All you need is love: brain sex and the mating game

Abstract:

Studies conducted in neurosciences show that being in love is connected to brain’s neurotransmitter phenylethlamine (PEA). This chemical is abundant in salmon, that is also considered the best “love food” (it’ll be more ideal to serve flied salmon using an air fryer – read more this article of philips airfryer review) PEA saturates the brain when individuals fall in love and generates feeling of elation and euphoria. Lovers often feel optimistic, alive, full of energy, and a natural high. Divorce rates are connected to a decline in the PEA.

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The individual most responsible for legitimating the modern distinction between sex and gender was the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Based on studies of native people in Samoa, Mead argued that the enormous variability of male and female behavior suggests that innate, or biologically predetermined, behaviors are almost nonexistent in our species. She then concluded that the fundamental determinant of gender identity is not nature, or what we are as a result of biological inheritance, but nurture, or what we are as a result of the socialization process. “We may safely say,” wrote Mead, “that many if not all of the personality traits which we call masculine and feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners and the form of headdress that a society at a given period assigns to sex.”(1)

The Mead doctrine occasioned a revolution in our thinking about gender identity for the same reasons that the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein occasioned revolutions in thought. It was derived in accordance with research methodologies and rules of evidence designed to produce objective and value-free knowledge. Although a large body of research on sex-specific behavior that could not be explained by learning per se began to accumulate not long after the doctrine was formulated, this evidence appeared “soft” in the absence of biological explanations. We now know that the biological factors that contribute to these behaviors are differing levels of sex hormones and sex-specific differences in the human brain.

BRAIN CHEMISTRY AND EROS

Until recently, much of the knowledge about the sex-specific human brain was derived from postmortem dissections, and virtually nothing was known about the relationship between sex-specific anatomical differences and actual brain function. During the last two decades, however, studies in neuroscience have shown that these differences condition a wide range of human behavior. Brain science has also provided bold new insights into an aspect of our lives where the attempt to ignore or transcend gender differences occasions the most confusion and conflict–romantic love relationships.

There are chemicals in our brains, called neurotransmitters, that make the experience of eros far more universal than we previously imagined. Normally produced at various stages in love relationships, these chemicals occasion similar emotional and physical states in all human beings. Mind- or mood-altering drugs have molecular structures that resemble those of neurotransmitters. For example, cocaine resembles dopamine, acts on the dopamine receptors, and tricks the brain into operating as if enormously high levels of this neurotransmitter were present. Similarly, valium reduces anxiety by augmenting the effects of GABA, and Prozac alleviates depression by enhancing the action of serotonin.

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Given the destructive influence of artificial substances that induce altered states, why did mutations that produce these states survive in the gene pool? The answer is that the powerful neurotransmitters associated with being in love enhanced the prospect of mating and of successfully rearing children. And as anyone who has been in love knows firsthand, these love potents propel us well out of the range of normative emotional responses.

Studies of the initial stages of “being in love” indicate that the love object typically becomes the center of the individual’s universe, and that even the most mundane and trivial characteristics of the magical other are a source of utter fascination. A large number of respondents in one study said that their thoughts and feelings were fixated on the love object from 85 to almost 100 percent of the time. In the presence of the love object, both men and women said they trembled, felt flushed, stammered, and feared losing control over basic faculties and skills. There was also common agreement about the primary reward for this confusion–95 percent of the males and 91 percent of the females indicated that the best thing about being in love was sex.(2)

The principal neurotransmitter contributing to these behaviors is an excitant amine called phenylethylamine, or PEA. This endogenous amphetamine, or speed, saturates the brain when we fall in love, and generates feelings of elation and euphoria. When lovers are giddy, absent-minded, optimistic, gregarious, wonderfully alive, and full of extraordinary energy, they are riding a natural high that results from the action of PEA and possibly two other natural amphetamines–dopamine and norepinephrine. A brain flooded with PEA can override the impulse to sleep and allow lovers to dance the night away in both figurative and literal terms.

