«Arousal and agitation aren't far apart»
Either they find it disgusting, they don't understand it or they're outraged. Tempers can sometimes fray in the comments. Articles on topics such as sex and women's health seem to irritate certain readers in particular. Sex therapist Dania Schiftan explains why some people enjoy talking openly about these topics while others rebel against it.
«No one has to agree to talking publicly about sex,» explains Dania. «It's a completely legitimate opinion.» After all, not everyone is interested in it. «But what always surprises me is the vehemence with which some people express this opinion.» The topic of sexuality obviously triggers many emotions. From positive, interested responses to negative, defensive ones. «The topic affects people to their core. Some even perceive it as threatening,» says sex therapist Dania.
This comment was written under an article on pelvic floor exercises (in German).
These are the kind of views we describe as «uptight».
What's the root of the «problem»?
Dania warns against dismissing self-consciousness as a society-wide phenomenon. «Some people don't like to talk about intimate things, but they're quite uninhibited in their actions. Meanwhile, others enjoy talking about sex but are pretty restrained in their actions.» In her sex therapy practice, she’s noticed that in the beginning, people only tend to talk openly about sex to a certain extent. As soon as it gets down to the nitty-gritty, most people get embarrassed. Questions like «How does that feel for you?» or «What do you like and what don't you like?» start to make them uncomfortable. But in therapy sessions, her patients soon feel like they can talk more freely. Dania goes on to say that even when talking to friends, people still tend to reach their limits quite quickly. «We live in a society where it's not considered cool to ask questions. We often get the feeling we should know everything.»
The bad v word
Some people are embarrassed just by using the right terms for sexual organs, such as vulva or vagina.
This comment was written under an article on vaginal rejuvenation (in German).
According to Dania, a lot of children are growing up without knowing the proper words for their sex organs. Especially girls. «It’s just called 'down below' or 'girly bits'. When it comes to terms like penis and dick, we tend to be more at ease. But female sex organs usually don't get a proper name.» If you've not grown up knowing the biological names for female body parts, you might not be familiar with words like vulva and vagina – so they may sound strange. «When you start out from a place of not knowing the terminology, it doesn't take much to jump to thinking it's 'threatening' or even 'disgusting'. But they're just words like any other.» The only difference is it feels disconcerting to use them.
Not all blood is the same
Menstruation also comes under the category of bodily functions and terms that alarm people. «We live in a time where bodily fluids such as sweat and menstruation blood aren't meant to be seen. It's as though a huge hygiene wave has swept over us and it's stopping any mention of body functions coming to the surface. We've completely lost any sense of naturalness.»
But why is a gory war film OK, but a bit of period blood in an advert has to be shown as blue to avoid any blushes of embarrassment? After all, about half of the world population menstruates.
This comment was written under an article on menstrual cups.
«Men don't experience monthly bleeding themselves. So it's hard for them to gauge the right way to approach the topic,» believes Dania. «Add to that the fact that a lot of religions consider women impure or dirty during their period. Conversely, in nature religions, they're said to be sacred because periods are a sign of fertility.» So, depending on how they were brought up with the issue, even many women view their own period negatively. They often feel dirty or disgusting. Sex therapist Dania explains that can, in turn, lead to bad self-image. She adds: «It's a shame because we could look at menstruation in a completely different way and promote another outlook on it.»
The «unpredictability» of female desire
Dania believes that topics are met with criticism at least in part when people don't understand them. Take the article on pelvic floor exercises (in German), for instance. «A lot of people don't know the point of these exercises or what the pelvic floor does. That's why people tend to have their own ideas on what women can and should do with it.» Information on how women can strengthen their pelvic floor for a variety of reasons and articles that shine a positive light on periods are meant to help strengthen women in general. «But not everyone likes that. Conversely, if we discuss how men can increase their virility, it won't be met with the same resistance. Men's sexuality still has more of an established, mainstream status in our society.»
This comment was written under an article on pelvic floor exercises (in German).
Dania reckons even sex toys are more accepted. «The tech side of things is like a norm in our daily lives, and it's more tangible than an abstract topic such as pleasure.» Women's pleasure and arousal are of secondary importance, in the eyes of both men and women. «You still get women who think sexuality is more important for the man than the woman. Or that men's sexuality is more logical and understandable than women's. This makes female pleasure seem unpredictable to a lot of people.»
Is it contradictory?
Anyone who voices their disagreement with the content of an article in the comments has usually clicked on the article and then quickly read it or scanned it. But why even look at something that you find so objectionable and repulsive? «This is where people show their double standards. They're absolutely fascinated by sexuality and sex-related topics – and almost aroused, stimulated and agitated at the same time. Arousal and agitation aren't that far apart. And feelings can get a bit tangled up. Nasty comments are a way of dealing with this chaos of feelings.»
Take it easy
In a nutshell, that means anything unknown is considered threatening and the comments are a place to vent arousal and agitation. Dania explains this is exactly why we need to encourage dialogue. «People who find they're hitting a barrier in terms of their own sexuality get helped and inspired through open discussion. It lets them see if others feel the same way or if they experience some things differently.» You can also have this kind of discussion publicly. «Galaxus is a platform where you wouldn't expect to find conversations like these. That means you'll also reach people who don't normally come into contact with this kind of material.» And that's clear from the comments. According to sexologist Dania, provoking a discussion – whether positive or negative – is the most valuable thing an article can do. «Sexuality should be a topic we can talk about like any other. It just shouldn't happen in a way that stirs someone up.»
This comment was written under a review of the erotic film 365 Days (in German).
Start ‘em young
Sex education as part of the curriculum could help. «I'd like schools to teach children the correct names and explanations of body parts from nursery age. I'd also like to see children taught what these body parts look like, how to look after them and to what extent they define them as a person.» Most kids learn self-protection and saying no. But they don't learn about the positive connection with their body parts and their gender. «Once they have a solid base, children can be taught more about these topics each school year in an age-appropriate way.» A lot of young people's experience with sex education is learning about the dangers of diseases, contraception to prevent pregnancy and how to prevent getting assaulted. Lovely, valuable aspects – for instance, masturbation – are left off the syllabus. «Not to mention fundamental topics like the pros and cons of porn,sexting and so on.»
The common denominator
«People use their personal norms and values to guide everything they do,» says Dania Schiftan. Even indignant people who post comments. Their norms and values are based on what they know and are challenged by the unknown. «A lot of these norms and values that form our framework were shaped centuries ago by a society that dictated when, how and with whom we could experience sexuality 'properly'.» It could only be once you were married. It had to happen a set number of times. It could only be with a certain gender. And so on. Sexuality turned into a control lever. «Once you stray from specifically defined norms, people feel existentially threatened. That's why a lot of people still unfortunately get frightened by those who live freely and make their own decisions.»
For the last 13 years, Dania Schiftan has been working as a sexologist and psychotherapist from her own practice in Zurich. You can find out more about Dania and her job in this interview: