What do Sex and Science Have in Common?

Among other things, it’s quite hard to write about either in a way that will satisfy me.

The title of this piece alone brings on the same reaction I have to bad porn:  I get all excited at first (“Oh, wow, sex?  Sexy sex?  I love sex!  BRING IT!”), and then I get into the actual meat of the writing and am disappointed. (“Oh.  Um.  That’s it?  Well, never mind then.”)  Sure, titles are hard.  You have to hook someone into reading what you have to offer, and then deliver on whatever clever hook you used.  I am very bad at titles, myself.  Everything in this blog might as well be called “That Thing I Wrote”, since my titles usually don’t do much.  But I’m not going to go and title something “BEST POST EVAR” and then have it be about how I went to a party once and it was kind of cool.  That’s what this article does.  Sex Can Make You Smarter.  Okay, well, what’s that about?  Even if you’re inclined to think the entire definition is “a penis going into a vagina = sex*” that’s not exactly what the studies mentioned in the article are talking about.  I know, I know, it’s sad.  I thought for a moment I was going to be able to fuck my way into MENSA by the end of this year, but not so.  And about that?  The definition of intelligence is itself difficult.  Basically, the studies mentioned in that bit have to do with people who are in sexually aroused states performing better in critical thinking problems.  I’m pretty solid on the idea of more intelligent people being better at critical thinking, but since the actual study doesn’t seem to be available for me to read for free, I have no idea if it controlled for non-lustful IQ.  Ideally, the way to look at this admittedly interesting proposition would be to take a group of subjects within an average IQ range and have them perform the same type of logic problem with the same level of difficulty when in an aroused state, and again when they are distinctly unaroused.

Then you get into the anatomical and biological questions raised (which I have no idea if the studies took into account).  Sexual arousal increases the heart rate and blood flow, so maybe there’s an oxygen boost going on.  Brains love oxygen, which is why another study should be done to see if people who are into breath play also get a cognitive boost while having sexy fun time.**  Also (and this is really a factor in the second idea spouted by this crap article – stay tuned), aroused states involve a whole fucking lot of chemicals.  Were the participants themselves reporting lustful feelings?  And even if they were, did anyone think to run a few simple blood tests to check hormone levels?  Well, that would give us a lot more information, right there.

Here we have a big problem with how science stories in general are reported in mainstream publications.  For one thing, most people have no idea how an experiment should be run.  How big should your sample size be?  What’s a valid control group?  How do you accurately measure what you’re looking for?  This is one of the things that annoys me greatly about scientific illiteracy; since so many people are unknowingly suffering from it, they read articles like this and either accept whatever’s being said at face value or reject it as being crap.  However, they usually don’t have the tools needed to accept or reject findings, and these articles rarely offer important details, so the acceptance vs. rejection often has more to do with the reader’s own beliefs than the study and its validity.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah, the sorry state of science reporting.  When I was complaining about not being able to assess the “sex makes you smarter” claim?  It’s because I cannot see the actual reports the actual researchers published.  To be fair, I am not a Highly Educated Science Person myself.  But I would much rather be able to read what the actual studies found than rely on this article, since the information offered is dumbed down to the point that it sounds like me when I’m really drunk at a party trying to tell a story about something I didn’t really understand to begin with.

The next bit, about how “sex can make you less depressed”, as the title would have it, is another cheap thrill lacking substance.  The study this is referring to is actually available to read, probably since it’s now ten years old.  It has some interesting ideas to offer, but they’re interesting more in that they could give us ideas for further research and not because they actually give us any concrete answers.

A few of the problems I noticed right off were the sample population, the lack of actual hormonal data, and the already flawed assumptions around women and depression that are repeated here.  The study was done on 293 volunteer subjects, all of them women attending college at the time.  They filled out questionnaires regarding their sexual activity and condom use, and completed an inventory meant to measure depressive symptoms.  The really super-exciting thing here is that women who reported sexual activity without condoms consistently scored lower on the depression inventory than women who did regardless of relationship status or other birth control methods used. 

The obvious conclusion that the researcher and every silly article that mentions this study comes to is that semen cures depression.  Let me tell you about my sister.  She never uses condoms.  She’s probably having sex right now, as I type this, and probably as you’re reading it, too.  She has a LOT of sex as far as I know, and I’m sure she’s not using condoms.  She’s not depressed, which is cool, and would seem to be a good piece of anecdotal evidence that supports this study’s findings.  Oh, yeah, and also she’s a lesbian.  She’s having sex, without condoms, and it’s with another woman.  Were all of those 293 women having sex exclusively with men?   Who knows?  I don’t, since the report doesn’t say.  You guys know it’s the 21st century, right?  Maybe you should consider that first footnote I threw in.  Sometimes I do things that I would absolutely count as sex, and there is no penis involved.  Sometimes there’s a man involved, and penetration, and I have amazing orgasms, but there is no penis.

