Episode 9: Online Sex Work and OnlyFans with Mistress Ivy

In this episode, we talk about online sex work, the weird OnlyFans bump in the road where they threatened to ban sex workers and then backed down, and we interview Mistress Ivy, one of the top OnlyFans earners, about online sex work.

Along the way, we talk about everything from NFTs to the unexpected effects of laws that try to “protect” sex workers but only make their lives worse.

Mistress Ivy is a London-based Dominatrix, fetish model, and online performer. You can find her on Twitter and on the Web here

Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! And welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, demisexual, grey-ace cis woman, bringing my East Asian British viewpoint and a penchant for genteel understatement. In this mini-series, we’re talking about sex work! I have a little experience of this, as I also do a bit of pro-domming on the side. Yes, demisexual grey-ace people can be sex workers too!

Franklin: Okay, so in this episode…OnlyFans!

Eunice: Before we start, we should explain what OnlyFans is! Imagine…a video streaming site like TikTok or Youtube, mashed up with Patreon. I don’t actually have personal experience of online sex work cos all mine was in person, so I’m actually really excited to learn more about this topic.

Joreth: Yeah, so individuals put up videos of … whatever – aerobics instructors put up videos of workout routines, bakers put up recipe videos – and some content is for free but a lot of content is available only to paid subscribers. But more than just paying for static videos, subscribers can have some measure of interaction with the providers, like requesting specific content, and the providers create new things based on fan interaction.

Eunice: It’s become particularly well known to the general public for the sexual content on the platform, which is why we’re talking about it here. In fact, a lot of people don’t even know there’s non-sexual content on OnlyFans.

Joreth: Like my housemate!  I suggested he use it for his cosplay stuff and he was like “but it’s not nude!” and I was all “not everything on OnlyFans is sex work, y’know”, and no, he did not know!

Franklin: I keep thinking about setting up an OnlyFans for my tiny white cat. 

Eunice: You want other people to be catslaves like you, Franklin? I guess they always need more squishy food!

Franklin: The world is a better place with cats in charge. Change My Mind! Anyway, a short while back, OnlyFans banned sexually explicit content, then unbanned it again before the ban went into effect. Good lord, it sucks to be a self-employed sex worker trying to make a living.

So let’s talk about this wibbly-wobbly, sexy-wexy stuff going on. First, the ban: OnlyFans announced in August 2021 that

“In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines. Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy.

These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.” 

A few weeks later, Tim Stokely, founder and CEO of OnlyFans, told the Financial Times that Bank of New York Mellon, Metro Bank, and JPMorgan Chase were the banking partners that forced the initial decision.

Then before anyone had a chance to react, they announced an un-ban of the ban. So let’s talk about this.

Eunice: Hold up, what do we even mean by ‘sex work’ anyway? How are we defining sex work?

Joreth: That’s a tricky question, isn’t it? No matter what definition we use, some group of people out there is going to be unhappy with it. Very broadly speaking, we could say that sex work is any kind of financial transaction for labor of a sexual nature. But then we have to discuss what “labor of a sexual nature” is, don’t we?

Franklin: SWOP, the Sex Worker Outreach Project, defines sex work as “Sex work is any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client. Sex work includes prostitution, but it also includes a bunch of other things like erotic dancing, pro-dom/pro-sub work, webcam work, sensual massage, adult film, phone sex, being a sugar baby, etc.” As a side note, my background is in print design and prepress, so I can’t see SWOP without thinking Society of Web Offset Publications. “I need to separate this image to CMYK using a SWOP Coated profile!”

Joreth: Ah, yes, switching between industry acronyms is fun!

Eunice: This is the point at which I need to mention that being a kinky therapist with a partner who owns a motorbike makes the CBT acronym very confusing. Anyway, for this episode we’re specifically looking at the online versions of sex work — webcamming, adult film, that sort of thing, and especially through OnlyFans, which is the website that most people are currently talking about, now that PornHub seems to have died a death? Not that it makes a huge difference — the same company owns most of the video porn websites anyway, right?

Franklin: So enough about trying to define sex work, let’s talk to some people who do it.

Joreth: We talked to a couple of people who have content on OnlyFans, one on Twitter and one in an audio interview. @goldplatedpussy, as she goes on Twitter, responded to my query for sex workers on Twitter. So she has been doing sex work for 4 years now, all online. 

Eunice: She says “when I started, I was camming out of a studio. Camming is like live streaming but NSFW. My OF is mainly erotic photos and solo videos. My fanbase is mainly submissive, so I tend to cater to that.”

Joreth: I asked her how she would describe her work pre-pandemic vs. post pandemic. She told us that it was amazing before the pandemic because there was little competition and way less censorship across it and other sites, calling it the best job she ever had in those pre-covid days and she was making great money.

Eunice: Then she goes on to suggest that OnlyFans is now dying, with the hardest part for the creators being the censorship. She says that includes both creative censorship as well as censorship on other platforms that they use for advertising their OnlyFans accounts. And also that the industry has become incredibly over-saturated.

Joreth: Yeah, I’m not surprised that it’s oversaturated, what with so many people needing to find some kind of income from home. She then said that Covid hit and so many people realized that they could be making so much money on OnlyFans and it became almost trendy.

Eunice: We shouldn’t forget as well that the popularity of OnlyFans did make it possible for some people who previously hadn’t been able to do sex work because of accessibility issues like certain disabilities to suddenly be able to make some money doing online sex work from home. 

Franklin: COVID has been a huge boon to the gig industry, though that doesn’t necessarily mean a boon to gig workers. Welcome to capitalism, eh? The US linked health insurance to employment, then gave the middle finger to people without conventional jobs. Kind of a problem in, oh, say, a global pandemic… I bet the folks writing articles for Forbes and Business Insider didn’t consider that gig industry jobs could include sex work too! The street really does find its own uses for things.

Joreth: I then asked her what she thought was the most significant obstacle to continuing to work with OnlyFans.

Eunice: Her response was, “The biggest obstacle in continuing to work with OnlyFans is knowing that they don’t have their content creators in mind. I don’t trust them. The sex worker community that I talk with daily all agree that we feel used – used to build up their platform, used for the glamour, and for the money. It’s been a long time coming though I saw the beginning of the end when the Bella Thorne incident happened. In that moment they chose to fuck over all their creators instead of holding her accountable for what she did and remove the problem.”

Franklin: I don’t really understand the Bella Thorne thing, but from what I gather, she joined OnlyFans, quickly made millions of dollars, uploaded a photo she billed as a nude for people to see at $200 a pop, and it turned out not to be a nude at all. Enough people requested refunds that OnlyFans apparently changed their payout policies because of it, and that screwed over a lot of sex workers.

Joreth: When I asked her what her impressions were about what the market is doing and how she feels about OnlyFans now, she said “Personally I hope OnlyFans does flop after this. It will be a lesson for any platform that uses sex workers to start themselves off only to cut them out when they get established.” And that’s something I’ve heard echoed from other people who use the platform.

Franklin: So, in a world where people can get almost unlimited quantities of porn for free, how do people even make money on OnlyFans? Why would someone pay for OnlyFans? A lot of what you pay for with OnlyFans isn’t pictures of naked people or people having sex, it’s the interaction—the ability to communicate with the person you’re patronizing and get a response. Fundamentally, OnlyFans and sites like it are not selling naked pictures, they’re selling interaction.

Joreth: Yeah, this is sort of … porn meets social media, in a sense. And people are willing to pay for that social experience.

The internet is the “great equalizer” and this is the era of the entrepreneur hustler. Individual people are finding a lot of freedom and power in choosing their own niches and building their own fan bases. So along come the capitalists with all the resources that the sex workers are using who build up their own financial institutions and megacorps on the backs of these laborers and content providers, only to pull the rug out from under them when they get big enough to go mainstream. And it’s the sex workers who end up falling.

Franklin: It seems that large banks and payment providers are of two minds about this: they want a slice of that revenue, but they don’t want their names associated with eww, dirty sex. They’re willing to take the money as long as it’s at arm’s length, but don’t want to get too close to the dirty dirty sex stuff.

Does anyone else find it weird that in the US, a handful of banks and two credit card companies have almost unlimited power to shut down entire legal industries?

Eunice: Welcome to capitalism?

Franklin: I guess? And it’s not just payment providers. Instagram recently started banning accounts of OnlyFans performers: Effective in December 2020, under the Sexual Solicitations section of its parent company Facebook’s Community Standards, Instagram’s rules state that users cannot offer or ask for pornographic materials “including, but not limited to, sharing of links to external pornographic websites.” A Facebook spokesperson explains: “We want Instagram to be a safe environment for everyone, and have strict rules against nudity, sexual activity, and sexual solicitation. Under these rules, we don’t allow people to share links to porn websites on Instagram. While OnlyFans isn’t a porn website, we know it can be used in that way, so we take action on accounts that share OnlyFans links when paired with other sexually suggestive content.”

It’s a moral panic. People and businesses are terrified of being accused of promoting porn or “human trafficking,” which in many ways is today’s version of the Satanic panic of the 1980s.

Eunice: So many people use the terms “sex work” and “human trafficking” interchangably, like they’re identical, when they’re really two entirely different topics.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation. 

 No one wants to be trafficked, whether it’s for forced sex or, more commonly, for manual farm labour or domestic service, but there are many people who chose to do sex work because it suits them, they enjoy it, the money is better than many other jobs — and, for that matter, the working conditions — or there’s just no other available jobs that will allow them to survive or otherwise do what they love. You know that quote about doing what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life? That applies to sex just as much as it applies to coding or cooking or interior design. Some sex workers really love what they do, and some think of it on about the same level of tedium as, say, working admin in an office or as a server, but better paid. That doesn’t apply to every sex worker, of course, but then that doesn’t apply to every worker in any job or industry.

Franklin: One study on sex trafficking I’ve seen defined the word “trafficking” to mean any crossing of state or national boundaries for sex work. If a woman voluntarily travels for sex work, they count that as “trafficking”—according to the definition used in the study, she trafficked herself.

Joreth: There’s also a hierarchy of sex work and “what counts” as sex work, isn’t there? We tend to rank different forms of sex work as more or less “acceptable” and also more or less “real sex work”. That allows some of these categories to get dismissed entirely so that they can basically pull a No True Scotsman fallacy or a tautology – trafficking = sex work and only these forms of sex work “count”, therefore it’s all trafficking, Q.E.D. And, naturally, none of these people bother to get actual sex worker’s opinions on the subject, because if they listened to actual sex workers, they’d have to revise their positions.

Franklin: That is an incredibly important point. All too often, people want to speak for people they have never spoken to.

Joreth: We’ll get more into “what counts” in an upcoming episode. 

Eunice: We also talked to Mistress Ivy, and she brought up a lot of the same experiences. Mistress Ivy is a London-based Dominatrix, fetish model, and online performer. So Mistress Ivy, what’s been your experience with OnlyFans and with online sex work in general?

Mistress Ivy: So I guess with OnlyFans it was something I was doing a little bit before lockdown, but then with lockdown it became my only source of income, so it’s something I became a lot more focused on. 

It’s very different to real time sort of sex work, which is primarily what I do. But it’s been…it was kind of really helpful. And actually I just really enjoyed it during lockdown. It gave me something to do.

Joreth: So you do different kinds of sex work. You do both real life and OnlyFans work. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, like it was mainly all real time.  I did little bits online like webcam sessions and I’ve had an OnlyFans for a few years now, but it was something that I never really made a huge amount of money on. It was kind of more of a a way of promoting myself and quite a nice way for clients to kind of get to know me before booking me to meet in person as well. So it’s kind of worked quite well in that way. 

Joreth: How long have you been doing sex work, any kind? 

Mistress Ivy: About 15 years, I think?

Joreth: Wow. 

Mistress Ivy: A long time. 15, 16 years or something. 

Eunice: Has the industry changed over that time? I guess it’s had to. How has it changed? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, like the kinds of clients I get are completely different now. I mean, I mainly work in like fetish, BDSM type sex work and sadly most of my clients are kind of dying out. I used to have mainly the older public school boys that like to be tamed and things like that, and I found that like a lot of them have died, sadly, and now I’m getting all these really young guys. They’re much more into sort of Sissy type stuff and things like that, and they’re all sort of between 18 and 25. I found it shifted from guys 60 plus to mainly like younger people now, and I think maybe that due to the influence of the Internet and things like that. But it’s yeah it’s changed loads.

Eunice: Interesting.

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, mainly guys in their sort of early 20s and things that have very different interests. And I think a lot of fetishes and kinks often come from childhood, and I think that’s maybe why it’s so different. Because different generations going through different things in life. Like the older clients I used to have were all into corporal punishment and caning, and now that doesn’t happen in schools. I found it’s it’s very different kinds of clientele. 

Franklin: How are they finding you now? Are they more finding you on the Internet first and then booking rail-life sessions? 

Mistress Ivy: It’s mainly all through Twitter. And OnlyFans is linked to Twitter as well. So, I mean, I do have other websites that I advertise on, but I think Twitter is like the main one that I kind of promote myself on and post on pretty regularly because it links to OnlyFans. That’s kind of how you get new subscribers and things. 

Franklin: So essentially then, the demographics are kind of following the demographics of Twitter.

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, yes, I guess maybe that’s why it’s younger clients as well. Maybe the older ones aren’t as familiar with Twitter and technology and things. 

Joreth: So some people are probably familiar, like they have the idea in their head, that sex work is basically prostitution, you know, like they have the image that they see on TV: somebody on the street corner or a high end escort being the two common most common things. And they might not understand how, first of all, what other forms of sex work there are, but also how sex work works on a strictly online platform. Like what is it that you do on OnlyFans, for example? 

Mistress Ivy: So on OnlyFans I post photo sets, a mix of sort of latex and naked pictures. I make videos sometimes, including other people. Sometimes it’s just spanking or fetish things. Sometimes it might be a little bit more sexual. Like, I’ve got a girlfriend that I kind of do more sort of sexy things with. I personally don’t do anything really explicit, it’s kind of more just nudity rather than sort of full on sex is what I post.

I think sex work, it takes so many different forms. It’s just such a huge subject, and there’s so many different ways of doing sex work. I guess I’ve done loads of different types over the years, because I like exploring different  ways of doing things and kind of trying everything. 

Mistress Ivy: There’s a lot of audio stuff I do, like erotic hypnosis and things, so sometimes I just post audio tracks of my voice. 

And the other thing with OnlyFans is people can ask for customized things. They can tip you if you kind of post the things they like. So there’s other ways that are kind of more personal as well for OnlyFans.

Joreth: Is that kind of what sets OnlyFans apart from other forms of media-based sex work? You know, if I wanted to go to, say, PornHub, I can download any video that I wanted to, but with OnlyFans, I guess they get more personal interaction from you. 

Mistress Ivy: I don’t really know much about PornHub. I’ve not really used it. I’m not sure, I’m not sure if they can interact personally with people. I think there is a thing on PornHub where you can do that now as well, because I think nowadays a lot of people that watch porn want to kind of get to know the people that are in it and see them as people. 

And so sometimes the stuff I post on on OnlyFans is just like me doing my morning workouts naked, which is what I do anyway. And I think they just like bringing, you know, the realness of it, of me in my house kind of just doing what I do. 

And I think it is about kind of wanting a connection with the person you’re seeing as well to some extent. And I think with OnlyFans, it is is personal. And I think what’s nice about it as well is you know that the money you’re paying is going to that person, and if you tip it’s going to them.

So I think for sex workers OnlyFans, although they do take quite a big percent, it’s a really good way of doing sex work, actually, using these online platforms where you know it’s just you and the client.

Franklin: So what happened when OnlyFans decided that they were going to ban adult content? Like, they did this thing where they were like “oh, we’re not going to do adult content anymore,” and then they reversed track a couple of weeks later and said “Oh yes, we will.”

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I mean, it really affected a lot of people I know. Not all of my income is from OnlyFans, so I tried not to overthink it and get too upset about it. But I have got friends that all of their money is through OnlyFans, so it’s completely, like, destroying their income. You know they make good money from it, and it just would have destroyed everything. So yeah, a lot of people were very upset about that. 

I did set up a profile on…there’s another one called AVN, that’s kind of organized by sex workers. And there’s a few others that I’ve kind of set up, but I found I’ve just not got as many followers on there, and I think it’s because OnlyFans is so well known. It’s the only way I’ve really been able to build up enough followers to make it worthwhile doing. 

Joreth: Sounds like the adult version of Facebook really. We can’t seem to escape Facebook just because it’s the first one and the biggest one, even though everyone hates it. There’s a couple of dozen other platforms, but nobody else is on them, so why bother? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, and I think because there’s so many of them everyone’s on different one. And it’s it’s a lot of work to upload your content as well. It takes time, and if you’re having to do it to multiple different platforms, it’s just too much effort for me to be honest. 

So I did make these other ones, but the only one I’ve really stuck with is OnlyFans because it seems to be the only one really getting the followers. 

Franklin: Yeah, it seems like there’s a huge first mover advantage for really any kind of social media. And it’s the same thing with Twitter, right? People have tried to do short form blogging platforms that have failed. So it’s it’s kind of interesting that what has happened is that Twitter, which is the 900 pound gorilla in its genre, has become a funnel to funnel people into OnlyFans, which is the 900 pound gorilla in its niche. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, although I think they’re cracking down on sex work on Twitter as well, which is a shame because at the moment I look through my Twitter feed and it’s just all porn. I’ve noticed they’ve been closing down a lot of sex workers accounts and things. Not entirely sure why, but I think a lot of these places are just trying to get rid of the sex workers, which is a shame. 

Franklin: Yeah, Instagram did something like that too where they started closing down the accounts of anybody who was an OnlyFans sex worker on Instagram. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, yeah. And the other thing with Instagram that’s really bad is I’ve noticed a lot of people have taken my content from OnlyFans and Twitter and have been making fake Instagram profiles to try and extort money out of people using my photos. 

That’s literally about 15 to 20 fake Mistress Ivys at the moment. It’s it’s very frustrating. That’s the only downside to this stuff. As soon as your stuff out there and online, people will steal it. And I think I’ve just had to kind of accept that that happens rather than try and chase every single person. 

And also Instagram are pretty useless about doing anything about it. 

Franklin: They steal the content, not to try to sell it, but to try to extort people? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, to try and pretend to be me and extort money out of people or sell it as well. It’s both. And they’ve stolen things from OnlyFans and Twitter. 

Joreth: So like any content creator, especially small independent content creator, you’re having to constantly chase down, and, you know, your work, other people are stealing for their own nefarious purposes. It can get overwhelming for anyone who’s creating any kind of art, basically. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, it’s upsetting and I think if you really take the time to watermark everything you can kind of get out of that. But honestly, I’m just not that great at editing, and  I’m just a bit lazy. I’ve just posted all my stuff and now it’s kind of out there getting stolen, and I’ve noticed when I try to watermark things I just don’t post as much, because it just adds on so much more time to do things. 

So yeah, that’s the downside. Things like definitely get stolen. 

Eunice: I was just curious about the proportion of work that is online versus in person. I know obviously with the pandemic and stuff that changed for a while, but in your ideal world, what sort of proportion would there be of online work versus in person work? 

Mistress Ivy: So I definitely prefer in person work due to the style that I work in because I like to kind of physically sort of touch people and be with the person. That’s why what I really enjoy doing, and at the moment I’d say probably more than 90% of my work is in person with the money I make.

I find with online work, it’s very hard to make money from it because there’s so many people doing it. Like so many people. And especially during lockdown, it just became such a competitive industry. And obviously that was my whole source of income during lockdown. But I think with just so many people are doing it, it’s just incredibly hard to make money online, really.

You have to really, really try hard, and it’s a lot harder. I’m constantly editing videos, constantly having to promote myself. I find it a lot harder to make money online, actually.

Eunice: So what would you say is like the most significant obstacle that makes it hard to carry on working with OnlyFans or doing online sex work or similar?

Mistress Ivy: Especially recently, there’s been all these new weird things, like getting all these model release forms, and having to get proof of age of every single person that’s in your films. Which, I understand why they’re doing it. It’s a good thing, but it’s also kind of hard when I’ve got people I’ve worked with years ago, and I’m having to chase them up to get all these forms and things. 

Also, they’re very restrictive of the kind of content you can post, and because mainly what I do is fetish, a lot of stuff gets taken down, or they close down your account, because they don’t want to see certain kinds of things. 

There’s lots of language you can’t use, and that makes it hard because just everything takes time like I type in a word like “caning.” But you have to change it to something else, because you can’t use that language. 

And I found the fact they’ve got so restrictive on words and language and what you can say makes it really hard, because I’ll try and write something down to sell a film and it’ll be like, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that.” And sometimes they’ll just delete it because you’ve said the wrong thing.

However, the way my brain works, I just want to type what’s happened. But there’s all these weird rules nowadays, and I think that is the hardest thing about online work, really. Just all the weird rules and things in place. 

Franklin: Does the UK still have those restrictions? I know they had for a while, a porn law that was like, you know, this extreme porn thing where you can’t do fisting, you can’t do all of these different things. Are those still in effect? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I think that’s changed now actually. But the problem is OnlyFans specifically has a lot of strange rules around what you can and can’t post, and it’s similar to the UK porn laws, so it makes it kind of hard to know what you can post. And so I’ll post some things and think, “will I get my account deleted?” And they brought in a load more rules fairly recently. 

But on my OnlyFans I’ve got about 600 videos and about 10,000 photos or something already on there, which I just leave on there for people to log in and see. And for me to go back through everything and delete things that might not be allowed on there. 

Or you know, my friend’s in my picture with me, but I now need to get either delete her or find a model release and things like that. I have to go through everything, and it’s just honestly too much work for me to do that. It’s just far too much work. It would take me forever, and I don’t make enough money on it to be be bothered to do that.

And so I’m kind of at a point now where I probably have things on there that I shouldn’t, and I’m just hoping I don’t get deleted because I just can’t be bothered to go through 10,000 photos. 

Joreth: Yeah, that’s a lot of work. 

Franklin: I kind of wonder if some of those rules aren’t just based around the individual squicks that like the CEO of the company has. 

Mistress Ivy: They change them all the time as well. Like one minute, something’s fine, and then something isn’t. And the fact that it’s constantly changing and the language you’re allowed to use is changing, it just makes it very hard to keep up with.

Eunice: What would you say the weirdest rule that you’ve come across? That they’ve hit you with, as it were. 

Mistress Ivy: Do you know what? I’m honestly really lazy, and don’t really pay attention to the rules very much. I guess if I get deleted, I just try not to stay too attached to it. 

I think the one that disappoints me the most is I think you’re not allowed female ejaculation or watersports or anything like that. For me, I just think water sports is  something I really like doing, and something I do a lot, and I’ve got loads of videos of it and it feels quite good. I can’t just post that.

I just see it as, like, you know, you can have like really full on face fucking and anal sex and all of that stuff. But I can’t have like an innocent little video of me taking a wee. Like, it’s just… (Laughs)

To me, that’s what I find strange. 

Joreth: Very arbitrary. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I just find it strange that I can’t just post a video of me taking a piss when there’s all this much more,  I’d consider  much more extreme stuff. 

Joreth: Yeah, it sounds like if they can’t get you off directly then they’re just going to make this labyrinth of rules to discourage it, just to make it difficult for people to start it, you know, without outright saying “We don’t want you here.” 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, it’s quite frustrating, actually. I should play more by rules, but because they’re constantly changing and things like that, I honestly don’t know what the latest rules are. 

Joreth: Yeah, why bother learning? 

Joreth: They’re just going to change again, right? 

Mistress Ivy: And I’ve heard of a lot of sex workers…it’s quite horrible actually, and actually Adultwork did this to me, but on OnlyFans have heard of sex workers having their account shut down for some rule that they didn’t really know about. And then all of their money just getting kept by OnlyFans, which is awful. I try and make sure I take my money out fairly regularly for this reason, but they just literally steal all the money and closed down their account.

I had Adultwork do that to me, and when I complained about it, they just told me to fuck off basically. There was over a grand in there, so I was really upset about it. 

Joreth: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Mistress Ivy: That’s the thing with online sex work, I think. They can just do things like that. And because it’s based in America, I think, it’s not a UK company, there’s no real way of getting your money back. If they suddenly decide that they don’t want you, they’ll just close down your account and keep everything that you’ve made for them, everything. 

That’s really soul destroying. And I think that’s why I try not to have too much of an attachment with online work, because I know that that can just happen. Like, I know there’s a good chance. I can really build up a following, and then all of a sudden they can just, you know, for whatever reason, decide they don’t want you and then you lose everything. 

So I think that’s probably why I try not to invest myself too much into it. 

Joreth: Well, that seems to make sense that, you know, when when OnlyFans made their announcement that they were getting rid of sex work, basically, and then changed their mind afterwards. 

Joreth: And now with all of these arbitrary rules, and they can steal your money, you know a lot of people are saying that they don’t trust OnlyFans, and some of the other online platforms. How do you feel about all of these online corporations, since you don’t feel safe with them, you just said that, right? 

Mistress Ivy: Now even  PayPal, you know if they think you’re doing any sort of sex work, they can just keep all your money. And I think all of these online things, as soon as you do sex work, it’s true they can just keep it all and just, you know, shut you down. So I don’t really trust any of them, really. 

Maybe the ones designed for sex workers are a bit more reliable, but then it’s harder to get the followers on there. And so I find myself posting a lot, taking a lot of time to do it, and making less than $5 a month. it’s just not really worth it. 

Mistress Ivy: You know, and so yeah, I think it would be really good if there was something that was more, I don’t know, more looking out for the sex workers and the people that are making the money for these companies because right now it feels like…probably because we are disposable, really. There’s so many people doing this work now, you know, they just don’t really care. Like, they just don’t. There’s always someone else. 

Eunice: Yeah, and sex workers have never been protected anywhere at any time really. 

Mistress Ivy: No, no they’re not. 

Franklin: OnlyFans kind of pointed the finger at their upstream financial providers when they decided that they were going to ban sex work. And then they said that they renegotiated with their financial providers when they reversed that ban. And so it makes me wonder if, you know, you can have an OnlyFans that was set up and run by sex workers, and maybe would be a little bit more friendly to sex workers. But if they’re being held hostage by the same upstream providers, then they’ve potentially got the same problem. 

It seems like what you’d actually need is an entire vertical industry where the website is sex worker friendly and the credit card merchant account is sex worker friendly and the merchant processor is sex worker friendly. You know, if even one part of that chain isn’t sex worker friendly, they can really ruin everybody’s day. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, yeah, that’s true.

Joreth: So what are your impressions about the industry in general? Like, where do you see this going? Sex work has always been, you know, in danger. Sex workers have never been cared for. You’ve never really had any protections.

But it seemed that everybody rallied around the sex workers when it looked like OnlyFans was going to cut you all off and then they came back with it.  Do you see any changes in the industry? Do you see getting any more protections? Any less? How do you see the industry changing? Or is it? 

Mistress Ivy: So I think it’s sex work is becoming much more socially accepted, and I think that probably is due to the Internet. I think a lot of people during lockdown ended up getting an OnlyFans and it has become a much more acceptable way of making money socially, which is good. 

But then there’s still a lot of other people trying to make rules for the sex workers thinking it’s gonna help the sex workers, but not really asking for sex workers’ opinions. 

So for example, the Nordic model that they’re trying to bring into the UK is meant to help the sex workers, but actually it’s terrifying. None of the sex workers want it. Nobody is listening to the sex workers. It’s just them doing what they think will help the sex workers. That will basically mean that they can prosecute clients coming to see us. 

Joreth: Oh gosh. 

Mistress Ivy: So they think they’re helping the sex worker.  But the reality is, by doing that, sex workers are still going to do sex work. It’s pushing our work underground and it’s going to mean that the only people, the only clients we can get, are ones willing to break the law. So it kind of, you know, it just messes things up for everyone.

Things like that, I find quite scary and worrying. I think sex work is definitely becoming more accepted, but I think there’s things like the Nordic model and all these ideas that people have, I think they need to be speaking to the sex workers.

And there’s a lot of sex worker charities as well, but again, they’re coming from this perspective of sex workers need to be saved and find a new job and get out of sex work. And there’s very few that are kind of supportive of happy sex workers doing what they do.

Like for me, it’s like, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I love it and I feel empowered and happy that I just get to work for myself and do what I want. And I think most sex workers I know are kind of really happy with the work they do. 

Eunice: There is this sort of association in many people’s minds between sex work and human trafficking, which is ridiculous, ‘cause then they ignore all of the you know domestic laborers or manual laborers or whatever that are actually human  trafficked and instead focus on sex work because, you know, “Oh no sex work scares me” or “sex work icky” or something. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah.

Eunice: And I guess you’ve seen a lot of those kinds of rules, kind of impacting on your work as well. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, which is, you know, just such a shame because it’s a completely different thing. There’s people being trafficked for all sorts of things. Not just sex work. And there’s a huge difference between, you know, trafficked people and people doing the job out of choice. They’re completely different things. And so trying to mix them up together just isn’t really helpful at all for anyone. 

