted and not internalise stigma (Hughes, 2018). This is still considered an ongoing battle.
For me, most significantly, the practice of safewords and aftercare are trailblazing – which often involves cuddling, talking, rehydrating, and “recentering” oneself (Hughes, 2018) after engaging in practice such as BDSM. Integrating such practice as a facet of consent, an extension and maintenance of boundaries enables sexualities to stretch and be respected.
Earlier in August, two of the world’s most famous female rappers, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released a song called WAP – standing for Wet Ass Pussy. On Youtube, the music video originally came out with the words “Wet and Gushy”. It is fair to say the success of the song has been raging; both in its global popularity, particularly through the app TikTok, and its ability to turn largely gawping men upside down. Their earth has been shaken – specifically Ben Shapiro and other conservative Americans.
WAP entered at number 1 in America and was the most successful female Youtube debut ever (Holt, 2020), which is unsurprising if you’ve also seen the video. Sex-positive music from women, however, is no new enterprise.
Cardi is an ex-reality TV star, stripper, and mother. Megan is enrolled at university for a bachelor’s degree, cemented the phrase hot girl summer in urban dictionaries across the world, recently lost her mother and grandmother (and her father when she was younger), and got shot in the foot by Tory Lanez this summer (Wikipedia, 2020). Quite frankly, both women are already nothing short of remarkable.
Not only are they confident women and explicit in their sexuality; they are skillful and seemingly willing in seriously profiting from it. Particularly in a country where the president once said that it was acceptable to “grab ‘em by the pussy” (McClinton, 2020), medically accurate sex education is not mandatory in the majority of states, and even owning a sex toy can be a crime (alas, in Alabama), to be female and declare you’re a certified freak, 7 days a week, is quite something.
It seems that the ‘explicit’ lyrics are the predominant cause for concern, at least amongst those who call the song ‘Wet Ass P-word’.
My personal favs, aside from the obvious ”bring a bucket and a mop for this wet-ass pussy” are: “swipe your nose like a credit card” and “you really ain’t never gotta fuck him for a thang”. Iconic.
Is it technically explicit? Yes. Admittedly, the song may not suitable for all listeners – Cardi herself has said that she wouldn’t want her two-year-old daughter to listen to the song. Does it speak for all women? Of course not (the song is pretty heteronormative, although Megan Thee Stallion hints at bisexuality in some of her other music); obviously not all vulva owners can get that ‘wet’ etc.
These facts, nonetheless, do not warrant the global backlash the song has received. An even wilder response to the song (at least to me) was Ben Shapiro’s later concern, that the song indicated Cardi and Megan’s STI status. Nope, you can’t make this stuff up.
An important lens to take regarding the song, and the backlash towards it, is that sexuality and sex-positivity does look different for everyone. What is shouldn’t look like, is policed by the supposed gatekeepers of sexuality: specifically, white, heterosexual men. Controversy sprung up on TikTok, when military women were accused of ‘shaming’ the army and using the WAP dance to be ‘thirst-traps’ (Sicard, 2020). Apparently, you can’t work in uniform and post a ‘thirst trap’, especially if you’re female (similar outrage has, of course, not been thrown at military men on the app).
Going further, many of us can think of a plethora of music, lyrics and videos that display an overwhelming hegemonic male display of sexuality – whether these are ‘explicit’ or not. Blurred Lines, a song by Robin Thicke, is literally beyond sexually explicit, it is nonconsensual – “I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it”.
Russell Brand argued that hip hop music has long been subjected to demonisation because of lyrical content; although when concluding said that he wasn’t sure the song presented much ‘progress’ for women if they were commoditising their bodies through mainstream mediums (Brand, 2020).
Additionally, it cannot be ignored that “the video is a vibrant celebration of women of color — barring the white woman with a spray tan — notably devoid of any men” (Jenkins, 2020). Cardi and Meg build on their predecessors here.
How did WAP make you feel?
Like a baaadddddd bitch, so SUPER hyped
Empowered. Felt good to see women celebrated their sexuality without any shame! As it should be
Empowerrreeeed & horny
I am so conflicted. I think we need some more songs about women’s sexuality but I’m not sure if this is motivated more by shock factor than women’s sexuality
Hyped for sure! It’s just fun y’all
IT’S DANGEROUS (tongue out emoji lol)
Initially shocked. Then HYPE AS FUCK
(All comment’s Instagram followers own words, all identifying as women)
These reactions generally speak to the fact that this song was made FOR women, and BY women. The male opinion or validation is not valid here, although concern was expressed.
Is this song playing up to a pornographic/male gaze? Although this is something to consider here, to imagine that women, having been subject to patriarchy and the policing of their sexuality throughout time, can exist in a parallel, non-patriarchal or non-heteronormative universe is futile. Songs by more LGBTQ rappers reaching the mainstream might serve to open up this dimension. In the same vein, music that explores low desire, self-pleasure, more subtle lyrics with the same themes could also be welcomed (speculating here; I haven’t seen much criticism about what the song might have left out).
The vilification of female sexuality
Thus: what is the backlash about the song really concerned with?
Is it the shock that a) women can articulate their sexuality in an explicit way and be multifaceted, taking back their objectification by men into their own hands? Or b) that some women like sex and want to rap about it, especially not in the presence of men?
Female sexuality, for centuries, has been shamed, subjugated, removed, and even considered an example of mental illness. In the 1800s, removing the uterus and/or the clitoris was used as a treatment for hysteria (Rosenhek, 2014). Women’s bodies have been exploited since the birth of capitalism (Federici, 2019), particularly for their sexuality, although punished/witch-hunted when choosing to engage with it. The use of and discovering true pussy power (from the clitoris) supposedly “makes women lustful and take delight in copulation” (as written by a midwife in 1671) (Share, 2019), a privilege that has been offered to and excused men for centuries. We should celebrate and support female creators who are taking the stage and reclaiming what has been taken from women.
Ultimately, the driving force of feminism is that individual women deserve to make a choice about how they express themselves. If they want to ‘objectify’ themselves (note I actually think Cardi and Megan encourage women to subjectify themselves, as in rap loudly about your own WAP) and dance ‘provocatively’ or ‘scantily’ clad, honestly let them. Given that in the 1400s, part of the ‘pussy’, the clitoris, was referred to as ‘the devils teat’; women are long overdue their stage to discuss sexuality.
