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How Canada is dominating the field of sexuality research

SEXUALITY

The big brains behind Canada's good sex

Thanks to a progressive attitude (and strong scientific funding), this country is on the leading edge of knowledge about sexuality. Zosia Bielski talks to top researchers about what they – and we – are into

The Globe and Mail spoke to several of Canada’s best sexuality researchers about what they’re delving into now and about the vast expanses of sexual life that remain misunderstood.

'Sex authority" isn't exactly the reputation that comes to mind when you think of prim and proper Canadians.

But it's now undeniable: Year in, year out, Canada dominates the field of sexuality research, leading the way in groundbreaking and urgent studies into everything from consent to female desire to sexual dysfunction to orgasm.

Canadians are running the show at the world's top sexuality associations, including the International Academy of Sex Research (the University of New Brunswick's Sandra Byers is president) and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (president Terry Humphreys hails from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.).

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They also head up some of the most prestigious journals in the field: Toronto's Kenneth Zucker edits the Archives of Sexual Behavior, while Montreal's Cynthia Graham is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sex Research. We've got the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality as well as the burgeoning Canadian Sex Research Forum fostering "sexual science."

How did Canadians build this sexy empire? A progressive social climate, for one, but also all-important funding. Agencies such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research support and legitimize meaningful studies into a broad spectrum of human sexuality.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where funding bodies are squeamish around research that doesn't focus strictly on disease and prevention – the scariness of sex, in other words. For years, top researchers feared their work wouldn't land American funding, so they migrated to Canada and built robust investigative teams here instead.

Which isn't to say sex research is free of stigma north of the border. Not wanting to court gawking, discomfort or kneejerk dismissiveness ("We're funding what?"), Canada's best scientists often don't discuss their jobs at dinner parties. The Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski spoke with some of them about what they're delving into now and about the vast expanses of sexual life that remain misunderstood.


Meredith Chivers

Meredith Chivers is an associate professor of psychology at Queen's University and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research New Investigator. Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Associate professor of psychology at Queen's University and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research New Investigator

Focus: Female desire, arousal and sexual problems

In 2009, Chivers drew international attention for some surprising scientific findings: Unlike most men, women will respond physiologically to a wide array of visuals – from gay sex to bonobo apes mating – even if subjectively, they feel nothing for it.

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Chivers is now mining the relationship between women's attraction, their sexual identities and their "concordance," which is the correspondence between what a person subjectively feels turned on by and her genital response. Prior research suggests higher concordance relates to better sexual functioning.

Collaborating with post-doctoral fellow Kelly Suschinsky, Chivers found that women who reported even the slightest attraction to other women had high concordance. The things that turned them on, subjectively speaking, also yielded a response in their bodies. Women who were attracted exclusively to men showed less of this alignment: They said they felt one thing, but their bodies reacted somewhat differently.

Why the difference between completely heterosexual women and those with wider attractions? Chivers surmises that as people depart from the expected "default" of heterosexuality, "maybe part of that exploration involves becoming more in tune with what really turns them on." Couples in the queer and kink communities discuss desires, fantasies and boundaries more openly, instead of "believing that one script fits all and that people can read each other's minds," she said.

Sexual health in Canada: What should we pay attention to right now?

Chivers believes a "missing narrative of pleasure" in sexual-health education does young people a huge disservice. "The risks are there and shouldn't be softened," Chivers said, "but it just seems so odd that we would have these conversations and forget that sex can be a joyful, pleasurable part of life. We've got this weird, puritanical hangover where we can't talk about enjoying ourselves in this way."

As a parent of a son in Grade 5, Chivers is agitating for more government funding of sex educators in schools, in order to offload responsibility from teachers who may be not have the time, expertise or comfort level to deliver strong sex ed. "Every sex educator I've ever met who does these kinds of workshops, they're ebullient, engaging speakers who've figured out how to transmit their messages in ways that are accessible."

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What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

"It makes other people really uncomfortable at a dinner party: 'What was your day like at the office?' 'Well, first I looked at a whole bunch of porn and then we talked about clitorises.' I'm very aware that for the vast majority of people, to be talking about things that are so personal and taboo is really difficult, especially in polite mixed company," Chivers said.

Still, in this #MeToo era, some uncomfortable discussion is warranted. "In this watershed moment revealing the epidemic of sexual harassment and violence, we need to be having much more informed and frank conversations about everything, from sexual victimization to negotiation of sexual consent. It underscores how much we don't understand."


Lucia O'Sullivan

Lucia O’Sullivan is a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Stephen MacGillivray/The Globe and Mail

Psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton

Focus: Sexual health of young adults, plus infidelity, breakups and the impact of new technologies on relationships

O'Sullivan is uncovering startling problems in the sexual lives of young people. A recent study that followed 405 heterosexual men and women ages 16 to 21 over two years found nearly half reporting low sexual satisfiction. Some 46 per cent of young men suffered low desire and a whopping 45 per cent reporting problems getting or maintaining enough of an erection for sex. Young women fared no better: Fifty-nine per cent said they'd had problems reaching orgasm. More troubling, 47 per cent reported pain with penetration or touch of the vulva.

