TIME sexuality

Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Women Into Porn, Research Says

After reading the best-selling book, some women begin using pornography for the first time

E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is introducing more women to porn — at least according to a narrow study conducted at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Researcher Diana Parry interviewed 28 women in their 20s to 50s about their pornography habits. She discovered that women in the group increased their consumption of sexually explicit content after reading the book.

“So many of the women [we interviewed] were hopping in for the first time to pornography or sexually explicit material that was written by women for women,” Parry told Salon in an interview.

“I find it’s motivating women. It is exposing them to a genre of material that they either didn’t know existed or they didn’t know that they liked,” the professor said.

Parry employed a broad definition of porn, using a catchall label of “sexually explicit material” to reduce stigma surrounding erotica, porn websites and other sexual entertainment.

“But I think we need a cautionary note around it, because while they open up opportunities and provide women with unprecedented access to new genres or ways of thinking about their sexuality, at the same time, many of the scripts that are reproduced are really patriarchal scripts around women’s sexuality.”

[Salon]

TIME Sex

Fifty Shades of Grey and How One Sex Act Went Mainstream

A cultural evolution, from 'Fanny Hill' to 'Fifty Shades'

In 1976, a survey was distributed to American women through magazines like Cosmopolitan. The questions it asked were personal — very personal — and the answers, compiled in The Hite Report, were a landmark insight into female sexuality. Women were asked to describe their experiences, desires and disappointments. In a 1987 story, TIME praised the report’s author, Shere Hite as “the doyenne of sex polls” and “liberator of the female libido.”

(Read more from TIME’s archive on Shere Hite and her research on sex in America.)

In their anonymous responses, women vented and raved about both sexual practices and social attitudes. One of the findings that might shock audiences today, however, was actually one of the least “free love” of all. Buried in the section about receiving oral sex (and not even listed in the index), was a question about fellatio. One woman’s comment (expressed in blunter language than can be used here): “I would consider [it] with a loaded gun at my head. No other way.”

Reading that line, I wondered where that woman is now. Perhaps she’ll be one of the millions of people off to see Fifty Shades of Grey this week: the story of a young woman’s sexual awakening in which said act accounts for some of the tale’s least provocative moments. Advice about it is now a staple of Cosmopolitan today; indeed, today’s readers are told that it’s basically “the kickoff…for sex.”

How did attitudes change, and so quickly? As recently as the 1970s, this was certainly not something that a gentleman would expect. Today, the act is something more like bread before dinner: noteworthy only if it’s absent.

But there’s more to the history behind that change than a simple move toward permissiveness — and, it turns out, the ubiquity and “standardness” of fellatio is perhaps not as widespread as one might believe.

***

Fellatio has been happening for as long as humans have been around, and there are references to it from ancient Peru and classical Rome. Cultures and religions, however, have not all taken—and still do not take—the same attitude towards it.

I went to the Kama Sutra, thinking that would be an obvious starting place for historical ideas about the topic, but its discussion of fellatio is fairly brief, associating it with dirty and loose women. (Interestingly, the Kama Sutra spends much longer on the erotic quality of using one’s fingernails to impress dents in a lover’s skin.)

That classic of the dirty book canon, 1748’s Fanny Hill, makes no reference at all to fellatio, which suggests it wasn’t something commonly offered in London brothels at the time (or else that it wasn’t something that the clammy-handed readers of smut novels were expected to want). In American legal texts of the early 1900s, fellatio was clearly for fellas. The statutes referring to it, originally falling under the vaguely defined idea of “unnatural acts,” were about catching gay men. Hetero oral sex tended to get passing references in pre-World War II sex manuals, the kind that talk about the need for a man to “instruct” his presumably virgin bride. Apparently some healthy couples indulged in this kind of thing, the message ran, but it’s not part of most people’s repertoire. In 1919’s Sexual Truth Versus Sexual Lies, Misconceptions, and Exaggerations, the author wrote that cunnilingus and fellatio “are very common in the less worthy marriages.”

In his 2000 study, The Social Organization of Sexuality, sexual behaviorist E. O. Laumann theorized that oral sex became more popular in the 1920s. Laumann’s surveys, which describe the sexual histories of various age cohorts, show a big jump in oral sex right about the time when the baby boomers started hooking up. The sexual revolution brought fellatio into the public consciousness, via its most famous practitioner, Linda Lovelace.

Despite the counter-cultural frisson of the subversive act going mainstream, there’s indication that not everyone was on board with it at this point. Women started to write about fellatio, but as something they merely did, much more rarely as something they enjoyed. The narrator of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1974) references it, unpleasantly. Indeed, as Samantha, the most liberated of the group on Sex and the City, consoled a friend, “there’s a reason it’s called a job.”

The act is barely depicted or mentioned in mainstream films at all before the 1990s, when the act itself became a well-known activity in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton made famous the notion that fellatio is “not sex”, and 60% of teenagers today agree with him. (The idea that it is “not sex” could go part of the way to explaining why people tend not to use protection for it.) At the time of the Starr Report, Newsweek warned readers that some of the activities described would make readers “want to throw up”, which does suggest that their readers in the 1990s (or at least the editors at Newsweek) were still not of the view that the President’s predilections were “standard.”