As bell hooks said when interviewing Lil Kim in 1997: “I think real sexual liberation means that you’re in charge of your pussy” (hooks, 1997).
I couldn’t help but wonder: what is ethical porn? Why is the consumption of it crucial?
Recently, with the increased circulation of Exodus Cry’s video on the damaging child sex trafficking, rape, sexual assault and exploitation in videos on Pornhub, the world’s largest pornography website, people are increasingly paying attention to the ethics of pornography. In a weirder twist of events, it turns out Exodus Cry is an anti-sex work Christian advocacy group, who are also anti-LGBT, amongst other things. So it seems a certain amount of stir has been created in the pornography industry.
Uncomfortable questions are arising: is it ok to consume porn from a website that involves illegal crimes? Is it ok to not pay for porn? Are all porn performers exploited in some way?
Scale: the porn industry
Pornography can be defined as “ representation of sexual behaviour in books, pictures, statues, motion pictures, and other media that is intended to cause sexual excitement. The distinction between pornography (illicit and condemned material) and erotica (which is broadly tolerated) is largely subjective and reflects changing community standards” (Britannica, 2020).
The industry could be valued at between $6 and $97 billion dollar a year; to pitch this, it produces somewhere between the GDP per year of Togo to Angola. If we’re looking at the production of erotic material to excite sexually, The Venus of Willendorf statue dated 28,000 years ago can be seen as the first form of pornography (Duncan, 2017). From 1997, with porn able to be accessed on the Internet and following into the 21st century via YouTube-style sites such as PornHub, it is safe to say humans have sought out and created pornography for a very. very long time.
Most of these streaming sites are owned by Mindgeek, a company which controls most of the biggest porn sites (100 to be exact)- stolen content isn’t regulated, which means that one-time paid for content often gets pirated (Schultz, 2018). Now, PornHub sees a record 42bn views per year – which works out at every human being alive visiting it 5.4 times per year. Pornhub, significantly, has had multiple videos of rape or abuse on their site, alongside the other exploitative functions of mainstream pornography.
Performers have been treated badly, and there have been unfortunate mental health issues for performers and even suicide (August Ames, a 23-year-old performer, committed suicide in 2017 following Twitter controversy). Mia Khalifa, a current media personality and sports commentator, had a brief stint in porn (3 months, where she earned all but $12,000), but remained one of the world’s top performers on tube sites such as PornHub (subsequently earning them 100s of millions of views). She also received death threats from performing in a hijab (she is of Lebanese descent) (Hay, 2019). The popularity of her performances is thought to link to her wider social media personality (highly recommend her TikToks, where she critiques sex work stigma (Cole, 2020)), although Khalifa clearly highlights the exploitation that occurred – in the sense that she does not own her own content and doesn’t support the way the industry has worked against her and many others.
Is the vilification of porn consumption simply the result of a ‘sex-negative’ society (Ley, 2020) or is porn in general harmful?
Such arguments often centre, rightly so, on the readily available porn online, which could be particularly damaging for younger people. Although it is thought to influence young people, it does not necessarily impact them negatively (Ley, 2020). However, it must be positioned in the right framework: as a form of entertainment, facet or expression of sexuality. After all: “learning to have sex from porn, is like learning how to drive from The Fast and The Furious. A bloody horrendous idea” (Jamil, 2018).
As we get older, porn addiction becomes increasingly posed as an issue, creating a sort of insatiable Internet beast, favouring online material over real human connection (lol read the satire here). There is no evidence that watching porn affects sexual dysfunction such as erectile dysfunction, although it can lead to delayed ejaculation (Ley, 2020).
Other concerns are that it could encourage male violence (only for those who are already predisposed too violent behaviour (ibid)), affects body image attitudes, leads to a rise in labiaplasty, and perpetuates unrealistic sex, along with a flurry of fake orgasms.
Some feminists, particularly earlier and more ‘traditional’ ones may feel that porn, having been initially made for the male gaze, presents an inherent trap: how can you consume something where, predominantly, women ‘perform’ for the pleasure of men (Williams, 2014)? More recently, following the updating of British pornography laws, female ejaculation, amongst other acts, was banned. Some people, especially the ‘squirters’ amongst us, could hardly argue that pornography, in it’s most commonly consumed form (essentially Pornhub), prioritises or centre female pleasure at a similar positioning to that of males.
Although there are issues with porn, the demand is still there; provided it is watched in a healthy or even ‘mindful way’, watching pornography can mean having a better sex life (Ley, 2020); something which is hard to complain.
So, a) there must be another option to consume pornography and avoid some of the ethical issues, and b) “sexual fantasy is a sacred thing; you can’t argue it away, and nor should you want to” (Williams, 2014). If you enjoy watching pornography, I see no fit reason for it to be excluded from sexual fantasy, so long as it might not harm or exploit others.
Hurray! We might be saved. Ethical pornography involves the ethical treatment and diverse representation of performers, proper payment, promotion of safe sex, inclusive sex, amongst other things. It has been compared to the promotion of fair trade projects (Ley, 2020).
Additionally, it can be taken to promote other modes of thinking, other than the ya know, white cishet male gaze. A branch of ethical porn, feminist porn, “further aligns with ethical production by practising intersectionality: it represents marginalized groups without fetishizing them” (Kanaras, 2014).
It is considered ‘better’ for a number of reasons: namely avoiding the exploitation of porn performers. This has and continues to happen throughout the porn industry: for me, this is the crux of the issue with pornography: the safety and rights of performers. By using sites like Pornhub, where clips can be viewed millions of times for free, at no additional income increase to the performers (only to conglomerate companies), performers simply aren’t making as much as they could be. Essentially, it’s like making a short arthouse film, getting paid a set fee, and it gets put up on Netflix – who make money from the subscriptions. Except with PornHub, you don’t even pay to access videos; they make money through adverts (Schultz, 2018). I know; capitalism at its finest.
In ways ethical porn has gotten a bad rap – as if sigh something being ethical makes it unsexy. Newsflash – you can still watch great porn. You just have to pay for it.
An additional, timely, and at times lacking lens of analysis from anti-porn campaigners is the inclusion of a discussion of racism in porn. This stems from the lack of black performers, big deals for white women performing ‘interracially’ (positioned as more of a taboo), less pay for black performers, the presence of the Blacked porn channel and sinister plays on Black Lives Matter or slave fantasies (Clark-Flory, 2020).
