Understanding females’ sexual fluidity

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February 10th, 2012

Actress Cynthia Nixon made headlines recently when she said during an interview that she “chooses” to be a lesbian.

“I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better,” she said. “For me, it is a choice.”

As you might expect, her comments – published in a New York Times Magazine profile – set off a firestorm of controversy, with gay activists and others worrying that Nixon’s words would give credence to those who claim that being gay is a conscious decision, not a genetic certainty.

(She later clarified that she identifies most closely as a bisexual, which, she says, is a “fact,” not a choice.)

But, divisive wording aside, there may be something to Nixon’s remarks. The actress, who was once in a long-term relationship with a man and who is now engaged to a woman, appears to be an example of what scientists are now terming “sexual fluidity.” In other words, she may be attracted to a specific person rather than a particular gender.

It’s a phenomenon that Lisa Diamond, a University of Utah psychology professor, has studied extensively. In her 2008 book, “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire,” she writes that women’s sexuality appears to be much more fluid than men’s, and that this fluidity tends to involve three main characteristics:

– Non-exclusivity in attractions: can find either gender sexually attractive
– Changes in attractions: can suddenly find a man or woman sexually attractive after having been in a long-term relationship with the other
– Attraction to the person, not the gender

Research seems to support the idea that some women are able to move between relationships with both genders without blinking an eye – and that labels matter little. In a 2008 study, Diamond followed 70 lesbian, bisexual, and “unlabeled” women over the course of 10 years.

During that decade, two-thirds of the women changed their initial identity labels, and one-third of these changed labels at least twice. And although conventional wisdom suggests that more women would transition out of the bisexual and unlabeled groups and into the more “standard” groups of heterosexuality or homosexuality, this was not the case.

As Diamond writes, “More women adopted bisexual/unlabeled identities than relinquished these identities; few bisexual/unlabeled women ended up identifying as lesbian or heterosexual. Overall, the most commonly adopted identity was ‘unlabeled.’”

So is sexual fluidity unique to women? Possibly, says sexuality educator Emily Nagoski, author of the “Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms.”

“Making space for fluidity as a legitimate part of sexual orientation would help women, but it surely couldn’t hurt men. Men have some fluidity too, just not as much,” she writes. “It’s different for girls, this sexual orientation thing.”

She points to a variety of studies that help bolster this idea: For instance, research in men has found genetic differences that may be associated with homosexuality, but similar inheritability of sexual orientation has not yet been identified in women.

Plus, Nagoski adds, “Women’s experience of sexual orientation is more discontinuous and variable than men’s, which more typically emerges early and stays the same over different situations.” So, while most men tend to identify themselves as straight, gay, or bisexual relatively early in life, many women may have relationships with both men and women without choosing a specific sexual orientation.

Women may also be more receptive than men to a variety of sexual cues. For their recent book, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed a billion web searches, a million websites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels in order to better understand the sexual differences between men and women. They concluded that a single cue triggers arousal in the male brain, but that women’s brains require multiple cues to become aroused.

Similarly, research from the University of Toronto found that while men who identified themselves as heterosexual or homosexual became sexually aroused by straight or gay pornography, respectively, women were much more complicated: Regardless of their identified orientation, straight, gay, and bisexual women became physically aroused by a whole range of sexual imagery, including male–male, male–female, and female–female pornography. They were even turned on by images of mating monkeys, although they didn’t admit it.

Of course, we shouldn’t interpret these findings as proof that all heterosexual women are sexually attracted to other women, or to monkeys for that matter.

But they do suggest that women may be more capable of finding people and things attractive, no matter what orientation they claim. Perhaps that’s why an estimated 95% of straight men who fantasize about or partake in threesomes are only interested in being with two women, while more heterosexual women are open to adding another woman or man to the mix.

In the end, Cynthia Nixon’s comments and the conversation they’ve started may reveal less about the actress’s romantic leanings than our own preconceived notions about sexual orientation.

Maybe the lesson here is that love and lust are about people, not about labels – and I think that can only be a good thing.
Post by: Ian Kerner Ph.D. – sex counselor

Why do some people never get depressed?

