DID YOU SEE…?: New York Times on Women of Sex Tech

In last Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Anna North wrote a fascinating story called “Women of Sex Tech, Unite” about the savvy female entrepreneurs — many of them millennials — who are pouring their attention, energy, talent, and skills into developing sex toys and related products and helping other women who are marketing and distributing them.

North writes:

In 2017, women entrepreneurs in the field still seem to be very much in the minority. Today around 70 percent of sex product companies are run by men, according to an analysis by Unbound. But women, many of them millennials, are starting to harness their economic and social power to disrupt the industry, both on the business and on the consumer side, Ms. Fine said. Millennials can be more comfortable talking about sex than their elders, explained Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “It’s a transparent generation that’s practical, go-getting, tech-oriented and eager to have it all.”

Besides providing surveying the modern history of sex toys without the usual sniggering tone, the article mentions a whole bunch of resources (products, companies, websites, publications, podcasts) that I’d never heard of but that I’d like to know more about, in the interests of supporting women in expanding their access to greater sexual pleasure and erotic awareness.

North leads with Janet Lieberman and Alexandra Fine, two Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs (above) who started Dame Products, the first company to receive Kickstarter funding to develop a sex toy.

If the movement has an ideological center, it’s probably Women of Sex Tech, a group founded last year by Polly Rodriguez [pictured below center, with her team], 30, the chief executive and co-founder of Unbound, a Manhattan-based sex toy company that sends subscribers a box of products every quarter, and Lidia Bonilla, 38, who started House of Plume, which sells storage boxes for sex toys. Based in New York, the group has since expanded to include more than 70 people, including members in California, Spain and China. New York City-based members include Meika Hollender, the co-founder of Sustain, which makes organic and fair trade lubricants and condoms; Mia Davis, who created a sex education app called Tabú; and Bryony Cole, the host of the popular podcast, Future of Sex.

Check out the whole article here and let me know what you think.

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DID YOU SEE: The Atlantic on the impact of pornography

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert writes an excellent thoughtful piece about the impact of pornography, as it is reflected through Tom Perrotta’s novel Mrs. Fletcher and a podcast called The Butterfly Effect.

“It’s a surprisingly simple argument, and yet a shocking one, in a culture that’s as polarized over porn as it is over everything else. What if porn is neither good, nor bad, but both? What if it enables some people to feel less isolated even while it conditions others to do things they regret?”

Check it out here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: The Guardian on Laura Dodsworth’s MANHOOD

I’m always fascinated by the differences between American and British newspapers, especially how they handle discussions of sex and depictions of nudity. The Guardian, the most progressive of London’s daily papers, recently published a feature about photographer Laura Dodsworth and her latest book Manhood, for which she photographed 100 men naked from the waist down and interviewed them about their penises. (The book is a sequel to Bare Reality, in which women talked about their breasts.)

manhood

In addition to talking to Dodsworth about her book, the Guardian published several excerpts of the interviews and every single one of the photographs. I can’t imagine any daily newspaper in the United States running pictures of 100 penises, can you? Above and beyond the initial titillation, the article (and the book) do a great public service by exploring a subject that men think about all the time but don’t talk about much at all, even to their closest friends and loved ones.

The men range in age from 20 to 92, and their bodies take many sizes, shapes, and colors. Unless you are an enthusiastic naturist and spend time on nude beaches or in other environments where naked bodies are the norm, you may not have seen very many penises in your life — outside of pornography, which almost exclusively features penises that are large, erect, and intimidating. In my experience, it’s almost always revelatory and healing for men (and women!) to see a large quantity of penises and realize how varied and individual they are. And the men in Dodsworth’s book talk very honestly and intimately about their private parts. Check out the excerpts online here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: Washington Post column on what to do when marital sex wanes

Scrolling through the Washington Post website, I couldn’t help noticing a headline that reflected a sentiment I’ve heard from many a client: “Husband who hasn’t had sex in years wonders, ‘Is this normal?'”

I was impressed with columnist Carolyn Hax‘s answer, the gist of which was this:

What’s “normal” in a marriage is less important than what’s mutual.

If you’re worried, then, yes, you should be; if you’re not worried, then you shouldn’t be.