***

Even today, the “everyone’s doing it” attitude that prevails in sex writing is not entirely accurate.

Perhaps the reason we’ve come to believe that everyone is into oral sex is because it’s most common among white people, and it’s white sex writers who are saying that it’s universal. Yes, 75% of white college women reported in 2001 having done it at least once, according to a 2001 study called “Race, gender, and class in sexual scripts,” but only 56% of Latina and 34% of African American college women say they have. (Of these groups, only 55, 46, and 25%, respectively, describe performing fellatio as appealing).

Other research over the last twenty years bears out these ethnic differences. Among college students in the ’90s in Canada, whites were more likely than Asians to participate in oral sex. In the U.S., a national survey in 2002-2003 of women ages 15 to 44, showed that 84.3% of white women had engaged in fellatio at least once, while only 60% of Hispanic women, and 57.4% of black women had. (That’s “ever in your life,” not “regularly.”) That study’s authors found that whiteness correlated highly with practicing oral sex: “White race, age of 20-44 years, being married and having higher numbers of life time ex-partners were related to having ever given oral sex.”

In addition, though the act is much more common than it once was in mainstream films and TV, not every pop-cultural depiction has caught up with the idea that it’s standard. In some cases, it’s still used as shorthand to suggest that the man receiving it is a jerk. He’s an adulterer, a corrupt cop, or from Wall Street. The message to viewers is disregard for these scumbags mixed with (depending on the film) some level of reluctant admiration for this jerk who manages to be on the receiving end. The message is generally less mixed for the woman involved. For her, the transaction is degrading. Even Tony Soprano thought that it was only for a certain type of woman: when asked why he had a mistress, he explained that his wife “kisses my kids with that mouth.”

In the 2013 film Don Jon, which is hilariously honest about casual sex, the main character describes his girlfriend (played by Scarlett Johansson) as too hot to need to give oral sex—as though that were something only unattractive women have to do, to compensate for their other failings.

Indeed, fellatio is often seen in pop culture as the act of a desperate supplicant begging for favor (see: every single joke ever about a woman earning a promotion on her knees), a source of homophobic innuendo or simply as some kind of punishment.

So how can something that almost “everyone” is doing also be something bad? After a century of rapid evolution in attitudes toward fellatio, we’ve arrived at the warped mindset that something that is seen as degrading and awful is also often seen as obligatory for straight women — and perhaps made even more disturbing by the fact that we ignore the people who prove it’s not obligatory at all.

These cultural differences and paradoxes are ignored in the “this item is standard” mindset. I spoke to several friends while writing this piece, and one told me of having the offer of fellatio declined: the man is from a culture where that just isn’t done. By normalizing a predominantly white practice—and not even one that all white people do—the message is “your culture is having sex incorrectly.”

It’s hard to reconcile a sex-positive attitude that was supposed to allow women freedom to express their needs with the mindset that says oral sex is compulsory. In fifty years, fellatio has gone from a niche (and in many places illegal) sexual activity—which at least would have offered the frisson of an illicit thrill—to something not only normal, but also presented by mainstream culture as obligatory.

And as attitudes toward the one act have changed, that progression has perhaps created space for other acts to move from niche to mainstream (see porn, Internet). And other formerly-rare practices among heterosexuals seem to be heading towards that tipping point. Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’re looking for a hint that bondage and sadomasochism have breached the mainstream, how about an R-rated movie that breaks ticket presale records? Though Anastasia Steele’s oral-sex choices might have once scandalized audiences, today they’re just filler before the real action begins.

TIME psychology

A Half-Century of Conflict Over Attempts to ‘Cure’ Gay People

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From the Feb. 12, 1965, issue of TIME An excerpt from the Feb. 12, 1965, issue of TIME

The history of treatment of homosexuality shows that psychiatry may need a cure of its own

Fifty years ago today, TIME ran a short article under the headline, “Homosexuals Can Be Cured.” The article reported that male homosexuals responded well to group psychotherapy, under the care of 64-year-old University of Pennsylvania professor and psychiatrist Samuel Hadden. Over the course of four to eight years, Hadden explained, patients shared and interpreted each other’s dreams, cast aside their “flamboyant” clothes and manners, worked through their hostilities and neuroses, and began dating women. Marriages were saved and made.

Hadden was not the only—or most prominent—psychiatrist to claim homosexuality was a curable mental illness, but he was representative. Throughout the 1960s, psychiatrists Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides were regularly quoted in newspapers and magazines, arguing that homosexual desire was a form of psychosocial maladjustment, resulting from childhood. Freudian theory held that all children are inherently bisexual, developing a fixed sexual orientation only in adolescence through identification with the parent of the same sex. Freud himself had explicitly stated by 1935 that homosexuality was not an illness and strongly discouraged attempts to treat it; nevertheless, by the 1950s, his theories were widely misappropriated by conservative American and émigré psychiatrists vested in reaffirming the heterosexual, breadwinner-homemaker household in the wake of World War II. With the popularization of behavioral therapies in the 1960s and ’70s also came new attempts to treat homosexuality, in the form of “aversion” therapies, including electric shocks.

