Some thoughts on whether Britain is “a Christian country”

So there’s been a lot of talk about David Cameron calling Britain a Christian country, the humanists saying nuh-uh and it all getting a bit silly. I identify as Christian, and am proud to do so. But I have difficulty with the idea that Britain itself should identify that way.

So, without responding to anything anyone else has said, I’m going to take a look at some different ways of addressing the question.

Firstly, our monarch and head of state is officially called “Defender of the Faith” (such that it appears as an abbreviation of the Latin on our coinage) and the faith in question is specifically the Church of England; the monarch is also the head of that Church. The bishops of the CoE have a seat in the second chamber of our parliament (although IIRC, by custom they do not vote on legislation). The rules of succession for the British throne forbid a Roman Catholic from being monarch. From this constitutional perspective, then I suppose yes, Britain is a Christian nation, and specifically, a Protestant nation. And that’s never caused any trouble, or bloodshed, or anything in 600 years, has it? Oh, wait, of course it has.

So that’s not really a useful construction to describe what the nation is. If we dig into the laws of Britain, we find that Scotland has a different legal system from Wales and England, and I cannot speak so well to the Scottish system. Having been following a recent documentary about the Plantagenet line of royalty, I have learned that the basis of “common law” was laid down under their rule; the Magna Carta was the result of resisting the assumed divine right of kings, and several other key constitutional and legal events subsequent to those were again forced by acts of the people resisting overbearing and violent Plantagenet monarchs and wresting concessions from them.

The basis of British law cannot, therefore, be reasonably argued as “Christian”: while the people who fought and died for it, or encoded and enforced it, may have called themselves Christian, they acted largely out of self-interest or secular concerns. It was a Plantagenet who is reputed to have asked, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” and it was a Tudor who abolished the monasteries. Where the interests of the Church came into conflict with those of the Crown, or the secular powers, England has always been governed by the non-religious concerns.

The customs and festivals of this nation are largely pagan in origin. Inasmuch as a festival is called “Christian”, it is rather, a pagan festival that has been rebranded to allow the people to maintain their old traditions but carry them out in the name of a different faith. The main exceptions in the British calendar seem to be Guy Fawkes Night (celebrating Protestant victory over Catholic terrorism), and New Year’s Day (which is derived from a calendar developed by the Western Christian tradition, but which has no religious significance whatsoever).

The British have never been known for their sobriety or focus: drink, song and dance, lewdness and debauchery have been staples of our culture for many centuries. One can easily imagine St Paul being appalled (see what I did there?) by the state of our faith and deriding us much as he does some of the more licentious churches of the early Church. The British are historically gambling nuts, the wealthy classes betting on the games of the workers and peasants for at least five hundred years; and those games having been outlawed previously for distracting from the proper business of archery practice. That’s how come cricket, football, golf, and so on came to gain sufficient purchase that we then exported them around the world.

At best, we can say that a Christian veneer was laid over the top of the underlying culture and (with the exception of Cromwell’s Commonwealth) generally that has been the way it’s been happy to stay.

Britain’s laws are secular in origin and nature, and always have been; the culture has never been particularly strongly tied to the teachings or events of the Gospels or the Epistles. The old observances simply got updated to give a significance appropriate to the new faith, and people generally carry on their lives with little thought to God but enjoy the festivities nonetheless. But perhaps it is in this that Britain is a “Christian country”: that it is to the Christian church that the majority turn for the major life events of “hatch, match and dispatch” (celebrations of births, marriages and funerals), and still people tend to prefer “C of E” to “agnostic” or “atheist” or “no particular faith”. The calendar festivals may be pagan in origin, but we choose to mark them after the fashion adopted by the Church.

But large portions of the communities and society that we have built in this nation by bringing people of other nations, faiths and cultures to live here – either by invitation (when we needed labour), or by being willing (albeit often exceedingly grudgingly) to give shelter here – do not mark these festivals in their own lives, or they turn to other faiths or none when they mark their “hatch/match/dispatch” ceremonies. Again, we’ve been doing this for centuries and it’s a bit late now to complain that it messes up some conception of a “pure” culture. Britain would not be the relatively vibrant, diverse and open society it is (it could stand to be much more those things, but anyway) without that history and without the many benefits other cultures add to the mix.

Our cultural traditions are largely unmoved by religion, or lack of it; our law is built on secular power and at every turn (sometimes through violent struggle) the Church has had its power rolled back over time. Our population comprises (and has done for centuries) many faiths, those of no faith, those of undefined spirituality or faith, and those who question or are undecided.

Is Britain a Christian country? In any respect that actually matters for how we do things, I would argue no. Take away Christianity and the homophobia, suspicion of the unlike (racism or Islamophobia), sexism, and so on would remain. Religion has only been a convenient way of organising those. And we would also keep all the good things, like openness, generosity, the many festivals, whatever else you think is good about Britain.

But there is still some attachment to the names and the forms that Christianity has provided; there is still the fact that the monarch is also head of the Church in this country, and so on. These things don’t really affect the ways that we live our lives, or the ways we are governed, or the ways we relate to one another except in the most trivial ways. But many seem to like them and cling to them. I get why those people would want to call the country “Christian”, but ultimately I feel that to do so is misleading and out of touch with the reality of our laws and cultures.

Eyes, souls and self-doubt

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, I love doing psychology questionnaires online an have reached the point where I can recognise several of the standard instruments used, if not by name then at least by purpose/intent. The OCEAN/Five Factor Model test is pretty standard, testing for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. There’s the Dark Triad test (if I recall correctly, that’s Psychopathy, Narcissism, Machiavellianism). There’s a variety of standard memory tests (e.g. “have you seen this word in the previous section?”) and so on.

One of the tests that occurs frequently is the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, created by the Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. It is usually used as a test of “empathy” or “theory of mind, although there are some clear issues with the assumptions behind that assessment (my search on DuckDuckGo found plenty of commentary, as well as places to try the test myself). As a test of reading emotions in others’ facial expressions it seems to have some merit, although again, there are objections to that.

I tend to doubt my ability to read others’ emotions, especially in social situations. At times, I doubt others’ ability to read my emotions also. So I feel challenged and struggle when I encounter this test. Normally, when doing an online questionnaire for someone’s research project, you don’t get told what your score is, or what it supposedly means. I felt convinced that I do not do well on it, but when I decided to write about it and did that DuckDuckGo search, I found sites that let you know your score.

The format of the test is that you are shown a sequence of photographs cropped to show the eyes, with four options of the emotion or state of mind each pair of eyes might be indicating. Usually, the options are arranged with one option at each corner of the photo. You are told there is no time limit, but to try to answer as quickly as possible. Your job is to choose which of the four options is “correct”.

The ways in which I have struggled are:

  1. The emotion I believe is being shown is not one of the options
  2. I find it hard to choose between two or more of the options

In both cases, it takes me much longer to choose an answer. In the first case, I have to reason which of the options is closest to the emotion I believed was being shown, or if the emotion I immediately identified is opposite to the range suggested, then I have to reason which of them is least unlike the emotion I saw. With the second case, I have to reason by a process of elimination (“I am certain it isn’t those, what else do I think it isn’t?”)

Not all questions were hard: sometimes I had an immediate response, and the answer was there, or I had no immediate response but when i saw the four options I had an immediate conviction that one answer was clearly “right”.

With the experience of having difficulty and doubts about my answers, I believed I must be doing badly at it. So I was surprised when, two weeks ago, I used an online test and scored slightly higher than the average for a neurotypical male (although well within the Standard Deviation).

One conclusion would be that, when given a choice of four options instead of the full range, and the time to reason out the answer from whatever principles I have available rather than having to make an instant read in a social situation, then I can do quite well. This would argue against the test being valid as a predictor of performance in “live” situations with real people.

An alternative conclusion is that I am better at reading other people’s faces than I believe I am, and that my difficulties in “live” situations come from my self-doubt rather than from an underlying inability. By this interpretation, the difficulties I reported are the consequence of self-doubt more often than they are a consequence of not knowing. Of course, it is harder to explain the first case listed above by that logic.

As it happens, I had forgotten when I finally sat down to write this post what the average was supposed to be, and if it was the same as that reported in the .pdf of the paper outlining the new version (it turns out, it was). So I decided today to take the test again, to get to that information.

This time, my result was significantly lower, and about average for a person with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism (and just outside the Standard Deviation for a neurotypical male). That would tend to support the first conclusion. I took less time over my answers instead of trying to reason them out carefully; if self-doubt had been the primary cause of my difficulties then this ought if anything to have improved my score as I relied more on “gut feeling”. It occurred to me that my mood might have also affected my result: last time, I was excited and enthusiastic about taking the test and finding out how I really did. This time, I have had a tiring weekend so far and felt quite grumpy. I am left wondering if it is possible that feeling tired or grumpy makes me less able to read emotions, or more inclined to read “positive” emotions wrongly as negative emotions?

I believe that there are probably elements of all these theories or explanations of what I experience in social situations, and the results from the two attempts at the “Eyes” test. I genuinely do read emotions wrongly or confusedly in a lot of situations. Probably my mood also affects how well I can interpret other people’s moods. Because I am introverted, a lot of social situations leave me feeling tired, stressed or antagonistic. Sometimes the difficulty I experience in reading others’ emotions and intentions also make this worse. But perhaps the stress I feel is making it harder for me to read other people correctly, too?