The human desire to watch and consume pornography, from statues to free video clips, is not disappearing any time soon. Ultimately, people should be able to watch porn free from judgement, yet equipped with a proper comprehension that the pornography they are consuming has been given the same considerations than, for example, ethical clothing. The question seems to be thus: is porn the issue, or capitalism? (Williams, 2014).
Bellesa – marketed as ‘porn for women’, has some free videos and paid content (read here to find out more about the company, who have had industry criticism also)
To round off #PrideMonth, and this weekends celebrations, a lovely LGBT colleague of mine, Lota from @Kliteraturapod wrote a guest blog!
I have a confession to make. I’m 25 years old, a sex educator, and I have never put a condom on a banana. Shocking, I know. I wanted to get that out of the way first, because whenever I talk to anyone also raised in the UK they always say: ‘oh yeah, not much sex ed apart from the condom on a banana’. My own schooling, however, was banana free. The closest I got to a condom was a picture on the smartboard.
Unfortunately, during my schooling, it was considered acceptable practice in the field of RSE to show young people grotesque images of STIs. We know now that this is, in fact, a Terrible Idea for a number of reasons. I mention this because I want to paint a picture of the (gross yet ultimately lacking) sex education that I received. The most I received was in science where we ‘learned the right names for things’, and it was ultimately very much about PiV (Penis in Vagina) sex, and babies.
Condoms were for stopping babies and those gross diseases (STIs aren’t ‘gross’, of course, and are actually normal and most of the time, easily treatable). Gay men had a higher risk of HIV/AIDs, but we didn’t actually know what it was or how you caught it. In fact, they were so vague about how men could possibly have sex with each other that my two best friends asked me when we were in year 11, in whispers, at the queue to buy popcorn at our local cinema. I wish I’d been able to answer maturely, rather than reductively and crudely, but hey, I wasn’t a trained sex educator yet and as a summer baby was the youngest of the trio. We didn’t touch on the concept of healthy/unhealthy relationships other than physical domestic violence.
So, to recap mine: Sex is putting a penis inside a vagina. Use contraception to not get pregnant. STIs are nasty, use a condom. Don’t hit your girlfriend.
It didn’t help that I attended secondary school from 2006- 2011, otherwise known as the height of the ‘That’s so gay’ era. Your phone? Gay. The teacher setting homework? Gay. Your friend having to go straight home after school? Sooo gay. Did someone steal your pen? They’re being gay! The two boys grabbing each others bums? It’s all good if you say ‘no homo’. This was all before you got into the explicit homophobia going round. Once a boy in my form derailed a PSHE lesson to protest against our form tutor, proclaiming that he ‘just thinks (being gay) it’s disgusting and unnatural’, amongst other choice quotations. I could rattle off some more incidents, but I think you get the point.
So where did curious, in denial, 13-year-old me turn to? The Internet, of course. I tried googling to see if I could find any information on lesbian or bi women: what did their relationships look like? Could they have families? How did they have sex and was it ‘real’ sex? The search was cut short when I made the mistake of simply typing ‘lesbian’ into the search bar. I’m sure you’re already way ahead of me: it was pages upon pages of porn. I quickly closed all tabs and deleted the search history, absolutely mortified. Curious, but mostly mortified.
The first LGBTQ+ Sex Education, the first decent sex education of any kind I received, was at an LGBT youth group in Islington when I was 16 (RIP Pace, a victim of Austerity Measures). It was predominantly male-oriented, but I still felt SEEN for the first time. Shyly, I asked ‘Can a woman get an STI from sleeping with another woman?’. I tried to hide my genuine shock that the answer to that was yes, she could.
I wish someone had told closeted me about the different ways that I could have satisfying and fulfilling relationships. I wish someone had spelt out for me that LGBT people could have families, and indeed did have families. I’m lucky, because my own family are very accepting, and because a family friend I regard as a sister has an Aunt who is a lesbian, and she had a civil partnership and a child to boot – so I got to see a positive example of an LGBT person just living their life in the flesh.
I had plenty of LGBTQ+ friends by then, and I can easily say that none of the group was exploring sexuality and relationships in a healthy way. Friends were meeting up with much older men on Grindr, often for ChemSex. Everyone was playing fast and loose with condoms/ other contraception. None of the lesbian and bi girls my age were going to the sexual health clinic for screenings. Trans friends weren’t given concrete information on important health issues, such as ‘can I get pregnant when I start taking testosterone?’ I recently discovered that the mental health nurse I was seeing at CAMHS didn’t truly believe I was bisexual, putting in her notes that I was confused for various reasons.
At the time, those were just our lived experiences. You don’t think about how young you actually are, how much you are owed a duty of care. You’re 16 and you’ve reached the age of consent, and therefore it’s normal and fine for your friends to be sleeping with people over half their age. Now I remember the hundreds of children (Yes, 16-year-olds are still children) that I have worked with, think about how much safeguarding they need, and my heart hurts for us. It’s not just sex education we missed out on, it was relationships education, education about consent, pleasure, intimacy. Education about power dynamics, grooming, emotional abuse. Education about love.
I’m an educator and a trainee teacher and I understand the challenges teachers are up against when it comes to teaching RSE, doubly so when it’s LGBT inclusive. I do. No one is trained in it. Parents are up in arms. You signed up and trained to teach teenagers about mathematics, and suddenly you’re being asked to talk to them about sex. Your own sex education wasn’t that great. There are some long-standing myths that were so widely accepted in your generation that you never learnt they weren’t true (a common one is ‘you always bleed when your hymen ‘breaks’). Reading things online, even today, people are frothing from the mouth that you’d dare talk to teens about some people finding anal sex pleasurable.
The bottom line is, though, that young people come first. Comprehensive sex education may make you uncomfortable at times, but you’re the adult. You owe it to the kids in your schools, not just the LGBTQ+ ones, to make sure they get unbiased, facts-based sex education. Lobby your schools, your PSHE leads for better training. If you’re noticing your own homophobia, you owe it to the young people to unpack it. Whatever you’re using to hide it behind, it’s not good enough. I’d also argue that safeguarding around LGBTQ+ issues needs to be more robust and explored: outing a child to their parents for simply telling you they are gay is taking away their autonomy and not effective safeguarding (of course, unless there is more to a story, such as abuse signs such as older partner etc).