Joreth: Yeah, a bunch of years ago, like between 10, 15 years ago, in the porn industry in Hollywood, CA here we had a similar thing. They come in trying to save everybody, without any understanding of how the industry works.

And so we had a foundation. It was called the AIM Foundation. It was a medical foundation created by a very well known porn star that did STI testing and treatment and all of that sort of thing. And they sort of put into place this voluntary program where all of the performers would get rapid HIV tested, and they would have to bring a negative test result in order to work each day. 

Joreth: So it was a rapid HIV test and the test window was very short. So it was pretty safe, and this was a voluntary program. You know, any studio could opt into it and there was no penalty if they didn’t, but you got, you know, bonus points like “yay, this is a responsible studio to work for.”

And in all the time that they were running this program I think they had only seven individual cases of any of the performers getting HIV, and they all got it from not other performers. It it caught it before they passed it on to any other performers.

And then California decided they wanted to start covering the porn industry under our OSHA, which is our national worker safety organization. They wanted to cover it under those laws, which makes it illegal for the employer to demand medical records. 

So like in every other industry, that’s a protection for the workers, but in the porn industry was the exact opposite, and so it ended up passing in spite of, you know, years of protesting from the porn performers. And so now AIM was out of business and they can no longer require test results from the performers, and the HIV rate spiked among performers in California because that’s what happens. 

So it sounds like you all are going through the same thing no matter which form of sex work you do or where you live, it’s somebody coming in trying to rescue you and actually making things worse

Mistress Ivy: It does, yeah. 

Franklin: What is the saying? “Never speak for somebody you have never spoken to.”

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, exactly. 

Eunice: If you had  an ideal platform that was sex worker friendly and you could feel safe on, what would it look like? 

Mistress Ivy: So OnlyFans is pretty good to be honest, it is good. It’s easy to use, it’s easy to upload content. I think the things that I would like to be different would be not having as many stupid rules. Although I do understand why the stupid stupid rules are in place to some extent. You know, I do kind of get it, but  feel like they definitely judge fetish and alternative sexuality, and it’s very kind of straight and vanilla. And so I guess something a lot more fetish friendly, a bit more open. 

For me, that’s what I would like. And maybe them taking less of a big cut as well. 

Eunice: Something you said just there was really interesting. You mentioned it being kind of very vanilla and very straight, so even OnlyFans? 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah. Very.  

Eunice: OK.

Mistress Ivy: I’ve really had to limit my stuff. When I first started OnlyFans it was nearly all fetish stuff because that’s what I love and that’s what I do. And then when all the rules came into place, I had to change my content. And so now what I do is mainly glamour, even though most of the people are following me on there wanting fetish. So they’ll message me with specific requests for, you know, something kinky, and I’ll say “I’m really sorry I can’t do that because of OnlyFans rules.”

And so I feel very limited, like I want to just be able to post what I want to post. I guess for me it’s a creative process, like, I am really kinky, and I want to share this stuff and make cool kinky videos, and I feel currently just really restricted and limited to what I can post. 

And so I guess a platform that’s more fetish friendly really would be great. 

Joreth: So is there anything that you would like to make sure gets mentioned about the online sex work industry that we haven’t covered? 

Mistress Ivy: The one thing I will say about it is it’s an incredibly hard way to make money. Like, incredibly hard. I’ve been on there for a few years, and I can’t remember what percentage I’m in. I think I ‘m in the top 2% of earners on OnlyFans. But I’m still only making like between $100 and $200 a month, and that’s like one of the top 2%. 

Joreth: Wow.

Mistress Ivy: It’s so hard to make it there because it’s just so competitive, I think. There’s so many people on there. And also they they don’t pay a particularly high price. I put a lot of work into it. I post every single day, sometimes twice a day, but it is definitely not an easy way to make money.

For me, OnlyFans has been something I’ve kind of done during lockdown for my own sanity, to kind of keep my presence out there and do things. 

There’s a couple of girls I know that dou make thousands of pounds a month on there, but it’s really rare. Like really, really rare. So I guess for anyone who wants to start doing online sex work, I’d say it’s it’s not easy. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. 

Joreth: Like everything else, that’s the labor of love. You do it because you can’t not do it, but maybe have another form of income too. 

Mistress Ivy: Yeah, I think I think it’s a bit like being famous, you know, like very few people are gonna get enough followers to really make decent money on it. Very few. It’s not easy.

And  you have to invest that into it as well. Like kind of you know with photo shoots and makeup and all of this stuff ,like you kind of need to invest a lot of stuff into it to to create good content. And then, you know, decent camera and all of that stuff. And it’s it’s still  just so hard to make money on there. 

There’s times during lockdown when I was making, you know, like couple of dollars for a video and I was thinking it’s worse than minimum wage, really. You always think of sex workers as being well paid, but it’s it’s hard. It’s really hard to make good money on it. 

Franklin: I wonder if there’s kind of a first mover advantage there too, like I don’t think anybody has hit on this idea yet, but what’s going to happen the first time somebody starts doing kinky NFTs? Eunice and I were talking earlier today about this whole idea of NFTS, which is, yeah… 

Eunice: I have opinions about NFTS. 

Franklin: Yes you do. 

Mistress Ivy: What’s an NFT ?

Franklin: A NFT is what happens when a JPEG meets the blockchain. And what you can do is you can actually, you can actually buy like exclusive ownership of a JPEG and put it on the Ethereum blockchain and this becomes a thing. 

Eunice: It is an artificial scarcity scam that ruins the world. And environmental dam—sorry, I have opinions. Moving on. 

Franklin: Like people will pay tens of thousands of dollars to be the first one to buy, you know, a Nyan cat JPEG.

So here’s the question.  The first person who starts doing kinky porn JPEGs and selling them as NFTs…are they going to make five cents or are they going to become millionaires?

Eunice: NFTs make the world worse. 

Joreth: Possible future job opportunity there. 

Franklin: Yeah, but I mean honestly, I’m really curious about that. Like, is it going to be in the future that the way you succeed at this is to be the person who is chasing the new technologies? 

Eunice: Because porn has always pushed the latest technology. It’s  made technology better, faster, along with the video gaming industry. 

Franklin: And I think that there is going to be a time, and it’s probably going to be fairly soon, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet, where porn does meet the blockchain, and I wonder if that’s going to make somebody a millionaire. 

Eunice: Anyway, I know that we’re running short on time, so where can people find you? 

Mistress Ivy: So my name is Mistress Ivy, and so I’m on Twitter as ivy_miss. Or I’ve got a website which is mistressivy.co.uk. I also have another website which is more about therapeutic BDSM and that’s called bdsmhealing.co.uk. 

Joreth: Well, thank you so much for your time, Mistress Ivy, this has been fantastic. 

Mistress Ivy: Thank you, it’s nice to chat to you. 

Franklin: It sounds like the problem she’s dealing with is a lack of stability in the rules about what’s permitted and what isn’t, and I wonder how much of that is driven by OnlyFans and how much from their payment processors. You can’t run an online business if you don’t even know whether something you’ve posted today will still be permitted six months or a year from now.

Eunice: I think this is a consistent thread we see again and again in spaces where sex workers are operating though, whether online or in the flesh, so to speak. There’s no space or opportunity for sex workers to make their voices heard about how any of these repeated changes to the rules affects them.

Joreth: We’d like to thank Mistress Ivy and @goldplatedpussy for their time and lending us their perspective on this topic. Although we each have some related experiences with adjacent or parallel industries, it was really good to hear from people who were directly affected by the changes made at OnlyFans.

Franklin: So that’s our episode for today! Next time, we’ll continue our examination of the world of sex work and what counts as sex work.

We’d love to hear from you! Send links to studies, feedback, comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can find our Web site at www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to join our patreon, which is linked on the website.

Eunice: And remember, if you too are skeptical about any nude being worth $200, send that money to us and we’ll confirm your belief it’s a way better way to spend that money!

Joreth: Maybe we’ll use it to pervert more of Franklin’s nightmares for you!

Eunice: Can confirm, great use of the money, 10 out of 10 would horrify Franklin again!

Franklin: You two are terrible! Don’t listen to them, they know not what they say.

Episode 8: Sex Ed with Ms. Ashley Part 2

This episode brings you the second of the two-part interview with sex educator and activist Ms. Ashley about evidence-based, factual sex education.

In this far-ranging conversation, we talk about sexual health, being the person your kids feel safe talking to, myths about sex, how to handle questions about sex, and values-based vs. evidence-based education.

Ms. Ashley is a sex educator who teaches an adaptation of the Our Whole Lives curriculum. You can find her on Facebook herehere, and here, and on Instagram here.

Transcript of the episode below. You can find Ms. Ashley’s bio, a list of places to find her on the internet, and the studies she cites at the very end.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome back to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we examine human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, sopo, ace, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but you may call me sir. 

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, ace-spec, bisexual, solopoly British Chinese woman. In lieu of giving me a title, you may gift me tea instead. Loose leaf, of course, cos I’m predictable like that.

Franklin: Today’s episode brings you the second half of our chat with Ms. Ashley, a sex educator who does a lot of work with evidence-based sex ed.

Eunice: Yeah, when we listened back over the interview, it had so much good stuff in there we just didn’t want to miss any of it. If you haven’t heard the first part, please go back and listen to episode 7—you don’t want to miss it, trust me!

Franklin: A quick reminder – today’s episode is US-centered because so much about US-based sex ed is wrapped up in politics, so keep in mind we’re talking about US policies, politics, and attitudes. Of course, sex ed everywhere is political, but in the US it’s especially bad. Here we go!

Ms. Ashley: So currently in the US, roughly one third of high schools teach condom use. One third.

Joreth: One third.

Franklin: Wow, that’s disappointing. 

Ms. Ashley: It is. It is very disappointing, especially considering that is our front line of defence against all the STI’s, and I do not have this statistic right now, but the number of youth that experience an STI is rising, because they’re uninformed about what the warning signs are that they might have something, or that they might be carrying something. And so then they don’t know what their body is telling them in order to go seek medical advice.

So those that idea of “hey, a condom could have prevented this, had they known about it” or “how to use it” is something I would love for parents to be specifically asking within their their children’s sex ed programs. Like, “does this include condoms?” Because it’s really hard to find out this information.

I’m doing this right now with my own child program in their own school, and I had to talk to the director of the program to get this information. It wasn’t anywhere online.

So if that’s an another action item that families might want to go with, it’s just, can you get to the bottom of whether or not your high schools in your area include this very important information.

Joreth: And it sounds like it’s also really important to start including sex ed way before it comes to intercourse sex, and just start talking about what the body is. Because if you don’t know how to listen to your body, you won’t recognize these signs later that something is wrong, whether it’s sexually transmitted or not, whether it’s something else.

I have endometriosis and my mom had it also. Hers was bad enough that I don’t know how many miscarriages, maybe just one, but she had at least one and ended up having a full hysterectomy because of it. 

So I’m adopted. And I had no idea that what I was going through was not normal, that it was probably endo, until, I think, my 30s.

My mom had this and we did not have this conversation. When I had really bad cramps and had to go home from school, the talk was not, “I had a similar problem, let’s get you checked out,” the talk was, “you know you’ll never find a boss who will let you come home every month. You need to suck it up.’ 

This is this is from a mom who is not abusive. I love my mom. We have a very good relationship. But she was raised Catholic, so this is the level of discourse that we have about it.

And you know, we’re not even talking about intercourse here. We need to start these conversations way earlier, just about what does your body, both physical and emotions, what does your body do and what is it supposed to do?

Eunice: The thing about that as well  is that if you teach your kids that they just have to suck it up if something bad is happening or something painful is happening to them, that also means that they will suck it up when somebody is being abusive to them. 

Because they don’t know the difference. 

Joreth: And you can’t trust your body signals. It’s a form of gaslighting. You cannot trust what your own body is telling you, because you’ve learned to block it out your whole life when everybody says, suck it up. And this is one of the big problems that boys have, especially, ’cause they get this “suck it up” way earlier and way harder. 

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely, and this is another place where I can say adults should be answering children’s questions factually. If they don’t know the answer, they shouldn’t be faking it. If they don’t know the answer, they should look it up and research it, because kids don’t come with a guidebook. When you have a child, you don’t really know what you’re doing. And so they’re going to ask you questions that push you out of your comfort zone, and they’re going to ask you things you don’t know.

And it’s a great way for you to immediately start being a human with your child and saying where your shortcomings are and being willing to work together to find answers. Because them asking questions to you says “I trust you,” says “I’m curious,” says “you’re my person,” says “this is my safe place to ask these questions.”

It’s not any failure on your part if they’re asking lewd or quote unquote inappropriate questions or saying words you don’t want them to say. You’ve done nothing wrong as a parent if that happens. 

That means you’re doing it right, because you are the person they came to with that bad word, or that inappropriate question, or whatever it is. And they’re not seeking that advice and that information from unsafe sources. 

Joreth: That’s an excellent point.

Eunice: Yeah, much better to be the parent that they will go to if they think something’s wrong then to hide it because they’re afraid you punish them. 

Joreth: Exactly.

Ms. Ashley: Exactly so. That is what I have to share about what the research has shown me. It’s just one small article and it’s kind of streamlined and basic, which is start early, have very short conversations. Use all those opportunities for fact-based conversations, so that if you don’t know the answers you’re looking them up in good places. Keeping in mind that the more information that you share with your child more frequently, the more information they have in order to make better informed decisions. 

There is no evidence that says comprehensive sex ed makes them start doing anything earlier. 

Joreth: So I have a question. You teach the adults. Have you also taught the younger groups? You taught all ages, right? 

Ms. Ashley: I’m I am a facilitator for K through 12, so I have not used the curriculum beyond that. 

Joreth: OK, So what parts of the comprehensive sex ed do you see that most people find objectionable? Is it the sexual diversity part of it? Is it relationship orientation? What aspect of it do you see that people object to the most often?

Ms. Ashley: So within the curriculum we use the circles of sexuality as our primary resource, which is a six-circle Venn diagram which includes sexual health and reproduction, which is what most people think of when they think of sex ed. But our model, the circles of sexuality also includes sexualization and intimacy, sensuality, and identity. 

And then the values is the other one. Values touches all of them and helps us make choices for how we utilize the information in those circles.

The one that I see the most pushback for is definitely within identity. That’s where we have this idea that it’s a choice to be who you are, and that is not at all true, and that genders are binary, which is not at all true. 

And so within this circle is where I get a lot of pushback, because I am not willing to separate along the gender binary for my classes, and that is a very controversial subject where I am. And even when I say to people, your boy, may be someone husband some day and maybe with someone with a vulva and vagina. And they need to know what’s going on for this person, so they can be empathetic and supportive and loving. More information makes them a better partner. 

Even when I say that that’s still like, “no, we need to have mystery,” and “we need to have seduction,” and like and I’m just like, “no, that’s not how this works.” That just means that you have a dude who’s on board with the needs of the person, because they don’t understand what’s happening. 

So that’s where we get a lot of the pushback, within the identity, the identity bubble. 

Joreth: So what’s the wildest wrong thing myth maybe that you’ve heard in some of the courses you’ve taught? Like, has anybody come due with information that they’ve had before the class that you had to correct? 

Ms. Ashley: One kid said they were going to go blind if they masturbated. 

Franklin: People still believe that?

Ms. Ashley: I was like, “oh boy.” That one was I was just a shocker. 

They didn’t say it, though. We do this activity where they get to write things around the room. And so I didn’t know who it was, because there were different papers on the wall, and they were adding their ideas in different categories. 

So one is like, “what’s a message that you’ve received from the media, what’s a message that you’ve received from your family, and what’s a message that you’ve received from your peers?” So those were the three categories, and then within that exercise of sexual messages, it came up from the media. I don’t know what show that was in, but that was one of the messages the media had taught them about sex.

Joreth: That that’s a great idea, having the papers they can write basically anonymous questions. 

Ms. Ashley: So within this curriculum we use the question box. At the end of every session, every person gets a blank notecard and a pencil, and every person has to put a card into the box. They all have to write on the card. So they can draw me a poop emoji or whatever they want to do, but they have to write on the card and they have to put it in the box so that it’s totally anonymous. 

And then I research all the questions and then the next class come back with all their answers.

There’s a lot of that anonymity that is worked into this curriculum, understanding that we have kids who are introverts and that this topic makes more kids introverted. It’s pretty great how it’s designed to make this content accessible. That’s fantastic.

Eunice: That’s what my school did when we had our sex ed stuff. We had the same question box. You put a question in, and and then the teacher would open up the box and just be answering all the questions. And I do know for certain that some of the kids, I’m pretty sure that they were the boys, would specifically try to find the most. 

Ms. Ashley: Like ostentatious?

Eunice: Yeah, out there question, because of course the teacher had to read the question out first, right? 

Joreth: Yes, let’s make the teacher uncomfortable. 

Eunice: Yep, which you know, kudos to the teacher. They just read it out and answer the question because that’s what you have to do to show that it’s not something to be ashamed of. 

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely. Within the facilitation training, we learned that there’s different kinds of questions that kids and youth ask. And it’s always kind of fun to share this little fact with parents, Especially that you can assess the question you’re asked your child asking according to these three categories.

The first category is is information seeking. Like, they really want to know how this works, and so they’re asking for the information. 

The second is connection seeking. This would be like some of the questions I get like, “well, what does fish sex sound like?” You know, they’re just being silly and they’re  being a clown. And instead of thinking of it as silly and clowning, we think of this as like, “I need connection. I want to be seen.” And so, just by taking that question seriously and saying, “probably bloop bloop!”, it validates that whatever that kid wrote down, I’m not going to be like, “well, this question is probably not worth my time.” No, that question is a child seeking connection.

And then the third version of questions is seeking validation for their normalcy. So if they’re saying something like, “why do my balls itch so much?” They’re trying to find out, is this a normal part of puberty? And for me to answer that question and say, “so, these are some of the other places that might itch also, as your hair grows in,” and expounding upon it, it allows them to see this is normal, and people are going to experience this in lots of places and in lots of ways for lots of time, because everyone experiences puberty at different times and in different lengths and in different places. 

So those are the three types of questions we usually see. “I need information,” “I need connection,” or “I need validation.”

Joreth: So we’ve established now that program that you work with goes through all these ages. What about physical or mental disabilities? Do you have anything special for that, or is it just integrated in the whole curricula?

Ms. Ashley: There is a workshop for each age level specifically about sexuality and disabilities, so it’s present in the curriculum. The participants are part of our group. I mean, I haven’t ever been asked to teach a specific group of kids with disabilities because that’s not the way our education system is here. Everyone mainstreamed in part of the community. 

And I’m a special ed teacher. That’s actually what I went to school for. And so I am trained to understand how we scaffold information, which is like how you break it down into smaller, digestible parts, how you consider lesson planning so that you’re allowing for movement and allowing for change and allowing for diverse attention spans and all that sort of stuff. So that’s sort of one of my, I guess, special strengths in all of this. Assuming neurodiversity in all of my groups, yeah?

Joreth: It’s fantastic. 

Franklin: That actually leads right into what I was going to ask, which is how did you get into this. 

Ms. Ashley: Well, obviously I already said that my growing up didn’t suit me well with purity culture not teaching you what I needed to know. And then I’m a Unitarian Universalist, which is a religion here in the United States that invites and welcomes all sorts of people and their beliefs. Within the UU church, the youth go through the Our Whole Life curriculum as part of their experience of church. 

And at the end of their senior year of high school, they have a coming of age ceremony where we pushed them out into the world. Most of them go away for college. So we celebrate them, and they each read a statement of belief or lack of belief. And within this statement they say, like, “this is, these are the things that I think resonate with me about mysticism,” and “these are the things that I don’t believe in.” And they spend a lot of time working on this statement. 

And absolutely every child…every, not child, every almost-adult said Our Whole Lives was the most transformative experience of church for them. 

Franklin: Nice.

Ms. Ashley: And I sat there as just a regular church member, like “What is this thing?” Like, the first kid talked about it, the second kid talked about it, the third kid talked about it. We’re on kid seven and they’re all like, “Our Whole Lives changed my life.”

So I was like, “I’m going to get trained. I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to find out!” So it was a three-day training opportunity where you go away and get to be fully immersed in the curriculum and the process, and how to be a facilitator, and how to assess your own bias and leave your bias out of it, and it was transformative for me. 

Ms. Ashley: So then I was like, “I’m gonna do this now with all the UU churches in my area.” And now I do it separately. I do it privately because the UU church has a lot of wonderful and correct opinions and perspectives about this curriculum, how they want it to be disseminated, but it’s not very accessible for the public.

I feel like there’s this amazing information that nobody could get to, so I’m trying to get it out there, even just to get the name of it out there so that people can talk to their church and say, ”I’ve heard about this thing. Can we look into it?” Talk to their preschool or you know, like any other parent group, their= friends, whatever it is. 

Because it’s supposed to be facilitated in completion. You’re supposed to do all of the workshops from one all the way to the end, and many people cannot commit to that kind of thing. They already have all their extracurriculars. They have work and school. And so I’m just like, “You know, the world would be a better place if they just took two workshops.” 

Ms. Ashley: Like, it would be okay if they didn’t do all twelve. And so I’m trying to adapt the curriculum to make it more accessible, just so that it’s available for the public. 

Joreth: Something is better than nothing. 

Ms. Ashley: That’s how I feel. 

Joreth: Yeah, but I would love to see more of those programs exist everywhere because my church had it set up. They had a youth group. They had a sex ed course available, just not as well designed as yours. 

Ms. Ashley: So this curriculum is entirely secular, but there is an add-on that you can purchase to add spirituality to it, and so there’s this whole book that can give you Bible passages that you can add to whatever workshop, and it goes together. There’s hymns you can sing that go along with the topics of whatever it is we’re discussing. So it can be entirely secular, or a church can add this spirituality piece to it, and it can be more than that. But it’s amazing and it is comprehensive. There’s no question about that. So I would just love it if more people were advocating for this comprehensive approach. 

Franklin: Would that add on appeal to evangelicals, for example?

Ms. Ashley: Probably not, because the base of the curriculum is affirming to all. The base of the curriculum is saying whatever your relationship style is, you are valid. Whatever your pronouns are, they are valid. Whatever your gender identity is, it is valid. You know, so that’s like the baseline is affirming to all. And you have to get on board with that before you can even use the curriculum. 

Joreth: So it would work in in my progressive Catholic upbringing, but probably not in a fundamentalist church.

Ms. Ashley: No.

Joreth: But still, I mean, people when they progressive Catholic background are still not getting the proper sex ed. So this would be a huge dent in that. 

Ms. Ashley: And I love the way that we encourage participants to think for themselves. So the only real information that we’re sharing in the curriculum is vocabulary and details about the information of STI’s and the usefulness of condoms, like how effective they are and that sort of thing. The rest of it is all thinking exercises, it’s all values questioning. 

It’s created so that they should know nothing about their facilitator when they are done with the whole curriculum. They should know tons about themselves and where they stand. So it’s taking out my own values, my own biases, and instead going through the activities specifically to ask the questions and facilitate whatever activity we’re doing for the participant to check themselves and consider for themselves. 

So it’s not a values based curriculum, which is really rare to find. 

Joreth: Yeah. That sounds amazing, and I hope every one of our listeners now goes to their local school board or their church group or, you know, their “mommy and me daycare” or whatever. 

Ms. Ashley: Yeah exactly. 

Joreth: And says hey, we need to get started on this right away. And don’t worry about whatever your beliefs are. This program will still work.

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely. 

Franklin: If you go on the Internets nowadays, one of the things you see just about everywhere, and it’s been popularized on Reddit, and it’s been popularized in school curricula that are sponsored by the Mormon Church in particular, is this idea of sex addiction and masturbation addiction and “you shouldn’t wank because you’ll get addicted to it.” And, you know, you look at the actual medical data and peer reviewed papers, and they don’t support the idea that—

Joreth: That’s not a thing!

Franklin: That these are even—yeah! That you can even get addicted to things like sex or porn or masturbation. But you see the Fight the New Drug curriculum, for example, which is, you know, pushing heavily into schools now, is actually distorting real research about sexuality and health, and pushing this idea of sex addiction and porn addiction. Is this an issue that the curriculum that you teach addresses at all? 

Ms. Ashley: The most updated version of the…mmm, is it middle school or high school? Does. But the others that are not most recently updated, no. So facilitators have been told to like pull information from the most updated version, if you’re going to add that information to your workshops.

I will say this idea of behaviorism is valid, where if you repeat a behavior enough times then your brain starts to myelinate those pathways in the mind to then have the same sort of reaction each time. And so if we’re just talking about behaviorism, then OK, we can have a bit of a conversation about, yYou know patterns of behavior.

but what’s happening with those curriculums, and with that push, is a values-based conversation. It’s not an evidence-based conversation. 

Franklin: But it’s masquerading as evidence-based, because it pretends to be scientific, and it even uses scientific language. And it claims to reference studies, which of course now neurobiologists are saying, “hey, you’re distorting what I said. I didn’t actually say that at all.” 

Ms. Ashley: Yes, so it’s good to give it that name and say, like, “this is values-based.” So then if a parent is trying to gain information about whatever is in their child’s school, they can ask, “is this a values based curriculum?” Because they would have to say, “yes.” They would have to say “yeah, no, I’m teaching what is morally right, which is a value.” 

Joreth: That’s good to know, so any parents who want to evaluate what their kids are doing? Here’s a list of keywords you should ask about or listen for. How are they describing the programs that your children are going through. 

Ms. Ashley: Absolutely. So is there any language surrounding “out of wedlock?” Because that is a values-based curriculum and there are lots of programs that that’s one of the key things. “Out of wedlock.”

Is there any discussion of the curriculum centering monogamous relationships, because that is a value-based search engine. Is there any mention that drug and alcohol use correlate with early sexual activity? Because that is not really a thing. Those are all three separate things that are studied really separately. 

So if we’re looking for anything surrounding a context of marriage, that is a values-based curriculum. And a values-based curriculum is going to tell participants what to do or not to do based on predetermined guidelines. 

Which is the opposite of what we want children and youth to do. We want them to be thinking for themselves and creating their own guidelines, because then they have ownership of those guidelines. And then when they reach those developmental milestones of pushing back against parents and rebelling and trying to find their own footing in this world, which is normal and they should be doing that, they’re more likely to do all the things you told them not to do ’cause they have no ownership in the guidelines. 

Joreth: Yeah, if the the stronger of a hold you have on who you are and the stronger your critical thinking skills are—because that’s really what it sounds like you’re teaching, critical thinking—if they face a situation that they haven’t been given a road map for, do they have the tools to evaluate it and take a healthy path for themselves? Or do they only have a list of instructions, and this situation is not covered, so what do you do? 

Ms. Ashley: Beautiful way to say it. 

Franklin: And that’s something that comes up too, if you have just a sort of a top down, “you have to follow all these rules” kind of approach to sex and sexuality. 

I don’t have the study in front of me right now. Maybe I should look it up and see if we can link through it when we put the show online. I do remember seeing a study that said that kids who were given abstinence only and rules-based approaches to sex education, when they broke the rules and had sex, were more likely to have risky sex, unprotected sex, less likely to use condoms, because, “hey, we’re already breaking the rules, so we’re already bad.”

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, go big or go home. 

Franklin: Well, we’ll break the rules about condoms too, because we’re we’re already bad. We’ve already done the bad thing. 

Ms. Ashley: And that’s so dangerous. I mean, like what parent wants that, right? Instead, get out of their way and help them think things through, and talk less but say more by listening and asking good questions. 

Eunice: Actually, I did have one additional question. I was actually wondering if you’ve seen, what sort of changes have you seen in sex ed over, say, the last decade? Because obviously in that time we’ve gone from  the Obama administration, which I know increased funding for comprehensive sex ed. And then we had the Trump administration, which obviously pulled all that funding and then went to abstinence-only. And then you know, now we’re moving into the Biden administration. Does that sort of signal return to kind of more evidence-based sex ed, do you think? Is that a hope that we can have? 

Ms. Ashley: I can’t answer this completely, but I can tell you what I found. Under the Obama administration, there was a notable shift in abstinence-education funding towards more evidence-based sex ed initiatives,The current landscape of federal sex ed programs is including newer programs such as the Personal Responsibility Education program, also known as PREP, and this is the first federal funding stream to provide grants to states in support of evidence-based sex ed that teach about both abstinence and contraception. So that is new.

Eunice: Nice!

Ms. Ashley: But the Trump administration, yeah, kind of undid it a little bit. 

OK, so honestly I don’t have a complete picture or a great answer for that. And I’ve only been doing this like 2 years privately, so I’m still kind of new. I can mostly just say like what are the challenges here for me in Indiana? Sorry I can’t answer that. 

Eunice: No problem.

Joreth: Well, you’ve certainly given us a lot to chew on and we’ve got some links to the studies that you were referencing that we’ll be able to share with our readers so that they can read what we’ve been talking about, too, for themselves. 

Joreth: So yeah, I think this has been a great conversation to have, and we’ve covered a lot of ground. 