By that measure, the cause for concern at home is that you and your wife aren’t talking or touching.

Talking and sex are a fickle combination, though, with couples just as often cooled off by it as warmed up. If you tend to the former, then try this, first: Introduce more fun, physical but nonsexual activity to your lives together. As it stands now, you’re not touching, you’re not passionate, you’re putting on weight — this is about more than sex, no? It’s about losing your connection to your own bodies. When was the last time you and your wife hiked, biked, paddled, danced?

Using your body is the best way to wake it up — and not coincidentally, movement is a known emotional conductor. Get yourselves going, together, in a way that you both enjoy, and you stand to improve your connection (1) and communication (2) as much as you do your blood flow (3), all while adding an (I’m guessing) urgently needed shot of novelty (4) to your marriage — thereby accounting for the four cornerstones of passion. So. Take her hand, and go.

She has a few other things to say that make sense as well. Check out the whole column here and let me know what you think.

get-naked-emotionally

DID YOU SEE…?: Bruce Perry on how stress works

Starting from my own personal experience and extending into my professional practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve long been aware that managing stress is a crucial part of health and well-being, every bit as important as diet, exercise, sleep, and touch. But I’ve never known the scientific particulars of how stress works on the body, especially the brain, for better and for worse, until reading an article published in the latest issue of The Sun, an excellent literary magazine published in North Carolina that doesn’t accept advertising and is completely supported by its readers — the magazine equivalent of National Public Radio, without the big federal grants. Each issue contains a lengthy Q-and-A interview with someone who’s an authority on some important political, social, spiritual, or medical concern. The November 2016 issue presents an interview conducted by Jeanne Supin with Bruce Perry, a North Dakota-born Houston-based psychiatrist and researcher who has co-authored two books, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered. In this conversation, titled “The Long Shadow: Bruce Perry on the Lingering Effects of Childhood Trauma,” Perry gives the simplest, most thorough explanation I’ve ever read of how stress interacts with the human body.

The interview is long and interesting and worth seeking out in full. I’d like to share here a significant chunk specifically talking about stress. Here’s the gist of what he has to say.

On the harmful impact of chronic stress: “When you are overstressed, you no longer have efficient access to your higher brain functions. By the time you’re in a state of alarm, significant parts of your cortex – the highest-functioning part of your brain – have shut down entirely. This is adaptive if you’re confronted by a predator, because you don’t want to waste time thinking about how to respond: you want to fight or run away. But to do your best reasoning, you need access to that sophisticated part of your brain. To learn and plan, you need to be in a relatively calm state.”

On the healthy aspect of stress: “Resilience comes from stress. It’s important that parents, teachers, and coaches not be afraid of it. Exploring, getting dirty, and falling down help you build resilience and tolerate novelty and discomfort.”

To put those passages in context, read on, and let me know what you think.

bruce-perry-sun-interview

Supin: Can you explain how our stress-response systems work?

Perry: All input – feelings of hunger or thirst, loud noises, the sound of someone’s voice, some information we learn – first enters the lower, more primitive part of our brains, which determines if this input is familiar or unfamiliar. If the input is familiar, it then travels to a higher, more evolved part of our brain, where we decide based on memory whether it’s good, bad, or neutral. If the input is unfamiliar, the brain’s default conclusion is This can’t be good. Any novelty – even desirable novelty, like learning something new – activates our stress-response system.

Some stress is actually good for us – for example, the stress related to meeting a new person or traveling to a new place. Predictable, controllable, and moderate activation of the stress-response system has been shown to build our capacity to manage challenges. When a child has the opportunity to challenge herself in the presence of supportive adults, it builds resilience. It’s the dose, the pattern, and the controllability that determine whether the stress is adaptive or harmful.

Let’s say you’re a six-year-old boy, and up until now your life has been OK. Mom and Dad split up, and there was some conflict around the divorce, but nothing too horrible. Then all of a sudden Mom has a new boyfriend in the house. That’s novel, so it generates moderate stress. At dinner he raises his voice at you; that’s unpredictable. He soon starts barking orders at you more frequently. He yells at your mom. He hits you, or he hits your mom. Your stress-response system doesn’t have time to return to baseline before another source of stress arrives. You start having anticipatory anxiety about what will happen next. Your baseline level of stress increases; things that would not have bothered you much before now bother you a lot. A harsh tone of voice that may have been mildly upsetting is now overwhelming. If the boyfriend’s behavior continues, your stress-response system may start to register any angry tone of voice as threatening. You’ve become what we call “sensitized.”