I am also convinced that sometimes I have read the situation accurately, but lack the confidence in my assessment to believe that I have done so. In a few situations where the company has been close enough and I trust them enough that I can check in with them and it won’t seem too weird, I have been able to ask if my read is correct and I generally am told that yes, I have got it right (once or twice I was wrong, but very rarely). This gives me a basis from which to say that self-doubt is probably also a factor in my difficulty. Curing the self-doubt is harder, because there are still too many occasions where I haven’t been able to check in but have clearly misread something – I genuinely don’t get it right often enough, or don’t have any clear answer (as opposed to an answer that I then doubt).

The test itself may or may not be any good. For me, the value is to prompt once again thoughts about how I relate to the social world and what I can do to deal with the issues I find in doing so. Simply understanding what my difficulties are (especially that self-doubt one) can be helpful in terms of interpreting what I feel when faced with confusing situations.

Elust #57

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Welcome to Elust #57 -

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I’ve Got 99 Problems

Vasectomy Blues

I’ve always wanted to call myself queer.


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Aoyama Yuki and My Very First Times

I don’t know how to be happy


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Sex News,Opinion, Interviews, Politics & Humor

Prostitution Laundering
That Body-safe Sex Toy Could Make You Sick
“Nice Shoes. Wanna Fuck?” — On Pick Up Lines
Rape prevention
Life of a Sheltered Child: Sex Toys (Part II)
A Tour of Fucking Sculptures Sex Toy Studio
Bashing Belle Knox: Because You GET Porn
Would You Pay $133 to See Midori Eat Fruit?

Thoughts & Advice on Kink & Fetish

Heart of Glass
Talking BDSM: Are safewords really necessary?
45 Seconds
I want
Whispered Words
Aftercare: In Kink and Erotica
Ariel Castro: The Man in the Mirror?
We Are Ethical
Apology tokens, punishments, and forgiveness

Erotic Fiction

Very Short Stories – If We Hadn’t Had Sex
Larry Knew Better
Lasting Impressions
The Boys
Sounds of a Kitten
Chemical (se)X
Shopping Together
Enjoy Being Seduced on the South Bank
Room 6
Caught In The Act
Packing Light
For your thighs only (007 Parody)

Erotic Non-Fiction

Dental Torture
My hand around your throat
Conversations With My Owner
Cuming Without You.
On My Knees Again
It Always Starts With A Kiss
World Champion, Yes, I Can!
Omne Trium Perfectum
When Good Sex Tapes Go Bad
Submission: An Initiation (Part Four)

Thoughts & Advice on Sex & Relationships

Hidden No More
Female condoms are fucking awesome!
Female Ejaculation and How to Achieve It
Mommy Doesn’t Want Sex
How To Train Your Vagina
Camp Dildo
Being slut shamed made me want more sex
Don’t say my name


“Hidden” memes
A Brief History of Sex Blogging

Writing About Writing

Openings and Grabbing Your Reader


Sense Memory – a Lusty Limerick


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Touch, flirting when stone-ish

One of the areas of dating advice that I have found hardest to handle is “touch shows interest”. Whether it’s the whole PUA discussion of “kino” or more feminist-oriented “how not to be creepy while dating”, the fact is, most people say that the thing that bridges the gap between feeling like a friend and feeling like you’re interested in a partner, is the way you touch your date. When I’m talking about my reactions in this post, I am picturing the touch taking place in the context of having met someone and spent some time talking with them, but no other previous contact.

When I discussed my connections with “stone” as a sexual identity, I wrote that “Body experience of violation with [certain kinds of] touch” was a strong area of resonance. From Xan West’s definition:

a visceral experience of violation with certain kinds of touch, any touch at all, being touched in certain places. This is about what it feels like to be touched, and can be separate from and sometimes the opposite of our desire for touch.

I have some very awkward associations with touching, such that when people touch me, I feel violated, I feel a physical creepiness and an instinctive and emotional “kneejerk” reaction (or even, “burnt finger” reaction) to it that may be at direct odds with what my higher-level wants might be. Unfortunately, this frame of reference cannot help but colour my expectations of others’ reactions in a way that simply saying “that’s not true” doesn’t resolve or dissipate.

Dr Nerdlove’s recent post, Leveling Up: How To Touch Her, is a classic example (and what led me to think it worth writing about the intersection of “stone” and “dating-touching” that I experience). The suggestions and examples of how to touch someone to communicate interest, intimacy, or friendship so often left me cringing and my skin crawling as I imagined someone doing that touching to me, and remembered many instances when that touch had produced those reactions. Even deeply trusted people, including those I’ve had romantic/sexual relationships with, have produced this effect by using touch the way DNL suggests. One of the most glaring examples is what DNL calls the “high-five test”:

One of my favorite ways of checking for attraction is to use the high-five test. It’s very simple: when she says something that impresses you or makes you laugh, you say “that’s awesome. You get a high-five,” then offer a high-five with your fingers spread. If she’s interested, when she make the high-five, her fingers will intertwine with yours and she’ll clasp your hand.

There has never been an occasion where someone did that “intertwine fingers and clasp hand”, and I was okay with it. It always feels creepy and I want to break contact as quickly as possible – as if I had just been scalded (see why I said “burnt finger reflex” above?). To be fair, DNL adds an aside that, “It’s also worth noting: this is very dependent both on social context and on the individual. Everyone has their own boundaries and sense of body privacy.” However, his advice is predicated on an assumed hierarchy of intimacy/okayness in touching: “If you are unsure, it’s better to keep to less-intimate forms of contact until the other person gives you the green light.” My issue is that my touch-averseness doesn’t operate on that hierarchy.

So, how can I possibly communicate uncreepy, romantic messages through touch, when touch so often has such a visceral and unpleasant association? In particular, when the types of touch that are supposed to be safest are often the ones that creep me out more?

A common appeal is to the “how you act with friends” analogy, which assumes a certain sort of “friendly” behaviour. DNL’s piece uses “how you act with friends” as an example of how touch communicates one’s feelings for other people, rather than as an example of how to approach flirting or pick-up, but it still makes the same kinds of assumptions about what “friends” do: “the more playful ways of touching our friends – fist pounds, playful body checks, nudges, back slapping and high-fives.” Except I tend to avoid people who do those sorts of things (with the exception of high-fives, I suppose), regard the people who do them as unfriendly and unsafe, and will make efforts to put physical space between me and them if they do it to me. A scowl and flinch is the only reward they get, and certainly no bonding.

Two lines of thought occur to me after this observation. Firstly, what touches are okay for me, and what makes the difference between an okay touch and a not-okay touch? Secondly, how has touch developed “in the field” with previous dating partners?

For someone who is wary of touch, it may seem surprising that I love giving and receiving hugs. But a hug is one of the most okay types of touch for me that there are. In DNL’s “touch-intimacy hierarchy”, some of the sites that he considers least intimate are also ones where touch, for me, is most unwelcome from someone I’ve just met. A hug is much more acceptable, despite seeming to involve more intimate modes of touching. (An interesting note about DNL’s hierarchy – there seems to be a loose correlation between how intimate a touch is, and how close you have to stand to the other person to touch them there – e.g. you can touch a shoulder at arm’s length, but have to stand much closer to touch their waist or lower back. Of course, to hug, you stand very close indeed!)

As mentioned already, a friendly high-five is okay (just DON’T intertwine your fingers with mine!) and the same goes for a handshake. They’re not necessarily what you’d call intimate/romantic touches, but they’re okay, and I believe relevant.

The “linked arm handhold” or just “linked arms” is definitely okay, although the level of intimacy of linking fingers/hands as well as arms is something that needs to be negotiated in the moment. Again, this is a type of touch that would, I am guessing, conventionally be considered as tending towards the intimate, and yet, it is something that doesn’t bother me even with a relatively new acquaintance.

DNL writes that:

Touching somebody with the back of your hand, for example is considerably less intimate and more innocuous than the fingertips. Touching somebody lightly with your fingertips is going to be slightly more intimate – and flirtier – than with the back of your hand. Your full palm implies a much greater degree of familiarity and intimacy and – depending on the location – an expectation of compliance.

This does not accord with how I experience touch. The back of the hand even lightly touching, is to me a very hierarchical gesture, asserting the toucher as superior to the person they touch, and sometimes even carrying a veiled threat of violence (a touch with the back of the hand tends to involve the fingers curling slightly; I read, “This could easily be a fist”).

A light touch of the fingertips, on the other hand, feels somehow dishonest and not at all flirty to me. Dishonesty does not lead to a flirty feeling. It feels creepy, in a way not dissimilar to how DNL says one should not approach touch:

(Note very carefully that this isn’t about the frog in the boiling water. You’re not trying to push boundaries or see what she “lets you get away with”; it’s a form of communicating. Trying to work social pressure so that somebody is ok with you touching their neck is not the same as building mutual attraction.)

Light fingertip touches feel very much like someone is trying to “push my boundaries”.

Conversely, touching with a palm, or more often, full-lengths-of-fingers, feels honest and purposeful. Context is significant, as DNL says, and sometimes the significance he mentions applies for me, too. But when placed in an appropriate conversational/flirting context, it’s easily the most comfortable for me.

I used the words “honest” and “purposeful” there, and that’s where my thinking on this topic has been leading me. Touching where the person’s intention is clear is much more acceptable to me than touching that either does not have an intention, or where the intention seems veiled or insincere. A “light fingertip touch”, by its lightness and diffuse nature, feels dishonest. Use the weight of the whole fingers, however, and I know that you meant it (I might still not know what you meant by it, but I know it’s not hiding anything). If your words and expressions are showing me what you expect, it will work even better.