Ms. Ashley: I appreciate sharing the action items with people. Because I just really feel like if more parents start saying “This is what we need we need. We need comprehensive sex ed. We need our youth to know about condoms and we need non-values-based options for our youth.” If more parents are speaking about it, it’s more likely that something will change. 

Thank you very much for sharing your platform with me. 

Eunice: If you could give three big take-away points that you want, even if they don’t remember any of the details, the three big take-away points you want them to remember and take away at the end, what would those be? 

Ms. Ashley: Number one: more information does not cause your child or youth to engage in earlier or more often sex. It’s not true. And so if there’s any bit of fear inside of you for educating your child, know that the research has said, that’s not going to happen.

Number two: be the safe space for your kid to ask questions. So do any of the self work that you need to do in order to be unashamed or unembarrassed as much as you possibly can, so that you can be a place where your kid can be safe and ask you questions.

And if you don’t have a kid, be the aunt or the uncle, or the babysitter, or the neighbor that isn’t going to be weirded out when the kid goes “do you have a penis or a vulva?” Be the person that that kid can notice is OK answering those questions. Because it is not wrong for them to ask those questions.

And three would be use simple language, because the more we talk at youth and children, the less they hear. So if we can simplify to a very quick message, and then know that there’s going to be another opportunity, and another opportunity, and another opportunity, and just capitalize on each of those opportunities in a simple way, your kid will want to come back to you. But if you do this big speech the first time and the second time, and the third time, it’s gonna be like, oh, if I ask this, it’s gonna be a big ordeal. So no, keep it simple. Use simple language with the kiddo. 

Eunice: Nice, those are fantastic take away points and especially the second two basically just fit all sorts of situations. 

Ms. Ashley: Yes, absolutely. And I mean, really, that’s what comprehensive sex ed is about. It’s like they’re a whole person, Yep. 

Franklin: So where can people find you? 

Ms. Ashley: Thank you for asking! I’m on Instagram as MsAshley Robertson. And I curate content for a group on Facebook called Let’s Talk About Sex Ed with Ms Ashley. And I try to share interesting things where people can think about this topic and learn about this topic about five times a week. 

Joreth: Cool awesome, this is amazing. So thank you very much for joining us. 

Ms. Ashley: Thank you for the opportunity. 

Eunice: Thank you for the time. 

Eunice: One of the things that I came across after we talked with Ashley was an article on Mashable discussing the way that social media platforms like TikTok seem to be removing any sex ed that includes medically or scientifically accurate information. That includes topics like pelvic health or pain when having intercourse or sex toy safety. We’ll link to the article in the show notes so you can check it out for yourself.

Franklin: The narrative on the American right is “waah, waah, social media censors conservatives,” but in fact social media companies tend to get weirdly sex-negative and prudish when you get right down to it.

Eunice: All of which makes the work of Ashley and others like her even more important. There’s a PubMed article, Sex Education on TikTok: A Content Analysis of Themes, that talks about how Tiktok “offers a novel opportunity to make up for shortcomings in sex education and convey sexual health information to adolescents.” and that’s absolutely true—assuming it’s correct information. And that’s the problem we’re looking at here, right? As the great Sir Terry Pratchett said, lies can run around the world before truth has even gotten its boots on.

Joreth: “Cancel culture” is, as always, only what the “other guys” are doing to “us”, right? Because a lot of them are getting “censored” by misuse of the “report” feature, where people who just don’t like queer people, sex workers, or sex educators just mass-report their TikToks, whether it violates any rules or not, and the ‘bots just take them down because that’s how it works. And it’s totes cool to take down sex workers, sex educators, and queers, but complain about actual lies on social media and it’s all “they’re taking mah freedumbs!”

Eunice: And it disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ youth, because somehow queer sexuality is automatically an adult and/or controversial topic. Which brings us onto another topic that came up at the end of February, as we were working on editing these last couple of episodes. One that every Disney-loving queer person will be incredibly disappointed by. Assuming you know nothing about the history of the Disney corporation or Florida that is.

Joreth:  Yeah, I don’t understand why people are so surprised at the conservatism here in Florida, but then I was raised near San Francisco, so to me, this entire state is just one very large small town with delusions of grandeur.  Anyway, so one of our state senators, Dennis Baxley, sponsored House Bill 1557 the “Parental Rights In Education” bill, which is being called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  It’s fairly long and arduous, but the very very short version is that the bill prohibits educators from mentioning queer labels and topics in schools.  According to our local paper, the Orlando Sentinel, Disney has donated to literally every single one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

Eunice: I’m still amazed that anyone is surprised when Disney turns out to support profits above everything else. Insofar as a corporation as large as Disney can even have a single affiliation, it’s not liberal or conservative, it’s just capitalist, and that’s what capitalism is—political power through profit. 

Franklin: According to Disney News Today, “The Senate sponsor, Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, has backed anti-gay legislation for years — including laws to prevent gay couples from adopting kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a family at all.” Baxley once compared kids who live with same-sex parents to kids raised by alcoholics and abusers and later said: “I’m not phobic, but I simply can’t affirm homosexuality.” The very next year Disney cut Baxley a campaign check. And another after that. And then another one last year. Shame on you, Disney.

Eunice: The thing I noted about the bill is that it doesn’t actually benefit kids’ education at all, it just prevents the kids learning about LGBTQ+ issues in any form of structured way in school. The language they use is so vague, it could be used to apply to any form of any mention of queerness at all. 

Franklin:  The article goes on to say, “The bill itself, House Bill 1557, is a trainwreck. Not just based on anyone’s personal values, but based on pure linguistics and legal flaws. It uses nebulous and subjective phrases like “reasonably prudent person” to set standards and bans classroom discussions on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in “certain grade levels” without clearly defining what those levels are.” 

Joreth:  It also uses the phrase “age appropriate” specifically and then fails to define what “age appropriate” is.

Eunice: I’m getting real vibes of the UK’s Section 28 all over again.

Joreth:  Yeah, in fact, to bring us back to something we discussed in the interview, we mentioned not understanding why it was so hard to get information on the content of the sex ed program, and I suggested that I could understand an educator being a bit cagey if what they’re used to is conservatives sticking their ignorant noses into the lesson plan … well, that’s exactly what this bill intends to do – give parents more control over what is and isn’t allowed to be “taught” in class (with no real definition on what the word “instruction” in the bill means).  Because what we really need is for people with no training on how education works to be mucking about and getting in the way of educators doing the job they’re trained for.

Eunice: Right. Anyway, let’s long story short this. Given the amount of editing that each of these episodes requires, our listeners can probably guess that this is coming at you all from the past. So with that caveat, as of the date that we’re recording this episode, what’s the current state of play with this bill, given it seems to be changing hourly?

Franklin:  Dismal. The current state of play is dismal. Disney put out a letter to their employees apologizing for funding the politicians responsible for this bill, which caused Governor Satan or DeathSentence or whatever the hell his name is to start yapping on Twitter about Disney staying in its lane, though I can’t help notice he hasn’t volunteered to give their money back. They may be pink but their money is green, hey, Darth Senseless?

Joreth:  This kind of spending, especially at the level of the Disney Corporation, is deliberate, if not intentional.  This isn’t like a marketing department releasing a commercial and not realizing they said something accidentally dirty or insensitive – like, every marketing department needs to have a woman of color, a trans person, and a 12 year old boy on it to make sure they don’t say something accidentally funny or inappropriate, right?  No, with the amount of money involved and the high profile of fucking *Disney*, several important and financially *trained* somebodies thought “y’know who we should fund and attach our name to?  These politicians, that’s who!”  Corporations this big don’t just hand out cash, they *choose* who and what to donate to.

Eunice: Yeah, seriously guys, this isn’t a situation of “whoops it was an accident I just fell on his bank account.” Please don’t treat us like we’re stupid, Disney. But moving on, to once again haul us back to the original point of this episode: we’re aware that listening to this interview over several weeks makes it pretty hard to remember all the great action points that Ashley laid out, so here’s the TLDR:

Ms. Ashley’s Action Items:

  1. Parents and non-parents to rally behind comprehensive sex ed
  2. Find out if your school’s program includes mentions of condoms
  3. Advocate against “values-based” education and for “evidence-based” education

Franklin:  We really recommend checking out the show notes for this episode. You’ll find a list there of the takeaway points, the links to the sites and articles she mentioned, and contact information for Ms. Ashley. I mean, we’d love you to check out the show notes regularly anyway, but if you generally don’t, this might be the episode where you start. 

Joreth: This was a fun interview and I’m so glad that Ms. Ashley agreed to talk with us about comprehensive sex-ed and shared some resources with us. I, for one, plan to mention to everyone I can, every time the subject comes up, that Ms. Ashley is doing private sex ed courses using this OWL curriculum so everyone can contact her about getting her or someone like her into your area. And, remember, this program covers all ages. 

Franklin: So that’s the interview! The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper. Editing is done by Joreth, show notes and transcription by Franklin. You can find a transcript at skepticalpervert.com. Comments or ideas? Email contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you like the show, review us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you found us.

Eunice: And don’t forget to join our Patreon, which you’ll find linked on the website. We’ve got some additional anecdotes that got cut from the interview there, plus we’ll be adding lots of our background chat there so you can listen in as we work on these episodes.

Joreth:  And remember, if you don’t skeptically educate your children, they might grow up to be Republican politicians!

Eunice: The phrase “grow up” is doing a whole lot of heavy lifting right there, just sayin’.

Roundup of Ms Ashley’s useful information

Ms. Ashley’s Action Items:

  1. Parents and non-parents to rally behind comprehensive sex ed
  2. Find out if your school’s program includes mentions of condoms
  3. Advocate against “values-based” education and for “evidence-based” education

Ms. Ashley’s 3 Takeaway Points:

  1. More information does not cause your child or youth to engage in earlier or more often sex.
  2. Be the safe space for your kid to ask questions. And if you don’t have a kid, be the “aunt” or the “uncle” or the “babysitter” or the “neighbor” that isn’t going to be weirded out.
  3. Use simple language.

Ms. Ashley Recommends:

Ms. Ashley’s Citations:

How To Find Ms. Ashley Robertson:

Episode 7: Sex Ed with Ms. Ashley Part 1

Today we bring you the first part of a two-part interview with sex educator and sex-positive activist Ms. Ashley, as we talk about the value of evidence-based, scientifically accurate sexual education.

Ms. Ashley is a sex educator who teaches an adaptation of the Our Whole Lives curriculum. In part 1 of our interview, we discuss the various types of sex education, what the evidence shows about the effects of fact-based sex ed, and how continuing sex education can help not just students but everyone.

You can find Ms. Ashley on Facebook here, here, and here, and on Instagram here.

Transcript of the episode below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we examine human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet dude, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, sopo, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, ace-spec, bisexual, solopoly British Chinese woman, bringing my usual touch of genteel filth and depravity.

Franklin: Today we’re chatting with Ms. Ashley, a sex educator who does a lot of work with evidence-based sex ed. A quick note – today’s episode is US-centered because a lot of sex ed is wrapped up in politics and policies, so keep in mind we’re talking about US policies, politics, and attitudes.

Eunice: Well, mostly – I can’t help being British, folks!

Franklin: Wait, you’re British? Why wasn’t I informed?

Eunice: I know, shocking how I kept all the tea related paraphernalia hidden so well over, lo, these many years. How long have we known each other now, Franklin?

Franklin: We met at an orgy in 2010, so…about twelve years?

Eunice: Clearly I’m an amazing actor. (Note for the listeners, I am not an amazing actor.)

Joreth: So, back to the episode … We came across this amazing advocate for evidence-based sex ed that we really wanted to bring on the show. And we wanted to do something a little bit different than a standard interview. We thought it would be fun to invite her to talk about whatever she felt most passionate about, which was the struggle between abstinence only sexual education vs. what she called “comprehensive sex ed”.

Eunice: Yeah, one thing to notice is that there is no version of sex ed that doesn’t include abstinance-based sex ed, only versions which don’t include evidence-based sex ed. Which I think is an interesting…decision, let’s call it a decision, hmm?

Franklin: The United States still has a strongly Puritan attitude toward sex. The Puritans came to this continent a long time ago and didn’t stick around for all that long, but their ideas, especially about morality, have left a lasting mark on the American social fabric. Our weird, toxic ideas about sex trace directly back to Puritanism, which shows you just how stubbornly cultural values can persist. So it’s not really that surprising that all US sex ed includes abstinence.

Eunice: More than includes abstinence, Franklin, it requires abstinence. In contrast, when I was having a look at the UK National Curriculum for Relationships and Sex education for comparision, I only realised after we talked that as far as I can tell, abstinence-based education isn’t included as a requirement. I don’t think it’s even mentioned. Those Puritans really took some wild ideas with them when they abandoned British shores in a huff because they couldn’t persecute others, and I for one can only be grateful they didn’t stick around, honestly.

Joreth: I’ve been trying to finish uploading my pictures from my road trip to New England last summer, and just did a section of Puritan gravestones, which had some interesting rules on what could be put on a gravestone and what couldn’t because of their morality and some of that stuff persists to graves today, so it’s really fascinating to me how long-lasting the Puritans’ mark on our culture really is. (We will have a lot more to say about Puritanism in our Patreon out-takes, so sign up on Patreon to hear that conversation!)

Eunice: We’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here, let’s haul ourselves back to topic. I’m aware that this is a losing battle, but let’s at least try to focus! We had a fantastic chat that we’re really excited to share with you, so Joreth, do you want to introduce the wonderful Ms Ashley to kick us off?

Joreth: Ashley Robertson identifies as a feminine, ethically non-monogamous, doll. With over a decade of experience in the BDSM scene, she isn’t shy of perverse topics. She is a liberated educator who wishes to share with others the freedom of sexuality without shame. With three teaching degrees, she’s fed up with the idea that learning comes from a constrictive set of standards. She facilitates adaptations of the Our Whole Lives curriculum adapting the workshops to fit diverse audiences. This non-coercive, comprehensive approach to sex ed is what we all wished we had in high school.

Franklin: Ms. Ashley had quite a lot to say, so let’s jump right into the interview. We had a few technical issues with our recording, so just a heads up that the quality might not be as good as usual.

Joreth: So this is going to be fairly standard. We’ll have a bunch of questions to ask you. Mainly we wanted to have a conversation where you had the opportunity to talk about what you wanted to talk about.

You know, I’ve done my share as a podcast guest myself, and it’s usually the podcast has an agenda. They have a story they want to tell and you sort of fit into it. So then they ask the guest to talk about whatever the podcast wants to hear

But we wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about what you wanted as a researcher.

Joreth: So, science based, especially evidence based, sex ed…we are all so behind that.

Ms. Ashley: It’s very generous of you to share your platform, thank you. I appreciate that.

Eunice: We’re also just really excited to hear what you’re going to say.

Ms. Ashley: I have a couple of articles I’d love to share, and I have like some personal anecdotes about how this work goes, that kind of goes along with these articles. So I thought that was the content I’d like to share with you and your listeners today.

A little back story about me. I wasn’t planning to be a sex educator. That wasn’t what I went to school for. I’m learning this as an in the field researcher and in the field doing it.

I was trained to facilitate one particular curriculum called the our Whole Lives Curriculum. And what I found here in Indiana is that it’s hard to find opportunities for this kind of work, because the curriculum that I learned about, and that I am able to facilitate, is comprehensive. It’s not as much of a friendly place for that kind of learning here in Indiana.

I guess the main story I’d love to share is for all of your listeners to be advocates and allies for comprehensive sex education opportunities. I feel like if there’s any action item I could ask for for people with kids and without kids, it’s to rally behind this idea that more information earlier and often is better than the alternative.

Some of the research that I have to share this evening comes specifically from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because I feel like, hey, that’s a reliable source. These are the people that we turn to when we are parents and trying to understand best practice and safest ways to do things. And so I was like, hey, I think this is a good. Source and also not that much of a controversial source, right?

Like if I was pulling from Planned Parenthood, or, you know, any other faith-based source, there could be conversation about like oh, this is very biased. But I felt like this is a real, rooted-in-science resource, so I wanted to start with that.

And I guess I’m curious from all of you, if you know what the two types of sex ed are that are available in the United States?

Joreth: Well, I’m assuming that one is going to be abstinence-based, which is probably rooted in in religion and faith, whether it says so upfront or not.

And then the other, I’m hoping is a more evidence based curriculum.That that’s what I would guess are the two main ones.

Franklin: Yeah, well, definitely abstinence-only sex education is all over the news pretty much all of the time. Which is a little scary when you look at the data and see just how much it doesn’t work. I would hope that the other one would be evidence based, but you know, considering the times we live in right now, I am not going to make that bet.

I mean, you know you say that pediatricians are an evidence based source that nobody would ever question, and, you know, obviously completely neutral, but we live in a world where people think that the Centers for Disease Control are part of some kind of conspiracy, so I’m not sure that’s necessarily true.

Eunice: I mean, I’ll be honest abstinence-only, at least I understand what that is. It is interesting, in the sense of how much it doesn’t include.

But when it comes to evidence based, I don’t know where the evidence comes from. I don’t know what evidence they pick to refer to when they talk about evidence-based. So that’s something that I’m interested in. What do they mean by evidence based? I mean, I’m assuming that there’s not one single source that all of the curricula that use evidence based sex ed will be looking to.

I’m assuming that different sources will potentially come up, and I’d be interested to know what’s the difference between them.

Ms. Ashley: I will do my best to answer some of those questions. I don’t know if I have all the answers. The two main types of curriculum available in the United States are abstinence only, which is known as a “sexual risk avoidance program. This means that they teach that abstinence from sex is the only morally acceptable option for you.

Or the second option, which is comprehensive. Comprehensive sex ed means it’s medically accurate, evidence based information about both contraception and abstinence. So the abstinence only curriculums will not talk about contraception.

Franklin: That’s really scary.

Eunice: Oh, right, Yikes, exactly.

Ms. Ashley: So then, within comprehensive there’s actually two other branches. Within comprehensive programs there’s an abstinence plus program, which means they are still teaching that sex abstinence is the only morally acceptable option for youth, but the plus means that they share about condoms.

And then with the full, expansive, comprehensive programs, this includes all conversations about medically accurate, evidence based information, contraception, abstinence being the safest form of risk avoidance, including also conversations about safer sex in lots of different varieties of sex, and healthy relationships. So that’s the whole shebang. This is an interpersonal conversation. This is not just about our bodies and our reproductive organs.

So there’s kind of 2 main branches of sex ed programs and then off of the comprehensive there’s two main branches. One is more palatable for a lot of school systems because it’s still abstinence based, but it adds this idea of condoms. And then our full shebang is the one I’m advocating for as a sexual educator.

So one of the coolest things I found as I was going through this information from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that they identify comprehensive sex education as preventative health care. I love this idea. No one talks about this and there’s so much validity in this idea of preventative health care when children are young and even for adulthood because it reduces the burden on our society fnancially, if we’re being preventative with our bodies. And so that just made me so happy. It’s like the pediatricians of our country are saying comprehensive sex ed is preventative health care.

Joreth: I mean, it makes sense, right? It is! Everything about sex ed is preventing bad stuff from happening.

Ms. Ashley: Yes, and they also made a very clear point to say sexuality education can be disseminated through three separate learning domains: cognitive, which is about teaching information; affective, which is about teaching about feelings, values and attitudes; and behavioral, which is about communication, decision making and other skills. So I loved this idea that our pediatricians are saying to the whole country, “when you talk about sex, with any age, with any kids, it should be all three parts. It should be, what information do they need to know, how can we identify their social emotional skills, and how can we empower them to make decisions with their bodies and communicate with others for healthy relationships?””

So yay! Instead of it just being this like weird and awkward, shame-based conversation about genitals, it’s supposed to be the whole thing that creates an awareness of a person’s whole self.

So I’m curious from you all. Since this is the podcast that people want to hear stories: of those three domains, cognitive, affective, and behavioral, what was your experience of sex ed growing up?

Franklin: Oh God. My experience of sex ed growing up was basically a 5 minute conversation in high school health class and a “don’t do it.” That was pretty much it.

But then I went to high school in Florida, which is not exactly a shining beacon for fact and evidence based progressive ideas about science and reality. And they certainly would not be swayed by any kind of approach that said, “look, we’re trying to do harm reduction or risk management,” because, I’ll be honest, what Florida is all about is, “well, if you break the rules you should suffer.”

Eunice: Uh, the interesting thing is that I’m based in the UK and the UK has a national curriculum that legally has to have evidence based relationships and sex education, right? So in primary school, that’s up to about the age of ten or eleven, it is mandatory to have relationships education. And in secondary school, which is up to 16 or 18 depending on the school, it is mandatory to have relationships and sex education. And this is just what is it.

And it should cover relationships. But also contraception and intimate relationships. Healthy relationships of all types, you know.

Looking at the National curriculum now for the sorts of sex ed that is expected in the UK, it is based on evidence. Whether or not the actual schools are any good at teaching it is a slightly different matter, but legally it is expected that you have evidence based teaching in a range of topics.

However, when I was growing up, I grew up under the auspices of Section 28, which specified that it was illegal to teach that homosexual relationships were acceptable, so I grew up in that era. And I think that law was only repealed in 2003 as I remember.

Joreth: That’s pretty recent.

Eunice: So yeah, yeah, that was like 80 something to 2003 I believe is when that law went into effect. God bless Maggie Thatcher.

And that meant that it was illegal to teach kids about homosexuality in a way that suggested that it was healthy or reasonable or normal or acceptable, And therefore they just basically didn’t teach anything that wasn’t heterosexual monogomous relationships.

So yeah, there’s two parts to this, right? They’re kind of contradictory, because I came out as bisexual when I was in my teens in high school.

Joreth: Right in the middle of that?

Eunice: Yeah, like that was that was smack bang in the middle of it. I did not get any sex ed that related to anything other than heterosexual monogamous relationships.

Ms. Ashley: I hear that a lot and I’m sorry for that, because it invalidates you as who you are or you become invisible. And that’s not how it should be. You are absolutely wonderful and valid, exactly as you are.

Eunice: I’m so glad that is no longer in place, and that they specifically require you to teach about LGBTQ issues now in the national curriculum.

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, in the UK that is not happening in the US

Eunice Yes, in the UK.

Franklin: I don’t see that happening in the US anytime soon. To be honest, I mean the US is still struggling with the idea that anybody who is not a cishet white dude is actually a person.

Joreth: Yeah, we we have a terrible track record with evidence based anything, really.

Now, my experience is contradictory in a lot of ways, because I went to public school up through age 12/13, which is junior high, and I went to a private Catholic school for high school. The contradictory part is that I had an amazing sex ed through high school, but only for the medical stuff.

We covered a little bit of the relationship, only so much as I had a a marriage section in one of my classes, where we had the we had to plan our wedding. We had to have a household budget. We had to carry around the flower sack baby. So it’s all very heteronormative, but it wasn’t a whole lot of of a relationship communication work. It was just, “eventually you’re going to get married and have kids. So this is how you do a budget and this is what it’s like to walk around, carrying five pounds on your arm every day.””

Franklin: Seriously, wow.

Joreth: Oh yeah, I should show you pictures. My flower baby was named Jacob.

Franklin: Oh man. That’s a good biblical name.

Eunice: There was actually a book I read about this, like a fiction book. I read fiction books about this thing and I didn’t realize it was a real thing that happened.

Joreth: Yes, it’s a real thing. And part of my project was I had to have pictures, so I walked around town as a teenager, pushing a baby carriage.

Franklin: Good Lord.

Joreth: And people thought I was a teenage mother. So that one of the things that I was reporting on, the societal response to me as what they thought was a teenage mother. My teacher was not expecting that as part of my report.

But for the biology part of it, I had fantastic sex ed. We had some form of sex ed every single year in my 4 years of high school, although one of the semesters was not so much sex ed as it was a self defense course because we were an all girls school.

So our priest, our schools priest, was a black belt in some martial art. One of our health classes, the entire semester was all self defense. So I learned how to flip people over my shoulder and break grips.

Franklin: Oh my God.

Joreth: Explains a few things about me! But then, I was also a sociology major. We didn’t really have majors like in college, but we could get started early on college prep courses. So in high school I was already planning to go from my marriage and family counseling degree and I had planned to specialize in problem teenagers.

So through my psychology courses, I got a lot of the relationship and the communication stuff through that, all through my private Catholic school.

So I had a really strange, contradictory sort of experience with sex ed growing up.

Ms. Ashley: Quite a variety of experiences represented here in this in this group. Mine was very much the sexual risk avoidance model. I was part of the evangelical purity culture.

Franklin: Oh God.

Ms. Ashley: We got most of our sex head through through church, and there was this big ceremony of, like, professing that you will wait until marriage, and your parent came up and gave you a purity ring and put it on your wedding ring finger and like this whole thing.

Franklin: Oh my God. You actually did the purity ring thing.

Ms. Ashley: I did! That was very serious. And my personal experience led me to find out later that having some autonomy of your body and ownership of your body and experience of some kind actually helps you find a better mate or understand your needs to communicate what you desire and how you act.

Joreth: Imagine that. Surprise!

Ms. Ashley: So it didn’t serve me either. And interestingly, in 2012 there was a national campaign to prevent teen and unplanned pregnancy, where they surveyed 1200 high school seniors. Many of them were girls, some of them were boys and they had mixed feelings about their first time that they had had sex. Also called “sexual debut.” That’s one of the nice ways of saying that.

Joreth: Oh, I have feelings about that.

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, “sexual debut.”” More than 3/4 responded that they would change the way that their first sexual experience occurred. So there we have it, more than 3/4 of them said “I would have liked this to go differently,” and I feel like the only way that that could go differently is with more information, right?

That’s how we don’t drop our children into the deep end of a pool having never had any swimming lessons.

Franklin: Well, some people do…

Ms. Ashley: Yep, without an instructor there?

Franklin: Yes, Yep.

Ms. Ashley: Wait! Okay, I’m gonna need this story.

Franklin: That’s a thing! That’s a thing that happens. You know, it’s the whole sink or swim right? That’s literally what that means.

Joreth: I was just talking with with a friend. It’s certain areas more than others, but I was just talking with a friend who that was how she learned. Her father just dropped her in the water and said, you know, learn to swim, make it to shore.

Ms. Ashley: I feel like that’s probably not the recommended practice, right? The same thing with a knife. Most people wouldn’t give their children a knife at the age of 16, having never had any experience with a knife before.

Eunice: Well…

I remember coming home once and just like making sandwiches and cooking, turning around with a knife in my hand and my friend who’d come back to my place afterwards looking down and was like, “your parents let you use those knives?” And I just looked down, like “yes. My family is Chinese. I see my parents regularly holding bigger knives than this. This is a bread knife. I am not going to be able to stab anyone with this.”

Ms. Ashley: So, there! You had more information than your peer, because your parents had exposed you to information. Your peer probably didn’t even know there was a name, “bread knife” as opposed to “steak knife” as opposed to “chef’s knife.”

Joreth: You know, you’re probably less likely to stab someone unintentionally than your friend.

Ms. Ashley: Yeah, because you’d already had some experience with the knife, and so that’s a good explanation for exactly what we are talking about here, which is giving youth and children more information earlier on, in a comprehensive way.

One thing that the American Academy of Pediatrics also highlights is this idea that families and primary caregivers are the main source of potential information for their children and the children in their care. What they find is that conversations that a pediatrician can have with a family early on can help any parents that potentially feel awkward or discomfort or shame or embarrassment surrounding some of these topics.

And so they’re also advocating for parent education and caregiver education, which is saying things like, “it’s absolutely normal for children and youth to desire self stimulation and safe touch. This is part of them being sexual being,s and it allows them to later explore them their own bodies in safer ways.

So teaching parents that like it’s normal for your 2 year old to masturbate, you don’t need to pathologize that. That’s absolutely part of natural curiosity and the way that our bodies work.

So any parent who’s listening who feels like squicked out or a little uncomfortable or unable to access doing this with their child in a way that’s useful and calm and cool and collected, there are lots and lots of resources out there for you to use as a parent to educate yourself and to feel more informed and more capable of having these conversations.

One of the resources that I love to share is sexetc.org. There you can find crazy vocabulary lists for things in case like your teenager comes home and says a word and you don’t know what it is, organized by alphabet. So sexetc.org.

Weknowship.org is an organization out of Maine. They do virtual workshops three to four times a year. Some of them are specifically for parents. They have presenters that come in. So weknowship.org. It’s all sorts of things. It’s like, how has the pandemic affected my child and what can I do to reverse some of its effects? Or pornography and my teenager, or shame-free potty training. You know, there’s like all sorts of things like that.

I also like to recommend amaze.org, which is a site full of videos, and these videos are organized by topic so you can look one up and watch it before you share it with your child. It gives you some of the words to say to your child, like a like a script. So if a topic comes up, you can research and see if there’s a video there that could help you navigate the words yourself.

There’s also Sex Positive Parenting, which is full of blog posts and resources.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics is absolutely saying the parents and caregivers are the best place for this information to come from, not necessarily schools, so don’t rely on your child’s school for this information. Take every opportunity that you have for it to layer upon itself and build, so that your child has access to a more complete understanding of these topics.