People with low levels of PEA are often romance junkies literally “addicted to love.” But this is an abnormality.(3) The function of the PEA high in evolutionary terms is to promote mating and the transmission of genes to subsequent generations. After this is accomplished, it is not evolutionarily advantageous to remain in an altered state that could threaten survival. This explains why the brains of most people can sustain high levels of PEA for only about two to three years.(4)

However, it would not be evolutionarily advantageous for parents who must care for children well into the teenage years to terminate their relationship when the PEA high subsides. Therefore, as this high diminishes, the brain compensates by increasing the levels of morphine-like substances, endorphins, that create feelings of calmness, security, and well-being. This is the biological component in the transition from passionate love to companionate love, or from eros as illogical need and obsession to eros as mutual affirmation and acceptance. The discomfort and anxiety felt by those in long-term love relationships when separated from a partner could be due in part to the rapid decrease in endorphin levels.(5)

In a study of divorce statistics in various cultures, anthropologist Helen Fisher found a correlation between the two- to three-year period during which the human brain can sustain the PEA high and the years in a marriage when most couples divorce.(6) In societies as diverse as Finland, Russia, Egypt, South Africa, and Venezuela, divorces generally occur early in marriage, reach their peak during the fourth year of marriage, and gradually decline in later years. Although there are variations from the four-year peak in some of these cultures, Fisher believes this is due to the influence of cultural variables.

For example, Fisher believes that cultural variables account for variations in the four-year peak in the United States. During the period from 1960 to 1980, when the divorce rate doubled, the incidence of divorce peaked in and around the second year of marriage. Did this have anything to do with couples living together or being in some sense married before becoming legally married? Apparently not. Fisher found that while the number of American couples living together tripled in the 1970s, the peak year for divorce among married couples remained the same.

The cultural variables that explain this pattern could be the attitudes of Americans toward marriage. While people in traditional cultures typically marry for economic, social, or political reasons, Americans marry, says Fisher, “to accentuate, balance out, or mask parts of our private lives.”(7) If Americans do not feel as pressured to remain married, it should follow that they are more likely to dissolve marital relationships at the point at which the PEA high subsides.

NEURONAL PATTERNS AND THINE OWN TRUE LOVE

Neuroscience has also provided some insights into a phenomenon that has long puzzled social scientists–love at first sight. Even though there are a myriad of potential mates, powerful attraction between prospective lovers is about as rare as it is spontaneous. From across the crowded room, or at the end of the checkout aisle, there suddenly emerges that special smile, face, body type that is like no other.

This magical moment for males is accompanied by stiffening of the muscles, increase in heart rate, a flushed face, and dilated pupils. Signs of love at first sight for females are tingling palms, hardening nipples, quick and shallow breathing, and dilated pupils. Although we may sense in this situation that some cosmic matchmaker is at work, there is another, more prosaic explanation.

The organization of neuronal patterns in our brains from the time of infancy to adolescence is determined in no small part by environmental stimuli. The totality of our experience is encoded in those patterns, and their dynamic interplay constitutes our subjective realities. Within this maze are neuronal patterns associated with members of the opposite sex that constitute a kind of gestalt image that includes physical features, subtle behavioral clues, and powerful emotional inputs. When we encounter a member of the opposite sex toward whom we feel instant sexual attraction, our brains are constructing an image of femaleness or maleness that activates neuronal assemblages corresponding with this gestalt image, or with what are normally called search images.

The search images that most fundamentally condition sexual attraction develop in childhood and derive from interactions with those closest to us in physical and emotional terms. The boy or girl next door can be a source of these images. But the primary source is normally opposite-sex family members. When we consider that these people share half our genes, the well-known fact that we tend to marry people like ourselves begins to make scientific sense.

Efforts to assess resemblances in the physical appearance and behavior of married couples of Len involve an index called the correlation coefficient. Although this is a statistical measure, it can be described in simple numerical terms. Imagine putting a hundred couples in a room and lining up males and females according to one characteristic, such as age. If a married couple ends up at the same place in the line, say at No. 33, the correspondence is perfect and the correlation coefficient is plus 1. Minus I designates a perfect opposite match, as in youngest woman is married to oldest man. If the correlation is random, as in youngest women is just as likely to be married to a younger as older man, the coefficient is zero.