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February 1st, 2012

Confronted with some of life’s upsetting experiences – marriage breakdown, unemployment, bereavement, failure of any kind – many people become depressed. But others don’t. Why is this?

A person who goes through experiences like that and does not get depressed has a measure of what in the psychiatric trade is known as “resilience”.

According to Manchester University psychologist Dr Rebecca Elliott, we are all situated somewhere on a sliding scale.

“At one end you have people who are very vulnerable. In the face of quite low stress, or none at all, they’ll develop a mental health problem,” she says.

“At the other end, you have people who life has dealt a quite appalling hand with all sorts of stressful experiences, and yet they remain positive and optimistic.” Most of us, she thinks, are somewhere in the middle.

But what is this resilience? Is it something we inherit or do we learn it? Can it be traced in the chemistry of the brain? Or in its wiring, or its electrical activity? And if we lack it, can we acquire it?

The answer, regrettably, to all those questions is much the same. We don’t really know. But we’d like to, and we need to. According to the World Health Organization, depression affects just over 120 million people worldwide.

“We think about a fifth of the UK population will suffer from depression at some point in their lifetime,” says Bill Deakin, professor of psychiatry at Manchester University. Worryingly, he adds that more people are getting depressed now than in the past, and that it is beginning to affect younger people.

With the support of the Medical Research Council, Bill Deakin, Rebecca Elliott and their colleagues are peering into the brain, trying to fathom the origins and nature of resilience. They think that a better understanding of it might pay dividends in helping those who lack it.

The subjects of their study are a mixed bunch – intentionally so. Some have suffered bouts of depression, others have not. Some have had more than their share of adverse life events, while others have had an easier time of it.

In knowing where to start looking for the differences that might underpin resilience to depression the Manchester group has the advantage of being able to draw on previous work that has investigated resilience to post-traumatic stress disorder.

This, says Bill Deakin, has pointed them to several relevant features of brain function. They include cognitive flexibility – our capacity to adapt our thinking to different situations – and also the extent to which our brains concentrate on processing and remembering happy, as opposed to sad, information.
Emotional memory

Each subject in the Manchester study has been allocated to one of four groups based on the four possible combinations of high and low life stress, with or without depression. All have given saliva samples from which their stress hormone levels can be measured, and many of them will undergo a brain scan.

A scanning technique much used by brain researchers called functional magnetic resonance imaging allows them to see which parts of the brain are active while subjects are performing specific tasks.

“In one task we give them pictures to look at which are emotionally charged,” says Rebecca Elliot. “They have to memorise them.” Shortly afterward they’re shown these pictures again, with others, and have to identify those they’ve seen already. “This probes emotional memory – how well people remember material which has an emotional component to it.”

The research is not yet complete, so Rebecca Elliott can’t say whether there are distinct differences in brain function between the groups. But there are encouraging hints, such as the correlations she’s finding between the psychological measurements of her subjects’ resilience and how they perform on some of the tests.

“For example, our early data suggest that people who are more resilient are more likely to recognise happy faces and less likely to recognise sad or fearful faces. The more resilient someone is, the better they remember positive words and pictures.”

Precisely how a clinician might eventually use whatever the Manchester research reveals about our brain activity is still an open question. What we refer to as resilience is the outcome of a complex and continuing set of interactions between our genes, our body chemistry, the wiring of our brains, and our life experiences.

But broadly speaking, the hope is that an understanding of the brain activity that underpins resilience might offer pointers towards new treatments, or better ways of using existing ones.
A resilience pill?

Bill Deakin talks of using brain scanning to create what he calls a “neuroscientific profile” of an individual’s problem. This might be used to identify relevant aims and goals in deciding on the best treatment.

A patient may turn out to have normally functioning cognitive flexibility but a tendency to dwell on sad thoughts. “This might allow you to tailor-make a therapy to reduce the likelihood of a further episode of depression,” says Deakin. In the first instance this would most likely be a talking therapy of some kind.