The other words I think of when I look at the types of touch, are “negotiated” and “reciprocal”.

When I say “negotiated”, I mean in particular, that you can see it coming and either reject or accept it – or that it’s verbalised and agreed (as one commenter @ DNL’s post pointed out). You can offer a high-five, but you can’t force a person to match it if they don’t want to (although there’s the social pressure of, “don’t leave me hanging, man!”) Likewise, a handshake can be offered but can also be declined (although again, there’s a social message sent in declining a handshake). And most hugs are telegraphed (that being said, one of my favourite scenes in The West Wing is where Josh thinks Leo wants a hug, only to be told, “Boy, did you read that one wrong!”) If you don’t want to be hugged, you have a chance to object (see, again, Josh and Leo). And linking arms requires one person to offer their arm to be linked so the other can put their arm through it. All of these involve non-verbal but clear communication and negotiation of the type of touch intended.

It is, of course, possible to negotiate any kind of touch. Either by asking verbally, or by gesturing the intention before carrying it out. Anything that gives the person you want to touch the chance to decline consent before it happens. DNL discusses consent only after the event:

In the event that you’ve pushed too far or have accidentally tripped up on an area that she’s not comfortable with, then you simply disengage calmly (again: not like you’ve just put your hand on a hot stove) and say “that seemed to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry about that.”

As a general rule of thumb: it’s better to be the one who disengages first if you notice that she’s showing signs of discomfort.

Of course, the motion has to have clear intent and also clear option to reject that intent if necessary – “honest” and “purposeful” so that the person knows what is being suggested.

The other aspect, reciprocity, can be shown by the difference between a handshake and touching someone with your fingers. A handshake is reciprocal because both people use the same part of their body to touch the other. But if you touch someone, say on the arm, with your fingertips, then they do not have control over that touch, and they do not touch back. They might make a similar touch in response afterwards, but in that moment, you’re in charge and they are receiving but not giving. “He touched her arm with his fingers,” does not imply, “She touched his fingers with her arm,” only that, “She felt his fingers touch her arm.” Most of the touch that DNL discusses is the non-reciprocal kind.

Hugs are very much reciprocal: although a hug can have a more active and a more passive participant, the basic touch is more or less the same by both partners: similar body-body contact and similar arm-to-body contact. (Wandering hands, not a good idea!) This is also reciprocal vulnerability, trust and honesty involved. The experience of a good hug is easily the best way for me to feel comfortable with someone and it will decrease the barriers I feel towards other kinds of touching.

So what I want from social/flirty touching is honest, clear intent that is negotiated, and preferably reciprocal in nature.

How has this played out in dating scenarios for me?

So far, every date I have been on has been through internet dating, specifically on BDSM websites. This changes the sample somewhat from the concept of pick-up or social/flirting encounters. The closest I have managed is speed-dating, where there is not much time and the seating arrangements often interfere with touching as there is usually a table between you. Certainly, this interferes with the types of touch I said I prefer. Touching in a romantic/flirting/dating scenario has therefore taken place after verbal communication online.

This communication would in all previous instances include relatively detailed discussions of boundaries and expectations of behaviour on the date. This changed the game somewhat in terms of comfort levels and intimacy. Things are shifted even more when online sexual roleplay (cybersex) plays a part in these negotiations. While not everything that happens in the virtual world can or should take place in meatspace, it still includes genuine expressions of consent and preference that can form a basis for understanding meatspace boundaries; it also involves sharing intimate and emotional responses to one another that builds comfort. Of course, the real-world meeting may reveal differences that are significant, but in my experience this has not been an issue. The date is then a chance to test how well the virtual representation matches the reality, and fortunately my dates have given good representations.

All of which goes to say that my comfort levels in such situations are not likely to be the same as they would be in a pick-up/flirting scenario. All the same, it’s good reference point for what my natural inclination is for touch.

There are three partners it is worth mentioning in this context. In each case, it seems most relevant to talk about how touching progressed on our first dates.

With Partner 1, we had negotiated a very formal D/s context, and it was understood that if things went well we would move quickly to BDSM and sexual activities (which as it happened, we did). In that context, touch was mostly initiated by me, my recollection is that what happened is I used touch to communicate instructions for the most part. Her touching me was mostly light fingertips to the lower arm or back of the hand, but with verbal and visual communication letting me know that this was part of a permission-asking set of behaviours (so, “purposeful”).

Partner 2 was actually a date set up by partner 1 after she had moved on. Here, again, we spent some time chatting online including roleplay etc, before meeting in person. There was no understanding or expectation of sexual activities on this date, but touch progressed from a hug to greet, to sitting side-by-side while talking, with hips touching. P2 had mentioned that she liked being touched on the insides of her thigh and I recall exploiting this as the connection seemed to develop, with positive results. Again, I was in control of the touching here, with her responding to my approaches rather than initiating new levels (I hasten to add that at no point did P2 indicate discomfort with my approaches). The evening closed with a passionate embrace and kiss in the carpark.

Although I went with no expectation of sex with Partner 3, she had made up her mind about it early in the date! We met an arranged spot, and my recollection is that we shook hands first (I don’t recall hugging, although we might have done). After greeting, as we had arranged in our month of internet chatting beforehand, I offered her my arm for her to link arms. My recollection is that this felt at once safe and intimate as we made our way to a bar for a drink and sandwich. I recall lots of touching of each other’s hands after that, before progressing to an art exhibition. Here, my arm was around her waist and holding her hand so our bodies moved side-by-side through the gallery. Afterwards, we sat outdoors on a bench, hugged and kissed. In general, whenever she went to touch me, I could see what she was doing (negotiated) and what her reasons were for doing it (purposeful), and that made all the difference for me.

While imperfect, all these examples show at some point, negotiation, purposeful touching, honest and open movements to touch. The best have also involved some level of reciprocal touching. When these carried through the relationship, things felt more intimate and I felt more confident.

I don’t know where these needs come from, but my trust issues are surely a part of it. Some of the needs I mentioned seem clearly to be about being nervous or wary of another person, and wanting signals that give me confidence. I am, in general, a private and introverted person and that also means my personal space is important to me.. Mutual or reciprocal touching allows for personal space to be encroached upon in a way that is not an incursion but an overlapping of personal space.

I raised the question earlier of just how I am meant to touch someone else in a non-creepy way, when most kinds of touch (at least, prior to established intimacy) make me feel creepy. Is there a way to navigate the interface between my comfort zones and the comfort zones of more conventionally aligned people?

I go back to the principles of purposeful, honest, negotiated and wherever possible, reciprocal touch. If I can find a way to incorporate that into a way of touching someone else, where the purpose is intrinsic to the interaction (that is to say, what happens in the conversation means I have a reason and basis for my touch, rather than the touch being for its own sake, or “intimacy), then I think it could work. This is, in essence, what I understand when DNL says, “this isn’t about the frog in the boiling water.” It also reminds me of his example of Captain Jack Harkness as “how to do it”:

He’s utterly comfortable with what he wants. He doesn’t try to hide it or couch it in euphemisms or excuses.

“Respect” is Jack’s watchword. He doesn’t push boundaries. He doesn’t try to get people to go one inch further than they’d be comfortable with. Even when he’s being sexually forward, he’s quick to pull back – gracefully and without reproach – when he senses that he’s not wanted.

Things that make me hopeful – free lego edition

Free lego with my Cambridge News today!

Woman at the stall in the supermarket said, “We have two boys’ sets, and only one girlie set.” I said, “Well, not happy about the gender stereotyping, but…” and she replied, “Actually, a lot of girls have gone for this one,” pointing to the police helicopter set. Then we talked about grown-ups also liking lego.

(I picked the spaceship)

It bothers me that toys are still segregated in the same ways, but it heartens me to hear that girls ignore that and pick the toy they want, not the toy that’s “meant” for them. It would have been better if the woman had said, “Actually, a lot of boys pick this one” and pointed to the picnic scene set.

Brands vs Products vs Loyalty

Last week I went to the supermarket to buy new blades for my razor, only to find that the system had been replaced with a new, “better” version, with which my old handle was incompatible. As it happened, the old system was the best I had ever found. I’ve never been able to get a shave as smooth as I would like, but these razors got close, without the inconvenience of shredding my face in the process. To find it discontinued was therefore somewhat of a disappointment. After several instances of finding a good system only for it to be discontinued six months or a year later, I got fed up and have opted for what seems to be a more economical approach (although I worry about the ecological aspect) of buying disposable razors instead – an option that also lets me experiment a bit to find which current design works best for me.

All of which is just to explain why I have been thinking about concepts of “brand loyalty” and “product loyalty” recently.

I am not wholly unadventurous, but I certainly tend towards sticking with what I know – a slight element of risk-averseness informs many of my decisions (by one way of thinking, not enough of them, by another way of thinking, too many). One consequence of this is that, if I find a product that works for me and fulfils the functions in a satisfactory or better manner, then I am disinclined to shift unless forced to do so (for instance, if the product stops being made). However, I feel no attachment to particular businesses or brands, unless there is some particular quality to their business model (i.e. ethical standards).

What bothers me most is something that I have seen happen far too often with products or service models. The situation is something like this:

Business A and business B are providing services in a similar area. Business A uses an approach ‘a’, while business B uses a different approach, ‘b’. Business A, for whatever reason, has more customers than business B. Busines B looks at this and decides that, presumably in order to attract more customers, they should change some aspects of their service model from ‘b’ to ‘a’.

