Book review: The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex

01/28/2012 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments
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I recently picked up and finished reading the sexual guidebook, The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex, by author & blogger Violet Blue. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an in-depth guide to integrating strap-on sex toys and techniques into partnered sex.

Why are we reviewing a book about pegging on a blog about sexual dysfunction? For much the same reason cited last time we read a book by Violet Blue: Personal reasons + it was in the book queue. Besides, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sometimes when you have sexual dysfunction, you gotta get real creative, real quick.

The short version of the review is…
Well… I liked the Ultimate Guide to Fellatio better…

The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex – let’s call it TACG from here on out – the book is short. I was able to burn through the book start to finish within just a few hours. The Kindle edition I read has 1568 locations (sentences, I think,) which translates to about 160 pages in paperback format. There aren’t any pictures in the Kindle version – there’s not even one of those cut-away academic diagrams of male pelvic anatomy. All of the descriptions of anatomy and how-to are written out in paragraph form.

TACG‘s target audience is cis, heterosexual couples interested in pegging – and pegging, by definition, takes place between cis, het partners. But strap-ons are used in LGBTIQA communities too – so to me, it was weird to see so little coverage of strap-on use outside of straight sex. There was a lot of reassuring the reader that an interest in pegging does not necessarily mean you or your partner is gay. Definitely a book aimed at cis, het couples primarily.

The book includes just about everything you will need to know about strap-on sex and maybe some stuff you hadn’t thought about – anatomy, history, myth debunking, what gear to look for, how to go warm your partner up and then go through with pegging, and safe sex. Actually, I would have preferred to see the section on making strap-on sex safer close to the beginning of the book, instead of at the very end, but there is precedent for saving the best for last – Sex Toys 101 did it that way too. Remember that anal penetration is a risky sex act in terms of passing along infectious agents between partners, because the tissue is delicate, and there’s a lot of bacteria behind the anus. Blue includes a table detailing your risk of infection from anal sex, pegging and related activities and describes tools like condoms & dental dams you can use to reduce the risks.
Remember also that if you’re inserting objects anally, they really need to be designed specifically for that. If you just grab whatever’s handy, you or your partner could wind up with a toy lost inside the body and/or a serious injury – either scenario requires a trip to the emergency room. Blue addresses what kind of butt-friendly toys to look for. Shape, size, and materials all matter, so shop smart. Don’t forget the lubricant, since the anus can’t produce its own secretions the way a vagina can.

Where TACG really shines is when Blue talks about the importance of communication. Pegging isn’t something you can just spring on your partner, and a desire to engage in it isn’t something you can just pantomime out using secret code gestures (no matter what Cosmopolitan tells you.) If you’ve been slacking off in the sexual communication department, Blue lists a few suggestions for how to bring strap-on sex up in conversation – most of these suggestions can easily be applied to other various sex acts as well. Blue also reminds the reader to think about their partner’s perspective, since talking about sex can be (but doesn’t have to be) nerve-wracking. Blue suggets a few areas for exploration if one partner or another is reluctant – what are you the most uncomfortable with, the potential for pain? Insecurity with flipping around gender norms? Cleanliness/messiness/poop? You don’t even know where to start or what else there is to do during? There’s ways to address these concerns.

I liked the section about the history of the terminology of strap-on sex and why you may have noticed a glimpse of pegging here and there in mainstream sex shops, films and discussions. I was also pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a chapter on how to have strap-on sex with a third party. Opening up a relationship is a little too advanced for me but the book is clearly polyamory friendly. There’s a lot of coverage about various reasons couples might want to try strap-ons during sex in the first place – some reasons include (but are not limited to) the potential for prostate stimulation, aesthetics, and/or fantasy fulfillment.

TACG contains a little information about strap-on sex and disability. Author Blue suggests using a double-ended dildo if you have a wrist injury or mobility problems (location 1188,) and she suggests a vendor from which to procure a harness designed for cis men. (Specific item is here; NSFW; similar products may be available elsewhere.) Why would someone who already has a penis want a harness for a dildo when their equipment is already present? The idea is double penetration of a cis female partner, but in my mind I’m imagining something like it might actually come in handy for couples dealing with erectile dysfunction – especially since Blue states that an erection is not required to use a double harness. TACG describes other harnesses as well; there’s one kind that the wearer can strap onto their thigh or even their head.

A couple of considerations for folks with pelvic pain issues who might be interested in harnesses:

Blue writes that “If you worry about [your pubic bone] getting sore from thrusting, you can buy a specially made pad of thin foam to cushion your pubic bone” (location 1159,) though where exactly one might buy such a pad is not explicitly stated. If this type of pad has a specific name, I don’t know it.
One of the double-ended dildos described in TACG is the Feeldoe, a double-dildo with one bulbous end. It’s designed to have the bulbous end inserted vaginally, leaving the phallic part exposed, for your partner’s enjoyment. However I don’t know how accessible this toy is to folks with pelvic floor dysfunction and/or pain – It looks like something I would find uncomfortable, if not outright painful, to the point of impossible to use as intended. Supposedly it can be used with certain harnesses with some adjustments, but it’s designed to be inserted in the wearer’s vagina.

In general, I would recommend some of the other dildos from Tantus, because I own one I’ll vouch for, they’re silicone & many have a flared base suitable for a harness and anal stimulation – including a few smaller models and plugs.
If you’re a pelvic pain patient interested in a harness, I strongly recommend  sticking to two-strap harnesses only. Or harnesses that are worn over some other body part, like the thigh. The problem is that single-strap pelvic harnesses have to be worn between your legs like a thong and thus cover up more of the vulvar area. Two-strap harnesses go around your thighs and butt instead, leaving more area exposed. The distinction between single and two-strap harnesses is described in further detail in TCAG.
Also, Blue doesn’t mention this part, but beware of harnesses with a pouch for a vibrator… Harnesses with a bullet vibrator are supposed to make the experience more pleasurable for the wearer, but depending on how the vibe rests against you, it might just feel like a foreign, hard something digging uncomfortably into your pelvis. It’s like something out of the Princess and the Pea. I personally find it more comfortable to use a vibrator separately either before or after wearing the harness.
If you’re worried about causing your partner pain, then remember that anal stimulation doesn’t have to – and if you’re doing it carefully, shouldn’t – hurt. You might be tempted to share your prescription lidocaine or OTC novelty numbing gel with your receptive partner but that’s actually a bad idea: numbing gels dull everything, which makes deriving pleasure more difficult… and if you can’t feel what’s going on, then you won’t know if you’re getting injured. The book will tell you how to adjust your techniques to minimize discomfort & maximize pleasure.
Remember also that you are by no means obligated to peg if you’re thinking about getting a harness. After talking with your partner, you may decide instead to just wear it around for awhile or to engage in some other non-penetrative activities with a dildo equipped, just for show.

Overall, The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex is an okay book. It will be most useful for straight folks – especially cis women – just starting to consider strap-on sex, who don’t know what’s involved. Likewise, it will be useful for straight men who want to be on the receiving end, but never tried it before.
TACG becomes less useful if you’ve already had exposure to strap-on sex, either through experience or though some of the free how-to guides available on sexuality websites. The trick is, if you’re thinking about trying strap-on sex, then chances are you’ve already looked at those free how-to guides before picking up the book.
I wouldn’t recommend TACG be your first book purchase by Violet Blue. My overall impression is that IMHO I think she put more effort into some of her other stuff. There’s nothing wrong with the book; It contains good factual information & encouragement! I just liked some of her other sex guides more. Franky I thought that some parts of the book were drawn out longer than necessary – I basically skimmed through the chapter about male anatomy because I’ve seen it all before… And I skimmed over the erotic vignettes. The short stories are fine; I have no problems with the writing, though they are several pages too long. They’re just not my taste. Obviously, YMMV!

In summation: the $10-$15 retail price investment will be best for newcomers, with less bang for buck the more experience & knowledge you already have about strap-on harnesses & how to use them. More experienced readers may find it useful as a reference from time to time.

Disclaimer: As with all products reviewed on Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction to date, I had to pay for this book out of pocket with my own money, and I don’t get any compensation for writing this review.

Doctors debate dyspareunia part 4: The debate continues

09/19/2011 at 10:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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“The sad truth is that at our current state of knowledge, sexual dysfunction is whatever sexologists or others say it is” – Yitzchak M. Binik, Ph.D.

The above quote comes from the person responsible for setting off the 2005 sexology debate about how doctors should address dyspareunia (painful sex,) and it succinctly reflects my own frustration with the field of sexology.

Recently, I have directed reader attention to a debate that took place amongst doctors and other professionals tasked with treating sexual pain problems. The debate started when Dr. Yitzchak M. Binik wrote in to the peer-reviewed journal of the International Academy of Sex Research, Archives of Sexual Behavior, on whether dyspareunia should be viewed primarily as a pain problem or as a sex problem. To catch up with this blog’s review of the debate, read part 1 here, part 2 there, and part 3 last.

Dr. Binik’s original article outlined his position that sexual pain is best classified as a pain condition under the DSM-IV-TR criteria. Currently it remains classified as a sexual dysfunction, though the soon-to-be-released DSM-V will likely change the name and the definition.