Responding to the suggestion that a drug, a daily “resilience pill”, tailored to our brain activity or chemistry might be a useful development, Rebecca Elliott is cautious. “I suppose this is something that would theoretically be possible,” she says. “Whether people would be willing to take that kind of drug, I’m not sure.”

But whatever the means, finding some way to boost resilience is an ambition well worth pursuing. To be assured of that you have only to compare Aeron’s experiences with those of Pauline, another of the Manchester research subjects.

While out of work, struggling financially, and single-handedly responsible for three children, Pauline had several bouts of depression during which she felt completely isolated. “And emotionally I was very detached. I would come in and sit on my bed and cry. And when it got so bad I didn’t want to be with the children, that’s when I went to the doctor.”

No clinician can yet prescribe what she most needs – resilience. But one day… maybe.

‘Sonicated’ Sperm: Could Ultrasound Be the Next Male Contraceptive?

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February 1st, 2012

Condoms and vasectomies are so yesterday. Researchers are working on a way to zap sperm to control male fertility.

Condoms aren’t foolproof, and vasectomies may be too much so. Now researchers say they’re working on another contraceptive option for men that offers them more flexibility and control over their fertility. It’s based on ultrasound.

Using sound waves in medicine isn’t new — obstetricians rely on them to take noninvasive pictures of a developing fetus, and cancer doctors use them to image tumors hidden deep in the body. Physical therapists employ ultrasound to heal damaged muscles. Now new data on rats shows that exposing testes to ultrasound can shut down sperm production — which could lead to an effective contraceptive.

James Tsuruta, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and his colleagues report in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology that commonly used doses of ultrasound can lower rats’ sperm concentrations to 3 million per milliliter of semen; experts define low sperm counts in men as anything less than 20 million sperm per milliliter of semen.

“When we treated the rats in the study, it only took two weeks to shut down a process that is essential to the survival of any species,” says Tsuruta. “Males produce millions of sperm every day. So it’s a very, very robust system. To be able to turn that off — we are really excited to learn how this actually works.”

Ultrasound generates heat by physically vibrating tissues with sound waves — similar to the way that microwave energy shakes up water molecules to heat up food. But the sound waves may also be working at a deeper level to change the tissues they affect; Tsuruta says when he compared rat testes exposed to ultrasound to testes heated to the same temperature without ultrasound, the ultrasound-treated testes showed a 10 times greater drop in sperm concentration.

Research by other scientists suggests that ultrasound may disrupt the proteins in cells and even their gene expression, leading to alterations in the way these cells work. “Ultrasound can definitely change [the cells’] state,” he says. “So to learn whether any of these things are happening if we use ultrasound as contraceptive is going to need future studies.”

In the study, the rats’ testes were exposed to high frequency ultrasound at 3 MHz for 15 minutes each, two days apart. The sessions were enough to kill the existing sperm in the testes and stop the development of additional sperm. The first study to look at the effect of ultrasound on sperm production, in the 1970s, showed that the depletion was temporary, and Tsuruta hopes his studies will show the same result.

Why the need for zapping sperm? In the U.S., 70% of couples use some form of contraception, with the vast majority relying on female methods, including the birth control pill. Only a quarter of men use condoms or have a vasectomy, which means 75% don’t use any method to control their fertility. There are probably some women out there who’d like to see the balance shift.

So far, the technique has too many unknowns to be tested safely in people. The only men to undergo ultrasound of their testes — not to test its effectiveness, but only to test its feasibility — were prostate cancer patients who were scheduled for castration to remove tumors in the 1970s. These men reported that the ultrasound treatment was tolerable and didn’t cause them any pain.

If Tsuruta’s results hold, and the technique proves safe, Tsuruta says ideally men would go to a clinic for treatments that last about six months or so. But there is a lot more that scientists have to learn about ultrasound and its effect on fertility before that happens. “We need to do more studies to be sure that a man can use this over and over again, and that when he does decide to father children, there is no problem at all,” he says.

In the meantime, Tsuruta stresses that the procedure isn’t something you should try at home, despite the fact that commercial ultrasound machines are available online and men are apparently purchasing them for this purpose. “I get emails asking me what conditions men should use,” Tsuruta says. “This is really not something you should do at home because we don’t know nearly enough about its safety and reversibility and what other effects there might be long term.”

