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Men Are Like Basketball Players, They Dribble A Little Before They Shoot: The Future of Condoms in Romance Novels

12 Jul


In a meeting last year in my local chapter of the Romance Writers Association, I was fascinated to hear some of the published authors discuss how much they hated having to write condoms into sex scenes. Some of them thought it interrupted the flow of the moment, others thought it was a pregnancy or disease reminder that the reader shouldn’t have.

But some of them, like me, were appalled at the idea that there would be sexual intimacy without them. Maybe it is the fact that I came of age in the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties, or perhaps it’s the fact that I majored in reproductive physiology, but if a guy doesn’t reach for a condom before having sex with a heroine, I classify him as a lunatic, asshole or shifter.

Dental dams – a small sheet of latex which allows for sensation but prevents the exchange of bodily fluids – come in all flavors.

In fact, many of the publishing houses, particularly the ones specializing in erotica, actually have the issue of condoms in their writing guidelines or editors will informally push for their inclusion – you HAVE to write them in. While the inference is that their inclusion is to model safe sex, the reality is that this is simply pregnancy prevention. I have yet to read oral sex scenes involving either gender where a barrier is part of the equation. Dental dams should be used on women (plastic wrap works great in a pinch) and condoms should be always be used when performing oral sex on a man. When they aren’t, as much as I try and suspend my disbelief and enjoy the writing, the back of my brain is actually shouting, “What about gonorrhea of the throat?!” or “Hello, herpes!”

In romance writing, there is the automatic assumption that the protagonists of a romance novel are automatically disease free, probably because having diseases doesn’t seem sexy (even though I’m sure there are lots of sexy people who are living with HIV and having great protected sex with their partners). Even if the hero is a the master of the one-night stand and has them all the time, readers are given the distinct impression that he has never, ever been without a condom, even if he chooses to go without this time. My favorite books are the ones where, in the heat of the moment, the couple draws away panting to have a brief conversation about the last time they got checked at the doctor’s office (thank heavens for the military and their stringent medical screening – what would all those SEALs do otherwise for information?) and how they haven’t been with anyone since then. The heroine indicates she’s using another method of contraception and then clothes fly…let the hot sex begin!

Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal or, the Problem with Penis Size

Shrimp sizing. The more you look, the more they appear like little penises, don’t they?

Back when I was a teaching assistant for the class “Contraception: Today and Tomorrow,” the professor and I would naturally go over all the available methods of contraception while detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each. One of the biggest problems with condoms (and there are more, detailed in the next section) is that the best condom is one which fits the penis well. Ideally this would mean that the man would buy a size of condom appropriate for his penis size, but while your high school boyfriend might not have minded buying a Hanes for Men t-shirt in a size small, there are few men who are comfortable reaching for the small size in a box of condoms!

Condom manufacturers actually looked at the shrimp industry *suppresses snicker* for sizing inspiration. The majority of shrimp sold are classified as Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal because, hey, shrimp people clearly have a wicked sense of humor. But it was still a no go. Kind of like me when I don’t want to look to find my size on the back of the Spanx package, men didn’t want the Trojans box to tell them they were merely Jumbo or the smallest size. Manufacturers stuck with one size fits all, only making an “extra large” size for the above average man.

Even that “extra large” size may be the same size or only a centimeter larger than the brands regular condom, so it’s not a guarantee of comfort and fit. Yet fit is vital. A condom that is too tight will not only uncomfortable to wear and decrease the ability to sustain an erection (and therefore be less likely to be used) but also is more likely to break in the midst of sex. Similarly, a condom that has too much room is far, far more likely to slip off (I had a friend in college who got pregnant that way). The need for condoms to match penis size is vital.

How Big Is the Average Man’s Penis and Can You Believe That These Research Conclusions Are Necessary?

meter-106419_640Just two days ago, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study Erect Penile Length and Circumference Dimensions of 1,661 Sexually Active Men in the United States which asked men to measure their erect penises (yes, the men did the measuring). The erect penises ranged between 4 and 26 cm or, for you non-metric folks, 1.57 inches to 10.23 inches. Can’t you imagine men feeling better about giving the measurement in centimeters? It’s like vanity sizing in dresses for women. The mean erect penis (no, it wasn’t angry, it’s another name for the mathematical construct of “average” but average is a word you don’t want to use with penises either) was 14.15 cm or 5.7 inches and the mean circumference of erect penises was 12.23 cm or 4.8 inches.

