I watch a lot of porn. Is this something I should be worried about?

RC: That’s a super thoughtful question; thanks so much for writing in!  First of all, I want to name that this is a really subjective thing and only you can determine whether or not watching a lot of porn is something to worry about.  I think what we can do in our response, which we will spread over two weeks, is to provide some basic information about porn exposure, the messages and norms most mainstream porn tends to communicate, some common outcomes or impacts of frequent porn watching, and some potential next steps if you are considering reducing your consumption.

AG: First, we want to note that there are many different kinds of porn available many of which depict completely different types of sex. For example, some types of amateur porn are created by people who use pornography to share their sexuality and appreciation of eroticism. However, when wondering about possible negative impacts of porn consumption, it is important to recognize that many forms of mainstream porn can be problematic.  

RC:  One common critique of many types of mainstream porn is that its creation is often extremely exploitative of vulnerable or at-risk people and reinforces problematic patterns of objectification and fetishization of people who are not heterosexual cis men.  Often even porn that is labeled as porn created by or for anyone other than heterosexual cis men is structured in such a way that it is clear that it has been created by and for the male-gaze.

AG: Following this exploitation and objectification, most mainstream porn is also created in such a way that it depicts clear and unequal power dynamics, often between a dominant figure and someone else.  

RC: Often, mainstream porn presents types of sexual interaction and sexual intercourse that is not reflective of the ways in which many people engage in sexual activity in the real world.  Because of this, often people who watch a lot of porn report that their expectations of sexual interactions are not mirrored in their personal sexual experiences.

AG: With this unrealistic depiction, most mainstream porn simply shows sex in a way that is physically unsustainable. Within the industry, many people actually develop significant health problems as a result of this kind of sex.  

RC:  All of this matters because the average age of initial internet porn exposure in the US is 11 years old.  This is a key developmental window, during which people are working on understanding themselves in relation to others, both psycho-emotionally and physically.  Compounding this is the likely onset of puberty.  

AG: Often the messages about sex, power, and relationships that someone would see when watching most mainstream porn are not discussed either in an educational setting or in other spaces. This can lead to a disconnect between expectations and reality, the impacts of which we will further explore next week.

RC:  All this being said, we do want to reiterate that there are some types of porn that are characterized by equal power dynamics and deep mutual enjoyment of the sexual and/or erotic interaction.  Porn is not inherently problematic and as we said at the beginning, no one can know how watching porn is impacting you other than yourself.  If you want to contact someone with any concerns or questions, please reach out to us and we will be happy to help you find an appropriate resource.

AG

Student

RC

Ramsey Champagne

Community Advocate, Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response

Where can I get Plan B?  How does it work?  Will I notice feeling different than usual?

AA: This is a commonly asked question, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up. Emergency contraception (EC) is available at the HUHS Pharmacy, located on the 1st Floor of HUHS. You can get to the Pharmacy by entering into the Smith Campus Center through the 75 Mt. Auburn Street entrance. Don’t let the construction deter you from entering, HUHS and the Pharmacy are still open.

AG: A lot of people think of EC as “Plan B” but Plan B is actually just a brand name. You are also able to get EC at HUHS Urgent Care which is in the Smith Campus Center during regular business hours and located at Pound Hall, on the Law School Campus, before 7:30 am and after 5:30 pm, on weekends, and on holidays. Once given EC, if you are asked to take it on site, you can always just say no and take it on your own time after you leave.

AA: Once you’re at the pharmacy, you can walk up to the main counter and ask for EC. The HUHS Pharmacy provides EC at no cost for female presenting individuals. For male presenting individuals, it is still available at a reduced rate of $27.86 (EC can sell for up to $50 in chain pharmacies).

AG: If you’re concerned that your gender expression may limit your access, please know that you can ask for a private consultation room to discuss your options. You’ll show the pharmacist your Harvard ID just so they can quickly verify that you’re a Harvard student, but they won’t record your name or any information about the visit. HUHS provides “EcontraEZ” which is a generic brand of EC and is also a one dose pill.  

AA: One major misconception of EC is that it is an abortion pill. This is incorrect. EC is a high dosage of hormone, in the case of EcontraEZ, levonorgestrel. EC mainly works by preventing ovulation and making the uterus an inhospitable environment for a potential pregnancy.

AG: When taken within a 24 hour window after unprotected sex, EC is 95% effective at reducing the likelihood of pregnancy. Efficacy goes down with each additional day, but EC is still 89% effective when taken within a 72 hour window. After 72 hours, the efficacy goes down quite a bit, however there are other EC options, including the medication Ella or a prompt Paragard IUD insertion (Ella is only available by prescription). These both require a medical visit but act similarly to the EC you can get over the counter.

