Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Condom or no condom? It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!

The way a woman negotiates condom use influences how she is perceived by others

Whether it’s the man or the woman who suggests using a condom makes no difference to how he or she is viewed. However, how the woman suggests it makes a difference. If she highlights her sexuality by incorporating condoms into the sexual scenario as an erotic and fun activity, other women judge her more harshly than if she simply refuses to have sex without a condom or shares her concerns about sexually transmitted infections. Dr. Michelle Broaddus, from the Medical College of Wisconsin in the US, and colleagues’ examination of the effects of the proposer’s gender and their condom negotiation strategy on how they are perceived by others is published online in Springer’s journal Sex Roles.

There are approximately 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections each year in the US, and nearly half of these occur among young people under the age of 25. Safer sexual practices rely on the use of condoms and there is some evidence that how couples communicate about, and negotiate, condom use influences how the proposer is viewed and whether or not condoms are actually used during intercourse.

Using two sexuality theories and one social role theory as frameworks, the authors carried out two studies looking at how women who suggest condom use are perceived compared to men (Study 1), and how specific condom negotiation strategies affect perceptions of a woman who uses them (Study 2).

In the first study, 150 undergraduate students were shown one of three videos of sexual encounters where either the man or the woman suggested the use of a condom, or no condom was suggested. After viewing the scenario, they were asked to imagine how the proposer was viewed by their partner. They were also asked for their opinion of whether or not the filmed couple ended up having intercourse and what the chances were of them using a condom if they did.

The authors found that condom proposers were seen as more mature and less romantic than individuals who did not suggest condom use. The woman was not evaluated more harshly than the man, and in fact, she was seen as less promiscuous when she proposed a condom than when she did not. Participants saw condom use as equally likely no matter who suggested its use.

In the second study, 193 undergraduates looked at written vignettes of a sexual encounter in which the female used one of three common condom negotiation strategies: explanation i.e. sharing concerns about sexually transmitted infections; refusal i.e. no sex unless condom used; eroticization i.e. how hot sex would be with a condom and how uninhibited and sexy she would feel. The students were then asked to give their impressions of the woman’s character based on a selection of traits.

Female students rated the female proposer as less nice, more promiscuous and less like the housewife type when she used the eroticization strategy, suggesting that women are harsher on other women who highlight their sexuality. She was also seen as more exciting. Participants also perceived the couple as more likely to have sex when the female used the eroticization strategy. There was no difference in how the female’s character was rated whether she used the refusal or explanation strategy – both traditional strategies. Finally, condom use was seen as equally likely in the three scenarios.

The authors conclude: “This line of research has implications for both basic research on gender roles … as well as applied research into the development of sexual risk reduction intervention content for men and women on how to more effectively communicate with partners when the goal is to engage in safer sex practices.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Explanation for Sex Differences in Jealousy

When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was caught red-handed returning from a tryst with his Argentine mistress last June, he told the Associated Press that he had met his “soul mate.” His choice of words seemed to suggest that having a deep emotional and spiritual connection with Maria Belen Chapur somehow made his sexual infidelity to his wife Jenny Sanford less tawdry.

What the two-timing governor didn’t understand is that most women view emotional infidelity as worse, not better, than sexual betrayal. This may explain why Hillary Clinton stayed with Bill Clinton and seemed unconcerned about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky. Research has documented that most men become much more jealous about sexual infidelity than they do about emotional infidelity. Women are the opposite, and this is true all over the world. The prevailing theory is that the difference has evolutionary origins: Men learned over eons to be hyper-vigilant about sex because they can never be absolutely certain they are the father of a child, while women are much more concerned about having a partner who is committed to raising a family.

New research now suggests an alternative explanation. The new study does not question the fundamental gender difference regarding jealousy—indeed it adds additional support for that difference. But the new science suggests that the difference may be rooted more in individual differences in personality that result from one’s relationship history but that can fall along gender lines.

Pennsylvania State University psychological scientists Kenneth Levy and Kristen Kelly doubted the prevailing evolutionary explanation because there is a conspicuous subset of men who like most women find emotional betrayal more distressing than sexual infidelity. Why would this be? The researchers suspected that it might have to do with trust and emotional attachment. Some people—men and women alike—are more secure in their attachments to others, while others tend to be more dismissive of the need for close attachment relationships. Psychologists see this compulsive self-reliance as a defensive strategy—protection against deep-seated feelings of vulnerability. Levy and Kelly hypothesized that these individuals would tend to be concerned with the sexual aspects of relationships rather than emotional intimacy.

