Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wooodhull Sexual Freedom Summit 2015

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)

Victoria Woodhull was an American adventuress, stock trader, birth control and free love advocate, journalist and suffragette.  Although many are imagining that Hillary Clinton will be our country’s first female candidate for President of the United States, that distinction already belongs to Woodhull, who ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872.  She obtained no electoral votes.

Ricci Joy Levy, Woodfull Foundation Executive Director

The Woodhull Sexual Freedom alliance was founded in 2003.  Although the Alliance bears no direct connection to Victoria, it does share many of her goals. It has advocated against government repression of sexuality since its foundation.  Since 2009, it has hosted the Sexual Freedom Summit which includes training activities, a ceremony conferring the Vicki Awards for sexual freedom advocacy, and creates community for self-styled sex radicals.  Since its inception it has been ably led by its executive director Ricci Joy Levy.

I chose to attend not because my main theme is sexual freedom, nor because I am self-identified as a ‘sex radical.’  Those are perfectly fine reasons, but the purpose of this blog is improved psychotherapy for kinky and polyamorous clients.  Woodhull is especially prominent in advocating for poly folk, and given the degree of social stigma that attends variant sexual behavior of all kinds, it is simply not possible to promote improvements in the social justice of how we deliver sexual health without some attention to curbing the zeal of government bodies for excessive sexual regulation.  As will be seen in this review, some systems are so ignorant of the needs of sexual minorities, that it is radical just to call for specific information about them to be included in the social conversation.

This year’s Summit was held in Alexandria Virginia, August 13-16.  Your intrepid reporter and his long suffering spouse drove 750 miles in a van with broken AC to attend.  Reportage on those sessions which are relevant to The Elephants purpose will be presented.  Much other activity went on that I will not cover, including an excellent Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) by Patti Britton and Robert Dunlap, and an entire aging consortium from Widener University led by Jane Friedman, and a great session on legal issues in adult entertainment by Lawrence Walters and Luke Lirot.

Harmony, Rebecca and Kait presenting #SFS15.  Photo by Louis Shackelton
Sex Dating, Kink and the ‘C’ Word was presented by Harmony Eichsteadt, Kait Scalisi, and Rebeca Hiles

The ‘C’ word in this presentation was cancer, and this is the first session I have ever attended in which the problems associated with simultaneously being kinky and a cancer survivor were discussed.  From the outset, the presenters made clear that you are a cancer survivor from the moment of diagnosis, not the usual five-year period often used to calculate treatment effectiveness.  Travails presented fell into two main groups:  trouble getting your kink taken seriously by the medical profession, and trouble getting non-professionals to understand what your cancer does and doesn’t mean to potential partners and communities.
Barriers to better treatment for younger and kinky folk included:  the relative paucity of research studies done on teen and young adult cancer patients mean that sexuality and dating implications received little research.  Several stories were told of being unable to get sex discussed with specialists for types of cancer that did not directly impact the reproductive system.  Breast, prostate and uterine cancer specialists may be more open to sex discussion, but do not expect that to include kink.  That means kinky cancer survivors do have to swallow their fears of ignorance and judgment and press for information from potentially uninformed and bewildered professionals.  Treatments for non-reproductive cancer types commonly have hormonal and desire implications.  Some forms of chemo make sex dangerous for partners, and the sexual side effects of some medicines prescribed to deal with treatment side effects are unstudied for their sexual consequences.  Older and younger research subjects are often disinclined to volunteer such information, and doctors don’t ask.
While it is typical of many patients, kinky or not, to feel that sex is not the first thing on their minds or to feel too sick to bring it up at some points in their treatment, kinky folk are inclined to prioritize sex highly, and may not fall into that common pattern of avoidance.  The assumption that cancer ends sexual feeling is not always correct and serves as a barrier to discussion.  Specialists are not only undertrained to discuss sex and cancer, but are often compensated and evaluated for other things and lack time for an uncomfortable discussion they may feel ill-informed to conduct.

While undergoing treatment, survivors are just not expected to be experiencing sex desire or dating by the medical community, or the dating public.  Some reported rejection because of their diagnosis, although others found dating partners to be caring and sensitive.  All struggled somewhat against the medicalization of their identities, where being in treatment or in recovery reframed who others thought they are.  Often assumptions about their delicacy were hard to manage.  Try convincing a dominant play partner you do not know well that you are not ‘too fragile’ for your preferred form of sex.

There is a relative paucity of sex information that is specific to kink and cancer.  This is unfortunate in that, if only 2% of the U S population is into some form of kink, half of these can be expected to get cancer, leaving 3 million people without relevant resources.  The presenters run a relatively inactive site on Fetlife, apparently just posting it doesn’t mean people will come.  They reported most success at setting up their own informal support groups within their local kink communities.  Kink Aware Professionals is a resource for primary care physicians, but there are few oncology specialists on it.
Whether dealing with doctors or acquaintances, the group agreed that survivors need to be very assertive and take the initiative in dealing with their cancer issues.  Sadly, the expectation is that even specialists will not have gotten training on this.  The best say, ‘I don’t know, and I’ll look into it.’  Then they actually follow through and get back to you.

Dei, Ramien, and Sir Guy presenting #SFS15.  Photo by Louis Shackelton

Black Lives Matter in Porn, Kink and Leather -- Black Males, Law Enforcement and Sexual Expression presented by Dei Wise, Sir Guy DeBrownesville, and Ramien Pierre
This panel featured three black dominants who had each been in the scene for 20 years or more. One, Ramien, had won the prestigious International Mister Leather title in 2014.  Dei has won awards from AVN for his work in the porn industry.  Sir Guy was an early member of the Til Eulenspiegel Society, the very first above ground kink social group.   As such, they had been thoughtful and articulate participants in BDSM for a long time before volunteering to present at #SFS15.  Sir Guy had been a NYPD officer for 8 years, and prior racist experiences and a strong sense of what he desired attenuated the experience of isolation in his early years of joining the kink community when there were few other black members.   He did not say, but I also suspect that even when there are other people who are racially similar, some community is formed more around complimentary sexual interest than race.  His enthusiasm for uniform play was already a minority interest in the community, and overcoming isolation was already a frequent experience for him.

