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Author Topic: Pop Evolutionary Psychology and the Essentialization of the Sexes
14fields
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How many of you all find that supposedly "scientific" studies that are published in popular venues are extraordinarily irritating in terms of the differences between men and women?

In recent decades, evolutionary psychology has blossomed, especially in term of "mating psychology"--and these studies often focus on what's attractive in a mate and why, and also the differences between the brains of men and women. The supposed differences, anyway.

The thing is (and sometimes I hate bringing up these types of debates, because then people think I'm anti-science and such, which isn't true), I think people (AND science) needs to take a good, hard, long look at whether something is complete "objective unbiased Truth," if such a thing could exist (which I don't), or whether their cultural paradigms and epistemological orientations are shaping their findings. I believe this issue may definitely come into play a lot concerning the essentialization of men and women, claiming that there ARE definite differences in the brains and neurobiology between men and women, and these differences can explain various gender stereotypes. However, I think that some of these "scientific" findings are not only perhaps pseudoscientific, but also promote gender violence. Not necessarily physical violence, of course, but more like violence in terms of further enforcing what "normal" behavior is for men and women, and if they don't fall into that category of "normal," then there is something "wrong," i.e hormonal imbalances, a "feminized" brain, etc. Since obviously "men" and "women" and gender itself are all social constructs, it's pretty unsettling to me to have scientific studies running around that place humans on such a strict gender binary, and seemingly removing social factors into their studies--which cannot be done in my opinion, as humans are deeply social and our societies' metaphysical structures DO shape a lot of how we perceive things.

The reason why this issue has been bothering me more is because I've been noticing what people have been saying to me that reflect gender binaries. For example, in talking with my counselor, she said that women don't tend to want to engage in casual sex unlike men, as women cannot separate emotions from sex, and need emotional connection to have satisfying sex. I told her that some women are indeed able to have casual sex, and do not feel like they have to be romantically involved with someone to have sex with them. She said yes, those women are out there, but they are a minority, and it only happens when a woman has high amounts of testosterone. I'm aware that high amounts of testosterone can make one's libido higher, but I have trouble truly believing that it somehow magically makes you able to have casual sex. She told me that there's lots of evidence for biological bases for gendered behaviors other than the aforementioned casual sex dichotomy, such as how men truly are more "visual" than women because of certain brain differences, etc. I've certainly known of many studies that do claim to explain gendered behavior, but many times I've felt that the scientific methods in their studies were a bit suspect, and then they typically make no mention of possible social influences that may influence the results, which is irresponsible in my opinion.

Another thing that she told me that was quite ridiculous in my opinion is related to androgen levels in women and how it influences their tastes. When I told her that I was diagnosed with PCOS which resulted in having slightly elevated androgen levels, She also told me that she knew a man whose wife had that, and before it was treated, she liked large "masculine" dogs. After she treated her PCOS with hormone medication, she started liking smaller, more "feminine" dogs. My counselor then told me to watch out for what dogs I liked after I start medication, and laughed. I just gave her a blank stare, and told her that I couldn't see how a particular dog is inherently more "masculine" or "feminine," as that has to do with what values our society places on dogs, and that most small dogs were originally bred for food, with companionship only coming later. I'm pretty sure that she was relating the idea that women with lower androgen levels would like small dogs because they are easier to cuddle and nurture, impulses that higher androgen levels are "supposed" to diminish. However, the idea of doting on small dogs as if they were human children is, for the most part, a fairly recent Western concept. She could just have been joking, but I thought it was an absolutely idiotic situation to apply to hormone levels.

And, of course, I hear the whole "women cannot have casual sex and need to love a person before they have enjoyable sex because of their brains/unless they have low self-esteem and don't respect themselves/fill in the blank reason. And, if women can indeed have casual sex and enjoy it, then it of course has to be "blamed" on something whether it's hormone ranges or past abuse. It really frustrates me. I'm not personally sure that I could have casual sex without emotional commitment, but I know women who can and do and I'm totally ok with it, and don't feel the need to find out the "cause" as to why or frame it as abnormal.