Teaching our young people ‘how babies are made’ is not enough. ( I touch on why in this post I wrote for Brook’s blog about Talking to Teenagers about consent and pleasure here: https://brookblog.health.blog/2019/12/12/talking-to-teenagers-about-consent-and-pleasure/). All our young people deserve better than the current RSE they get, and LGBTQ+ young people in particular are owed more. In order to make this happen, educators need to start acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ+ youth throughout the curriculum, and not just taking us on. We need to be included at all levels of the RSE curriculum.
With the introduction of the Mandatory RSE guidelines in schools, I’m hopeful that things will be better for all youth, and LGBTQ+ youth in particular.
I couldn’t help but wonder: why has sex education been so contested throughout time?
“An American school board member wrote in 1986, ‘There’s an old saying that “there are only two things for certain in this world; death and taxes,” a third certainly might be added: disagreement about sex education” (Fiennes, 2019, p. 2).
From the Kama Sutra from 400BC – offering erotic advice for newlyweds, to the Christian church having defined when sex is appropriate, the conditions around it and our sexuality (ibid), it is safe to say that sex education, in its various forms is not a new phenomena. However, speaking about sex, particularly in schools, has not always been top of the priority list. If we are looking at the British, who are more culturally renowned for being prim and proper, rather than openly liberal like the Scandis for example (in 1959 Sweden was the first country in the world to have compulsory sex education), this is even more the case.
In the UK, sex ed in the First World War focussed on preventing STI transmission (Freetest.me, 2020), a period during which over 400,000 British men were admitted to hospital for STIs (Carlin, 2017). Unfortunately, the spread of STIs at the time was mainly placed on the shoulders of women, who were ‘unruly’ or sex workers (Fiennes, 2019). Much of these ideas contribute to the shaming of sexuality or sex positivity, and also create myths and stigma toward those who might transmit an STI (which definitely it is time to debunk, considering than a young person is diagnosed with an STI every 4 mins in the UK (PHE, 2018)). This was however, pre-COVID-19 – I expect these will be much lower at the moment.
Following changes to reproductive health services beginning in the 60s (see A Comprehensive History of Sexual Health), where contraception for unmarried women, legalised abortions and decriminalised homosexuality were being successfully campaigned for, sex education began to catch up.
Forwarding to the 80s with moral panic about a Danish sex education book that discussed gay couples, to making homosexuality illegal for local councils in the UK to promote (which only changed in 2003) (Sex Education Forum, 2020), it seemed the leaps and bounds made by those who were campaigning for better sexual health and education were cut short. However, following the HIV epidemic of the 80s (which in some places is still considered an epidemic), biological parts of sex education were properly introduced to curriculums (Freetest.me, 2020).
Backwards again, the Lib Dem – Conservative coalition in 2010 abolished statutory Sex and Relationships education, only for the Conservatives to do a U-Turn – this September (2020) will see the introduction of compulsory Sex and Relationships education for the first time, in both primary and secondary schools.
Considering the zig-zag of policy, policing identity, alongside real time shrinkage of sexual health services which often disproportionately affect marginalised communities, particularly black communities in the UK, it is evident that many have been and are left out of receiving adequate sex education.
Concerning recent events and supposed social awakening (many have expressed their dismay at it taking a global lockdown for the world to wake up to the realities of racism and police brutality), reproductive health is something that has been significantly highlighted. From experimentation on black women without their consent, to inequalities in contraception, STIs and even maternal mortality (black women in the UK are 5X more likely to die during childbirth), it imperative that sex-education going forwards incorporates anti-racist education aswell.
There are many benefits of a clear sex education, with sufficient evidence that the more you have had, the less likely you are to get pregnant, an STI, and will have first-time sex later on in life (rather than underage) etc.; all the things some are worried about in relation to sex education. To have the tools to be able to articulate yourself emotionally, physically and mentally is crucial. Determining healthy/unhealthy behaviours, having sex safely, with great communication, consent at the heart and learning how to and/or regularly orgasm are not demands that should be cast as unreasonable.
Next, I speak to women in my family: Mother (57), Big sister (33), Twin (23), Grandmother (81), to ask them about their sex education.
What do you remember about your sex education?
Mother: I remember getting a sort of basic biology class at school, it was just functions of reproduction really rather than anything comprehensive. My main sex education came from a book called ‘Our bodies ourselves’, which was written by an American feminist collective. It went through sex, ‘venereal’ diseases, childbirth, masturbation, sexuality, contraception, abortion, in a very pragmatic, open and liberal way. No judgement on being straight or monogamous.
Big sister: I think I remember a banana on a condom. That’s about it, I remember lying about having sexual relations to a friend in a sex-ed class, must have been around 11; exaggerating the truth. Don’t remember having lots of them; there was a term rather than a whole year of it. Got taught about contraception and not getting STIs.
Twin: I don’t remember it being very extensive. I don’t remember it a lot which I think shows the inefficacy of it. Did we even have any at secondary school – I have a good memory and have no recollection of it? I remember primary school, maybe the later years, learning about the minimum age you can have sex. I remember anatomy and biology. We didn’t speak about pleasure, consent, orgasms, the duration of sex, penis length, average sexual partners. The big takeaway message I guess from secondary school was about breaking your hymen, which was painful and using a condom every time.
Grandmother: I remember three things. I had no clue when my mother was pregnant when I was 6 and half, and they didn’t tell us because my mother was slightly older. Then my big sister knew, but she knew it wasn’t to be talked about. My mother showed me a dictionary how babies develop in women. I remember starting my period when I was 12 or something, and my mother told me that was early. In sixth form when I was 16 or 17 we had a biology textbook that explained penises get erect.
Was it any good?
Mother: Yes and no. it didn’t cover any emotions; stuff, which I think is almost the most important part. But it covered the practical stuff. It didn’t cover consent, although I think having a feminist background I have always felt a sense of rights and autonomy toward my body through that structure.
Big sister: No. I remember it was our tutors who would give us the classes, I remember not feeling at all connected to the teacher. I think we all felt we would have benefited from someone younger, maybe someone we felt was ‘cooler’, who we connected with more.
Twin: no I think it was completely insufficient.
Grandmother: no. I mean your sex education comes from friends, the wider world, its difficult to say. We knew there were things going on, although contraceptives weren’t really on the agenda. I remember a doctor not prescribing caps (a diaphragm form of contraception). I wouldn’t say it was good or bad, at some stage we learnt what we wanted to do.
What could have made it better?