Important learning for me was the reflection that white people with fetishes for sex with black partners are an element of community life, but that they represented more of an obstacle that an opportunity for the panelists.  “Not everyone who wants to have sex with you likes blacks very much!’  All three panelists took pains to avoid play with people who they felt objectified them, and they regarded the right play as coming from people who were deeply interested in and accepting of their inner worlds.  Partly, this was an element of risk management.  No one wanted to be outed or harmed by insensitive partners even from the positions of power that dominance afforded.  But play is about emotional connection for the panelists.  Not everyone is ready for that and sometimes race is one of the barriers.

Dei, who had transitioned from submissive to dominant early in his career, was sometimes turned on by risky race play.  “Supreme Court Justices receive a less thorough vetting than my play partners.”  He went on to describe an extreme race play event in which he had viewed that involved a simulated lynching.   All of which left me examining my own values about race and edge play.  I am not alone in this.  Members of the community also have their reluctance.  A Black woman in the audience complained that the onlookers at the lynching constituted the wimpiest lynch mob on record.  None would say the ‘N’ word, which surely would not have been absent from a real lynching.  In order to make it more real for the ‘victim’ she had berated the crowd and exhorted them to be meaner!

It is hard not to imagine that some activities in BDSM constitute attempts at psychological mastery through ‘play’ of powerful, even traumatic social conditions in the larger society.  Uniforms take their meaning from a social context provided by the parent culture.  Racial lynching is an historical fact, although it is unlikely that Dei was old enough to be present at a real one.  Racial prejudice is grist for the mastery mill in American society.  Perhaps one should be uncomfortable with the social conditions that breed race play, even if one has long ago abandoned the myth that we are a colorblind society. 

These uncomfortable realities effect everyone, Blacks and Caucasians, privileged and disadvantaged alike, but they also reflect the conditions in which people pursue their kinks.  If we are sometimes uncomfortable about those kinks, it is always worth remembering they begin from larger social discomforts, and that lacking the same defenses and adaptations that kinky folk employ, we are much more uncomfortable and less excited than they are.  Our neutrality is not always healthier and not always an advantage.

The Family Matters Project:  John D,Emilio, Petter Goselin, Andy Izevon, Nancy Polikoff, Monica Raye Simpson and Ricci J Levy

The conference closed with a presentation on Woodhull’s major initiative; the Family Matters Project.  Superficially, this is about confronting the fact that heteronormative cis-gendered, monogamous family as the dominant ideal family structure in American society.  In fact, the panel’s criticism is more radical, more in the spirit of Victoria Woodhull, and much deeper than that.

The session began with the criticism of Antony Scalia’s conservative reasoning for supporting the extension of marriage rights to gay and lesbian monogamists.  This constitutes privileging of the already privileged; an invitation for gays to embrace a monogamous model that discriminates against those neediest of governmental support.  Even the relatively well-educated poly community is not the most needy cadre of government support.  A more radical approach would abandon sex shaming and economic discrimination against divorced, single, and out of wedlock family styles that affect far more people than polyamory.  These differentially impact the poor and people of color and the family styles they adopt to handle economic hardship and social discrimination.

Some speakers outlined the legal basis for just how vague and discriminatory the privileging of family really is.  “It would probably be better if the definition of family wasn’t left to lawyers!” typified the criticism.  For example, some housing laws allude to family but have great trouble defining it.  It is clear that the audience’s preferred methodology, that definitions of family come from the individual heart, was deeply unrealistic about how any such redefinition might be implemented.  After all, the current definitions, lawyerly as they may be, proceeded from heartfelt political will of opposing moralists. The most radical presenters called for abolition of the family as the basis for government benefits for the needy.  The clear solution of the presenters was that government benefits to the needy needed to de-privilege sex shaming and traditional family structure.  Fairer benefits cannot be accomplished by making traditional marriage a protected class.

The Family Matters Panel was able to articulate the ultimate goal of the project:  a de-privileging of traditional family status as the gateway for providing government services.  This would need to go beyond legitimating polyamory or other non-cisgendered, non-hetero-normative family styles.  It would need to end sexual shaming of people’s reproductive, living, and sexual relationships.

Achievement of this goal would have profound impacts on who was responsible for children and their care, who could legally live together in a dwelling, who could take medical responsibility for others, and how child custody was viewed.  Ultimately, it would support genuine equality of widely differing living arrangements.

As to how such a radical change was to be implemented, the panel was at the very earliest stages of any implementation plan.  John D’Emllio, one of this year’s Vicki Award winners, closed with the cogent quote that as gratifying as this goal was, the most radical criticism was a mere exercise in philosophy without a plan for implementation.  Ricci Joy Levy’s plan is clearly to recruit some of the great minds that presented in this session as the backbone of a working group to define what steps towards this goal might look like.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Epistemology of Lies

One of the stable mysteries in sex research involves the differing percentages of men and women (sorry, but the gender variant are too little studied on this topic, so this essay is going to rely on traditional pronouns) who admit to having sex outside of marriage.  In the early 50’s, Alfred Kinsey estimated that about half of men and a quarter of women admitted to extramarital sex.  In the early 90’s, the Janus report suggested a third of men and a quarter of women had strayed.  In 1994, Laumann, Gagnon, Michael and Michaels reported about twice as many men admitted to straying than women.  While the exact percentages of extramarital affairs varies somewhat over time and with differences in the exact wording of survey items across surveys, this discrepancy holds up.  Neither male on male infidelity, nor questions about the numbers of partners men have relative to women explain the discrepancy.  Neither are all the unfaithful males making up the difference with single women.  The difference is not accounted for by homosexual contacts, or a smaller number of women pairing with a larger number of men. The evolutionary theorists have suggested women stray less because it is more in their advantage to retain male partner to share parenting responsibilities, as men can more easily walk away from parenting duties.  Female infidelity goes up when there is a surplus of men, and down when there is a surplus of women.  Scarcity of partners matters.  Infidelity does appear more common in younger people, and in those nearing the end of middle age, which suggests that child rearing does effect straying, however it is not related to the number of offspring in the United States.  Cross culturally, men do report straying more in societies with relatively more marriageable women, and less in societies with a relative shortage of such women.  It also seems that marital infidelity is more openly admitted among younger respondents in more recent studies.  In 2015, a study reported nearly identical rates of infidelity among males and females for the first time.