AA: Everybody reacts differently to hormonal contraception, including EC. If you are precluded from using hormonal forms of contraception for any reason, as AG mentioned you can choose the copper IUD, Paraguard, which contains no hormones. Similarly, this greatly decreases the possibility of pregnancy if inserted within 5 days of the sexual encounter. If you do choose to take a hormonal form of EC some common side effects can include menstrual changes, nausea, cramps, and fatigue.  These effects shouldn’t last longer than a few days, if at all. If these side effects do last longer than a few days please seek the advisement of a medical professional.

AG: EC is not recommended as a regular form of pregnancy prevention. While there are no medical repercussions on health or fertility, EC is less effective at preventing pregnancy than most  contraceptives. That means that the more often it is used, the more likely it is that these statistics will fall on the side of pregnancy. However, it is still a great option!  

Amanda Ayers

Health Educator

AG

Student

Why can many women not orgasm (Part II)

AG: Hi! So last week we starting answering this question, talking about some of the anatomical things that make it harder for women to have orgasms. This week we’re going to discuss some of the social factors that are also at play here.

RC: Last week, AG mentioned that the way we are educated about sex, sexuality, and relationships often contributes to the orgasm gap. There is significant variance in the ways that different communities choose to address sex education, if at all. Historically, sex ed, if offered, focused on pregnancy-prevention, STIs, and anatomy, from a cis and heteronormative perspective. Today, many communities have updated their curricula to include concepts like mutuality, respect, and pleasure.  

AG: In the communities with more comprehensive curricula, students are introduced to thinking about sex as a component of a relationship rather than something that exists in isolation. This means that young people are able to start thinking about the ways that aspects of their relationship(s) are reflected in their sexual interactions.

RC: One of the things I really appreciate about the conversations that AG has as part of the SexualLiteracy team is that they remind us that “relationship” can mean anything, ranging from a person’s relationship with themself to a hook-up interaction.

AG: One thing that some comprehensive sex education programs try to do is break down embedded ideas about gender norms, especially in the bedroom. In Western culture there are a lot of deeply-seeded notions about sexuality, many of which are incredibly gendered. An example of this is that women ought to be pursued while men ought to be the pursuers. Or that women should be restrained in communicating about their sexuality while men are encouraged to be more expressive.

RC: In the context of sexual interactions, this means that people who have been socialized as women are often discouraged, by both internalized and external factors, from communicating about what they enjoy and what they don’t.  This might mean that it can be harder for the partner(s) of female-bodied people to collaborate towards both achieving orgasm.

AG: Yes, exactly! It’s also important to remember that women are constantly fed messages about the importance of their appearance and the ways that it may be judged by others. These messages can easily be internalized and get in the way of a woman enjoying sex without worrying about how their partner(s) perceive them. This thought process actually works as a “brake” and can create a disconnect between a female-bodied person’s mental desire and their physical experience and/or arousal.  

RC:  I think this sets us up really nicely to mention the ways that power dynamics also can trigger that “brake” mechanism.  Often, in relationships involving more than one person, power is dynamic and unequally distributed at any given time.  While many relationships balance this distribution over time, some relationships are characterized by one person holding more or less power than the other(s) consistently.  This may be due to personalities, may be due to identities, and, in Western society, is often, at least partially, due to gender.  In some relationships, this uneven distribution of power is mutually agreed upon and wanted.  For example, in some BDSM relationships, a partner holds the power and authority while the other(s) are submissive.

AG: These (unwanted) power imbalances manifest frequently in sexual experiences. For example, in heterosexual sex, blow jobs are almost an expectation for foreplay, whereas it’s much more uncommon for a man to go down on a woman. Additionally, the sexual interaction often stops entirely after the man has had an orgasm. Sometimes this means that women don’t orgasm as frequently (especially, as mentioned last week, because on average women take longer to have orgasms than men).  

RC: While this all might feel like a lot and hopeless, one of our favorite lines is “Masturbate, Communicate, Negotiate, Incorporate (feedback), and Orgasm!”  There are many resources out there than can help with each one of these awesome concepts.  On our Resources page, there are a number of links for anyone interested in exploring more.  Thanks so much for asking!

AG

Student

Ramsey Champagne

Community Advocate

Why can many women not orgasm?

AG: Hi! This is a huge topic so we’re actually going to be breaking it into two parts. This week we’re going to be talking about some of the anatomical things that make it more difficult for women to orgasm and next week we’ll talk a bit about the societal factors that also affect this!