Franklin: All of that kind of assumes that you have parents who are active and involved and engaged with their kids, and who want their kids to have factual information, and who are not themselves surrounding sex with layers of shame and guilt. I’ll be honest, in the US, that kind of seems like a big ask.

Ms. Ashley: I feel that way too and so if we can get this conversation out more to more people and one parent says to another parent, you know, even if they’re like, out having drinks or if they’re texting about a situation they’re dealing with with their kid., if one parent says to another parent, “I heard that being sex positive and body positive is probably a better way, instead of like punishing your child for pooping in their pants again.” Even just that one little thing from one parent to another could spark that curiosity in that parent to say, “wait, what is this ‘sex positive?’ Does that mean I want my kid to have sex?” And then that other person who was like, “Well, I don’t really know a whole lot about it, but from what I understand, it means I’m saying there’s nothing wrong with their body because they have genitals.” It’s not dirty, it’s not gross. It’s just like a nose or an ear. It just happens to be an area that we say is private.

If one parent can say a tiny thing that they learn to another parent, which sparks curiosity, and then if there’s pushback, then that parent that said the thing might go back and do a little more research, and then it sort of snowballs. I would love for that to be more of a thing.

Joreth: It sounds like we also could use a strong curriculum for sex ed for adults.

Ms. Ashley: Which is exactly what the one I teach is. The Our Whole Lives curriculum spans the lifespan of a human, which is really amazing. It starts in kindergarten and there’s a curriculum for the younger elementaries. Then there’s a curriculum for the mid elementaries. Then there’s a curriculum for the middle school, which is very puberty heavy content. There’s a high school curriculum. There’s a younger adults curriculum. There’s an adult curriculum and an older adults curriculum.

It actually grows with people, and so we’re not ignoring this idea of menopause. And we’re not ignoring this idea of death of spouses and having to redefine our lives independently once we’re older. It grows with us, which is one of the reasons why if anyone can get access to an Our Whole Lives facilitator, get ’em. Do it. It’s great stuff.

Eunice: Yeah, I love that idea of the older adults, because I practically never see any sort of relationship or sex ed that’s directed at somebody who, you know, maybe they’ve been married before. They’re starting to approach menopause, or their their post0menopause or whatever. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that out there.

Joreth: I’ve been talking lately that we basically have The Golden Girls and Grace and Frankie and that is pretty much all of the information. Both educational and in media, we have those two sources for anybody who is in the menopausal or after range. While it’s entertaining, and while I’m glad to see this in popular media, that cannot be the only exposure we have to what it’s like for seniors to have sex.

Franklin: Oh man.

Eunice: How old are the Sex and the City actors now? Like, Sex and the City is getting older, and I guess they just carry on going.

Joreth: Yeah, they’re in their 50s now, ’cause they’ve got the new show out. That’s right, that just came out. And because now it’s the comparison that the actors from Sex and the City are now the same age as the characters from The Golden Girls. So what is that? That’s the 50s.

Yeah, three shows now that even broach the subject of what sex is like for people who are a little bit older. And we need so many more avenues to discuss those topics, because if all the fortunes are in our favor, we are all going to be in that position someday. So this is a subject we need to have more information on.

Ms. Ashley: I have a question. Have you ever seen a condom used in either of those shows, or discussion of a condom used in either of those shows?

Joreth: Yes, Sex in the City definitely covers condom use. They have several episodes about it.

Ms. Ashley: Oh, I meant Golden Girls or Grace and Frankie.

Joreth: Grace and Frankie. I want to say that they did discuss it, that they did mention it.

Ms. Ashley: My only remembering about that, was that they were trying to develop and market easy-open condoms for arthritic hands.

Joreth: That might have been the context that I saw them. ’Cause most of what it is, you know, two senior women who are trying to enjoy pleasure and, you know, being physically hampered by it. So that’s why they create the female masturbation device for older women with arthritic hands, which I think is a fabulous idea.

Ms. Ashley: I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of discussion there, and that’s one of the demographics where we’re having the higher rates of STI’s because there’s no real discussion, and that wasn’t part of how they grew up in negotiating sex.

Joreth: Yeah, I mean wasn’t that entire generation basically married during the AIDS crisis, so why would they? They wouldn’t have needed to have known that.

Eunice: Right, I was actually quite bemused when I realized that old people homes are apparently the location for the fastest transmission of STI’s.

Joreth: Yes, in fact The Villages here in Florida is particularly notorious for that. And it’s also in a red area. They’re highly conservative. They’re all Trump voters, and among the senior living facilities, they have one of the highest rates.

Ms. Ashley: So this is furthering this idea that comprehensive education with more information about how to communicate your desire for someone to wear a barrier and use a barrier is going to be healthier.

Yes, one of the things this article says is that if comprehensive sex ed programs are offered in schools, positive outcomes can occur, including delay in the initiation and reduction in the frequency of sexual intercourse. A reduction in the number of sexual partners and an increase in condom use.

So wow, those are like 3 massive things we would love to have for all of our children and youth: reducing how many partners they have, increasing their use of condoms ’cause hey they know how to use them, and waiting.

So that’s one of the biggest things that I hear from people is, like, well, if you want to do comprehensive sex ed and if you want to be advocating for this idea of sex positivity and family cultures, all you’re doing is giving kids permission to do it earlier. I hear that so, so much and I just want to be very clear that is not the case.

Joreth: Yeah, I like to laugh every time that comes up. I’m like, how long has it been since you were a teenager? Because I remember being a teenager. Like, not having a lot knowledge didn’t stop anyone. My cohort was all about having sex at the time. So you know they don’t need to have this information to have sex, but having the information having that information is going to make it safer.

That’s a huge argument that Florida had, though, when the HPV vaccine came out and Florida actually tried to prevent people from getting it because they’re like, “o”h yeah, this is the vaccine.””

Joreth: Oh yes.

Franklin: What did they call it? There was an editorial in the paper that I read. They called it the “slut vaccine,” because, you know, you give people this vaccine and now all of a sudden they’re going to run around and be promiscuous because there’s no penalties. This comes from a mindset that says the way you prevent people from doing things that we consider bad is to punish them if they do.

Franklin: And STI prevention and harm reduction, they actually act against that philosophy.

Joreth: That’s the punishment.

Franklin: If you can prevent people from getting sick, if you can prevent people from having babies, you make them more immoral. That’s the mindset. And I don’t know how you counter that mindset.

Eunice: I don’t know. The guidance in the UK for the national curriculum specifically states outright that effective relationship and sex education does not encourage early sexual experimentation. They put it out there in those words and they’re just like moving on. Let’s just, let’s just ignore it, just moving on.

Ms. Ashley: I literally have this highlighted in this in this article. It says we know that abstinence is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy and STI’s, right? However, research has conclusively demonstrated that programs promoting abstinence only until heterosexual marriage occurs are ineffective. It doesn’t work.

Joreth: Like I said if that’s what I always tell, ’cause I work with so many conservative people ’cause I live in Florida. And every time this comes up, well, you know it’s just giving them permission. If there aren’t any punishments attached, then it’s just giving you permission. Like honey, you were a kid too and it didn’t stop you. So we know that not having the information does not stop them. We know this. We don’t need the studies. I’m glad we have them, but we don’t need them. We all know that not having the information doesn’t stop it.

Franklin: But I think that the fact that it doesn’t work is actually OK with a lot of people, particularly religious people who oppose sex ed, because they’re like, “we would rather see 20 wrongdoers punished ththan 18 wrongdoers not suffer harm for what they’re doing wrong. Like the fact that it does not prevent people from having sex or having kids or whatever, that’s fine. Because where they’re coming from is: yes, people will do this anyway. They need to suffer. They need to be punished.

Joreth: Right, but the point is that with the education they won’t be doing the wrongdoing.

Franklin: You can’t get them to believe that though. This is a fundamental identity sort of belief, and my mother always used to say when I was growing up, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.” If you believe that sex ed gives people permission to have sex and that sex ed will cause promiscuity, no study, no table, no chart is going to change that, because that’s fundamentally a belief that comes from religious identity, not from fact.

Joreth: You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.

Franklin: Yes.

Eunice: And original sin. You’re already a Sinner. Is it such a surprise if you then go and sin?

Ms. Ashley: So none of that is rooted in evidence.

Franklin: Nope.

Ms. Ashley: It’s all rooted in myth. They are very preciously held myths from stories that people have chosen to put on a pedestal, and, you know, believe as fact. And so it’s important for us to say like that’s not real, that didn’t actually happen, but they’re great stories. If they’re important to you, I’m happy to respect that they’re important to you.

But what we actually know is that considerable evidence shows that sexual education programs can be effective in delaying sexual initiation among teens and increasing their use of contraception, especially condoms.

One study in 2007 found that there was no difference in the mean age of a first sexual encounter or the number of sexual partners between two groups when they looked at one group that had abstinence only education and another group that had abstinence plus education, meaning they had they learned about contraception as well.

So no effect. There was nothing positive in the abstinence only group. There was no difference in mean age of starting. So giving them more information about contraception did not make them go out and be crazy right?

Currently in the US, roughly 1/3 of high schools teach condom use. 1/3.

Joreth: 1/3

Franklin: Wow, that’s disappointing.

Ms. Ashley: It is. It is very disappointing, especially considering that is our front line of defense against all the STI’s. And I do not have this statistic right now, but the number of youth that experience an STI is rising, because they’re like uninformed about what the warning signs are that they might have something, or that they might be carrying something. And so then they don’t know what their body is telling them in order to go seek medical advice. So those that idea of like, hey, a condom could have prevented this had they have known about it or how to use it, is something I would love for parents to be specifically asking within their their children’s sex ed programs. Like, “Does this include condoms?”

Because it’s really hard to find out this information. I’m doing this right now with my own child program in their own school, and I had to like talk to the director of the program to get this information. It wasn’t anywhere online.

So if that’s another action item that families might want to go with, is just can you get to the bottom of whether or not your high schools in your area include this very important information?

Franklin: We had a lot to say, way more than we could fit in this episode, so we’ll be back next month with part 2 of this interview. And does it bother anyone but me that it takes so much work to find out what’s in the high school sex ed courses your kids might be taking?

Eunice: Yeah, it’s such a great point that she makes, and I don’t understand why there isn’t a clearly laid out curriculum for people to be able to look at? I mean, so many parents are getting so het up about what their kids are learning in sex ed, and it turns out most of them don’t even know?

Joreth: I can kinda understand if you think of it from the point of view that most of the super nosy busybodies wanting to check up on their kid’s sex-ed course are the conservatives who might get pissy at any accurate information included, that I could see a sex-ed provider being a little bit cagey about what’s in their course.

Eunice: Oh yeah, that’s a fair point.

Joreth: But that’s why we really need a robust, national, standard sex ed curriculum – so it can be transparent but also not subject to pressures from non-evidence-based, values-laden complaints, which we’ll also get to in the second half of the interview.

Franklin: So that’s this month’s episode! As before, you can find show notes and a transcript on skepticalpervert.com. Next month, we’ll also include all the links Ms. Ashley referenced during the interview in the show notes. Comments or ideas? Drop an email to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you like the show, give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you found us. And don’t forget to join our patreon, which is linked on the website.

Eunice: And remember: be skeptical about your abstinence, not absent with your skepticism!

Joreth: I can’t turn that into a dirty joke or a way to torture Franklin, it’s just kind of an important message.

Franklin: That doesn’t sound like you.

Eunice: Don’t get used to it!

Joreth: We have plenty of other ways to torture you.

Episode 6: Libido, Accelerators, and Brakes!

This episode has been plagued with problems and technical glitches, but fear not, in the end we triumphed!

In this episide, the three of us talk about Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, which attempts to take a rigorous look at how libido works. (Spoiler: It’s complicated, and no, men aren’t always horny.)

Nagoski talks about “accelerators,” social and situational factors that drive us toward sexual engagement, and “brakes,” social and situational factors that hold back our libido. The book offers a quiz to help you understand how your libido works, though as we discuss in the episode, there are some problems with it (Nagoski seems to be coming from looking at libido from a narrow perspective of one-on-one monogamous encounters without factors like kink or fetishes).

Here’s the transcript:

Franklin: Hello, and welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace demisexual. I’m an East Asian cis woman, hailing from the British side of the pond, with a large pot of tea and a correspondingly sizeable dose of genteel snark. This week: libido! More specifically, spontaneous versus responsive libidos. We’ll also be talking about the excitatory and inhibitory sexual systems. A lot of what we’ll be discussing came from the book Come as You Are: the bestselling guide to the new science that will transform your sex life by Dr Emily Nagoski, specifically the revised and updated edition that came out in March 2021. 

Franklin: This book is really interesting, and I highly recommend it for a number of reasons. We took a look at it and some other sources for this episode (check out the show notes online), so let’s get started: Joreth and Eunice, you really wanted to talk about this topic, so what are spontaneous libido and responsive libido?

Joreth: Spontaneous Libido or Spontaneous Desire is what we think of as just “libido” – a person feels sexual arousal, and thinks “hey, I’m aroused, I should find something to have sex with!” This thought process is largely subconscious and nearly instantaneous, and if the person already has a regular sexual partner, then the question is answered for them without any conscious questioning of it. They feel arousal first, they go looking for their partner. 

Franklin: I like how you said “something to have sex with,” not “someone to have sex with.” 

Joreth:  That was deliberate!

Franklin:  That’s basically how I work! I’ll be walking down the street minding my own business and then Wham! Hey, I’m horny! It comes out of the blue, without necessarily being attached to any triggering sight or sound or anything. When I tried bremelanotide like we talked about in the first episode, I felt that same thing but a thousand times stronger.

Joreth: Hah, yeah, that has maybe only happened to me a handful of times in my entire life, and usually under very specific contexts, which we’ll get into later. A Responsive Libido or Responsive Desire is when the body has sexual things happening to it and then the brain goes “oh, right, we like this! OK, fire up the engines everyone, it’s time to have sex!”

Eunice: In many ways it’s hard to even really talk about this clearly — we barely have suitable words to describe the experience of responsive libidos, because we live in a world where spontaneous libidos are considered ‘the norm’ or ‘the ideal’ or even ‘what sexual desire looks like’. In that situation, how do you talk about having a responsive libido in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re saying “my unusual way of feeling sexual desire”? But having a responsive libido is not only entirely normal and usual, but Dr Nagoski suggests that everyone basically has it. It’s just that some people have the spontaneous version as well. 

Joreth: Yeah, it’s so frustrating because society 1) assumes that Spontaneous Desire is the default form of libido, making any other form of libido “deviant” automatically and then 2) assumes that Spontaneous Libido is the MALE default, which then if you follow that to its logical conclusion, means that women all have the same sex drive and that it’s deviant while all men have the same sex drive and that it’s the “normal” version.

Franklin: Assuming that spontaneous libido is ‘male’ and responsive libido is ‘female’ seems to fit what we see in a lot of romantic comedies, but I have to say I’ve known men with responsive libidos and I’ve dated women with spontaneous libidos, so calling them ‘male’ and ‘female’ libidos seems a little farfetched.

Joreth: Seems to fit romantic comedies and, like, every dudebro on the internet who swear that women don’t like sex but use it to dupe men into giving them money. And, yeah, I’ve dated quite a few men with responsive libidos. It’s convenient for them to have someone like me as a partner because they won’t get pressured by their partner into sex when they’re not feeling it or have their masculinity challenged when I’m also not feeling it. 

On the downside, though, we might both be open to sex if sexy stuff starts happening, but with neither of us starting it, I’ve been in several relationships where the sex just didn’t happen for months, even years at a time because it didn’t occur to either one of us to start it spontaneously.

Eunice: Oh goodness, yes that sounds familiar, have you been making notes on my relationships?? Before we go any further, one of the things I want to note here is that a lot of the research was done by researchers with assumptions about binary gender, so when we’re referring to studies we have to use the language they used in their write ups. It’s not that we, or Dr Nagoski, think that there are only cis females and cis males, it’s that the scientists who did the research started from that assumption, and often only studied cis people, so we’re having to discuss these studies in that light. And that is something we need to remember throughout. Scientists are also people, who are impacted by the media around them, and their societal conditioning. Which might also explain why it was so much easier to find studies referring to low libidos in women as normal, and only ever as something to ‘fix’ in men.

Franklin: We saw that when we did the episode on aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisiacs are generally prescribed to women, for “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” and drugs like Addyi and Vyleesi are usually approved and prescribed for women. It’s that societal assumption Eunice was talking about: men are horndogs and women are frigid.

Joreth: So this brings up the issue of low libido vs. responsive libido, which are very much not the same thing. For my entire life, I thought I had a low libido because I didn’t seem to get aroused spontaneously, and I could go for long periods of time not having sex and not even noticing that I hadn’t had sex in a while.

But that didn’t quite match up with what was going on in my brain. See, also from a very young age, I have been preoccupied with thoughts of sex A LOT. I think about sex and relationships all the freaking time. So, for someone who thinks about sex all the time, I’m remarkably uninterested in it. Or, rather, I’m lacking arousal, which is not necessarily the same thing, as we’re about to discuss.

Eunice: Yeah, I have a low libido and I noticed that I can also go long periods of time without having sex and not noticing or missing it. But I can still talk about sex, and sexual ideas, without feeling aroused or actively desiring sex in that moment. That’s basically the state I was in when I wrote most of the sc-ifi erotica books with Franklin! Plus arousal and desire are not the same thing. It’s the difference between being mentally interested in sex and being physically ready to have it.

Joreth: Exactly. Once someone told me about the phrase “responsive desire” and I looked into it, everything seemed to click into place for me. I can talk about sex and think about it, but my body is not physically, sexually aroused. And then I can clinically talk about sex as an academic topic, and even as a fun and flirty topic, and still not be interested in having it. 

However, when I’m mentally receptive to sexyfuntimes happening, and then someone I want to have sexyfuntimes with starts doing sexyfuntime stuff to me, THAT’S when my body starts responding with lubrication, blood flow, nerve sensitivity, etc. And in the context of a regular partner, that can happen frequently, always in response to the sexyfuntimes, though.  Only very rarely, and in very specific circumstances, will I feel arousal with no deliberate trigger, like right after a breakup, which is something we can talk about later if there’s time.

Eunice: Yeah, there’s a difference between being aroused and desiring sex, and desiring sex with an actual person. There really are times when I just can’t be bothered with having another human around, you know? 

Franklin: Whereas my sexual experience is quite different. I’m capable of having sex when I don’t feel desire—I have an agreement with one of my partners where under certain circumstances she’s allowed to demand sex from me regardless of how I’m feeling and I’m not allowed to say no—but for most of the time my sex drive is a “touch to start” kind of thing. It goes from zero to 60 faster than a Tesla Model S Plaid.

Eunice: Oh, there have been a number of times when I told partners “hey, I’m not currently aroused but how about you get started without me and I’ll join in when the old arousal systems kick in?” because I really, really need a good long run up at the thing. It’s a pretty consistent pattern and timeframe, but I can’t just jumpkick the startup phase, y’know, I have to take the long, slow steady route. 

Franklin: And if we get distracted in the middle of the startup phase by talking about ideas for a novel, well…

Eunice: Next thing you know, we have a Google Doc with a bunch of ideas, and a bed full of unused condoms and lube and kinky sex toys. Eh, writers. 

Joreth: Right, I didn’t say I *couldn’t* have sex when I don’t feel desire. And in fact, I would say that the majority of my sex was that way, either we started first and the desire came along later, or I made a conscious decision to have sex for non-desire-related reasons so we had sex and the desire never [heh] arose. 

Now that I understand that my arousal can kick in later, I am much more able to consider “am I in a mental state where I COULD get turned on, or am I just not?” and if I am, then I can allow a partner to just start with me and I’ll catch up as long as they do the groundwork, aka foreplay. Of course, technically I can have sex when I don’t feel desire at any point during the process. I mean, I have innie parts, so all I really need is some lube, which can be store-bought. But that’s a whole other kink.

Franklin: Or set of kinks, really.

Joreth: Yes, several of which I have. 

Franklin: Oh, I did not know that about you! I just learned something new about you!

Joreth: One of the pros of a long distance relationship? We can go this many years together and still be learning new things about each other sexually? Point is, I’m very glad to have learned this phrase some years back, because it’s really opened up my sex drive. Now, instead of just saying “sorry, honey, not tonight, I’m not interested”, I can say “hmm, I’m not currently aroused, but if you do X, I could probably get revved up” or “I’m not aroused at the moment and not likely to get it up, but I’d be happy to do this act for you!”

Eunice: I don’t know whether it was a function of age, experience, or more knowledge, but being able to say to a partner “I’m not interested in having an orgasm right now, but I’d be up for helping you to one” really made a huge difference for how willing I would be to get up to sexyfuntimes.

Franklin: Or “I’m not interested in having an orgasm but I’d be up for helping keep you from having one,” as I recall.

Eunice: Only with people who like that sort of thing, of course! And you do keep coming back for it, so…

Joreth: 15 years together, Franklin…

Franklin: You are both terrible people! 

Eunice: You really seem to have a type, huh? 

Franklin: On advice of counsel, I have no comment on that at this time.

Eunice: Communication, it works a treat! That one sexy trick that they didn’t teach you in all the magazines!

Franklin: That is a really good point, though. A lot of the stuff that’s missing from pop sex advice seems to revolve around learning how your libido works and then communicating that to your partner. Magazines are so fixated on whipped cream and fuzzy handcuffs, they miss the basics: the neurobiology of sexual response.

Eunice: The problem is that they want that magic silver bullet. That one guaranteed, quick, easy solution that will 100% work every single time. And that just doesn’t exist. Unless you include an actual bullet vibe, I guess…

Franklin: Trufact: I once ordered an entire case of bullet vibes. A case of bullet vibes is more bullet vibes than you think. One of the reasons I love Come As You Are is it introduces the idea of competing excitatory and inhibitory neural circuitry that regulate sexual arousal, which Dr. Nagoski describes as an “accelerator” and “brakes.” The excitatory circuitry increases arousal, while the inhibitory circuitry decreases it. These systems are both active all the time, to a greater or lesser degree, and together they determine if you’re turned on or not.

Joreth: Which brings us back to our first episode on Aphrodisiacs. First of all, there’s no distinguishing between “low libido” or hypoactive sexual desire, and “responsive desire” in the general culture. Second, there’s the whole cultural bias about spontaneous desire being the “default” setting. So anyone who has anything that deviates from that category is looking for or is told they need that magic silver bullet to transform their sex drive into one that more closely resembles a spontaneous libido.

Franklin: Thinking about the difference between responsive and spontaneous libido, and our very different reactions to PT-141, I wonder if there’s a connection between the efficacy of melanocortin agonist aphrodisiacs and libido style. I don’t want to lean too heavily on anecdotal results with a sample size of two, but wouldn’t it be ironic if bremelanotide works better on people with spontaneous libidos than on people with responsive libidos? And I wonder how that ties into the excitatory and inhibitory circuits? If I ever get a huge pile of money, I’m going to put so many people under an fMRI machine while they have sex!

Eunice: Yeah, we’re giving you this one for free, sex researchers, just get us some usable data back!

Joreth: I would love to see a study where they screen people for responsive vs. spontaneous libidos, then double-blind give them either a placebo or PT141 and see if there are any significant differences between the 4 groups. If that did turn out to be the case, it would be incredibly frustrating, given that the whole reason why I would be interested in something like this is to make it more like a spontaneous libido, only to find out that it couldn’t work on me because I don’t already have one?

Eunice: I wonder if the pathways that PT-141 works on to kickstart the arousal are the same parts that spontaneous libidos are already using? Which would explain why that happens, if indeed it is happening. Jamming your proverbial finger on the accelerator button won’t do much good if you’ve also got your foot flooring the brake, I reckon..

Franklin: Come As You Are has a couple of quizzes designed to assess whether or not your inhibitory or excitatory systems are more active. It’s quite a simple test, but we thought it might be interesting to take the quiz and see what happens. The questions are all ranked from 0, “this is not me at all,” to 4, “this is totally me.” 

The quiz has 10 questions total and the score is out of 20 points(?) on each half – the excitors and the inhibitors.  We’re going to include our final scores and a bit of commentary here.  The entire conversation where we all took the quiz together is about an hour and a half long, so we broke that up into a recording on the excitor questions and a recording on the inhibitor questions, and both of those recordings will be made available to our Patreons.  So if you want to hear the whole, unscripted conversation, become a patron on Patreon!  Here’s the summary with our scores:

Franklin: So the scores go from zero to 20. My score on the inhibitor section is a one. So I guess that means I—

Joreth: You have no inhibitors.

Franklin: And my sexual brakes as she calls them.

Eunice: You are not inhibited at all.

Franklin: She refers to sexual brakes and sexual accelerators.

Joreth: You have no brakes on your libido.

Franklin: And the purpose of this question. I have few brakes on my libido. I do have brakes on my libido, but my brakes are not the things that she thinks they are. Brakes tend to center on: is my partner engaged as my partner active is my partner having a good time here? Do I feel safe with this partner? Have we negotiated what’s happening? Is this a context that I feel I have given informed consent to and my partner has given informed consent to? Are we all fully on board, but the things that she thinks about as brakes? Or not, the things that inhibit my libido. So what did you guys score?

Joreth: Actually, I think I scored fairly low. I expected to score higher. I got a 12 out of 20 on this. I expected to have much more sensitive brakes and I think part of the problem is, like you, Franklin, I do have quite a few inhibitors in my own brain. I just don’t think she touched him.

Eunice: Interestingly, I got 10 and that actually totally tracks with what I thought I had, which is I have medium level brakes. Brakes are not my issue, like they’re not the worst thing, but they’re also not like this means that they’re just kind of about average. My problem is that I don’t have many exciters like I have. We haven’t done the questions for the exciters yet, but my prediction for myself is that I will have a lot lower score for the exciters. I just am not getting like I’m not hitting that accelerator as much is what I predict is what I think.

Franklin: So how did we do on the expanded section? I think I scored a zero on the question about smells and I still ended up with a 14, which I guess is probably above average. I don’t know. We don’t know what the norms are for these and I got a 14 which is fairly high for the exciters and a one which is very low for the inhibitors.

Joreth: Oh, that’s true.

Eunice: I got 8/8 out of 20 for exciters, yeah.

Joreth: I got nine, so nine out of 20.

Eunice: That’s like fairly consistent for people who have a responsive libido. You know responsive libidos because quite frankly, these questions are not maybe focused in areas that would be nuanced enough for me to dig down any deeper into this. But like it for me at least, it feels pretty accurate to me that my inhibitors are kind of about like middling, but my exciters are kind of on the lower level ’cause it’s not that anything is super sensitive, it’s that it’s insensitive.

So what did we learn?

Franklin: Looking at the list of exciters, a lot of my personal exciters don’t appear there. I’m also confused about some of the inhibitors.

My takeaway from the quiz is first of all, it’s highly vanilla and mononormative. Second, I self-identify as someone with a spontaneous libido and I match the description of someone with a spontaneous libido pretty well, but I absolutely don’t see myself reflected in those questions. I think the idea of accelerators and brakes is good, but the questions in the quiz absolutely don’t fit me, and don’t describe the way my accelerators and brakes work. You can’t look at this quiz and get a good understanding of my libido.

Joreth: I’m with you, Franklin, when I read a description of Responsive Desire, I think I fit quite squarely in the description, but the questions made assumptions about sex and how we might like or not like stuff doesn’t line up. She has a very romance-novel view of sex where sex, and specifically women’s bodies, are beautiful and she wants very much for all of us to agree that this is all beautiful and that somehow sex is only going to be good once we all agree, and there is this one type of transcendent, soul-stirring sex that we should all be reaching for, and I just don’t agree. 

Biology, and humans specifically, are just gross, and ridiculous and totally inefficient, and that should be OK. There are a lot of different kinds of sex and different kinds of sensations that are not always transcendent but that doesn’t mean they’re “lesser”. There is absolutely nothing that is “beautiful” about your kazoo ball gag, Franklin – it’s silly and absurd and messy and it shouldn’t have to be “beautiful” to still have value.

Eunice: I mean, that kazoo ball gag was also hilarious. And the humiliation is a kink some people would definitely enjoy. But yeah. Her view of ‘good’ sex was…sweet, and charming, and always focused on mutual pleasure and connection. Sometimes we just want brain melting intensity and the ability to rub sweaty gross human fleshy bits together and that’s ok, you know? Or, in my case, I occasionally quite enjoy the kind of sex that isn’t intended to lead to orgasms for me, but will lead to many, many, probably way more than they wanted, orgasms for my sex partner. *cough*Franklin*cough*.

Franklin: The thing about forced orgasms is they’re the closest thing in the real world we have to ‘Blessings’ in our science fiction novels, drugs that let you change your feelings or responses to sex at will. Forced orgasms sound hot when you’re aroused, but once you’re done, you’re done, you don’t want them, and they aren’t hot any more. Which is what makes them hot.

Eunice: And that’s what makes the difference between a person who goes “I didn’t like that” and your response of “I didn’t like that, when can we do it again?” So…you’re welcome?