So who are all those men having sex with?  The conventional wisdom is that men are inclined to exaggerate their promiscuity, and women to minimize it, apparently even on anonymous sex surveys.  Without a magical or questionably unethical and highly intrusive alternate methodology, this hypothesis is not easily tested.  Clearly women do experience burdens related to child rearing and responsibility that do not evaporate even in societies that support reproductive choice.  Demographics also matter.  So do the socially constructed dimensions of gender roles.  There is no single cause.

This propensity for exaggerating and minimizing extramarital activity on surveys pales in comparison with the analysis of the Ashley Madison core dump by technology author Annalee Newitz and published a week ago on  Annalee describes subjecting the Ashley Madison database of some 22 million men and 5.5 million women to data analysis designed to differentiate users’ behavior by gender.  Looking at data fields recording contact attempts and text messaging through Ashley Madison’s site, Annalee suggested that most of the 22 million users are male, and that only about 10,000 of those who created female profiles ever used them even a single time to contact anyone through the site.  While alternative explanations exist for these observed discrepancies, such as real women creating profiles, then dropping, or some systematic corruption of the Ashley Madison data set, she also found evidence of robotic profile creation and sparse but significant employee complaints about phony profile creation.  Huge numbers of men joined a site with virtually one women for every four men at best on it, yet conversed for extended periods over affairs that could not have happened.  And Ashley Madison perpetrated a fraud of epic proportions, even allowing for their warning that ‘some’ of the profiles on their site were for ‘entertainment only.’  Something is rotten in the state of Ashley Madison.

Newitz's sex ratio findings make a mockery of warnings from sophisticated observers like Dan Savage that one had best be careful going to the Ashley Madison hack for information about your husband’s fidelity.  The odds might be many thousands to one that, at worst, he may have intended to be unfaithful but failed to find a partner, and more than likely was engaged in pornographic fantasy with little hope of a relationship.   I also warned of this danger of drawing unjustified conclusions from the data in an earlier post.  But I would never have projected a discrepancy between men and women’s behavior this large.  Perhaps I was warned.

Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam in their study of Internet porn searches, ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts:  What the Internet Tells Us about Sexual Relationships,’ presaged this result in their efforts to identify the different on-line behaviors of men and women searching for porn.  This can be easily seen by comparing two charts on the top 5 visual porn sites preferred by male and female searchers presented on page 18 of that book.  The top sites searched by those identified as males totaled about 51M searchers a month.  An entirely different top 5 searches from those identified as female totaled about 3M a month.  That very roughly reflects 6% of the male figure.  Ogas and Gaddam also found about 6% of visual porn searches on American On-Line were from self-identified women.  But most of their data were in the range of 20-30% female use relative to men.  But Ashley Madison, while it had picture profiles, was not visual porn.

The female use data as suggested by Newitiz’s analysis of the Ashley Madison user data are so low, it is lower than the likely number of men who joined Ashley Madison pretending to be women to escape the monthly fees.  Joining as another gender might be a barrier to actually meeting, but could facilitate fantasy, checking on the authenticity of others, or even scamming.  It is probably a rational strategy for men who knew from the start that they only wanted to dream about the profiles and weren’t planning to meet anyone.  It is also a lower percentage than the number of 5.5 million women who were kinky, and might have had reasons beyond just wanting a partner who had accepted the necessity an affair in braving the hazards of going on Ashley Madison.  If 1.5% of the women 5.5M women wanted kink, we might have expected 75,000 to 100,000 profiles with contact records, not less than 15,000. 

Finally, I actually know one woman who claimed, long before this fiasco, to have been on Ashley Madison, although she did not share her contact history there with me.    As broad as my circle of friends may be, my profession is somewhat of a lightning rod for sexual discussion of a certain type, the odds aren’t that good that I would know such a woman if there were only 15,000 in the entire country.  But some of my colleagues, also admittedly those most likely to know outliers of this type, claim to know several experienced Ashley Madison users, male and female, who met on-line.  We are, of course, sworn to professional silence about any data we might cull from professional contacts. Suffice it to say, the data and my informal reports don’t add up.

Two days ago, however, Newitiz recanted her analysis of the Ashley Madison hacks user fields.  Those empty fields in female profiles didn’t reflect their initiation of contacts with men, but kept data on Ashley Madison’s communications to them.  Ashley Madison was targeting its users with a vigorous program of robotic communications aimed at providing the illusion that sexy women hot for affairs were propositioning them.  The female users’ data fields were empty because with four men on the site or more for every woman, Ashley Madison did not need robotic communication to keep women subscribed to the site.  Only men were charged a monthly re-subscription fee, so Ashley Madison’s robots were focused on men who were looking for female partners.   It is still unknown exactly how many of the female profiles on the site were real women investigating potential affairs.  But it is a fair guess that the absolute upper limit to genuine contacts for heterosexual men was 20-25%, and perhaps way less.  Although Ashley Madison worked pretty much as advertised for women seeking women or men, and for men seeking affairs with men, it was primarily an business model of keeping heterosexual males seeking women strung along paying the monthly fees on a diet of fake profiles and lame propositions programmed by computers with scant possibility of any actual contact.  Most men on the site never had one.