AA: According to Planned Parenthood, 1 in 3 women have trouble orgasming during sex and up to 80% of women are unable to orgasm from vaginal sex alone. The vagina has very few nerve endings, whereas the clitoris (which is much bigger than you think it is) has over 8,000 nerve endings which is twice the number in the penis. Many studies have shown that for a third of women it’s not possible at all to achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration alone.

AG: One factor is simply time - women take on average 20 minutes while most men take between 2-10 minutes. That means that in heterosexual sex, for a woman to orgasm, she almost always needs stimulation beyond just the penetration needed for the man.

AA: A very important piece of being able to achieve orgasm is to know where you can locate the clitoris, whether you are engaging with a female bodied individual or you yourself have a clitoris. As mentioned before, the external part of the clitoris is just the tip of iceberg and there are many more nerve endings surrounding the vagina. The clitoris is located just above the urethra (which is directly above the vaginal opening). The clitoris is protected by the clitoral hood, so you may not know where it is at first. There are many ways to experiment with clitoral stimulation. Here are a few to try: having your partner stimulate your clitoris with their fingers, using a vibrator, or placing a vibrator between your body and your partner’s.

AG: Studies show that lesbians, who are more knowledgeable about female anatomy, are able to orgasm 75% of the time! It’s not like women can’t have orgasms it’s just that often a lack of education (and other societal factors that we’ll discuss more next week) make it more difficult. Often, masturbation can help women to begin learning about the types of stimulation they need to have orgasms. Masturbation can help women become more comfortable with their own bodies as they can figure out what works and doesn’t work for them on their own terms.  

Amanda Ayers MPH

Health Educator

AG

Student

What are some alternatives to the condoms that are in the dispensers on campus for different kinds of sexual activity?

AG: Thanks for the great question! A lot of people think that external (or sometimes known as the “male” condom) is one of the only options if they’re using a barrier method to prevent pregnancy and/or STIs, but this is totally not true! There are lots of safer sex supplies out there for all different kinds of sex for people to try.

AA: As AG mentioned there are many different options for safer sex supplies. To begin there are many different types of external condoms including latex-free, glow-in-the-dark, ribbed, flavored (check ingredient list to make sure they do not contain sugars which would not be suited for vaginal or anal intercourse), larger size, and ultra thin to name a few.

AG: If you and your partner(s) are using external condoms, it can be a good (and fun!) idea to try some of these different kinds to figure out what feels the best for you! Also, it’s important to remember that external condoms aren’t just used on a penis; they can be put onto sex toys both to protect against STIs and to help keep them clean.

AA: The other barrier method used to protect against pregnancy and/or STIs during penetrative sex are internal condoms (or what is sometimes known as the “female” condom).  The benefits of using an internal condom over an external condom is that it can be inserted into the vagina or anus up to six hours before initiating sex. It also covers a larger surface area around the vagina or anus to protect against STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact such as HPV. Make sure that if you are using an internal condom for anal sex that you make sure to remove the plastic ring that is found inside the internal condom. This ring is used to hold the condom in place when it is inserted into a vagina, but doesn’t serve the same function in the anus.

AG: Even if you’re not having penetrative vaginal or anal sex, and pregnancy isn’t a possible outcome, there are still other barrier methods that reduce the transmission of STIs! For example, dental dams can be used for oral sex on a vulva or anus, and finger cots or gloves can be used if you or your partner(s) have any warts or cuts on your hands. And again, if you’re having oral sex with a penis, you can use any type of external condom, including flavored, to reduce the spread of STIs! With all of these options, like we wrote about a few weeks ago, don’t forget to use lube!

AA: There are many places on campus where you can access many of these different types of safer sex supplies for free. Check out our interactive map below for the locations on campus. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to email us at harvard.sexual.literacy@gmail.com.

AG: Hope you find an alternative that works for you!

AG

Student

Amanda Ayers

Health Educator

What are some alternatives to the condoms that are in the dispensers on campus for different kinds of sexual activity?

AG: Thanks for the great question! A lot of people think that external (or sometimes known as the “male” condom) is one of the only options if they’re using a barrier method to prevent pregnancy and/or STIs, but this is totally not true! There are lots of safer sex supplies out there for all different kinds of sex for people to try.

AA: As AG mentioned there are many different options for safer sex supplies. To begin there are many different types of external condoms including latex-free, glow-in-the-dark, ribbed, flavored (check ingredient list to make sure they do not contain sugars which would not be suited for vaginal or anal intercourse), larger size, and ultra thin to name a few.