The highest correlations, typically around plus 0.9, are for age, race, ethnic background, religion, socioeconomic status, and political views. Measures of personality, such as extroversion or introversion, and IQ levels normally fall out at around plus 0.4. This much seems obvious. But what about physical characteristics? Statistically significant correlations have been found between a large number of physical traits that most of us would never imagine had anything to do with the sources of our sexual attraction.

Correlations of about plus 0.2 have been discovered between length of earlobes, lung volumes, circumferences of wrists and ankles, and distances between eyes in married couples from cultures as diverse as Chad and Poland. In some instances, such as the length of middle fingers, the correlation is plus 0.61.(8) The best explanation for these results is that the gestalt image that informs our attraction to members of the opposite sex is based upon the images of those who share half our genes–opposite-sex members of our family.

THE NONVERBAL LANGUAGE OF LOVE

The nonverbal language of love also attests to the legacy of mate selection among our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Women in cultures as diverse as those in Amazonia, Japan, Africa, France, Samoa, and Papua flirt using virtually the same sequence of expressions. These women first display sexual interest by smiling at the potential love object with eyebrows lifted and eyes opened wide. They then drop the eyebrows, tilt their heads down and to the side, and look in another direction.(9)

Given the importance of eye contact for the mating game of hunter-gatherers, the fact that gazing is the most obvious and universal flirtation signal should come as no great surprise. Men and women in all cultures stare intently into the eyes of potential sexual partners for several seconds, and extreme attraction is signaled by dilated pupils. This is followed by an impulse to close the eyelids, drop the gaze, and look away. Looking back in the direction of the source of this attraction tends to be furtive and is typically accompanied by meaningless gestures that signal anxiety, like fondling objects, fidgeting, and touching hair.(10)

If the physiological responses associated with love at first sight do not prove too disabling and conversation ensues, another indicator that a sexual liaison may be in the offing comes into play. The gestures made by men and women tend to mirror one another, or to become more synchronous. When he lifts his drink and turns his head right, she lifts her drink and turns her head left. When she touches her hair, he touches his hair, and so on.

Increased physical proximity, like leaning forward and positioning arms and legs closer together, is another sign of increased sexual intimacy. The prospect of further intimacy is typically assessed by “casually” touching a wrist, a shoulder, or a forearm. If the party that is touched does not touch in return, or reacts to being touched by moving out of intimate space, this signals reluctance to become more sexually intimate. But if the potential lover mirrors this laying on of hands behavior, a major obstacle on the road to sexual intercourse may have been eliminated. While there are cultures where sexual mores forbid displays of mirroring behaviors, they exist in every society where men and women are free to choose one another as mates.(11)

If we can believe the results of studies of nonverbal sexual interaction, most American cultural narratives that celebrate male sexual prowess are in need of revision. Researchers have found that American women initiate nonverbal flirtation cues, including the critical first touch, over two-thirds of the time. And follow-up interviews with these women revealed that they were very aware that this was the case.(12) Studies of cross-cultural sexual practices confirm that women normally take the initiative in making sexual advances in virtually any society where they are allowed to do so.(13)

There are also transcultural patterns in wooing or courtship rituals. In all human societies males offer females food and gifts in the hope of winning sexual favors. The food offering might be a fish, beer, or sweets instead of dinner at an overpriced restaurant, and the gifts might be cloth, tobacco, and hand-carved figures instead of cards and flowers. But the nonverbal messages conveyed by these enticements are not terribly dissimilar.