Dr. Binik’s publication in the Archives received 20 responses, expressing varying levels of support. I did not read all 20 of the responses he received. In parts 2 and 3 of this blog’s dyspareunia-as-pain series, I zeroed in on Dr. Leonore Tiefer’s fascinating and contradictory response, because I’m already familiar with the rest of her work with regards to sexual dysfunction.

Dr. Binik reviewed each response to his original article, and finally addressed them in a sequel, Dyspareunia Looks Sexy on First But How Much Pain Will It Take for It to Score? A Reply to My Critics Concerning the DSM Classification of Dyspareunia as a Sexual Dysfunction. Now this is another article behind an academic firewall, so most readers can’t see the full text. In the interests of spreading knowledge about sexual dysfunction, I can only provide an executive summary.

The first thing that jumps out at me in reading Dr. Binik’s final answer is that, this article is almost intolerable.
Basically, Dr. Binik says that he was late in getting back to everyone who replied to his original article because he was distracted by baseball season. I find it ironic that, in light of the continuing debate among sexologists about the appropriate use of the term “Sex addiction,” here Dr. Binik flippantly refers to his interest as “my baseball addiction” (63.) My amusement eventually gave way to groans of annoyance with all the sports metaphors and puns strung throughout the rest of the article. Clearly, Dr. Binik still had baseball on the brain when he penned this reply. That in no way diminishes the validity of his arguments; it just annoyed me on a personal level.
Remember, there is already a baseball metaphor used in casual conversations about sex – “Bases.” Each base represents an arbitrary milestone in heterosexual sex, where running through all 4 bases means you’ve progressed to hetero, PIV intercourse.
Fortunately, the article is short – about 4 pages, as opposed to the original 10+, so I didn’t have to put up with the sports jargon for long.

Dr. Binik acknowledges that his original article met with mixed reviews from his colleagues & peers. For the most part, Dr. Binik’s assertion that sexual pain should be reclassified as a DSM-approved pain condition did not go over well. Three respondents endorsed Dr. Binik’s original position that sexual dysfunction should be reclassified as a DSM-approved pain problem. Five vehemently opposed the change. Nine responses agreed with part of what Dr. Binik said, but not everything. And three didn’t really address the question at all (63). You can find publication details about the 20 responses here. PubMed does not provide full text or abstracts for any of them, but I have GOOD NEWS, everyone! Today I found a compilation of all of the responses to Binik’s article on Ohio State University’s website! If you’ve got hours of free time, you can read and analyze each individual response, spanning some 40 pages! Except for the response we’re looking at today.

Dr. Binik interprets the disagreements as stemming from four basic positions:

(1) I overgeneralized from one typ eof dyspareunia – vulvar vestibulitis syndrome (VVS); (2) my reclassification strategy for dyspareunia was of dubious clinical utility; (3) I did not recognize that dyspareunia really is a sexual dysfunction; and (4) I confused symptom and mechanism in my discussion of classification (63).

Dr. Binik did not deny focusing exclusively on VVS, even though it is not the only type of pain one can experience during sexual activity (63). It is, however, the best researched type of sexual pain, and the research on it provided the most support to Dr. Binik’s position (64). He talks about how post-menopausal dryness & vaginal atrophy may be another sexual pain – except for the part where, due to lack of systemic research on the topic, he isn’t convinced that these problems can account for dyspareunia (64).

To the criticisms that reclassification (moving dyspareunia from sexual dysfunction to pain condition,) wouldn’t solve any problems, Binik responds that the outcome results couldn’t possibly worse than they are now. Some critics pointed out that both the sexual dysfunction and pain condition categories in the DSM-IV-TR both have problematic elements (64). What those problematic elements are, is not discussed in this particular article; we need to examine the primary source responses in question for supporting details. Dr. Binik, however, contends (perhaps somewhat blithely,) that if professionals fix the problems inherent with the DSM pain classification, then sexual pain would fit in with that category (64). And with regards to concerns that pain clinics may not be prepared to handle sexual complaints, Dr. Binik says,

Several commentators (e.g., Carpenter and Anderson, Strassberg) implied that the sexual concerns of women with dyspareunia might get ignored if they go to pain clinics. I think they underestimate clinicians/researchers, such as Masheb and Richman, who work at such multidisciplinary clincs and are very sensitive to sexual issues. It is no more difficult for professionals at a pain clinic to learn about sex than for sexologists to learn about pain (65, emphasis mine.)

In that case, my fellow folks with sexual pain, we are fucked! And not in the good, clean fun way; I mean, I am so completely frustrated with how poorly some notable sexologists handle sexual pain! If I have to look to sexologists as an example of how professional disciplines handle overlapping issues, then I am hopeless that pain professionals could possibly do any better with sex! I have seen sexologists and popular sex bloggers online who write about dyspareunia, and the extent of their writing is, “Refer to your doctor.” That’s it; that’s the extent of their learning, to this day in 2011. Since there are still sexologists who can’t be bothered to learn about the intricacies of sexual pain, I remain unimpressed. So given sexology’s poor track record of handling dyspareunia, why should I believe a pain doctor could do any better at handling sexual problems?

Facepalm Carl Pictures, Images and Photos

[Description: Carl - a heavy, hairy white guy from Aqua Teen Hunger Force - looking exasperated and doing a Facepalm. Wearing a white tank top and tacky gold chain.]

Moving on, other commentators maintained that sexual pain is and should continue to be recognized as a sexual dysfunction. This was Dr. Tiefer’s surprising, contradictory argument. However, when Dr. Binik explicitly addressed Dr. Tiefer’s response directly, he clearly missed her point.
See, Dr. Tiefer’s whole schtick is that sexual dysfunction is an artificial construct designed to benefit the medical industry, Big Pharma in particular. The New View Campaign’s social construction perspective dictates that most sexual problems stem from social problems and can be addressed through broad, non-medical interventions. But Dr. Binik clearly is not familiar with The New View or with Dr. Tiefer’s work, because he said,

For example, Tiefer argued that “dyspareunia is the only true sexual dysfunction,” because “…sexual problems [are best defined] as discontent or dissatisfaction with any emotional, physical, or relational aspect of sexual experience.” (p. XX). While I have some sympathy for this definition, it is too broad since everything that intereferes with sex (e.g., watching too many baseball games?) becomes a sexual dysfunction (65).

Wait, what the f—?! Gaaah!!! That’s not what she said! She never said that! That’s the opposite of what Dr. Tiefer’s been saying for ten years!!! I cannot believe — I can’t deal with this shit! The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing!

[Description: Captain Jean Luc-Picard, a bald white guy from Star Trek, doing the Facepalm.jpg thing. From Know Your Meme.]

One area where Dr. Binik and Dr. Tiefer agree, is that the current classification of sexual dysfunction in the DSM-IV-TR is so problematic that it probably needs to be scrapped entirely and done over – and this is, apparently, one of the reasons why Dr. Binik wants dyspareunia moved out in the first place (65).

The last main argument against Dr. Binik’s reclassification scheme is the one I’m having the most difficulty understanding. Some commentators questioned whether Dr. Binik was endorsing a classification scheme based on symptoms or one based on mechanisms (the underlying causes of pain, like inflammation.) Dr. Binik clarifies that he doesn’t like symptom-based classification schemes, but we’re pretty much stuck with that until researchers figure out what the mechanisms behind sexual pain actually are (66).

Dr. Binik then responded briefly to a few additional criticisms of his original article, like the fact that he left vaginismus out of the discussion (an oversight he didn’t want to make but felt obligated to do since vaginismus is treated differently in the DSM for some reason) (66). Binik actually retracts one of his arguments in favor of moving dyspareunia over from sex to pain. Initially, Binik suggested research funding as one of the reasons he supported making the switch, thinking that pain research is easier to fund since it’s less controversial than sex research. He was called out for this claim by Black and Grazziotin (66).

In the end, Dr. Binik was not convinced by the respondents that sexual pain is best left as a sexual dysfunction. He is glad to have started the conversation though, and it’s possible that this discussion did play a role in the changes to dyspareunia as described by the DSM-V. Unfortunately, Dr. Binik uses a baseball metaphor with a double-entendre to conclude his article with an expression of gratitude with participants in the conversation,

“It is clear that my article did not hit a home run; however, dyspareunia is looking sexy enough to have finally gotten to first base. I think it will finally score in the major leagues” (66.)

He means his article wasn’t met with the adulation and acceptance he was expecting. This is an awkward way to put it though, considering that dyspareunia, in my experience, is the opposite of sexy and here again all I can think of is the sexual double entendre of baseball metaphors. Either I have a dirty mind or else Dr. Binik overlooked the phrase and how it might interfere with a serious discussion of sexual pain.

So what did we learn from this debate? Here’s what I learned:

If there’s only one lesson I want readers to take home, it is encapsulated in the opening quote to this post. Getting professionals involved in sexual research and medicine to agree on a definition of sexual dysfunction is like trying to herd cats. (Not to mention the fact that many professionals have neglected to involve their own patients’ feedback in the discussion – hint, hint!) We have an arbitrary definition spelled out by the well-known APA’s DSM, but in practice it’s more of a guideline than a hard set of rules, and there’s much it overlooks.