At which point, if I’m a customer of B, I have generally stopped using their service and switched to A, or (if it exists, and I like its model better) C. Sometimes, I just give up on using that sort of service altogether because I’d rather not bother than use something I’m not happy with (sometimes I can’t viably opt out, other times, I can and do).

The thing that I believe the “business B” types miss is that the reason they have attracted their customers is precisely because of the ways that they differ from business A. I vaguely remember seeing a documentary series about businesses making disastrous decisions to change their core product, and of course, Coca Cola was featured – when blind taste tests showed that Pepsi was slightly ahead, Coca COla changed the recipe to be more like Pepsi to try and take the lead. Instead of winning customers, they lost a whole lot of them and had to reinstate “Classic Coke”. Their loyal customers liked the original flavour, whereas those who preferred the Pepsi flavour just stuck with what they knew they liked already.

Similarly, if I choose service model ‘b’ over service model ‘a’, it’s because for me, personally, service model ‘b’ is better. Its difference from ‘a’ is why I chose B instead of A in the first place and when B tries to be more like A, I have no reason to stick with them.

Specifically, these are my issues with how social media sites have developed. Frequently, the very features that I have been attracted by are the first to be “improved” out of existence.

It’s also the way I feel about political parties at the moment. Back in the mid-1990s, the Conservative party had held power for around 15 years. As it happened, the mask was slipping: the Tories were out of step in policy, and more critically, had been hit by scandal after scandal. However, the Labour Party embarked on a massive rebranding exercise, called “New Labour”, borrowing from the techniques and rhetoric of Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the US. But the core of “New Labour” was essentially, “Let’s make our policies (our product) more like our competition.” But the basis of the Labour Party’s grassroots support – its “core customer base”, if you will, was attracted precisely by its difference from the Tories. As it happened, they won and kept new customers, largely because the Tories cocked up their own attempts at rebranding (and were still tainted by the memory of the scandals of the 1990s). Tony Blair’s ability to be a “face of the brand” also helped. When they lost the face and the Tories got their act together (by seeking to become more like the Blair brand…) there was nothing to keep the new customers, and nothing to win back the core customers (many of whom sought alternative providers – such as the “Respect” coalition or the Green Party).

Just as brands trying to manoeuvre their products to appeal to someone else’s customers ends up narrowing the range of choice for the consumer, and alienates the customers they already had, when political parties manoeuvre to become more like their opponents, it narrows the range of political debate and alienates those who advocate for other solutions. To some extent, this is the genius of UKIP’s approach: they’ve figured out how to build a distinctive brand in the marketplace that appeals to a group who feel otherwise marginalised.

I disagree vehemently with UKIP’s position, but they are doing something right. They are making a case for something different (I just think it’s the wrong kind of different). Nick Clegg failed miserably in the televised debates with Nigel Farage, because he did not respect that. Ed Miliband is struggling to rebrand the Labour Party, and in part I feel it’s because he hasn’t dared to widen the frame of reference enough.

Obviously, I can relate to that, since I like to stick with what I know. But so often, what I know works for me is “something different” from the perspective of others, so I end up making that case anyway, because I’m just arguing for what I need (or believe in).

Conclusion: I forget the exact quotation, but President Bartlet in The West Wing once said, “As a lifelong holder of minority opinions, I want there to be someone making my case.”

REVIEW: The Never List, by Koethi Zan

I know the policy says I don’t give trigger warnings, but there’s no clue in the title and some people might just wish there had been, so this intro is like an exception to that rule. The novel being reviewed involves themes of rape, torture, and the PTSD aftermath. In an interview printed in the back of my copy, the author explains that, “I followed the cases of abducted women long after the initial news stories: Elisabeth Fritzl, Jaycee Lee Dugard, Sabine Dardenne, and Elizabeth Smart, just to name a few.” That makes for some intense and potentially trigger-y reading in the novel, and may make my review, for various reasons, equally hard to read.

I will add that some of the themes felt very personal to me, not in terms of directly analogous experiences, but in terms of emotions and fears (some of which stem from other types of experiences). This isn’t going to be a typical book review, because I intend to talk about those from the perspectives of sexual identity and of my personal past, the details of which I do not intend to discuss except to say it’s probably not as bad as you might imagine (especially given the extremes covered in the novel), but bad enough to have long-term emotional consequences.

Review follows after a short interlude (please bear in mind, I don’t often write reviews of things I disliked, because I don’t usually finish reading them, so I did like this book, despite how I start):

* * *


For reference, the edition I have is the WHSmith edition in collaboration with the Richard And Judy Book Club. It includes a brief interview with the author, and a short list of discussion questions.


* * *

I’ll get the train crash part of this novel out of the way first, which is the representation of BDSM. I call it a “train crash” because that’s how it felt emotionally to me when I realised where the text was heading and as the scene unfolded. I grew up with only negative representations of D/s and SM and Zan’s representation keyed directly into the old anguish that they caused. In some ways, I’m just leaping on this as a way of talking about those issues in general.

As mentioned in the intro, the novel centres on a survivor of kidnap, rape and torture. Halfway through, it comes up that the perpetrator used a SM club as cover. In terms of the plot and how it unfolds, I could see no reason for an SM club to be there, so I don’t know why Zan did it except the old kinkphobic tropes made it seem “obvious” to include it. If the text was supposed to distinguish between consensual BDSM and abuse, then sadly I think it fails spectacularly. Here’s why:

The impression I had was that Zan had typed “BDSM community” into Google and used the first page of results as her “research”. Despite introducing a character who’s a social sciences researcher (who had once been research assistant to the perpetrator) “investigating” the BDSM community through participation in the Scene, there’s no evidence that Zan knows anything about the real researchers who have done such work. I’m thinking primarily of Staci Newmahr’s work (described in her book, “Playing On The Edge”), since the fictional researcher’s story (apart from the whole “worked in the same college department as a serial rapist-torturer-killer” part of it) seemed initially to echo the research path that Newmahr followed in terms of the depth of involvement. Even the obligatory references to safewords and consent seemed like Zan read the phrases on the internet. Another phrase thrown in without any obvious understanding but seemingly there just to imply “authenticity” was TPE, or “Total Power Exchange”. If anything, that was the one that most strongly left me feeling like Zan used Google and not much else.

Zan has her single representative BDSM character explain how the perpetrator was expelled from the club for violating the Safe, Sane, Consensual principles. Sadly, this representative BDSM character is a male “Master”, and his “Slave” turns out to be the victim of one of those incidents – but she is not allowed to speak for herself, because he forbids it. The “telling” part of the scene is that he’s a good Dom who cares for her and helps her heal from the psychological trauma, but the “show” is that he keeps her entirely subservient, hooded, and forbids her to speak for herself except to describe the detail of her abuse at the hands of the perpetrator. While I can appreciate that in real life, that may very well be the right approach to supporting some people, I know that it is not the only approach and feel frustrated and alienated at the deeply stereotypical representation of power exchange that results.

The “deeply stereotypical” complaint extends to the whole of Zan’s fictional club. Now, I don’t know what the Scene is like in the USA, and certainly not in what appears to be a more rural part of Oregon, so maybe Zan really did go to a SM club in the region where she’s set her story, and it really was the way she describes it in her novel. All I know is that it doesn’t sound much like what I’ve experienced, in what might be called “Semi-rural Southern UK”. All the same, the novel is written in first-person and from the POV of someone who knows nothing about kink. So I thought about the description in my novel of a SM club, which is told by a kinky person, and then tried to think whether the scene in my novel might have a similar description if the person didn’t know about BDSM before visiting. Here’s a snippet from The Never List:

This place was a vision of hell to me, all red and black, packed with a crowd geared out in studded leather who seemed, beyond any other terror, utterly unpredictable. The music was crushingly loud, and the air above the bar hung heavy with cigarette smoke. “Slaves” hung back behind their masters, heads down, cowering. I had to wonder if they were here voluntarily or if they were just brought out for play.

Along the far wall was a T-shaped stage, and a girl in a full-body leather suit with a ball tied in her mouth was doing something I supposed had a distant relationship to dancing but seemed more like alternating poses of pain and ecstasy.

I’ll be honest, with the exception of the costumes, that sounds very much like how I experienced nightclubs back when I went to them while at university (including the person doing weird “distant relationship to dancing”, although again, not the same costume). And nothing at all like what I saw and experienced at the SM club I visited. For one thing, dress code is usually much more lax and for some clubs, “all black” will usually get you in. (At the club I visited, “nude” was also acceptable, and everything in between as long as it was black and/or had a kink/fetish theme.) So the researcher’s earlier warning to the Lead when setting up the visit: “It’s important to blend in there. The last thing we’d want to do is stand out in this crowd. And I guarantee you don’t own anything appropriate for this venue,” seems really rather overblown and unnecessary. Mostly because there’s no reason to be afraid of standing out because BDSMers tend to be really friendly and welcoming of newbies (although some tend to be rather too “welcoming” of attractive female newbies). A regular nightclub was almost as alien to me as the SM club is to Zan’s Lead character. Incidentally, the SM club I visited had music but it was background music, quiet to make communication during scenes and during conversations on the sidelines easier. I am left to wonder if her version of an SM club is more influenced by this period, described on her website biography page: “She used the money wisely, travelling to New Orleans on the weekends to hit the club scene, almost always in silver-sequined costume, surrounded by transvestites, Goth kids and her gay male entourage.” [Edit to add: it also reflected the depiction in the CSI episode that introduced Lady Heather, which I also disliked for the "nightclub with extra leather" stereotype portrayal.]