Before I go on and talk about my own experience (which could only be counted as “scientific” when I was studying for Anatomy exams and successfully listed all the bones of the skull while fucking), I want to comment on the very important point the semen study makes about women suffering higher rates of depression.  It’s true that women are more commonly diagnosed and treated for depression.  It’s also true that women generally have different levels of various hormones than men.  BUT!  I have serious issues with the idea of women being more depressed “naturally” independent of social influence.  It’s a complex issue, and since you can’t just raise a bunch of babies in Skinner boxes and see if they end up being depressed in a couple of decades (hint: they would be.  All of them.),  the difficulty of controlling for social influence makes it nearly impossibly to pick apart the causes in a truly meaningful way.  I bring this up not to shrug off the higher rates of depression in us ladies, but to point out that maybe this study should have also looked at rates of depression in lesbians vs. straight women, and especially in gay vs. straight men.  Oh, and an interesting thing there?  Someone already did.  What’s that about higher rates of major depression among gay man?  I guess they’re ALL using condoms ALL THE TIME.  Good for them.  Well, it’s either that or maybe something to do with social influences and such, but that would be a silly idea.  Also, what’s that about lesbians having “equally strong levels of mental health as their heterosexual sisters and higher self-esteem”, huh, APA?  Are they all sneaking semen on the side, just for its magical health benefits?  I’ll go ask my sister, hang on  . . . . okay, no.  No they are not.

That’s enough science for now!  It’s time for some anecdotal evidence!  All from me, because my sister’s probably already off getting fisted by now.

I already mentioned liking sex.  But there’s a catch there, so hang on – I like good sex, with people I at least care about, and also there has not been semen involved in . . . a while.  Because you know what would make me really depressed?  Nasty viruses.  Heck, even a nasty enough bacteria will ruin my day.  My rampant condom use should have me slitting my wrists by now, yet somehow I get all the benefits of good sex even though my reproductive tract has not had anyone else’s bodily fluids dropping by for a visit in AGES.  The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, as I hope your mother taught you, but let’s scroll back to the last time I felt really seriously depressed.  I went for a seriously long time without sex, and boy was I depressed.  This may have more to do with the horrible relationship I let linger far too long (it does!) than anything else, but I probably also had a bit of a drop in cognitive function.  So . . . now that I’m having sex again I’m magically able to do amazingly well in school and also handle all the craziness life can throw at me and still be happy?  Or is it the other way around?  Am I having all these amazing effects because I’ve been out of a shitty relationship for a while and that’s allowed me to rebuild myself so I can be happier and push myself harder academically and the awesome sex is just caused by my feeling awesome?

See where it breaks down?  I generally do feel a “boost” after sex*** with my current partners, where I am ridiculously happy and feel like I am running stronger mentally and creatively.  The immediate high often gives way to long periods feeling content and satisfied, and ready to take on anything.  The “current partners” part of that is important.  I’ve written about a couple of people here who are not current partners for very good reason.  Sex with them made me miserable.  So for me, all those benefits only show up when I am happy about the encounter and the person it’s with.  If it’s bad, I’ll come on here and tell you all about it, but that’s it.  I’ve even had orgasms with those losers, but after the fun bit passes it’s all ruined by figuring out that a loser was involved.  (I’m screening people much more carefully these days!)

So, on the one hand I would say that for me, there is some chemical action going on there that makes sex generally beneficial.  On the other hand, it only works for me when I don’t find out the next day or week or month that the person I banged was a misogynist or a racist or has some Daddy thing going on or some shit.

Maybe that’s the missing key to a lot of these studies.  It could be that the way a person feels about any given encounter matters more than the mechanics.  And what makes someone feel amazing is so individual I can’t even begin to explain.  Things that make me feel incredible would be no fun at all to the next person, and things other people love leave me cold.

If it is all just chemicals, this would suggest to me that for myself, I get more long-term benefits from encounters with an emotional component.  A good one, I mean.  Maybe the nasty feelings that come on when I’ve just had some sort of sexy sex thing going on and then someone involved reveals something that’s a hard limit for me is my reptilian brain kicking in and going into protective mode.  Maybe that overpowers all the happy chemicals.  And then maybe, if nothing negative comes up, I’m able to bask in the happy chemicals longer since I’m not busy being squicked out.

All the research in the world won’t determine the exact combination of factors that make any given sexual thought or situation right or wrong, beneficial or not, to every single person.  The real key here is, as usual, knowing what it is that makes you tick and being able to share that.  If you have some quirk that seems to contradict a study, go with it.  You’re an outlier.  And for all of us, more research is always a good thing!


* Not true, by the way, and if that is your definition of sex you are either way too young to be reading this blog, or you have a woefully inadequate vision of what people get up to with one another and themselves.

** This would be a fairly niche study, but if anyone wants to kick me some funding I’ll get to work on it.

*** Here’s where I should mention that I’m using “sex” as a catchall term.  It’s a long list, and includes lots of things that are not PIV intercourse.  I would even include things that don’t look at all like sex, but are for me.  If you can handle a paddle or belt well, You know what I mean.

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