The findings bust the stereotype of a hookup generation having tons of fun and carefree sex. "They're really feeling stressed out, they're exhausted and they're really not getting much joy out of their relationships," O'Sullivan said. "It's a little heartbreaking."

Her research was inspired by a colleague, who worked at a student medical centre and noticed young women coming in with vulvar fissures, which pose serious risk of sexually transmitted infections. When O'Sullivan followed up with youth and health-care providers who deal with them, she found a deep disconnect. Young women often weren't aroused during sex, didn't realize they had to be and "often weren't even half sober," O'Sullivan said.

Even so, health-care providers kept a narrow focus on pregnancy and STIs. "They are so under the gun," O'Sullivan said. "Who really thinks to say, 'How much are you enjoying this?' or even 'Are you having any pain?' The standard of care was just to slap some KY lubricant in the person's hand."

Without reliable information, women blamed themselves for their sexual problems. Men externalized, complaining about stress, binge drinking or female partners "not being hot enough." O'Sullivan wants to investigate how these issues might play out in adult sexual dysfunction. "How are they going to fix it," she asked, "if they can't even acknowledge that there's something going on in their lives that needs to be addressed?"

Sexual health in Canada: What should we pay attention to right now?

In this post-Weinstein era, O'Sullivan is raising the alarm on how boys' early socialization can be unhealthy and also focusing on warped masculinity, particularly the notion that sex is something for men to take from women. "It's all set so early and then we're surprised that some men have this secret handshake: 'She's drunk and passed out, let's all go have some fun.' The abuse of women is the unspoken bond," O'Sullivan said. "We're in this incredible moment where women are saying, 'This person you all adore has abused many people, with a trail behind him.' I'm revelling in this moment – though it's just a heartbeat because women will be smothered any second now."

What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

"People back me up toward the wall trying to ask questions that they always wanted to know. Or they back up toward the wall trying to get out because it's so uncomfortable," O'Sullivan said. "You can't always gauge it: Do people automatically assume that you're pervy because your life's devoted to the most compelling questions possible? There is stigma attached even here. I would be more credible as a scientist if I studied attitudes towards soap detergents. Anything but sex."


Terry Humphreys

Terry Humphreys is a psychology professor at Trent University and editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. Handout

Psychology professor at Trent University and editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Focus: Sexting, virginity and how partners negotiate sexual consent

The consensus around consent is this: The most sure-fire way to communicate it is clearly and verbally. Continuing, affirmative consent is enshrined in Canadian law and "Yes Means Yes" campaigns proliferate across campuses in North America.

In reality, few heterosexual partners speak this directly in bed, Humphreys has observed. That's because we live in a culture that isn't exactly keen to talk sex in real time and that includes boundaries and expectations. "It feels awkward for people to discuss sex prior to starting it," Humphreys said, adding, "There's a bit of a masculine belief that if you're talking about sex, then you've probably done it wrong."

Heterosexual men are still largely treated as instigators and women as "gatekeepers" who choose to move ahead or not. While most men would like to know where they stand, they also prefer sexual initiation that's non-verbal, Humphreys has found. This is a problem: "If women are waiting for permission that never comes verbally, we have an issue there."

While noble, Yes Means Yes campaigns aren't great at addressing such real-life nuance. People may not know what they want with a particular partner until they're into it; others may have no clear sense of what they want. Such ambiguity flies in the face of education campaigns that stress a firm "yes" or "no" from the get-go.

"In late adolescence and early adulthood, a lot of people haven't had the experience, trial and error or knowledge to know exactly what they do or don't desire," Humphreys said. "Most of these campaigns don't admit that this is complicated."

He advocates for more compelling lessons on respect and consent in sex ed – years before frosh: "It's a little late to address consent at university."

What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

"It's usually a conversation starter or ender, very quickly," Humphreys said. "We really are far from understanding the intricacies of human sexual behaviour. There are mysteries to be solved yet in the biology of orgasm and simulation. From a social perspective, the culture keeps changing. With the amount of technology we have around us and its ability to shape how we function sexually, there's need for understanding."


Karen Blair

Karen Blair is an assistant professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. Sara Boutler

Assistant professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

Focus: Relationships, sexuality and same-sex couples

Blair is exploring dating experiences in the transgender community. A recent study of 958 heterosexual, gay, bisexual and queer adults painted a bleak portrait: Nearly 88 per cent said they were unwilling to date a trans person, with just 1.7 per cent saying they'd date a transgender woman specifically.

"They're not being viewed as viable dating partners," Blair said, suggesting it might have to do with a lack of knowledge about sex with trans women. "There's lots of discrimination, especially on the dating apps."

Blair warns that such social exclusion can compromise trans women's health: When people are romantically isolated, they may settle for people they'd otherwise avoid, or agree to risky sex that exposes them to STIs. Sexual exploitation is a real concern with straight men who fetishize trans women and keep their encounters secret. "Dating," Blair said, "is a place where trans women meet with violence."

Sexual health in Canada: What should we pay attention to right now?