Interestingly, the researchers wanted to note any differences between how the subjects obtained their erect penis (I’m not making this up) and determined that men who used masturbation or hand play with a partner had smaller erect penises than those who received oral sex from a partner. This reminds me a lot of those “academic studies” proving that college students like to drink beer. Doesn’t really come as a shock, does it?

The Problem with Condoms, or LOTS of Problems with Condoms

basketball-100731_640Since people of my generation and younger have a synonymous association with condoms and sex (I hope), it often comes as a shock when you suggest that the condom has major flaws. I’m in NO WAY suggesting that they shouldn’t be used but people often place more confidence in condoms than they deserve. Back in college, I and many of my smart women friends would insist on the use of condoms along with another method of contraception – condoms and the Pill, condoms and vaginal sponges, condoms and spermicidal foam – you get the picture. This is because while condoms have a theoretical efficacy rate of 98% if used perfectly, the real efficacy rate factoring in user error is closer to 85%.

A large part of this error has to do with ignorance regarding the male sexual arousal process, specifically around what in romance novels is called “pre-cum” or that small amount of semen exuded on the tip of the penis as the man gets an erection. When I would do the condom lecture, I liked to emphasize that if that condom was going anywhere near someone else’s bodily fluids, it needed a condom on it, because:

A man is like a basketball player; he dribbles a little before he shoots.

When you see the problems people encounter using condoms, this adage immediately becomes highly relevant. That pre-ejaculate may or may not have sperm in it (studies vary on this with results showing both conditions) and it certainly can carry disease like any bodily fluid. The other types of mistakes in condom use comes from fumbling with latex condoms and/or getting caught up in the heat of the moment and making a mistake. For example, common condom mistakes are:

  • using them for only part of intercourse (never a good idea);
  • starting to roll the condom on the wrong way, and then flipping it over rather than using a new condom depositing the pre-ejaculate on the OUTSIDE of the condom;
  • not leaving room in the tip of the condom, which could cause it to burst;
  • using a too small (breaking issues) or too large condom (slippage);
  • not holding onto the condom while withdrawing.

Other more serious issues include a latex allergy or chemical sensitivity (to the lubricants used or to the spermicide on most condoms) or in many countries of the world, condom shortages which make them hard to get. With 15 billion condoms manufactured each year and 750 million people using them, that seems hard to believe, but it’s a major concern, particularly for countries still struggling economically or dealing with governments who do not support contraception or STI prevention.

The Condom of the Future

Enter the philanthropic team of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation. The Gates Foundation has my undying admiration for taking on all of the unsexy problems of the world (i.e., the ones that will never make money for anyone but affect millions of people) and tackling them one by one, approaching each problem with entrepreneurial spirit and encouraging outside of the box solutions. Because of the foundation’s intense focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and cures, condoms have naturally received a lot of attention from them. Back in March 2013, the Gates Foundation announced a $100,000 prize for the invention of a better and more pleasurable condom. Yes – more pleasurable – because the way to get people to use them is to make them feel good while doing it.

The various types of Orgami condoms, made from flexible silicone which has tactile accordion pleats to extend or contract to whatever size necessary and offer maximum sensation during intercourse.

The current frontrunner is the Orgami condom. I know, the name makes me think of folded paper swans too, but their condom concept is brilliant. Rather than using allergy inducing latex, Orgami condoms are made with the far more stable silicone. Size is no longer an issue as the accordion pleats in the material expand or contract to whatever size necessary. There is no unrolling, just a quick slide and the person is ready to go. You’ll notice there are three pictured here: the male condom (made with a larger tip to eliminate reservoir pinching), the female condom (designed for female pleasure as well as disease prevention and contraception) and the RAI Condom which is for anal intercourse, a particularly vulnerable act when discussing disease prevention, due to the lack of lubrication in this area which can lead to microinjuries.  All of Origami’s condoms are internally lubricated, meaning that the sensation provided to the penetrator mimics the heightened sensation of actual intercourse. Take a look at their informative video and tell me you’re not convinced.

