A Sneak Peek at the Boys and Sex Project

This summer I’m working on a writing project with my daughter Rylee on boys and their sexual development. This is a draft of an excerpt (aka sneak peek) from a chapter focusing on myths of male sexual development. Check it out. Like it if you like it and provide constructive feedback if you don’t. Thanks. Here we go:

We all should know better.

We should know that it doesn’t make good sense to use animal behavior—observations of fruit flies, rats, hamsters, sheep, and other animals—as an explanation or justification for gender-based human behavior. Unless we’re a fancy scientist who can maintain clear objectivity, using animal behavioral models to help explain why boys and girls and men and women behave the way they do is too subjective, self-serving, and risky. But when it involves humor and irony and helps us make a point, resisting this temptation is very difficult.

What Happens When Rams Watch Porn

On a sunny morning in late June, I (John) received a porn ping about Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk titled, “The Great Porn Experiment.” Wilson is an adjunct faculty member at Southern Oregon State University. He’s also co-host, with his wife Marnia Robinson (author of Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow) of the “Your Brain on Porn” website. Wilson’s areas of interest are neuroscience, pornography, and internet porn addiction. In his work he emphasizes the negative neurological and physical consequences of internet porn addiction.

Given all of the above, I was unable to suppress my curiosity and immediately clicked on the link. I was immediately transported to that amazing internet dimension where I could watch and listen to Gary Wilson tell me about The Great Porn Experiment.

Less than 90 seconds into his TEDx talk, Wilson wandered away from talking about humans, moving to something that he obviously found much more interesting—1960 research data on the sexual behavior of rams and ewes (male and female sheep). He stated: “Mother nature likes to keep a male fertilizing willing females as long as any new ones are around.” [He then began discussing a graph of the “minutes to ejaculation” for rams with either the “same old ewe” or with fresh new ewe partners].

Wilson continued: “In that top line, the ram, he needs more and more time to mate with the same old ewe. But if you keep switching females, the bottom line, he, well, it’s just not the same (audience laughter). He can get the job done in two minutes flat and get the job done until he is utterly exhausted. This is known as the Coolidge effect.” (We’ll get to the story about the Coolidge effect later; for now we’re sticking with Wilson and his sheep story).

Reflections on Ram-Ewe Sexual Behavior

Okay. After less than 2 minutes of Wilson’s TEDx talk (ironically, about the same amount of time it took the rams to “get the job done”), I could no longer focus and had to turn off the video to reflect on my thoughts and feelings. I found myself both intellectually stimulated and emotionally annoyed. Intellectually, I began wondering if perhaps it’s perfectly normal and evolutionarily natural for me to find females—other than my wife—more sexually stimulating. I wondered if maybe I should want to behave like a ram and ejaculate every 2 minutes with a new sexual partner (preferably human) until I’m exhausted—because, after all, that’s apparently what Mother Nature wants. Although this sounded intriguing, I instantly decided that due to the sexual partnering messages I’ve gotten for 50+ years through the media, for this arrangement to work, I would need to have the new available sexual partners be supermodels with no pores who are solely interested in my personal sexual stimulation and gratification (with no lingering conversation required subsequent to my 2 minute ejaculations).

Why is it that Wilson’s TEDx talk annoyed me in less time than it takes male sheep to move on to a new partner? Well, because of the amazing processing skills and speed of the human brain, I can formulate my answer to that question even faster than I can click a mouse. My annoyance rose up because there are so many things wrong with taking a research study on the sexual behavior of sheep and generalizing it to humans that hearing the story produced a negative emotional reaction. And what makes this even worse is the fact that I support Wilson’s conclusions (too much internet porn is bad for male sexuality and sexual performance), but lament his intellectual methods.

An Alternative Interpretation (or Are Human Males Only Interested in Ejaculation?)

Let’s start with one, among many, alternative interpretation of the 1960 sheep sex data. If you recall, Wilson noted that the rams “needed more and more time to mate with the same old ewe.” The way he stated this implies that the ONLY or EXCLUSIVE goal in this sexual situation is for the ram to ejaculate. Funny thing: I shared the research results with my wife and she suggested that perhaps the ram felt more comfortable, less anxious, and was able to therefore last longer with his regular ewe-partner. Perhaps they lingered together because, although ejaculation may have been one of their goals, the process of their ram-ewe lovemaking was enjoyable in-and-of-itself?