This has a number of alarming implications.  First, how could Ashley Madison, which promised special safety and security to people who wanted to risk breaking social norms, have provided such abysmal service.  Rather than providing good security, they have risked outing tens of millions of people world wide.  Did they ever intend to provide it?  The hack of the company’s internal communications shows an obsession with retaining revenue and customers, not with security.  The site functioned essentially as a gigantic fraud far more deserving of Justice Department attention than, busted late last week.  For all the good and bad reasons men might have gone on-line seeking extramarital affairs, bilking and hacking them constitute crimes, not condign punishment for social deviance. The Internet world is a very harsh place for people lacking the social skills to protect themselves.  Just when we are confronting men for their social privilege, remember Ashley Madison’s clever hook consisted of robotic invitations like “I’m always up for some kinky chat!”  We are all privileged in some ways, and painfully vulnerable in others.

But that is my original point.  The Ashley Madison hack, like so many other epistemologies, answers only a few questions, raises many new ones, and swirls the murky waters in new ways that obscure some things even as it reveals others.  We are not seeing into the dark hearts of religious conservatives or entitled men in brand new ways that revel unexpected truths.  We are not hearing the death knell of monogamy, but its struggle with changing social contexts.  We are seeing that fantasy is not politically correct because that is not its function.  A lot of guys don’t need the full risks of an affair to get off, and it is worth considering that a whole class of men exists out there which would much prefer the fantasy of an affair to the pleasures and pains of real infidelity.  There might be only modest overlap between the so called ‘cheaters’ on Ashley Madison and men who honestly tell survey researchers that they have had an extramarital affair.

What about Ashley Madison itself?  A number of smart commentators have suggested Ashley Madison might be in for some difficult times in court because the hack reveals that the site’s security promises were ineffective.   The Newitz analysis certainly doesn’t suggest that the site was scrupulous about offering only genuine profiles.  Ashley Madison’s EULA shows genuine foreknowledge that male might experience a dearth of female interest.  What legal vulnerabilities these create will probably be explored.

In the meantime, there are some very clear lessons learned:

Internet security is a functional oxymoron.  You have way less than you think.  Do not doing anything here you do not want your worst enemy to know.  Things siad on the Internet may have a half life of forever.

People’s reasons for extramarital affairs are very diverse.  They do not reflect simple moral failure or hostility to their spouses, or even proof of a love for the thrillingly illicit.  Someone somewhere has these motivations, but people are not alike simply because we categorize their behavior with the same label.

The immediate corollary is that you don’t know very much about your partner once you find their name in the Ashley Madison hack.  Most men didn’t have affairs, and a good argument could be made that Ashley Madison was a fantasy aid for many, whether they had ever intended to assume the full risks and responsibilities of an actual meeting or not.  Many must have wanted affairs.  Most stayed without getting one.

The moral entrepreneurs who are criticizing the state of American marriage because of this would much prefer to blame people for not following their preferred dogmas.  The evidence of social research suggests dogma is the weakest explanation of why people do and do not stray, and that demographics, social and geographic mobility, and economic changes are more powerful predictors.  Look for lots more ineffective criticism in the future because those genuinely influential factors are growing stronger.

Sex education is hamstrung without media education and affective education.  If we are not going to be cheated by shallow frauds like Ashley Madison, men need to be able to tell the difference between robots inviting them to ever more expensive fantasy sites and conversations with real women.  The bots were not channeling Madame Pompadour and the 18th century courtesans than inhabited salons in the Age of Reason.

Outing people for their sexual conduct is bad.  There is no end here that justifies these means, and the hackers are not heroes, even for exposing Ashley Madison’s corruption.  Two Canadians are alleged to have committed suicide over these disclosures.  I do not know if the hack is the precipitating cause.  But sex shaming is just bullying by privileged means.  If you don’t want people whining about your privilege, use it graciously for genuine good.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Everything You Know is Wrong!"

‘Men and women are the same sex!
Pigs live in trees!
The Aztecs invented the vacation!
Aliens are living like Indians in an Arizona nudist park!
EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG!’  -- The Firesign Theater

They were on vinyl back then.  "Sir, Syrup won't stop 'em.  They're in everybody's eggs!"

Back in the trippy early 1970’s the crazed psychedelic comic radio theater ensemble Firesign Theater came out with a series of loopy stream of consciousness record albums for stoners.  They were changing the face of comedy by constantly reframing their narrative, back before Monty Python cornered the market on silliness.  This radio play is a send up of then-famous pseudoscientist Erich Von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods.

Humor is a fertile object of study and inspiration for any social constructionist because it demonstrates the relativity of meaning is entirely dependent on context.  Flip the context and you flip the meaning.  Monty Python shows this with dialogues in which characters obstinately refuse to accept each other’s meanings.  The Firesign Theater did this by constantly changing the frame so you had to keep up just to know what they were talking about.  Each segue was a free association worthy of William Boroughs.

But I didn’t come here to talk about comedy. I came to talk about science.  Especially the social and medical sciences that constitute the background of all the therapeutic work we do.  If modern sexology can be considered to have started with Napoleonic civil administrators trying to count the prostitutes of Paris, figuring out how we count things is especially important.

In fact, sexology didn’t really get started until 1869 with Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis.  That volume did not rely on counting things.  It was an anthology of case studies, and initiated a clinical methodology that would dominate sexology and much of psychology until 1947 when Alfred Kinsey first published The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male based upon survey data.

Kinky Boots:  Crippling fetish, or good clean fun?
For the entire period between 1885 and 1950, the practice of sex therapy was dominated by the clinical case history.  In the later language of statistical sampling, case histories are studies with an N of 1.  The dangers are obvious, now.  If Krafft-Ebing learned of a shoe fetishist who was unable to sexually respond except to women’s shoes, it was assumed that sexual fetishists were all unhappy weaklings who couldn’t get satisfaction without their preferred sex object.  It took years for it to occur to anyone (Freud) that many fetishists could get off just fine without their fetish being present, but only the seriously unhappy ones who couldn’t braved the costs and uncertainties of treatment to discuss it.

Methodologies have epistemological traps.  In the process of illuminating some truths, they throw others into shadow.  Today’s front page story form the New York Times illuminates this regarding laboratory experiments, today’s blue chip method of academic psychology.  Laboratory studies are appealing because they offer scientists the opportunity to control variables and to potentially prove causality.  Case histories can prove that something can happen.  Surveys can show that things co-occur and co-vary, experimentation can prove a change in one thing was caused by change in another.

As a psychologist, one of the things I know is that about 5% of everything I know to be true is wrong.  This is before we get to any personal issues of fallibility I might have that are unique to my professional limitations.  I consume studies that meet the professional standard prevailing in academic research that if a hypothesis tested in a psychological study has a 95% chance of being right, it is true, and if it has a 94% chance or less of being right, it is wrong.  This is how the statistical tests used to test hypotheses work.  A test is conducted to see if the data supporting the hypothesis might have occurred by chance.  If the likelihood the result happen by chance is a p = 5% or less, most researchers call their hypothesis confirmed. If this standard worked ideally from a statistical point of view, occasionally perfectly correct hypotheses would be proven ‘wrong’ about one chance in 20, and incorrect hypotheses would occasionally get lucky and be proven ‘right.’  So at any given moment in time, only most of what I know is genuinely correct.  Hopefully, only the good stuff is in this post.

This has led some humorists to characterize psychologists and their ilk as faceless grey ciphers.  After all, nothing rare ever happens to me.  Anything unlikely proves some hypothesis or other.  Who knows what desperate shenanigans I will be driven to do to disprove that facetious mischaracterization.  Perhaps a blog on kink and psychotherapy?  But it is worth wondering what we ought to do to improve the odds.  After all, 5% of our teaching and clinical wisdom is probably not correct.

A 20-sided die, often used in role playing games.  The chance of rolling a '20' is 5%.

Which brings us to the problem of replication.  If a study is conducted once and meets the 95% confidence interval, there is about a 5% chance its wrong.  But if it were to be precisely replicated, and met the standard 2 times in 2 tries, the chance of error shrinks from one in 20 to one in 400.  That is simple enough:  conduct important studies twice and only report those that are replicated, and the chance of error falls precipitously.  And exactly this type of statistical thinking does influence medical and safety studies where error might be fatal.  The researchers chose much more strict confidence intervals to test such hypotheses.  But the sociology of science does not make replication easy or trivial.

While experimenters are required to report methods and results so that other qualified scientists could check or repeat their work, only the tiniest fraction of work is replicated.  Careers are rewarded for original, not replicated work, so someone has to specifically and exceptionally reward replications.  Senior scientists who have carefully dreamed up and executed work are sensitive about who and how such replication might be conducted.  Who wants younger or less qualified colleagues to ‘check’ their work?  What if replication fails?  And there are hosts of methodological issues about what constitutes exact reproducibility.  What if the subjects, the times, the geographic regions, institutional support, the public’s familiarity with the study’s design and outcome; all kinds of variables threaten to make an attempted replication systematically different in a manner that might account for different results. Many studies rely on naive subjects or deception bringing to mind Heraclitus warning:  "No man never steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man."  The result: no genuine replication.

Despite all those potential obstacles to replication, three major psychology journals, Psychological Science, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and The Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Learning, Memory and Cognition participated in The Reproducibility Project, which selected the 100 most important studies published in the year 2008 for replication.   To overcome barriers to proper execution, the Reproducibility Project mandated and funded close cooperation between the original researchers and the teams conducting each replication.   To ensure stability of results, many replications used more subjects than the original published studies.

If 100 studies had all had a 5% chance of failing replication, we would expect 95 to pass and about five to fail.  In the reported replication effort, 60 failed, 36, passed, and 2 were too ambiguous to call, and two of the original studies failed to achieve statistical significance but got published and rated as important enough to replicate.  Most of those failing had results that were similar in direction to their original studies, but failed to make statistically significant results.  If they had been conducted for the first time, these 60 would most likely not have been reported.

Which brings up our first and most serious form of bias in social science research.  If I read the literature, form the best hypothesis I can, scrupulously conduct my study, and for whatever reason I fail to obtain a statistically significant result, I quit, pick another hypothesis to test and start over.  I probably can’t get my failed results published, certainly can’t advance my case for academic tenure, and no one ever knows about my negative result.  All of my efforts fail to become a part of the scientific record.
This is a problem for science because someone could go out and do my failure all over, not knowing my work.  But it is very unlikely that if I had published my negative results, anyone would have bothered to replicate them.  Career considerations alone would propel them to test something that didn’t already have one strike against it.  You might think that a thoughtful person who looked at my work might have a creative idea to improve on my failed methods and retest under more favorable conditions.  And you would be right, a great deal of this goes on in pharmaceutical research, with slight changes in research design getting repeated until a positive result is achieved.  Mostly such programmatic research is a good thing, but it too has vulnerabilities.  One can take an indifferent study and repeat it enough times until one gets a statistically significant result, and thereby pass clinical trials.  But that raises the specter of another source of possible error, that of excessive self or financial interest.

As fond as we are of saying it doesn't, in research, effect size matters!
The practice of managing statistical significance is only part of the problem.  A more socially relevant statistical measure of a study’s importance is effect size.  Generally effect size statistics tell us how much of one variable is accounted for by our knowledge of another.   While the philosophical role of p values tells us how likely a given experiments results might have been achieved by chance alone, when studies have thousands of subjects, it is easy to achieve statistical significance for very tiny effects.   If I learned that only children made better managers, it would matter a lot in how much better run my company would be if they were 3% better managers, or 15%.  In the latter case, it might make sense to ask about interviewees’ birth order.   With tiny effects, it might not be worth the added expense of asking the question.

In the Replication Project, the average effect size of the 100 replicated studies was half of that of the originals.  That is the equivalent of halving their miles per gallon.  Everything I know isn’t wrong, but right is now at half strength.

Brian Nosek, PhD, Director of the Reproducibility Project

The Replications study’s director Brian Nosek is full of admiration for the courage and integrity of the team of 270 professionals who participated in these studies.  No evidence of wrongdoing was found.  He stresses that this is not about any lack of integrity.  No one knows better than Nosek about how hard doing replication really is.  But it is not the least bit reassuring about the overall integrity of the average psychology experiment reports submitted to top journals for publication.  97% of these achieved statistical significance, but only 36% could be replicated.