 

Even while many people took medical authorities at their word, LGBT activists alongside radical social workers and psychotherapists pushed back. But as reparative therapy was broadly discredited over the course of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, it hardly disappeared. In fact it has more influence and impact on people’s lives today than many may realize.

Already by the 1960s, such cures had provoked resistance: in April 1965, just months after that TIME article ran, the Philadelphia-based gay rights organization Janus invited Hadden to give a lecture on his research, only to surprise him with fierce resistance from the audience. Franklin Kameny, a pioneering gay rights leader, responded sharply, “This is not science, Dr. Hadden; this is faith.” Such attacks emerged amidst a broader turn against the psychiatric establishment, questioning the legitimacy, and benevolence, of clinical interventions.

Together, progressive professionals and lay counselors would spearhead alternative models of psychotherapy, affirming of same-sex desire. In June 1969, the Dorian Society of Seattle worked with a University of Washington pediatrics professor to found the Dorian Counseling Service for Homosexuals—the first center of its kind in the country. Soon renamed the Seattle Counseling Service, the center was staffed largely by volunteers, from fields including psychiatry, psychology, social work, education and pastoral counseling. In 1971, the center saw over 280 patients in individual treatment and over 75 in groups—with an average of 265 people calling their helpline every month. Similar centers would be founded across the country in the years to come, including the Gay Community Services Center in Los Angeles, Identity House in New York, and the Eromin Center in Philadelphia.

Gay activists would also claim a major victory in December 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove “homosexuality” from the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II), which meant that homosexuality was officially no longer considered a disorder in itself. The decision followed several years of heightened protest focused on the APA—including disruption of national meetings—that won the advocacy of increasingly prominent psychiatrist Robert Spitzer.

The sense of victory many gay activists felt may have obscured persisting ambivalence and bias among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. The diagnosis of homosexuality was immediately replaced by “sexual orientation disturbance,” renamed “ego-dystonic homosexuality” in DSM-III, which was released in 1980 under the leadership of Spitzer and social worker Janet Williams. In an angry letter to Spitzer, Kameny described the APA as a dog who kept chewing at a bone, refusing to let go: “It nibbles at it and then gnaws at it. It buries it and then digs it up. But it never has the good sense just to put it aside and leave it alone.”

Ego-dystonic homosexuality was specifically aimed at patients who expressed ongoing distress or sadness about their sexual orientation, even if homosexuality could no longer be considered a mental illness. Now it was the internalization of homophobia that could make you sick. Many used the diagnosis of ego-dystonic homosexuality as an excuse to legitimize reparative therapy—and still do. Although the diagnosis was removed from the DSM in 1987, it remains today as “ego-dystonic sexual orientation” in the tenth (and still current) edition of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases. As some clinicians and activists have pointed out, the diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” in DSM-5, released in May 2013, also bears a strong resemblance, framing the distress commonly associated with gender variance as an individual rather than social problem.

Since the 1970s, reparative therapies have been reborn through “ex-gay” Christian ministries, including the umbrella group Exodus International, founded in Anaheim, Calif., in 1976. Mixing pastoral counseling, Bible study, individual and group psychotherapy, and aversion treatments, ex-gay ministries have promised a cure from—or at least avoidance of—homosexuality to thousands of men and women. Exodus International shut down in 2013, with an apology from its leader for giving “false hope”—though the wider network it spawned, Exodus Global Alliance, continues to operate.

And, although mainstream professional organizations have acknowledged the potential harm and ineffectiveness of reparative therapies, they have failed to act decisively to prevent them. In 1994, the National Association of Social Workers stated that their members have the responsibility to inform clients about the lack of evidence supporting reparative therapies, but fell short of banning clinicians from using them. The American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, acknowledged the risks of reparative therapies in 1998—listing depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior as likely outcomes—but has likewise failed to outlaw the practice among their members, or charge reparative clinicians with professional misconduct.

Action has come instead through state legislatures and the courts. Reparative therapy for minors is now illegal in California, New Jersey, and Washington D.C., with pending legislative action in nine other states. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, four men who sought treatment from an unlicensed “life coach” in affiliation with Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, are suing on the basis of consumer fraud. The court refused to hear claims that homosexuality could be cured from JONAH’s experts, who include a social worker and clinical instructor at Ohio State University; a psychiatrist and preceptor at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences; and a former University of Toronto professor of psychiatry. As that list may suggest, reparative therapists continue to practice throughout the country and world, some more recently incorporating otherwise “evidence-based” techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy and eye-movement desensitization and re-processing.

For Samuel Hadden’s part, his research—like the original 1965 TIME article—continues to be cited as evidence on blogs and discussion boards. Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers have had a powerful role in shaping public opinion, and self-perception, of LGBT people, but their organizations continue to have difficulty working through their own histories. They were looking for a “cure” for individuals, and frequently missed the sickness, and unkindness, of society.

