On kink, advertising, and climate change.

On kink, advertising, and climate change.

Most Americans believe themselves to be middle class – about 70% of the population. And most people – again, about 70% – believe that they have above-average intelligence. They’re right, of course: most people probably define “average intelligence” as “slightly less intelligent than me,” instead of as a statistical concept.

We are the norms against which we measure the world. To me, my body is normal; my brain is normal; my beliefs are normal. As are yours, to you!

In sexual parlance, kinks are behaviors outside the norm, but what we do is normalized to ourselves. Kink is a horizon, ever receding as we approach.

Some types of touch or activities might never feel enticing to you, just as some don’t feel particularly enticing to me, but as we live and grow, we encompass more within the boundaries of our norms. Until very recently in this country, all homosexuality was considered kinky, and only through numerous acts of bravery – people making their identities known despite living in a culture bent on rejecting them – did the general populace realize that these desires are widespread and normal.

Which is not to say that your increased awareness of the desires held by others, and your ability to recognize shared humanity with the people who hold them, will make the same desires whelm inside of you. I don’t have to want to wield a whip to recognize the sexual ecstasy gleaming from Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting Cupid Chastised.

In Good Sex, Catherine M. Roach writes that:

Good sex is sex that is good, as in ethically or morally commendable, and good, as in pleasurable.

As to the ethical: good sex is consensual, does no harm, and impacts people’s lives in positive ways.

As to the pleasurable: good sex is hot! Erotic, sexy, stimulating, sensual. It satisfies desire and leads to physical and emotional enjoyment for all partners involved, orgasms all around.

In both senses, sex should do good and feel good. In both senses, sex is good.

This intertwining of the ethical and the pleasurable reflects an ancient and enduring belief that the good life, the life worth living, is a moral one that brings satisfaction to the person living that life. To do good feels good.

Consensual, happy, body-positive, desire-affirming sexuality is a force for moral good. Pleasurable in and of itself, good sex also shields us from advertising, which is designed to sway us toward behaviors that, in aggregate, could cause the collapse of civilization as we know it.


Commercial advertising often subverts a pent-up desire for sexual novelty. The thrill of new acquisitions can replicate or replace the psychological thrill of discovering shared pleasure with someone new.

Many – not all, but many – humans feel lifelong desire for new romantic, erotic, or sexual experiences, but traditional American culture does not celebrate ethical polyamory – open commitment to lifelong adventurousness, perhaps in conjunction with nested stability to raise a family – and polyamory is scary, both for the adventurer and especially for the partner(s) who fear being left behind.

And so, instead of having sex, we’re encouraged to fulfill our need for adventure by buying things.

In the essay collection Escape Into Meaning, Evan Puschak quotes a speech that Jerry Seinfeld gave while accepting an award intended “to honor excellence in advertising”:

I love advertising because I love lying.

In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised – because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want.

We know the product is going to stink. We know that.

But we are happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase, and I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.

Considering this speech, Puschak writes that:

Seinfeld strikes at the essence of advertising, which may be a creative and clever craft, but is exploitative at heart. They manipulate us in gross ways to generate desire, to make us feel need where it doesn’t exist.

By design, advertising aims to make you feel worse. But it also offers an escape: successful advertising lays the kindling for joy, if you are willing to spend money. And so, Puschak writes:

Seinfeld suggests that there’s something to cherish in the perverted relationship we have with advertising: the small period of joy between the purchase and getting the crappy product.

A brief moment of happiness is pretty good,” Seinfeld says. “I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap … If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things.”

Advertising (and by extension, capitalism) only offers us a superficial happiness, and maybe that’s not the most we could hope for, but it’s not bad, either. Superficial joys are still joys, after all. They’re “pretty good” and pretty good is good enough.

Buying new things will not bring you lasting pleasure. Presumably, most people know this. And advertising is not designed to convince you otherwise. Instead, successful advertising aims to accentuate the interstitial joy: that brief nigh-erotic thrill of acquiring something new.

Indeed, even within the realm of sexuality, the physical sensations we receive from new bodies pressed against our own will resemble physical sensations that we’ve already known. Our minds reside within relatively uncomplicated meat-machines; the physical sensations from most sexual encounters won’t be better than what you could accomplish on your own, masturbating. The greatest difference is in the moments of anticipation and expectation – the mental thrills we share.