Ms. French Manicure is a little naughty in this video, yes? Yet the brilliance of the product shines through. It’s hard not to imagine this condom feeling good for all parties involved, transforming it from a necessary toiletry to fun sex toy. That attitude change would definitely help sales and usage! What’s amazing is that Origami has been restricted by FCC regulations regarding television and radio from accurately advertising their product (when was the last condom ad you saw?), making it extremely difficult to get the word out. It’s hard to imagine a society where we can showcase sex in all its forms in video but can’t have a commercial advertising prophylactics, but that’s the United States. Origami’s condoms are expected to be available on the market in late 2014 or early 2015, pending regulatory approvals, according to their video press release.

Condoms in the Romance Genre: What’s the Future?

With condoms like this in the picture, designed to enhance everyone’s pleasure, I think the future is bright for the inclusion of them into the literature. Still common enough in novels, imagine how sexual partners would feel when the other person produces not just a condom but a super-duper pleasure inducing one? These condoms, which will undoubtedly be more expensive than the latex variety, will become de rigeur for the uber-rich heroes of the Harlequin Presents line (although there were be fewer secret babies), be issued along with a SIG Sauer to members of yet another elite professional security firm, or be the fantasy focus of that quiet heroine desperate to unleash her inner vixen.

While I would never recommend that authors write specifically to educate, I think we cannot deny the fact that romance fiction is likely to be a profound source of sexual education to its readers. Only 65% of high schools and middle schools taught about condom efficacy (see the above failure rate) and a mere 39% taught students how to use a condom. Keep in mind that these statistics are for the schools not adopting an abstinence only health education approach (about 23% of all schools in the U.S.) or the many private schools whose religions affiliation would also preclude this information. This is a lot of people who are becoming adults with NO formal health education surrounding condom use. I’ve always considered the romance genre to be one of the few outlets which encourages women to set high expectations regarding healthy relationships and sexual pleasure, but with numbers like the above I’m beginning to worry that popular magazines and our brand of fiction probably reach a larger number of readers who have gone without vital information about condoms and other aspects of their reproductive health.

So let’s keep this in mind, shall we, writers and editors? The next time you are confronted with a hero or heroine about to engage in sex, make sure that some thought of condoms are part of the equation. Having them think about them might very well help someone else also ponder that decision the next time they are ready for a little romance in their life.

Orgasm, Inc.: What We Can Learn From a Documentary on the Medicalization of Female Arousal

16 Nov

In Orgasm, Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure, documentary filmmaker Liz Canner is hired by a drug company, Vivus, working on a female sexual dysfunction drug. She is hired to produce sexually explicit materials they can show to women trialling the drug who needed to become aroused for scientists to measure changes. The filmmaker ended up spending nine years documenting the medical industry’s approach to women’s orgasm and we benefit from this interesting (and occasionally scary).

What’s fascinating is how little the medical profession actually knows about the female orgasm – they readily admit they don’t know how it works, or even if clinically increased blood flow (like from the female version of Viagra) contributes to it. But in the United States, we are used to medicalizing any amorphous condition, particularly conditions that might be far more complex than a mere pill can tackle. Because you can’t invent a medical solution until there is a specific disorder, the FDA must approve the list of symptoms as a viable disorder before a pharmaceutical company can come up with a “cure”. In the 1990s, the FDA did just that for female sexual dysfunction, and the stock in pharmaceutical companies indicating they would pursue drug therapies to treat it soared.

What gets developed in response to this new diagnosis ranges from the interesting to the ludicrous. How many women would have an Orgasmatron (no, not the Sleeper movie version of one) implanted in their spinal column to be switched on at will? One older woman interviewed indicated she had never had an orgasm (and in fact is incredibly candid about her religious upbringing and internal battle with letting herself have an orgasm during intercourse) actually gets one of these devices inserted in her body.