Stephen Vider is the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Sexuality at Yale University. His book Interior Relations: Queering Domesticity and Belonging After World War II is under contract with University of Chicago Press. David S. Byers is a clinical social worker and supervisor at Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Center for Wellness, and PhD candidate and lecturer at Smith College School for Social Work. He has written and lectured on bullying, homophobia, peer altruism, and clinical diagnosis. David and Stephen are working on a book about queer youth.

TIME animals

What We Can Learn From the Love Life of Birds

Albatross on Galapagos Islands
Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

For the albatross, love serves a practical purpose

On Valentine’s Day, our thoughts inevitably turn to the birds and the bees. And as someone who studies birds, I can tell you our feathered friends have much to teach us about courtship and sanity.

Take hummingbirds, for example: If you know anything about them, you might think it would be a pretty cool existence.

Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards. They’re the fighter jets of the bird world. But have you ever watched hummingbirds fight with each other? They’re vicious.

At my home in Oregon, my backyard is visited by Rufous Hummingbirds during the summer, and I have to put out three different feeders so that three male hummers can stake out territory around the yard. They won’t tolerate each other at all.

Why are hummingbirds so mean? Only the greediest survive.

If hummingbirds were any smaller, they couldn’t physically eat enough to stay warm. Sharing your food might mean the difference between life and death. And if they slow down even for one minute, they risk running out of calories.

Males and females can’t even get along enough to raise their children together. Mating takes about a second, then the female retreats to build a nest and raise the chicks all on her own. Does this sound like a life you’d want to have?

If I were given the choice to become any bird in the world, I’d be an albatross.

Just imagine having all the time in the world to put out your wings and glide indefinitely. Albatrosses have the lowest cost of flight of any bird.

When an albatross is gliding on the wind, it has a lower resting heart rate than when it is sitting on the water. So they stay in the air, and fly, and keep flying.

By the most conservative estimate, the average Wandering Albatross will fly several million miles in its lifetime—mostly alone.

With all this time alone, you might think that albatrosses have sacrificed something in their love lives, but nothing could be further from the truth.

When I visited Black-browed Albatrosses in the Falkland Islands, off the tip of South America, it was a moving experience. Up close, these birds are huge, and they just feel, well, incredibly calm and collected.

They truly do mate for life: So-called divorce rates in albatrosses have been measured at near zero percent. Pairs stay together until one of them dies—they’re the most committed lovers of any bird. Human divorce rates around the world hover near 40 percent.

Like us, albatrosses take a long time to pick a partner. When they’re a few years old, they return to their nesting colony and begin to perform elaborate dances with prospective mates, at first in small groups, then, gradually, with fewer and fewer partners, until each bird dances with only one other, which will become its mate. At that point, they pretty much quit dancing and move on with their lives.

It’s humbling to watch a pair of albatrosses in their nest. They snuggle, preen each other tenderly, and gaze into each other’s eyes, just as you would imagine from a pair of lovebirds. The oldest known albatrosses are still raising chicks with their partners into their 60s.

Do these birds actually experience love like we do? Well, I think so. Since love is really just a flood of chemicals released in the brain, there is no reason this feeling should be limited to humans.

Love serves a practical purpose: It helps parents and families stick together. The same evolutionary forces that acted on us, and made us fall in love, have also acted on albatrosses, which live a long time, don’t have many children, and put a lot of effort into their offspring.

And if this kind of devotion comes with a life of calm and a bird’s eye view of the entire world, what’s not to love?

Noah Strycker is the associate editor of Birding magazine, and the author of Among Penguins (2011) and The Thing With Feathers (2014). In 2015, he is on a quest to be the first person to see half the world’s bird species—5,000—in a single calendar year. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME sexuality

Sex and the Super Bowl

Friends in a pub watching football
Getty Images

Marina Adshade is a professor of economics at the Vancouver School of Economics a the University of British Columbia and the author of "Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love." David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the lead author of "The Wages of Wins" and "Stumbling on Wins."

Who wins and who loses may determine what Seattle and Boston fans are searching for online Sunday night

On Sunday night, as confetti rains down on the University of Phoenix Stadium, there will be millions of elated sports fans declaring “We Won!”

For many people who do not follow sports, fans yelling “we won” appears to make no sense. The fans didn’t play the game. And the lives of the fans after the game will be just as they were before it was played.

But, a major victory by the favorite team of a male sport fan does more than simply cause the fan to scream and yell. Seeing his team dominate on the field can cause a man’s endocrine system to ramp up the production of testosterone. And where there is testosterone there is the desire to seek out sex. And where there is a desire for sex there is, often, a population searching for pornography online.

This chain of events begins with something every hard-core sports fan knows to be true. Your team’s victory is your victory. From the fan’s perspective, you may as well have been personally responsible for each perfect pass, acrobatic catch, and bone-breaking tackle. And for fans of the loser, they know that the team’s loss is their loss, and their feeling of despair can be just as acute as it is for the players who’ve had their dreams crushed on the field.

But, you don’t have to be sport’s fan to know that the victory (and the defeat) of another individual can feel very personal to those who are cheering on the sidelines. You probably remember how you felt, for example, when Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States.