Indeed, in Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz portrays the dull absence of thrill that we reap when we objectify other people (a habit so pervasive in our patriarchal, misogynistic culture that even Aronowitz herself slips into it, like when she describes her partner’s “whirlwind hookup with a young blond French girl”).

Aronowitz hires a sex worker to give her an erotic massage:

Considering the circumstances, I was relaxed and turned on. He took his time “massaging” me, which really meant stroking my butt and breasts and, eventually, between my legs. His pussy-rubbing skills were legitimately advanced, and it was clear he was paying close attention, responding to every little moan I made and every time I pressed into his hand a bit more.

And yet I didn’t come. I knew from the beginning I maybe wouldn’t. My clitoris refused to cooperate, even when he understood (bless his heart) that his bare hand wasn’t working and he employed a few vibrators – including the all-powerful Hitachi Magic Wand.

His methods were all fine and arousal inducing, but it felt empty, mechanical. The only time my brain fizzed with true excitement was when my arm grazed his hard-on.

Without the emotional thrill of connection – an exquisite moment of anticipation like Seinfeld’s brief happiness “in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing” – Aronowitz couldn’t enjoy herself. Even though the physical sensations were impeccable. In “I’ll Read What She’s Reading,” Toni Bentley’s essay about participating in Clayton Cubitt’s “Hysterical Literature” video project (in which women have orgasms while reading aloud on camera), Bentley writes that:

I told Katie [who would be ensconced beneath a desk and controlling the vibrator for Bentley] that I was a Hitachi virgin—I never really understood the point of vibrators, particularly if there was an able-bodied man around—so she offered to touch the side of my knee with the wand for a moment before filming as a preview.

Good thing she did that. Jesus. I mean Holy Mary Mother of God. Thus I was relieved in five seconds of my concern about not being able to climax, and I quickly had the opposite problem: How would I last long enough to do justice to [a passage from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady]?

Bentley’s situation was erotic: a sultry mélange of exhibitionism, literature, self-control, submission, and physical sensation. Whereas Aronowitz had only the physical sensation, and it wasn’t enough. She’d purchased a service; she wanted a person. (“Most of the time,” she writes, “a hot one-night stand simply requires being a decent human being.”)

During her erotic massage, Aronowitz didn’t get to linger in “that moment in between the commercial and the purchase” – she understood the pre-arranged boundaries of their encounter, which would not include shared pleasure or mutually-recognized humanity. There was nothing to anticipate. Expecting physical pleasure could have brought her ecstasy; having physical pleasure didn’t.


Puschak writes that perhaps the momentary thrill of consumerism is enough. Even if capitalism, in repurposing our desires for sexual discovery, “only offers a superficial happiness,” maybe that’s fine. “Superficial joys are still joys, after all.”

And these joys are sometimes more accessible. You can do capitalism all on your own. Earn some money and feel the thrill of buying things. You don’t get to form human connections, but you also don’t have to form human connections with anybody.

In a world of isolated individuals, I might agree. But we are not alone: there are eight billion of us sharing this planet together. We are inherently connected; the choices we make as individuals affect each other.

In If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, Justin Gregg writes that:

Let’s say you wanted to grab a snack right now. Ten thousand years ago, you might’ve walked a few feet into the forest, stuck your hand into a log, and yanked out a handful of tasty termites. Boom. Problem solved. Snack acquired.

These days, you might walk a few feet into the kitchen and grab a banana. Same problem (hunger), same solution (food).

The difference between the two is that the availability of the banana today is shaped entirely by human-made, technological processes that have added unimaginable complexity to the simple act of grabbing a snack. And these processes generate long-term consequences we hadn’t considered.

Our hankering for a snack in the twenty-first century is identical to what it was ten thousand years ago, but our complex cognition allows us to engage in activities (e.g., oil and gas extraction, mechanized farming, soil depletion) on a massive scale, which is transforming this planet into an uninhabitable shithole. Our kitchens are full of foods that come from a global agricultural-industrial complex that is fundamentally problematic to the survival of the human species.

When we seek to sate an instinctual desire for sexual novelty by constantly acquiring new things – robot vacuums and snazzy telephones and single-season clothes – we are making our whole planet less livable.

For human civilization to survive, we’ll have to dampen our lust for consumerism. But we’ll still feel full of all this desire, all this need for novelty. Which is why many people continue to seek out new pornography over the course of their lives, instead of discovering the one ideal fantasy, memory, photography, film or story that excites them perfectly and then having it accompany them ever after in their moments of solitary sexuality. We shouldn’t let Disney movies deceive us into seeking a single destination, a fade-out moment of “happily ever after” – our happiness often depends on continued adventure. As we live, we continue journeying.