But back to the quiz! The fact that in a 10 question quiz there were multiple times where we debated what the question was actually trying to ask, and came up with multiple interpretations that would give different responses did not lead me to feeling confident about the answers I gave. I don’t even know if they were answering the actual questions as she meant them to be asked. She mentions:

Don’t mistake this for actual science! It’s a Cosmo quiz adaptation of the science, intended to guide you in your understanding of how your internal sexual response mechanism may influence your response to sexual stimulation, but it is just an approximation.

Now, in the footnotes she says that hers was adapted from Milhausen et al., “Validation of the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory” and Janssen et al., “The Sexual Inhibition/Sexual Excitation Scales—Short Form.” The originals are a little longer and more specific, but not by much! And some of the questions are exactly the same, or in some cases a few questions smashed together. This quick version she offers is very accurately described as a “Cosmo quiz adaptation” though — with many of the same fundamental issues and unconscious biases you often get in Cosmo magazine.

Franklin: Yeah, Cosmo tends to be mononormative and vanilla too. The problem, I think, is the idea about what sex looks like. We all carry templates around in our heads about what things are, and it’s easy to grow up in a monogamous, sex-negative society so that when you hear the word “sex,” you think “a man and a woman on a bed surrounded by candlelight engaging in missionary-position intercourse.” And if that’s the image you have, the questions you ask about sex will unconsciously lean that way.

So you end up asking questions like “If it is possible someone might see or hear us having sex, it is more difficult(?) for me to get aroused.” This really assumes that sex is private and done in couples; many people don’t have either of those ideas. And “Sometimes I feel so “shy” or self-conscious during sex that I cannot become fully aroused” is quite different for exhibitionists, where self-consciousness of the right kind can be a turn-on! There are many different varieties of self-consciousness, and some people find some of them hot. 

The quiz in the book borrows from the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory for Women, but some of the questions, like “Seeing a partner do something that shows their talent or intelligence, or watching them interacting well with others can make me very sexually aroused,” squish multiple questions together.

Eunice: Which explains why sometimes it was hard to answer her version. You’re effectively trying to answer two or three questions in one numerical response, when you might have different answers for each bit. I wonder, looking at the questions she picked and the ones she left out, whether she just selected the ones that spoke to her, and ignored the ones that she didn’t quite connect with. There’s a section titled ‘Sexual Power Dynamics’, for example, that includes questions like “Feeling overpowered in a sexual situation by someone I trust increases my arousal.” That directly speaks to a kink mindset! Like, that’s a major part of many people’s submissive preferences. And she just totally misses that entire bit of the quiz out. 

Plus there’s another bit that’s titled ‘Setting (Unusual or Unconcealed)’, with four questions in there. Those four questions are basically balanced half and half between “being caught, or being in a non-private setting is a turn on” and “being caught, or being in a non-private setting is a turn off”. That’s a typical way to try and get more accurate responses by pairing questions and comparing the answers you get to see if they’re consistent. The author has selected one of those four questions as a stand-in for that entire topic, which is fine except that she really needs to have selected one of the other questions! Because having the question “If it is possible someone might see or hear us having sex, it is more difficult for me to get aroused.” in the excitor section means that giving higher points to it is indicating the opposite of what she meant to indicate! A high score is not saying that “I get excited at the possibility of getting caught”, that’s saying “I am inhibited by the possibility of getting caught”. 

Franklin: I found that confusing, for sure. And for me, there’s a difference between “someone I trust seeing or hearing me in a consensual context,” which is neither a turn on nor a turnoff, vs “some stranger seeing or hearing me non-consensually,” which is a turnoff.

Joreth: So, there’s this other quote in the book that I liked: “It is normal to not want sex you don’t like.” Although there is more diversity among men and among women than between men vs. women, still more have women reported having a responsive libido and more men have reported having a spontaneous libido. That may be connected to the fact that heterosexual sex from the woman’s perspective is generally mediocre to bad, and if the libido is responsive anyway and not likely to start arousal first and then drive the person to finding a partner, the person would naturally not desire sex if all their sex is not good. 

I’ve had to explain to partners before that sex for women is more *expensive* in terms of risks, consequences, and even time and effort in exchange for quality, and sometimes even if I have a spontaneous desire, that desire gets ignored or suppressed because finding or initiating sex is just *not worth it*. Spend enough years like that, and that could condition someone into not having a spontaneous libido anymore, or not recognizing it. As she then says, “[P]erhaps much of what is currently diagnosed as sexual desire disorders can be best understood as a healthy response to dismal and disappointing sex.”

Eunice: And oh man, is it easy and common as a woman to have dismal and disappointing sex with cishet guys…

Franklin: Here again, though, I have a kind of “yes, but…” response. I often have sex I don’t enjoy in the moment, but I do enjoy in the memory. I think when she says “sex you don’t like,” she’s talking about something very specific, and not thinking about those of us who engage in kinks that we might not necessarily enjoy in the moment, but we still see value in anyway.

I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy pain. I have several partners who are sexual sadists, and I let them (or should I say let you?) do things to me I don’t like…because getting my partner hot is really nice. I particularly hate needle play, but I have a lover who really digs it, and seeing it get her hot is worth it to me, even though I don’t like it.

Eunice: And yet you keep coming back for more…

Franklin: Exactly! Sometimes I want sex I don’t like. I bet my experience isn’t unique here, and a lot of kinky people who read this book may feel like it doesn’t speak to their experiences.

Joreth: Yes, there is a difference here between “I did not actively receive pleasure from that activity, but I got a payout from it in another form such as a good memory” vs. “I actively disliked everything about this activity.” Like, I “like” flogging even though it hurts, but I DISlike, say, electrical play even though it doesn’t really hurt. I like rape PLAY but I don’t like RAPE. And it’s that kind of expense that I’m talking about.

Sex for people with innie parts in this culture can be expensive, with higher risk of STDs, higher risk of pregnancy, social stigma, and then tack on a responsive libido where there is *effort* that has to be made to get ramped up, and THEN add on typically male partners who don’t know how to make that kind of effort, and yeah, the sex isn’t going to be that great and it’s totally normal to not desire something you don’t like.

Franklin: True. I think it’s easy to conflate those two types of “I don’t like this,” especially when your mental image of what sex looks like is highly vanilla.

Eunice: I mean, even the sex I have that looks vanilla isn’t always actually vanilla. 

Joreth: No, kind of related to vanilla vs. kinky labels but also not, there is another concept I talk about a lot – personality types and boxes. In the book, the author makes a case for *everyone* having a responsive libido, just that some people also have a spontaneous libido in addition. She then says “Research suggests about half of women might be categorized as one or the other, spontaneous or responsive. Most people’s desire style is probably – drumroll, please – context dependent.”

Franklin: I also wonder how much of it is something people can control. I’m the poster child for spontaneous libido, but I make a point to be that way. I deliberately spend time keeping a relatively high baseline level of arousal, and intentionally cultivate a mindset where I think about sex. I do think that makes a difference.

Eunice: I’m not sure it’s as controllable as she implies? Like, if sexual orientation was a choice, surely straight women wouldn’t exist anymore! And I like men, as a rule. But oh boy, I am so glad I have a choice on the matter. Similarly, if I could choose to have a spontaneous libido, I would. That’s what the aphrodisiac experiment was about. And that’s one of the things that was so alluring about the scifi erotica world we built — that idea of being able to control my own libido with such precision. I think about and talk about and write about sex a lot, but it’s not something I’m applying to me. It’s mental, it’s not grounded in my body. I’m just not aroused most of the time.  

However, the premise of this book is that it can be controlled, by changing the context. And…I don’t know if I fully agree with that, for everyone.

Joreth:  The idea of the Desire classification being context-dependent vs. distinct categories reminds me of the most common and erroneous criticism of personality type systems. People see the systems as being mutually exclusive, self-contained categories so they either dismiss the type system outright as being “bullshit” or they make up these “both” categories that negate the usefulness of the category system. 

I am right-handed, yet I use my left hand, Quite frequently too. I don’t say that I’m “context-dependent-handed”. Yes, I get that “ambidextrous” is a category that exists, but that’s not the same thing – that means that the person can do pretty much everything equally well with both hands, not that which hand they use is “context dependent”. 

Literally everyone who has two hands uses both of them depending on context, to a greater or lesser degree. But we have a *dominant* hand that we use more often, that is stronger, more dexterous, or that can do tasks more easily than the other *even though* sometimes the other hand is better at something. Like, if I’m carrying something in my right hand, the context might make me choose to open the door with my left. That’s not the same as being ambidextrous, and I wouldn’t say that makes me “context-dependent-handed”. I’m still right handed.

These are two independent, parallel scales – one for how much you use your right hand and how easy tasks are, and another scale for your left hand. And if one scale is higher on frequency, ease of use, dexterity, etc., than the other, than we say we are that-handed *even though* the scale for the other hand also has a value.

So the fact that, on occasion, the context allows me to feel desire in a way that might be described as “spontaneous”, I don’t think that prevents me from falling into the category of “responsive libido” because creating those contexts is *work* for me – it’s something I have to deliberately go out of my way to create (or it’s an extreme situation, like a breakup, that doesn’t happen, thankfully, often). So, Franklin, your brain chemistry allows those contexts to exist more or less effortlessly and I have to build them consciously and deliberately. Like being a lefty and taking the time to teach myself how to write with my right hand.

Eunice: Yeah, this is work. Sometimes my partners think I had a period of spontaneous desire, but they just didn’t see the huge amount of preparation that I did. I’m starting anywhere from an hour to several days beforehand so that I can be ramped up enough to match their level of arousal by the time we meet. That’s still responsive, but I’m just deliberately creating my own triggers for that response. 

Franklin: So the tl;dr of our takeaways from this book are:

  • Spontaneous and responsive libido are a thing, even if they’re not necessarily two separate boxes that hold two different kinds of people.
  • Different people have different accelerator triggers and brakes that combine to give them either a spontaneous or responsive libido
  • It’s okay to say “I want to have sex but I’m not aroused yet, so you go ahead and get started and I’ll catch up.” You don’t have to match your partner perfectly in all stages of arousal.
  • Physical arousal is not the same thing as sexual interest or desire.
  • Nobody is broken just because the way or the amount that you respond to sexual triggers is different to someone else.
  • The current research on spontaneous and responsive libidos needs to be more aware that some people aren’t monogamous and some people are kinky, and these differences change the assumptions researchers make about what sex looks like.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you all? Send ideas, comments, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can visit www.skepticalpervert.com to check out the show notes for the transcript. And don’t forget to become a patron on Patreon, which is linked on the website. Patrons can hear the full version of the quiz we took, where we elaborated on our responses and griped about the questions.

The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice:  And remember, if you’re having trouble getting aroused, you could always force someone else to have orgasms instead!

Franklin:  Right! If the other person is more aroused than you, you could try to catch up, or you could force them to have orgasms until they’re not aroused any more!

Eunice:  And if you get aroused in the process, well…

Joreth:  Give them even more orgasms!

Franklin:  What’s the safeword again?

Episode 5: Diversity in the Age of a Pandemic

In this episode, part of our mini-series of sex during a global plague, we take a skeptical look at a paper published in the journal Leisure Sciences called “Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic.”

Along the way, we talk about the null hypothesis, the scientific method, and evaluating a research paper.

Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello, and welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Shara: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly, demisexual, East Asian Brit, ready with my pot of tea and a healthy dose of genteel snark!

Franklin: Today we’re returning to a topic that’s seriously affected all of us: sex in the time of an international plague. We, your hosts, are all part of a globe-spanning extended romantic network, so when this globe-spanning pandemic got going, it hit pretty close to home.

Eunice: Oh, and this is part 3 of our Sex in the Time of Pandemic mini series: Sexual Diversity! If you haven’t listened to parts 1 and 2, you’ll probably want to go back and check them out too, but you don’t need to listen to them in order.

Franklin: Today we’re looking at an interesting study, Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. The researchers were looking into the hypothesis that the pandemic may be responsible for a surge in people experimenting with new kinds of sex, especially folks without a live-in partner or people in long-distance relationships. 

Given how hard it is to get research money for anything related to sex, the fact that this research exists is a bit surprising. I guess people have to die before funding frees up for sex research.

Eunice: Not sure that’s entirely true. 1980s, anyone? That’s the last time we had a global pandemic that affected people’s sexual behaviour, anyway. And research on that took a long time to get funded.

Franklin: Ouch. Okay, fair point.

Eunice: It’s definitely true that this study came out remarkably fast though. So what does the study actually say?

Franklin: Before we talk about the study’s conclusions, I think we need to take a look at that hypothesis, the demographics of the survey participants who volunteered for the study, and how they used the data they collected. And be aware, this podcast might be all over the place, because the study we’ll be talking about is a bit all over the place.

Eunice: Well that’s an understatement and a half. It’s so understated it’s almost British.

Shara:  This study is so unfocused that it couldn’t find its ass with both hands and a map!

Eunice: Isn’t that Franklin? Oh wait, I think that might be me too. Hang on, are you the only one of us who has any sense of direction??

Franklin: I know precisely where my ass is, thank you very much. It’s everything else I can’t find. I still get lost in my own neighborhood.

Shara:  Hah, yeah, I think I am the only one here with any sense of direction!  OK, so this study is so unfocused, my old director just called me from across the country to yell at me about checking the focus on the screen.  (I may have been watching too much Mrs. Maisel lately. Thank you and goodnight!)

Franklin: Anyway, back to the study! It’s called “Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic,” which might make you think it was a study about the differences in sexual behavior during the pandemic and before the pandemic. The first issue I have reading the study is they talk a lot about the way people are having sex during the pandemic, and then talk about how many people changed their sexual behavior during the pandemic, but they don’t talk about how those changes compare pre- and post-pandemic. In other words, they’ll say thus and such many people tried something new during the pandemic, but how does that compare to how many people tried something new before the pandemic? Did the rate of trying new things increase, decrease, or stay the same? We don’t know; the researchers didn’t gather those data.

Eunice: I don’t know how they intended to answer any of those questions without getting baselines. Plus, getting those data is really important, but also really important is who you ask for that data!

Shara: Yeah I think another major point here is that the demographics are not at all representative of North American or world averages, in so many different ways! Like, in contrary directions, they manage to not be representative.

First of all, 71.1% of the 1,559 respondents were “female”. 71 PERCENT! While 23.4% were “male” and 4.5% were “nonbinary”. Next we have 84.1% of respondents being white with the remaining 16% being a mix of other races. Neither of which matches the general US population which tend around 50% each. Meaning that the population is assigned “male” and “female” at very close to 50/50, and while white people continue to outnumber each other individual racial demographic, added all together, white people are very quickly approaching the 50% mark, with projections estimating that they will become an ethnic minority in the near future (assuming you add all the other ethnicities together). So these demographics don’t match the general population.

In addition, the income stats are WAY not representative. The largest majority (and not by a huge margin) at 24.8% is people with a median income of $20-55,000, which is pretty solidly middle class, and I’m under the impression that this income group is steadily declining.

Eunice: Oh yeah, and the next biggest group, at 24.6%, is $100,001 to a quarter of a million dollars. That’s wild. The two groups in the middle contain less than 15% of participants each! How does that gap even happen?! I’d also like to point out here that your three fabulous hosts are really not people who have any idea what $100,001 to quarter of a million dollars annual incomes would even look like, so, you know. Anyone wanna change that, get in touch!

Shara: I would love to test the hypothesis that there is a cap to the amount of money that brings happiness, just sayin’. 

Franklin: The study says participants were recruited via Internet-based snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is a technique where you get participants to recruit other participants, like a multilevel marketing scheme for science. The problem is demographic clustering; people tend to socialize with other people who are like themselves. So if you seed your study with a particular kind of participant and rely on snowball sampling, that’s the kind of participant you’ll continue to get.

Shara:  So that basically skews the demographics in a pretty non-liberal way – white, middle class to wealthy, women. But then we look at orientation stats, and we see only 52.7% heterosexual with everyone else fitting under the queer umbrella. Which skews the data in a decidedly *liberal* direction, seeing as how the US population is somewhere around 95-ish% straight.

Franklin: Looking at these demographics, it really seems like they reached two demographic clusters: Middle American suburbs, and urban San Francisco. That explains the weird peaks in the income distribution and the rather strange distribution of respondents who self-identify as straight vs. queer. It’s like they took these two groups and said “on average they’re a fair distribution,” which is a bit like putting one foot in hot water and one foot in ice water and saying “on average, I’m comfortable.”

Eunice: Mean, median, mode, folks—pay attention to which form of average you’re using!

Franklin: “My comfort has a bimodal distribution.” You know, sometimes when I’m around the two of you, my comfort DOES have a bimodal distribution.

Eunice: So on average, you love it? Anyway, one of the reasons we keep comparing to the US population is that the majority—73.4%—of respondents are from the US. For a survey that attempts to extrapolate to all Western populations, it doesn’t really take into account that from everything I’ve seen, the US is something of an outlier in its attitudes towards sex compared to the other Western countries.

Franklin: In general, I’m not convinced the study data really supports the study’s conclusions, demographic weirdness aside.

Eunice: Real talk here: I’m not entirely sure that they waited until the data came in before writing those conclusions. Oh wait, is that libelous? I probably shouldn’t say that, huh. But seriously, looking at the tables of data in this study…I mean, I know I’m bad at statistics, but I really don’t think I’m as bad at statistics as these tables are implying to my brain. My brain actively hurts trying to read these.

Shara:  To be fair, I think everyone is bad at statistics, because our brains (generally speaking) are just not made for statistics, but holy fuck is this an unreadable set of tables!  I mean, it shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did just to figure out WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY REFERENCING IN THIS TABLE?!

Franklin: So let’s dive into some problems with this study. But first, let’s talk about p-values.

Shara:  Because with this study, you really need to understand p-values to understand just how bad this study is.

Eunice: So what are p-values, exactly?

Franklin: When you read a study, you should see p-values listed next to conclusions. Put simply, and handwaving over some nuance, the p-value is the statistical chance that the null hypothesis is correct; that is, the chance that the data might just be random, and the data don’t support a connection between the things you’re asserting are connected.

High p-values mean the conclusion is not well supported, or to put it more properly, that the null hypothesis is better supported or can better account for the data you’re seeing. Low p-values mean it’s less likely the null hypothesis is correct. So if you say two things are correlated, and you say the p-value is .001, that means you’re saying there’s a 0.1% chance that your data are just random and the two things aren’t correlated. On the other hand, a p-value of 0.8 means about an 80% chance the null hypothesis is correct and these things aren’t really correlated.

Shara:  So, is this what you’re saying?  A study starts with a hypothesis, which is a statement of what the researchers are investigating.  Then they set about trying to disprove that statement, and if they can’t disprove it, then the statement is likely to be correct.  If something in the study has a p value of, say, .05, then it means that there is only a 5% chance that their statement is wrong, therefore they are 95% confident they’re onto something?

Franklin: Basically yes, and then we get to what the null hypothesis is.

Eunice:  OK, so what is a null hypothesis?

Franklin:  Generally speaking, the “null hypothesis” is usually “there is no relationship between these things” or “there is no difference between these two groups.” So if you say “men are better singers than women,” the null hypothesis is “there’s no meaningful difference in the singing skills of men and women.”

If your p-value is .05, that means there’s a 5% chance that your data might show what they show if the null hypothesis were true. If it’s .8, there’s an 80% chance your data might show what they show if the null hypothesis were true.

This is simplified, of course, so if you’re a statistician and you’re cringing right now, that’s why.

Shara:  OK, so if your p-value is .8 and your hypothesis is that men are better singers than women, then that means there is an 80% chance that men are not, in fact, statistically better singers than women according to your data, because your hypothesis is that there IS a relationship between men and women – that men are better, while the null hypothesis states that there is NO difference between the two groups, right?

Eunice: That makes sense. And I know the usual p-value that’s typically used in a lot of studies is .05, meaning that it needs to be at least 95% likely to be true for the researcher to be confident about their conclusion. So what hypothesis are they actually trying to disprove in this study, and why are they using the p-values they chose? Because it feels like it should not have taken this much effort to work it out.

Franklin: So let’s circle back and see how that plays out in this study. In this particular study, the researchers started out examining whether men or women were more likely to make a new addition to their sex lives. The data have a p-value of .833 which means the null hypothesis, that there’s no difference between men and women adding new things to their sex life, is most strongly supported.

Shara:  OK, so they started *out* looking at whether men or women were likely to make new additions (and we’ll get back to that point), but then they used the results of a survey with a whopping 71% self-identified women?  Can you really compare, at that point, between those two genders when their representation is so imbalanced?

Eunice: So I know it sounds like we’re putting a lot of effort into ripping apart this study, and all this talk of stats and p-values and such is probably sounding a bit dry right about now, but this study is a really great example of what not to do, and we’d love to talk about what we’d prefer to see in sex research instead.

Shara: In order to understand why we want to see what we want to see, we feel that we need to dig in to why this study was so bad, so let’s get into that for a bit before we discuss what we’d rather see in sex research. In this study, they found something interesting. They found that, basically, the frequency or *amount* of sex people were having went down, but the *quality* of their sex life did not.

“Many participants (43.5%) reported a decline in the quality of their sex life, with the remainder reporting that it either stayed the same (42.8%) or improved (13.6%). Average frequency of solo and partnered sexual behaviors significantly decreased compared to past year frequencies. Thus, during this period of widespread restrictions on movement and social contact, frequency of sexual behavior—an activity often pursued for pleasure and leisure purposes—decreased on average.”

So if you look at those numbers, decline in quality and no change in quality is very nearly identical – 43.5% vs. 42.8%, but when you include in improvement at 13.6%, decent quality of sex was actually the majority, then they jump to talking about a decline in frequency as if it’s related.

Eunice: See, this is one of the reasons I found this study so hard to understand. It jumps from a conclusion about quality to talking about quantity in the very next sentence without actually explaining why. It just puts two different conclusions side by side, implying that they’re connected. In fact, it’s practically encouraging you to draw the unconscious link between the two!

Shara:  Yeah, I feel like this quote here is guiding me to the conclusion that “pandemic sex sucks” by linking a decrease in frequency with nearly equal levels of quality in sex.

Franklin: One of the things that really worries me is the table labeled “Frequency of new additions to participants’ sex lives during the pandemic.” This table contains such extreme and far-out new activities as “Tried a new sexual position,” “Shared sexual fantasies with a partner,” and “Took a shower/bath with a partner.” If these are new activities people are exploring, I weep for humanity. And what’s even more frightening are the raw numbers. This is a study with thousands of respondents, and the number of people who say they tried a new sexual position? 49. Shared sexual fantasies? 41. I mean, not everyone writes science fiction novels based on shared sexual fantasies, but still.

Eunice: OK, but looking at those numbers, and bearing in mind this group probably skews more liberal given they answered an online survey about sex, it might just be that they’ve already tried this stuff before, so it wouldn’t count as ‘new’ behaviour. So yeah, maybe only 49 out of 1559 participants reported having tried a new sexual position during the pandemic, but they all presumably tried a new sexual position for the first time at some point in their sexual experiences, right? They didn’t exactly come out of the womb having tried erotic lotus with upside down cowgirl and one-eyed banana, surely? (FYI I totally just made that up so I have no idea what that position would look like, write in with your suggestions!)

Shara: Right, I mean, just looking at physics and biology, considering the amount of sex I’ve had over my lifetime, I have literally tried every sexual position that’s even possible for my body to get into, so “tries new sexual position” is probably never going to happen to me (for the first time) again. And as I age, sexual positions will only drop off my repertoire, not get added. Hell, at this age, with my hips and knees, just regular old cowgirl is challenging!

Franklin: There goes my plans for trying the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw with you.

Shara: Well, we still have my penchant for taboo places!

Eunice: The beach is on my taboo list, mainly because I never want sand in those places ever again.

Shara: Fair point.

Franklin: I have a story about that. The sand…yeah, not a pleasant memory. Back to the study’s demographics. Young people as a demographic are also more likely to try new things in any given year simply because they haven’t had as much experience generally. When you’ve only been having sex for a year or two, many things you try are new to you.

Which is not to say there’s not still plenty of new things to try even as we get more experienced. You could live for centuries, doing something different in bed every night without ever repeating the same thing twice, and still not have time to do it all. That said, I’ll wager most people in their 20s try new things more often than people in their 50s, COVID notwithstanding. Separating the “I tried new things” from “I tried new things because of COVID” is a significant challenge, and it doesn’t really look like the study’s authors did that.

Eunice: Good point. I know it’s probably hard to retroactively find a control group, but it’s like they didn’t even try

Shara: The study’s summary also says:

“Those who lived with a partner reported higher rates of partnered behaviors than those living alone, such as trying new sexual positions and acting on sexual fantasies; by contrast, living alone was linked to higher rates of virtual and technology-based behaviors compared to those with a live-in partner, such as sexting and sending nude photos.”

Shara: Ya think?

Franklin: In other shocking news, water is wet.

Eunice: Is it, though? Water gets things wet, but is it actually wet itself?

Franklin: That’s a philosophical question, which might be outside the scope of this podcast. 

Eunice: Spoilsport!

Shara: Then there’s this quote:

“Several psychological variables were linked to new additions; however, some associations differed across gender. Bivariate correlates of new additions are presented in Table 5. For men and women, reporting more sexual desire in the past two weeks was linked to new additions. For men only, loneliness was associated with new additions; for women only, desire for sex with one’s partner in the past two weeks, stress, and loneliness during the pandemic were associated with new additions.”

Franklin: If trying new things is statistically correlated with loneliness and stress, and unhappiness with your sex life is correlated with loneliness and stress, then you can’t make any inferences about whether trying new things is or is not likely to increase your sexual satisfaction, because both these things are linked to loneliness and stress. Loneliness and stress is a confounding factor that prevents you from establishing a causative relationship between trying new things and sexual satisfaction.

There’s something else I’m really curious about too. The study says

“Approximately one in five participants (20.3%) reported making a new addition to their sex life since the pandemic began. Most (62.7%) reported making one new addition, with 18.4% making two, 7% making three, and 12% making four or more.”

I’m really curious, though, how many people in any given year would report making an addition like this to their sex life WITHOUT a pandemic. Is that more than usual? Less than usual? Statistically normal? How are “new additions” counted? Is trying two new positions a single addition or two additions? What about two new sex toys?

Eunice: I think there’s an entirely reasonable desire here to tell a ‘Just So’ story, saying that of course when you’re bored and isolated as a result of the pandemic, then sex is a thing you would do more of. And if you have all that extra time, then you’d of course try new things. It feels logical. But without the baseline, how can anyone even tell? It’s just a story, not a hypothesis, and there’s no way to falsify it. It’s not even an entirely good story — I could come up with just as logical an explanation for the opposite claim. Also, here’s another interesting quote I spotted:

“Generally, only partnered activities were linked to improvements, with few technology-based activities showing any association.”

Now, according to this, only adding new partnered sexual activities showed any statistical likelihood of increased sexual satisfaction. Additional novel solo activities didn’t. Have they considered that it might be not the additional sexual activities in themselves, but the act of exploring new activities with your partner? Did they control for people who started new, non-sex-based, hobbies together and whether they had increased life satisfaction?

Franklin: Relationship satisfaction is about more than just sex.

Shara:  Yeah, something that I think a lot of people have a lot of trouble understanding, judging by the number of Quora questions I get asking why anyone would keep dating a person in particular if they can get sex elsewhere, is that it’s not the sex that’s the important part of a relationship, it’s all the other things and the sex is usually a barometer for all the other important things.  So to relate it to the context of this study, what if it’s not the act of new sex stuff that made people express satisfaction with their relationship, but the act of new STUFF, period?  Because what if the very nature of adding new things to a relationship is the result, not the cause, of a relationship between two people who are actively engaged in their relationship together?

Something this study doesn’t even question is the direction of the causal relationship.  Like, what if the reason why those who did NOT try new things didn’t try it because they got stuck together with someone they never should have been spending that much time together with, and now that they’re stuck together, they don’t even want to have any sex, let alone new and creative sex, which requires a trusting, intimate, vulnerable setting to even bring up the subject.

Franklin: So the takeaway here is looking at relationship satisfaction through the lens of sex misses the fact that both relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction may correlate with other factors, like trust, vulnerability, basic compatibility, and openness.

I feel that way reading this whole study. I’m glad to see people are putting time and attention into sex research, and I think research on how the pandemic has affected sexual relationships is potentially valuable. I am not convinced this study is particularly illuminating, though.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, this study had me so turned around I’m questioning my reading abilities, at this point. I feel like I was constantly trying to pin down an extremely slippery eel. If it feels to our listeners like we were all over the place, imagine what it was like from this side of the mic! Because that confusion was an extremely accurate representation of what it felt like to try and parse this study.

Franklin: It worries me a bit that you know what it feels like to pin down slippery eels.

Eunice: I make no guarantees as to how slippery any eels I may or may not have encountered in my past were.

Franklin: Now I want sushi. 

Shara:  This study was so difficult to follow that, even rereading our own notes explaining this study had me rubbing my eyes and questioning my own ability to follow scientific studies.  Like, I swear I had much less trouble following this shit in school!