AG: If you and your partner(s) are using external condoms, it can be a good (and fun!) idea to try some of these different kinds to figure out what feels the best for you! Also, it’s important to remember that external condoms aren’t just used on a penis; they can be put onto sex toys both to protect against STIs and to help keep them clean.

AA: The other barrier method used to protect against pregnancy and/or STIs during penetrative sex are internal condoms (or what is sometimes known as the “female” condom).  The benefits of using an internal condom over an external condom is that it can be inserted into the vagina or anus up to six hours before initiating sex. It also covers a larger surface area around the vagina or anus to protect against STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact such as HPV. Make sure that if you are using an internal condom for anal sex that you make sure to remove the plastic ring that is found inside the internal condom. This ring is used to hold the condom in place when it is inserted into a vagina, but doesn’t serve the same function in the anus.

AG: Even if you’re not having penetrative vaginal or anal sex, and pregnancy isn’t a possible outcome, there are still other barrier methods that reduce the transmission of STIs! For example, dental dams can be used for oral sex on a vulva or anus, and finger cots or gloves can be used if you or your partner(s) have any warts or cuts on your hands. And again, if you’re having oral sex with a penis, you can use any type of external condom, including flavored, to reduce the spread of STIs! With all of these options, like we wrote about a few weeks ago, don’t forget to use lube!

AA: There are many places on campus where you can access many of these different types of safer sex supplies for free. Check out our interactive map below for the locations on campus. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to email us at harvard.sexual.literacy@gmail.com.

AG: Hope you find an alternative that works for you!

AG

Student

Amanda Ayers

Health Educator

What can I do on a daily basis, in my classes, etc, to make a safer environment?

RC: Wow, this is such a great question!  AG and Meera spoke to a piece of this conversation three weeks ago in a post about reducing sexual assault here at Harvard, but I always love the opportunity to think about the variety of ways we can all contribute to creating a community that is more accessible for all people.  When thinking about this, it helps me to use the Social Ecological Model (SEM), which basically posits that individuals and their well-being are impacted by the various spheres or levels through which they move (relationships, communities, and society) and they, likewise, impact the well-being of those around them.

On an individual level, we can all strive to be intentional about the language we use and the way we interact with others around us.  It can be really hard to know when and if we have hurt someone, especially in a place like Harvard, where people have so many different identities and ways of expressing themselves and their feelings.  Because of this, I find it’s really helpful to consistently practice checking in with those around me; we know that neural pathways become strengthened the more we use them.

AG: Basically the more you try to check in with the people you’re interacting with the easier it becomes to do so without it feeling totally forced or awkward. Checking in, and checking in regularly, can give you such a better sense of how your actions and words  impact those around you regardless of what your intentions might have been.

RC: For example, one of my friends grew up in a place with a lot of traffic and gave up on being punctual long ago.  For them, being respectful means it’s ok to be a little late, as long as they get there.  I, on the other hand, grew up in the Midwest, where being on time meant you got somewhere 10 minutes early.  For me, being respectful means being super punctual.  We would constantly be in conflict if we didn’t check in with each other about when it matters to be on time and when I can practice being a little more flexible.

AG: In this example, it gives both people an opportunity to check in and see how the other feels about either meeting right at a set time or having that be a little less rigid. This might seem like a super trivial example, but little things can build up and impact relationships if they don’t get a chance to be addressed. Sometimes these smaller things can be easier to check in about, and then when something bigger might come up, you can be more comfortable and skilled at having those conversations.

RC:  Another key piece of this is taking ownership when you realize that something you did hurt someone else, whether you meant to or not.  

AG: I like to think about this as kind of a series of steps. First, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if at first you don’t know why your actions would have had the effect that they did. Then, just like Ramsey said, you can try to understand their experience and then take ownership of your actions. Once you have a better sense of how something was interpreted, you can start working to make amends and then to incorporate their feedback moving forward.

RC: When I think about moving outward across levels of the SEM,  I find that reducing harm often involves creating systems of accountability and intentional group norms: how can people call each other out; how supportive are the leaders in groups when that happens; what are group understandings (explicit and implicit) about what is and isn’t acceptable.

AG: We know that all of this can be really hard. But honestly, by starting with the little things we talked about earlier like checking in and taking ownership, it already becomes easier to have these conversations and understandings with each other. With this though, it’s also really important for group leaders to have meetings at the beginnings of the semesters and talk about all of this frankly. Often a clear discussion like that is great at setting norms and helping people feel empowered to carry them out.  