We would expect that both Obama and McCain would feel these losses. And the Challenge Hypothesis, which says that during competition the testosterone level of a dominating male rises and of a defeated male falls, predicts such a physical response. But recent research suggests that these biological responses went beyond the individuals running in the elections. In his first address following the election, soon to be President Obama said, “I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you.” Many voters would have shared that sentiment; just as many others would have felt that the defeat of John McCain belonged to them as well.

Psychologists Patrick Markey and Charlotte Markey conducted research that found that in the week following George Bush’s Presidential victory in 2004, Google searches for the top 10 pornography keywords increased above the average for the year in red states and fell in blue states. After the midterm elections in 2006, when the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, these Google search terms for porn rose in blue states and fell in red states. And in the week following Barack Obama’s presidential victory, porn searches were up again in the blue states and down again in the red states.

Elections matter, of course, but Democrats and Republicans have seen their party win many times. Each year, fans of only one team get to experience a Super Bowl victory. So, what does seeing your team win this game do to your testosterone levels?

Last year — in Super Bowl XLVIII — the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in a 43-8 victory. After this win, residents of Washington State took to their computers to look for porn; key word searches for the top five porn keywords increased in that state by just under 8% relative to the previous week. Residents of Colorado, on the other hand, found something else to do; searches for the same words in that state fell by 1.5%.

The previous year we saw the same story. Super Bowl XLVII ended in a narrow victory by the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers. After this victory, residents of Maryland increased their porn keyword searches by an average of 3% relative to the previous week and residents of California decreased theirs by 5%.

At this point these numbers are really nothing more than back of the envelope calculations using the same methodology applied in Markey and Markey’s research. But they suggest that on Sunday night male sports fans — in Washington and Massachusetts — will be, literally, physically transformed by the game.

The Other Way Testosterone Affects the Game

The impact of testosterone is not only felt by fans after the game. It also affects the actual participants in the game. Higher levels of testosterone are related to physical attractiveness. And one glance at Tom Brady and Russell Wilson — the opposing quarterbacks in this game — reveals that these are two good-looking men.

It turns out, this is not unusual for NFL quarterbacks. In an article published in Economic Letters, researchers used the computer program Symmeter to measure the facial symmetry of NFL quarterbacks. They found that while the average score of men is in the high 80s (on a scale of 0 to 100), the average NFL quarterback has a score of 98. And of the two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl this weekend, Tom Brady’s score is 99 and Russell Wilson’s score is 99.4. Yes, Brady and Wilson are good-looking, even relative to other quarterbacks.

These scores suggest that higher levels of testosterone — which again, result in higher levels of attractiveness — are a pre-requisite to even play quarterback in the NFL. And testosterone doesn’t just get you on the field. Perhaps surprisingly, it also impacts a quarterback’s paycheck. Even after controlling for performance, a better-looking quarterback receives more money.

So it appears the impact of testosterone affects both players and fans. Testosterone appears to have a role in who gets on the field of play, and the play impacts the testosterone levels of the fans.

If you happen to invite a non-sports fan to your Super Bowl party, you might hear this person exclaim that none of this really matters. Now you know, though, that this person is wrong. This game has the power to physically transform the fans who “win” and “lose.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME sexuality

What the Reaction To Billy Crystal Tells Us About Gay Tolerance

speaks onstage during the 'The Comedians' panel discussion at the FX Networks portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at Langham Hotel on January 18, 2015 in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images Billy Crystal speaks onstage during 'The Comedians' panel discussion at the FX Networks portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at Langham Hotel on Jan. 18, 2015 in Pasadena, Calif.

Steve Friess is a freelance writer.

Gays won by persuading everyone to view us as sexless—now the culture needs to adjust to reality

By now it seems fairly clear that the comic actor Billy Crystal did not intend to single out gay sex scenes in his reply to a question this weekend about how uncomfortably graphic some television has become. He was speaking broadly about a lot of what’s on TV now of all sexual varieties, but a reporter clipped the remark for maximum impact. The scolds of the Internet, always on alert, did the rest of the work. But set aside the insane idea that Crystal — the first straight actor to play an openly gay TV role on “Soap” back when it was career-lethal and truly cutting edge — might be some sort of sex-negative homophobe. The preposterousness of that is baffling enough; if anyone in the history of the cathode ray deserves the benefit of the doubt, it would seem, it would be him.

And yet — what if Crystal’s unremarkable remarks hadn’t been sensationalized? What if, in fact, he was just a 66-year-old grandfather who finds the increasing visibility of same-sex intimacy, especially on network TV, off-putting or startling to his sensibilities? What if seeing the bobbing head of a woman as she implicitly performed some sex acts on another woman’s lower half, say, makes some viewers uncomfortable — and they have the gall to admit it when asked?

I ask because those people exist. There are, in fact, a lot of them. The smug folks in their L.A. and New York bubbles might think they’re backwards, irrelevant, and scarce, but they’d be wrong. Their points of view are easy to understand, really. And it does not make them “haters” or any of the other epithets thrown at Crystal this week.