It seems to me that all the time I see stuff published in magazines, web articles, etc. that describe essential, biological characteristics that are supposed to explain the differences between men and women. As a burgeoning field, there are now many scientific articles published in legit scientific articles that say the same things. Yet I wonder how correct they really are. If you read Cordelia Fine's book, "Delusions of Gender," she painstakingly examines the scientific methods and findings of many of the most famous scholars and studies that explain inherent biological differences between men and women, and exposes many of their fallacies, and comes to the conclusion that most of these studies are pseudoscientific. It's an interesting read, if any of you ever pick it up.

I would like to share an example of such scientific findings that try and explain sexual harassment at work based on biological factors as posted on Psychology Today's website, and I find it incredibly troubling and NOT rooted in good science:

"Title: Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

An unfortunate consequence of the ever-growing number of women joining the labor force and working side by side with men is the increasing number of sexual harassment cases. Why must sexual harassment be a necessary consequence of the sexual integration of the workplace?

Psychologist Kingsley R. Browne identifies two types of sexual harassment cases: the quid pro quo ("You must sleep with me if you want to keep your job or be promoted") and the "hostile environment" (the workplace is deemed too sexualized for workers to feel safe and comfortable). While feminists and social scientists tend to explain sexual harassment in terms of "patriarchy" and other ideologies, Browne locates the ultimate cause of both types of sexual harassment in sex differences in mating strategies.

Studies demonstrate unequivocally that men are far more interested in short-term casual sex than women. In one now-classic study, 75 percent of undergraduate men approached by an attractive female stranger agreed to have sex with her; none of the women approached by an attractive male stranger did. Many men who would not date the stranger nonetheless agreed to have sex with her.

The quid pro quo types of harassment are manifestations of men's greater desire for short-term casual sex and their willingness to use any available means to achieve that goal. Feminists often claim that sexual harassment is "not about sex but about power;" Browne contends it is both—men using power to get sex. "To say that it is only about power makes no more sense than saying that bank robbery is only about guns, not about money."

Sexual harassment cases of the hostile-environment variety result from sex differences in what men and women perceive as "overly sexual" or "hostile" behavior. Many women legitimately complain that they have been subjected to abusive, intimidating, and degrading treatment by their male coworkers. Browne points out that long before women entered the labor force, men subjected each other to such abusive, intimidating, and degrading treatment.

Abuse, intimidation, and degradation are all part of men's repertoire of tactics employed in competitive situations. In other words, men are not treating women differently from men—the definition of discrimination, under which sexual harassment legally falls—but the opposite: Men harass women precisely because they are not discriminating between men and women."

The whole entire link this article was on troubled me, but this part of it did so the most. I find it astounding that they didn't acknowledge the famous study conducted in the 70's, the one involving men and women being approached by members of the opposite sex and offered sex, has been criticized as highly inconclusive at best, and harmful at worst. I've found excellent rebuttals against this study, and they boil down to the idea that it was not that the women didn't WANT sex with a stranger, necessarily--it was more of their PERCEPTION of the stranger, with the men being viewed as far more threatening and possible as bad lovers. In fact, in another study I read about, straight women were far more likely to accept a proposal for sex by another woman than a man, because they found the women less threatening--pointing to the prevalence of sexual violence and rape as to why they didn't want to accept a random man's offer for sex.

I cannot know whether or not there are definitely measurable differences between men's brains and women's brains, and in my opinion, neuroscience is far too young of a discipline to prove whether it is true or not. What I find astounding is that the studies and scholars in question hardly ever explain what "men" and "women" really means--which, as socially constructed ideas, is a very difficult to do. They do not distinguish "man" and "woman" from "male" and "female," which is very problematic. Neither do they usually account for the great diversity in genders or sexes. What troubles me most, however, is that at the popular level, people can absorb these findings uncritically, and accept them as always true. People may cite these studies, and for example conclude that men are more inherently predisposed to rape and sexual violence, so there's no way to stop it (and believe me, I've read studies that claim that men are more biologically predisposed to rape). I've even heard some men saying that it wasn't their fault that they raped someone, because they were born more likely to rape. I'm not alone in thinking that's appalling. Or as another example, young girls who exhibit "masculine" traits such as eschewing dolls and preferring competitive sports are supposed to grow up to have higher androgen levels--with the opposite claims for boys, where if a young boy eschews sports and prefers dolls, then should have lower androgen levels growing up, or even higher estrogen levels. I've heard those things, believe me. They seem to be playing into the fallacy that androgens automatically make someone more "manly," and that estrogen automatically makes someone more "womanly" Or my favorite, where a man with higher testosterone levels is more likely to not care about a partner's feelings, and have one-night stands. Seems like a broad claim... too broad to be verified, really.