Viagra, the little blue pill that changed many a man’s life, brought to you by Pfizer

The controversy is tremendous and not just around spinal implants. Many of the medical experts and doctors readily admit that many of the issues women experience are complex responses to environment, stress, and, um, expertise of their partner. Several news outlets covering the research on the “female Viagra” preferred to focus on the medical experts happy to speak about how this new path of drug therapy (no orgasmatrons were mentioned) would empower women to take charge of their sexuality, yet neglected to discuss these professionals’ ties to drug industries. In actuality, Viagra has been clinically proven to not work for women, so doctors prescribe women Viagra “off-label” since it can’t technically be used for increasing female arousal. But the idea of a pill to fix a frustrated woman wanting that orgasm during intercourse is tempting, particularly when you don’t want to do the harder work of figuring out other issues.

As for the video montage of the arousing images Canner produced? It turns out that even the placebo subjects experienced increased blood flow to their genitals using porn images. How. Shocking. And the lady who had the orgasmatron implanted? Her leg twitched great, but nothing near an orgasm was achieved.

But how much of “female sexual dysfunction” is a matter of partner expertise or an individual’s ignorance regarding their body? Many women can give themselves an orgasm because they know that 70% of women require clitoral stimulation for 15 to 20 minutes, yet movies don’t really show that, do they? This conversation reminded me of the TEDx Talk I tweeted a week or so ago by Cindy Gallop “Make Love, Not Porn“. Gallop, who admits to enjoying porn, discusses the disconnect she experiences in her relationship with younger men who think that the porn they’ve watched is an accurate depiction of sex.

Since most pornography is designed for male gratification, this proliferation of porn watching has the potential to be a problem for women (I’m guessing it’s not exciting watching that 15 to 20 minutes of clitoral stimulation in an hour long video). As I posed in my tweet, my question is: what happens when romance-reading women, who expect sensitive men who really know what they are doing and are happy to dedicate hours to their pleasure, fall for porn watching men who think that vigorous missionary position sex for five minutes is a surefire way to have a woman achieve orgasm? Neither view is realistic, so hopefully both parties will understand that each type of entertainment is fiction. I know that the survey data surrounding romance readers backs this up, particularly since the vast majority of them are in happy, long-term relationships, but I’ll admit to being worried about the porn watchers.

Sex education in America was also touched upon (no pun intended), particularly as it highlights our society’s contradictions. We’re developing an orgasm pill yet the majority of schools teach abstinence-only sex education? Canner interviewed one of the experts at Good Vibrations, the famous store supplying people with sexual aids since it’s brown paper wrapper days (there’s a great store in San Francisco for the brave browser). The doctor interviewed mentioned the historical treatment for “hysteria” when women would go to their doctors for a vibration treatment that would end in a paroxysm of relief, i.e. an orgasm. Yet little sexual education explores the details surrounding masturbation, which, if you’re a fumbling teenager, might very well be the only way you are going to get a reliable orgasm if you are a girl.

So much of the medicalization of the female orgasm is once again turning this conversation – which is essentially about women’s sexual pleasure – into something more clinical and “fixable” rather than dealing with more complex emotional and social issues which could inhibit women from achieving orgasm. With one out of six women having experienced sexual assault, 80% of women having body image issues, and the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes with caregiving and work, you begin to realize it’s amazing women have orgasms at all!

A tour of the Berman Center, headed by sex-expert and television personality Dr. Laura Berman, it was ludicrous the degree to which the “clinic” medicalized arousal. There was a “Patient Concierge” who escorted the “patient” to each professional who was part of the consult – a sex therapist visit to determine any emotional issues, and a nurse practitioner who puts vibrating probes around your clitoris and vaginal canal to see if you experience arousal, particularly while watching erotic videos. Then your concierge in her nice white lab coat can show you the lubricants and vibrators that the medical professionals recommend. The visit costs $1500 which is, no surprise, not covered by your insurance company. I think talking to the salesperson at Good Vibrations would probably be way more fun and a lot less expensive, even if you splurged on the Eroscillator 2.