Mother: I suppose having had someone to discuss stuff with openly, and to ask questions and address the things I was concerned about. Your age, how do you know you want to etc.? I do feel I had influence from the Danish values that meant I didn’t feel ashamed about sex.
Big sister: Sex ed shouldn’t be too formal. Maybe talking about actual sex more, rather than prevention or the bad sides, and naturalising it more. I was also open and quite ready to have sex, so it didn’t bother me too much. It might have been interesting to see what the other girls who weren’t so open felt about it.
Twin: I didn’t really understand what consent was to the point when I was raped in my adult life, I didn’t understand it as rape when it happened. I didn’t know that women have longer orgasms than men or can climax more times. I felt I was programmed, I was tailored to pander to the man’s experience of sex, so I might have had sex when I didn’t really want to; you have sex until the guy comes and that’s it. It’s very heteronormative, my sex ed did nothing to propagate freedom of sexual opinions or choice, or even speak about the difference between attraction and being stimulated, which don’t go hand in hand. I had no idea about the anatomy of the female body to the point where only until recently, I felt comfortable to speak about my vagina with the correct terminology, and I didn’t even know what the clitoris was until my late teens. I was afraid of masturbation because I felt like it was self-indulgent. Criminal – even something at school people got bullied for.
Grandmother: sex was a taboo in my generation. I don’t think anybody had sex education. Schools didn’t provide it, although I did grow up in a provincial backwater. Girls got pregnant and it was always their fault. So it was common to assume that you keep your legs together. But there was a firm myth that if boys got away with it then girls might have been the ‘promiscuous’ ones. It would have been nice if it wasn’t a taboo.
Where did you mainly learn about sex then?
Mother: through this feminist book. Then I didn’t really learn about it until my adult years. I suppose it was something I just did, learning on the job. I don’t think I knew very much, and if I had known in my twenties about a whole pile of things, I would have had a different attitude toward sex and my body. My own pleasure didn’t come into it. As I’ve got older, there are more resources to find out things, I use Youtube, Google, as there are people out there to listen to who aren’t just talking about functions and biology, like Betty Dodson.
Big sister: don’t know, I think you learn doing it really (laughing!). I think there might be something instinctual. I used to go to the Brook centre when I was 14. I went 2 weeks after my first time to Brook, I told mum that I’d had sex and I was on the pill, and I went there until I was too old to go (its a service for under 25s). They supported me so much throughout the years. I also went somewhere on Tottenham Court Road.
Twin: I would actually say maybe through TV shows like Sex and the City, the rougher side of sex came to my attention from watching Girls, although I didn’t think it was that consensual. Most movies don’t show a realistic view of sex.
I think sex education is lifelong, recent shows like Sex Education and Normal People normalise sex and make it more relatable – it’s safe, sometimes awkard, mutual and FUN. And obviously more recently my twin sister has been great, and a good friend who encouraged me to buy a vibrator.
Grandmother: from experience. When I was in my early twenties I remember coming across books that explained relationships and sex, but that was on the other side of knowing it personally. I had never come across those books before, although I’m not sure if they would have interested me terribly.
Is there anything you have changed your mind on concerning sex and relationships throughout time?
Mother: there is tonnes I have changed my mind on. I have changed my mind on what kind of people I want to sleep with, why I want to sleep with them. I changed my mind on realising it is something I need to discuss, it is not just something natural that happens. Sharing and support is important. I have changed my mind on the possibility of what counts as sex. I’m a lot more open-minded and prepared to explore stuff. Attaching love and sex, I often tried to find love through sex rather than what I wanted, which was intimacy. I wish I had talked about it more. Also, being post-menopausal, I just think that women are so conditioned to think their sexuality is only valid when they are fertile. And the impact of the period cycle on your libido. I think if more women could see post-menopause at a time when their bodies come back into their own, having sex for the sheer ability of it. I was driven by something else steering, to be post-menopausal and to come through with flying colours, not resisting menopause and seeing it as a beginning rather than an end, to actually reclaim sex that is something about pleasure and sharing and closeness.
Big sister: I think primarily my own pleasure is more important than it was. I’m aware of what I need to get to my own pleasure nowadays, more than I was when I was a teenager. I think I had squirting orgasms when I was a teenager but I didn’t know what they were. For me, because I’ve had a few long term relationships but in between those have had promiscuous moments, it doesn’t change definitively. If I ever became single again, I think I would feel more guarded about who I share my body with. I couldn’t imagine having one night stands now.
Twin: I think now I view sex as more something to really, really enjoy rather than a rite of passage or centred around the other person emotions more than mine. I think the most crucial thing that’s changed for me is not to be afraid before and during sex and feel like you have to be this perfect version of yourself who doesn’t jiggle and wears sexy underwear or has time to shave their armpits. This should be whether you’re having sex casually or in a relationship and you are in a space to feel comfortable, sharing something that is so fun and social with another person. The bigger lesson for me over the past few years has been consent, and when or where to set your boundaries. Who cares about being ‘prudish’, ‘boring’, ‘not that sexual’ in a particular moment? It’s about your comfort.
Grandmother: remember I grew up in a provincial place. We didn’t know homosexuality existed. A whole aspect of sexuality then we had no knowledge or experience. I certainly feel, I remember when your mum was not 4 yet, her nursery in Sweden introduced some form of sex education. I remember an Italian family withdrawing their child. I was quite, ‘ah’, things have changed. Sex has become much more out there, it was sort of hush hush for such a long time. Of course, I don’t want this to be the case. I remember children being shown to put a condom on a banana when I was working in Sheffield. I would find it quite difficult to talk about in front of a big group, maybe you need someone more detached. I’m not sure the taboo angle stops. You can uncondition yourself, but you can’t ignore its presence in your life. The roots of thinking might always be with you.
What are your top recommendations for future young people to learn (particularly at school)?
Mother: I would want them to learn about the emotional stuff. Connection between oxytocin and feeling in love with someone, how to not be a sex addict if you are hooked on your emotions. How to be respectful to your body. Choosing someone who really cares about you. Someone nice and cool, over someone hot and dangerous. Also to have somewhere people can speak about this whether its a friend, teacher, sexual health workers. Not just the clinic, somewhere in between. I wish I had had the verbal language, how to talk about it, ask each other what you want, a dialogue between sex, not the more ‘animal’ instinct I have experienced.