Similar to earlier studies examining sex differences in jealousy, Levy and Kelly asked men and women which they would find more distressing—sexual infidelity or emotional infidelity. Participants also completed additional assessments including a standard and well validated measure of attachment style in romantic relationships.

Findings confirmed the scientists’ hypotheses. As Levy & Kelly report in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, those with a dismissing attachment style— who prize their autonomy in relationships over commitment—were much more upset about sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity. And conversely, those securely attached in relationships—including securely attached men—were much more likely to find emotional betrayal more upsetting.

The scientists state that these findings imply that the psychological and cultural-environmental mechanisms underlying sex differences in jealousy may have greater roles than previously recognized and suggest that jealousy is more multiply determined than previously hypothesized.

Additionally, placing jealousy within an attachment theoretical perspective, highlights the value of a taking a more nuanced approach relative to earlier research, points to new research possibilities, and suggests that promoting secure attachment may be an effective means of reducing the kind of sexual jealousy that contributes to domestic violence.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Reproductive coercion often is accompanied by physical or sexual violence, study finds

Young women and teenage girls often face efforts by male partners to sabotage birth control or coerce pregnancy — including damaging condoms and destroying contraceptives — and these efforts, defined as "reproductive coercion," frequently are associated with physical or sexual violence, a study by a team of researchers led by UC Davis has found.

Published online today in the January issue of the journal Contraception, the study, "Pregnancy Coercion, Intimate Partner Violence and Unintended Pregnancy," also found that among women who experienced both reproductive coercion and partner violence, the risk of unintended pregnancy doubled. The study is the first quantitative examination of the relationship between intimate partner violence, reproductive coercion and unintended pregnancy, the authors say.

"This study highlights an under-recognized phenomenon where male partners actively attempt to promote pregnancy against the will of their female partners," said lead study author Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UC Davis School of Medicine and a practitioner at UC Davis Children's Hospital. "Not only is reproductive coercion associated with violence from male partners, but when women report experiencing both reproductive coercion and partner violence, the risk for unintended pregnancy increases significantly."

Conducted between August 2008 and March 2009 at five reproductive health clinics in Northern California, the study involved approximately 1,300 English- and Spanish-speaking 16- to 29-year-old women who agreed to respond to a computerized survey about their experiences with relationships and pregnancy.

Study participants were asked questions about birth-control sabotage, pregnancy coercion and intimate partner violence to assess their experience of pregnancy coercion and birth control sabotage. Questions included:

"Has someone you were dating or going out with ever told you not to use any birth control" or "… said he would leave you if you would not get pregnant?"
"Has someone you were dating or going out with ever taken off the condom while you were having sex so that you would get pregnant?"
Approximately one in five young women said they experienced pregnancy coercion and 15 percent said they experienced birth control sabotage. Over half the respondents — 53 percent — said they had experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. More than a third of the women who reported partner violence — 35 percent — also reported either pregnancy coercion or birth control sabotage.

"We have known about the association between partner violence and unintended pregnancy for many years," said Jay Silverman, the study's senior author and an associate professor of society, human development and health in the Harvard School of Public Health. "What this study shows is that reproductive coercion likely explains why unintended pregnancies are far more common among abused women and teens."

The study authors said the research underscores the importance of educating women seeking care about reproductive coercion, and ensuring that women who are seeking reproductive health services are offered counseling on ways to prevent pregnancy that are less vulnerable to partner interference, as well as connected to domestic violence-related services. The study also highlights the importance of working with young men to prevent both violence against female partners and coercion around pregnancy.

"This study confirms that women experiencing partner violence are more likely to have greater need for sexual and reproductive health services," Miller said. "Thus, clinical settings that offer reproductive health services likely offer the greatest opportunity to identify women experiencing partner violence and to ensure that women receive the counseling and support they may need." Comprehensive assessment in clinical settings for pregnancy coercion, birth control sabotage and intimate partner violence should be considered a priority in the context of family planning services. Moreover, public health efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy should ensure that discussions of reproductive coercion are included in pregnancy prevention programs, she said.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Online stigma fading when it comes to finding potential mate

Many people who find themselves alone on Valentine's Day may consider turning to the internet to be looking for love in all the wrong places. But new research by an Iowa State University sociologist has found that online stigma may be fading when it comes to finding their potential mates.

Associate Professor of Sociology Alicia Cast and her graduate research assistant, Jamie McCartney, have been collecting data from approximately 175 Central Iowa newlywed couples over a three-year period. Among the sample, 25 couples first met online -- either through online dating, social networking sites, or some other online means.

That sample has afforded the ISU researchers a rare look inside those who make online love connections.