The footage of the medical conference, complete with exhibit hall of new treatments, was chilling. Born-again virgin surgeries, laser vaginalplasty to make your labia look different (how often do women stare at that part of themselves!?) and special clitoral surgeries are all being added to some gynecological surgeon repertoires. A ton of fashion magazines have had articles about these procedures, but it’s unsurprising when you think that those same magazines are designed to make you feel bad about how you look and then tell you the solution, whether it be a diet plan, a makeup or skincare product, or labia surgery.

The Wondrous Vulva Puppet – $125 in silks and satin

My absolute favorite part of the whole documentary was when the wonderful woman who owned the sex toys store (she had helped Liz Canner chose female oriented porn to get her clips for the erotic video she was to show the research subjects at the start of the film) decides to go the International Conference on Female Sexual Health. She was not allowed by the conference promoters in the exhibit hall, so she rented a room in the hotel and did a presentation for the physicians and researchers interested enough to come take a look. The union of a playful approach to sexual education and arousal and the medial profession is nothing short of revelatory. I mean, seriously, the vulva puppet? I would have watched this documentary a lot earlier if I known this gem was nestled in here. What great way to help women learn about their anatomy! There is a terrific product to help women with Kegel exercises and the doctors seemed impressed with many of her products and their potential to help women maintain good sexual health.

I don’t think that there will be too much romance literature focusing on a woman struggling with the hero to achieve an orgasm, but many of these issues would be extremely valid for writers to bring up with heroine who has dealt with mental or emotional blocks like them in her past, and how a match with the right hero helps her overcome them. After all, fiction is fantasy, and there is nothing wrong with the complex event that is female arousal.

Plenty of Suspense and a Little Romance: Guarding Jess by Shannon Curtis

29 Apr

I love romantic suspense as a sub-genre, particularly when the women are strong and the men are a little West of alpha. Guarding Jess by Shannon Curtis has a solid premise – a stalker has targeted Jessica Pennington, etiquette consultant and author, and McCormack Security, a relatively new firm made up of (surprise!) ex-special forces men (I’ll be honest, this never gets tired for me) has been contracted to protect her.

Noah Samuels, recovering from an injury and chaffing to get back in the saddle, gets the assignment and he is less than thrilled.  He thinks he knows Jessica’s type, born with a silver spoon in her mouth and concerned solely with appearances, since his estranged father was in the diplomatic corps and later a high-level businessman.  But Jessica is more than meets the eye (Noah nicknames her Miss Prissy before he begins to understand her better) and her stalker is very, very serious about taking her down.  As Noah must be by her side constantly, the two of them quickly realize the depth of one another’s personalities and how well they mesh together, despite their apparently disperate approaches to life.

I have to confess that I while I enjoyed this book, I’m glad I got a ereader version of it because the cover pisses me off so much that I might not have read it. The author makes careful reference several times to Jessica’s “neat blond bob” so what is up with the cover model’s coloring!?! The male cover model seems like a closer match to Noah, but the tone of the cover isn’t as suspense-y as the content of the book.

Curtis does a terrific job of building up the suspense and horror surrounding Jessica’s stalker. The constant vigilance and suspicion, the invasion of her privacy and the very real threats to her safety all had my adrenaline running. I was a little confused regarding how the person who ended up being the stalker could have had access to Jessica’s personal notes about her clients, but other than that, the plotting and continuity was extremely tight.

Author Shannon Curtis is Australian, but the book is set in San Francisco and there were a few indications that this work was originally destined for a down under or British audience.  I was jerked out of the narrative when they had their terrific kiss in the “car park” and a few other phrases hit a wrong note for an American setting (but nothing a Mills & Boon reader couldn’t handle). I enjoy and expect British or Australian slang in books where the characters or setting are clearly from those countries, but it was a little startling in this instance.

For those fans who enjoy a lot of sensuality throughout the romantic suspense, be aware that you need to be patient and wait for the H/h to come together in Guarding Jess.  There’s plenty of sexual tension (I’m thinking of that car park kissing scene again), and the culmination of that sizzling undercurrent happens at the end of the book during Jessica’s book launch after they think the stalker has been caught (and yowza, when you finally consummate your relationship against a door at a party, it’s bound to be amazing).