Conventional wisdom might suggest that the boy would get used to the angry, violent behavior and be less affected by it over time, but you’re saying the opposite is true.

Exactly. The more our stress-response system is activated in uncontrollable ways, the less able we are to handle even small amounts of stress.

When you are overstressed, you no longer have efficient access to your higher brain functions. By the time you’re in a state of alarm, significant parts of your cortex – the highest-functioning part of your brain – have shut down entirely. This is adaptive if you’re confronted by a predator, because you don’t want to waste time thinking about how to respond: you want to fight or run away. But to do your best reasoning, you need access to that sophisticated part of your brain. To learn and plan, you need to be in a relatively calm state.

Let’s go back to the six-year-old boy in your example. What happens to him at school?

The brain is good at generalizing from one kind of experience to another. Most of the time this ability is a gift, but this boy may generalize that all male authority figures who raise their voices are terrifying. This starts a vicious cycle: The boy arrives at school already on heightened alert due to his home situation, and he can’t pay attention. The teacher gets frustrated and raises his voice. The child is now even more on red alert. It’s impossible for him to concentrate. The rational parts of his brain shut down. Instead he has access only to the parts that process information valuable in threatening situations. He’s attuned to the teacher’s tone of voice, to whom the teacher is smiling at. He’s learning to read nonverbal cues. The calm child will learn the state capitals; the sensitized child will learn who is the teacher’s pet.

Can he recover from that?

Yes, opportunities for controlled, moderate doses of stress can shift these systems back toward well-regulated functioning. The key is that a moderate challenge for a typical child may be a huge challenge for a sensitized child.

The achievement gap in schools has a lot to do with the child’s home and community life if the family is concerned about not having money for food or rent or a doctor’s visit, that creates a pervasive sense of anxiety and unpredictability. The longer the child is in that environment, the worse the vicious cycle at school becomes. Eventually the kid says to himself, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m stupid.” And he drops out as soon as he can.

What about the character-building benefits of facing down adversity, of “rising to the challenge”? Is that ever applicable in these situations?

If you start from a healthy place, adversity can be character building. But if you grow up amid constant adversity, you are less likely to have the flexible and capable stress-response systems you need to face down adversity. Certainly many children do grow up with remarkable gifts and strengths despite their challenges, but when this happens, it’s often because there were people in the child’s environment who helped create a safe, predictable space for the child at least part of the time.

Are there instances in which well-intentioned parents protect their children from stress too much?

Yes, I’ve seen upper-middle-class children develop anxiety disorders because they had never been given the opportunity to explore the world. They’d been told only, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t get dirty.” By the time these children went to preschool, they hadn’t learned to tolerate even slight discomforts. They became overwhelmed by the novelty of preschool and had meltdowns.

Resilience comes from stress. It’s important that parents, teachers, and coaches not be afraid of it. Exploring, getting dirty, and falling down help you build resilience and tolerate novelty and discomfort.

How might we apply this to whole communities?

First we have to understand that feeling connected to other people is one of our most fundamental needs. We feel safer when we are with kind and familiar people. Tension can arise from being part of a marginalized minority, whether you define that minority status by economics, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, or whatever. The marginalized group has a much higher level of baseline stress. It’s not a specific traumatic event; it’s a continuous sense of disconnection.

Our brain is constantly monitoring our environment to gauge whether or not we belong someplace. If we frequently get feedback that we don’t belong – or, worse, overt threats – then our body’s systems stay in a constant state of arousal. This increases the risk for diabetes and hypertension and makes learning, reflection, planning, and creative problem-solving harder. Over time it will actually change the physiology of your brain.

For example, for someone who already feels marginalized and is hypervigilant, even a relatively benign interaction, such as a police officer asking for your license, can trigger a volatile reaction. This is true for both the person being stopped and for the cop who’s doing the stopping. They both can be sensitized. People in law enforcement should know the principles of stress and trauma. It’s the key to understanding why some of their policies and behaviors have a destructive effect.