Different professionals may not agree with the DSM classification of sexual dysfunction for various reasons, and will come up with independent working definitions instead. These fractured definitons will reflect whatever agenda the professional(s) who developed it wish to spread and capitalize on. Different agendas may make some good points and thus be defensible, even when in direct conflict with one another.

I’ve seen examples of these contradictions illustrated before; One Ph.D. says porn addiction is a real thing that must be stopped, while another Ph.D. says there’s no such thing as sexual addiction, only sexual impulses. If both start sexual counseling clinics that reflect their views, then whose therapy the most appropriate? So in the end, sexual dysfunction remains a white-hot conflagration of controversy and disagreement – Looking at it pragmatically, to rephrase Dr. Binik, sexual dysfunction is whatever anyone wants it to be. You want it to be pain only? Boom, done. Wait, this other person wants sexual dysfunction to include lack of sexual arousal? Bam, here’s a phone number for a clinic you can call for that. Wait, this other person says all sexual dysfunction isn’t real at all? Boosh, here’s a whole lesson plan you can integrate into your gender studies program supporting that position. Even if some professionals manage to come to a stalemate and agree with each other on certain points, on others there will inevitably be disagreement.

I suppose this is the way science is supposed to work. Doctors and researchers are supposed to go back and forth at each other in order to find the correct answers to life’s big questions. It’s all part of the process.

But sometimes when I see these contradictory perspectives of sexual dysfunction, I get so frustrated! Then all I can do is think of the sexologists involved as chasing each other around, re-enacting the Yakety Sax scene from Benny Hill. Then I feel better:

(I couldn’t find the original Benny Hill chase scene in YouTube. Deal with it.)
[Description: Black-and-white chase scenes from Charlie Chaplin silent film, "The Tramp," set to the fast-paced & wacky music, "Yakety Sax." Charlie and co. generally cause mischief and misery to a team of cops trying to catch him and another character. Features running into some kind of fun-house boat with a hall of mirrors; Charlie and another character pretending to be animatronics in order to hide in plain sight from police, messing up a spinney Coney Island-era ride inside of a circus setting and general mayhem.] 

One interesting part of this debate is how it contrasts with the history of sexual dysfunction as presented by Dr. Tiefer in the chapter, “‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’: A New Disorder Invented for Women,” (quotations are hers not mine,) included in the anthology Sex is not a Natural Act. When she reported on sexual dysfunction conferences attended by medical professionals, she made it sound like a bunch of rich doctors all went in, bullshitted with each other, slept in the fanciest hotel suites, maybe bathed in goats milk and children’s tears, had a few drinks, and all agreed unanimously about a common definiton of FSD – a definition conveniently designed to line their own pockets. But instead, here, we’re seeing a much more lively & varied debate unfold.

Meanwhile, patients with sexual problems find varying levels of treatment and in some cases may be blocked from having sexual dysfunction treatments made available to them in the first place, whether that’s for safety reasons or purely political & idealogical ones. But its all in our best interests, right? …Right…?

On the other hand, I’m somewhat relieved that there isn’t a universal accord on sexual pain, precisely because that means there’s still a chance for patients to influence doctors along and get them to listen. But it’s a very slim chance – A notable omission in this debate is the involvement and perspective of patients. It’s possible that some participants in the debate themselves had experience with sexual pain, but judging from the credentials provided by the respondents, they were not answering as lay patients. These doctors talk to each other, but not to us; they talk about us, and that’s something disability advocates in particular have long recognized as a problem. Furthermore, the academic firewall helps reinforce doctors’ various levels of power over patients – I didn’t even know this debate happened until relatively recently. Then, I had difficulty researching it as someone no longer affiliated with an academic institution.

Other lessons include: Although sexual pain does not effect only women, it is still looked at as primarily a women’s issue. The most common reason I’ve seen cited for this is that sexual pain disproportionately impacts women. However, by focusing on women exclusively, professionals are probably hurting men and folks who do not fit onto a gender binary.

But as far as the original question goes: Should dyspareunia be classified as a pain or sex problem? Whether painful sex is best classified as a pain condition or as a sexual dysfunction, there is no final answer. Jury’s still out deliberating. Dr. Binik and commentators made good points defending their opinions, but no one budged from their original positions. There was no argument so logically perfect, it had the power to change minds.
Sorry gang, I don’t have an answer to this question.

Doctors debate dyspareunia part 3: Pain’s validity, con’t

08/24/2011 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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[We're picking up this post directly where the last one left off, because it was getting too long. If you're just joining us, we're in the middle of a conversation about whether doctors think painful sex is best looked at as a pain problem or as a sex problem. Read part 1 here, and part 2 there. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion!]

In her response to Dr. Binik’s original article, Dr. Tiefer then goes on to acknowledge that dyspareunia is a surprisingly common experience. Dr. Tiefer says that sexual pain is deeply important to the feminist community: 

Beyond womens’ lack of sexual satisfaction or lack of orgasms, the common experience of pain during intercourse or vaginal penetration lies at the heart of the feminist critique of patriarchal sexual relations (e.g., Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1998, pp. 256-257) (51.)

*record scratch sound*

The heart of feminist critique of patriarchal sexual relations?

think in her citation, Dr. Tiefer is referring to an old version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. That’s The-capital-T Feminist Health Text Book put out every few years by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. It comes in different flavors, like one version for menopause and another for pregnancy, so I’m not certain which OBOS she’s referring to.

But…

Let me put it to you this way: I don’t know what’s on those two pages cited by Dr. Tiefer, because I no longer have a copy of OBOS. During my major life upheaval, I left it behind because it didn’t have anywhere near enough information on sexual pain. I remember about one page on vulvodynia, and there was a little bit about FSD in general - citing Dr. Tiefer’s work, in fact.
I was so disappointed at seeing little about sexual pain relative to chapters about pregnancy, sexuality, abortion, and other human rights issues, that I dumped OBOS. The Boston Women’s Health Collective let me down. I turned to other books, not specifically feminist ones, for more comprehensive information.

I don’t think there’s much support to the claim that vaginal or sexual pain lies at the heart of feminist critiques of patriarchal sex. Perhaps it’s just that feminist perspectives of patriarchial sex are a tiny niche, and so small that I miss them when scanning with my naked eye. After all, I often see feminist critiques of sex and sexuality generally, or I see critiques of patriarchal sex and rape culture that do not explicitly address the existence of unwanted physical pain.

But feminist perspectives on painful sex specifically are hard to find. I seek essays about vaginismus & vulvodynia in feminist-oriented traditional printed media on purpose. I have only just barely scratched the surface of a large feminist library, but it’s still pretty rare for me to find much about dyspareunia.
Online, I recall Twisty Faster’s post about vaginismus from a few years ago as a feminist perspective on patriarchial sex and a painful sexual problem – and even then, her post was more about treatment than about the experience of vaginismus itself. Every once in awhile I’ll find posts about sexual and genital pain on popular feminist sites, and I am eternally grateful when I receive guest posts that address the subject here. But big social justice & feminist sites have to keep up with all the other social-justice news too, and the pain posts get buried after awhile.

So to say that pain with sex or vaginal insertion lies at the heart of feminist critique of patriarchal sex is an exaggeration at best and bullshit at worst. It’s not there, not at the heart. It’s off to the side, maybe; on a good day you can see it poking out. Then it sees its shadow and bolts for another few months before making another appearance.

Anyway, back to the article. Dr. Tiefer then talks about how feminist sexologists have emphasized downplaying the centrality of penis-in-vagina intercourse as the end-all, beat-all form of sex – Dr. Marty Klein wrote an entire book about this, in fact. And then there’s a mention that sexual pain is implicitly (but for some reason not explicitly) covered by the World Association of Sexology’s Declaration of Sexual Rights (51.) For the record, I think the declaration document linked to in Dr. Tiefer’s original response has been updated since 2005. The URL changed to something else sometime in the last few years and the phrase “Sexual pain” does in fact appear in the body of the text (once.)

Towards the end of her response, Dr. Tiefer states that dyspareunia falls under the New View’s definition of a “Sexual problem,” whereas Dr. Binik’s view is that there is no special type of pain that applies only to sexual situations. (For example, in Dr. Binik’s view, vulvar vestibulitis is a primarily a pain problem rather than a sex problem, because you get the same pain during sex as you get during a routine gynecological exam.) According to Dr. Tiefer, even if sexual dysfunction as we know it were to be redefined or dropped from the DSM classification system altogether, pain during sex would still remain primarily a sexual problem that can be looked at from a social construction perspective -

We recommend that professional nomenclature dispense with the idea of norms and deviance… and move to a model wherein sexuality was viewed as a cultural construct and individuals could have various subjective or performance problems. Thus, sexual pain would be like swimming pain or swimming phobia, a problem that a person had with a desired behavior, not with some universal capacity (51, emphasis mine.)