Zan goes on to describe, “carefully constructed scenes of torment that filled the space: machines, contraptions of agony were in use everywhere, with elaborate ropes and pulleys, chains and spikes, nodes and wires.” Apart from I can’t imagine any responsible club owner allowing spikes (the risk of drawing blood, and the contamination risks that entails, would surely be a key factor!) I suppose a room with a pillory, St Andrew’s cross, bondage horse, and one or two other devices, might appear to be full of “carefully constructed scenes of torment”, and maybe a bigger venue (such as the one implied in the novel) with more equipment might appear more so. I can imagine the costumes of leather, or corsets, or nudity, seeming strange, overwhelming, maybe even threatening.

What I can’t imagine is a visitor seeing, “slaves hung back behind their masters, heads down, cowering”. Nope, never happened. The Subs and bottoms I saw were often the most garrulous people in the place (and I, being shy and introverted, was a Master with Slave in tow, and one of the quietest and most timid people). Everyone was cheerful and smiling. Even when Subs (whom the uninitiated might have assumed were slaves) “hung back behind their masters”, there was not even a hint of heads bowing or people cowering. Indeed, if I did see that I would be pretty freaked out by it (read the link below). Maybe the Scene in the USA is really that different, and those are the norms over there, but if so, I’m glad I’m not. The other thing is that there are no male bottoms – whether Sub, Slave or just Bottom – in the representation. I recall seeing many men presenting as bottom, although less often playing, at the club I visited. The only reference is when three stage hands wearing hoods appear to set up the next act.

So my complaint is that Zan pays lip service to the consensual reality of BDSM, but when it comes to the “show” part of writing, her representation is full of the same old negatives and gender-bias in orientation. While she doesn’t directly equate BDSM with abuse (only by association), the language of alienness and scariness, of otherness, is what rings in my figurative ears when I read these passages. One case not in Zan’s list (presumably, too recent to be relevant to her “long after the initial news stories”) was Ariel Castro’s victims: Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. To sum up why Zan’s inclusion of BDSM in the way she did is problematic, I can link to a piece by Yingtai @ The University of Abject Submission that does mention that case:

Our future tops were out there too, seeing Ariel Castro in the mirror, assaulted by this question: What makes me different from him?

What answers did we leave for them to find? What answers did we make for ourselves?

People did write about it, but most of them were not kinksters. They’ve read Fifty Shades, they know we’re not like that. But for some of our heirs, those reassurances will be empty, because only we know what it feels like from inside.

Ethical sadists don’t want to damage their partners. Look how much thought they put into protecting us. And sane masochists are nearly as cautious. Only psychopaths let their appetites run amok.

Yingtai is right: that question plagues me, certainly, and yet I know, or should know, that I put that much work into protecting a partner and that proves it – the fact that the question bothers me is proof. that I’m not like that.

Yes, Zan tells the reader that we’re different, but she shows that we are also to be feared. She shows a world in which subservience is not celebrated and enjoyed cheerfully, but is abject and dejected (in a way that, despite the title, the University of Abject Submission is not!) Nobody in her SM club seems to smile, or to enjoy what they’re doing, which is the opposite of what I know.

* * *

Okay, so now you know what upset me about The Never List.

On to the rest of the book:

The Never List is Koethi Zan’s first novel. The title comes from the set-up, which is that the Lead (Sarah, a.k.a. Caroline) as a teen wrote a list with her best friend (Jennifer) of all the things you must never do, in order to stay safe from Bad Things happening to you. But once captured by the villain (Jack Derber), she reflects that, “We hadn’t believed other minds could be as calculating as ours. We hadn’t counted on actual evil as our enemy rather than blind statistical possibility.”

(As a quick aside, that is also the reason why “don’t get raped” messages are really not worthwhile and end up only strengthening the myths that allow rapists to go free even when they are brought to trial.)

The concept of a “Never List”, while not as clearly or directly formed as it is in the novel, has echoes in my own mentality. I don’t like to admit it but I can be a pretty fearful creature and anticipate improbable bad things happening to me and try to be ready to avoid or counter them when they do. (For reasons, being bulky and male-bodied doesn’t figure into my perception of how at-risk I am.) When I read thrillers, or watch movies, I picture myself as the victims: “How would I avoid this situation? Could I survive it if I found myself there? How would I do so? What would I feel, and could I handle it?” As a result, I have a version of a Never List which is more like an “Action-on List”. I sometimes joke about it, “What would I do in the zombie apocalypse?” but it’s ever-present. I don’t walk across darkened spaces, at least, not without a torch that I use to scan all around. I always sit facing the door so I can see what’s coming. I hate having someone be just behind me. I have my own Never List.

Sarah’s capture and captivity is told in flashback. Jennifer is captured with her but disappears from their prison. Jack torments Sarah with tales of Jennifer’s death. The main story takes place thirteen years later – ten years after Sarah escapes and brings rescue for her fellow captives. With Jack up for parole, Sarah feels she must find Jennifer’s body in order to prove Jack is a murderer and thus ensure he isn’t released to renew his tormenting of young women, especially her and her fellow survivors.

What follows is a powerful tale of an agoraphobic PTSD sufferer pushing her limits and simultaneously attempting to be an amateur sleuth (which included contacting that researcher and visiting the SM club). Zan brings to life Sarah’s challenges and her triumphs, and little details harking back to the precautions and “Never List” mentality keep the character and her past constantly in focus without intruding onto the reader’s journey through the narrative. They provide the lens through which Sarah sees the world, making her present seem all the more vivid. The web of clues and crises seems inexorable (except, as previously mentioned, the whole BDSM element, which seemed unnecessary).

The psychological story is better handled than the action-adventure (here’s a point for a Never List: “Never go into a villain’s lair without posting a look-out” – amateur-sleuth Sarah, with her allies in tow, keeps doing this and paying for it) but the sleuthery unfolds well enough, along with the eerie sense that Jack is still somehow pulling the strings and manipulating everyone. There is also a sense that something is hidden in the flashback scenes as Sarah recalls her captivity – a shift in the relationship between her and her fellow captives hints at something else in the history.

The detective story, the psychological drama, and the truth about the last few months of captivity all come together in a huge finale. The effect is skilfully put together, but I have one complaint. I guessed early on what the big twist was going to be. Although I guessed it, I was never entirely sure of my conclusion and I think it takes great skill to maintain that doubt when someone guesses your trick. However, not far from the end Zan put in a scene that specifically ruled out that possibility and left me anxious to find out what the real answer was. The big reveal was that my original guess WAS correct, and that Sarah had just been misremembering or misinterpreting events. Without that “ruled-it-out” scene, I would have been delighted at the reveal because I had been kept guessing and second-guessing myself all the way along. But with it, I felt cheated and conned. While it was certainly believable that Sarah would have misunderstood or misremembered that scene, as a reader it felt like the author’s dishonesty. I reflected that, had the story been told in third-person, with Sarah describing the scene to a detective instead of as the first-person narrator of the novel, then I would have been much less bothered by that shift. It’s because her account has to perform two roles: “Sarah tells her story” and “Novel’s narrator” that the sense of deception (rather than misremembered/misinterpreted events) arises.

Misremembering, or perhaps, choosing not to remember, plays a key part in the psychological reveal as to what caused the shift in relationships between the captives. One of her fellow captives, as the climax builds, finally reflects back to her the truth that Sarah herself couldn’t tell or recall until that point. In the discussion questions in the back the point is raised, “The novel explores what people will do to survive – how clear are the boundaries of good and evil in the novel?” The reveal of what really happened perhaps challenges that more than any other point, and that (of course) is why Sarah refused to remember it. Exceptional reveal and emotional moment.

In conclusion, Koethi Zan shows great skill with her first novel, and I am sure I will remember her name if I see it in future. The story is powerfully crafted and deals with challenging topics, including our own self-perception and self-justification as well as evil and vulnerability. As discussed at great length, I felt alienated by Zan’s representation of BDSM, including recalling the worst fears of what my sexuality meant about me. Partly that’s to do with stereotypical portrayals and partly it’s to do with my own emotional issues, so despite the number of words I spent on it, I’m not willing to be angry about it.

Other than that sore point re: BDSM, and what felt like a misstep regarding the big twist, I feel that there is a lot to recommend about The Never List, if you like tense psychological thrillers with sprinklings of decently-written action-adventure.

Dreaming a detective show

So, last night I had a dream that almost made sense and was a detective story of sorts. It seems worth retelling it, so here goes:

It started with me walking down the shopping centre, which was definitely in Cambridge, except that the shops and the layout were all wrong for the actual shopping centres in Cambridge so it can’t have been. As shall become clear, it also definitely wasn’t in Cambridge but it was both in the US and in the UK. Yeah, this shopping centre had issues with its identity.

Outside, it was getting dark.

Anyway, I went past Waterstones the book store (except, as shall become clear, this was not Waterstones as we know it), on my way to another book shop. But I decided that I may as well buy my books there fore a change, in the spirit of paying for new things that I want to go on being made (that was a strong thought in my dream-head). So I went in the second entrance, a couple of shops down, and headed for the top floor, where the fiction books were, and the staircase led back towards where the first entrance was (but higher up).