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny.

Dating and the challenge of too many choices

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February 1st, 2012

If online dating hasn’t led you to your perfect match, perhaps the issue isn’t that you’re too choosy, but rather that there’s too much choice.

There’s no doubt that dating in the 21st century offers a lot of opportunities. Think about your parents’ generation: They grew up with no Internet, they likely stayed in the same town for most of their lives, and they automatically had more in common with the people in that town as a result. Today, women and men are increasingly marrying someone outside of their religion, their ethnicity and their geographic area.

Never in history have we had so many potential partners to choose from – and never have we had so much difficulty choosing. In fact, several recent studies suggest that this explosion of options has made men and women feel more confused and uncertain about finding a partner than ever before.

The challenges of choice was well illustrated in a study in 2000 that looked at people’s buying habits. Researchers asked customers to participate in a tasting of different types of jam; those who sampled the product were given a $1-off coupon. On the first day, the researchers offered a choice of six different jams. On the next, they offered 24 different jams.

People tasted the same number of jams, regardless of the number of available samples. Yet their buying choices varied dramatically: Offered six jams, about 30% of samplers ended up purchasing a jar. Faced with 24 choices, though, only 3% bought a jar.

The conclusion: When given so many choices, people have more trouble making any decision, and this sense of indecisiveness could lead to a cascade of negative effects. In his seminal book, “The Paradox Of Choice,” Dr. Barry Schwartz writes, “Choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

The problem could be our quest for perfection. We all want to believe in “The One” – a person that meets every item on our relationship checklist, who’s our soul mate forever. But when you search for perfection, you’re unlikely to find it.

“People who attempt to make the ‘perfect’ choice, whether it comes to buying a car or finding a partner, end up less satisfied, regardless of what or who they choose. That’s because they tend to look for flaws, and become disillusioned with all of their options,” says Andy Trees, Ph.D., author of “A Scientific Guide to Successful Dating.”

Many services also ask you to fill out exhaustive questionnaires about your likes and dislikes. It might seem like more information would help you make smarter choices, but again, that’s often not the case.

The more criteria and qualities you consider for a partner, the tougher it can be to narrow down your choices. In fact, according to a 2006 Pew study of online dating, people generally use Internet sites because they believe that having lots of choices will result in a better match. But research suggests that such increased choices actually have the opposite effect.

There’s evidence that even non-Web-based dating services can suffer from the challenge of choice: A study of people attending speed-dating events, published in the August 2011 issue of Biology Letters, found that they made fewer decisions to date when they attended events with higher numbers of candidates and greater variety. Again, the researchers concluded that people who have too many options will choose nothing.

Although one day someone may indeed invent the perfect algorithm to match two people, no online dating site has yet provided proof that its formula works, regardless of what its marketing department wants you to think.

So how can you harness the power of technology to your advantage? “First, don’t give up on the Internet – it can still be a useful way to meet people,” says Trees. “Understand, though, that you’ll need to take the responsibility to choose your matches. Don’t expect the service to find you the perfect person. Pace yourself and keep a normal dating schedule. Seeing a new person every night of the week isn’t going to increase your chances of romance, just your risk of exhaustion.

“And be patient and realistic. There’s no perfect mate out there, just people that you can enjoy spending a day – or maybe even the rest of your days – with.”
Post by: Ian Kerner Ph.D. – sex counselor

Sex after divorce: Does it get better?

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February 1st, 2012

“If I hadn’t gotten divorced, I never would have had the top five sexual experiences of my life,” gushed Tom, a friend of a friend at a recent holiday party.

What a turnaround! In 2010, at the same party, Tom* had been in the midst of splitting up with his wife of 12 years and I was offering him the names of marriage counselors. Now he was bankrupt and only saw his kids every other week, but he was exuberant about the change to his sex life.

“I’d given up on sex and fooled myself into thinking that I wasn’t even a particularly sexual person,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be the sort of guy who cheated, so I resigned myself to lackluster sex every other week… if I was lucky. We were so young and inexperienced when we got married. Now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m approaching sex as a confident adult.”