 

DID YOU SEE…: New York Times on workday stress reduction

Phyllis Korkki’s Applied Science column in today’s Sunday New York Times offers good sensible advice about using conscious breathing, posture, and body awareness tools to reduce stress and anxiety on the job. These are simple mechanisms that we all know about but it’s easy to forget them.

Seeking some assistance in dealing with mounting stress, Korkki says, “My first stop was Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist who teaches — or rather reteaches — people how to breathe. Dimly I sensed that the way I was inhaling and exhaling was out of whack, and she confirmed it by giving me some tests. First off, like most people, I was a ‘vertical’ breather, meaning my shoulders moved upward when I inhaled. Second, I was breathing from my upper chest, where the lungs don’t have much presence.

“In her Manhattan studio, Dr. Vranich taught me the right way to breathe: horizontally and from the middle of the body, where the diaphragm is. You should expand your belly while inhaling through your nose, she said, and squeeze your belly inward while exhaling.l way to breathe — the way children and animals do it, Dr. Vranich said. It’s when society begins to exert its merciless pressure on us that we start doing things the wrong way.

stress reduction illo by michael waraska                                  illustration by Michael Waraska

“When we are under stress at work, we tend to brace and compress ourselves, and our field of vision becomes narrow, Dr. Vranich said in a recent interview. This causes us to breathe more quickly and shallowly. The brain needs oxygen to function, of course, and breathing this way reduces the supply, causing muddled thinking. Also, the digestive system doesn’t receive the movement and massage it needs from the diaphragm, and that can lead to problems like bloating and acid reflux, she said. Stress can send people into fight-or-flight mode, which can lead them to brace their bellies to appear strong. This is exactly the stance that interferes with calm, alert thinking.”
Paying attention to these body cues and shifting your response to them is good practice. Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: gay critique of mainstream tantra classes

Tantra is an ancient spiritual practice that seeks to channel divine energy through human experience. In our time, the word “tantra” is tossed around very lightly, and its meaning shifts wildly depending on the context. In its classic definition, tantra is a school of meditation that envisions universal consciousness as an intricate erotic dance between Shiva and Shakti, form and flow. In the West, the sexual metaphor has gotten literalized so that the most familiar manifestations of tantra are tantric sex and tantric massage, which invite participants to experience sex as energy. People are often drawn to study tantra by the invitation to deepen the connection between sexuality and spiritual practice that other religious traditions tend to keep strictly apart. There are many different ways to study tantra in schools, classes, and workshops, and like any educational process the quality of teachers and teachings can vary wildly. The original tantric teachings rely super-specifically on the dance of male and female energies, which complicates matters for queer people undertaking the study of tantra, as Lisa Luxx discusses in great detail in her article “Why is Gay Tantra So Taboo?” which appears on Ruby Warrington’s website The Numinous (subtitled “material girl, mystical world”). Her description of attending a tantra training and being pressured into ridiculously literal-minded tantric exercises that reinforce hoary old gender-role stereotypes matches my own experience when I first started exploring the world of tantra in the early 1990s, when most tantra workshops derived from the teachings of Margot Anand (best-known for her book The Art of Sexual Ecstasy).

concha on behance
credit: Concha on Behance

Luckily, there are tantra teachers that speak to the experience of queer people. The Body Electric School, founded in 1984 by Joseph Kramer, incorporated tantric and Taoist teachings into a series of workshops starting with “Celebrating the Body Erotic” that taught erotic massage as a healing practice combining breath and touch to connect the dots between the physical, the erotic, the emotional, and the spiritual. While the Body Electric School originally emerged from and spoke to the population of gay men struggling to preserve sexual health and vitality in the midst of the AIDS crisis, it expanded its offerings to include trainings for men, women, and those who decline the gender binary. Other trainings have evolved that address tantra specifically from a queer female perspective, such as Barbara Carrellas’s Urban Tantra program. One of the coolest things about Lisa Luxx’s article is that the comments thread provides information and links to other tantric explorations for women all over the world that transcend simplistic gender stereotypes.  Check it out and let me know what you think.