Once men and women enter the mind-altered state of the PEA high, behavioral tendencies are translated into actual behaviors in accordance with the rites and rituals of love within particular cultural contexts. And the stories, myths, legends, and songs that script these behaviors are clearly not universal. In some cultures, like the Mangaians of Polynesia and the Bem-Bem of the New Guinea highlands, the construct of “being in love” does not even exist. And yet behaviors associated with this altered state, like suicide among males who are not allowed to marry girlfriends and elopement among star-crossed couples, are not uncommon in these cultures. Also, multiple aspects of romantic love as it is conceived in the West exist, according to one recent anthropological survey, in 87 percent of 168 very diverse cultures.(14)

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LESSONS FROM THE SEX-SPECIFIC HUMAN BRAIN

American popular culture creates the impression that most of us are constantly preparing for, engaging in, or recovering from promiscuous sex. But the results of what may be the first truly scientific survey of American sexual behavior, The Social Organization of Sexuality, present a very different picture. Based on face-to-face interviews with a random sample of almost thirty-five hundred Americans, ages 18 to 59, researchers found that the average American male has six sexual partners over a lifetime and the average American female has two sexual partners.(15)

Equally significant, adultery appears to be much more the exception than the rule. Nearly 75 percent of married men and 85 percent of married women surveyed said they had never been unfaithful. As for frequency of sexual intercourse, almost 40 percent of married people indicated they had sex twice a week, and only 25 percent of single people had sex that often.(16)

Obviously, a host of cultural and personal variables contribute to these behaviors. The legacy of our evolutionary past does, however, condition these behaviors. This legacy lives on in selectively advantageous traits that encourage powerful emotional bonding between potential parents–face-to-face coitus, concealed ovulation, private sex, and female orgasm. Hence the mating game in our species is framed around biological regularities that favor interdependence, cooperation, and long-term involvement.

This does not mean, of course, that evolution is a moral philosopher that dictates the terms of successful love relationships. On the other hand, behavioral tendencies associated with the sex-specific human brain do have something to say about ways in which we might seek to sustain and improve these relationships. Since the human brain cannot sustain the PEA high for more than a few years, the idea that this altered state is a precondition for a healthy love relationship is not in accord with biological reality. And yet we are incessantly bombarded with messages in print and electronic media that the opposite is true.

That the vast majority of those who fall in love and enter long-term relationships elect to have children also makes sense from a biological perspective. The PEA high evolved in our species not merely because it facilitated frequent intercourse and impregnation. This biological mechanism also evolved because it encouraged the emotional bonding required to raise big-brained infants to the point at which they, too, could bear offspring.

The fact that the brain generates an increased level of morphine-like endorphins as the PEA high subsides is another lesson of evolution that we should take seriously. The transition from passionate love to companionate love, as previous generations seem to have known far better than our own, is not only natural and necessary but can also signal the beginning of a very satisfying phase in love relationships.

This does not mean that sex between marital partners ceases to play a central and vitally important role in sustaining relationships, or that the excitement of being in love is forever lost. But it does suggest that the feelings of peace, security, and well-being occasioned by higher levels of endorphins are probably more conducive to maintaining relationships between responsible adults who are raising children.

Evolution also has something to say about the fact that teenagers tend to be more victimized by sexual love. Since the biological clock of ancestral females ran more slowly due to dietary differences, these females reached puberty several years later on average than contemporary females. But since ancestral hunter-gatherers began to mate and reproduce shortly after reaching puberty, all of the mechanisms that facilitate this process are powerfully at work in the lives of teenagers.

Concern about sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS, has resulted in numerous campaigns to promote the use of condoms. And many of these campaigns suggest that virtually all the dangers associated with adolescent sexual behavior can be eliminated by consistent use of condoms. From the perspective of evolution, however, sex is not a form of recreation or a game that can be played with no liabilities on the part of the players.

The biological mechanisms of human sex evolved under special conditions in accordance with the most fundamental compulsion of life–passing on genes to subsequent generations. And we have done untold violence to teenagers by failing to make them sufficiently aware of the terrible force of this compulsion–and the enormous difference between sex as a biological reality and sex in popular culture.

