Saturday, October 22, 2011

Marnia Robinson, Gary Wilson and The Good Men Project Magazine

Recently, I've been involved in a series of debates over on The Good Men Project magazine with Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson, two self-proclaimed sexperts who (based on their writings around the blogosphere and Marnia's newly published book) seem to believe that orgasm is the root of all evil.

As far as I can tell, Marnia and Gary believe that the chemical reactions created in the brain by orgasms are dangerously addictive. Pornography makes one want to masturbate to orgasm and is thus dangerous. "Internet porography" (by which Wilson and Robinson apparently mean anything at all on the internet that gives you a chubby or that deep, mysterious stirring inside) is particularly evil in this respect because it gives us multiple images on demand and thus causes human beings to masturbate non-stop.

Of course, all of this is so much moral entrepeneurial bullshit, in my opinion. Marnia - an ex-corporate lawyer with as much formal study and training in matters sexual as I have in nuclear science - has a bone to pick about sex and is very good at cutting and pasting links to scientific studies to apparently "prove" her pet theories about human sex.

A few weeks ago, I got into a verbal tussle with "Garnia" (for they never post as a singular entity) as I call them here on The Good Men Project Magazine. I admit to going out of bounds into the realm of ad hominem attacks, because nothing gets my dander up more than people misusing science to create sexual stigmas and push for a particular brand of sexual morality. TGMP's editor Lisa Findley rightly censored me and I shut up.

This week, however, Garnia came back to The Good Men Project Magazine with another article banging the drum of sexual panic once again and telling us all how orgasm and "internet porn" will make slaves of us and our children.

Taking my censorship seriously, I replied to their article in a rational way, staying as far as I could from ad hominems, but not sparing critical commentary when it came to trashing their theory.

Result: more censorship.

I then e-mailed Lisa Hickey to ask what the problem was. Ms. Hickey, The Good Men Project's chief CEO and publisher, gave me the surprising information that Gary and Marnia were being allowed to moderate their own comments section on The Good Man Project and that they considered my attack on their theory to be a personal attack on themselves.

This is quite disturbing news, which should be shared out there among you sex and gender bloggers.

Personally, I have no problem with the fact that two people who I consider to be hucksters and charlatans of the worst sort are posting article after article on one of the only non-MRA-oriented men's issues blog-magazines out there. Hey, it takes all kinds and I'm personally in favor of the complete and free exchange of ideas.

But Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson are moral entrepeneurs with a very specific and radical view of human sexuality (to wit: orgasms are bad) who are wrapping their political beliefs in the trappings of scientific research. Gary and Marnia have block-censored any attempts to engage with their "facts" by pointing out logical and scientific holes in their data.By giving them control over their comments section, TGMP makes it effectively impossible to critique the couple's claims and thus, effectively, gives them a chunk of editorial control over TGMP itself.

Below, you'll find my response to Garnia's latest article, "Can you trust your Johnson?". This went up and was taken down several times on The Good Men Project Magazine before I found out from Ms. Hickey that she'd ceded editorial control over the comments section to Garnia. My response is not a masterpiece, by any shot, but the censorship of it by Garnia, aided and abetted by TGMP Magazine, deserves to be confronted.

I think it shows just precisely how nervous Garnia are about their theory: real science and logic can't be let anywhere near it for fear that it will fall apart like a cardboard suitcase in the rain.


Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson’s main affirmation is this: “Porn has changed – a lot.”

According to the authors, internet surfing for porn “keeps the reward circuit [of the brain] buzzing” by “spiking dopamine levels”. We look for porn with anticipation and are rewarded when we find it, so we go back and do it again. And again. And again. Literally ad nauseaum.

The authors, it should be noted, have never scientifically studied porn use first hand, although they run a website where they claim to receive many “self-reports” (what scientists properly call “anecdotal reports”) from self-acclaimed “hard-core porn users”. Presuming that Robinson and Wilson’s  informants do indeed exist in real life and are accurately reporting their experiences (a very large presumption in these days when kids flood sites such as “Your Brain on Porn” with fake and exaggerated stories simply “for the lulz”), one needs to ask exactly how representative of the porn-using population these people are?

In their article, the authors present what they apparently see as a fairly typical internet porn session:

“Using three high definition screens, with nine windows open, to search for new scenes, genres, whatever, until you find just the right shot to take you home. After a five-minute breather you can search via Google for something you’ve never seen, so you can whack away once more”

Like Gary and Marnia, I happen to know many “porn users”: not a single one of them enjoys sexual imagery in the manner described above. Of course, this is anecdotal, too, but I’d be willing to bet that if all the people out there reading my words were to be honest with themselves, they’d have to admit that the situation above, clearly described as a sort of “baseline” for the kind of “internet porn” Wilson and Robinson are talking about, is extremely rare.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it isn’t. This just begs another question: if someone was so “addicted” to “porn” that they would buy three monitors to get themselves off, how is this sort of experience essentially different from accumulating a huge video, DVD or MP4 collection and viewing it on three different T.V. screens?

Wilson and Robsinson would have us believe that there’s some sort of deep “novelty” factor in “internet porn” and this factor “keeps the brain buzzing”. But given the evidence they cite and their extremely open-ended, dopamine-based understanding of addiction, it would make just as much sense for a true dopamine addict to have their own “library” of special images on DvD which they use to get off without having to go through the constant boredom of digging through page after page of crappy, uninteresting images to find just the “right shot to take them home”.  

If the real goal was to constantly flood the brain with dopamine, browsing a meticulously selected video collection would be the way to go. And, of course, that sort of “porn experience” has nothing necessarily to do with the internet. The person who was that much of a dopamine junky, using sexual images to get their fix, would probably be very quickly frustrated by what they would consider to be the low quality (i.e. unappealing images) of most internet porn. Put simply, browsing about the internet pornocloud wouldn’t be a reliable enough way to get themselves off in a quick, reliable fashion.

So no, porn has “not changed a lot”. The distribution of it has perhaps changed. I’d be willing to agree that a so-called “porn junky” now has easier access to images and thus a much easier time of it when it comes to building her own library. But that’s not the point the authors are making: they’re claiming that the internet itself has made a difference by offering up appealing images in a much more high-speed way and that this presentation of imagery is in and of itself so radically different that it can easily “addict” the average person. That is simply not true.

This leads us to another huge assumption that Wilson and Robinson seem to make: porn is porn is porn.

Neither of the authors bothers to ever define porn, either here or in any other writing I’ve ever read by them. However, if one were to take their dopamine-based understanding of “addiction” seriously, then the only logical definition of “porn” must be “anything at all that turns a given person on”. Furthermore, Robinson and Wilson seem to think that all sexual imagery is equally titillating to everyone, at least in potential. If it weren’t, their “gradually heavier fixes” model simply doesn’t work.

As it turns out, however, human sexual interest is hardly a “one-stop shopping” affair. People have VASTLY different tastes when it comes to sex. If the men and women I’ve listened to are any indication (and once again, yes, this is anecdotal, so use your own honest experience as a guide), most of the stuff on the internet that’s designed to sexually titillate isn’t very interesting to most people. People tend to have pretty specific tastes when it comes to sexual imagery – sometimes even fetishisticly specific. Yes, they want “new images”: but they want new images of more-or-less the same kind.

A woman who’s into watching gay gang-bang sex doesn’t suddenly become interested in dog and pony shows or Two Girls, One Cup just because they are out there on the internet. The idea that average peoples’ sexual tastes are so flexible that simply offering up images of sexual acts of a radically different nature can change their tastes on a basic level is simply not supported by scientific evidence (and let’s put a qualifier on that) ANYWHERE.

Finally, although Robinson and Wilson distance themselves from this position, their views, if proven correct, do in fact mean that one could “reprogram” a straight person into a gay person, or vice-versa, simply by exposing them to “novelty on demand, surprising and shocking visuals”.

Fortunately, that is not how human sexuality works out there in the empirically-occurring universe. People generally do not grow new sexual interests simply because they are exposed to “surprising and shocking visuals”. Be honest with yourself: you know this and I know this. We know what kind of erotica we like and, when we are interested in looking at erotica, we tend to go back to the same kinds of things again and again. We don’t suddenly become interested in the things we qualify as “yucky stuff” simply because we run across them on the sites we surf. And we certainly don’t become “addicted” to that stuff.

Now yes, I’m aware that there are all sorts of individual exceptions to this rule and that there probably is a small minority of people out there who are exactly as Wilson and Robinson describe them. The problem is, this minority is being held up to the world by the authors as if they were the new norm, being inexorably created by our evolutionary-driven brain chemistry.

But it’s Wilson and Robinson’s emphasis on “addiction as brain chemistry” that’s the really interesting part of their argument. After all, if we take their definition of “addiction” seriously, it’s sexual release itself that is the real culprit here, not porn. Porn is simply the means through which people achieve sexual release. What gets the dopamine flooding, of course, is orgasm.

Now that’s damned interesting, seeing as how the female capacity for multiple orgasms in one sitting (laying?) has been bandied about by feminism for the better part of four decades now as God’s Gift to Womenkind. An entire industry of vibrators and sex toys has been built off of the fact that when the ladies go to it, they don’t even have to take a “five minute breather” before they get back to the serious business of, as we say here in Brazil, “making like a crab” (think about it).

So if Robinson and Wilson are correct, the masturbation-positive emphasis on female multiple orgasms that Western culture has been living since the early 1970s, at least, should have already produced two generations of hopeless female dopamine addicts.

Again, I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide for themselves, based on their own experience, if this is true.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Evolutionary Psychology and Sexuality

I've recently been having a discussion with Jen Wading regaring evolutionary psychology and its use by one Ms. Amy Alkon on her blog, "Advice Goddess". (The particular posting in question can be found here.)