At the top, a second set of stairs led back down to the first entrance, or I could turn left and go into the fiction section. But then I noticed rows of 1p and 2p coins lined up on their edges at the very tops of the shelves lining the staircase back to the first entrance. I turned to the Latina cop/security guard/detective (her exact job role was unclear, and at times during the dream she wore a uniform and at times she wore plain clothes, but she was definitely a cop of some sort, except when I first spoke to her, when she was definitely the mall security guard, and wore a uniform). I asked her about the rows of coins. She took one look and said, “We should never be running low on coppers!” and hit a big, red, emergency lockdown button. It was clear from the low number of coins remaining that there must be a Serious Robbery in progress and the thieves were getting away with the copper coins!

The lights went out immediately, and the door shutters came crashing down. I was plunged into darkness and could see nothing. However, I could hear the police officer (she remained a police officer or police detective from this point on) explaining the situation on her radio, and there were people rushing about in the dark. The cops seemed to have night vision goggles. Or torches. It wasn’t clear which. Anyway, after a few minutes the lights came back on. No sign of stolen coins.

Latina cop (let’s call her LC for short) announced, “This must have been a distraction so that when the lights were out, they could steal something bigger!” The cops followed her down the stairs to meet the senior detective, a fat scruffy White bloke with a cigar, a hat and a notebook (terribly stereotypical, I’m afraid – even LC looked suspiciously like an actress I’d seen playing the same kind of role in some TV show or other).

LC told him what had happened, adding, “We need to figure out what they were after!” He chewed on his cigar and gave the order. As it happened, I (my identity was beginning to merge with LC from this point on) noticed that in the sporting goods section (like I said, this wasn’t like any Waterstones I’ve ever been in!) there were several empty display racks, around which were realistic imitation firearms (BB guns, but illegal to sell in the UK!) and archery equipment, as well as hockey sticks and cricket bats, and various sports balls. LC recognised that the display racks were shaped to display canoes, kayaks and paddles – but they were all missing! The thieves hadn’t been after weapons, or if they had,m they hadn’t taken many. They wanted the canoes. But what for? (That question never got answered in the dream.)

LC was obviously suspicious of Stereotypical Detective (SD). When they first met, she asked him what he had been doing and he looked flustered. She went back to talk to him about the missing canoes. He was eating a massive chocolate muffin with cream (it looked absolutely delicious). The box it came in rattled. Inside were several copper coins! He’d added some 20p pieces as well, but LC was really suspicious. SD’s answers were evasive. Finally, though, he said, “You haven’t got nearly enough to pin anything on me.” Now LC was sure he was the inside man on the job. She told her colleagues in uniform as much, “Now we know what to look for!”

Dangling from the ceiling above the staircase was a microphone tied with black rope. “Look, only someone who could see in the dark could have tied that so well,” LC explained, “I bet if we examine the rope, we’ll find DNA.” And they did, and SD was a perfect match. LC had solved the case, and was sure she could get SD to crack under interrogation.

But at that point, I woke up. I never got to find out who the rest of the gang were or why they wanted canoes and kayaks.

Ranting about “big data”

I’m way behind on my blog writing, and this turned into quite a rant with not much structure. But it’s all I’ve got, and having missed Thursday’s post entirely, and failed to do any reviews like I promised, I feel I have to put SOMETHING up. So here is my “big data” rant:

Last week, I wrote about what happens when researchers study sexual arousal, and how it causes me some issues. I wrote:

I have a more general nightmare, related to “big data”, surveillance society, and so on, of a world in which I will say I feel one way and the computers will say I am lying or mistaken, and everyone else will believe the computer and not me. My internal feelings and emotions will be irrelevant because they “know” that I will like X and dislike Y, even if I repeatedly say I hate X and love Y, so I will forever be condemned to X.

Big data appears to refer to the myriad ways in which the processing capacity of modern computers allow for the mass accumulation of information about populations – whether animal, human, or mechanical – and analysis to demonstrate statistical patterns of significance in behaviours and outcomes. It was mistakenly reported that engine data from flight MH370 was being transmitted back to Boeing several hours after the plane disappeared from air traffic control radar (it was a different kind of signal altogether) but it makes topical the fact that Boeing use the data received from every engine on every plane they have built in recent years, to analyse and develop anticipation of general or specific problems before they become serious enough to cause a disaster, and thus improve air travel safety immensely.

A more immediate form is the “people who looked at this item bought these items” section on an Amazon product page, or their “your recommendations” page, based on previous purchases, wishlists and ratings.

There are all sorts of applications, including surveillance society issues (such as the NSA data-gathering that’s also been a hot topic in recent months) and even translation software. There is an ongoing tendency to try to predict people’s behaviour based on how other people similar to them in various ways have behaved in the past.

Thus, Amazon often suggests to me things that I know I don’t like, because other people who liked some of the things that I did like, also liked the thing I don’t. Sometimes it does lead to a revelation or new discovery, but more often it is simply unhelpful. Back when I used Google’s services, I discovered that, based on the websites I frequented, they believed me to be ten years younger, and female. One of the big reasons I switched to DuckDuckGo as my search engine of choice is that they do not track my searches or site visits, and do not attempt to prioritise results based on whether they think I will like or agree with those sites. Google does do that, and it is most worrying to me.

As I wrote last week, this leads me to imagine a future in which niches and social groupings are ever more rigorously policed and enforced by the range of options that people are offered on the basis of their similarities with others. We already see how gender, age, disability, sexuality and race affect how people’s choices are limited or bounded by social perceptions and norms. In some ways it is possible to push against that, because we can at least see what options those outside of our group are offered. But suppose your online services “know” that girls like pink, and know you are a girl? What happens if every toy you search for, the answers come back with dolls and pink things? If you want a blue toy truck, you get Barbie’s beach buggy and some story about how she likes the blue of the sea? What happens when you don’t even know that there could be a toy that was blue, or a truck, because that option is never visible to you?

It’s an extreme example, perhaps, but this seems to be where the concept and uses of big data are leading, as they have been put into practice. We don’t get to know what the options are because some options are presumed to be preferable to us than the alternatives, and unless we dig deeper we might not find out that those options exist.

One of the big reasons I buy music from charity shops is because the range offered is inherently random, and manageable in size. If I go to a record shop, then the albums are listed by artist name, and segregated by genres, so that there is no chance of being surprised by something I’ve never heard of and just thinking, “I wonder what that sounds like!” or simply, “What a cool title/cover/concept!” But flicking through the second-hand CDs in a charity shop, this is precisely what happens, because the CDs are jumbled, at best segregated by “classical” and “other”, so there will be folk, heavy metal, jazz and hiphop side-by-side in the same rack. I’ve listened to music in all of those genres, but if it were left to big data, it’s doubtful I would have the opportunity to discover some artists that don’t sit comfortably in the niches, or who just are not well-known to figure in the statistical significance. In a charity shop, I get to be surprised and delighted by something new and unexpected. And when I discover an artist that way, I tend to go out and look for them online, in record shops, wherever they might be. If it weren’t for the charity shop, I never would.

I distrust big data. while I believe that there are valuable lessons to be learned from statistical correlations in populations, I believe that too often more is claimed for these relationships than is reasonable. I certainly believe that humans are prone to deviation, which is to say, that there is nearly always an exception to the rule, people who do not fit with the neat theory that supposedly explains what “people” are like. In various ways, I have almost become accustomed to not fitting in in this way.

I believe that a computer that wanted to predict my future behaviour based on my past choices might very well be able, with sufficient access to my previous actions and outcomes, to do so to a reasonable degree of accuracy. But otherwise, it seems like an “emperor of China’s nose fallacy” – which is that no one has ever seen the face of the emperor, so the best way to get an accurate estimate of the length of his nose is to ask many people how long they think it is. You will then have a very precise average answer. The trouble is, at no point is there any factual basis for the answer that relates to the actual nose – it’s just a lot of wild guesses. It will be more useful for figuring out the average length of the noses of the population, rather than the actual length of one specific nose. Similarly, it seems to me that in using big data to predict an individual’s choices based on the behaviours of other people, one is merely creating a very precise average that has no connection to the actual situation, which in this case is the person’s genuine state of mind.

For all the similarities that a person may have to members of a specific population, there will always be specific elements by which they differ (even if it’s only to deny that they’re an individual – obligatory Monty Python reference!) Sometimes these will be significant, and sometimes they won’t, but only that individual knows which.

What is sexual arousal, anyway? Some research and theory

Every so often, I come across yet another documentary or opinion piece or scientific paper reporting the findings that, “Women are much less ware of their sexual arousal than men”, based on the finding that the self-reported mental state of arousal in men is much closer to the externally measurable physiological signs (e.g. blood flow to the genitalia). For instance, in the Channel 4 documentary “Undercover Doctor: Cure Me, I’m Gay” (“As a doctor who also happens to be gay, Christian … wants to discover whether or not these ‘cures’ are effective by trying them on himself.” – I want to be clear that the programme was very much against the idea that gayness can be cured!) Dr Christian Jessen accepts the Cornell test of sexual orientation (to see if the treatments worked, he’s tested at the start and end of the programme) and is told, “You’re gay; the genitals don’t lie.”

And every time I read, or watch on television, these sources, I feel angry and frustrated that the external signs are taken as “more true” than the emotional or mental sense. When I objected on one blog to this apparent dismissal of the mind in favour of the body, I was told to go and look up some search terms on “a database”. Not having access to academic databases, because those cost money I can’t afford, I used DuckDuckGo instead (a search engine that doesn’t track your searches like Google does). Of course a lot of academic papers still require exorbitant fees for download, but a few were available for free, or with enough information in the abstract to give me pointers.