Knowing the codes of evolution in flirtation behavior and the dating game also has its advantages. Obviously, sexual attraction is powerful, and men and women will not keep scorecards to check out their progress. Given that the biological predispositions in the sex-specific human brain are quite malleable in the learning process, the scorecard approach could do more harm than good. On the other hand, familiarity with the biological codes does provide a larger awareness of the difference between a response that is merely warm or friendly and one that signals sexual attraction.

If women tend to initiate the first touch in flirtation behavior, men should be well aware of this fact. And if women tend to be the decision makers in the initial stages of dating behavior, then men should know this as well. The absence of mirroring behavior may or may not signal sexual responsiveness, and the presence of this behavior is not a green light for sexual intimacy. But by knowing that this behavior is usual, both men and women could check sexually inappropriate behavior. More important, much of the mythology in this culture about male sexual process is not in sync with biological reality.

For the past thirty years, we have lived with the assumption that the sexual personae of men and women is learned in particular cultural contexts in gender-neutral minds. In marriage counseling, in advice columns in newspapers, and on prime-time talk shows, the idea that the price for political correctness in male-female love relationships is gender sameness is either explicit or implied. And even when the differences between the sexual personae of men and women are recognized, the usual refrain is that they are entirely a consequence of learning.

Since what we are as men and women is primarily a product of learning, the assumption of gender sameness has served us well in the attempt to control and eliminate offensive sexist behaviors. It has been particularly useful in disclosing that the myths of male dominance that sanction sexual abuse and use of women are utterly indefensible and morally bankrupt. Obviously, we are a long way from achieving the goal of full sexual equality, and the struggle to eliminate learned sexist attitudes and behaviors must continue. But since there is a linkage between biological reality and gender identity, the idea that men and women in love relationships must behave as if this linkage does not exist is clearly in need of revision.

(1.) Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York: William Morrow, 1935), 280.

(2.) D. Tennov, Love and Limerance: The Experience of Being in Love (New York: Stein and Day, 1979).

(3.) M.R. Liebowitz, The Chemistry of Love (Boston: LittleBrown, 1983), 200.

(4.) J. Money, Love and Love Sickness: The Science of Sex, Gender Difference, and Pair-Bonding (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 65.

(5.) Liebowitz, The Chemistry of Love.

(6.) Helen Fisher, “The Four-Year Itch” Natural History (October 1989): 22-23.

(7.) Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 109-111.

(8.) Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 101-102.

(9.) Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Ethology: The Biology of Behavior (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).

(10.) E.H. Hess, The Tell-Tale Eye (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975).

(11.) D.B. Givens, Love Signals: How to Attract a Mate (New York: Crown, 1983), and Fisher, Anatomy of Love.

(12.) T. Perper, Sex Signals: The Biology of Love (Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1985).

(13.) C.S. Ford and F.A. Beach, Patterns of Sexual Behavior (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951).

(14.) W.R. Jankowiak and E.F. Fisher, “A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love, Ethnology 31:2 (1992): 149-55.

(15.) John Gagnon, Robert Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(16.) Gagnon, Michael, and Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality.

Robert L. Nadeau is a professor at George Mason University. His article “Brain Sex and the Language of Love’ was published in the November 1997 issue of The World & I. This article, like the last, is based on his book S/he Brain (Praeger, 1996).

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Identity crisis

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Every hotel in town was full. I was directed to a country club on the out-skirts, also full. The receptionist at the country club had an idea, though. She rang the town-centre pub and B&B where they ‘put’ their trainee chefs. I was lucky, she said, cupping the receiver to her chest. The Rising Sun had a vacancy. Should she tell them to keep it for me? Please, I said.

On one side of the Rising Sun was a scrapyard. On the other a stagnant canal. Opposite, a derelict factory. ‘It’s not the Ritz,’ said the landlady, who looked like a French prop forward, as she showed me the narrow room. ‘But it’s clean.’ Owing to her breadth and the narrowness of the room, we extricated ourselves from it in reverse. ‘Will you be having supper with us, Ralph?’ she said. ‘Please,’ I said, wondering where she got the ‘Ralph’ from.