Franklin:  Back to the topic, the biggest issues I see with this study are wildly nonrepresentative demographics and a tendency to draw a straight line between hypothesis and conclusion without accounting for possible related or confounding factors.

Eunice: Talking about confounding factors, the study also states that: 

“The fact that those without a live-in partner tried more new activities is not entirely surprising because these circumstances likely necessitated more creativity with respect to pursuing sex for leisure. This likely partially explains why sexual minorities, racial minorities, and younger adults had increased odds of making new additions: all of these groups had significantly elevated rates of living alone.” 

Did the researchers also consider that they’re the same groups that are more likely to overlap with key pandemic workers? Did they not wonder if the additional stress, physical risk, financial insecurity, etc etc etc, might have had an impact on their sex life? Did they even try to account for how much of the increased likelihood of “more creativity” was a result of living alone, versus those other factors? “Likely partially explains” is doing a huge amount of heavy lifting in that sentence, is all I’m saying.

Franklin: All of these are hard problems in any sociological research, but they seem particularly profound here.

Shara:  So, basically, what we’re all getting from this research paper is that it attempted to generalize sexual behaviours from wildly, improbably outlier statistical groups, it then had such a mass of scattered p-values that it feels like the researchers rolled a D20 die and randomly assigned percentage points based on very excited rolls, and THEN took all of that and made sweeping causal statements without doing even the basic Freshman 101 exercise of considering for confounding factors.  Would you both say that’s an accurate assessment?

Franklin: I think the study isn’t doing a good job of supporting its conclusions. A better designed study would be one that makes an effort to reach a more representative population and does a better job of isolating changes in behavior pre and post pandemic. Those are big asks, and make the research far more difficult, but I think the results would be more useful.

Eunice: Can I also put in a request for significantly better laid out tables of data? And graphs? Any graphs at all, please?

Shara:  Dear gourd, those tables!  Please don’t make me try to read those tables again!  My eyeballs hurt.

Eunice: You ever try to read your own handwritten notes that you wrote at 4am on no sleep with a significant amount of caffeine and sugar in your system, for a class that you just realised during the lecture was maybe a step or two beyond your comprehension? Cos that’s what reading this study felt like to me sometimes. 

Shara:  Yes, or like trying to decipher a bit of drunken, blindfolded automatic writing? (Go look up automatic writing sometime – it’s wild!)

Eunice: Can we never break down a study by these people again? Please?

Shara:  OK, so, if we were designing a study on the question of sex, perhaps how the pandemic affected people’s sex lives, what would we be looking for, at a minimum?

  • Better demographics in the study participants
  • A better baseline of pre-pandemic sexual behavior to compare to pandemic behavior
  • Better control of possible confounding factors
  • Clearly laid out analyses and summaries
  • Examination of whether the factors you’re measuring are connected or not
  • Less eagerness to assume casual relationships that might not be supported by the data
  • More legible tables
  • Graphs! Not necessary, but really really helpful

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got for this episode! What do you think? Send ideas, comments, new things you’ve tried during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com for show notes, links to the transcript, and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice: The skeptical pervert: putting the ‘why?’ into sexy

Franklin: Why don’t I have any sushi?

Eunice: Are you looking to put eel into your facehole, Franklin?

Franklin: On advice of counsel, I decline to answer that question.

Episode 4: Sex in the Age of Pandemic: Sex Tech

In part 2 of our miniseries on sex in an era of a global plague, we look at how technology intersects with sex. When you’re social distancing, how does new technology change human connection? Can it help with long-distance relationships when you can’t travel to see your lover?

Episode transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! And welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly, demisexual, East Asian Brit, fully armed and ready with a cup of tea and a touch of genteel snark!

As you’ve probably guessed, this is the second part of our ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’ mini series: Sextech! Or to give it the fancier name: teledildonics.

Franklin: In this episode, we’re going to talk about something near and dear to my heart: the combination of sex and technology.

I love sex tech. I’ve always loved sex tech. I invented one of the world’s first internet controlled sex toys back in the late 1990s, a remote-controlled vibrator you could connect to your computer through the headphone jack, that used sounds to send commands to the controller.

Joreth: I still have one of those from you! It might even still work, I’m not sure, I haven’t used it in years!

Franklin: Since then I’ve connected a vibrator to a compact EEG to create a sex toy you can learn to operate by thinking about it. I’ve also built a wearable vibrator connected to ultrasonic distance sensors that will start the vibrator running when anything approaches within about four feet of you, and runs faster the closer things get–the idea behind this being you could wear a blindfold and learn to navigate just by sexual stimulation. 

Joreth: Didn’t they make, like, a belt that vibrates towards North that teaches the wearer to become sensitive to North even without the belt or something? I always wanted to try that! Franklin, you could really use something like that!

Franklin: I really could. My sense of direction sucks. I’ve also built a myoelectric-controlled sex toy, and I hold a patent on a strapon equipped with touch sensors and a signal generator so that the wearer can feel touch on the dildo.

Joreth: And I am SO anxious to try this out and see if I’m one of the people who is able to feel this! It works on the brain much the way any prosthetic works – and there’s some really fascinating studies on this! The too-long-didn’t-read tl;dr is that your brain has sort of a model of “you” in it – a 3 dimensional wireframe so to speak of your body and where you are in space. It’s called the Body Schema. Once someone wears a prosthetic for enough time, the brain learns to incorporate that prosthetic into its model, so it knows the space that the prosthetic takes up, even if it’s just a regular old, non-sensory prosthetic, but especially if the prosthetic interacts with the body in some way. 

It’s like the reverse of the phantom limb pain thing, or where you think your phone is vibrating on your hip when you’re not even wearing it. Instead of your brain thinking something is still there when it’s no longer there, your brain now starts to think that this new thing is a part of you even though it didn’t used to be. 

Eunice: Ooh, that brings up some fascinating possibilities… 

Franklin: Most definitely. Hence the Bionic Dildo project!

Joreth: We can even learn to control prosthetics that have no human analog and that the individual *never* had to begin with, like a prehensile tail! Neuroplasticity is amazing!

The really fascinating part of that research, for me, was when I learned that, in partner dancers – people who dance with a partner regularly or for a long time – their brains learn to incorporate the space that *their partner* takes up, so when it does its calculations for moving on the dance floor, it accommodates how and where the partner will be. They call this “interpersonal joint body schema”. This is the basis for my own workshop on using partner dance exercises for improving relationship communication (shameless self-plug).

Eunice: Oh that’s fascinating – I wonder if that’s why you can dance with your eyes closed with some people and have no trouble at all figuring out what they’re indicating, or where they’ll be?

Joreth: Yeah, it’s complicated but more or less! So, yeah, the strapon equipped with sensors basically manipulates the brain’s plasticity into re-mapping its model of “you” – your “body schema” – to incorporate this dildo as part of yourself so the wearer feels what’s happening to it as if it was a legitimate part of the body, right Franklin?

Franklin: Yep!

Eunice: I really want to be second on that list of beta testers, by the way!

Franklin: The age of COVID has opened up more interest in ways to use technology, and particularly internet-enabled technology, to reach out and touch someone without spreading the plague. Back when I was growing up, everyone thought the future would be flying cars. Turns out it’s a globe-spanning instant telecommunication network that lets you give the gift of orgasm to people all across the world. I love living in the future!

Eunice: So there’s an interesting study, Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic which we’ll be breaking down in more detail in our part three of this mini-series – and oh my, you have no idea how much we have to say about it – and it includes this quote:

“While media reports suggest that the rise of SexTech is ubiquitous, it is likely that some people’s sex lives are changing more than others. For example, people living alone may be more likely to use SexTech due to limited opportunities for in-person contact. In addition, feeling more sexual desire, loneliness, and stress could potentially prompt more sexual adaptations to fulfill psychological needs or relieve negative mood states.”

“As coronavirus-related restrictions became more widespread, the popular media began reporting on putative shifts in sexual behavior, pointing to a rise in online pornography searches, sex toy sales, dating app downloads, and erotic posts on social media. This pattern, consistent with the overall integration of the internet and digital platforms into people’s sexual lives, suggests that when opportunities for the pursuit of in-person, partnered sex are limited, online and solo activities may be used to fill the void.”

Um, you think?

Franklin: Hello, Captain Obvious!

Joreth: Hmm, let’s throw in national rules that say you’re not allowed to see anyone and the existential threat of dying … I wonder what might happen?

Franklin: With the level of tech we have now, I think the COVID rules are a lot more bearable than they were when I started with sex tech. When I designed that first Internet-controlled sex toy, the Internet wasn’t really ready for that technology back then–the thing I designed was so primitive, you hooked it to the sound card on your computer and it played sounds to a DTMF decoder to control the device–so it didn’t really succeed. The Internet today is a lot more mature, so of course it’s been used to make all kinds of sex toys that are coming in really handy during this age of Great Global Plague. The internet facilitates connection of all sorts, and when you’re not allowed to see people in person, well, technology to the rescue, right? In fact, the company MysteryVibe, which makes all sorts of cool high-tech sex toys, had a 250% increase in sales thanks to lockdown.

Eunice: Cue a world where ‘virus’ now has at least three different meanings when it comes to thinking about safer sex. Do security checks on your Internet Of Things sex toys, folks! I mean, you should do security checks on all your Internet Of Things items anyway. Just cos your genitals are involved, doesn’t make it more vital. It just feels that way.

Franklin: We live in a miraculous age of vast world-spanning computer networks and miraculous sex technology, where you can buy a toy for $40 that your lover halfway across the world can use with you…but the first thing you have to do when you get it home is a security audit.

Joreth: You mean like the chastity cage dude should have done?

Franklin: Chastity cage dude is the poster child for what happens if you don’t audit your sex toy software.

Joreth: So, for those who haven’t heard about this, some poor guy was either wearing or just owned an internet-based remote controlled chastity cage, which is a metal frame that goes around a penis, in his case, that prevents the wearer from getting an erection and/or doing anything about their arousal. So he has this thing for his penis that won’t let him get a hardon, and he gets a message saying his cage is locked and it won’t be unlocked unless he ponies up a shit ton of bitcoin, because of course a sex toy hacker wants bitcoin.

Eunice: I nearly died laughing when I heard, but still, oh man, poor guy. That’s all anyone is ever going to remember him for.

Franklin: The source code for the software that hacks Internet-controlled chastity cages is up on Github.

Eunice: Cos of course it is. Welcome to the internet age.

Joreth: Hey, didn’t y’all have your own personal experience with some security issues with a sex toy?

Eunice: Oh yeah, we decided to get a toy so that I could, um, do interesting vibratory things to Franklin from all the way across the pond at 4am, as you do. I mean, 4am Franklin’s time, of course, I need my sleep! And then we tested it out when I happened to be wearing my Bluetooth headphones and…

Franklin: Yep. A security audit showed that it announced itself in Bluetooth promiscuous mode—yes, that’s actually what it’s called—so it would pair with anything. It also transmitted information unencrypted over Bluetooth. Folks, if you’re designing Bluetooth sex toys at home, remember, start with security. Like my mom always told me, she said, “Franklin, encrypt everything and never trust any user-supplied data. You can’t bolt security on after the fact.”

Eunice: Why exactly were you talking to your mother about your remote control vibrators? Actually, you know what, don’t tell me. Never tell me. So that was the last time we used that toy! Apparently they’ve patched that security hole now though, after Franklin had a conversation with the manufacturers, but I’m not trying that one again…

Joreth: Wow. Whodathunk you’d need to be concerned about internet hijacking when you’re just trying to have an orgasm?

Franklin: *raises hand*

Joreth: I mean who among normal people?

Franklin: Like anyone involved in this conversation is a normal person.

Eunice: Wait, do we even know any normal people? Aside from our parents, some of them, but again, let’s not go there kthnxbye.

Joreth: Oh, my dear mother and naively buying us Menage a Trois wine for our wedding reception. But yeah, point conceded.

Franklin: That does bring up a point: We think about tech sex and Internet sex as risk-free, but it really isn’t. You won’t get pregnant or get an STI, but you can get trapped in your chastity cage. Or have your toy try to access other devices via bluetooth which can be hijacked by others. Or have explicit images leaked. A lot of folks exchange naughty pics (according to a study in Australia, more than 37% of people interviewed have exchanged nude or sexually explicit photos or videos with a lover), and having those images leaked is a real risk. In fact, apparently it has a legal name now: ‘image-based sexual abuse.’

Joreth: That sounds like it could be a whole topic on its own! Hey, if any listeners really want us to do a deeper dive on digital sex abuse, let us know and we’ll add it to the list of upcoming episode topics!

Eunice: So to drag us back to the topic at hand: let’s talk a little bit about the history of sex and technology. I mean, using the latest technology to get your rocks off isn’t anything new. There are some remarkably filthy letters out there in historical collections – check out James Joyce’s letters to his wife Nora, if you don’t believe me. People have been writing that stuff for as long as writing existed.

Joreth: You’re right. Sex from a distance is nothing new, this is just a new way to do something humans have always done.

Eunice: So let’s go allll the way back. Paleolithic people, like modern people, wanted to get their rocks off, and guess what! Turns out some types of rock makes for really good dildos! I mean, not all types – as that infamous tumblr post mentions, “Malachite is a poisonous mineral. Please do not fuck the malachite stalactite”. 

Franklin: And of course, there were all sorts of materials used for dildos – bone, ivory, wood, you name it, they used it. Later societies explored a wider range of materials for sex toys. According to the book In Bed With The Ancient Greeks: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, by Paul Chrystal, the ancient Greeks baked loaves of bread to use as dildos, and lubricated them with olive oil. 

Joreth: Ewww! I mean, I don’t want to yuck anyone’s food-based yum, but as someone with a vagina, I have to cringe at the idea of an oil-covered, dildo-shaped breadstick for penetration.

Eunice: Yeasty things! In places where yeast is definitely not welcome! Nooo, bad, nope, nuh uh!

Joreth: Yeasty, covered in oil so that it sticks! AND CRUMBLES! AND MOLDS! NO! Folks! Don’t put yeasty, oily, crumbly things in your lower orifices! Especially your vaginas!

Franklin: The history of sex tech is filled with dubious ideas.

Eunice: Presumably they figured that they wouldn’t know until they tried…?

Joreth: I have some limitations to how far I’m willing to experiment. The health of my vagina is one of them.

Franklin: When they switched to making dildos out of stuffed leather, that was at last a bit more body-safe. Then in 1869, an enterprising inventor named George Taylor had invented a steam-powered vibrator called the Manipulator, which had rather poor ergonomics: the business end was built into a table, with the steam engine that drove it in a different room. Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the first electrically-powered vibrator very shortly after.

Joreth: Contrary to popular myth, vibrators weren’t originally invented to treat female hysteria by inducing orgasms. This myth, like the idea the human brain only uses 10% of its capacity, refuses to die. I mean, I repeated that myth myself up until basically researching for this episode – the hysteria myth, not the 10% of your brain myth – I never fell for that clearly ridiculous claim. There’s an excellent article, and research paper, by Hallie Lieberman who is a sex historian, who details not only why this is a narrative and not true history, but also why it’s a harmful myth to perpetuate.

Eunice: It’s just such a compelling myth, though. Even though it makes no sense when you start to think about it just the tiniest bit deeper.

Franklin: There’s an interesting thing about human psychology here: we tend to believe things that have good narrative value. We are a storytelling species, so a good story is believed over evidence or plausibility. And honestly, it’s seriously implausible to think a bunch of doctors were giving a bunch of women orgasms but neither of them knew what was going on.

Joreth: Being unlikely that so many people couldn’t see the implausibility of the narrative doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. This narrative draws on the underlying belief that women don’t understand their own sexuality, that we’re ignorant, passive, and easily duped and therefore we shouldn’t control our own sexuality, and that men are so completely unaware of female pleasure that the entire medical industry basically pimped itself out as gigolos without even realizing it. There’s something in that narrative for everyone and their agendas!

But the truth is that the vibrator was invented by a doctor to treat pain, spinal disease, and, of all things, deafness (don’t even get me started on the use of hokum quackery originally dreamed up to cure deafness and later turned into multi-billion dollar pseudo-medical industries that have nothing to do with deafness!). When the vibrator began being sold as a snake oil cure-all, more or less, it was for everyone – men, women, and children, to treat everything from wrinkles to tuberculosis. It was women who covertly figured out the sexual use for it.

Eunice: To be fair, historically the medical establishment really wasn’t that interested in the anatomy of the clit. However, women have been, for a long long time, and you bet many of them knew exactly what an orgasm felt like! You know what, we should talk about orgasms and such in another episode. But in the meantime, let’s jump our history forward to…modern times. Electronics! The internet! Smartphones!

Franklin: This is the Renaissance age of sex tech. Back when I tried to make Symphony, the market wasn’t really ready for internet controlled sex toys. USB wasn’t a thing, and there were no standard interfaces in common between Macs and PCs, which is why the device I developed was controlled through sound.

The advent of USB, Bluetooth, and the rise of the smartphone changed all that. Suddenly wireless chips were cheap as well, and everyone carried powerful internet-connected pocket computers that could also talk to other devices. So what happened next had a certain inevitability to it. Where the tech infrastructure exists, sex is never far behind.

Eunice: Isn’t that why VHS won out over Betamax? Because they were filming porn on VHS? 

Joreth: Yes, and they show this in the movie Boogie Nights – a cult classic really, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. VHS was a much lower quality of recording, but so much cheaper and also held more footage – up to 3 hours compared to Betamax’s 60 minutes, so the porn industry jumped on it. They could film in far more locations, with much lower expense, and more of their viewers could afford to buy a player and the tapes. The idea of watching porn in your own home, versus a public theater, is really appealing. 

So when Sony, who made Betamax, decided to not allow their product to be used by the porn industry, that basically signed its death warrant. By the end of the 1970s, more than HALF of all VHS sales in the US were for erotic films even though a VCR cost $800 *in 1970s dollars*. 

Eunice: Holy crap, that’s a lot of money! Isn’t that like five and a half grand these days?

Joreth: The internet says $800 in 1978 is the equivalent of $3,218.40. In 1975 it was roughly $3,900. Don’t worry about Sony for losing out on Betamax, though; they made up for it by backing Blu-Ray 30 years later.

As a former film student and someone who works in the film and television and video industries, let’s just say I still harbor some resentment over losing that particular consumer war. But the porn industry has really been a huge driver in a lot of vanilla tech, actually. The drive for better and better sex entertainment has led to better video game graphics, better online video streaming, better online credit card processing, and even to the jumps we’ve taken in VR technology (that’s Virtual Reality – wearing those goggles that makes you see and feel like you’re in a virtual space). 

The next big step for VR is combining it with sex robots! 

Eunice: Wow, imagine if *that* tech had been designed in time for the pandemic. I bet being solopoly could have been really different if we could have robotic sex dolls that looked like our lovers and were controlled via virtual reality. Sex with your partners over the internet whilst still maintaining proper social distancing! Across oceans even! Or, if you’re me, more massages and cuddles. All the cuddles! Huh, I wonder how that would have changed OnlyFans.

Joreth: Just one step closer to the future predicted in Demolition Man! But we’ll be talking about sex robots specifically in an upcoming episode.

Porn drove the film industry from its inception, with the first known porn film being dated to 1896. Netflix wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the porn industry and their advances in e-commerce and bandwidth allocation.

Franklin: When I toured the Kink dot com Armory building, the only thing they wouldn’t let me see was their server room. Kink put a lot of work into developing their server infrastructure. It’s both their secret sauce and the heart of their business, so they don’t let outsiders in. 

Eunice: And sex probably helped pushed video conferencing technology to its current levels, I’ll bet, what with camming. Which we are, no doubt, all grateful for during this time of lockdown. It certainly wasn’t the Fortune 500 companies with their business meetings driving it! The very first desktop video conferencing platform with both visual and audio capacity was released in 1995, and by 1996 we get the very first solo camming site, JennyCam. And OnlyFans has, of course, gotten massive in these days of pandemic, even without the sex robots.

Franklin: Apparently those Fortune 500 companies know as little about security as the tiny sex toy companies. Microsoft got caught bungling Skype security last year when it made recordings of people’s Skype sessions available internally with no security or safeguards. Imagine the potential for abuse if an employee saw a celebrity getting jiggy with it on Skype, or if your jealous ex worked for Microsoft.

Man, you know, between poor IoT security, revenge porn, and huge megacorps eavesdropping on your video chat, maybe remote sex isn’t as safe as I thought.

Joreth: I mean, sex in general isn’t as safe as people think, but there are simple, if rarely used, safeguards that can reduce the risk potential. As we discussed in the last episode, kissing is a high risk activity, but nobody ever thinks of it like that, until now that we have a virus that can kill us for it. Wearing masks and distancing are simple and ridiculously effective tools, and look how we, as a culture, couldn’t even be arsed to maintain those simple safety protocols!

Eunice: Let’s be honest, if you’re not famous enough for people to sell your sex tapes and you, like us, have no shame…that takes out a bunch of the risks already.

Franklin: You can’t be blackmailed if you don’t care whether people find out.

Joreth: My celebrity partner told me a story on our first date about being blackmailed once, and he laughed because he had no problem with whatever it was being made public so he immediately went to the FBI, who tried to talk him out of pursuing it because they couldn’t keep it from getting out if he did, and he was like “I don’t care if it gets out, this fucker is breaking the law! Go get him and nail his ass to the wall!” 

Eunice: I guess the other alternative is the suggestion from that Shaggy song: “It wasn’t me”? That doesn’t seem very practical though.

Joreth: Like every politician now claiming his Twitter account was hacked? It’s true that the lack of shame removes a lot of risk, but we are still left open for identity theft and data hacking, like with your bluetooth vibrator.

Eunice: That’s definitely a good point – and of course, this also assumes you’re not in a place where you can be severely punished, maybe even killed, for this sort of stuff coming out. We’re lucky enough to live in fairly liberal Western urban spaces, so that’s where we’re coming from, but context matters, as always.

Franklin: But aside from that, it’s a great time to be alive.

Eunice: In some places.

Joreth: For some people.

Eunice: Assuming you don’t get your data or identity stolen. Or end up on Reddit. Everything ends up on Reddit.

Joreth: But, y’know, other than that!

Franklin: I realized about a year ago I’ve officially reached the point in my life where I’m more likely to buy a sex toy to tear it apart and use the gubbins for some other home-brew sex toy than I am to buy a sex toy and just use it. So there’s that.

Eunice: That is so very you.

Joreth: I mean, most of my gadgets and gizmos are also for the purpose of disemboweling and repurposing, but that’s for costuming stuff, not sex toys!

Franklin: I do see high potential for machine learning and sex. It might be interesting, for example, to train a vibrator on what gets them off, then push a button and get a custom-tailored experience. This is something someone is currently working on, apparently, a sensor-equipped vibrator that learns what gets you going.

Of course, like most of the current cutting-edge sex tech, this seems the sort of thing that works better on folks with internal genitalia than external.

Eunice: I’d be up for testing that…

Joreth: Ditto! As someone who has sex exclusively with people with external genitalia, and the associated cultural programming that seems to go along with it, I have a feeling it might be easier to train a toy how to reliably get me off than a person!

Franklin: Machine learning isn’t good at general-purpose abstract reasoning, but in its limited domains, it’s a lot better than the human sort. Computers already play chess and go far better than a person who’s done a lifetime of study, so why wouldn’t they be better at getting people off?

Joreth: Plus a vibrator can, y’know, vibrate and do things that the human body can’t do anyway.

Franklin: I have high hopes for advanced biomedical nanotech, though… But seriously, the idea of using machine learning to figure out how to give you an efficient orgasm is fascinating. I’d love to see data from large-scale trials. My suspicion is that no two people would be exactly the same, but we might see clusters of people with similar responses and similar triggers to orgasm. I’m picturing a scatter graph with a lot of clumps and relatively few points outside those clumps.

Joreth:  Oooh, scatter graphs!  Cuz I’m a nerd.

I did an experiment a while back to try to do the opposite. I wanted to make a vibrator guaranteed to get you aroused but not get you off, by connecting the vibrator to an EEG and a small computer that would figure out from your brain activity when you were about to come and shut the vibrator off, then turn it on again when you cooled down. I got a bunch of friends together, put them under an EEG, and had them give themselves orgasms whilst I recorded their brainwaves. It didn’t work, because it turns out the structures in the brain that mediate arousal and orgasm are too deeply buried to pick up with a surface electrode, but that was the plan, because I’m evil.

Joreth: Hey, I remember that! I was one of your test subjects! In fact, I think I helped you obtain the EEG!

Eunice: You know, I wonder if there might be a good alternative for people with external genitalia, where you measure the blood flow into the penis…because that’s probably way easier than measuring brain activity… Franklin, you have external genitalia, I have an idea for you! 

Franklin: You have many ideas for me, some of them pretty uncomfortable. But I do have to admit, that would be a fascinating experiment. Anyone got a color Doppler ultrasound machine I can borrow?

Joreth: SquiggleCon 3?

Eunice: Done! Franklin, get working. So to drag it back to the actual point of this episode: where do we think remote sex tech is going in the future? This isn’t going to go away after the pandemic, we’re all just getting steadily more connected, with lovers scattered all over the world. Whether it’s because we connected over the internet in the first place, or because people move away sometimes. So, what do we think all this stuff going to look like in, say, 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? 

Joreth: Well, I see incremental advances over stuff that we can do now – remote controlled-at-a-distance toys, video sex, hopefully some decent and easily accessible VR. There was also some talk about combining those realistic sex dolls with some remote-controlled robotics so you can have basically sex with a robotic surrogate with your lover – each of you controlling the other’s sex doll from across distance. Now THAT could be interesting! I’ve always wanted to watch a partner have sex with a Real Doll that looked just like me.

Eunice: I feel like this would be really…odd for someone with anxiety and perfectionist tendencies… Score out of ten?

Joreth: That’s probably true.

Franklin: My partner Zaiah has long said she would love to watch me have sex with a realistic doll. It sounds vaguely uncomfortable to me, treating an inanimate thing like a lover. I’m a little glad they’re so expensive, so that fantasy is unlikely to be realized.

Eunice: Ah, mass manufacture, makes everything more attainable. Even when that might not be your idea of a great evening. Give it time!

Joreth: Yep, they’re getting cheaper. Kind of the opposite of an objectification fetish. I think I have a new long-term financial goal to strive for. Maybe I’ll team up with Zaiah on this one.

Eunice: Do we need to crowdfund this?

Franklin: Aaaaaaaagh! The uncanny valley is fucking creepy! And I’m going to safeword that crowdfunding.

Joreth: We’re about to make you have sex with a mass killing, ovipositor alien, but the uncanny valley is where you draw the line? OK.

Eunice: For now, anyway.

Franklin: Sex tech. Making life better since the late neolithic.

Eunice: Well, it’s making life better for your partners, right?

Franklin: You are all terrible people. 

Eunice: Hah, why thank you!

Joreth: But back to the point (we are so good at derailing!), I think we may be on the verge of some really interesting things that we might not even be able to predict, sort of a mini sexual singularity. Obligatory Demolition Man reference here.

Eunice: So, quick fire last question: snapshot prediction of sex tech in the next decade, go.

Franklin: I see great things for sex tech in the next 5-10 years. A bunch of companies are making tiny, Internet-capable, easy to program microcontrollers—I have a bunch of them on my workbench. 3D printers make it easy to print molds for casting silicone. I see an explosion both of mass-produced sex tech and underground maker-community sex tech, and I really think it’s going to take off over the next ten years. We’re going to start seeing people doing really really cool stuff with sensors and microcontrollers and embedded systems and hand-poured silicone.

Joreth: I’m hoping this brings not only new tech, but a new acceptance of tech and the internet and of alternative relationship structures. I’m old enough to remember the days when it was embarrassing to tell people you met your partner “online” and people would come up with elaborate backstories for how they met to tell their family. Thanks to the pandemic keeping *everyone* apart, I’d really like to see more widespread acceptance of long distance relationships, of alternative ways of meeting, and of being more open about using tech as a part of one’s sexual expression.

Eunice: So the experience of the last year has certainly had an impact on the sex lives of a whole bunch of people, and my prediction is that a lot of that sex tech is going to be about increasing connection, or at least the illusion of it. If you look at the whole thing with OnlyFans, it’s clear that the reason that took off is because it was all about the interactivity. You can watch all the porn you like, but what people pay for is connection, and for their favourite performers to notice them as individuals. When you merge that desire for connection with realistic sex robots, and remote control over VR….I bet you’re going to get a whole new genre of porn.

Franklin: That I probably won’t watch because I rarely watch porn.

Eunice: But the whole point is that you’d be involved! Right?