P hacking (methodologically cheating to increase your likelihood of achieving statistical significance); collecting part of your data, then checking your results, and only completing the collection of data if the sneak peek looks good; and deep sixing failed results are only a few of the actions biasing experimental results.  Funding and publication biases, prevailing research fads and orthodoxies, the occasional power plays by senior scholars, academic hiring practices, social prejudices, and the occasional outright fraud also influence what gets published and what is deemed important from among the thousands of research reports published annually.
We clinicians, busy with our clientele and paperwork, have biases of our own about which of these studies we consume.  And frankly, the methodological sophistication of most clinicians could be greatly improved.  Most of us selected clinical work in preference to academic research.  For all but a few of us, that was a wise economic decision.  Even those of us who are fanatical about CEs, career updating and re-certification are likely to retain biases from the period of our training long after we have left school and devoted our lives to practice.
The biggest source of bias, however, remains epistemological.  With limited money and time, and a realistic assessment of what promotes career advancement, it is far easier to get money to solve big problems that effect lots of people, and hard to get money to solve the problems of a few.  Social stigma is hard to research because societies retain vested interests in maintaining them, rather than spending risky money in hopes of overturning them.  People who insist on researching what they love may be just as biased as those who research what pays well.  We are each readier to see what we expect to see than that we do not expect.  It is easier to confirm our biases than to dispel them.  It seems there are biases, as the lady said of turtles, all the way down.

All of this must give us pause when we demand that clinical practice be more ‘evidence-based.’  The effort to collect experimental data is extremely valuable, as long as we appreciate the limitations of our methods and are careful not to over-interpret them.

The Kepler Space Telescope searches for exoplanets in .25% of the sky.

The Kepler Space Telescope is currently conducting a search for exoplanets, with special hope of detecting Earth-like planets that might sustain life, and perhaps maintain conditions for the evolution of intelligent life.  A great deal is unknown about exactly what those conditions might be.  Because of its orbit and limitations, the Kepler Space Telescope can only train on a tiny percentage, .25% of the visible sky.  This chosen percentage is focused in the lens of the Milky Way Galaxy where stars far enough away from the galactic core not to be irradiated and close enough to have high star density.  Midway through its mission, the aiming machinery broke, further limiting the Kepler’s field of view.  While the universe of potential experiments in psychology is genuinely infinite, and the Milky Way star population is immense, but ultimately finite, the analogy between xenoplanetology and psychology is a good one.  We cannot know that the Kepler’s chosen sample from the stellar population is representative of those stars most likely to harbor a planet that sustains life. We are simply taking the best shot we know how to take at this time.  In fact, the acts of orbiting the telescope, using it to find planets, and its mechanical failures have precipitated innovations in how to search for new planets.  But we have similarly sampled from a tiny but reasonable sample of possible psychology experiments.  Our evidence is spotty, but remains the sum of the best efforts of very thoughtful people.  I would say the same, however, of all those clinicians who made abundant errors generalizing from their first case studies.  Great care needs to be used in deciding what is true and what is not on the basis of fragmentary evidence-based science.

Perhaps the Firesign Theater was right.  Everything you know is wrong!  With the Replication Project data in and counted, we are about halfway there.   Even before checking our privilege, it would be well to check our biases.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Outlier Kinks

In two previous posts, 'Flavors' and 'More Flavors' I described the main dimensions of the activities in kink.  While these are described great diversity of sexual activities, they were intended as a general overview, and did not begin to convey the full range of outlier preferences that human imagination and diversity are able to concoct.  For me, we are still relearning Alfred Kinsey's main take away from his 1947 sex research on males; sex diversity is far greater than society believes it to be.  This post is intended to show that it is more diverse than my initial generalizations suggest as well. 

Casual perusal of Facebook gives the impression that new kinks are being devised all the time. Whether they are brand new, or creative elaborations on old ones is a matter of some debate, but suffice it to say that the wellspring of creativity available to every other realm of human endeavor is equally available for sexuality.

Ovipositor play:  'Ovipositor' is a sufficiently uncommon term that blogger does not have it in their starting dictionary.  It is the organ in most insects and some vertebrates that lay eggs that actually deposits them. Ovipositors exist in all sizes and shapes in the insect world, but anyone who ever saw the movie Alien can imagine the possibilities.  Although the alien in that movie did not actually insert eggs, but larva, in its victims in the depicted life cycle, nothing prevented an imaginative entrepreneur from inventing a dildo that lays eggs, allowing interested parties to imagine they have been parisitized.  

The ovipositor of a grasshopper.

Ovipositor dildo and glycerin eggs

This 'fetish' is not precisely new, and exists on the cusp of pegging, cosplay, and fantasy and sci-fi geekdom.  Various creative dildos that do not insert eggs are already on the market.

Dragon Dildos.  Dragons come in convenient sizes.

Tentacle dildo

The glycerin eggs liquefy in a short time from body heat.  Suffice it to say, this kink becomes heavy sensation play if one is allergic to glycerin.

Tomato Hornworm with wasp eggs

Interestingly, few insect and no fish ovipositors penetrate flesh to deposit eggs.  For example, tomato horn worms, the larvae of the sphinx moth, are parasatized by braconid wasps.  The wasps lay their eggs on the outside of the worm, When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae burrow into the caterpillar's flesh, secreting a paralytic that immobilizes the caterpillar until the larvae are ready to cocoon fortheir transformation into their adult stage.

Etymological precision not being absolutely required for insect/predator role play, nothing requires that eggs not be inseted and that the insertion not be sexually stimulating.

Feeder Play:

Feeders are a variant of BDSM that involves forced feeding, generally in large volume.  Play involves an interplay of shame, coercion, and nurture.  Some feeders are obesity fetishists who really enjoy the look or feel of extreme fat.  Attached is a link that shows a variety of reactions to a woman's post questioning whether her relationship with a feeder is 'normal.'