Does sex get better after divorce? Unfortunately, there haven’t been any formal studies that explore levels of post-divorce sexual satisfaction, but intrigued by Tom’s exuberance, I spoke with a handful of recently divorced friends, colleagues, and former patients. To my surprise, I found that many echo Tom’s enthusiasm.

While divorce and its adjustments aren’t easy, many newly single people say they are seeing its silver lining … in sex.

Dr. Andy Trees, author of “A Scientific Guide to Successful Dating,” says Internet dating has really changed the game.

“Divorced people find it much easier to get back in the saddle so to speak,” Trees said. “I also think this is a classic case of the power of chemistry in the early months. Sex with someone new is always exciting in a way that sex with a familiar partner isn’t (which isn’t to say that long-term sexual intimacy doesn’t have pluses as well).”

“At first I was cautious,” said Sandra*, 38. “Our culture treats divorced people like babies or wounded birds. Everyone says things like ‘Take it slow, be careful, you’re still getting over a painful situation.’ And all this advice made me feel unsure of myself. But after my first post-divorce hookup – and first orgasm in years – I realized that this bird has wings and it’s time to soar!”

Says Kristen Mark, a sex researcher at Indiana University, “When sexual desires aren’t being met for a long period of time, you can feel really trapped, like the real you isn’t able to shine.”

Adds psychicatrist Gail Saltz, “Embedded in divorce sex is the knowledge that your partner has in essence rejected you, or at least let you go, and part of hot sex is the unconscious desire to show them what a mistake they made by not keeping you.”

Sometimes life after divorce can reinforce a person’s libido type or help them discover what they like and don’t like, as is the case with David*, 39, twice married and divorced: “It took me two marriages to realize that I like a lot of sexual excitement and experimentation, but I’m also a romantic. I believe in marriage and monogamy, but if and when I get married again … it’s going to be with a woman who enjoys the kinkier side of life.”

The enjoyment of sex after divorce may also have something to do with a sense of deserving a bit of hard-earned sexual selfishness.

Take Karen*, 38, who says, “I’d always heard that women experience their sexual prime later in life, but I never understood that. The more I was in my marriage and the older I got, the less sexual I felt. Then I got divorced and started having casual sex again. For the first time in a long time I was with men who were making an effort to pleasure me and discover what I liked, and I wasn’t shy or bashful about letting them know. I am having a sexual peak, but it’s not physical, it’s mental.”

With all the fun to be had, is there a downside? And are there any best practices for sex after divorce?

“Watch out for too much too soon,” says, Lance*, 42. “After my divorce, I was like a kid in a candy store. There were women everywhere. And a lot of them were willing to have sex. Suddenly, I was a womanizer.”

He continues, a bit remorseful: “Be honest with the person you’re with. What are you looking for from the sex? I don’t want to get married again, or be in a serious relationship right now, and I need to be clearer about that up front before having sex with someone.”

Remember, too, that just because you’re divorced doesn’t mean you’re necessarily wiser. “Practice safe sex,” says Mara*, 58. “My best friend and I both got divorced at the same time and were there for each other. We’re both well past the age of having kids. But I always use protection, and she doesn’t. I try to tell her that STDs are still a real possibility.”

Sex educator Amy Levine confirms that advice. “When ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ a lack of sexual knowledge can put someone at risk for a range of STDs. For those that were married for quite a while, sex ed after divorce is imperative!”

And be cautious if you have children. “Don’t bring your fun home if there are kids in the house,” says Trish*. “I want to get married again, and I want my daughter to have a loving stepfather someday. But I’m going to make sure he’s really the one before I bring anyone home.”

There’s one thing everyone agrees on, in theory, if not always in practice: Avoid sex with your ex. Says Tom, who got this whole ball rolling, “I couldn’t believe it. Jackie* and I would be with our lawyers, fighting viciously about money or kids – and then we’d leave and go have hot crazy sex. It was really confusing. Why couldn’t it have been like that when we were married?”

*Names have been changed
Post by: Ian Kerner Ph.D. – sex counselor