To many of the humans who lived before us, a banana would have seemed so weird! It doesn’t look or taste like anything that grew in Africa, Europe, or Asia.

To us, a banana is a normal snack.

If you and your partner(s) grant yourselves permission to (cautiously, safely, consensually!) adventure, then more of the world is normalized. Toys, lighting, & music; outfits, role-play, & scenes; groups, activities, & settings: the horizon of kink will keep receding.

And in the process, we might quiet the urges that compel us to wreck our planet. As we journey – reclaiming our desires from advertising – with luck, we’ll feel less need for commercial stuff. We’ll be able to, like Seinfeld, “know the product is going to stink” … but, even better, maybe we won’t even buy it!

When we open our lives to other joys, we can more easily resist capitalist compulsions and perhaps, perhaps, do the right thing regarding climate change. We need to buy fewer things. We also need to still be happy.

On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

Recently my spouse & I reviewed Jennifer Raff’s Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas for the American Biology Teacher magazine (in brief: Raff’s book is lovely, you should read it! I’ll include a link to our review once it’s published!), which deftly balances twin goals of disseminating scientific findings and honoring traditional knowledge.

By the time European immigrants reached the Americas, many of the people living here told stories suggesting that their ancestors had always inhabited these lands. This is not literally true. We have very good evidence that all human species – including Homo sapiens, Homo neaderthalensis, and Homo denisovans among possible others – first lived in Africa. Their descendants then migrated around the globe over a period of a few hundred thousand years.

As best we know, no lasting population of humans reached the Americas until about twenty thousand years ago (by which time most human species had gone extinct – only Homo sapiens remained).

During the most recent ice age, a few thousand humans lived in an isolated, Texas-sized grassland called Beringia for perhaps a few thousand years. They were cut off from other humans to the west and an entire continent to the east by glacial ice sheets. By about twenty thousand years ago, though, some members of this group ventured south by boat and established new homes along the shoreline.

By about ten thousand years ago, and perhaps earlier, descendants of these travelers reached the southern tip of South America, the eastern seaboard of North America, and everywhere between. This spread was likely quite rapid (from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist) based on the diversity of local languages that had developed by the time Europeans arrived, about five hundred years ago.

So, by the time Europeans arrived, some groups of people had probably been living in place for nearly 10,000 years. This is not “always” from a scientific perspective, which judges our planet to be over 4,000,000,000 years old. But this is “always” when in conversation with an immigrant who believes the planet to be about 4,000 years old. Compared with Isaac Newton’s interpretation of Genesis, the First People had been living here long before God created Adam and Eve.

If “In the beginning …” marks the beginning of time, then, yes, their people had always lived here.


I found myself reflecting on the balance between scientific & traditional knowledge while reading Gabriel Andrade’s essay, “How ‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’ Works in Venezuela.” Andrade describes his interactions with students who hold the traditional belief in partible paternity: that semen is the stuff of life from which human babies are formed, and so every cis-man who ejaculates during penetrative sex with a pregnant person becomes a father to the child.

Such beliefs might have been common among ancient humans – from their behavior, it appears that contemporary chimpanzees might also hold similar beliefs – and were almost certainly widespread among the First Peoples of South America.

I appreciate partible paternity because, although this belief is often framed in misogynistic language – inaccurately grandiose claims about the role of semen in fetal development, often while ignoring the huge contribution of a pregnant person’s body – the belief makes the world better. People who are or might become pregnant are given more freedom. Other parents, typically men, are encouraged to help many children.

Replacing belief in partible paternity with a scientifically “correct” understanding of reproduction would probably make the world worse – people who might become pregnant would be permitted less freedom, and potential parents might cease to aid children whom they didn’t know to be their own genetic offspring.

Also, the traditional knowledge – belief in partible paternity – might be correct.

Obviously, there’s a question of relationships – what makes someone a parent? But I also mean something more biological — a human child actually can have three or more genetic contributors among their parents.


Presumably you know the scientific version of human reproduction. To wit: a single sperm cell merges with a single egg cell. This egg rapidly changes to exclude all the other sperm cells surrounding it, then implants in the uterine lining. Over the next nine months, this pluripotent cell divides repeatedly to form the entire body of a child. The resulting child has exactly two parents. Every cell in the child’s body has the same 3 billion base pair long genome.