What I found was that sexual arousal is defined generally in terms of sexual desire, and then in terms of the physiological and neurological preparation to act on that desire. Desire is initially described as the foundation of what arousal is. It’s only when they get down to measuring it that things start to go a bit body-essentialist.

Common usage lets sexual arousal mean both the physical signs and the emotional states. The scientific papers start by defining terms, so the signs are called “physiological” arousal, and the mental states are called “psychological” arousal. But then they slip into talking about “objective” (i.e. measurable signs) vs “subjective” (self-reported by the participants) arousal. And of course, in common usage, “objective” tends to mean “reliable”, “factual”, “more true”. Some papers even go on from this to call “objective” sexual arousal “sexual arousal”, and “subjective” arousal, “sexual desire”, thus separating from the concept of arousal the element that was originally described as its foundation.

One advice column I came across recently had a young woman writing in and saying that “I strongly desire sex, but I have no sexual arousal” and the advice-giver accepted that without questioning the idea that desire isn’t arousal.

As it turns out, I think there’s a way of splitting the “desire for sex” from “sexual desire”, in that, hypothetically, it could be that a person wants to have sex with someone else as a goal or objective, but that when they are together the immediate emotional urge or impulse to sexual behaviour is lacking: e.g. “I want to have sex, but I do not feel turned on”, as distinct from “I do not feel my crotch blazing for you” (psychological desire/arousal versus genital, and “peripheral non-genital”, arousal, as defined below). Be that as it may. But the idea points the way to how sexual arousal is more complicated than it is often presented.

A 2004 paper called “Sexual arousal: similarities and differences between men and women” by Alessandra Graziottin MD (sorry, I forgot to copy-paste the link into my notes before writing this piece – oops!) describes three layers to physiological arousal, in addition to the emotional experience of desire or lust:

  • central arousal, involving all the neurobiologically based events within the central nervous system (CNS);
  • peripheral non-genital arousal, including all the somatic non-genital responses associated with feeling excited (i.e. salivary secretion, skin vasodilatation and feeling of warmth, nipple erection, heart rate and blood pressure increase), and increase in the general neuromuscular tension;
  • genital arousal leading to erection in men, and to vaginal lubrication, clitoral and vulvar (vestibular bulb) congestion in women. The congestion involves an increase in pelvic vascular blood flow and resultant pelvic vasocongestion, vaginal engorgement, swelling of the external genitalia, and clitoral erection

Dr Graziottin goes on to note that focus is usually on male genitalia but on female emotional state, when it comes to diagnosing or researching sexual dysfunction. There is also mention of the obvious pojnt as to what extent the neurobiological arousal overlaps with the psychological and emotional experience of sexual desire.

The main purpose of looking up these papers was to tackle a question of male sexual arousal, which is that the blog writer contended that it is completely non-controversial that a male person, on experiencing erection, then feels sexually aroused, which feeds back into greater physiological arousal. I didn’t find evidence of such a feedback loop, but I did discover that men are known to use their erection to determine and report on their emotional state. Determinants of sexual arousal and the accuracy of its self-estimation in sexually functional males, credited to David H. Barlow on that link, mentions in the introduction:

Rowland and Heiman (1991) also found a substantial disparity between ratings of subjective and physiological arousal in males with erectile disorders. The authors demonstrated that contrary to men without sexual problems, men with erectile difficulties tended to rely more on mental than on physical cues to estimate their levels of subjective arousal.

Laan and Everaerd (1995) as well as Korff and Geer (1983) suggested that compared to men, women in general may rely less on physiological cues to estimate their sexual arousal, and that this fact might explain why the discordance between subjective and physiological arousal is greater among women.

And that point is something that intrigued me. For one thing, it revealed a reason why I was so sceptical in the first place. I should have known that, as with so many things, I am not a typical male. In particular, having suffered from depression for most of my adolescent and adult life, and spent a year on SSRIs, my sexual function has not been typical after all. The selection criteria for several of the papers I found on my search would have ruled me out of participating because of these facts about my medical history.

(Another reason I am sceptical is that I don’t think many teenage boys who get a “bus erection”, by which I mean one where the vibrations of the diesel engine on the bus cause a hormonal teenager to experience an erection, interprets that as proving they have sexual desire (although there’s often the fear that everyone around them will).)

The main intriguing thing for me was what these observations mean about how men and women are socialised to relate to their emotions and their bodies.

This is based largely on intuition or hypothesis, so don’t go attaching too much to it. But it’s what I currently suspect to be the case. In gender studies and feminist thinking, it is understood that men are socialised to be distant from their emotions so that negative emotions are generally experienced as anger, regardless of their origin, and positive emotions that aren’t centred on success or sex are also marginalised or regarded as effeminate. Conversely, women are socialised to be expressive of emotions but to view their bodies as “other”, or shameful.

My hypothesis is that boys and girls are taught to relate to their sexual arousal differently, in the ways outlined by Dr Graziottin. By teaching boys to measure their sexual arousal by the external signs – most notably, the erection – boys are simultaneously taught to ignore their own emotional state when considering sex, or sexual arousal. Similarly, teaching girls to focus on their emotional responses simultaneously teaches them to ignore the signals coming from their own bodies (the term for being aware of internal physiological states is “interoception” and scientists often claim their results show men are better than this; I question whether looking down and seeing an erection counts as interoception, though, and wonder whether results would be different if visual and tactile input from the genitals were denied.)

An intriguing paper called Physiological and Subjective Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Asexual Women, by Lori A. Brotto & Morag A. Yule, has some evidence that may tie into this hypothesis. In their study, they measured subjective arousal (which they called “sexual desire”), subjective self-reporting of physiological arousal (or “subjective sexual response”), and objective measurements of physiological arousal (“psychophysiological sexual response”), for groups of women who identified as lesbian, straight, bisexual or asexual. Their results showed that objective arousal was similar between all groups, as was subjective sexual response. But, “Interestingly, concordance between genital and subjective sexual arousal was significantly positive for asexual women,and non-significant for the other groups of women,suggesting greater interoceptive awareness of genital excitement in asexual women.” Another finding, based on self-reported emotional responses (“positive affect” and “negative affect”), showed that sexual women responded emotionally on positive affect to the erotic material whereas asexual women had no response on either positive or negative affect:

This finding was consistent with previous findings, which showed that asexuals discuss sexual arousal (and masturbation) using technical, emotionally bare descriptions (Brotto et al.,2010). Asexuals provided non-sexual explanations for why they engaged in masturbation, and the latter was more associated with tension relief than with sexual pleasure.

Brotto & Yule speculate that desire follows physiological response, and that, “Perhaps the lack of sexual activity among asexuals leads them to be highly attuned to the (rare) times when they do experience genital arousal.” My speculation is that, in the absence of the emotional context by which women are normally socialised to assess their levels of arousal, asexual women are more likely to be aware of their bodies’ responses (as in, “tension relief”, etc) when assessing their awareness of physiological arousal.

Recalling that I opened by mentioning the Cornell test undertaken by Dr Christian Jessen, although the researcher said that, “The genitals don’t lie,” the element of the test that I found far more convincing was that they coupled the penile response gauge with a pupil-tracking system that measure pupil dilation and direction of gaze. During the heterosexual clip, Dr Jessen’s attention wandered all over the place, whereas when the gay men were on the screen, his pupils dilated and eyes were focussed very much on the most interesting parts of the male anatomy. If I’d been making the programme, I would have said, “‘The eyes are the window on the soul’ – and the libido!” Presumably analysing the pupils of the asexual women in the Brotto & Yule study would have shown them to be distinctly less engaged with the material than the straight women.

A study available on Scribd (unfortunately, only the first page is available for free) called The Role of Attention in Sexual Arousal: Implications for Treatmentof Sexual Dysfunction by David C. de Jong is described as a review of the current literature on attention in sexual arousal. De Jong uses a definition of sexual arousal that puts the physiological first, as the cause of rather than response to, “an emotional and motivational state” (the asexuality study discusses that it is motivation that asexual women seem to lack, rather than physiological arousal).

The part that grabbed my attention from the first page, was this:

In the subjective dimension of sexual arousal, a person experiences a private world of eroticism in which perceptions and physiological responses are infused with meaning, sexual memories are revisited, and fantasies are explored. The literature addressed in this review provides empirical support for the relevance of subjective experience to sexual response.

Here’s an interesting question. The studies that use more-or-less the same methodology, typically describe something along the lines of, “We showed a gay porn, then a straight porn, and the gay men responded to the gay porn and the straight men responded to the straight porn.” But they never say what actually happens in the porn clips they use. The only example I found was the description from the Brotto & Yule study of, “a Candida Royalle, female-friendly film consisting of progressively increasing sexual intensity of heterosexual manual genital stimulation,oral sex,and penile-vaginal intercourse clips which were spliced together and joined by accompanying background music.” Annoyingly, it doesn’t say if “oral sex” included fellatio, cunnilingus, or both. “Manual genital stimulation” could be mutual, self-performed, either or both partners.

Some things turn me on more than others. I imagine the same is true for other people. Hence, “a private world of eroticism”. If a person feels put off by the thought of someone going down on them, then viewing an oral sex clip would likely result in lowered interest and lower subjective arousal. I understand that some gay men aren’t into anal sex, but perhaps do enjoy giving or revceiving blowjobs. And so on.

For me, sex in and of itself is boring to watch. I need meaning, and frankly, I need there to be some element of BDSM – either power play (which term I use to encompass bondage as well as verbal or tactile control) or pain play (including psychological events such as humiliation play) – for it to interest me. Another reason why I would be unsuited to the typical sexual response studies, I suppose.