Wait, what? “Swimming pain?” “Swimming phobia?”

Ironically I think comparing sexual pain to swimming pain strengthens Dr. Binik’s argument in favor of reclassifying dyspareunia as a pain condition – is there a special type of pain that kicks in only when swimming? Seriously, I’m asking because I’m not a doctor and I don’t know.

Swimming pain a vague term – are we referring to the pain of a muscle cramp, a broken limb, skin irritation from an over chlorinated pool, or swimmer’s ear? Plus, swimming doesn’t carry around the same gender, consent and relationship issues that sex does. (We could make an argument that swimming does carry performance issues, I suppose, especially when done professionally or in athletic competitions – but even then, I don’t think I’ve ever seen swimming activity stigmatized the same way I’ve seen sexual activity get turned into a problem in and of itself.)

I find the comparison of sexual pain to swimming phobia to be the more problematic half of Dr. Tiefer’s statement. I’ve come a long way from the time when I had a lot of fears and anxiety about sex. Somewhere along the line while puzzling sex out (and maybe while blogging about it,) some of the old fears started to slough & flake off. And at this point, It is no longer the act of sex that I fear. It’s the pain that I have come to expect if I try to engage in sex. So some folks who have experienced painful sex do have, or go on to develop, fear of sexual activity in and of itself. But now, years later, I’m still dealing with dyspareunia over here, not erotophobia or genophobia. I’m concerned that conflating sexual pain with sexual phobia will only complicate getting pain patients the comprehensive treatments they need the most.

Dr. Tiefer’s choice of words here was probably deliberate. This isn’t the first time she has compared avoiding sex and avoiding swimming:

Who’s to say, for example, that absence of interest in sex is abnormal according to the clinical definition? What sickness befalls the person who avoids sex? What disability? Clearly, such a person misses a life experience that some people value very highly and most value at least somewhat, but is avoiding sex “unhealthy” in the same way that avoiding protein is? Avoiding sex seems more akin to avoiding travel or avoiding swimming or avoiding invsetments in anything riskier than savings accounts – it’s not trendy, but it’s not sick, is it? (Sex is not a Natural Act, location 243).

Yet if a patient avoids sex due to dyspareunia, in that case it seems to be acceptable to view the avoidance as part of the sexual dysfunction that is painful sex. This is all very contradictory and confusing to me.

Dr. Tiefer ends her response to Dr. Binik by summarizing her position on the reclassification of dyspareunia: “As long as there are expert-based listings of sexual dysfunctions, we do women a disservice by failing to include pain as one of them,” but ideally she’d prefer to see classifications based on arbitrary norms dropped altogether (51.)

And that’s the way Dr. Tiefer’s response to Dr. Binik ends.

I find it disturbing that in spite of the New View’s probing explorations about how sexual dysfunction is arbitrarily defined in the DSM, in this response Dr. Tiefer felt it appropriate to make an artibrary decision about how to look at dyspareunia. Whereas in the past she has questioned whether or not disorders of desire and orgasm are truly a form of illness or disability, here, she made the unequivocal decision that sexual pain is in fact a sexual dysfunction.

I don’t know what to make of this contrast between Dr. Tiefer’s previous work and this article. Low sexual desire is not a disease… but feeling sexual pain is.
You are not sick if you can’t have an orgasm… but if your crotch hurts, then of course there’s something wrong with you. It’s normal and acceptable to go through periods of low sexual interest, especially if you’re tired… but if sex hurts, then that is not normal.

On the one hand, it makes some sense to me. Statistically, most people do not experience sexual pain – at least, not chronically, and not without some reason. In terms of raw numbers, it certainly is unusual to feel pain with most or every sexual encounter. And for me, personally, after careful consideration I view the pain I have as a sexual dysfunction.

But on the other hand, here I see a one-sided judgement about how normal my experience is, and by extension, how normal I may or may not be. If dyspareunia is recognized as a sexual dysfunction, then that’s an abnormality, isn’t it? So then, am I abnormal too? If so, what exactly am I supposed to do about it? Do I even have to do anything? What does it mean to have a feminist organization ask questions like, “Where are the women” in discussions of sexual dysfunction – and then have one leader of the organization declare what’s going on with women who have a certain type of sexual problem, without their feedback first? Where are the women, indeed – where are the women with sexual dysfunction when the doctors debate back and forth with each other?

When do the women with sexual dysfunction get a say? Dr. Tiefer does not speak for me; and I represent no one but myself.

By focusing on language, there are several dyspareunia issues Dr. Tiefer didn’t address. Practical questions like, if dyspareunia remains a sexual dysfunction, what treatments are appropriate to address it? Given the her criticism of the role of Big Pharma in marketing brand-name medications for other sexual problems, is it acceptable to offer oral pain medication as a treatment for this sexual problem? Or are pain medications and devices for sexual problems to be viewed as yet another tendril of dangerous, Big Bad Pharma? Is it appropriate to look at sexual pain as a relationship problem that exists only when trying to engage in partnered sexual activity, or is it a health problem in and of itself that exists independently of relationship status?

And it’s still not entirely clear to me which class of doctor Dr. Tiefer feels is best suited to handle complaints of sexual pain – If sexual pain is in the DSM, which various health professionals use, then does that make sexual pain a medical problem? Who should address it, medical doctors? Sexologists? Psychologists?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m interested in the answers though, because in the end, I am someone directly effected by the decision makers. Ultimately it’s my health at stake in this debate. The decision of who is best equipped to address sexual pain will impact who I must seek out for assistance, what kind of help I can expect to receive, and how soon I can expect to see results, and how satisfactory results will be measured. It’s not an understatement to say that my future lies in their hands.

The debate about sexual pain didn’t end with Dr. Tiefer’s response, nor did it end with the other 20 or so articles generated by Dr. Binik’s 2005 discussion. Eventually Dr. Binik wrote up a conclusion in which he acknowledged & evaluated each reply. But an evaluation of his final answer on what to do about dyspareunia will have to wait until next time.

Pleasurists edition 139

07/24/2011 at 8:06 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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[Dear internet, I submitted my Afterglow candle review to Pleasurists, and what I wrote was included in their roundup! As part of the rules & regulations of Pleasurists, I am to re-post the edition in which my post was included - behind a cut is permitted. You'll have to click through from the main page to view the Pleasurists materials, although everything should still appear in your RSS feeder. All links should below the fold should be considered potentially NSFW.]

Continue Reading Pleasurists edition 139…

Product review: Jimmyjane Afterglow massage candle

07/17/2011 at 4:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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(Not into product reviews? I’m still in warm-up mode after having been out of practice with blogging for awhile. Stick around for the social-political-feminist-disability-sexual stuff down the line.)

I thoroughly enjoy a relaxing, firm massage. Unfortunately, such massages are a luxury I rarely get to indulge in. A professional massage can easily cost over $100, and a full-body massage at home with my partner still requires some up-front costs in the form of supplies – not to mention the amount of time required to give a satisfying massage. And there are a lot of spa and body supplies out there, all tempting me with pretty packaging and promises of pleasure. Which ones should I go for?

Awhile back, on a whim, I bought a Jimmyjane Afterglow massage candle. I had tried a different brand of massage candle once before, and enjoyed the whole experience very much. But to avoid suspicion from people who are not me, I had to throw it out before I finished using it. I don’t need to worry about nosy people getting all up in my stuff anymore, so I picked up the Afterglow as a replacement. My only reason: “Because it was there.” I hadn’t actually done any research on the product first, but I figured since a reputable adult shop was selling it, I could probably rely on the staff to pick out something satisfactory to sell. I don’t generally recommend this strategy of impulse buying. In this case, however, my purchase worked out just fine.

What we’re looking at today is a cucumber-water scented massage candle:

[Description: A white, square candle holder with wax filling it about 3/4 of the way. The wick is unlit. There is a logo that says "JIMMYJANE" on the lower left side.]

Most of the ingredients in the candle are easy-to-pronounce and recognize – the first six components listed are soybean oil, shea butter, palmarosa oil, jojoba oil, aloe vera, and vitamin e. After that you get into the “What?” stuff & stabilizers – cis-3-hexaenyl acetate? Galaxolide 50 DEP? I don’t know what that is, but I know it’s not entirely all-natural. Furthermore, the instructions state that the massage oil is intended for external use only, so don’t smear the melted wax onto anyone’s genitals. You may even want to test patch a small area of your own and the recipient’s skin before going all-out with the melted wax, just to make sure no one is going to have an allergic reaction.

What it feels like: The melted wax is surprisingly slippery. It won’t feel like ordinary candle wax – when melted, I think it feels just as fluidy as liquid massage oil. When I use it on my partner, I can apply a lot of pressure to whatever I’m massaging and my hands still glide around without getting stuck. At some points I needed to wipe my hands off on a paper towel because they were getting too slippery and I was losing my grip.

The advantage of a massage oil candle is that when it is poured onto skin, the oil feels significantly warmer than room temperature. I tense up when I know my partner is about to pour oil onto my back. I can’t see when it’s about to land and I’m always afraid that it’s going to be too hot. However in practice, the temperature has been comfortable, and after awhile I realize I have nothing to be afraid of. So if you are interested in wax play, this candle might be a good option for beginners.