Extreme pregnancy and breast illustrations:

Some sites specialize in fantasies of extreme pregnancy and lactation.  Often, size in mammaries is linked to fantasies of squirting long distances and enormous productivity. Lest one imagine that this is all in reaction to rise of working mothers and breast pumps, I have included  a representation of medieval fantasies of squirting milk.

Breast milking fetish with furrie elements.

Lactation pictures are not, by any means a recent phenomenon.  Here is a painting from the 17th century.  There are several variants of this story, in which St. Bernard was endowed with wisdom when a vision or statue of the nursing Virgin Mary squirted milk on his lips. Often a large stream is depicted traveling great distances.  The parables depicted in these paintings are not explicitly sexual.  The stories date from about 1200AD, but few paintings go back so far. While St Bernard is praying to the Virgin Mary, who is feeding the infant Jesus, a miracle occurs and her milk goes into his mouth.  Sometimes the story is told that the milk comes from a statue, rather than the vision of Mary.  The milk is thought to have brought St Bernard wisdom and healing powers.

The Lactation of Saint Bernard,by Alonso Cano - 1650AD

Extreme Pregnancy:  And I don't mean drinking while carrying!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Romantic Idealization, Betrayal, and the Free Rider Problem

The hackers who craved a more just sexual universe have finally published their stolen Ashley Madison data.  I suppose we should acknowledge their public service not only in defense of marital fidelity, but in demonstration of the eternal principle that our on-line privacy is entirely illusory.  Corporations and the NSA are not the boogeyfolk anymore.  Anyone can re-purpose our data.  Out is the new normal.

Josh Duggar (right) and Mike Huckabee (left) in happier times.

Among those outed is perennial anti-gay activist, reality TV star, and fundamentalist Christian advocate Josh Duggar, whose discomfort might evoke schadenfreude in even the most self-restrained for his perennial railing against healthy sexuality.  Hypocritical sexual adventurism does seem over the top for a scion of the Family Research Council who have consistently claimed that gays’ ability to marry would lead to the downfall of Western Civilization.  But Josh’s professional sex negativity took a gothic tone earlier this year with circulation of the story of his sexual abuse of several under aged girls, including some of his younger sisters, back in his mid-adolescence.  For this he was essentially untreated, aside from a stern conversation with a state trooper who later was embroiled in charges of inappropriate sexual behavior of his own.  One can only imagine the mental states Josh’s erotophobic parents, whose fear of the media exposure must have been acute.  Suffice it to say, whatever interventions they used then do not appear to have solved Josh’s difficulties reconciling his actual behavior with his professed doctrine.

An Io moth, an example of mimicry in nature.  Those startling eyes may give a predator pause, an evolutionary demonstration of the free rider in action

As bad as all this personal drama is, the exaltation of marital fidelity, reliance on the term ‘cheating’ and rage at cheaters are demonstrations of a universal human struggle with the free rider problem.  Fundamentalist Christians and fallible moral entrepreneurs are not the only folk who deplore free riders.  Originally derived from hobos who jumped freight trains and subway users who jumped turnstiles, free riders are a perennial problem in human organization, and in nature.  Mimicry, parasitism, and intraspecific completion all provide abundant examples from evolution to demonstrate the interspecific benefits of getting one organism to pay the full cost for another’s useful adaptation.  Monkeys and dogs have been shown in the lab to quit work they have already been trained and rewarded for doing if they see another animal receiving a better reward for the same work.  We humans can’t stand to see non-union members get the same pay we had to pay union dues and go on strike to achieve.  So resentment that cheaters might masquerade as faithful spouses arouses envy and resentment in those of us who identify as faithful in the face of myriad temptations.
All of which is just a little ironic for the founders of Ashley Madison, who invented the site as not only a powerful source of revenue, but marketed it as an alternative to, you guessed it, the free rider problem.  On many dating sites, married people claimed the social advantages of being single, leading to disappointments, dissatisfactions, and failed dating relationships for singles and married alike.  Ashley Madison provided an opportunity to start an ‘honest’ relationship with a married partner who presumably would understand not only the lures of extramarital affairs, but their costs.  Even Ashley Madison subscribers who had no illusions that their partners were deceiving their spouses, could dream of zipless affairs where the burdens of hiding the relationship would be mutually understood, and they would not have to face the opprobrium of being free riders on ordinary dating sites.

All of which makes our lust to purge free riders look a little like the mirrors in my childhood barbershop which covered walls directly across from one another and led to infinite recursive reflections of the shop and my newly shorn head receding into infinity.  The free rider problem never ends.  Justice in one context is injustice in the next.

I will add my voice to the minority chorus that decries the exposure of Josh Duggar and all his ilk in the interest of reasserting the primacy of sexual shame as a deterrent to bad behavior.  Not because he is not justly served with his own treachery, but because achieving a sexually healthier world cannot be achieved by a simple shuffling and redistribution of the same old social controls.  Yesterday its gays, today its cheaters, tomorrow, prostitutes, and next week, sex robots.  We are seduced by the romantic illusion of stamping out the free riders.  While struggling to check our privilege, we would do well to check our chronic fear that someone is getting a better deal than we are.

The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Romantic illusion, of course, has been the target of a fair amount of criticism dating at least as far back as the writings of the Marquis de Sade.  Outraged by religion and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s defense of innate human goodness, the Divine Marquis lived his life in continual confrontation with idealization.  Never mind that Christianity’s reliance on the doctrine of original sin was overdue for serious deconstruction, de Sade both argued and illustrated that our internal contents, physical, mental and emotional, did not merit idealization.  For de Sade, they are gross, base, self-centered, sexual and aggressive.  But de Sade, who in many ways was a terrible writer who many of us would love to forget, remains uncomfortably relevant because of our Freudian wish to overcome the crass realities of social life with our fondest wishes for a better world.  We can always imagine a better world than we can achieve.  We periodically need to be reminded by de Sade, Freud and Bretton that we can always dream a little better than we achieve, and our dreams may not look very pretty to others.  And that such fantasies also lead many of us to Ashley Madison and to extra-marital affairs.