No scientist believes in this simplified version. For instance, every time a cell divides, the entire genome must be copied – each time, this process will create a few mistakes. By the time a human child is ready to be born, their cells will have divided so many times that the genome of a cell in the hand is different from the genome of a cell in the liver or in the brain.

In Unique, David Linden writes that:

Until recently, reading someone’s DNA required a goodly amount of it: you’d take a blood draw or a cheek swab and pool the DNA from many cells before loading it into the sequencing machine.

However, in recent years it has become possible to read the complete sequence of DNA, all three billion or so nucleotides, from individual cells, such as a single skin cell or neuron. With this technique in hand, Christopher Walsh and his coworkers at Boston Children’s Hopsital and Harvard Medical School isolated thirty-six individual neurons from three healthy postmortem human brains and then determined the complete genetic sequence for each of them.

This revealed that no two neurons had exactly the same DNA sequence. In fact, each neuron harbored, on average, about 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations. That’s 1,500 nucleotides out of a total of three billion in the entire genome – a very low rate, but those mutations can have important consequences. For example, one was in a gene that instructs the production of an ion channel protein that’s crucial for electrical signaling in neurons. If this mutation were present in a group of neurons, instead of just one, it could cause epilepsy.

No human has a genome: we are composite creatures.


Most scientists do believe that all these unique individual genomes inside your cells were composed by combining genetic information from your two parents and then layering on novel mutations. But we don’t know how often this is false.

Pluripotent (“able to form many things”) cells from a developing human embryo / fetus / baby can travel throughout a pregnant person’s body. This is quite common – most people with XX chromosomes who have given birth to people with XY chromosomes will have cells with Y chromosomes in their brains. During the gestation of twins, the twins often swap cells (and therefore genomes).

At the time of birth, most humans aren’t twins, but many of us do start that way. There’s only a one in fifty chance of twin birth following a dizygotic pregnancy (the fertilization of two or more eggs cells released during a single ovulation). Usually what happens next is a merger or absorption of one set of these cells by another, resulting in a single child. When this occurs, different regions of a person’s body end up with distinct genetic lineages, but it’s difficult to identify. Before the advent of genetic sequencing, you might notice only if there was a difference in eye, skin, or hair color from one part of a person’s body to the next. Even now, you’ll only notice if you sequence full genomes from several regions of a person’s body and find that they’re distinct.

For a person to have more than two genetic contributors, there would have to be a dizygotic pregnancy in which sperm cells from unique individuals merged with the two eggs.

In the United States, where the dominant culture is such that people who are trying to get pregnant are exhorted not to mate with multiple individuals, studies conducted in the 1990s found that at least one set of every few hundred twins had separate fathers (termed “heteropaternal superfecundication”). In these cases, the children almost certainly had genomes derived from the genetic contributions of three separate people (although each individual cell in the children’s bodies would have a genome derived from only two genetic contributors).

So, we actually know that partible paternity is real. Because it’s so difficult to notice, our current estimates are probably lower bounds. If 1:400 were the rate among live twins, probably that many dizygotic pregnancies in the United States also result from three or more genetic contributors. Probably this frequency is higher in cultures that celebrate rather than castigate this practice.

Honestly, I could be persuaded that estimates ranging anywhere from 1:20 to 1:4,000 were reasonable for the frequency that individuals from these cultures have three or more genetic contributors.** We just don’t know.


I agree with Gabriel Andrade that we’d like for medical students who grew up believing in partible paternity to benefit from our scientific understanding of genetics and inheritance – this scientific knowledge will help them help their patients. But I also believe that, even in this extreme case, the traditional knowledge should be respected. It’s not as inaccurate as we might reflexively believe!

The scientific uncertainty I’ve described above doesn’t quite match the traditional knowledge, though. A person can only receive genetic inheritance from, ahem, mating events that happen during ovulation, whereas partible paternity belief systems also treat everyone who has sex with the pregnant person over the next few months as a parent, too.

But there’s a big difference between contributing genes and being a parent. In Our Transgenic Future: Spider Goats, Genetic Modification, and the Will to Change Nature, Lisa Jean Moore discusses the many parents who have helped raise the three children she conceived through artificial insemination. Even after Moore’s romantic relationships with some of these people ended, they remained parents to her children. The parental bond, like all human relationships, is created by the relationship itself.

This should go without saying, but: foster families are families. Adopted families are families. Families are families.

Partible paternity is a belief that makes itself real.