[Description: White, square candle holder from the side. From this angle the pouring spout is clearly visible, protruding from one corner. The "JIMMYJANE" logo is clearly visible.]

Whether or not you’re getting enough or too much slip from the oil to give a decent massage may be up to each individual couple or group. Communication between recipient and giver is important when engaged in massage. I thought my partner was being stingy with the oil initially, so I had to tell him to pour more on when I was on the receiving end. Once he did that, I felt much more comfortable and relaxed. On the other hand, I tend to pour it liberally because the slipperyness amuses me to no end.

[Description: White, square candle holder with lit wick. The melting wax inside looks yellow and reflects the candle flame.]

Using the Afterglow candle involves some time constraints, so using it will require some planning and an open schedule. Once you light the candle wick, it will take about 30 minutes for the wax to melt enough so to have something to work with. This is sufficient time for me to set the room up for a massage. Once you and the massage recipent are in place, you’re supposed to blow out the wick, for safety reasons. Then you can start using the melted wax.

[Description: White lady's hand tilting the square candle holder at an angle. The yellow melted wax is a liquid flowing into one corner of its ceramic container.]

About 30 minutes after extinguishing the flame, the melted fluid starts to thicken. Shortly thereafter, (I would say somewhere between the 40-45 minute point) it will begin to congeal back into solid form. If you’re still working with the wax at this point, it’s still usable as a massage oil but it will begin to feel granulated. I squished it between my fingers to make it fluidy again for awhile longer.

[Description: White lady's hand holding the candle at a different angle. The wick is out and blackened. Now the yellow wax is looking lumpy.]

After the candle has had sufficient time to cool down and return to a solid state, I store it inside of its original box. The packaging the Afterglow candle comes in noteworthy – a sturdy square box for a (mostly) square candle holder. When you open the box up, the inside top flap greets you with the written words “Melt me.” In addition to the 3 brief steps for use listed on the outside of the box “Light, pour, then massage into skin,” the candle comes with a detailed instruction book printed in several languages.

A couple of caveats to keep in mind when using the Afterglow candle:

The candle is designed to have its melted contents poured onto skin, so it has a low melting point. You are literally playing with warm-to-hot wax.
Friendly reminders: Be careful when playing with fire. Do not leave the candle burning unattended, do not place it on or near any flammable objects, and do not engage in wax play unless you are using a candle specifically designed for such an activity. What I mean by that is, if you try to use an ordinary $0.30 generic emergency candle on your partner’s skin, someone could wind up with 3rd degree burns. More information on safe wax play can be found via Go Ask Alice! for starters.

The scent from the cucumber-water candle is strong - to me the smell was pleasant, but it’s highly noticeable and long-lasting. I could still smell the scent of cucumber water lingering in whatever room the candle burned in, for 48-72 hours after extinguishing it. Since the smell is so potent, this may not be an appropriate product to use if you are sensitive to strong odors; for example, if someone in your household has multiple chemical sensitivity you may want use an unscented massage product instead.

The candle itself is somewhat heavy in the hand – after all, it’s made of densely packed wax and ceramic. It actually weighs in at a little under 5oz when new. The mass isn’t a problem for me, but if you experience tremors or have difficulty gripping objects, you may want an alternative. Some alternatives include: A massage candle with a lightweight brush to paint the melted wax/massage oil onto skin; a bottle of liquid massage oil; or a semi-solid massage bar that melts when exposed to heat.

Finally, one of the downsides of the Afterglow candle is the initial sticker shock. The Afterglow candle costs about $30, whereas my go-to bottle of massage oil ranges from about $7-$10. I have not yet determined how many uses I will actually get out of the Afterglow candle vs. my go-to liquid massage oil.

If price is an issue, then as of today I have Good News, everyone!

[Description: Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth from Futurama. Both his hands are raised and open. I can't say the line without using the picture. I couldn't resist.]

Or at least it’s good news for if you want the Afterglow candle but have important bills to pay. Until July 31, 2011, babeland.com is running a promotion on a Jimmyjane Afterglow massage oil candle – so long as the candle you want is the Fig-scented one. Details are listed here, (as of July 10th) so make sure you read the terms before making your purchase.
I took advantage of this deal, after having already tried out the cucumber water Afterglow candle.

The promotion of interest today is the one where you make a $5 donation to SEICUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States,) through babeland.com’s website. In return, you receive a Fig-scented Afterglow massage candle, for “Free*.” Free*, in this case, means you’re still spending money to get something, but you’re technically spending it on a donation rather than the product. This link takes you to the donation-for-candle offer.
FYI, there’s other donation-related promotions and general sales going on. You can donate $5 to SIECUS straight-up, without receiving anything in return. A third option is to spend $75+ on a Jimmyjane product, AND make an additional $5 donation to SIECUS, in exchange for a Jimmyjane vibrator worth $20.
Don’t forget to factor in shipping costs if your order has any. Shipping isn’t included as part of these promotions, and if there’s any on your order, you will still be responsible for it.

Note that in addition to a different scent, the fig-flavored Afterglow candle comes with changed packaging. The ceramic container for the wax is transparent instead of opaque. The instruction book that comes in the box is printed on textured instead of glossy paper. There is a small book of matches inside of the box, so for safety’s sake don’t let any little kids open the package containing this candle. And the fig-scented Afterglow candle includes a little lightweight brush like what I was talking about earlier in this post – with this brush, you can paint the melted wax onto your partner instead of pouring it on.

Here’s what I got when I made this purchase:

[Description: A square, transparent candle holder with an unlit wick and off-white wax inside. Behind that, a box labeled "AFTERGLOW." The lid on the box is open and white lettering says "MELT ME" on one flap. Inside of the box there sits a wide, black-bristled brush and a tiny rectangle box. You can't tell from the picture but FYI there are matches inside of the tiny box. Next to that is a square instruction book.]

For having made the $5 donation, babeland.com also throws in a thank-you envelope containing 3 coupons. 2 of those coupons are good online in August or August + September, the last one good at brick-and-mortar Babelands only. And there’s a floppy magnet in the thank-you envelope.

[Description: Colorful, happy looking rectangle coupons, a bright pink rectangle magnet, an envelope with "THANK YOU!" typed on it.]

And then here’s a picture of the two candle packages together, just for fun.

[Description: the same coupons as above. Two cube boxes that both say "AFTERGLOW" on them. One has a green top and the other has a cyan top. The white, opaque candle holder is sitting on top of these two boxes.]

As with all reviews posted on Feminists with FSD so far, I had to pay for this product(s) out of pocket with my own money. I took advantage of the $5 donation program, but, only after having bought the cucumber-water Afterglow candle reviewed here at full price at an earlier date. But the promo is available to anyone so I didn’t have to agree to write anything to get it, so in the end I receive no compensation for having written this. I still foot the bills around here.

Pleasurists Edition 138

07/12/2011 at 9:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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[Dear internet, I submitted my Pinwheel review to Pleasurists, and what I wrote was included in their roundup! As part of the rules & regulations of Pleasurists, I am to re-post the edition in which my post was included - behind a cut is permitted. You'll have to click through from the main page to view the Pleasurists materials, although everything should still appear in your RSS feeder. All links should below the fold should be considered potentially NSFW.]

Welcome to Pleasurists, a round-up of the adult product and sex toy reviews that came out in the last seven days. If you like what you see and want more of it be sure to follow our RSS Feed and Twitter.

Did you miss Pleasurists 137? Read it all here. Do you have a review for Pleasurists 139? Be sure to read the submission guidelines and then use the submission form to submit before Sunday July 17th @ 11:59pm Pacific.

Continue Reading Pleasurists Edition 138…

Product review: The Pinwheel

07/05/2011 at 10:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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(Not into product reviews? Consider this a warm-up before we get to the juicy stuff, as I’ve been out of practice with writing for awhile.)

My partner and I have a love/hate relationship with the Pinwheel, a medical-device-turned-sex-toy.
That is to say, I love it and my partner hates it.

Pinwheel 1 picture

[Description: A silver device with a long, thin handle resting on white cloth. A circle is attached to one end. There are something like 20+ thin, sharp points, each equal length, sticking out from the circle.]

What we’re looking at today is the Pinwheel, which some of you may recognize for what it really is: A Wartenberg wheel. The Wartenberg wheel is a medical device originally designed to test nerve response. It was developed by Robert Wartenberg, a doctor specializing in neurology, who practiced in Germany until he fled to the US in response to persecution by the Nazis. Wartenberg syndrome, a pain condition, is named after his work.

I don’t know if the Wartenberg wheel is still used in clinical practice, as most of the google results for a it point to the device’s use in kink and BDSM activities instead. Somewhere along the line, someone figured out that using the spiky wheel on yourself or on a partner could feel good in and of itself – at least outside of a clinical setting. Nonetheless, because of its original intended use, some readers here may not want to incorporate this into their sex lives – it may have too clinical of a feel, and it has the potential to be genuinely painful.