Esther Perel

This is one of Esther Perel’s great insights about infidelity.  Our sense of entitlement to the imaginary trumps our commitment to the real, and this compels us to fly to ills we know not of rather than bear those that we have!  Nor are our fantasies of better always disappointing.  Extramarital affairs can fulfill unmet needs.  Aftr all, all of the world’s great philosophies and inventions began as dreams.  
The discovery of an affair may be curtains for a bad relationship, but can be the painful beginning of transformation for valued relationships that are merely imperfect.  In the shock of shattered idealization, you may not be in a very good place to begin to learn from the discovery of an affair.  But the potential for learning something is present.

Esther’s other great insight about infidelity is that, with the modern decline of marriage’s role as a primarily economic and political institution for controlling resources and its rise as a celebration of romantic attachment, the meanings of infidelity all serve to defend romantic idealization.  In her TED talk, she explains the new conventional wisdom that a ‘wronged’ partner is crazy to stay in a bad marriage that has been shattered by infidelity.  Such interpretation made no sense in a marriage arranged by family elders, and not expected to be a love nest.  Telling someone who has been cheated on that they should leave doesn’t defend marriage, which after all would be dissolved, but ideal relationships in which there is no conflict.

But Perel does not deny that flawed marriages can be improved to better meet partners’ expectations, even if they are romantically idealized.

Dan Savage

This makes Dan Savage’s potentially wise cautionary advice that you should seriously question whether you really want to know about an affair into a double-edged sword.  Perhaps you spare your imperfect self and imperfect partner a load of unnecessary grief by failing to check the Ashley Madison scroll of shame.  Staying away can sidestep immersing yourself in the poisonous culture of sex shaming.  Surely Dan is correct that armed with the information from so uncertain and imperfect a source, you may easily misjudge your partner’s behavior from a full disclosure of their account activity.  You may not know what is fantasy, what is behavior, and what the narrative you build from it conceals and reveals.  It might be easy to imagine you know things that remain excruciatingly elusive and ambiguous.  Dan warns that looking is no panacea.

But failing to explore the weaknesses and imperfections of your relationship might also spare you loss at the price of failing to improve a valuable marriage.  Not only is the perfect the enemy of the good, but good can effectively contest with the mirage of perfection.  Often we know that it is unloving to demand perfection of our partners.  Robust affection proffers love unmerited.  To love someone, we must tolerate their accurate reflection that we are imperfect images of our own idealizations.  Learning to tolerate these painful insights can improve our relationships.  Love demands forgiveness.

To examine the Ashley Madison core dump is to risk the scourge of betrayal.  There you may discover your partner’s lies, limitations, and hidden desires for someone other than you.  It will be impossible not to imagine that this behavior was not done in reference to you.  How is your damaged sense of self to be repaired after assaults of this kind?

To learn from an affair, it is necessary to discover it, but it is also necessary to get beyond the betrayals of our imperfect partner’s painful reflection of our own inadequacies and limitations.  Identification of the lies; the violated clauses in the broken contract; the selfish points in which our partner who claims to love us put their needs ahead of ours; the ambiguity of the lies told to ‘protect’ us, or merely for the convenience of deception; or even the pleasure of getting the better of us in some nasty contest that appears entirely unloving on its merits, requires tolerating a great deal of loss.  For the potential learning from such a breach in our relationship cannot be achieved by falling back on the same strategies for avoiding loss that made our relationship so vulnerable in the first place.  This kind of differentiation is bound to drive us from our comfort zones.


In the animal world, like the human one, organisms are intolerant of loss.  For every example of community mindedness and sacrifice, there are also stories of competition, rivalry, and self-interest.   Framing a partner’s behavior as betrayal protects us against the loss of realizing that we might not be blameless, that partner’s needs might have gone unrecognized, that we wanted to give more but were not in a position to do so.  That love is sometimes unable to make things better.  That love is not exclusive.  That love is not especially wise, rational, or generous sometimes.  Rather than protecting us from loss, love makes us more vulnerable.  That rather than making conflict go away, love can make it intolerable.

These are disturbing ideas; painful adult elaborations that complicate the loving fairy stories we are taught in childhood.  But if we are to build better relationships from marital infidelity, we must confront our idealizations in the context of a society that is just as loss intolerant as we are and pretty much devoted to defending the fairy tales.  While confronting the most painful truths about yourself, the media will feed you a steady stream of stories about denying them.  If the ball ends differently than you had hoped, you will be sent in search of a lost glass slipper.  And stories will rarely end, ‘and they worked hard together on their intimacy together ever after.’

Salome with the head of John the Baptist' by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)  This story is a powerful erotophobic parable from the New Testament

This is why one should pause before the excruciatingly tempting invitation to indulge in the sex shaming attending Ashley Madison’s hack, or Josh Duggar’s pro forma confession.  It is also why the obvious observation that sex obsessed erotophobia cannot provide the basis for protective sex education will not soothe social conservatives at all.  This Ashley Madison narrative is proof for them that sex is dangerous and they had every reason to fear its power. They are defending the romantic idealization of pure Christian love from the depravity of unruly sexual desire.  The more cogent our criticism, the more reflexive their defense.  In this, we have not advanced the discourse very much farther than that bogeyman de Sade.    Our conservative friends are yearning for fairy tales from a very long time ago.  I guess it’s pretty hard to have an original sin, anymore!

Josh is a poor test case anyway.  Although he was deprived of a decent sex education or a reasonable moral framework for making healthier sexual decisions, he was entirely manipulative and hypocritical about the moral framework he did learn.  Rousseau would have argued that Josh would have been fine without the corrupt guidance of society, but Rousseau declined to recognize that humans, like macaques, are born into seething social milieus, not a pastoral Eden.   Rousseau missed free riders in the age before someone built railroads to parasitize.  Josh recapitulated de Sade without ever having to read him.