Big sister: Sex is really fun, and it’s something you should really enjoy and know to hold respect around. Using contraception all the time should be taught as a golden rule. Sex shouldn’t be taboo, it should be something we can feel open about, it’s not a sin, not something to be hidden. If people are more open, people would have more access to information. Imagine how many girls might not have been coerced into situations to make someone ‘like’ them because they might not have had the education or confidence to understand things a bit more. The ramifications are huge. Sex is one simple act but it has so many implications on individuals and society. It is integral we keep it open. Why the fuck are we learning about animals in science but not sex education?!
Twin: I think extracurricular TV shows should be given as compulsory homework, like Sex Education. If you’re ever getting with someone, make sure you have a friend who can offer advice and help you if there is anything you might need or want to talk about! It’s heartbreaking to find out just how many of your friends and family have been assaulted or raped, we also need to talk to each other more; don’t keep this to yourself. As awful as it is to have to drill into young people, it’s crucial for women, non-binary people and to a lesser extent, men, to know the laws regarding sexual violence, and what your rights are if you have been abused. Simply, just to understand please only have sex when you really really want to and you can’t stop yourself, because you’re so excited. That has to be mutual on both sides. I guess for men, I think there should be a greater education on focussing on female pleasure – this isn’t really in the news or represented in porn, and to think really carefully about contraception and protecting your own and your partners health, and knowing where your nearest clinic or pharmacy is where you can get condoms, pills and emergency contraception (especially if you’re travelling and having sex). YOU’RE never ever alone, always tell someone what you’re feeling and share the good, the bad and the ugly of sex. It should be celebrated, it’s not shameful. Don’t let other people silence your needs, fantasies or voice
Grandmother: I mean the thing that struck me as a teacher was, I’ve just been watching Normal People, and I feel to some extent it has to include feelings, emotions, respect and concerns; this is something special. I remember when I was at uni in Brighton (I did a degree as a mature student) I overheard younger students discussing entitlements to having sex, rather than something more emotional. I would like to think there is something magic to it. I’m not sure how to teach respect all that well, but I think Normal People discussed it well – there is lust and respect, they weren’t that monogamous but it was there. For a long while, there was something section 28, where we weren’t meant to teach about homosexuality, and most people are on a spectrum of 100% of being heterosexual or homosexual. I think this is crucial to tackle today, where identity is more scrutinised.
And remember… Sex education doesn’t end at school. Stay curious, reading this blog and quizzing 🙂
We couldn’t help but wonder: could there be a crossover between our main fields of interest: illegal wildlife trade and sexual health?
We thought it was time for a twin collab, but we didn’t realise how timely this could get. In case you didn’t know, Sicily, my twin, is a wildlife trade researcher (see her blog here). Given that the current coronavirus, COVID-19 is thought to have come from illegal wildlife trade (allegedly from wild meat sold in a market in Wuhan, China), it forms a pretty hot topic atm. You wouldn’t think these worlds would collide, but hey, you can’t make this stuff up.
A brief note: when discussing illegal wildlife product consumers (especially relating to Asia), culturally nuanced approaches are essential to avoid furthering racist stereotypes, which conjure up images of the ‘Asian Super Consumer’. As aptly written by Marguiles, Wong and Duffy (2019)- there is no catch-all caricature of an illegal wildlife product consumer.
Illegal wildlife trade and traditional medicine
Illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry- between USD $7 and 23 billion a year (GEF, 2020). The illegal wildlife trade, including illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and timber trade is comparable to the international trade in narcotics and weapons.
A large portion of the legal and illegal wildlife trade industries concern the use of wild plants and animals, known as phytotherapy and zootherapy, which are also intertwined with traditional medicine systems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 80% of the world’s population primarily rely on animal and plant-based medicines (Alves and Rosa, 2005).
Many cultures employ traditional medicine which has been in use for thousands of years, such as wildlife-derived remedies. Arguably, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the most famous of these systems, though other well known medicines include Ayurvedic medicine (developed in India) or ‘muthi’ (traditional medicine in Southern Africa).
TCM is recognised officially by the WHO, and accepted as a system by a quarter of the world’s population (Alves and Rosa, 2005). However, the WHO have since said that the inclusion of traditional medicine was “not an endorsement of the scientific validity of any Traditional Medicine practice or the efficacy of any Traditional Medicine intervention”. There is often debate, particularly from the West, as the efficacy of some products has not been scientifically proven (Shaw, 2017).
This article will focus largely on the use of TCM in the pursuit of sexual performance. TCM encompasses many areas – acupuncture, breathing and physical exercise (think Tai Chi), eating relative to the needs of certain organs and pursuing balance in the body. It just so happens that TCM products used to enhance sexual performance have been demonstrated to have some important medicinal effects…
Why do we want to enhance sexual performance?
What supposedly differentiates humans from other animal species is our imagination and cognitive powers. It is thus no surprise that for thousands of years, humans have looked for new ways to innovate their sexual experiences. The use of aphrodisiacs, or substances to enhance sexual performance/experience is no new feat, the first known of which was thought to be body odour?! (Williamson, 2015). Original and cheap.
Aphrodisiacs can be considered “any food or drugs that arouse sexual desire or pleasure” (Fogle & Picard, 2018). Whether they actually work or not, is a different story. These have ranged from oysters to chocolate to piranhas (Malmed, 2017), to parts of tigers (we’ll get to this later). It is thought that when food diversity was scarcer, anything that was tantalising, or sensual were seen as aphrodisiacs (Gomez-Rejón, 2014).
Further, it is thought that visual symbolism influences what is consumed as an aphrodisiac (ginseng, sea cucumbers (phallic shaped)) (Malmed, 2017), or walnuts to represent testes and thus virility (Williamson, 2015) although exactly what is consumed seems to be far more complex than these symbolisms alone.
Whilst the effectiveness of aphrodisiacs has commonly been seen as myth, sexual dysfunction is a recognised physiological issue. 1 in 5 men in the UK experience erectile dysfunction, and by 2025 it is thought that 322 million men will be affected by it (King’s College, 2020). However, other research suggests that this figure is more around 1 in 10 men, also highlighting issues of premature ejaculation.
Although often missed out, it seems that female (reproductive system-wise) sexual problems are more prominent, with around 1 in 3 young women and 1 in 2 older women will experience these (albeit they are not all physiological, such as depression affecting desire etc.) (NHS, 2019). Yet, most aphrodisiacs are advertised to the male consumer.
