Students gathered in the Michigan League for the final three sessions of Sexpertise — a three-day long University Health Service-sponsored conference to engage the community in discussion about sexuality and relationships — on Thursday. Three keynote speakers aimed to address stereotypes, stigmas and myths in relation to sex.
Stigma and Sexuality:
The evening kicked off with an engaging start. Dr. Terri Conley, professor of psychology and women’s studies, challenged several popular myths surrounding gender and relationship differences that have been reinforced culturally over time.
The first slide, in simple blue font, read, “Women naturally dislike casual sex.” Conley explained that this first myth is based on the assumption that there is something biological or genetic that prevents females from enjoying unattached sexual activity. Conley said her own research, however, debunks this myth.
“The most important predictor for both women and men is whether they think this person who is proposing them is going to be a good lover,” Conley said. “It’s not about whether or not they think they’re going to bond with them, marry them and support them and their children. No. It’s about whether they think the sex is going to be good.”
She acknowledged that the logic behind this myth seems intuitive, but oftentimes the truth is shocking to the public.
“It doesn’t fit our images of women,” she said.
Conley said one of the strong predictors of participation in casual sex for both genders is whether they feel they will be stigmatized. She said women, like men, want respect during sexual encounters. However, as a demographic females are less likely to feel respected and more likely to be stigmatized.
“The very men who are especially interested in having casual sex are the ones who are especially likely to engage in slut-shaming and especially endorse the double standard,” Conley said.
Conley stressed that these social factors, rather than biological and evolutionary, largely dictate women and men’s motivations to engage in and enjoy casual sex.
“When you control for these two factors statistically, the factor associated with stigma and then also the factor associated with how much pleasure people expect to get out of the encounter, generally these gender differences evaporate,” she said.
In addition to disproving misconceptions surrounding gender differences, Conley also explored the struggle between monogamous and consensual non-monogamous relationships. She described the perception that “monogamy is best” as a so-called halo effect — society has a tendency to ascribe positive traits toward monogamist relationships and is less likely to do so for “open” relationships.
In her research, Conley found that between people who cheat on their partners in a monogamous relationship versus people who are consensually in non-monogamous relationships, the latter group was more likely to promote safe health practices. For example, the consensually non-monogamous participants were more likely to talk about their sexual history with partners and use condoms, and they were less likely to engage in sexual activity while under the influence.
She also challenged the notion that those in monogamous relationships have better relationships. A series of graphs presented during her remarks illustrated data showing that there was no difference between the two groups when asked about the level of relationship satisfaction, commitment and passionate love. The last two slides of the series deviated by a small margin, showing that consensual non-monogamous partners shared a higher level of trust while a greater portion of monogamous partners reported a higher level of sexual satisfaction.
“If you’re asking me, when I look at these data, if I see evidence that this whole halo effect around monogamy is deserved, I really can’t see it,” Conley said.
The last myth Conley aimed to disprove was that sex is immoral and dangerous, and she emphasized that people are often irrational about avoiding sex to avoid STIs. The promoted ideal encourages individuals to not engage in sexual activity at all, she said.
In one of her studies, Conley asked participants to rate how many people out of 1,000 can be expected to die from driving from Detroit to Chicago or from having one instance of unprotected sex — participants guessed that people are 17 times more likely to die from unprotected sex. In reality, individuals are 20 times more likely to die from driving from Detroit to Chicago than from having unprotected sex, she said.
Engineering sophomore Jacqueline Thomas said she has taken a class on the sociology of sexuality, and was interested in attending the event because of her previous experience with the topic.
“I thought it would be really interesting to see how the University promotes events like this," Thomas said. "I really enjoyed the part about consensual non-monogamy, I really enjoyed how the data showed virtually no differences; it was really nice and informative.”
Creating Complex Characters:
Dr. Candace Moore, assistant professor in the Department of Screen Arts and Culture and the Women’s Studies Department, began her session with a clip from the Netflix TV show “Sense8.” Her lecture examined LGBTQ sexuality in media with a heavy focus on scenes from the 1970s.
Moore began by pointing to film and television from the ’90s, noting the few episodes on shows such as ‘Roseanne’ and “L.A. Law” that portrayed gay and lesbian characters to increase ratings. However, she said during that time most of what audiences saw were a few episodes where there would be non-sexualized same-sex characters or a couple of lesbian kisses.
“I want to question this idea that gay sexuality was expressed in any kind of out way or potentially queer way,” Moore said.
She also emphasized that LGBTQ characters at that time were often on medical or criminal shows, showing two clips from 1970s medical soap operas with lesbian characters. In the first, "The Bold Ones," a male doctor was in love with a female character who was also in love with her lesbian roommate. Such confusing scenarios were often how the media portrayed episodes surrounding sexual minorities, Moore said.
In the other medical show, "Medical Center," a psychiatrist revealed that she was a lesbian and presented a monologue on the show about her sexuality. However, that message was undermined later in the show when a patient of the psychiatrist’s who was questioning their sexuality believed homosexuality to be a disease, and was diagnosed as straight to prevent them from committing suicide.
Members of the audience said they were surprised that media from the ’70s portrayed gay and lesbian characters in any capacity.
“Originally my interpretation of television 30 years ago, 10 years ago, was that it was very conservative,” said LSA senior Alyssa Deronda.“And to be sitting in this session and to be presented with images of really strong people from different sexualities was really eye-opening to me.”
Law graduate student Katie Reyzis, who also works at the Human Trafficking Clinic, gave a lecture on human trafficking during Thursday’s slate of events. Before discussing the topic, she stressed that human trafficking pertains to both commercial sex and/or labor “induced by means of threat or use of force, fraud or coercion.”
The session aimed to debunk myths surrounding the topics, including the idea that victims always think their traffickers are bad people and won’t return to their perpetrators. Reyzis also emphasized the importance of the University’s Human Trafficking Clinic and other resources.
Oftentimes, she said, youth who are caught engaging in prostitution or solicitation are arrested and charged. However, she explained that the clinic has partnered with Washtenaw County law enforcement to change such practices — a diversion program was put in place to provide victims of human trafficking with psychological services instead of exposing them to the criminal justice system. Many of these initiatives have been implemented in the local community.
“The clinic has been very involved in trying to influence some of these laws,” Reyzis said.