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I slung my bag on the bed, cleaned my teeth and went downstairs. There was one customer standing at the bar. The landlady introduced me. ‘Ralph, meet Rod Hardwick. You’ve got a lot in common you two because Rod were a chef at one time, God help us, weren’t you, Rod?’

Not only was I called Ralph, but I was now a trainee chef as well. But being a chef called Ralph for a couple of days appealed to me. So instead of correcting my hostess at such an early stage of our acquaintance, on what are, after all, technicalities, Rod Hardwick and I had a brief moan about what a rotten life being a chef is. The landlady, after satisfying herself that we were making the most of her introduction, left us to it.

If anyone needed a face-lift, Rod Hardwick did. It was hanging off him. His hair was black and brown. Nowadays, Rod told me, he was an entertaining called Billy Sapphire. He was fronting the Rising Sun’s nightly karaoke sessions, telling a few jokes, throwing in a few impressions, collecting the empty glasses in between. He wouldn’t be doing his Gary Glitter act tonight, though. The last time he did his Gary Glitter impersonation, on a cruise ship, a member of the audience had jumped up on the stage and pushed a glass in his face.

‘There was blood everywhere. I said, “What did you do that for?” He said, “Because you’re Gary Glitter.” I said, “I’m not Gary Glitter; I’m just doing an impression of him.” And he said, “Sorry pal, I thought you were him.” And for the rest of the cruise I’m doing my big finale, a medley of romantic ballads, Reason to Believe, Sexual Healing and so forth, with a bloodshot eye and 17 stitches in my face.’

At nine o’clock the landlady laid a place for me at a table in the bar. There were no other customers yet, but Rod had started off the karaoke anyway, with a balls-out rendition of Mack the Knife. ‘Steak pie, chips and peas all right for you, Ralph?’ said the landlady. Her massive folded arms and the tiny home-made tattoo of a crucifix brooked no argument. ‘Please,’ I said.

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I was joined for supper by a man who you could tell was a lorry driver just by looking at him. ‘Gary, this is Ralph. Ralph, Gary. Ralph’s another bloody cockney come up here to take our jobs as if we’ve got plenty to spare for ourselves, Gary. Enjoy your meals.’ When she went away, I said to Gary, ‘I’m not a cockney; I wasn’t born within the sound of EastEnders. I’m from Essex.’ And Gary said, ‘And my name’s Geoff, not Gary. I’ve told her twice but it hasn’t sunk in.’

I ate the peas first, then the pie. I was about to launch myself at the mountain of crinkle-cut chips, when Billy Sapphire asked Geoff and I for a ‘special round of applause for tonight’s guest, the one and only, the very lovely Jade!’ I looked up. Jade looked about 17, was probably about 14 and what little she had on had been bought from a sex shop specialising in bondage gear. ‘His daughter,’ said Geoff without looking up from his plate. I laid down my knife and fork and applauded enthusiastically. As unperturbed as her father about singing to an audience consisting of a pair of middle-aged men eating pie and chips, Jade sang It’s Raining Men as if it was the Pop Idol final.

I watched her with my mouth open and an unchewed crinkle-cut chip slightly pro-truding. Jade stepped down from the tiny stage and, singing her little head off, came over to our table and thrust her bare, pierced midriff at us in a highly provocative manner. Geoff was either no longer subject to the desires of the flesh, or he had them firmly under control, for he kept his eyes fixed on his food. Then I felt his lips against my ear.

‘Your chips are getting cold, Ralph,’ he said.

Restaurants

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This is a sorry tale that happily ends rather well. It starts on Saturday evening, when we try to eat at The House in Islington, a gastropub which won Time Out Gastropub of the year last year and which I fancy because I pass it quite often and it looks rather groovy–it is actually in a house–and because I haven’t really done any gastropubs until now. I had phoned a few days beforehand to book, and was told there were no tables available, but the lady who took the call also said that if it was a fine evening tables would be put out in the garden and if we came at 7-ish there’d be a good chance of getting one. Well, Saturday is a beautiful day and the evening is fine, so we opt to chance it and turn up at 7-ish only to find there is no chance whatsoever. The place is heaving. Not The House’s fault, as such, because nearby Arsenal have just done something very good and the place is bursting with fans. I do not quite know what Arsenal have done and will probably never know, as I am no longer allowed to ask my partner or son any questions about sport. My mind, they say, is the opposite of a sponge when it comes to sport–all information ricochets off–and they are fed up with explaining the same thing 429 times (782, when it comes to cricket. And if I ever ask about the offside rule again they are going to put me out the cat-flap and then seal it with masking tape so I can never get back in again. They hope I consider myself warned come Euro 2004).