In fact, if ejaculation is really the only goal for human males—as it appears to be for sheep—then masturbating to internet pornography seems an appropriate venue (and unless my editor snips out this comment, I’d be inclined to suggest that sex with sheep may also be in play). However, it seems that based on 21st century coupling behavior, most human males are also interested in establishing and maintaining sexual and intimate relationships with human females (while some are interested in sexual and intimate relationships with other human males). Alyssa Royse, a freelance writer, Seattle-based sex educator, and Good Men Project, noted that, similar to Wilson, the popular culture also has emphasized that when it comes to sex and intimacy, human males are perhaps more ram-like than may be desirable. In a post on the Good Men Project website, she wrote:

I could go on and on, but that point is that popular culture sets up this idea that men are sexual predators who need to resort to trickery and cologne to fulfill their one and only mission, which is sticking their penis in a girl. (Alyssa Royse, http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-danger-in-demonizing-male-sexuality/)

Royse is observing that popular culture also seems to project the idea that males are more ram-like than human.

Seriously . . . What If Human Males Were Like Wilson’s Rams?

Like Wilson, many scientists, journalists, and people on the street fall prey to the temptation to generalize observations of various female and male animals to human gender-based behaviors. Despite the fact that we (both John and Rylee) think that generalizing the results from sheep research to human males can be silly, we also believe it’s important to take these possible generalizations and implications very seriously. Consequently, we will now look closely at and deconstruct Wilson’s sheep-based generalizations to determine just how well they fit humans. Based on the initial 2 minutes of his TEDx talk, here’s our best effort to take his message and translate it into human male sexual behavior:

  • IF a human male happens to have a frontal lobe the size of a ram and therefore cannot consider the pleasure or interests of a partner or future implications of impregnating multiple females . . .
  • AND IF a human male is in the rather unusual and remarkable situation of having several willing human females available. . .
  • AND IF the available and willing human females happen to have the ample breasts, long legs, plump red lips, full lashes, and lack of pores that human males have been conditioned to find attractive . . .
  • AND IF a human male has no moral or social or health inhibitions about sexual behavior with multiple partners
  • AND IF, like our ram brothers, a human male has repeated ejaculation as his ultimate and exclusive goal . . .
  • THEN it would be highly natural (as deemed by Mother Nature) to ejaculate every two minutes with a different woman until reaching a state of exhaustion (presuming the human refractory period—during which a second ejaculation isn’t possible—cooperates and that the human male doesn’t fall asleep after his first ejaculation).

Another way of making the point we’re trying to make is to say: There is very little serious, relevant, or helpful take home message (for humans) from this research on rams and ewes. However, despite its minimal relevance for humans, these research results may be very serious, relevant, and helpful for rams and ewes, scientists who study rams and ewes, and ranchers who want to breed rams and ewes.

6 thoughts on “A Sneak Peek at the Boys and Sex Project”

  1. I’m in agreement with some but not all of your points, John. If the sole point of this section is that Wilson’s conclusions are ridiculous and completely irrelevant for humans, then I can’t agree. If your point is that consumers of research need to be very cautious about how, when, whether and to what degree we can apply conclusions from animal studies to human behavior, then I couldn’t agree more. As a researcher, you know that many studies of human (especially child and adolescent) development, early studies of drug metabolism and a host of other studies are done first in animals. Some of this work provides a framework, direction or focus for later studies on humans OR allows for hypotheses to be formed about human behavior when doing the same study on a human would be impossible, impractical or unethical. (Let’s leave aside for a moment, the question of ethicality of the studies on animals.)

    The end of your section says that the “ewe and ram study” was irrelevant, unserious and unhelpful for humans to consider. I don’t agree at all. Anecdotal evidence over almost 20 years in clinical practice, has suggested that the wide dissemination of pornography on the Internet (and through various digital media platforms) is significantly changing the way men and boys experience, interpret and develop their sexual behaviors. And many of them speak of the availability of a constant stream of new stimulation necessary for them to become aroused or reach the “same” level of arousal with their partners or even by themselves. The early sexualization of girls–a large topic in my own book on adolescent development–is also deeply related to the immense changes wrought by digital media in the last 15 years. I believe that the effects of digital media are having what I’d now jokingly call the “sheep effect” especially on male sexual development. I’d love to see people do more serious, empirical studies on exactly this question. I’m not saying that the “ewe and sheep” study provides evidence for the effects I’m seeing among men and boys. I’m saying that your argument that Wilson and his study is irrelevant and somehow harmful only shuts down a conversation about whether similar behavior among humans can be amplified or induced by certain cultural practices. I wonder if you don’t need to reframe your argument as more of a media literacy argument–that as consumers of research we need to be careful about DIRECTLY applying the results of any animal (or human) study to our immediate lives. In a mass media-driven culture hungry to feed the 24-hour news cycle, the rapid and uncritical application of research (animal or human) to human praxis is always a danger. But the consideration of an idea, any idea–no matter what it’s source–to human activity–isn’t irrelevant or unserious. It can be part of the progressive activity of real thinking.

    I know that we don’t want to support the idea that men are “bad” and “only want one thing” or “don’t have any responsibility to their sexual partners.” But if in doing so we have to hide or curtail information that doesn’t fit the view of a “good” man, I don’t think that’s worth it–it’s not good science or good practice. The question isn’t whether Wilson’s work directly applies to human male sexual behavior. The question is whether the underlying structures of development may have some commonality between species and in what ways, if any, can these help us understand human behavior. Given the challenges today for boys and girls to develop healthy (sexual) selves while swimming in the ocean of digital media influence, I’d prefer to see all ideas on the table.

    I’m really interested in your book and your upcoming work. I hope you’ll be engaging directly with the question of digital media and sexual development. In 2013, I don’t think its possible to write about one without writing about the other. Let me know if you’d like to take a look at the chapter in my work on sexualization/adolescent development. All the best!

    1. Hi Michael.

      Thanks for sharing your excellent points in response to my blog. Although I’m sure we don’t agree on everything, I’m betting we agree on nearly everything.

      Your point on my sarcastic irrelevant comment is right on and exactly the sort of feedback that’s valuable to me. I don’t mean to say it’s irrelevant, but instead am heading down the path to media and consumer literacy, as you suggest. The chapter of which this is a short excerpt will also focus on confirmation bias and the inappropriate extrapolation of animal research to justify specific male/female behaviors (while not necessarily deepening our understanding or contributing to more healthy and adaptive sexual behaviors).

      I’d love to see your chapter on sexualization/adolescent development. My academic email address is: john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

      I also very much appreciate your feedback as it’s the kind of insightful input that will help me with the writing and learning and teaching process.

      Thanks again!

      John SF

  2. Couldn’t agree more. And continue to find the perpetuation of these ideas harmful to both men and women. I actually think it’s even worse for men than women, but it, pardon the pun, screws us all. Perpetuating this idea that men must acquire a suitable female receptacle for their penis, in sufficient quantity as related to others, in order to actually be “real men” is….. well, it makes us sheep. And it makes us all sad.

    Oddly, I was just working on a piece about how my time on a sheep farm has impacted my sense of sexuality, I am now worried about that piece. 😉

    1. Hi Alyssa.

      Thanks for commenting. Obviously I’ve enjoyed reading some of your work. In my draft chapter I’ve got a second quote from you which I think is amazingly clear and powerful: “Yes, girls are told that boys are predatory and somehow out of control. The corollary there is that boys are told they are predators, and out of control. . . . From the get-go, we are teaching our kids to fear male sexuality . . .”

      Great stuff. Thanks for all you’re doing. And good luck making that connection between your sheep farming experience and your sense of sexuality. In my opinion it’s often very helpful to make those connections . . . it’s just whether it’s being used for good or evil:) . . . or something like that.

      Thanks for your comment!

      John SF

  3. I think you are simply over-reacting from a needs based intellectual and/or religious bias that mandates humans by virtue of their intelligence are also therefore immune to, or evolved beyond the same natural mammalian instincts nature has provided to nearly all animal life forms.

    We have the intellectual power to over-ride natures predispositions – IF we are aware we have them and understand how they operate. That doesn’t not mean we are immune to their unconscious influence or that they are protected from manipulation by things like porn and rationalization and denial from our own psychological fragility.

    Hence, the sheep study is supremely relevant in it’s ability to strip away the layers of rationalization and denial in which human intellect engages so that we can see the natural mechanisms contributing to the behaviors that get us in trouble The correlations are so striking that it is undeniably good science. However, it flies in the face of human ego and our need to believe in our spiritual domain over all living things.

    No one like to be revealed as “ordinary” and this is generally how I perceive your reaction to the TEDx presentation.

    1. Hi Proformance.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not quite sure what you mean about me having a needs-based intellectual or religious bias. I’m not religious and have no need for you or anyone else to believe what I believe. Anyway, if you want to argue that research on rams and ewes is “supremely” relevant to human behavior around porn, then go for it. I do agree that we’re all much more ordinary than we tend to think we are, but I think I probably think we’re less like sheep that you think we are. But my main point is that although we may disagree on this and other things, I simply don’t care enough about this issue to even engage in a debate with you. . . so feel free to believe whatever you’d like to believe. Have a good weekend.

      John SF

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