Blair argues that heterosexual partners often unthinkingly follow traditional sexual scripts – "what we do and who we do it with and what order we do it in bed" – instead of pursuing their own actual preferences, which tend to be more unique. She suggests heterosexual couples take a cue from same-sex pairs, who have more individual scripts. "Same-sex couples are more willing to ask, 'What do you like?,' 'What do I like?' and 'What do we want to do together?'" Blair said. "They had to come up with this on their own because there was nothing on TV or in the movies to tell them who goes first and who says and does what."

Same-sex partners often renegotiate their script with each new relationship. "It makes perfect sense, whether you're gay or straight. You have different preferences."


Lori A. Brotto

Lori Brotto is a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Women's Sexual Health. Martin Dee

Professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Women's Sexual Health

Focus: How mindfulness can improve the quality of women's sexual lives

Brotto's work with mindfulness is helping women with low desire as well as patients suffering from provoked vestibulodynia, pain in the vaginal entrance when touched.

Brotto is now looking at how people's long-standing meditation practices affect their desire. Following 350 women, Brotto's found that meditators reported higher mental and physical arousal, better lubrication, as well as more frequent and intense orgasms than women with no meditation experience. "It suggests that the lifestyle of meditation might also have sexual benefits," Brotto said. "There are other benefits of meditation beyond insight and quality of life."

Sexual health in Canada: What should we pay attention to right now?

Brotto is following the story of Addyi, a drug that's been touted as the "female Viagra." Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015, Addyi has seen underwhelming sales in the United States. It offers only a nominal boost in the amount of sex women end up having and comes with side effects such as fainting, plus one big lifestyle constraint: Women can't drink alcohol while taking the daily pill.

Nevertheless, the drug has been under review with Health Canada for a year and a half, which concerns Brotto. She alleges that Valeant – which bought Sprout Pharmaceuticals (and its drug Addyi) for $1-billion (U.S.) in 2015 – has in the past approached Canadian researchers, doctors and gynaecologists about a company-funded "education campaign" about hyposexual desire disorder (HSDD), the very illness Addyi is marketed to treat. (Valeant declined to comment because the company agreed to sell Sprout – and with it Addyi – back to its founders earlier this month.)

What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

In casual conversation, Brotto tells people she studies women's health, although she's torn about glazing over her sex research. "On the one hand, I see it as a valuable opportunity to destigmatize, debunk myths and raise the flag on the importance of being a sex researcher. On the other, the number of times it's been met with, 'Your husband's a lucky man!' it's like, really? Is that what this is all about?"


Sari van Anders

Sari van Anders is a Toronto-born associate professor of neuroscience, psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan and editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research. HANDOUT

Toronto-born associate professor of neuroscience, psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan and editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research

Focus: Intimacy and sexuality, gender and sexual diversity

Van Anders, who continues to receive Canadian grants, is studying the ways stereotypical masculinity affects how heterosexual men treat their partners' orgasms. "We find that some men seem to see an orgasm in a woman partner as less about her pleasure and more about their own masculinity and achievement," said van Anders, who published a paper recently on the subject with graduate student Sara Chadwick.

They found that guys who were particularly fixated on their masculinity felt they'd failed as men if women didn't orgasm with them. When women did climax, these men felt their manhood was bolstered. The whole experience veered away from shared intimacy into something more transactional: Men gave orgasms and women received them as passive agents.

Prior research has found that sex is less satisfying and more saddled with performance anxiety when it's treated as a means to an end. Van Anders points out that pleasure has value even without the end zone of orgasm. She wants a linguistic rethink – "experiencing" orgasm instead of "achieving" it.

What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

"When I fly and people ask me what I do, I often say I'm a behavioural neuroscientist. I don't tell them I'm a sex researcher and I also have stopped saying I'm a hormone researcher because I get all sorts of stories I don't want either: 'My kid's going through puberty!' or 'Let me tell you about menopause.' I don't want to sound uninterested or uncaring, but it's personal information. I just want to read my book sometimes."


Rosemary Basson

Rosemary Basson is a clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the University of British Columbia Sexual Medicine Program. HANDOUT

Clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the University of British Columbia Sexual Medicine Program

Focus: Female desire and sexual response, mindfulness therapy for sexual problems

Recently, Basson has been looking at what role altered stress hormones – and past histories of childhood trauma – might play when adult women lose their desire. Basson is investigating the role of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in women with low or absent desire. Made by the adrenal glands, DHEA is crucial in stress response, although some of it also converts into the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.

Basson and her team want to find out if unresolved childhood stress and trauma have frazzled and reset these women's stress systems and contributed to what's happening in their sex lives in adulthood.

"It's about realizing that things from the past maybe have affected how a woman sees herself – not just her sexual self-image but her general self-image – how much trust she can have in another person and how much control she needs to keep over her life," Basson said. "In order to be sexually aroused you've got to let go and be vulnerable. You can imagine a stressful childhood is not going to train someone to be able to do that."

What are the reactions to what you do for a living?

Basson says critics of sex research tend to "shut up" when she points out the good it does for people when illness or invasive medical treatments devastate their sex lives. "It's extremely distressing when you find that after a spinal-cord injury, you can't be sexual in any way comparable to before," Basson said. "Doing some research into how to help these people is quite important."


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