I realize that some may feel that I am being anti-science, but as I stated earlier, I am not. I just would love to see more education in terms of scientifically researching sex and gender, and definitely more education in terms of social theory, queer theory, and cultural studies. I agree more with the concept of "neuroplasticity," a newly burgeoning concept that reflects the brain's amazing ability to adapt and absorb new situations--which can explain rape culture far better than saying that there exists a "rape" part of the male brain, or some other such nonsense. According to the concept neuroplasticity, a person (especially those who identify as male) will grow up hearing narratives that enable and justify rape, and if they are never analyzed or questioning, then those narratives will continue to process as they always have in the brain, continually processing and reforming from stored memories, new situations perceived by the senses, etc... so it is a tie between biology and culture. We of course assimilate cultural knowledge and continue to process it it our brains, as socio-biological beings. But, the awesome thing about neuroplasticy is that, well, it's plastic. It can change. It gives a tremendous amount of hope, where racism sexism ,rape culture, gender binaries, etc. do not have to exist. They can be challenged and change, and as our society changes our narratives, more people will be born with different narratives.

Anyway, what do you all think of the nature-nurture debate and how it is reflected in science and pop psychology?

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MusicNerd
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Hey there 14fields!

I've definitely run into this debate with people before, but there are always a few things I remember:
1. We've used "science" in the past to describe other social norms, such as why being gay is unnatural, why women shouldn't go to school, why black people are inferior, etc. But now (hopefully many) people would tend to disagree with these notions and consider them very bigoted, discriminatory, and just plain dumb.

2. These scientists who are conducting these experiments don't live in a social vaccuum. They're like you and I, in the sense that they've been ingrained with the same social messages that we have been told throughout our entire lives; this would lead to the results coming out as biased via their observations.

3. Because we don't live in a social vaccuum, the participants are also going to behave differently. For instance, men might be more likely to have casual sex, because they're not shamed for it like women.

4. In most experiments, scientists have a "control" group (which is essentially an unaffected group that is completely neutral and not tampered with) to note the differences in results based off of the control group. It's virtually impossible to accurately measure these results in a social setting because it's virtually impossible to have a control group in these settings.

5. People are individual, so results will vary from person to person. It's like saying all men like blue and all women like pink.

I, like you, am also not anti-science. [Smile] I'm actually majoring in a science right now. It's just important to point out to people that it's tricky to use science to defend these stereotypes because of the reasons listed above.

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"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." ~Dr. Seuss

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Heather
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14fields, if you just threw this out there on the fly, I am dazzled by your brain. [Smile]

I'd love to have us run this as a blog piece: pretty please?

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Redskies
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14fields, I'm totally with you.

I was thinking of the Cordelia Fine book and that study, and lo and behold, you mentioned them [Smile] Anyone who's interested in the debunking study 14fields talked about, the one demonstrating that women as a whole would be just as up for casual sex if only their expectations of the outcome were as high as men's, there's a detailed piece on it here http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/gender-differences-and-casual-sex-the-new-research/ (14fields, I'm assuming this is the same study you're talking about). NB: Thomas also writes about kink, so anyone who doesn't want to read that but would like to read more of his stuff on feminism and rape culture on that blog, just check the tags he's put on each post.

There's an academic psychologist who I know well and whose thinking I respect who is equally unhappy with large parts of what comes out of psychology. My friend feels it's partly to do with many psychologists not knowing a lot about other areas, and partly about some dodgy science. Just because something's published and "scientific" doesn't mean that the methodology and underlying assumptions are any good! Just in the last year or two, there was a study published that was wildly racist and based on totally subjective and unmeasurable assumptions, which were of course skewed to the individual's racist world-view. Science, my foot. And that person is still employed in academia and still researching and publishing.