How and why would one go about incorporating something so sinister looking into their sex life? According to Babeland, it’s a sensation toy. I don’t 100% know what that means, but a label like sensation toy seems to indicate that, what you’re using is supposed to introduce new physical feelings – touch that you or your partner don’t usually feel, like sharpness instead of softness, metal instead of flesh, cold instead of warmth, and so on. It’s to add variety rather than to speed up orgasm. For example, I like to incorporate it into massage with my partner, though this can break a deep state of relaxation.

Now there is one problem with my Pinwheel:

Pinwheel picture 2

[Description: A close up of the wheeled spike circle on the end of the pinwheel's handle. There are clearly some prongs all bent out of shape at the very tips.]

I think mine’s broken, and I’m not sure if it got messed up during shipping or if it got all bent out of shape the first time I was taking it out of the packaging. Either way it was like that when it got here.
In practice, the 3 bent prongs don’t seem to make much of a difference. The points are small enough so that I can’t tell the difference when my partner rolls the bent part over me. But the bent parts have gotten stuck on my hair, so it could be a problem. And the bent parts take away from the device’s aesthetic - it doesn’t look pretty and I find the bent parts distracting. So sooner or later, I’m going to need to replace it.
In other words, if you decide you’re interested in such a wheel, don’t pick one out if you notice any problems with it. Hold out for a nice new one. Once you have one, handle with care – the Pinwheel is more fragile than it looks.

It makes some noise. Because it is made of metal, and the wheel has to be free to move, the device jangles around when you pick it up. Once I recognized the sound it made, my partner was no longer able to sneak up on me with it – I could hear the metallic parts clinking together.

It’s lightweight, especially if you can hold the entire handle in your hand. It could become tiring to hold if you can’t get a good grip on it, or if you have to hold it from only the very bottom of the handle.

When rolled over skin, the metal points will leave little red dots behind in a long unbroken trail; how long it takes for these marks to fade will depend on your own biology. The sensation is difficult to describe – have you ever just barely noticed the feeling of an insect crawling on your skin? If you look down at your arm or hand, yep, there’s a critter on there alright – and at this point you (I) usually kick or flick it off. To me, a light touch with the Pinwheel feels like that, minus the gross-out realization of “Ew there’s a bug on me!” Medium and heavier touches feel much more intense and surprisingly widespread. The wheel may be rolling over only a small part of one of my limbs, but the feeling and muscle tension reaction will spread all the way down the limb.

When my partner uses it on me it makes my muscles tense up involuntarily until the stimulation stops. I’m not sure if this is good or bad for me, since those muscle contractions include my pelvic floor, and my pelvic floor is already messed up as it is – what that means is I can’t decide whether or not it would interfere with Kegels. Heavier touches on healthy skin border on pain but so far do not cross the threshold into actual pain.

So although I enjoy it, in contrast, when I tried it out on my partner, it didn’t go over so well. The spikes produced a lot of skin welts, a little red pinprick of blood, his wriggling away and finally, after a few generous attempts and “I don’t know if I like it yet,” a final “No more I’m done I hate it.” He is still willing to use it on me at my request, but he does not understand why I like it. I don’t have an answer. But clearly this is not the right toy for him.

It’s relatively inexpensive, though the price can vary widely – between $4 – $20, depending on where you buy it from. A Pinwheel from Babeland (which is where I got mine from) will set you back $20, but you can get the same thing for less through Amazon (this might be a more innocuous option if you share your computer with someone who would not appreciate navigating it towards adult-themed sites.) Supposedly there are expensive versions which are more geared towards medical use in a professional setting, though I did not find them during a cursory search.

I do have some caveats before you rush out and pick one up. It broke my partner’s skin, so there’s a risk it could break yours, too – watch out for bodily fluids. It’s stainless steel and it can be cleaned, but most of us probably don’t have the means at home to truly sterilize a medical instrument to medical standards. My partner doesn’t like the ticklish sensation it produces, so if you dislike light touches it may be too uncomfortable. It has the potential to be painful as well, and so if you are sensitive to touch it might not be the right toy for you.

As with all reviews posted on Feminists with FSD so far, I had to pay for this out of pocket with my own money, and I don’t get any compensation out of posting this.

How I spent my unplanned hiatus

06/29/2011 at 10:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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It has been far too long since the last post here.

So it seems that the blog took a bit of an unexpected hiatus. Being a feminist/social justice type of blog, I chalk it up to the inevitable, and figure it was bound to happen eventually. Lots of feminist blogs go on breaks for awhile, or disappear entirely, for various reasons. Only a fortunate few can afford to write full time, and even those who can must still attend to the non-financial matters.

I finally got a little burned out, frustrated with speaking out but seemingly never being listened to. In looking over materials for a few recent conferences on sexual dysfunction, and noting who was selected to speak about what topics, I cannot help but feel a bit hopeless.

Yet another variation on a theme, yet another news article with a title like, “Is female sexual dysfunction real? You vote and decide!” “Is sexual dysfunction a made up hoax? News at 11.”

Why is my life up for debate?

More then that though, as I’ve been saying for awhile now, a lot of shit went down in my offline life within the last six months or so. Lots of changes, and the last two or three months were particularly intense, requiring more energy than I originally anticipated. There isn’t always much left of me by the end of a work day.

But some of what I’ve been up to has been worthwhile. Here’s some of the more interesting and relevant activities I’ve been up to while hiding from the internets:

- Got a new computer to work on. There was an adjustment period with the new system.

- Went to a sex education workshop.
- Participated in one of the US Slutwalks.

I’d love to talk about what I saw at both events and my opinions on the execution, however I fear that doing so will give enough details away to narrow down my geographic location(s). Suffice it to say that with Slutwalk in particular, there was some good stuff and some areas that sorely needed improvement; nonetheless I am glad to have participated in such a Walk – if only for the social aspects of it, because I need to get out more.

- I have attempted multiple times to have PIV intercourse with my partner…
…However, in spite of this hands-on experience with sexuality and attending a workshop, and in spite of exposure to sexually educational materials, I still somehow have sexual dysfunction. The additional education did not cure me. I still haven’t been able to have pain-free intercourse in about two and a half years.
Yeah it’s still not happening, the vaginismus is acting up. At least, I *think* it’s mostly vaginismus right now. I’ve been learning how to enjoy digital insertion of small-to-medium objects & fingers into my vagina, but I’m struggling again with anything I consider “Large” – it gets stuck and can feel painful. I can’t quite tell if the pain is muscular or if it’s closer to the surface.

- I am still having bladder problems to the point where I’m starting to worry about repercussions at work. One of my co-workers already asked me, when I got up to use the restroom for the nth time, “Are you okay?” Frankly the answer is “No, not exactly; it’s a long story.” Sooner or later someone is going to pin me down about my bathroom habits and it’s going to be really awkward.

So since I’ve been out of commission for awhile, I missed a lot of stuff in the news and blogosphere, and I cannot hope to ever catch up. We missed out on our chance to make timely commentary on stuff including but not limited to:

Blogging against disablism day!
All of Masturbation month! (May)
Juneteenth!
Most of Pride month! (June)
Gay marriage in New York state!
US and global politics and media scandals, including but not limited to Anthony Weiner’s weiner! (For better or worse, there’ll be no shortage of political news all the way through 2012.)
On a more serious note, multiple attacks on reproductive rights in the US!
Hearings in California over whether or not pornographic film actors & actresses should have to use barrier protection!
Multiple well-covered internet security breaches!
A slime The DSM-V’s revision draws near!
The Orgasm, Inc. DVD should be available on Netflix now!

And more!

But before we get into any of that, my intention remains to write one or two sex product reviews first before getting into much detail with politics & sexual dysfunction related news – if only because after such a long break, I need to flex my writing muscles. And I should try to get a review of Orgasm, Inc. up before September, because you know that it’s going to become a staple of all sexuality and gender study courses.

Unfortunately I need to stretch and flex my writing muscles, because clearly there is still a need for a hands-on perspective of sexual dysfunction.
That there is still a need for such self-advocacy is a disappointment to me.

For you see, there are still some credible professionals, academics and feminist advocates who do not themselves have sexual dysfunction, yet who continue to participate in programs which declare that female sexual dysfunction is an utter fabrication and any efforts to legitimize it as a diagnosis meriting medical intervention (and social acceptance) must be stopped at all costs. Which I interpret as a direct threat, because if sexual dysfunction does not exist, then people with sexual dysfunction – female sexual dysfunction in particular – must not exist.

I am a woman with sexual dysfunction.

The goal is usually something along the lines of stopping the long arm of Big Pharma from tapping into people’s sexual insecurity in order to capitalize on sexual insecurity. Sexual insecurity being a pretty common thing that a lot of people have, short of dysfunction.

The unfortunate consequence, deliberate or not, is that to hear for the millionth time that sexual dysfunction is not real is the millionth erasure of my existence and the validity of my experiences. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

When I read such impassioned speeches rallying against recognition of sexual dysfunction as a health problem, a disorder, a label, it’s like hearing, “Everything you went through and continue to go through is invalid. She doesn’t really have sexual dysfunction, because sexual dysfunction isn’t real. What an utterly useless description for an experience.” Hence me writing a snarky April Fool’s Day post about mythical Unicorns – because apparently I am a mythical beast as well. I don’t exist, and as such clearly I can not speak for myself, because there is no one to speak for.

Do I really have to sit back quietly and let people talk “For” me, even when what they say causes me to feel endless anguish? Do I really have to sit back and not say something back?

So some things changed in the last few months, but others remain the same. The feminist perspective that female sexual dysfunction isn’t a valid thing continues to frustrate me. Remember, my problem is that I have dyspareunia, which has been described by Dr. Tiefer as “The only valid sexual dysfunction and certainly the only important one.” That article continues to disturb me because it throws my friends with non-painful sexual problems under the bus – what they have isn’t valid and therefore it certainly isn’t important. And the contradiction that sexual dysfunction simultaneously does not exist and yet selectively does exist, confounds me to no end.

Thus motivating me to write again.

Now how fast I’ll be able to crank out posts with actual content and not just this fluffy stuff remains to be seen. There’s enough distractions around me so that I’m often doing stuff offline and nowhere near a keyboard. Once again I would like to put out a reminder that I am open to Guest Posts. Check out some of these previous guest posts for examples. (You need to leave a comment with a valid e-mail address to contact me about guest posting, or with any other questions.)

Book review: The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio

04/07/2011 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Case in point from the recent Shorties II post: Presenting a book review for the purposes of sex education + product evaluation. The book in question at this time is, The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio: How to go down on a man and give him mind-blowing pleasure, by Violet Blue. Now in case you’re wondering, “K, why is there a book review regarding fellatio on a blog about female sexual dysfunction?” The answer is, “I decided to read & review this book now, mostly for personal reasons. Also I need to clear away some stuff in the book backlog before I can justify making any new literature purchases.” I read the Kindle version, second edition, which tops out at about 2,400 locations or 256 pages. Here’s a Google Books preview to get you started if you want to look at it.

The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio covers a lot of ground. It’s not just a book of tips written just for people who perform oral sex; it’s for the recipient of oral sex as well. For both the giver and receiver, there’s a lot to think about – what to do, what’s happening to you and your partner, and ways to make sure both parties feel physically & mentally comfortable during the act.

The book provides a detailed anatomical explanation of the relevant body parts – mouth, tongue, throat, penis, testicles, and yes the anus, prostate and pubes. Body fluids are described in frank terms. Blue does present some bullet point lists of tips, but she also provides detailed, how-to instructions that wouldn’t have fit in a short list. She also addresses the cultural baggage and negative attitudes around fellatio – sexuality, especially men’s sexuality, tends to get oversimplified (“Insert tab A into slot B…”) and fellatio in particular is often associated with dominant & submissive gender roles. It doesn’t have to be that way. On the other hand, for some folks, D/S gender roles are a turn-on, and Blue acknowledges this flipside as well in the discussion of BDSM and fellatio towards the end of the book.

The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio is particularly helpful when it comes to safe sex. There’s a chapter talking about ways to make oral sex safe between partners (the pros and cons of various barrier methods are discussed at length,) and the safe sex chapter even includes charts detailing the probability of contracting STI’s from giving or receiving oral sex. One interesting feature about the charts was the inclusion of the probability of contracting vaginitis (a vaginal infection not necessarily caused by STI pathogens,) from giving or receiving fellatio – the risk, according to the chart is, “N/A,” (location 661) or not applicable. Still I thought that was neat to remember it at all. I guess a chart including the risk of contracting vaginitis would be more relevant in the related Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus book. Which I should probably also read and review.

Throughout the book, Blue addresses erectile dysfunction and disabilities - not just limited to physical disabilities; she explicitly wrote a paragraph on Attention Deficit Disorder, for example. I appreciated the inclusion of these topics. Blue makes it clear that, even if you or your partner are dealing with erectile dysfunction, chances are that fellatio will probably still feel good. (If you’re not certain, ask – the book emphasizes over and over again that communication is important.) Interestingly, Blue points out that certain disabilities may make sexual stimulation painful, even when there’s a penis involved rather than a vulva – she focused on Multiple Sclerosis in particular as a potential cause of sexual pain. With disabilities, erection, orgasm and/or ejaculation may be impaired, but that does not necessarily mean that the penis is non-responsive and that the owner of it does not feel and react to sexual stimulation. For people with disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, she also mentions “Phantom orgasms,” something I’ve seen talked about elsewhere – orgasm isn’t just a body reaction; the body is a shortcut to the brain. There’s still some parts about disability we can push for improvement on though; for example she uses the term “ADD sufferers” (location 1445) which implies that ADD equates with suffering, and at one point she says “You should never consider a disabled man asexual” (location 1432,) by which she probably means that it isn’t fair to de-sexualize people with disabilities… but then again with this quote, you get the whole asexual erasure thing going on. So it’s probably better to not make assumptions about the sexual orientation of people in the first place.

The last part of the book covers resources for learning more about fellatio, and these resources often coincide with learning more about sexuality in general. For example, the contact information for sex-positive retailers is printed (some of it may be outdated at this point though, because the book was originally printed in the early 2000s – you may have to Google some information to confirm if its still current.) There are some suggestions for pornographic yet educational films and how to enjoy them.

For the most part, I felt the book was written with a cis-gender heterosexual audience in mind. The book does talk about how to give and receive fellatio when performed on a strap-on dildo and how the act of fellatio can be subverted into a means to bend gender roles, but for the most part, penis = man = cis man. Most of the illustrative vignettes sound like they were provided from the point of view of opposite-sex couples, although I did see some gay and lesbian content as well. Speaking of which, there are some illustrative sexual fantasies described between chapters – these erotic short stories did nothing for me, but I am certain that is a personal thing. Your mileage with the written sexual fantasies will vary.

One thing I did not like about the book at all was the drawings. The illustrations are just terrible: The line art is shaky and near the end there’s an illustration of a guy receiving oral sex on the beach and one of his eyes is all like 0.- and it just looks weird. Technically speaking, Amazon isn’t supposed to sell pornography, (enforcement is another issue,) so I think the drawings maybe had to be below optimal in order to get the book past the censors.

So who might be interested in pursuing the pages of The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio? Who would gain the most benefit from reading a how-to on how to give or receive “Mind-blowing pleasure?”
Well for starters I’m actually becoming skeptical & jaded when it comes to any guide that promises such a claim. I know that book sellers gotta be able to move stuff off the shelves, but there’s so much human variation that it’s too hard to guarantee that anything can create that kind of sexual pleasure.

This would be a very good book for people who have not yet had any experience with oral sex, or who have had only limited exposure to it, yet who nonetheless have an interest in being the recipient or provider of such an act in the future. Because it covers such a wide berth of content, from Anatomy to X-rated films, (I couldn’t think of anything that starts with a Z – unzipping pants, maybe?)  the book will provide plenty of  information with which to brace yourself. I would suggest reading the book start-to-finish if you’re on the newer side. If you do not yet have a partner but expect to find one later, Blue makes some suggestions for practicing fellatio in a solo setting. (You won’t get the body language feedback but you’ll be under no pressure while tweaking your own techniques.)

One potential problem newbies may have with the book though, is that since it’s so detailed, it can seem overwhelming at times. As I was reading through some of the how-to suggestions, I found myself asking at points, “How is anyone supposed to remember all this?!” So if it’s too much to take in all at once, you may have to go back and skim parts of the text again later.

It would be an okay book for people who have some experience with fellatio and expect to continue participating in it, but do not yet consider themselves to be experts. If you are such a reader, then you can probably skip around to whatever parts you’re most interested in.
So for these two kinds of audience members, the book is most worth it.

I think the book would be less useful (and thus less worthwhile) for people who already have a lot of experience with oral sex. So if you think of yourself as “Advanced” in fellatio, (even theoretically!) then The Ultimate Guide might not be worth it. At that point, chances are you’ve already seen & heard most of what Violet Blue talks about. It’s still worth something; because it’s so dedicated to its topic, there may still be a few things you can pick up here and there… However, I think you’ll eventually pick up on those few things that you didn’t know about, by reading sexuality & sex education blogs, for free. Just hang around a few favorite blogs long enough (try some of the ones listed on my blogroll) and you’re bound to see the same subjects pop up, eventually.
For example, since I have read a lot of related sexuality material elsewhere, I found myself anxious to speed through the stuff that I already knew. I felt obligated to read everything for the purposes of this review but there was a lot of stuff I could have just passed over without a look back.

The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio may or may not be of use to people who do not expect to give or receieve fellatio in the near future. This is because if you have decided that it’s an act with no appeal to you, then the book may still provide you with insight into what’s on the minds of folks who do engage in it and why such folks will often defend it. But if you’ve already made up your mind that fellatio is off the table, then chances are no book will be able to change your mind and in some cases it will just be a waste of time. It could be irrelevant to you in this case.

I am not sure if this would be a good bet for sexual abuse survivors, because there is only a very brief mention of fellatio and past abuse.