Clarisse Thorn, sex educator and author, wrote about her long journey to discovering her own sexual response (and specifically, orgasm). From Part 7: Figuring It Out:

On some level, even if it’s the most tissue-thin fantasy, I usually have to convince my emotional-sexual self that I’m not in charge. It helps if I have an emotional connection with whoever I’m fantasizing about, too. If I don’t have an emotionally involved romantic partner, I seem to automatically create BDSM-themed fantasy worlds with hilariously ornate storylines. Years ago, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t reach orgasm because my internal characters weren’t compelling or my plotlines weren’t dramatic enough … but sometimes it’s true!

In January, Pandora Blake (whose feminist spanking porn site comes highly recommended) wrote about being asked to watch some “women friendly” porn for an article by FHM (a “lads’ mag”) with another woman, Lucy:

I was intrigued to hear about Lucy’s tastes. I think it was the first time that either of us had talked about our porn-viewing habits within minutes of meeting someone, but I’ve always been happy being open about this sort of thing, and Lucy is not exactly a shrinking violet. She mostly watched free clips on tube sites, preferably quite rough, anonymous, gonzo style fucking with lots of closeups. She told me this with an air of apology, expecting me to judge her for her taste. Instead I returned her confidence with the admission that I like to watch free gay male porn videos on Tumblr and RedTube, preferably rough anal with an abusive daddy/boy flavour. (Actually, now I think about it, that may not have been as reassuring as I hoped.)

As we began to explore our host’s selection of “female friendly” porn, I was assessing what I was seeing on two levels. My first interest was in observing whether the material actually aroused me or not, while being aware that this was unlikely, given the artificiality of the situation, and the fact that none of our viewing material involved e.g. spanking, BDSM or gay rape.

Blake, similar to Thorn in this, describes herself as a “plot fetishist”. So, um, how do you control for that sort of relationship to the viewed material? Blake admits, “I don’t know if much of what we watched pressed either of our involuntary arousal buttons, as it were” (the scientists would presumably guess “yes”). But it seems a fair guess that if you show porn that does match the “usual tastes” of your subjects, then it’s going to be more arousing than if it doesn’t. And it’s going to hold the attention of the subject. Pandora Blake, again:

For instance, we agreed that we wanted to see rougher, more vigorous sex than many of the scenes portrayed; something with a sense of urgency, a touch of violence. A lot of what we watched seemed to show slow, sweet sex, and we were constantly clicking ahead to find something with a bit more energy.

(My added emphasis.)

If you put more-or-less vanilla sex on a screen in front of me, I’m just not that interested unless I can superimpose some kind of power dynamic and storyline onto it. Like Blake and Thorn, I want an elaborate storyline involving power, emotion and sometimes peril.

When I wrote last month about fantasy vs erotic short story, I wrote the following:

When I want to feel turned on, whether that’s masturbating or just the brain-buzz from sensual/sexual arousal, I can, of course, use visual porn or read something written by someone else.

Masturbation is about the direct genital arousal. But “brain-buzz” and “sensual arousal” must be the same as those “central” and “non-genital” aspects that I quoted from Dr Graziottin. Specifically, what I was expressing there is that, for me, the experience of arousal is more about those aspects in a physiological sense, than it is about my genitals. (So, another reason why I might not be considered a “normal” male!) In part, I think this is related to my BDSM identity. I feel most turned-on by being a top or Dominant, but it doesn’t always trigger genital response. (The same is true of anal play, which I find extremely hot but it doesn’t matter how lovely that thing in my butt feels, I don’t get a hard-on.) I do feel other kinds of turned-on, though, throughout my body and in my mind. For instance, I don’t get an erection from watching spanking videos, but I feel extremely hot and aroused from it. My attention would definitely be on that beautiful bouncing bum. Genital sexual arousal, for me, has been reliable in sexual encounters, but develops from the BDSM as well as expectation of genital contact. (When watching porn, I haven’t worked out what makes my penis stand up automatically for some clips, and not for others, but I think it’s most likely to happen when I start spinning off my own fantasies and storylines). I would love to see studies of kink versus ‘nilla across gay/straight/bi groups and clips, for spanking porn as the stimulation (researchers – buy them from Pandora Blake!). Maybe those studies exist, and if so, links to summaries/free access would be welcomed.

This brings me back to where I started, which was a feeling of anger and frustration that the physiological is treated as “objective” and “more true” than the psychological or self-reported arousal. My last point for this piece is to ask why I feel that way.

The reason, I believe, is that I have a more general nightmare, related to “big data”, surveillance society, and so on, of a world in which I will say I feel one way and the computers will say I am lying or mistaken, and everyone else will believe the computer and not me. My internal feelings and emotions will be irrelevant because they “know” that I will like X and dislike Y, even if I repeatedly say I hate X and love Y, so I will forever be condemned to X. I haven’t read Kafka, so I hesitate to use that as an analogy. On the other hand, I suspect watching and reading tons of science fiction, including dystopian worlds, throughout my life may also have something to do with these fears. As luck would have it, Friday’s Basic Instructions webcomic illustrates this neatly, with the first panel. Of course, the fears may also be linked to the various ways in which I differ from the norm, and have in the past found my niche un-catered for.

In a general sense, it is about wanting people to take me at my word when I report my emotional states. In specific terms, there is also a fear of being raped or sexually assaulted, and not believed because of some autonomic response (for instance, waking up with a stiffie and that being taken as consent to sexual contact – a form of sexual assault that has been used by male comedians as fodder for their jokes). There are far too many instances of women reporting rape only to be disbelieved because of physiological evidence of arousal (even though the science, as described above, shows that women respond physiologically to most stimuli regardless of interest in sex).

“Yes Means Yes and No Means No.” A wet cunt doesn’t mean yes. An erect penis doesn’t mean yes. They indicate a readiness for sexual activity, but not a desire or motivation. That’s why I object to constructions that regard a discrepancy between psychological and physiological arousal as meaning that the person is “unaware” of their arousal. The use of “objective”, while technically correct (as in, we can objectively measure how engorged a penis or vaginal wall is but not what someone’s emotional state is), is problematic because it implies that this gives the “true” measure of arousal and therefore how a person is, or ought, to be feeling. In terms of social justice, and actually functioning in the world, it is far more useful to understand and accept as valid people’s self-reported states of arousal rather than to trust the readings on a machine.


The most obvious thing to draw from this is that I am very much not a typical male when it comes to sexual responses. Which identifying as genderfluid, bisexual, kinky-as-all-get-out probably should have told me already. But hey. Some other things that may place me outside the norm are my history of depression and having taken SSRIs to treat it, which leave me now less interested in achieving orgasm as part of sexual behaviour because for a while it was an unrealistic aim (since SSRIs tend to suppress the ability to do so, and depression tends to suppress all motivational feelings).

Conclusions that relate to more than just me: whatever we mean by sexual arousal, it’s a complicated thing. With three levels of physiological measures plus the psychological desire and attention, plus the question of motivation, there’s not always an easy way to answer the question “Is that person sexually aroused?” One thing that we might say is that an intention to have sex need not lead to sexual arousal. Similarly, sexual arousal does not have to mean intention (or willingness) to have sex (for a broad definition of sex).

The tendency to treat external or physiological signs as “objective” arousal has to be seen as socially problematic, and constituting a form of objectification that marginalises the subjective experience and choices of men and women.

My belief is that differences in reported sexual arousal may be socialised, and that men become alienated from their emotional arousal states while women become alienated from their bodily arousal states. This hypothesis is untested but ties in to broader feminist thought about gender role socialisation. When the typical socialised measures are absent (men with erectile dysfunction, women who don’t respond emotionally to purely sexual stimuli), men and women become more in touch with the other elements. I would be interested to see research that shows how other identities (for example, “stone“, “kinky”, etc) affect these results.

The research I uncovered seems to accept a vanilla or standardised view of sexual behaviour as “arousing”. While standardised stimulation is obviously necessary for a properly controlled test, individuals have particular interests or points of engagement that are peculiar to them and may not match the standardised presentation. Points of preferred activities, plot-preference (as in, how much, and what sort of storyline), preferred features (while human attraction is often theorised as being relatively uniform, there are many ways in which people’s preferences differ from the “norm” generated by research into attraction), and so on, may all affect what constitutes psychological arousal, and may also affect physiological responses (although that effect seems likely to be smaller, especially with the observed non-specificity in women’s physiological responses).

This, in turn, leads to the overall fear that claims to an “objective” measure of sexual arousal lend themselves to a situation where a person’s internal, emotional experience of desire and motivation is overridden by social norms or individuals (particularly those in powerful positions relative to the person). As a person who in various ways lies outside of the norms (see my first point), this is particularly frightening to me, personally. It is also a point on which those who tend to have relatively less power in society would generally have cause to be concerned.

My inclination is to trust the person’s self-reporting and uphold the validity of how each individual feels about what has happened to them. That means that the most relevant and reliable data is self-reported sexual arousal, in terms of desire and motivation. This is most important in terms of interpersonal and social relationships between humans, and in terms of individuals seeking self-actualisation. The role of science should be helping people to unite, and understand the relationships between, their mental states and their physiological responses to achieve desired goals.

Which is to say, exactly as much sex of exactly the intensity (from sweet and gentle to mindblowing/vigorous/rough) that they wish for (which, in the case of asexual folks, is likely to be very little).