In fact, gay activists are as responsible as anyone for the fact that a large swath of Americans who thought they were OK with gays are finding themselves surprised by their own reactions to what they’re starting to see. This is, after all, a civil rights movement that aggressively worked for many years to downplay the mechanics of gay sexual behavior.

The gay-rights push may have started in the 1960s and 1970s with its pursuit of the fundamental liberty to have consensual sex with whatever other adults one pleased and to break free of traditional gender roles, but it morphed in the 1980s into one that preached, rightly, that being gay was about much more than mere sex. When gay male intercourse in particular became equated in the minds of millions with the transmission of AIDS, the best option was to de-emphasize it and instead make the case that our relationships are the same in every meaningful way as straight ones. Also, it did nobody any good to have our parents, much less our grandparents or our teachers or our bosses, visualizing us naked in sexual positions.

This is how the fights over the integration of the military and legalized same-sex marriage were won. Every time anti-gay forces tried to gross out the nation by referencing the gritty details of, say, anal sex, gay advocates would reply by accusing them of being secretly titillated by and obsessed with it. Whenever some crusty old military hack would grouse about gays being naked in showers or barracks with straight soldiers, gay activists did everything they could to insist gay people are supernaturally capable of stifling every fleeting sexual thought even when something attractive is before them.

Gays won, essentially, by persuading everyone to view us as sexless because we knew that how we express love and lust was at best unfamiliar — and at worst repulsive — to many people. Looking back now, it was probably the right strategy, and it was definitely a successful one. It enabled enough fair-minded people to look at couples like Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, together for more than 40 years before Thea died and the government tried to disinherit her octogenarian widow Edie, and imagine how they’d feel if the law did that to them after a lifetime of companionship. When the Supreme Court fixed that for Windsor in a landmark 2013 decision that forced the federal government to recognize their marriage, most Americans felt a grievous wrong had been set right.

But now, after decades of telling the folks that what we do in our bedrooms is not of their concern and should not matter to their opinions of us, we demand that they be happy to look upon depictions of gay sex with a big shrug or, even, a round of applause. If anyone breathes even the slightest hint of discomfort or dismay, they must be berated and humiliated. Where once the anti-gay legions used shame to scare and silence us, now it’s the pro-gay forces who think it’s a weapon.

So here’s a dirty little secret: I’m gay and I hate watching straight sex scenes in TV shows and movies. I always have. It subconsciously conjures up the apprehension and anxiety I felt when I was still closeted and tried to force myself to want to experience that. I know what straight people do, how they do it and what all of their parts look like. But I could do without bouncing breasts in every other scene of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Ray Donovan.” It’s the opposite of what I want to do or feel or see, so I wait it out and enjoy the rest of the show. It’s part of the bargain of consuming art sometimes and occasionally it actually even has a purpose.

Does all that make me a heterophobe? I hope not. Some of my best friends are straight. It’s just not my preference. And yes, in this case, we’re talking about preferences and not orientations. As Crystal said, albeit in a broader context, it’s about one’s personal tastes, nothing more.

Hollywood and its audiences are in a transitional period regarding how to cope with the modern era of out gays and the specifics of how to show and talk about it. Some straight people, especially older and more traditional ones, will be uncomfortable. Others won’t. Most will, as we gays have regarding explicit heterosexual sex scenes, come to accept it even if they never love it.

And all of that should be fine. Gays have enough actual enemies: people who really don’t want us to live happy, productive lives as our true selves. We certainly don’t need to turn our straight allies — be they grandparents or groundbreaking actors — into bogeymen, too.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

How To Shake Up Gender Norms

ballerina-girl-holding-basketball
Getty Images

Will continuing to challenge gender norms and document their harmful impacts lead to their extinction — or evolution?

What determines your destiny? That’s a big question with what should be a complicated answer. But for many, the answer can be reduced to one word: anatomy. Freud’s assertion in 1924 that biology is the key determinant of gender identity, for instance, was for years a hegemonic idea in both law and culture.

Ever since Freud made this notion famous, critics have been objecting to body parts as central predictors of one’s professional and personal path. Many now believe that identity isn’t solely the domain of nature or nurture, but some combination of the two. Still, Freud’s theory isn’t yet dead; enduring gender norms show us that the bodies we’re born into still govern lives of women and men around the world.

But according to some recent research, its influence may be fading. In one new study, a majority of millennials surveyed argued that gender shouldn’t define us the way it has historically, and individuals shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to traditional gender roles or behaviors. Enforcing norms can even have health risks, according to another study. Some women’s colleges are now reportedly rethinking their admissions policies to account for gender non-conforming students. And even President Obama is getting in on the norm-questioning trend: While sorting holiday gifts for kids at a Toys for Tots in December, the president decided to place sporting equipment in the box for girls. “I’m just trying to break down these gender stereotypes,” he said in a viral video.

But will continuing to challenge gender norms and document their harmful impacts lead to their extinction? To answer that question, we need to first consider another: What’s so bad about traditional gender norms and the way we currently categorize men and women?

For one thing, the way we categorize gender is far too facile, explained Alice Dreger, a leading historian of science and medicine, in a 2010 TED Talk. “We now know that sex is complicated enough that we have to admit nature doesn’t draw the line for us between male and female… we actually draw that line on nature,” she told the audience. “What we have is a sort of situation where the farther our science goes, the more we have to admit to ourselves that these categories that we thought of as stable anatomical categories that mapped very simply to stable identity categories are a lot more fuzzy than we thought.”

Fuzzy – and maybe not entirely real in the first place.

“If there’s a leading edge that is the future of gender, it’s going to be one that understands that gender is relative to context,” said author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein at a recent New America event, noting that geography, religion, and family attitudes are all contextual factors that can alter one’s perception of gender as a determinant of identity. As long as we hold onto the notion that gender is a constant, “we’ll keep doing things to keep the lie in place,” she said. But the fact is that “it doesn’t stand on its own, and is always relative to something.” Bornstein argues that the trick to stripping these norms of their harmful power is to mock and expose them for both their flimsiness and stringency.

Which is what photographer Sophia Wallace attempts with her work. Girls Will Be Bois, for example, is a documentary of female masculinity, featuring women who have traditionally “un-feminine” occupations – bus driver, boxer, basketball player – and a sartorial masculinity (baggy pants, and bare-chested). In Modern Dandy, Wallace switches up the way women and men are directed to look at the camera (or not) in photographs – whether to appear submissive (traditionally feminine) or dominant (traditionally masculine). Cliteracy, Wallace’s most recent work, uses imagery of the clitoris and text about female sexuality to illuminate a paradox: we’re obsessed with sexualizing female bodies, and yet the world is “illiterate when it comes to female sexuality.”

But it’s not as bad as it once was. Wallace thinks that photography is evolving – that some gender-focused imagery is less tinged with ignorance today. “There’s so much that I’ve seen that has been hopeful,” she said. “There are actually images of female masculinity, trans-men and trans-women now that didn’t exist when I was in my teens and early 20s. In other ways we have so far to go.”

Part of the struggle of relinquishing gender norms comes from an uncomfortable truth. “Men have everything to gain when we overthrow patriarchy…but they also have something to lose from giving up their traditional masculinity,” said Tavia Nyong’o, an associate professor of performance studies at NYU, emphasizing that male rights vary widely across race and class divisions and that white men have even more to lose than men of color. What do they lose, exactly? Privileges (the ability to open carry a gun and not be worried that they’ll be shot by the police, Nyong’o argued). Control – over political, economic and cultural domains. Access – to networks, jobs and economic opportunities. Put simply, they lose power.

“You walk out the door in the morning with a penis and your income is 20 percent higher on average for nothing that you did,” said Gary Barker, the international director of Promundo, an organization that engages men and boys around the world on issues of gender equality.

When asked whether the future of gender was evolution and extinction, Barker, Nyong’o, Wallace and Bornstein all said they hoped for extinction. But at the same time, each acknowledged how difficult that goal would be to achieve. Beyond the power dynamics, there’s a level of comfort in well-worn identities. “It’s easy to sit in these old roles that we’ve watched and to feel a certain comfort in their stability in a world that feels kind of hard to understand,” Barker said.

But change is not impossible. Barker advises demonstrating how our traditional version of masculinity may not actually be worth the fight. “Men who have more rigid views of what it means to be men are more likely to suicidal thoughts, more likely to be depressed, less likely to report they’re happy with life overall, less likely to take care of their health, more likely to own guns, the list goes on,” he said. “There is something toxic about this version of masculinity out there.”

Detoxing society requires ripping off a mask of sorts. “It’s about getting as many people as possible to have that Matrix moment, Barker said, when they realize, “wait – [masculinity] isn’t real. It’s all illusory, it’s all performance.”

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate director of New America’s Global Gender Parity Initiative. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Ireland

Irish Minister for Health Announces He’s Gay

Irish Health minister Leo Varadkar, 36, who has publicly come out as gay, pictured here on Dec. 27, 2013.
Brian Lawless—Press Association/AP Irish Health minister Leo Varadkar, 36, who has publicly come out as gay, pictured here on Dec. 27, 2013.

The country is set to hold a referedum on marriage equality in May

Just months before Ireland is due to hold a referendum on marriage equality, the country’s minister for health has come out during a radio interview. Leo Varadkar told RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station, that he was gay and would be campaigning in support of same-sex marriage in the lead up to the referendum in May.

“It’s not a secret — but not something that everyone would necessarily know, but it isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” he said during the Jan. 18 interview. “I just kind of want to be honest with people. I don’t want anyone to think that I have a hidden agenda.”

He added: “I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country, the country in which I happen to be a member of Government, and at the moment I’m not.”

Ireland decriminalized homosexuality 22 years ago and same-sex couples have been able to enter a civil partnership since 2011, but not marry.

[RTÉ]

TIME viral

Twin Brothers Film Themselves Coming Out to Their Dad in Emotional Video

The rising YouTube stars didn't want him to find out the news from their videos

Twin brothers Aaron and Austin Rhodes had come out to everyone in their family except for their father. But as rising YouTube stars, known as the Rhodes Bros, they decided they needed to tell him before he learned the news from their videos.

As the camera is rolling, they are both so nervous (“I think I’m going to pass out,” said one), crying a little bit as they struggle to get the words out.

“I just don’t want you to not love us anymore,”Austin says.

But the father reassures them that he will still be there for them. “Oh stop it,” he says, “It’s the way things are. You know I love you both. That will never change. You have to live your lives.”

(h/t BuzzFeed)

TIME society

Why Tiffany & Co.’s New Same-Sex Couple Ad Is Important to Me

A person walks past a Tiffany & Co. store on Jan. 12, 2015 in New York City.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images A person walks past a Tiffany & Co. store on Jan. 12, 2015 in New York City.

xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

It's nice to feel that a company that I’ve been wearing for so long went out of its way to stand behind marriage equality

xojane

By now, you’re probably aware that Tiffany & Co. just released its first ad featuring a same-sex couple. If you haven’t already seen it, here it is in all its glory.

The photo, shot by fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, features a real life gay couple from New York, accompanied by the text “Will you?” Cute, right?

Tiffany is hardly the first company to feature a same-sex couple in its advertising. It joins the ranks of companies The Gap, JCPenny, and Banana Republic, to name a few, who have made gay couples a part of their advertising campaigns. But just because it’s not the first to do it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be celebrated.

One of the things that stands out to me the most about this ad is not that it features two men, but that it features people at all. Tiffany ads are typically completely devoid of any models, placing all focus on huge images of the jewelry.

Where many luxury jewelry brands employ celebrity faces to hawk their pieces, Tiffany (usually) lets its jewelry speak for itself, showcasing its pieces against the signature Tiffany-blue background.

Even on the website, you’ll only see a piece modeled on a hand or neck to better illustrate size and scale. So to me, Tiffany didn’t just use a gay couple where a straight couple would normally be; it made an exception and made them the focal point, the engagement rings a close second.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a huge fan of Tiffany, and have been for quite a while. I’ve worn one of the brand’s bands on my right ring finger for the last seven years, and this fall, I copped my mom and I matching T Rings from its new T Collection because both of our names start with the letter T. I know, how cute. Personally, it’s kind of nice to feel that a company that I’ve been representing for so long went out of its way to stand behind marriage equality.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that a company using a gay couple in its advertising shouldn’t be news, and I hear that, but I’d rather not look at it that way. True, featuring the LGBT community shouldn’t still be worthy of a headline, but I do think that it’s still worthy of recognition, at the very least. There are a lot of companies who are happy to take our money while still looking at us as second-class citizens, and I’m probably giving my money to more of them than I’d like to without even realizing it. So while I’m the king of skepticism, I’m not going to pick this one apart. I choose to see this good thing as a good thing.

True, this is an ad, and its purpose, at the end of the day, is to sell. It was no doubt conceived in a boardroom and given the green light because the suits behind Tiffany knew that it would be newsy enough for every media outlet to run an article about it, just like this one, which would mean a whole lot of free advertising for them. But you know what? I’m fine with that. Because the more eyes on it, the better.

I was thinking about what it would be like if I was in high school again, the only out gay kid in my class and probably the entire school, seeing this ad. Personally, it would have been powerful for me as a teenager to see an image of two men, well-adjusted and happily engaged.

Walking through the halls every day, being so nervous all the time because I stuck out like a sore gay thumb, feeling like such a frazzled weirdo simply because of who I was. Looking through a magazine and have this company tell me “Yo. Look at these fine men. They’re just like you. You’re beautiful and normal and your love is worthy of recognition,” that would have been big for me to see.

So you’re right when you say this sort of thing shouldn’t still be a headline, but if all of these headlines serve to get the ad in front of more peoples’ faces, then great.

It reminds me of this summer when a friend and I were cruising around in my car. Macklemore’s “Same Love” came on the radio, and he made some comment about how he was sick of the song because it is so overplayed. I pointed out that, yeah, the song had been played to death, but did you ever think we’d see a day where a rap song about marriage equality would be overplayed on top 40 radio?

Five years ago, less than that, even, the song would most likely never made it on an album, let alone on the radio. Now we can’t get rid of it. What I’m saying is, you gotta count your small victories where you can get them. And besides, it’s better than hearing “Dark Horse” for the thousandth time.

I realize that “Same Love” comes with its own slew of issues, like his Grammy win over genre-defining artists like Kanye West, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar, or the fact that it could have been done better by one of the many up-and-coming queer rappers who can spit better then Macklemore all day long, but I don’t hate on him for being an ally.

I guess how I see it is that no matter if it’s a jewelry ad or a rap song, visibility in all forms is important. Whether its marriage equality, trans rights, the homeless LGBT youth population, or any of the many issues facing the LGBT community, I personally count each and every instance of increased visibility as a win, and motivation to demand more of it. Personally, it’s just nice to feel seen.

Tynan Sinks is a music journalist and contributor for xoJane. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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