"Several years ago, there was a graduate student in our program who really wanted to look at online dating and she had a horrible time trying to figure out how to get access to a population of online daters because the people who run the online sites -- especially the paying ones -- are very picky about who gets access," Cast said. "So my understanding is that there are very few studies that have been able to simultaneously get access to a source of couples who meet through more conventional means, along with those who choose to meet people online."

McCartney first identified the online trend among the study's sample, prompting further investigation by the ISU researchers. They presented preliminary findings of their analysis at last summer's Midwest Sociological Society annual meeting in a presentation titled "Simply Clicking: A Direct Comparison of Newlymarried Online and Offline Couples."

It showed few differences between those who met online and those who met their spouses in a more traditional, offline fashion. But it also found that spouses who met online are older, less likely to be marrying for the first time, and have much shorter courtships -- averaging 18.5 months of dating before getting married by comparison to 42 months for those who met in more traditional ways offline.

The newlyweds gave several reasons for why they first turned to online options.

"In many cases, there are some real structural forces that encourage the support and use of these technologies," said Cast, who did previous research on engagement proposals. "And one of them is just structural constraints on people's time -- such as people who have kids, or have full-time jobs, or work long or extensive hours. They might also be older and so the majority of people who are in their pool of eligibles are already in relationships."

Cast reports that online spouses don't differ from those among offline couples in terms of self-esteem levels, attractiveness, intelligence and other personal characteristics. But she says the structural constraints on their marriage markets seemed to be a defining characteristic.

"That is, they [online spouses] tended to people who are entering a second-plus marriage, or had kids already -- people who just didn't fit your stereotypical single," Cast said.

The ISU researchers are continuing to analyze their data and are planning to publish their results in a professional journal.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Gender difference in responses to sexual stimuli

Women’s minds and genitals respond differently to sexual arousal, whereas in men, the responses of the body and mind are more in tune with each other, according to Assistant Professor Meredith Chivers, from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and her international collaborators, Michael Seto, Martin Lalumière, Ellen Laan, and Teresa Grimbos. Their meta-analysis1 of the extent of agreement between subjective ratings and physiological measures of sexual arousal in men and women is published online this week in Springer’s journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The human sexual response is a dynamic combination of cognitive, emotional and physiological processes. Chivers and colleagues were interested in the degree to which an individual’s experience of sexual arousal mirrors physiological genital activity and whether gender difference in this agreement (commonly reported in individual studies) would be found when a meta-analysis of sexual psychophysiology studies was conducted.

The authors reviewed 134 studies, published between 1969 and 2007, which measured the degree of agreement between subjective experiences of sexual arousal and physiological genital responses. Overall, the studies reviewed data collected from over 2,500 women and 1,900 men. Participants indicated how aroused they felt during or after they were exposed to a variety of sexual stimuli, called subjective arousal. Researchers measured the physiological responses to the sexual stimuli using different methods, including changes in penile erection for men and changes in genital blood flow for women.

Men’s subjective and physiological measures of sexual arousal showed a greater degree of agreement than women’s. For the male participants, the subjective ratings more closely matched the physiological readings indicating that men’s minds and genitals were in agreement. For the women, however, the responses of the mind and genitals were not as closely matched as men’s, suggesting a split between women’s bodies and minds. The readings from the physiological measurements and their subjective ratings were, in some cases, significantly different.

The researchers then looked at factors in the studies that might shed some light on this gender difference. They identified two methodological differences, in particular, that may play a role.

The type of sexual stimuli – their content and how it was presented e.g. visually or as an audio recording – made no difference to how well the subjective and physiological responses mirrored each other in men. However, it did influence women’s responses. Women exposed to a greater range and number of sexual stimuli – content and presentation – were more likely to have stronger agreement between subjective and physiological responses.

The timing of the assessment of self-reported sexual arousal also had an effect. When participants were asked to rate their subjective arousal at the end of each stimulus, men’s responses were closer to one another than women’s. However, when both men and women were asked to rate their arousal whilst they were exposed to the stimulus, the gender difference disappeared because men’s concordance dropped to the range of women’s.

The authors conclude: “The assessment of sexual arousal in men and women informs theoretical studies of human sexuality and provides a method to assess and evaluate the treatment of sexual dysfunctions. Understanding measures of arousal is, therefore, paramount to further theoretical and practical advances in the study of human sexuality. Our results have implications for the assessment of sexual arousal, the nature of gender differences in sexual arousal, and models of sexual response.”

1. Chivers ML et al (2010). Agreement of self-reported and genital measures of sexual arousal in men and women: a meta-analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior. DOI 10.1007/s10508-009-9556-9