So if price is a factor, then I think the $10 for the e-book version or ~$15 for the printed copy is worth the investment if you are new-to-medium in fellatio. If you feel that you’re advanced, then I think the $10 for an electronic copy is cost-effecient only if you are already heavily interested in sexuality books. Otherwise, if you know what you’re doing, then save your money and read some blogs instead. And if you know that fellatio isn’t going to happen then whether you would benefit from the book depends on your political or philosophical inclinations.

Shorties II

03/21/2011 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In the same spirit as the original Shorties, I bring you: A series of posts which were each too small to constitute blog entries on their own. Divided we are weak, but together, we are strong!

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The National Vulvodynia Association’s newsletter for 2010 is posted on their website, here. It includes updates on research and funding, and profiles of researchers who have received NVA-related grants. There are also profiles of medical professionals working towards a more comprehensive understanding of vulvodynia. There’s also updates on educational materials and programs provided by the NVA.

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There’s a couple of reasons I like to post book reviews on this blog. I may post product (vibrator, dilator etc.) reviews in the future; I haven’t decided yet. Again, a reminder: Any reviews I posted here so far, I had to pay for the product in question & I haven’t gotten any compensation for my services.

It’s a blog about sexual dysfunction, especially that greatest bone of consternation, female sexual dysfunction. One of the common themes I read in feminist analysis of FSD is that a lot of it is actually sexual insecurity which stems from ignorance and lack of education. The idea goes something like, men & women are socialized differently and grow up with different expectations & pressures when it comes to sexual behavior. (In other words, differences in sexual behavior between men & women aren’t necessarily inborn.) Women are discouraged from learning about sex & pleasure. Combine this with shitty sex education and you have a pretty good chance of not understanding the influence of gender roles and how your own body works. This in turn is misinterpreted by the individual as “There must be something wrong with me” when experiencing a normal, understandable reaction to sexual stimulation. And the cure for this is better sex education instead of medication. Go read a goddamn book or something!

Improved sex education is great, so that’s one reason to post reviews of sexual guides and products. So every one in awhile you’ll find such a review here – it’s my way of saying, “Hey, here’s something that’s good and worth your time,” or, “Hey, here’s an overrated product that isn’t worth the packaging it came in. Save your money.” Or I’ll post something more nuanced –  “This is good, this is bad, and this part I don’t understand at all.”

However there’s another reason I post the reviews here…
Sometimes all the sex education in the world cannot fix a sexual problem.
Because it doesn’t all come from sexual ignorance.
Many of the sexual guides I’ve read, some of which come highly recommended, do not do a good job of addressing my problem in particular – pain. Maybe it’s because they’re not medical advice books so they can’t recommend treatments. Liability issues, maybe.

I’m doing what I’ve been told to do. I’m getting better sex education. I read the blogs. I buy the sex toys from the feminist sex shops. I have explored my sexual fantasies and will continue to do so. I masturbate to orgasm. I am in love with a supportive partner (the feeling, I understand, is mutual.)

The lady with sexual dysfunction is reading a goddamn book or something.

So why do I still experience dyspareunia?
Why do I still have vaginismus?
Why does my vagina still take so long to recover from vaginitis?
Why is medical intervention the treatment that best addressed the sexual and chronic pain?

Hey wait a second, this isn’t working. I still want to have some penis-in-vagina sex over here and that’s still like, really hard to do. Maybe I’m just not reading books and trying to learn hard enough.

The sex education helps – it’s definitely worth something. But it’s not comprehensive enough for me.

Now we could say here that I am the special snowflake exception to the general rule that FSD is a fake invention designed by Big Pharma and evil doctors; Dr. Leonore Tiefer, organizer of the New View Campaign, said as much when she wrote, “Dyspareunia is the only valid sexual dysfunction and certainly the only important one,” in response to the suggestion that dyspareunia might be better considered a pain condition rather than a sexual problem.

So hypothetically I suppose I could say, “Fuck you all; I got mine.”

Hypothetically. I have no desire to actually do that and in fact I feel dirty for having spelled such a phrase out in text. Excuse me while I swish some mouthwash and/or wash my hands. Is that what I’m supposed to say? Is that the way I’m supposed to feel? Is this the signal that, as someone with dyspareunia, I’m supposed to shut my pie hole when I see folks with other dysfunctions belittled for it?
I maintain that elevating one or some forms of sexual dysfunction as more real than others creates and crystalizes an artificial hierarchy. And it throws folks with sexual dysfunctions other than or in addition to pain under the bus.

And if, for me, all the sex education in the world fell short of actual medical help from professionals, then why should I believe that it would be any different for all of my friends who have sexual dysfunctions that are not painful?
Not that sex education has been completely useless; far from it. I have taken advantage of the information I found useful. (I also tripped over the parts that were counter-productive.) But to deny medical options to women with sexual dysfunction is to remove an important potential treatment, which for some folks may very well be necessary to find sexual satisfaction. And I find it highly disturbing when such options are removed through means of threats & intimidation, shaming, or ableist comments.

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Speaking of dyspaerunia being “The only valid sexual dysfunction and certainly the only important one,” I made this Privelege Denying Dudette meme just for you:

[Picture: Background: 6 piece pie style color split with pink and blue alternating. Foreground: White girl wearing a green t-shirt, featuring an African-American Sesame Street muppet with nine different hairstyles, subtitled, “I Love My Hair.” Has a smug, arrogant facial expression and plays with her long, brown hair. Top text: “ [SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION ISN'T REAL, YOU DON'T NEED MEDICAL INTERVENTION IN YOUR SEX LIFE] ” Bottom text: “ [WAIT, YOU HAVE DYSPAREUNIA? YOU BETTER GO SEE A DOCTOR.] ”]

What? Wait, what’s it going to be, do I trust my doctors or not? Do they know enough about sex to help me or is it an exercise in futilty to even bring up a sex problem? Am I allowed to go to one of the heavily-marketed sexual dysfunction clinics Dr. Tiefer mentioned in Sex is Not a Natural Act when my regular gynecologist gets stumped and refers me to such a clinic? If I take a prescription for sexual pain, am I just feeding the Big Bad Phama Beast and looking for an easy, quick fix? If I get treatment for dyspareunia, does that count as medicalizing sexuality?

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I recently came to a revolutinary conclusion. If your definition of sex positive does not include sexual dysfunction, then your definition isn’t positive enough.

I want to go out of my way to explicitly include sexual dysfunction in sex-positive discussions. Because ignoring it, outright denying its existence, or claiming that looking at sexual dysfunction = focusing on the negative, will not make it go away. Insisting that sexual dysfunction is a lie erases people who actually have sexual dysfunction. As a result, people with sexual dysfunction are excluded from sex-positivity – and I hate that. There is push-back against excluding people with a history of STIs from the sex-positive community by means of negative, stigmatizing language – why not push back for people with dysfunction?

You know what? I have sexual dysfunction. I exist. This is a long- term thing for me that I do not foresee changing any time soon. It will not go away just because you are uncomfortable with dysfunction (and, by extension, disability. These two phobias tend to go tovether, possibly because dysfunction may be viewed as a sub-type of disability.)

Yet even with the dysfunction, somehow, in spite of everything, I am sex-positive. I have made peace with it – or, at the very least, I have made a truce with myself until I can figure something better out.

Insisting that sexual dysfunction isn’t real or that medical options are unwarranted is just going to make it harder to get the care that I and my friends need. It’s true that most people will never experience sexual dysfunction, and so will not require medical options to address it. Nonetheless, inevitably, some people are going to develop sexual dysfunction. Isn’t there a way we can focus on getting support to such folk, instead of trying to sweep ‘em under the rug?

Sexual dysfunction and sex-positivity do not need to be mutually exclusive.

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Sometimes, I worry a little bit about my reliance on a vibrator for orgasm. I think that, with enough practice, I probably could masturbate to orgasm using only my (or my partner’s) hands. But until then, I orgasm easily enough with a battery-powered vibrator.

I’m not worried about spending money on vibrators and thus supporting a capitalist system. I’m not worried about using my vibrators during sexual activity with my partner. I’m not worried that he’ll feel inadequate compared to my vibrator. I’m not worried about becoming addicted to masturbation. I’m not worried that I’m supporting the tyranny of orgasm.

The real reason I sometimes worry about using my vibrator is…
…I have this paranoid fear that some day space aliens or a freak accident or a Hollywood movie-esque disaster will unleash an electromagnetic pulse over the USA (home) and all elecronics will lose functionality.
Including my vibrators.
And then I’ll have to find a techno wizard to SteamPunk some kind of hand-cranked or steam-powered vibe for me. Possbily incorporating or inspired by one of the old-time antiques like those found in the Museum of Sex. And it’s just going to be really awkward and frustrating and I’ll probably have a lot of other important things to worry about post-EMP.

Obviously I don’t really know how EMPs work and I don’t really care. Everything I learned about them, I learned from movies.

I think about this with about the same frequency that I think about the Zombie Apocalypse as a real thing. Which is to say, not very often except for maybe after watching a movie about a zombie apocalypse or a post-apocalyptic setting.

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