Franklin: So to wrap up: If you’re looking at sex toys right now, here’s issues that might come up, that we’d like to see people pay more attention to:

  1. Materials. You need to be choosing body-safe materials like medical grade silicone. Check the packaging—beware silicone “blends” or things with a strong smell when you open the package, they might contain volatile solvents. And don’t use silicone lubes with silicone toys.
  2. Security. Most people won’t know enough about infosec, or have the right gear, to be able to do a proper security audit on their new bluetooth remote vibrator. Look for reviews that suggest the manufacturer is good with security, or not.
  3. Acceptance. Lots and lots and lots of people are using more and more sex tech, especially with enforced isolation such as during a pandemic, and it’s way past time we got over our collective fear and shaming of it.
  4. Usage. Using the proper toys and tools for their intended, or at least not actively unsafe, use. Use waterproof toys for the shower or bath, items with flared bases for anal play, etc etc. I mean, pervertibles are a thing. We’re not suggesting…alternative uses for objects are verboten, just make sure they’re *safe* uses for those objects. Cos nurses will laugh at you if you come into A&E with something stuck where it shouldn’t be. If you’re polite, they’ll even wait until you’re out of sight first.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: And remember to have lots of kinky VR robot sex!

Franklin: The uncanny valley makes me sad.

Eunice: And you’ll make kinky VR sex mistress sad if you don’t play. You don’t want to make her sad, do you? Mwahaha.

Episode 3: Sex in the Age of a Pandemic

So you may have noticed there’s a global plague happening right now. In the first part of a series on sex in the time of a pandemic, we look at how the age of COVID can affect people’s sex lives.

Transcript below:

Franklin: Welcome to Skeptical Perverts, a podcast where we talk about two of our favorite things – sex and reason! These don’t normally go together, especially in our society that’s hostile to sex (and, frankly, to logic and reason and science as well), so we want to do something about that. I’m your host and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly greysexual, bringing the East Asian British viewpoint and a touch of the genteel snark!

Franklin: We’ve been in the grip of a global pandemic for a year, and man, it’s been rough on a lot of people’s sex lives. So this is going to be a multi-parter on ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’. Starting us off today we’re going to talk about the mechanics of keeping yourself safe from COVID-19 whilst doing the naked mambo.

So, what does sex look like in an age of social distancing?

Joreth:  HAHAHA what sex?  I literally have not had sex since the first lockdown last March.  

Eunice: I think I vaguely remember what sex looks like.

Joreth:  On the one hand, having the low libido that is normally so problematic for my relationships because my partners get all upset that I’m not spontaneously aroused and initiating sex, has made the fact that I can’t have sex with anyone much, much easier.

On the other hand, I had finally gotten a couple of local-ish partners and was working on a couple more, and every single one of those got back-burnered thanks to this fucking pandemic and the country’s fucking response to it.

Eunice: In terms of different relationship styles, solo poly people are especially hard hit, I reckon. I mean, I might be biased, being solopoly myself, but having partners and knowing you still can’t actually see them in-person sucks. It’s practically taunting at that point. And no, nesting together would not make things better, assuming I even wanted to pick only one, because then I have to deal with the increased stress from having a partner around all the time! I don’t want romantic partners around all the time, that’s why I’m solo poly in the first place!

Joreth:  Yeah, not only do I live physically alone, but almost all of my partners are long distance, so I couldn’t even couple-up with any of them temporarily even if I wanted to, which I don’t.  I was prohibited from traveling at all, and if I wanted to violate the travel bans under the excuse that we’re quarantining together, it would have been a life-uprooting *move* across the country … during a pandemic.  

It’s one thing if you live in the same city and decide to temporarily nest up together, because your house or apartment or whatever is still there and you can leave most of your things behind and take your necessaries and then just visit your house when you need to.  But if you try to move in with a long-distance partner “temporarily”, that’s not a temporary move, that’s a real move.  

And it would be a very foolish decision to decide to move in with someone for a minimum of a year (as it turns out) when you previously only spent the occasional weekend together.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I could handle maybe a week living with my partners, and then there’s gonna be a murder. Justifiable homicide, in my mind, but they’re still very messy so let’s avoid that. It’s hell on the soft furnishings, doncha know.

Franklin: Even those of us who have live-in lovers have suffered. I think it’s easy to forget it’s not just physical risk and social distancing that clobbers sex, but stress too. COVID has hit a lot of people, even people in traditional live-together monogamous relationships, very hard indeed. It’s difficult to feel sexy when you’re worried about money or family or losing your job.

There’s a study that talks about the impact stress has on sex. The tl;dr:

Research has shown that stressors and experienced stress are negatively correlated with sexual activity (i.e., behavior and satisfaction) within couples.

So stress makes people have less sex and enjoy the sex they have less, which is kind of fucked up because sex is a great stress reliever.

And of course this is a bad time to be single. It’s almost impossible to go on dates right now, and shelter in place guidelines make meeting people in traditional dating venues almost impossible.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten more propositions than ever since lockdown started. Or maybe that might more accurately be described as noticed more propositions. Turns out being flirt-blind doesn’t matter quite so much when you have to be really blunt in text to be understood anyway! In terms of sex itself, though, what’s some of the official advice we’ve seen about how to safely do the horizontal tango in these desperate times?

Joreth:  Really, I haven’t seen much out there, officially, that wasn’t already standard safety advice, which is very frustrating.  I spend a lot of time yelling at my monogamous social circles who seem confused as to how to have safer sex, that poly people already have those guidelines in place.  Not that we’re all that great at *following* that advice, to be honest.

Eunice: True, consensually non-monogamous people are often already pretty au fait with sexual health advice, which has helped for sure. Open communication, frequent testing, and use of appropriate protection. What’s so hard to understand?

Franklin: We’ve looked at the official recommendations from health care providers, and for the most part, they’re about what you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, they’re largely focused on monogamous people’s sex, and their advice to folks who are single is largely absent. 

There are a few surprises in there, though, like when the CDC and the British Columbia Center for Disease Control suggesting gloryholes as a way to have sex in the age of plague.

Joreth: Yes, they literally suggested glory holes, not even paraphrasing.  Here’s the exact quote on British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control’s website, from the second to last bullet point on their list of Steps To Protect Yourself During Sex:

“Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.”

Eunice: My jaw is literally on the floor right now. And not even in the appropriate way to take advantage of this advice. What? This came from actual, official governmental recommendations?  

Franklin: It would be interesting to learn that glory holes became all but extinct because of the HIV pandemic, then came back because of the COVID pandemic.

Joreth:  There’s this article on Slate here, which is not anything remotely like a peer reviewed study, so take this with a grain of salt, but that talks about a resurgence in glory holes as a business because of the pandemic.  According to Slate, people are using Grindr (naturally) and other unnamed “online directories” to find places that offer literally a hole in a wall for a penis to penetrate someone on the other side of the wall with no contact.

One man has been operating a glory hole business for apparently 20 years and says that his business has seen an “uptick” thanks to the recommendations from BC’s CDC and the New York City paper recommending glory holes.  He also says that he’s been talking with other people on Twitter who have installed glory holes because of the pandemic, so he thinks it’s definitely growing.

Eunice: Other than our return to the, heh, glory days of the 70s, a lot of the advice earlier in the pandemic really reminded me of the abstinence-only sex ed programs, and we have numerous studies talking about how successful those were on preventing sexual activity. Which is to say, not at all. 

Franklin: Yes. Human beings are sexually motivated, which means useful advice needs to account for that. “Just don’t” isn’t useful advice. Useful advice is about harm reduction, not moralizing or shaming.

Eunice: Fortunately, they seem to be doing a bit better in some of the examples we found! I really liked the San Francisco Department of Public Health guidance that they put out in September 2020. They have a nice little scale, for one thing, that goes from lower risk to higher risk activities without stigmatising or making assumptions about your relationship styles. And it mentions some things that I haven’t really seen in the other documents, like, quote:

People are not positive or negative. Tests are. We know from other pandemics that it is important not to stigmatize people who are infected, or who test positive.” 

Stigmatising people doesn’t help, and might just make it more likely they’ll hide symptoms. Admittedly, that’s not as likely with this pandemic as it was historically with others. So anyway, the activities they listed, in order of lower risk to higher risk are:

  • Virtual sex, masturbation, sex talk, porn while alone or with someone in your household  

Franklin: This one seems like a gimme to me. The only kind of virus you can even possibly transmit this way is the computer kind. A lot of folks worry, of course, about their pictures being spread out of their control, and that is a real risk, so some folks might not want to do this online. I do think that probably happens less often than a lot of folks think, though. A lot of people exchange sexy photos with each other! Maybe we should talk about this in a future episode.

Eunice: Yeah, watch this space! This next one is also obvious

  • Sex with household members only, indoors or out  

Although I do like that they mention outdoor sex! It seems like a lot of the advice assumes that you’ll always have your sex indoors, maybe in a nice comfy bed, since you’re living together anyway, which isn’t necessarily going to be the case for everyone. Getting caught for public indecency – or at least the risk of it – is one way to spice up your sex life, I guess! 

Joreth:  I like these next couple of bullet points because it doesn’t assume monogamy, or even cohabitation, unlike most of the other advice I’ve heard.  

  • Sex with a small, stable group of partners outdoors, or indoors with windows open and increased ventilation, touched surfaces and shared objects are wiped down  
  • Sex with a small stable group of partners indoors with little or no ventilation, all shared objects and shared touched surfaces are wiped down  

These are both very similar except for minor differences, mostly having to do with ventilation.  So let’s talk about that.  There are a billion other podcasts and articles and websites elaborating on what we know of the novel Coronavirus known as COVID-19, but basically it’s a respiratory infection that is passed via water droplets that we spit all over people when we talk, sneeze, and just breathe.

The important part here, much like with “toxins”, is that dose matters.  How concentrated your exposure is directly affects your risk level of getting a high enough viral load that your body can’t fight off, leading to you getting sick.

This is why outdoors is being recommended for any socializing that people absolutely must engage in – all the germy breath we keep breathing at people gets diluted with the massive amounts of air just generally outside hanging around the planet, so even if someone walks through a cloud of your lung vapor that you just expelled outdoors, it could get spread out so thin that the viral load isn’t high enough to “stick” in your body.

So, while you’re having sex, if you do it like it’s the First of May every day, you decrease your transmission risk.  But if you’re indoors in a closed room with all that heavy breathing in each other’s faces, you’re basically drowning in each other’s germs.  

Honestly, as someone with a chronic respiratory health issue, people’s willingness to casually kiss and get in each other’s face socially has always disturbed me more than high numbers of sexual partners.  Barriers make activities like penetration a lot less life-threatening than, say, strangers invading my personal space and talking at me.

I might be an introvert.

Eunice: God knows I’m an introvert. And honestly, kissing in a respiratory pandemic is high risk, but then it always has been! We’ve just never treated it that way. And they pretty explicitly mention it in this last, highest risk, point too:

  • Sex with more people, less distance, more time indoors with small and/or poorly ventilated spaces, close sharing of breath, lips, mouth, eyes, unprotected anal play, and all objects shared without wiping down

Franklin: This seems like it ought to be filed under “Should Be Obvious” to me. You’re concentrating virus-laden droplets in a small space and then locking lips with a bunch of other folks. I mean, c’mon, you’re almost trying to spread coronavirus!

Eunice: I’m bewildered that ‘unprotected anal play’ and ‘objects shared without wiping down’ even need to be included there. Like, who does that?

Franklin: Clearly, someone must be. Okay, if you’re listening to this podcast: Wipe down your sex toys before you hand them off to the next person if you aren’t fluid-bonded.

Joreth:  I mean, warning labels exist because someone did that shit first, right?  Also, even if you are fluid-bonded, you should be wiping off your sex toys before handing them to the next person, particularly if the next person is going to be inserting that toy into their vagina.  Vaginas are notoriously finicky and will get yeast infections at the slightest provocation.  Also, change your condoms between partners.

Eunice: I feel like saying “that doesn’t need to be said!” but thinking about people, it probably does. Condoms are single use only, folks. I’m pretty sure they come with an instructional leaflet that mentions that. Although it reminds me of those packets of nuts with the warning label “may contain nuts”. I mean, I certainly hope so, since I just bought a packet of nuts!

Franklin: Or shirts with the warning label “remove shirt before ironing.”

Joreth:  OK, look, I tried to build a dance bubble using, basically, fluid-bonding guidelines.  Like, we all agree not to dance with anyone other than us, right?  So this worked for a while, and then my dance partner announced that he got cast in a play.  A live play that was going to be performed live for a live audience right in the middle of the pandemic.  

And that they won’t be wearing masks on stage.  Because I guess you can’t act with masks on?  So I pointed out the danger there of being on stage and acting in close contact with people without masks, and he says that they all wear their masks the whole time in rehearsal except for the part where they’re on stage.

Uh, dude, damage is done.  You just spent an hour projecting into someone else’s face.  That mask while you’re sitting in the seats on a break isn’t doing anyone any good anymore.  And guess what?  Half that cast ended up getting COVID.  Someone’s grandfather got it, passed it to them, who promptly infected the cast.

So, yeah, I don’t have a dance bubble anymore.  My point is that, yes, we apparently do have to tell people shit like “close sharing of breath” is high fucking risk during a respiratory pandemic.

Eunice: Did you see that image of the number of people who would get infected if you had a choir singing together? It’s not just the people directly around the infected person because guess what, air circulates and you’re puffing and blowing away up there! According to the CDC, there was a case of a choir in Skagit County, Washington, where one member had Covid-19. 87% of the group caught it! And most of them were probably not even facing each other directly, the way you might during a play!

Franklin: So what do you do if you’re at home, especially if you’re single, and you haven’t gone out or had sex in a year? I kinda feel the existing advice is largely “stay abstinent” and that’s not helpful. What do you do?

Eunice: Become asexual? I mean, it feels like that was my solution. ‘Solution’ may be too strong a word there, admittedly. In all seriousness, though…

Joreth:  Yeah, I wish I had better advice, because all my partners were higher risk than I was comfortable with, like being a teacher in a state that opened up schools last Fall or too long distance and would require air travel to see, so I basically chose to be celibate all year.  But being on the ace spectrum, I *could* do that.  Although I think that even I am finding a limit to that about now.

Eunice: My biggest issue isn’t the lack of sex, it’s the lack of touch. Touch starvation is a real problem and I’m really missing cuddles.

Joreth:  It totally is a thing!  Right before the pandemic, I had been suffering from massive touch starvation because of how my previous relationship a couple of years ago ended, and I was posting about it.  A friend who was suffering similarly propositioned me for a relationship I had never considered before – a cuddle partner.  We negotiated it just like a regular romantic-sexual relationship, but with cuddling being our goal.  And now, thanks to the pandemic, I can’t even get that much.  But that’s also why I tried making a dance bubble – because I get some amount of intimate touch from partner dancing, but that also fell apart with other people’s unsafe socialization practices.

Eunice: Yeah, I went from doing partnered dancing and hosting meetups multiple times a week in 2019 to not being in the same physical space as anyone for most of 2020. So what to do?

Joreth:  One solution is cuddle pillows!  One of my partners and I, in the Before Times, used to exchange pillows when we visited each other – we’d sleep with the other person’s pillow during the visit, and then when we went back home, we’d take our respective pillows home that now smelled like the other person and we could cuddle … or, er, whatever, the pillow.

Eunice: And you can do the same thing with just wearing a t-shirt to bed for a while, and then posting them to each other. Put that t-shirt over a pillow you already own, and boom, your pillow now smells of your partner.

Franklin: Part of my solution has been writing far-future, post-scarcity erotic science fiction novels with Eunice. My sex life hasn’t been so great since COVID, but I’ve never been so creatively productive in my entire life. So maybe sublimation is a solution for some people?

Joreth:  Maybe if anything good can come out of this, the pandemic can teach us to reexamine some of our unspoken assumptions about what our relationships can or should look like?  Like, maybe Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy weren’t completely prudish for having separate beds? I kinda think that practice ought to be making a comeback.  I mean, share bed space when you want to, but does it have to be a default?  And maybe some times ought to be deliberately slept apart.  And designing our living space to accommodate that should be a little more common.

Eunice: I’ve been quite disappointed with the way that a lot of the polyamorous communities have gone rather mono-normative in response to this pandemic, even if I understand why. You’d think if anyone, it would be the communities that already have a wide diversity of relationship styles that would lead the way on how to think about and make space for safely interacting outside of nuclear households?

Franklin: I mean, it kinda makes sense, if the norm you grew up with is monogamy and you’re faced with a situation where you think meeting other people is inherently dangerous.

Still, there has to be a better way. If you don’t want to say “revert back to monogamy,” how do you have sex and keep it reasonably safe from the plague? Besides “gloryholes,” I mean. Not that I’m knocking gloryholes, but they’re not everyone’s hole in the wall, if you take my drift.

Eunice: So if we’re not saying “everyone should just use gloryholes”, what are we suggesting?

Franklin: One possibility is quarantining with more than one person, though that’s not available to everyone. Not all non-monogamous people are independently wealthy, after all! Of course, there’s always text sex and online cam sex, which is fun even though it doesn’t really give you that physical connection. Done creatively, it’s a blast, though it isn’t a substitute for human contact. And something that can be a lot of fun is reading erotica together…or hey, writing erotica together.

Eunice: Well, not everyone is us, but I can definitely confirm it can be great fun. 10 out of 10, would cause massive sexual frustration and wet dreams for a partner again! 

Franklin: That’s because you’re terrible. Also, 10/10, can confirm.

Eunice: Well, thank you. Also phone apps to control remote sex toys, say by waking your lover up at 4am with a vibrator, are a thing. Which we’ll be talking more about in a future episode!

Joreth:  I am a big fan of the remote controlled vibrator!  I feel that it brings a sense of togetherness from a distance.

Eunice: Just, um, don’t forget to replace the batteries in the remote as well, if that’s important. You know, not that I’ve accidentally been sat in a Parisian restaurant going “Well where are we going to get Double A batteries at 9.30 at night in Paris??” or anything.

Joreth:  LOL, yeah, my last partner that controlled my vibe ended up killing his phone while he was out and no chance to charge it, because he controlled it through his phone.  And in one of my RC vibes, when the remote loses connection, the vibe just resets itself to STEADY ON and if you’re in a restaurant, it can be … inconvenient to reach down and turn it off manually.  Fresh batteries!

Franklin: You heard it here, folks. Practice safe tech sex.

Eunice: Anyway, here’s a list of the basics from the Mayo Clinic, most of which are probably already obvious to you or we’ve already mentioned earlier in the episode:

  • Minimize the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Avoid sex partners who have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Avoid kissing.
  • Avoid sexual behaviors that have a risk of fecal-oral transmission or that involve semen or urine.
  • Use condoms and dental dams during oral and anal sex.
  • Wear a mask during sexual activity.
  • Wash your hands and shower before and after sexual activity.
  • Wash sex toys before and after using them.
  • Use soap or alcohol wipes to clean the area where you have sexual activity.

Joreth: And here is our list of extra ideas for the fun stuff, to add onto that!

  1. Have sex doggie style with cohabiting partners. Or whatever position keeps your faces away from each other. Reverse cowgirl?
  2. Modify a “fluid bond” group into a “covid bond” group – a small number of partners who agree to a similar level of approved self-quarantining and only have sex with those people.
  3. Have sex outdoors. Fresh air is good for you!
  4. Date virtually for now. Have you tried having family porn nights? Polyfamily, obviously, not biofamily.
  5. Masturbation! Especially if you’re watching each other at the time.
  6. Especially if you’re putting each other on a strict wank schedule.
  7. Cuddle pillows! 
  8. Remote control sex toys.

Joreth:  Try not to fall into mononormative defaults by coupling up with few or no barriers and leaving your other partners to face the pandemic alone simply because they happened to be the partners you didn’t meet first and sign a mortgage with.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from.  And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website.  The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice:  And remember, have safer pandemic sex!  Try not to breathe!

Franklin: Remember, we all have two minutes to live, but every time you breathe the clock is reset.

The Skeptical Pervert Episode 2: Aphrodisiacs

Aphrodisiacs! What are they? Are they real? Is there, in fact, something you can take to make you horny? In this episode, we explore aphrodisiacs, the mythology around them, the scientific evidence (spoiler: every food or supplement that’s been tested in double-blind studies has failed), and the new class of melanocortin-agonist aphrodisiac drugs.

In this episode, we discuss aphrodisiacs and our own experience with bremelanotide, the first aphrodisiac to pass double-blind clinical trials. Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to Skeptical Perverts, a podcast where we talk about 2 of our favorite things – logic and sex! These two things don’t normally go together, especially in our society that’s hostile to sex (and, frankly, to logic and reason and science as well), so we want to do something about that. I’m your host and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’ve spent a number of years in several different schools studying a bunch of different subjects, one of which was human sexuality and relationships. I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace cis woman and polyam community organiser, bringing the East Asian British viewpoint and a touch of genteel bewilderment!

Franklin: Before we get started, you should know this podcast is probably not safe for work, unless you have a really interesting job. You should probably also be over 18 to listen. We talk frankly about human sexuality from an evidence-based perspective. In this, our first episode, we’re going to turn a skeptical eye to…aphrodisiacs!

Eunice: So firstly, what exactly is an aphrodisiac? 

Franklin:  An aphrodisiac, named unsurprisingly for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, is anything a person can take to cause sexual arousal. People have been looking for the perfect aphrodisiac for a long time. Lots of superstitions have grown up around things to make people horny, from powdered rhinoceros horn to oysters to squashed bugs. Often, if it looked like genitals, the ancients figured it worked on genitals. But until recently, none of them have worked.

Joreth: Years ago, Penn & Teller did an episode on their show Bullshit! on aphrodisiacs that I highly recommend, and they covered a lot that we’re going to mention here. One of the reasons why we want to start with aphrodisiacs, though, is because all 3 of us have personal, first-hand experience with them that we wanted to share. However, this leads us to the first thing that we need to, as the title of our podcast says – be skeptical of! 

Eunice: Wait, how exactly are we defining ‘skeptical’, here?

Joreth: Well, the word “skeptic” comes from the Greek word “skeptikoi” meaning “seekers” or “inquirers”. It’s not about doubting or debunking anything, it’s more of a toolkit or a way of looking at the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are cynical, it doesn’t mean that you’re a doubter, it means that you are open to inquiry and that you inquire rationally about all of the things that you’re talking about.

Eunice: Absolutely, and I want to make it clear that this is why we look for scientific studies. It’s not that personal experience means nothing, but the plural of anecdote is not data – evidence isn’t only a bunch of first hand experiences. Not even ours! You really need good, solid studies with a decent methodology and lots of subjects – preferably double blind studies, they’re the gold standard, right?

Joreth: Yes! The whole reason the three of us decided to try the aphrodisiacs that we did is because there is scientific data behind them, but, because we *do* have first-hand experience with one of them, we can bring that experience into this episode to share with the listeners! If we had only our experiences alone, that would not be good enough to reach our conclusions. Anecdotes are not data, but they can be good for *illustrating* the data.

Franklin: So first, a little history. From the dawn of time until about 1962, every aphrodisiac ever invented by humanity…didn’t work, except as placebo. Of all the various potions and pills people invented to make themselves horny, all of them, without exception, failed double blind tests.

Eunice: And before we go any further, a double blind study is one where neither the participants nor the researcher knows who gets the placebo and who gets the real deal. 

Joreth: Yep! If a test subject in a study knows what they’re getting, that knowledge can influence the outcome. It’s not quite “mind over matter”, it’s more like “I want to be a good research participant, so I’ll massage my responses to what the researcher wants to hear” – and that’s mostly subconscious, not deliberate. So then, if the researcher knows what the recipient is getting, they could accidentally taint the results by giving away clues that let the recipient know what they’re getting. Then, the only way to get untainted responses is for nobody to know who gets what and then just see what happens without anyone’s subconsciousness influencing their reporting of the subjective results.

Eunice: So we mentioned placebos before – does anyone want to give a quick overview of how placebos and the placebo effect works?

Joreth: There are some pretty big misconceptions about what the placebo effect is. Most people think it’s a kind of form of “mind over matter”, meaning that if you think a medicine will work, then it will actually fix you. But that’s not what the placebo effect does. The placebo effect is “the psychological manipulation of subjective experiences on non-specific symptoms”. So, put simply, it means that nothing about the body actually changes – if you broke your leg, the leg is still broken. You just don’t mind the pain quite so much.

Franklin: Y’know, I hear morphine does that too. Although morphine actually works. For some people, anyway – apparently I’m weird and it didn’t work for me. When I burned my foot, it just made me violently sick.

Joreth: Yeah, it’s usually a little more effective than that for most people. So a placebo is a subjective experience, but the objective problem is still objectively a problem. In a 2001 meta analysis of clinical trials with placebo groups and no treatment groups, they found no evidence for a placebo effect on objectively measured outcome, and a possible small benefit in studies with continuous subjective outcomes like pain. In a 2004 and 2007 follow up analysis, they found similar results plus increased evidence of bias in smaller trials that calls into question the apparent placebo effect on subjective outcomes.

[insert P&T clip re: placebo effect of aphrodisiacs]?

Eunice: So when it comes to aphrodisiacs, the placebo effect means that just because you subjectively think you’re getting aroused by, say, ingesting ground up tiger penises (can I say, eww, and also those tigers could make way better use of those penises, just saying), it doesn’t mean that you will actually become aroused by any physiological metric, right?

Joreth: Correct.  You’re *thinking* about sex and thinking about getting aroused (which is why you snorted dried animal schlong in the first place, or whatever), so you start getting aroused because you’re thinking about sex and getting aroused, but the powdered cat dong isn’t what’s doing it for you.

Eunice: So anyway, back to Franklin’s quickfire history of aphrodisiacs, before we get sidetracked again. We are super good at this keeping on track thing, aren’t we? 

Franklin: Well, people have been looking for aphrodisiacs for a long time. Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that people ate lizard skins as aphrodisiacs in ancient Rome and Greece. There are a lot of foods that are supposedly aphrodisiacs – raw oysters, for instance, which are actually kind of disgusting, 

Eunice: Hey, I dispute that! Citation needed.

Franklin: Strawberries, chocolate, figs, garlic of all things (I can’t imagine, y’know, being turned on and then having garlic breath, but, whatever), 

Eunice: Have you seen the amount of garlic I eat? It’s never stopped you.

Joreth: So I’ve definitely heard of the oysters, strawberries and chocolate. I’ve also heard of green M&Ms, and ground up insects from South America, y’know, like Spanish Fly?

Eunice: Wasn’t that an irritation thing? And that caused inflammation and swelling on the way out of the body, which led to erections? Doesn’t sound pleasant but maybe peeing blood in the emergency room is your idea of romance, which, no judgement.

Franklin: The pangolin, a type of anteater, is being hunted to extinction for traditional Chinese aphrodisiacs, which are made from pangolin fetuses–I swear I am not making this up. And rhinoceros horn is considered to be a magic aphrodisiac and a cure-all by a lot of people, and it’s one of the reasons why black rhinoceros, rhinoceri? black rhinoceros are ending up extinct!

Joreth: A lot of people who know me *now* might not believe this, but I’m actually just a tree-hugging California hippie at heart. When I learned how many of my alternative supplements I was taking were actually directly causing the extinction of wild animals and destroying the natural ecology of Asia, Africa, and South America, I was pretty pissed off!  And they didn’t even work! I hate being suckered.

Eunice: Yup. But then, humans have a looong history of being suckered, so you’re not alone. So, what about non-food aphrodisiacs?

Franklin: Well, there’s a common aphrodisiac that’s the pheromone perfume which is made from pig saliva – you see this shit all over the internet. Pheromones are hormones that influence behaviour outside the body, so yes, they are actually real things. A lot of animals, mostly insects, use pheromones for everything from scent trails to mating, and so there are some folks that think that anything that works on bees and rabbits must work on people too. It’s not totally clear to me why we think that pig pheromones would work on humans. I haven’t heard of very many cases of pig farmers, I don’t know, being driven mad by lust for barnyard animals or something, but I suppose people have all kinds of kinks.

Eunice: Well, there’s a reason that human flesh was called ‘long pig’. We have a lot of physiological similarities, after all. We taste pretty similar to pork (apparently). We could even do transplants on humans with organs taken from pigs, if we wanted.

Franklin: So Penn & Teller actually did a really really clever experiment a few years back where they wanted to evaluate whether or not pig pheromone cologne actually caused heightened sexual response in humans and it was really well set up. They used a couple of identical twins and one of them was given a pheromone spray and one of them wasn’t.

Joreth: I love this episode. Now, I don’t always agree with Penn & Teller, but what I do love about them and their show, is that they’re just a couple of guys who ask questions. That’s pretty much the definition of skepticism. They don’t rule things out automatically, they ask if it’s true, and they form their opinions based on the evidence. 

And that’s another trait of skepticism – when the evidence comes in, you accept it. You don’t keep asking questions for the sake of being contrary or to keep pushing until you can prove the conclusion you want to be true. The whole “I’m just asking questions to settle issues with scientific consensus” is not skepticism, it’s denialism.

Eunice: Yeah, we’ve been seeing a lot of that recently.

Joreth: Anyway, in episode 6 of season 1, Sex Sex Sex, Penn and Teller get to aphrodisiacs about 17 and a half minutes into it, starting with food [insert P&T clip]. 

So this is a great example of Confirmation Bias. Even though she says that she doesn’t believe they existed, she used her own observations in a way that does not eliminate personal bias to form her conclusions. Eye witness anecdotes are notoriously awful for accurately evaluating reality.