The good news is that with plenty of other hot security guys on the job in this book helping Noah eliminate Jessica’s stalker, I feel safe in saying Shannon Curtis has other books about them in the queue for readers eager for more of her take on romantic suspense. I know I’m looking forward to reading them!

Why Do We Kiss?: The Science and Sociology Behind One of Our Favorite Pasttimes

12 Apr

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that kissing the person I love is one of my favorite ways to pass the time.  Even when it doesn’t lead to something even more earth-shattering, there is nothing so intimate, so soul satisfying, as kissing a person for whom you feel love and passion.

After reading Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s book, The Science of Kissing, I now understand why I feel this way.  This well-known science writer has compiled a veritable ton of data from anthropologists, microbiologists, neuroscientists and sociologist to help the reader understand why we insist on kissing each other.

Probably the first big shock was that not everyone does kisses the way we do in the United States.  While French kissing has become more prevalent since the proliferation of Western media throughout the world, there still are cultures for whom open-mouthed kissing is an anathema.  Some cultures kiss only on closed mouths or focus attention on kissing the face and neck area as a prelude to or during sexual contact.

So when did we start kissing each other like this?  The Kama Sutra has depictions of kissing represented (so that makes 1500 B.C.E. fair game for smooching) but even Bonobo monkeys (and other primates) have been known to exchange kisses, open mouthed and otherwise, for the purposes of titillation and relationship reinforcement, so it’s everyone’s best guess that like our fellow primates, we’ve been at this kissing thing for a while.  Take a look at some of the highlights from the book, put in a snazzy format.

Since I read these types of books not just because I’m interested in science, but also because I’m thinking about romance writing, it’s hard not to absorb material with that angle.  One of the chief themes of the book is not just why we kiss (what is the biological advantage to doing it) but also seeks to discover how do men and women experience kissing differently.

The advantage part comes through loud and clear.  By being close enough to smell and taste someone, a person actually is enabling their body to literally sample the person’s Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC).  I had read about the studies that Kirshenbaum relates, where men and women are exposed to the personal scent of various individuals of the opposite sex (usually t-shirts that have been slept in and not washed).  As long as they aren’t (in the case of women) taking birth control pills that mimic pregnancy, human beings have the amazing ability to literally sniff out the individuals who are most biologically compatible with us.  Our noses (which are pressed so close to that significant other) can scent who is able to offer us a set of complementary genes which would boost our offsprings immune systems.  We feel greater desire and attraction for these people because they smell and taste better to us.  A kiss really tells you something!

But while men and women are both driven by the MHC agenda, it’s definite that they experience kissing, or maybe approach it, with very different goals in mind.  In an interview with CNN, Kirschenbaum discusses how she reviewed studies showing attitudinal approaches to kissing, with results that few men and women would argue with.  Women are more cautious approaching kissing, using the exchange as an opportunity to “take the temperature” of the relationship and determine whether or not it should move forward.

Men, on the other hand, see kissing as a means to an end. Rating face and body attractiveness higher than the person being a “good kisser,” men were more likely to continue kissing someone simply in order to have sex with them.  They liked kissing and but placed less importance on kissing overall, no matter how long they had been in a relationship.

In a far less scientific study, Harlequin does annual polls about topics related to romance.  Last year’s survey was entitled “Kiss n’ Tell” and asked people about their kissing preferences and the importance of the act.

I was worried that the data would be skewed to women considering Harlequin’s readership, but there was an almost even number of either sex who answered the poll. While still a small number, when asked if the person they kissed was a bad kisser would they end things, more female respondents answered “yes” (12% of survey takers) than male respondents (only 9%). Forty percent of both sexes said that kissing expertise wouldn’t factor into their decision, but I think that, while people might trudge along in a relationship for a while if the other person in it was a bad kisser, it’s not for the long haul.

Although, since 32% of men and 24% of women said yes to the question, “Have you ever kissed someone off-limits, such as a friend’s significant other or spouse?” maybe they weren’t in it for the long haul to begin with! Before you get too jaded, the best response was undoubtedly to “What is your best kissing memory?” since 28% of both sexes (a clear majority over the other options) answered that it was a kiss with their current partner.

D’oh.  I’m going to bet that the significant other was a good kisser though!

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