** A note on the math: Dizygotic fertilization appears to account for 1:10 human births, and in each of these cases there is probably at least some degree of chimerism in the resulting child. My upper estimate for the frequency that individuals have three or more genetic contributors, 1:20, would be if sperm from multiple individuals had exactly equal probabilities of fertilizing each of the two egg cells. My lower estimate of 1:4,000 would be if dizygotic fertilization from multiple individuals had the same odds as the 1:400 that fraternal twin pairs in the U.S. have distinct primary genetic contributors. Presumably a culture that actively pursues partible paternity would have a higher rate than this, but we don’t know for sure. And in any case, these are large numbers! Up to 5% of people from these cultures might actually have three or more genetic contributors, which is both biologically relevant and something that we’d be likely to overlook if we ignored the traditional Indigenous knowledge about partible paternity.



header image from Zappy’s Technology Solution on flickr

On the apparent rise in transgender and non-binary identities.

On the apparent rise in transgender and non-binary identities.

Many more people in the United States now identify as transgender and/or non-binary than in the recent past. This increase is most dramatic among younger generations.

There are two major causes of this change, and for political reasons it’s essential that we acknowledge both.


My spouse was recently speaking to a colleague and (cheerfully) described the increase as being due to our nation’s changing culture. In my opinion, we still have a long way to go, but many people are much more accepting than in the recent past. As the perceived risk decreases, people will be more likely to reveal their true identities.

But that isn’t the whole story.

The chemical make-up of our world is radically different than in the recent past. As a (lapsed) organic chemist, I’m quite proud of human ingenuity and our ability to synthesize so many wondrous medicines, small molecules, and industrial materials. The technologies we have access to are amazing! We can live so much longer, and our quality of life during that time is pretty awesome.

We’ve dramatically altered the environment, though. Industrial run-off and medicinal metabolites are present at high concentrations in our water supply, including lots of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”

Endocrine disrupting chemicals often resemble naturally-occurring hormones and signaling molecules. Many of these chemicals are known to induce non-binary sexual development among other animals – in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of wild animals born with intersex characteristics.

We humans are also susceptible to this altered chemical milieu. The environment in which human brains and bodies develop during gestation is chemically different now from in our recent past.

As epidemiologist Shanna Swan writes in Countdown: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, “The changes in sexual development taking place all over the world appear to have been accompanied by an apparent rise in gender fluidity …”

Intersex is different from transgender or nonbinary. “Intersex” describes physical morphology and can be assessed for non-human animals; “transgender” and “nonbinary” describe what’s going on inside a person’s brain. But brains are a product of biological development. It’s reasonable to assume – although it would obviously be unethical to test or prove – that endocrine disrupting chemicals capable of changing external sexual morphology also impact developing brains.


Children are more likely to self-identify as transgender or non-binary now than in the recent past, partly because they are growing up in a different culture, partly because their brains and bodies developed in a different chemical environment.

We don’t yet know how much of the shift has been caused by which factor: maybe the explanation is 10% cultural, 90% biological; maybe both contribute equally; maybe the shift is more due to culture than biology.

But it’s essential for us to acknowledge both contributions – especially because a large portion of our nation’s population espouses conservative or traditional values that decry the cultural change.

Yes, the Democratic party’s policies celebrating diversity have shifted the culture; the Republican party’s policies promoting business and minimizing environmental regulation have shifted the chemical environment.

Whether or not we are happy that gender fluidity is on the rise, it’s important to note that both major political parties in this country have contributed.

I’m no biological determinist – from my perspective as a masculine autistic person who’s chosen to focus on caretaking, I like to imagine that I’m transcending my biological inclinations – but those of us who celebrate liberal values and diversity do ourselves a political disservice if we fail to acknowledge the impact of our shifting environment on gender.

Children will be safer when we make clear that these aspects of their identities aren’t a choice. This is who they are. Personally, I think that’s great. But some people don’t. And so we need to convey that political policies that those people supported helped make children’s lives today different from the way the world used to be.

The way we speak about these issues matters. If we want to include as many people as possible in these conversations – which we must, if we’re going to move forward as a nation – we have to include the whole complex breadth of the world.

Even when it feels uncomfortable.

. . . .

Header image by Ted Eytan.

Frog image by John P Clare — although I should acknowledge that not only is this frog living in Ireland, not the U.S., but I’m also not a herpetologist and can’t tell you this frog’s biological sex. But it’s a good looking frog!