My friend also thinks that the vast majority of "pop psychology", of all descriptions, is utter bunkum, and says it isn't given the time of day by actual psychologists, even the ones who are narrow-minded and/or making scientific errors. Also, the media is often very bad at reporting what new scientific studies and findings Actually mean and what the researchers' conclusions Actually were, too. The punchy headline is just so much more sellable.

Many areas of evolutionary psychology are also strongly criticised and even disproved by other scientific and social scientific areas. That's not to say that all of evo psych is rubbish, it's absolutely not; but there does seem to be a trend where evo psych tries to explain all kinds of things about humans and human behaviour that there are other much better (and more feminist-friendly!) explanations for.

If I talked about what I think of all this innate gender nonsense I would probably rant incoherently [Smile] ("Why Men Don't whatever-it-is and Women Can't Read Maps", anyone?!) Observable difference in the brain according to gender aren't sufficient to support a theory of innate biological difference, because every single thing we think or do makes a difference to our biology and brain function. So, observable differences in brains or brain function could just as well be due to socialisation, too. As far as I know, there's really no way to prove it either way.

So yeah, anyone who's challenging some of this stuff by thinking about the problems with it and why it might not be true or quite what it sounds like - isn't being anti-science at all, but very true to the spirit of scientific curiosity and investigation [Smile]

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Jacob at Scarleteen
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Oh my god this stuff enrages me. Thanks for writing 14fields, so much!

Redskies' friend is definitely right about how much of this being about not knowing enough about other subjects, but I think it also has a lot to do with money.

I mean maybe I've been exposed to a lot but for me these studies are so transparent...

Logically the first step in all of these studies is to separate men and women into the two categories being analysed in ways that they or society has already deemed appropriate... and only then does it pretend to 'search' for differences. Surely that's hypocritical and I think it makes the results almost predictable.

This separation is the exact same thing which is done to us on every day of our lives, of course it's going to have it's mark on our minds and brains, as our minds and brains, their functions and their reactions all participate in that process.

Most of these studies will feign blissfully ignorance that they have even made this step... According to the studies, the difference between men and women is already matter of fact by virtue of their sorting people into these categories. How the study which analyses the difference between two groups could do anything but find a difference between the two groups is beyond me. But I can see how it's a way to get a publication, get cited, earn points for your institution and therefore funding for the institution and validation for your own participation within it. And even if the study does a good job news papers (at least in the uk) are obsessed with science that claims to back up the status quo.

Studies of this sort lend nothing, but they are always going to yield some sort of numeric results.

Also, who do these studies even aim to help? The extra assumption in the studies is that if you produce data, it can only be adding to knowledge and therefore must be good. In this case bad science is just as bad as bad religion

The first reaction of your counselor that your counterarguments represented marginal exceptions is so often a strategy I hear... it's always based on framing everything within the original assumption, that the stereotypes supposedly being tested are true... if testosterone and casual sex are masculine then women who are into casual sex must have testosterone and must be masculine. The testosterone is just an extra piece of irrelevant information, all they really mean is "boys are one way, girls are another and I'm not accepting anything else anyone has to say".

My (least) favourite part of the article posted above was:
quote:
While feminists and social scientists tend to explain sexual harassment in terms of "patriarchy" and other ideologies
Way to show your cards. Clearly this study is entrenched in a belief so much so that it thinks those are assumptions are unquestionable knowledge, i.e. that it has no ideology... so its patriarchal assumptions of sex & gender can therefore wash over every number and figure and method. The first thing anyone should do if they're going to analyse situation is interrogate and state their own bias, their own conceptualisation of gender. Ideology is inescapable and to conceal your own is tactical and extremely dangerous.

I study engineering, there aren't many social constructs involved but even for our design problems we must state our bias and our assumptions: "I assume the concrete has been mixed consistently and reaches its predicted strength. I assume the soil will behave like a theoretical clay. I will use an equation which has only been tested for situations under climates found in western europe."

The fact that psychological study can claim that it has no assumptions or ideology, and to claim that such a 'lack of ideology' makes it more trustworthy is just abysmal.

The point that this process 'essentializes the sexes' is such a great way to describe it. It pretty much reminds me of money laundering: you send a sexist belief through a scientific process to rehabilitate it as legitimate.