People do turn to (Western) medical options in order to combat sexual dysfunction, such as Viagra, which was one of the fastest-selling drugs in history – this has by no means slowed down, with it’s annual revenue a cool $1.8bn (Cox, 2019). Viagra, working to increase blood flow to the penis to enable easier and more erections (NHS, 2019), is the most popular for people with penises (apparently it is now available over the counter in the UK(Millar, 2018)). It can be taken 4 hours before intercourse, and can be prescribed (NHS, 2019b).
Although women can take Viagra (our favourite Samantha famously tries in a SATC episode) it is not proven to be licensed, safe or physiologically useful (Dutt, 2020). The drug is not used to increase desire (ibid) (which is a complex, personal, context-specific matter (Nagoski, 2018)). Female sexual dysfunction is not categorised the same as male – it is not a blood-flow to sustain an erection kind of situ, but more physiological and potentially psychological.
There are Viagra-esque daily options for women but these are used to treat Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). These pills work to boost chemical messages in the brain that aid arousal – so they’re actually very different to Viagra (WebMD, 2020). On the plus-side, cannasexuals – people who use cannabis to enhance sex – can use weed lube, oils, spray, cream for vulvas that are specifically designed to increase pleasure (Al-Juzi, 2018), although there are cautions for combining drug use with sex.
What is interesting is that there seems to be a considerable placebo effect of taking aphrodisiacs – the illusion and increased confidence from the promise for increased sexual performance could actually be what is more beneficial (Shaw, 2017). Knock yourself out (although ofc if you do start taking medications such as viagra, N.B. it doesn’t mix well with other medications). What must be known however, is that “the Mediterranean diet may have aphrodisiac qualities”… (Brown, 2019). Pass the wine.
The mechanisms behind of action behind aphrodisiacs in the male body
This figure, from Lim (2017), shows the various action sites of phytotherapies, for male sexual performance enhancing substances. Different products can enhance different aspects of sexual performance, showing a complexity to consumer product choices. Testosterone facilitators increase the level of testosterone in the blood. Dihydrotestosterone blockers such as pumpkin seeds have antidepressant properties and promote healthy hormone function (Lim, 2017)
So what do people take and where in the world are they taking it?
It is important to appreciate that a lot of aphrodisiacs are plant-based (yay for the vegans). Wildlife trade often surpasses plant trade, and ‘plant blindness’ is an important phenomena (Marguiles et al., 2019), which also affects how we perceive the use of animal vs. plant tonics for sexual performance. In a post-COVID 19 era, where we can expect to see the relative phasing out of endangered animals offered in traditional medicines, dependence may shift to plants (which comprise 80% of wild species in TCM).
This could lead to a greater societal dependence on plant-based aphrodisiacs. For wild-sourced products, this could lead to new pathways of unsustainable harvest. For example, Panax ginseng, the famed aphrodisiac Asian or Korean Ginseng, is a Class 2 protected species in China, which requires that their harvesting and trade take place only with a permit from provincial authorities and under their oversight.
As TimeOut Hong Kong (2020) advised this Valentines day: “Be advised that with ginseng you’re playing the long game – it’s a better idea to start with a low dose every day, and increase the amount over time to improve your condition, rather than popping a capsule right before getting down ’n’ dirty”. Ginseng is particularly popular as it does have pharmacologically active components – having been linked to higher sperm counts, and increased libido (Leung and Wong, 2013).
Alongside ginseng, which could also help menopausal women as an aphrodisiac, Peruvian maca is also used to supposedly boost fertility and stamina (Sengupta, 2017). However, there is not concrete scientific data to support this trend (Shaw, 2017).
Some people use aphrodisiac tonics, which can be used by both men and women, which may enhance sex drive, stamina and performance. Female reproductive tonics are traditionally used to tone and preserve the Yin (such as Rehmannia, Chinese Licorice and Ginger) and promote the flow of Qi (energy) and Blood to the ovaries, uterus and pelvis (such as Cyperus and Ligusticum) (Fusion Health, 2020).
Not all phytotherapies are available over the counter; some require prescription, such as Horny goat weed (no joke lol) (Time Out, 2020). This translates from the Chinese as ‘licentious goat plant’. Some studies have shown that extract of the plant may restore low levels of testosterone (Lim, 2017).
Beyond Chinese traditional medicine systems, herbal remedies, such as Tribulus terrestris, are used as folk medicine in Eastern Europe and Bulgaria for sexual deficiency (Lim, 2017).
Typically, for men, sexual performance carries an identity and the sense of self-esteem in society (we know, patriarchal society and ideals don’treally help). Although it is often sensationalised in Western media, it is likely only a small portion of consumers who actually engage with taking TCM products for erectile dysfunction (ED). Lim (2017) cited that only 9% of men in China and 30% of men voluntarily admit to having ED.
Seafood section – given that Aphrodite herself, was Goddess of the sea, it’s no surprise people turn to a salty seafood treat
One of the earliest reports of a salty aphrodisiac we could find was in 8th Century B.C. The sucking fish or remora, was mixed into potions sold in Roman markets and was said to induce passion (Williamson, 2015)
Oyster extract is allegedly excellent for men’s reproductive health and endurance. It is rich in the amino acid taurine, which is vital for cardiac health and nerve transmission and additionally boosts dopamine for all lovers (Lim, 2017)
Other popular marine products such as abalone and seahorses are consumed as an aphrodisiac (Costa-Neto, 2005; Lim, 2017)
Kim Reiley of ‘Eat Something Sexy.com’ highlights the allure of abalone (a group of sea snails) as a lucky aphrodisiac – used in soup as a sexy ‘boost’. The illegal harvesting and export of abalone in one of its hotspots, South Africa, is largely controlled by Chinese triads (organised crime ‘secret societies’, originating in China and Hong Kong) collaborating with South African fishing communities. Its scientific quality (which could explain its use as an aphrodisiac) is its’ high source of selenium (a mood enhancer and component of sperm) and magnesium (good for the production of sex hormones) (Reiley, 2020). From South Africa alone, this market may be worth as much as 500 tonnes ($32.5 million) (Gastrow, 2001).
Weirder – although more sustainable oi oi – the sea cucumber
Another phallically-shaped food which is in high demand in Asian markets is the sea cucumber, in the echinoderm family (the same family as starfishes!). This is a particularly net-positive product as it is promoted as an alternative livelihood in many former fishing communities (although debatably unsustainable- see the Sustainable Asia podcast episode at the bottom). At $100 per kilo, sea cucumbers are a versatile and low-maintenance aquaculture crop, even implemented in FAO programs to female seaweed farmers in Zanzibar, whose seaweed crop is diminishing due to climate change (FAO, 2020).
Sexy and saving the planet? We love to see it. It contains niacin, magnesium and zinc, which help reduce muscle tension, increase blood flow, build sex hormones and maintain a healthy sperm count (Reiley, 2020).
It physically resembles a phallus and uses a defense mechanism akin to ‘ejaculation’ when it squirts its insides at its oppressor. Quite an impressive parallel.
High profile examples of animal products
Meat consumption of the literal (phallic) body parts of other animals
Tiger-penis soup/wine – “Particularly sought after are the penises and bones, which are soaked in an awful-tasting rice wine and served, usually to men. They’re supposed to imbue men with the prowess and sexual energy of the tiger” (Nuwer, 2018)
Cobra meat- known as ‘Surabaya’ – cobra meat and blood has had claims of improving erectogenic prowess (Lim, 2017)
Male-focussed aphrodisiacs are often consumed in powder form:
Ostrich/cow penis powder (Lim, 2017)
Rhino horn powder (dissolved in water, taken as a shot). Detoxification properties. Using rhino horn was a myth, but now Vietnamese men actually use it (myths often turn into ritual, for all my anthropology people, you know what we mean). Asian economies are growing, so more there is an increasing demand (Smith, 2012)
As well as the literal consumption of animal body parts and their derivatives, some male animal parts are used to represent virility and thus indirectly act as an aphrodisiac, such as the use of hippopotamus tusks as a sex symbol in rural Nigeria (Costa-Neto, 2005) or deer antlers from young bucks used in sexual tonics in TCM (Lim, 2017).
Unfortunately, we can’t do an analysis of ALL the various products used to enhance sexual performance; believe it or not, this list is by no means exhaustive.
An interesting point to conclude with is whether society’s, and largely the West’s fascination and proliferation of sex as a cultural symbol may have impacted the search for increasing penis size and longer performance using TCM.
Although aphrodisiacs have been dominant through time and across space, the proliferation of these pursuits within the illegal spheres perhaps show that such controls over the body are increasing (I’m sure somewhere Foucault has a point about body power and sexuality here). Regardless, humans are still in hot pursuit of enhancing their sex lives.
It is also important to appreciate the gendered consumption of wildlife products, as the most endangered products are often linked to male consumers. In addition, women are seemingly omitted in both Western and TCM – there aren’t the same options for female sexual performance. It seems there are none marketed for non-binary people either, which demonstrates that pursuits of wildlife trade and increased sexual performance are informed by heteronormativity.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has caused society to question the sustainability of zootherapy. Most zootherapies were never illegal, until populations of animals started to decrease in the wild. In particular, we do not condone the use of endangered animal parts in the pharmaceutical pursuit of sexual performance – especially when there are effective domestic animal or plant substitutes. However, it is important to embrace diverse cultural practices and not be rooted in the dogma that only Western medical science is valid.
Regarding the use of endangered animals in TCM, the tide is turning. The endangered pangolin, the most highly trafficked mammal in the world, has now been officially removed from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. On this compendium of recipes, pangolin scales were listed as useful for nursing mothers and promoting blood circulation. Now, those caught trading or hunting pangolins could face up to 10 years in prison (Pinghui, 2020).
It’s expected that the face of sexual performance enhancer consumption will drastically change, as these products may also be removed from TCM compendiums. Will we see increased volumes of phytotherapies consumed in the pursuit of sexual performance? Only time (and evidence-based research) will tell.
We hope you enjoyed reading this mini twin research project. Our favourite discovery: a close competition, but it has to be the sea cucumber.
I couldn’t help but wonder: how can we go beyond performative social media alliances, and bring about a deeper educational and structural change in society, sexual health and beyond in regards to anti-racist work?
In order, to be anti-racist, silence cannot be assumed. This is a passive way to respond to the urgencies of the current world situation, and as a white woman working in sexual health, I acknowledge it is necessary to do the work, reading, knowledge unpicking, protesting, donating, uncomfortable discussions etc., in order to contribute to these conversations and challenge/change systems of oppression.
Sexual health, sexual violence and sex education are not free from racism. I have been spending time curating these so that they are organised to be integral in my sex education and health praxis. If you have already experienced too much collective trauma over the past week, do not feel obliged to read ahead; see free mental health resources for black people in the UK here.
I will first include critical readings of anthropology itself’s relationship with colonialism; a compilation of wider reading, with some honing in on sexual health. These resources also span time and space, and so do not explicitly focus on Black Lives Matter-related content.
Here is a great master google doc of all the current Black Lives Matter petitions, updates on protests, further injustices, and resources/reading/websites. Highly recommend spending time working through it, donating etc. Prioritise this first.
This list (teeny literature review) will roughly focus on the anthropological/sociological course reading I did at university, and is inspired by a friend from my university cohort who has been integral in speaking and protesting at this week’s Black Lives Matter protests in London. I can see these conversations need to be made much more public in order to take academia from the ‘ivory towers’ to public knowledge. Share this with anyone you know who didn’t do social sciences; I promise there is a lot to understand here: many connections to be made between various systems of oppression such as colonialism/imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy etc.
Anti-racist resources need to be taken into consideration concerning public health, and access to healthcare, amongst all other forms of public care/goods, such as social care, education, governance, policing (if it is even recommended as the most useful form of community care/protection), the justice system etc.
I have a lot of these saved as PDFs/physical copies. Please DM or email email@example.com about them, although I highly suggest buying texts from independent bookshops, directly supporting the author’s work if you can’t access PDFS in the links below. A great collection of black revolutionary pdf texts can be found here (via @newreadernet Instagram), New Beacon Books specialises in African and Caribbean literature, Pluto Books are currently having a BAME author’s sale until the 21st June, Verso have a free eBook on the end of policing, and JSTOR have lots of articles for free.
This is an edit-able post PLEASE send me anything to add – it is intended to be an open resource.
Racism in the UK
Natives by Akala (2018) on race, class, education, justice system
Disrupted – The Reproductive Justice Issue 4.2 (2020) Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP) in this journal has writers covering SO much content: the Mexican City Policy, menstruation inequality, failing reproductive justice in Israel and Brazil
Tuskegee Study – Timeline – “The study initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent” (2020)