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Jewish studies in human sexuality

What makes us gay, what women want and why some men fake it

New York Times Magazine writer Daniel Bergner acknowledges that women are complex, sexually voracious and often driven by raw lust. Credit: JCC Jewish Book Festival

Joseph Schwartz was gay from the beginning. He flounced about the house in a feather boa, lisped happily, enjoyed musical theatre, and once referred to the Turkish king Saladin in a school project as a “fabulous Muslim leader.” Nobody told Joseph how to be gay; he just was.

Joseph’s story, as told by his father in Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality, recalls one of the most important unanswered questions in the study of human sexuality: what is innate and what is not?

We know with some certainty that gay people don’t choose to be gay, but which of Joseph Schwartz’s classically “gay” characteristics were born along with him? And what exactly does Joseph’s gayness have to do with the crushing depression and social pressure that caused him to try to take his own life?

Oddly Normal is one of three books at Vancouver’s Jewish Book Festival that dive into questions of intrinsic human sexuality: gay or straight, male or female.

In Oddly Normal, New York Times journalist John Schwartz describes guiding his gay son through a harrowing childhood in New Jersey. At 13, after messily coming out of the closet at school, Joseph swallows handfuls of Benadryl, landing himself in the hospital and bringing to a climax his family’s struggle to help him handle his sexual orientation.

Joseph’s story is all the more worrying because of the support he receives. His parents love and accept him, he is surrounded by supportive adults and mental-health workers, and even his schools are reasonably free of homophobia. But despite all this, Joseph still struggles with loneliness, depression and isolation that drive him slowly toward his breaking point.

What John Schwartz discovers is a subtle network of difficulties that pressure Joseph, from classmates who shun him because he likes talking to girls to psychologists who interpret the pressures of growing up gay as ADD, Asperger syndrome or oppositional defiant disorder.

Schwartz draws on the research of psychiatric epidemiologist Ilan Meyer, who argues that “minority stress” confers all sorts of disadvantages to those singled out as different. In the Proposition 8 case in California, Meyer testified that denying marriage to gay people was harmfully discriminatory.

The troubling part of Schwartz’s story is that his son Joseph is so clearly different from the start. How, Joseph’s story asks, do we protect children who are different from the pressures of being in the minority? Even if the fights over marriage and legal protection are all won, how do we make gay kids feel they belong, especially when their differences appear so early?

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In What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, New York Times Magazine writer Daniel Bergner asks what, behind the curtain of traditional scientific assumptions, drives female desire. He argues, based on the research of half a dozen scientists in the nascent field of human female sexual psychology, that most psychologists have been getting women’s sexuality drastically wrong.

Rather than the passive, asexual, emotionally needy creatures of Victorian fantasy, Bergner’s research repaints women as complex, sexually voracious and often driven by raw lust. His intimate portraits of women, many struggling with desires at odds with everything they are told about themselves, are written with journalistic rigour, scientific caution, and literary power and finesse.

Even for those happy to concede that women can be highly sexual, Bergner still raises powerful and disturbing questions. Why do women say they are aroused by one thing but show physiological reactions to another? Why are women’s sex drives so allergic to monogamy? Why do nearly half of women fantasize about rape? Why is female sexual orientation so impossible to pin down?

Bergner’s research confounds both traditional and progressive visions of women. It is difficult to imagine either a conservative-minded evolutionary psychologist or a post-modern feminist reading his book without feeling unsettled.

And Bergner offers no easy answers. Unlike countless pop-psych polemicists, he avoids rushing to conclusions and respects the boundaries of his data. As a result, What Do Women Want? is more a book about what we don’t know than what we do. And we don’t know a lot.

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Like Bergner, Dr Abraham Morgentaler, in Why Men Fake It: The Totally Unexpected Truth about Men and Sex, assaults gender cliché in sexuality — this time on behalf of men.

Morgentaler, a urologist and surgeon (and, coincidentally, the son of Canadian women’s health hero Henry Morgentaler), argues that men have been unfairly painted as inconsiderate, unfaithful animals. Instead, he would like us to see men as delicate, sensitive creatures who just want to please their ladies, as proved by the eponymous anecdote in which a patient fakes orgasms to make his wife happy.

Morgentaler has less to say about gay men, a topic he approaches with awkward unfamiliarity. In fact, for a doctor writing a book about sexuality, Morgentaler is awkward about quite a lot.

He is, one quickly learns, not really an expert on sexuality at all, nor does he have Bergner’s journalistic thoroughness or literary talent. He rather strikes the tone of an uncomfortable school sex-ed councillor talking about naughty bits.

In one passage, a client’s wife says that she would be okay if her husband slept with other women. Morgentaler un-ironically comments to the reader, “This didn’t sound like something a woman would suggest.”

The saving grace of Why Men Fake It, however, is Morgentaler’s undeniable virtuosity in one field of study: dicks.

By his estimation, he frequently examines upward of 50 penises a day, and it shows. Once he begins talking about dicks and how they work, about 100 pages in, the book suddenly comes to life.

We learn about how to carve a new penis out of a testosterone-engorged clitoris, how to use a synthetic penile implant to inflate erections using a pump hidden in the scrotum, and how the invention of Viagra was prompted by a British neurophysiologist waving his chemically induced erection at a room full of shocked doctors in coat tails.

Morgentaler is also a strong advocate of medical treatment for male sexual problems. Treatments such as Viagra, testosterone and penile implants have been unfairly maligned, he says, because of outdated theories of male sexuality. He points, for example, to sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who popularized the idea that erectile dysfunction was psychological and best treated with talk therapy.

Morgentaler has seen thousands of men successfully treated with practical pharmacological methods that improve lives and transform self-image. This is a message of common sense and compassion well worth writing about; it is a shame the book ever strays from the organs Morgentaler knows best.