Eunice: And we’re no different! We’re using our experiences as personal examples to illustrate the things we see in the research, not suggesting that our experiences are more accurate than the studies that are out there, even if we had different results than the subjects of those studies did. There could be a thousand things we’re missing, due to confirmation bias like Joreth mentioned before, or other confounding factors. 

Joreth: Yeah, so right after that bit, about 20 minutes into the episode, we see the pheromone test. [insert P&T clip about the twins test] 

Franklin: And there it is, Mr. Confounding Factor!

Joreth: So apparently it’s a good thing to get sloppy seconds?

Franklin: Well, your kink is OK, I’m down with that.

Joreth: I’m betting that the women in the test were just primed because of the first dude, so the second dude seemed to get hotter now that they were all bothered by the first dude. The pheromone cologne had nothing to do with it. 

Franklin: And yet this stuff still sells like crazy. I see it all over the internet from like $8 a bottle up to hundreds of dollars a bottle! And what’s really interesting about that is there is this MIT researcher named Dan Ariely and he actually did an experiment that showed that more expensive placebos had a bigger purported effect than cheap placebos. So I wonder if that means that hundred dollar pig drool brings more ladies to the yard than $8 pig drool does?

Joreth: Hey, pig drool is natural, so natural things are good right? That’s how the Appeal to Nature Fallacy says it works anyway – give up all processed and man-made stuff and stick to organic and “natural” foods?

Franklin: Of course, arsenic, cocaine, and botulism are also natural, on the other hand computers, sanitation, eye glasses, and ibuprofen are all artificial and guess which ones I would rather be exposed to? There are people, speaking of cocaine, who do think that cocaine is an aphrodisiac?  Same for amphetamines, alcohol, and those things can actually have an effect on your sexual performance, of course, cocaine and amphetamines are both stimulants so they jack up your nervous system until it’s about ready to fall out of your body, and alcohol can reduce inhibition, but they’re technically not aphrodisiacs.

Eunice: So, are there actually any real aphrodisiacs?

Franklin: Well, moving closer to present day, 1962 was a good-news, bad-news year. The good news: scientists finally discovered an aphrodisiac that worked. The bad news: it only worked in rats. The aphrodisiac, α-Melanocyte-stimulating hormone, or α-MSH, works on melanocortin receptors in the body and brain. α-MSH was originally investigated as a sunless tanning agent. The idea was to stimulate the process in the body that causes the skin to darken when it’s exposed to ultraviolet light. When given to rats, it had the unexpected side effect of making them horny.

Joreth: Ooh, I wouldn’t mind a good sunless tanning agent! I am a California girl, after all! I do like my tan, but I don’t so much like skin cancer!

Franklin: Right? The marketing possibilities are endless. Anyway, fast forward to 2005, when a researcher named Mac Hadley injected himself with a peptide similar to α-MSH and ended up with an eight-hour erection.

Eunice: Can I just say, 8 hours sounds super uncomfortable, and I don’t even have external genitalia. 

Franklin: Right? Development of melanocortin-receptor drugs for sunless tanning met with mediocre success, but in 2006, a small pharmaceutical company called Palatin Technologies started exploring the idea of α-MSH-like drugs as aphrodisiacs. They developed a drug called PT-141, or bremelanotide, which became the world’s first aphrodisiac to pass double-blind studies in humans. 

Joreth: Yeah, it started out as a nasal spray, which is kind of a weird idea if you think about it: “here, put this up your nose, it’ll get you hot!” 

Eunice: Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing people have tried…

Franklin: In 2007, the FDA shut down clinical trials, officially because they were worried about PT-141 increasing blood pressure, anecdotally because the Bush White House didn’t like the idea of an aphrodisiac drug.

Eunice: Eh, Republicans. They’re so repressed. And I’m saying that as a Brit, with a political ruling class who practically wank over Maggie Thatcher every night.

Franklin: As a result, weirdly, bremelanotide is the first true aphrodisiac to be discovered, but not the first to be approved. Flibanserin, sold under the brand name Addyi, is a serotonin agonist approved to treat hypoactive sexual disorder in 2015, albeit with a long list of warnings and drug interaction precautions and two failed previous attempts at approval in 2010 and 2013. It has not been a market success, as it works on only about 10% of people who take it.

Eunice: So what’s the difference between the two? I assume they work in different ways? 

Franklin: Bremelanotide and flibanserin work in completely different ways. Flibanserin is a serotonin agonist; biochemically, it works much the way hallucinogens like psilocybin and LSD, some antipsychotics, and some antidepressants work, just on different receptors in the brain. 

Bremelanotide, on the other hand, is a melanocortin receptor agonist. It stimulates expression of melanin, the pigment in skin that causes tanning, but weirdly also seems to stimulate dopamine in the medial preoptic area, which is involved in the sexual behaviour of a number of animals, though the exact mechanism by which this happens isn’t well understood.

Joreth: Yeah, so in 2014, Palatin Technologies started new clinical trials for bremelanotide, only this time with an injectable version, and it got approved to treat “female hyposexuality disorder” just a couple of years ago in 2019!

Eunice: Or more formally known as either Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in women or Sexual Aversion Disorder. Can you hear me grinding my teeth right now?

Joreth: Yeeeaaaahhhh…. So let’s talk about this for a minute. Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, or HSDD is where someone has no libido, basically, and Sexual Aversion Disorder is where someone has an active distaste for sex and sexual activity. Both are listed as a *pathology* by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, or NCBI and the National Institutes of Health – which more or less means that if you have no libido or a dislike for sex, then there is something *wrong* with you and you are broken. Rather than, y’know, lack of desire merely being part of the vast diversity that is the human sexual experience.

Eunice: I swear, if I keep gritting my teeth this way, I’m gonna need to go back to the dentist. Anyway, for anyone out there who is experiencing this situation in their own life: firstly, this is not an issue that makes you broken. Or weird. Or unable to be loved or in relationships or any of that…rubbish. And secondly, it doesn’t only affect women, or even only people with vulvas. 

Franklin: Plus have you noticed that women are considered pathological if they’re too horny or not horny enough?

Eunice: Welcome to the female experience of society?

Joreth: To be fair, the International Society for Sexual Medicine actually says the words “Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is a troublesome condition in which women lose interest in sex.” and “HSDD is chronic and causes great distress for both women and their partners. A woman may not know why she’s lost her sex drive. Her partner might become frustrated and worry about the fate of the relationship”. It’s important to note that “distress” is considered an important criteria for a “disorder” diagnosis. If someone is not distressed by something, then even if they have that thing, it’s generally not diagnosed as a disorder. 

Eunice: Yeah, but distress is such a socially determined thing, right? Cos ‘I’m distressed because society tells me I’m broken for not wanting sex’ isn’t treated any differently from ‘I’m really frustrated because I love connecting with my partners through intimate sexual activity and I’m not getting any’.

Joreth: Exactly. Notice that “her partner might become frustrated…” is part of the description. Although I am someone who cares about my partners’ happiness and satisfaction, my partner being frustrated about my libido has always been a much bigger problem for me than my lack of libido was itself. According to the diagnosis, if I’m distressed over my partners being frustrated with my lack of desire, then that makes it pathological.  MY pathology, MY disorder. 

I think it might be better to treat it as a social issue that my partners can get so upset at MY lack of sex drive, that their upset interferes with or inhibits my life to such a degree that doctors are willing to pathologize my stress at my partners being upset about what’s going on with MY body.

If my partners in the past had put less pressure on the success of our relationship resting on my willingness to have sex, then my lack of libido at various times wouldn’t have bothered me much at all. 

Franklin: And what’s weird about that is Palatin Technologies originally sought FDA approval for bremelanotide for men, since it gives you an erection in addition to making you horny. They wanted to market it as a competitor for Viagra. But the FDA approved it as a drug to treat low libido in women

Eunice: Huh…now I’m wondering how they would approach a situation where someone has only lost the taste for PIV (or penis in vagina) sex, but they’re otherwise up for other types of sex. Cos I gotta say, as a bisexual woman….I have so many other options. In other words, dudes: up your game! With other people, I mean. I’m kinda ok with taking a moratorium on new cishet guys for a bit. Oh! I’m wondering if there’s another episode in that. Maybe like, 3 episodes.

Franklin: Going back to aphrodisiacs, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Viagra is not an aphrodisiac. A lot of folks don’t really understand the difference between aphrodisiacs and anti-ED drugs. Bremelanotide is not like Viagra. Viagra doesn’t make you horny.

Viagra works on the walls of blood vessels. It was originally intended to be an antianginal drug, not a penis pill. It interferes with an enzyme in the body that regulates muscle tone in the walls of blood vessels, which reduces blood pressure and also, as it turns out, allows blood to flow into the penis more easily, causing an erection. But it isn’t, and never was intended to be, a libido-enhancing pill.

Eunice: So Franklin, what actually happened when you took PT-141, and how was that different to when you tried Viagra?

Franklin: Now, PT-141 doesn’t work for everyone – only about 25% of users in clinical trials reported a noticeable effect on libido – but Bremelanotide, as it turns out, works really well on me. I tried some bremelanotide from a custom peptide supply house as a nasal spray first, which didn’t do anything at all. Then I tried it as an injectable, and man, it worked like gangbusters.

At first, I didn’t think it’d work. Half an hour after I took it, nothing. An hour after I took it, nada. I was like, oh well, guess I’m not one of the folks it works on. And then, wham! It started with my face and hands feeling hot. Then I got a monster hard-on out of nowhere. And then it hit like a truck. We’re not talking ordinary garden-variety sexual arousal here, we’re talking horniness that would make a bishop kick a hole in a cinder-block wall. There was nothing subtle about it. In fact, the far-future science fiction erotic novels I’ve written with Eunice, starting with The Brazen Altar, have a drug called the Blessing of Fire that is a powerful aphrodisiac, and the descriptions of what it feels like in the novel comes from my experience with bremelanotide.

Viagra, on the other hand, gives me a hardon that doesn’t go away, and decreases my refractory period, but it doesn’t get me hot.

Joreth: Eunice, you took it too, didn’t you? What happened to you?

Eunice: Before I go into any detail, I should caveat that I took what we later found out was a super low dose. About a 5th of the normal dose, in fact. Via nasal spray too, which like Franklin found, is typically less likely to be successful. And what I experienced was…drumroll please…absolutely nothing. I’m still rather annoyed by that, it would have been really interesting for me to experience an arousal that didn’t take me, like, an hour to crank into life for the first time in rather a lot of years. But yeah, nothing happened. Absolute zilch. And that sucked. What about you, Joreth?

Joreth: I consider myself on the asexual spectrum. I have what’s called a Responsive Libido, which we’ll cover more in-depth in another episode. But the short explanation is that my body doesn’t generally feel sexual arousal spontaneously. Usually sexual stuff has to start happening and then my brain goes “oh, that’s right, we like this! OK body, fire up the engines!” It has taken me most of my adult life to figure all the peculiarities of how my libido works and how to make it work for me.

So when Franklin told me there was this drug currently in Phase 3 clinical trials that I could obtain that seemed to jump-start arousal, I was pretty excited at the idea of having deliberate control over my libido. My body rests in an “off” state by default, and then it takes me forever to get ramped up. If I could take a drug, say, when I know I’m having a date with my partner who I enjoy connecting with through sexual activity, and that drug could make me aroused in time for the sexyfuntimes? Hell yeah, I wanted to try it!

Eunice: Yeah, as someone who has also been functionally grey-asexual for…oh, a bunch of years (and 2020 has definitely not helped with that), I was really excited by the possibility of being able to control when my body felt arousal, and with whom. I’m not distressed by not having sex. I’m distressed by not having control over when my body wants sex. Or, well, doesn’t want, to be more accurate.

Joreth: Yeah, unlike the descriptions of pathological sex disorders, I’m not distressed by not being interested in sex. I’m distressed at not being able to *choose* when I have a physiological response to sex, and I’d like the option to be able to “switch it on” at will.

Eunice: It’s a matter of agency, right? Getting to control your bodily responses, the way that people with penises can control their erections with Viagra – and don’t think we didn’t notice how much sooner Viagra was commercially available than anything for women!

Joreth: Yep, women’s arousal and excitement is pathological in part because our partners are distressed by it, but our arousal is also not really *necessary* for sex, whereas, apparently, a hard penis is, so that’s the drug we got first. End sarcasm.

Eunice: I gotta say, I get a feeling that for certain types of people, the lack of female arousal during sex was a feature, not a bug…

Joreth: That’s probably also true. It’s an interesting dichotomy to live under – if we don’t feel arousal, it’s distressing for our partners, but if we do feel arousal, especially if we don’t have a socially sanctioned partner, that’s also a problem.

Franklin: Of course, for some of us, when we do feel aroused we are distressed by our partners, often vigorously and for extended periods of time. I won’t mention any names… *ahem* Eunice *ahem* Joreth *ahem*.

Eunice: ‘Distressed’ is a very strange way of saying ‘screaming in pleasure’.

Franklin: Sure. Pleasure. We’ll go with that.

Joreth: So, having control over my own libido as a way of taking some control over my agency is important to me. I determined the lowest dose and highest dose from the various studies and embarked on a “scientific experiment” of my own. First I tried the nasal spray at the lowest dose and not only did I feel no arousal, I felt a prohibitive amount of pain from the spray – I have never been able to tolerate nasal sprays.

So I immediately switched to the subcutaneous injections at the lowest dose, and no response. I continued to up the dose in regular increments, with no response, until I reached the highest tested dose, when I finally got a reaction! It made me so violently ill for 24 hours that I couldn’t even ooze off the couch and crawl into the bathroom to vomit and I had to set a pot on the floor next to me so I could vomit off the side of the couch.

Eunice: Bloody hell, that sounds awful!

Joreth: Yeah, it was as bad as the worst flu or cramps I’ve ever had (and I have endometriosis – which is another episode we should do sometime), but it both started and ended as if someone threw a switch – bam! I was sick and then nearly exactly 24 hours and I was suddenly immediately better. I did, however, get an awesome tan on the days that I took the too-low doses! I’m thinking I may get some more and work on my tan deliberately!

Eunice: Well I guess that’s….something? Doesn’t sound worth the vomiting, I’ll be honest.

Joreth: True, I’ll have to stick to the lower doses. I didn’t get a tan on the day I was sick, but mainly because I didn’t see daylight for an entire day. It’s interesting how it affects different people in different ways.

Franklin:  The FDA report on the clinical trials does suggest that nausea is more common if you take more than 8 doses in a single month, but that severe nausea often goes away over time if you keep using it. And some anecdotal reports suggest that regular use may lead people who initially don’t have a response to eventually start responding with consistent doses.

Joreth: After all of this, I’m quite disappointed that it didn’t work for me. I was really looking forward to having some control over my libido. But, since I’m already interested in going back on the drug at the lower doses for its tanning properties, maybe I’ll see what happens if I use it consistently at a lower dose?

Eunice: Yeah, same – disappointed, but since I got a super low dose before, I’d be up for trying again, over a longer period of time, and seeing if I can ramp up the effects to ‘ooh look something’s happening’ rather than ‘hey is this thing even on?’.

Joreth:  But perhaps after the pandemic gets under control so that maybe we might actually have some partners around to use this thing with?  Y’know, in case it works?

Franklin: So, after looking at the studies and trying it ourselves, here are some questions we are left with…

  • PT-141 is only modestly effective, working in about 25% of people to create arousal in FDA double-blind studies (though it works on about 80% of men as an ED drug). Addyi works in about 10% of people who try it. Are there possible aphrodisiacs that are more effective?
  • What’s the difference between people who respond to PT-141 and people who don’t?
  • Will effective aphrodisiacs lead to people generally pathologizing asexuality? Will people feel pressured to take them to keep their relationships?
  • Could aphrodisiacs become date rape drugs?

So if you happen to have come across studies we missed that answer any of these questions, we’d love to hear from you! Send links to studies, feedback, comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from.  And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website.

Joreth: Thanks for hanging out with us for Episode 1 of The Skeptical Pervert! We’ll be back next month with episode 2: sex vs kink. 

Eunice: Remember to be perverted with your skepticism, not skeptical about your perverts! 

Franklin: I don’t even know what that means!

The Skeptical Pervert Episode 1: Intro

Good day, and welcome to our show, eh? In this episode, we introduce the Skeptical Pervert podcast. Who are we, and what is this all about? What do we mean when we say we take a rational approach to human sexuality?

In this episode, meet your hosts Franklin, Joreth, and Eunice, and find out a little bit about what we’re trying to do! Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to the new Skeptical Perverts podcast! I’m Franklin.

Joreth: Hi! I’m Joreth! 

Eunice: And I’m Eunice.

Joreth:  This podcast takes a look at human sexuality from a perspective of empiricism and rigorous skepticism.  More on that in a bit.

Franklin: First, let’s take a look back at the history of the Skeptical Pervert. Joreth and I thought up the idea in late 2009, as a vehicle for bringing some rigor to discussions about sex and sexuality. We’ve talked quite a lot about launching the podcast since then, but we’ve both been busy and life kept getting in the way.

In the grip of a globe-spanning pandemic, we found this idea rattling around in the Box of Many Things that is our shared ‘projects we’d like to do’ list, dusted it off, said “Ooh, you’re shiny!” and started work again. Especially considering we are living in a world where critical thinking is less and less common, and people are taking medical advice from Facebook memes written by Russian trolls and soccer moms rather than doctors—and calling that “skepticism.”

Eunice: And that’s when I accidentally wandered into this whole shebang and didn’t say no fast enough! So, what are some of the things you’re likely to hear us explore during the course of this podcast?

Joreth: Ooh, we have so much to talk about!  What are aphrodisiacs? What is “sex tech” and how is it used?  How do people have sex during a pandemic?  What, if any, are the differences between so-called “male” and “female” libidos?  Kink vs. sex?  Is porn harmful?  Sex offender registries. … the list just goes on and on!

Franklin:  Basically, we want to take a close look at myths, urban legends, “common sense”, and other ideas about sex and see if they’re true, and how we know that they’re true (or not true).  We take what’s sometimes derogatively called a “reality-based” approach to questions about sex and relationships and we wanted to share that approach with you, dear listener!

Eunice: Now, you might be wondering — what’s our backgrounds? Our experiences? Where are we coming from in all this? I know it can seem like every random person with a microphone is starting a podcast these days. 

Joreth:  Yeah, like, who are we to be talking about science and sex on a podcast?

Eunice: OK, as you’ve probably already guessed, this is an 18+ podcast, so warnings galore right here — we discuss some pretty adult topics from a rather personal point of view sometimes. We do not shy away from our own investigations when the occasion calls for it! 

Joreth:  Yep, we’re going to dive right in with frank and candid discussion of biology, chemistry, and personal experience.  And between the three of us, hoo boy do we have some experiences!  We use adult language, both in the sense of discussing sexual activities and body parts by their appropriate names and also using grown-up slang.  So, Franklin, let’s start with you.  Who the fuck are you and why are you talking about sex and science?

Franklin: Who am I? I’m a kinky, polyamorous, seasoned veteran pervert. That means I enjoy BDSM activities, like dominance and submission and letting my partners do things to me and such. I have multiple partners in multiple long-term relationships, all of whom know about each other and sometimes conspire with each other. 

Eunice: You’re welcome!

Franklin: Beyond that, I’m pretty typical—I’m a cisgender straight white man, which is treated as pretty much Standard Western Human version 1.0 in a lot of ways. I am comfortable in the sexual and gender identity I was assigned at birth, and with he/him pronouns. I’m interested in and sexually attracted to women, but not men, which I consider a bug rather than a feature. I can’t be attracted to men even as an abstract thought experiment. That means there’s a huge vast part of the human sexual experience I will never know. If someone invents a magic pill that can turn straight people bisexual, I’d take it in a heartbeat!

Joreth:  I’d totally be down for that!  The existence of straight women is the best evidence ever that orientation is innate, not a choice.

Eunice: I can confirm it’s just a way to get rejected by multiple genders?

Joreth:  Good point!

Franklin:  I’ve been a sex educator since the mid-1990s. I’ve had a rich and varied sex life—I lost my virginity in a threesome, which gave me a long-standing fondness for group sex.

I am a writer by trade. I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, both self-published and professionally published. In fact, Eunice and I are four books into writing a five-book series of far-future, post-scarcity science fiction theocratic erotica.

Eunice: Well, five books for now, but who knows how long it’ll be by the time we’re finished!

Franklin: I’m a dedicated mad scientist with a fondness for tentacles. I hold a patent on a sensor-equipped strap-on dildo that allows the wearer to feel when it’s touched. I design and make sex toys, mostly involving tentacles, sometimes involving the xenomorph facehugger from the Alien movie (thank you very much for THAT nightmare, Joreth!).

Joreth:  My pleasure!

Eunice: You know he loves it, he keeps coming back for more!

Joreth: Your logic is unassailable.  I very much look forward to creating a whole new category of nightmares for you next summer with that facehugger harness!

Franklin: You people are terrible. Ahem. Anyway…I thought doing a podcast on skepticism and perversion would unite two of my favorite things, science and sex! Eunice, who are you?

Eunice: Well, I’m a community organiser, project manager, trainee therapist, author, sex educator — I basically do a load of random bits and pieces, mostly because I’m really bad at saying no. 

Joreth:  Ah, the achilles heel of the community organizer!

Eunice: I’m also your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace, demisexual, bisexual,  solo-polyamorous, cis woman and I’m the British East Asian part of our little trio. 

Now, I just threw a whole bunch of terms at you, so let’s go through them one by one, shall we? Firstly, I’m queer — well, I’m certainly not mainstream, and since I’m so many things it’s easier to just go for the most inclusive label I could find. Franklin already gave a little info on what kinky means for him, but for me it’s all about having a mindset of playfulness and openness and creativity whilst exploring sensually. Not necessarily sexually, mind.

Franklin: “Playfulness.” That’s one word for it! Other words might apply as well, like ‘fiendishness’ and occasionally even ‘terrifying.’

Eunice: Didn’t I say you have a type? You keep finding out that people you like are…”differently moral”. 

Joreth:  I need to put that on a t-shirt.

Eunice: Anyway, next up: grey-ace, demisexual, and bisexual, now here we get into some interesting terms! Grey-ace means I’m on the asexuality spectrum, although not fully asexual, and therefore I don’t really respond to sexual desire and arousal in the ways that society seems to expect me to. Demisexual means I need to have connected with a person emotionally and mentally before I can be sexually attracted to them — usually the thought of being attracted to them doesn’t even come up in my brain before then! — and bisexual means, for me, that I am attracted to people of most genders, although these days I lean towards fewer cishet men and more of everyone else thankyouverymuch. I’m aware it can mean something slightly different for various people, and some people would call me pansexual instead, but this is my label. 

Next on the list is solo-poly, which means that I have multiple consensual, loving relationships but I don’t want to financially, legally, or residentially entangle with any of my partners. Autonomy is very important to me.

Franklin: I’m starting to lean toward solo-poly myself, now that I think about it. When I first met both of you, you were both solo poly and I was much more entwined poly, but I think you might be dragging me over to your side!

Joreth:  We have cookies!  Er, well, I suppose “cupcakes” in my case, but, y’know…

Eunice: Mmmm, cookies….you’re making me hungry! So, cis just means that I identify with the gender that was assigned to me at birth, which was ‘female’. And finally, I’m British and East Asian, specifically Chinese. Both of those, of course, mean that I tend towards understatement. Phew, that was a lot! What about you, Joreth?

Joreth:  Well, I’m kind of a Renaissance man.  And since I also have an unusual gender identity, that phrase fits.  My identity is “tomboy”.  A tomboy is usually depicted in the United States as a person of the female persuasion with strong masculine tendencies.  She acts and dresses and even sometimes looks like a boy, but she doesn’t want to *be* one, she just thinks that girls should be treated like boys too if they want to be.  In popular culture like movies, she also tends to be sexually attracted to men.  That all feels like me.  To that effect, I use feminine pronouns like she/her but I use masculine titles like “sir” and “cameraman” (which is my actual job title) and “dude” and “master” and “you guys”.

Eunice: Also “badass who should be ruling the world”. But maybe that’s just my opinion.

Joreth:  I also strongly identify with feral cats.  I tend to see myself as a cranky black alley cat who wants food and attention, but only when I want it and the way that I want it.  So maybe I’m more of a Renaissance cat?

Franklin: Ah, that explains a few things! I never could resist a cat.

Eunice: We all know you’re a cat slave. Every cat you’ve ever come across knows you’re a cat slave. As in a slave to cats, not a slave who…is a cat?

Joreth:  Can you have a chaosbunny who is also a slave to cats? 

Eunice: Eh, he’s prey, they’re predators? 

Franklin: Hey now!

Joreth: As a Renaissance cat, I have a very diverse set of interests and skills.  As the saying goes, “jack of all trades, master of none”.  I majored in several different disciplines at various times during my academic career including sociology and human sexuality, and I also tend to deliberately take part-time side jobs in industries I have never worked in before just to learn something new.

I’m also kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, and feminist.  To me, kinky means that I explore sex with a curious attitude that blurs lines between sex and non-sex things.  I have a whole list of other labels that fit under the “kinky” umbrella, and we’ll get to know some of them as the show goes on in later episodes.  

I have multiple romantic partners simultaneously all with their full, enthusiastic, informed consent who also have other partners of their own while maintaining my independence within my relationships.  I have a whole blog post describing what “solo poly” means to me if you want more on that, but Eunice covered it pretty succinctly for me too. 

I consider myself on the asexuality spectrum because I have a somewhat complicated relationship with arousal and attraction that we’ll explore in an upcoming episode.  I am of mixed ethnicity that includes indigenous Mexican tribal ancestry, and through a long and complicated sociopolitical movement, the term “chicana” was reclaimed to describe my in-between-heritages state.  And I am feminist, which means that I believe in full equality among the genders is necessary but some genders are not treated equally yet, so I focus on lifting up those genders to the same level as the dominant classes.

Eunice: Ooh, yes – I hope it barely needs to be said, but we stan feminism on this podcast, and will not be taking questions at this time.

Joreth:  Yep, not up for debate.  I’m also a community organizer, public speaker, trainer of public speakers, video engineer, and dancer with a background in ballroom, Latin, swing, and Bollywood.  You see why I call myself a Renaissance cat?

Ugh, I am wordy.  Honestly, I can spend forever trying to explain who I am, so look me up online if you really want more.  Let’s move on.

Eunice: So, why are you both skeptics? Other than the whole state of humanity kinda needing more of that right now, I mean.

Franklin: I am a skeptic because I want to know how the world works. The default position when someone tells you something really ought to be “Oh really? Why should I believe you?” Skepticism is a way of looking at the world that starts with the idea you shouldn’t believe something simply because someone says it’s so. That’s not enough. If you believe things without any reason to think they’re true, your brain fills up with clutter and junk. Next thing you know, you’re believing that Satanic pedophiles are selling sex slaves from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement just because some anonymous guy on a troll board said so. That…isn’t a good way to understand how the world works.

Joreth:  Yep, as the slogan goes, skepticism is the intersection between science education and consumer protection.  Basically it means that it’s in all of our best interests to just question things so that we don’t buy into a bunch of hokum and nonsense that could harm us.  Skepticism isn’t about doubting.  It comes from the Greek word, Skeptikoi which means “seekers”.  A skeptic doesn’t say “naw, that’s not true”, a skeptic says “hold on a minute, IS that true?”  And then provisionally accepts the answer in light of the evidence.

Eunice: Sex and sexuality is one of those areas that tends to throw people’s brains into a morass of basic instinctive responses, childhood conditioning, and confused assumptions based on vague messages from the society around us. So, our aim is to apply that skeptical lense onto an area that so often doesn’t get explored properly, and hopefully digging out the gems of real information from the…sewage. That means that a lot of what we use as resources are scientific papers and the like. We know that there are still issues of replicability and publication bias and human error or prejudice, but so far this is the best we got. Some of this information may well turn out to be incorrect or incomplete later, with the benefit of new research, but hopefully it will be mostly accurate. And, of course, you shouldn’t take our word for it either! Look up our sources, read them for yourself – we’ll link all the papers, articles, and books we reference in our show notes. 

Franklin: You can find us at skepticalpervert.com.  send us ideas, comments, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com.We hope you’ll tune in as we get this podcast rolling. We plan to look at a whole lot of aspects of sex through a skeptical lens, from aphrodisiacs to relationships in the time of pandemic (you know, because there’s a pandemic going on) to kink to Tantric sex. There’s a lot of fairy tales, weird myths, and disinformation about sex floating around out there, and a lot of hucksters willing to take people’s money on the back of it (spoiler, no pill will make your penis bigger). We want to cut through some of the rubbish.

Eunice: Future episodes will be a bit longer, but not a whole lot more. (I lie, you just won’t hear most of the rubbish.)

Franklin: And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can visit the site to check out the show notes for the transcript. And don’t forget to become a patron on Patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Joreth:  And remember…Why settle for a skeptic or a pervert when you can mash the two together!

Eunice: Would that be a skepvert? Or a pertic? Wow, those both sound dreadful!