As some readers might be aware, I have problems with evpsych, not so much as a field (hey, it generates a lot of whacko theories, but then again, so does anthropology. Leví-Strauss and his views on structural cybernetics, anyone?), but the miraculous and myriad uses that its untrained or self-trained proponents put it to in trying to explain human sexuality as some sort of field subject to univeral rules.

Ms. Alkon is apparently one of these pop evpsych practicioners and Jen wanted to know more about the holes in her theories. I thought it'd be useful to post our conversation here, because this sort of thing comes up a lot in internet discussions and I'd like to be able to refer people to a set document regarding ev psych and why it isn't a magic key which unlocks the mystery of human sexuality.

Jen started out byindicating she didn't quite understand what biodeterminism was, so I gave her a pocket definition:

Biodeterminism = Biology is the primary and ultimate explanation for our social behaviors.

Ferinstince: Women are naturally less promiscuous than men because, biologically speaking, they have more investment in a baby than men do.

Jen then responded:

So would something such as this be considered biodeterminism?

"There are all types of men and all types of women and saying there is only one correct way for them to proceed is overly simple."
Amy Alkon: No, it's absolutely not. There are variances in people, but we have evolved human psychology that is more similar than it is different. As a woman, you take a risk in approaching a man because he is likely to devalue you (because his genes are well aware that sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive, per Daly and Wilson). 

My answer follows below...

It is extremely biodeterminist.

It also points out a main problem with evpsych: most of its proponents simply haven't read sweet fuck-all in ethnography so they tend to blithely assume that whatever their own culture does is somehow a transhuman norm.

Take the "higamous, hogamous women are monogamous; hogamous, higamous men are polygamous" crap Amy seems to support. Yes, it MAY be a fact that "women invest more in their children" than men, biologically speaking, but to go from that to "women thus need to play hard to get" in the dating game" ignores a shitload of research in so-called "primitive" societies which shows plenty of examples of women being sexually aggressive and not biologically monogamous. Folks who use evpsych to explain their dating problems tend to presume that "marriage" means "never fucking anyone other than one's husband". But just to pull one example out of a hat, there are many, many societies where women's sexual favors are "given" to guests as a matter of course. Certain traditional Eskimo societies spring to mind, but our own society also tosses up plenty of examples where monogamy isn't the rule...

So how does all this square with the idea that women's sexually is somehow driven by the relative rarity of their eggs?

In fact, there are plenty of serious biologists (Jared Diamond springs to mind) who point out that human sexual receptivity (which is constant) combined with the fact that human women have hidden ovulation may suggest that NOT KNOWING who the father of one's child is may in fact be the glue that held early human societies together. In this reading, it would be biologically in the woman's interest to have an "official" mate and yet also have sex with other guys now and again. That way there'd be one man with a primary interest in her children, but all men in the band would have at least SOME interest in her children.

This is even more likely when one takes into consideration that early human bands were small and very probably inbred, so from a pure "Darwinian transmission of the genes" rule, pulling for the team as a whole became a very solid evolutionary strategy rather than just pulling for one's own whelps. It's also notable in this context that anthropology and psychology have both looked long and hard at the birth of the incest taboo as the possible foundation-stone of "modern" human sociology.

Evpsych people - especially the self-taught amateurs - also generally preume that there's been no substantial biological evolution among human beings for the last 250 thousand years (generally true) and that this thus means we are basically larger, naked, tool-using, walking chimps (largely false). When we learned how to manipulate symbols via speach and especially when culture was born some 40,000 years ago with the birth of abstract thought, we became socially-programmed, culture-bearing animals. Sure, biology still INFLUENCES us. It does not, however, DETERMINE our behavior: culture plays a much larger role than biology in determining what you do and, of course, there is always individual agency to take into consideration.

Take my country, for example. There's no evolutionary reason for anyone to use clothes in a climate like Brazil's and yet everyone I see around me is using them. That's a fact created by our history and society, not our genes. And our sexual behavior - especially our supposed penchant for greater acceptance of "trans-racial" and extra-marital sex - can be much more convincingly traced back to slavery and its consequences rather than any particular combination of genes.

Evpsych people (and again, particularly the amateurs) like to hand-wave everything discovered by sociology and anthropology over the last 200 years as "squishy science" and thus not even worth looking at. They thus miss out on social science's one indisbutable contribution to human knowledge: its dense and varied descriptions of thousands of diversified human societies. And in the field of sexual mores, it's REALLY diverse. One of the things evpsych amateurs ignore is that today's norm of "civilization" is quite well linked, scientifically speaking, to a norm of hypergamous marriage, female subordination and female sexual passivity. Given that the vast majority of the world is now "civilized", evpsych people point to the majority of today's peoples as "proof" that these characteristics are transhuman norms. What they should be doing, were they truly serious about their field, is looking into the vast corpus collected by anthopologists re: "non-civilized" sexual behavior in order to see if it meets their predictions.

It generally doesn't.

This shit is convincing in theory. Where it fails is when we look at what people REALY do as opposed to what evpsych theorists think they should be doing according to there readings of Wilson and Dawkins.