A
sexist belief, is assumed during a...
scientific study, and taints the...
results, which reaffirms the...
sexist belief, which is assumed during another...
scientific study, and taints the...
results, which reaffirms the...
sexist belief which is assumed during another...
scientific study, and taints the...
results, which reaffirms the...
sexist belief, which is assumed during another... etc, etc, ad infinitum.


PS. this article talks about the misuse of neuroscience and I really appreciated it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/mar/03/brain-not-simple-folk-neuroscience

[ 03-11-2013, 03:44 PM: Message edited by: Jacob at Scarleteen ]

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Molias
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14fields, this is a great post. I started reading this and thought "oh, I should recommend Delusions of Gender" but unsurprisingly you've already read it!

I was at a conference this weekend and part of a discussion on one panel was centered around the idea that academic research about various populations can ignore or be privileged over the actual lived experience of people in those populations, and I think that's really relevant here. OF COURSE there are women who are into casual sex! OF COURSE there are men who aren't! I... am really not sure how anyone who knew a bunch of men and women could not have a sense of the truth of that, but in the face of these flawed studies, people who don't fit the findings are either invisible or freak statistical outliers, not actual people with valid stories and experiences.
I have beat my head against this wall in terms of super-offensive material about trans people for a women's studies class (where the professor really should have known better, but that was my first lesson in how academic feminism is often extremely hostile to trans folks), but I think it's applicable to a lot of different situations and studies. And of course, I do agree that many of these studies are flawed to begin with, or the findings are reported in sensational and inaccurate ways.

Pretty much any studies that discuss "gender differences" sound to me like one of those bad stand-up routines of the "men go blah blah blah, but WOMEN go bloo bloo bloo, HOW WACKY" variety. Not particularly enlightening, usually at least vaguely offensive.

And then, as a nice bonus, anyone who doesn't fit nicely into the category of "men" or "women" is left feeling invisible, disrespected, or confused as to which blanket statement they should feel irritated by.

[ 03-11-2013, 05:09 PM: Message edited by: Molias ]

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Jill2000Plus
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quote:
Originally posted by Molias:
Pretty much any studies that discuss "gender differences" sound to me like one of those bad stand-up routines of the "men go blah blah blah, but WOMEN go bloo bloo bloo, HOW WACKY" variety.

I actually LOLed at that [Big Grin] Also, maybe that means non-binary folks go "Blooregarde Q Kazoo?" or maybe "I like cereal"?

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Molias
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Well, I do like cereal, that's for sure. =)
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14fields
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quote:
14fields, if you just threw this out there on the fly, I am dazzled by your brain. [Smile]

I'd love to have us run this as a blog piece: pretty please?

Why, thank you! I did just type this out, without having typed it out before... I'm in grad school, so I just write a lot. Not that this could be a publishable piece (grammatical errors, anyone?) in academia, but I'm flattered that you think it's good writing!

And, of course you can run this as a blog piece! Do whatever you like with it!

Man oh man... all of you all have given such brilliant responses! I have to say that I agree with all of you! I'd love to go over them all and make more points, but I'm going to be leaving the country for 2 weeks soon.... until then... watch out! [Wink]

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Heather
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Awesome! Thanks! Just leave here -- or use the contact link below -- what byline you'd like me to give you. [Smile]

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
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IntersectionalFeminist
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I joined to respond to this thread.

Evolutionary psychology is, historically, not science. It was not evidence based. While this is improving, it still is far from perfect.

Be very cautious when you read popular literature regarding findings of this field. Be very cautious when you encounter a nonscientist using this to justify some position.

Historically, evopsych has been used to justify traditional gender roles, male aggression, and more. Do not take these pronounces as true without first being a critical thinker and evaluating the evidence for the speakers proposition.

Here is a link to a reputable scientist and his view point: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/is-evolutionary-psychology-worthless/

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moonlight bouncing off water
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quote:
Originally posted by Molias:
And then, as a nice bonus, anyone who doesn't fit nicely into the category of "men" or "women" is left ... confused as to which blanket statement they should feel irritated by.

Oh Molias, this made me laugh. (It is a serious issue, but the idea of someone stopping and wondering about which statement should offend them is hilarious!)

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