RC: This process can sound daunting; like AG said, starting with check ins about the small things can be a good way to develop the skills and confidence so that when the harder conversations or conflicts arise, we each are more equipped to receive feedback, validate other people’s experience, take ownership for our part, and learn.  All of this goes a surprisingly long way toward reducing harm.

AG: If you have more questions about this please feel free reach out to us or OSAPR. Good luck!

AG

Student

RC

Ramsey Champagne

Community Advocate, OSAPR

Should I be using lube? If so, when and how?

AG:  Thanks for the questions!  Everyone, no matter what kind of sex you’re having, should be using lube! You’ll never know what you’re missing until you at least try it once. Many people, even if they don’t have a hard time getting wet, still love using lube.

AA: The packaged lubrication on condoms isn’t meant to be used as lubrication for penetration. It is meant to lower the risk of the condoms breaking inside of the package due to friction. Using additional lubrication will increase sensitivity and pleasure while using internal or external condoms, dental dams and gloves.

AG:  A few straightforward things:  First you should know that there’s a few different kinds of lube. Oil based lube shouldn’t be used with condoms because it can disintegrate the latex. Water and silicone lubes are both good for condoms although water-based lube is easier to clean off (silicone lube is generally the best if you’re having sex in the shower or something like that). There’s also both liquid and gel forms of lube available - honestly it’s the best to just try around a bit first and find one that works best for you!

AA: Also, make sure to keep in mind whether or not the type of lubricant ingredients are safe for the type of sex that you are enjoying. If you are having sex with someone who has a vagina be cautious of ingredients including glycerin, parabens, fragrances, benzocaine, and antibacterials as these may cause irritation and increase the risk for yeast infections. As AG mentioned earlier it’s important to know which type of lubricant to use with the type of sex you’re having. If you are using a sex toy that is made out of silicone make sure you are using only water-based lubricant as both silicone and oil-based lubricants can compromise your sex toys.

AG:  When you’re actually using the lube (either on yourself or a partner) remember to warm it up a bit in your hands first. Next, basically just add a little bit of lube at a time. If you’re having sex with a condom, a drop or two can be put on the inside for increased sensation and then again, a few drops on the outside. Otherwise, just adding lube around the genitals can help make things feel better and also to decrease friction! You can keep reapplying lube throughout the rest of the sexual activity.

AA:  There are many places on campus to get free lube and safer sex supplies.

AG: Have fun!

AG

Student  

Amanda Ayers MPH

Health Educator

 

How does a sexually active person prevent UTIs?

AG: Great question! Urinary tract infections are basically when any part of the bladder, kidneys, or urethra gets infected and they are an incredibly common - and painful! - infection. Sexually active people are also at a higher risk for UTIs than those who aren’t having sex.

AA:  Thanks for asking this very common question! Female bodied individuals are more likely than male bodied individuals to contract a UTI. Anatomy has a lot to do with this. Female bodied individuals have a shorter urethra making it easier for bacteria to enter the bladder. This doesn’t mean that men can’t get UTIs. Though, when they do they are generally more serious and should be seen by a doctor right away.

AG: UTIs definitely aren’t fun but the good news is that they’re treatable and that there are things everyone can do to lower their risk! A pervasive myth is that cranberry juice helps treat UTIs. This is not true! If you do have one, see your PCP and you can get prescribed antibiotics. A hot compress can also help to relieve the pain.

AA: You can also go to the pharmacy to pick up some over the counter medication like Pyridium or Phenazopyridine which can help relieve some of the symptoms of UTIs which include persistent urge to urinate, burning during urination, and pelvic pain just to name a few.

AG:

For everyone, whether or not you’re sexually active:

Make sure you’re drinking enough water and not holding in your pee - this can make it easier for bacteria growth. Also, try to wear cotton underwear and loose fitting pants because tight jeans can trap moisture. Lastly, limit bladder irritants like coffee or alcohol.

If you’re having vaginal sex:

The first thing is to remember to always, always pee after having vaginal sex.

AA: Additionally, using unlubricated condoms or spermicides can increase the risk of UTIs. If you are using one of these methods and find yourself having recurring UTIs I would recommend having a conversation with your PCP about your barrier and birth control methods.

AG: Just a reminder that the anus and the vagina are different environments and you should never move penetrative objects (sex toys, penis, fingers) from the anus to the vagina without cleaning them off or changing condoms! Lastly, don’t worry - oral sex alone doesn’t increase the risk of UTIs!

AA: Check out the mayo clinic and the NIH websites for more info on UTIs!

Good luck,

AG

Student

Amanda Ayers

Health Educator