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So The House is obviously a no-no, although we do give it a try, and find the lady who may or may not be the lady I spoke to on the phone. ‘Any chance of a table?’ my partner asks. ‘No,’ says the lady. ‘In the bar?’ he asks. ‘You could try,’ she replies in a voice that says ‘But I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.’ ‘What a snotty no-can-do,’ my partner says, as we schlep back to the car. I say it’s not her fault that Arsenal have done this good thing I can’t ask about. He says she could have been more helpful. He adds he didn’t like The House anyway. ‘Too chi-chi. Not pubby enough.’ We think we will head towards Clerkenwell, which is basically Gastropub Land and where the whole movement began with The Eagle on Farringdon Road, the first London pub to properly dispense with ping-ping cuisine–that is, the microwave–and offer high-quality food instead of jacket potatoes with cheese, jacket potatoes with beans or, for those in a what-the-hell frame of mind, jacket potatoes with beans and cheese. I have nothing against jacket potatoes but don’t feel they’re an evening out. As far as I can recall I have never said, and am unlikely ever to say, ‘Darling, let’s go out tonight for a microwaved jacket potato. And sod the expense!’

However, we’re thwarted in our new plan because we cannot get down Upper Street. Cars tooting, cops all over the shop, big-bellied fans of the kind not seen in the House (they were more Nick Hornby types) cheering and carousing. We move inch by inch. My partner is now in one of his London rages. I can tell he is now in one of his London rages because when he is in a London rage, whatever happens at a zebra crossing will only enrage him further. If the pedestrian mouths, ‘Thank you’, he says, ‘Don’t thank me. I’m only stopping because it’s the law.’ If the pedestrian fails to thank him he sticks his head out the window and shouts, ‘Thank you to you, too.’ And if they are elderly or disabled or very fat he does all of the above plus revs the engine, just to get them moving a bit quicker. I’m beginning to wish, frankly, I’d stayed home to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, if only to laugh at the Balkan entries, not because they are any worse than any of the others but because I’m fascinated by the way the women all look as if they’ve been dressed by their local sex shop. Oops, I think we just clipped someone … better get outta here.

So we give up on Clerkenwell, cut through the back of Islington and decide to head north. Hampstead, maybe. Or Highgate. So it’s back up the Holloway Road, though Tufnell Park–this is interesting, isn’t it?–and up Dartmouth Park Hill, where we spot the Lord Palmerston (it’s on the corner of Dartmouth Park and Chetwynd Road, for those who are so riveted they’re now following this in their A-Z), and we’ve kind of heard of the Lord Palmerston, so we think we will stop here. This proves a good decision, because we like the Lord Palmerston the moment we walk in. The thing about most gastropubs is that they’ve gastro-ed away the pub. Although usually housed in overhauled old boozers, they no longer feel like the old boozers they once were. The Lord Palmerston does, though. It has a yes-smoking policy throughout and a decor which, apart from a few original Victorian touches, is actually refreshingly bare–plain wooden tables, plain wooden floors, plain dark-wood bar instead of a scary steel or granite thing. It has three kinds of Young’s beer on tap, a good wine list, is bustling rather than too busy and still has the feel and ambience of a local.

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We find a table, and read the blackboard menu. The menu is a bit fancy-pants but not too fancy-pants: roast ratatouille and Brie wrap with baby spinach and tomato (8.75 [pounds sterling]); seafood ragout with organic basmati rice and crab bisque (12.50 [pounds sterling]); seared tuna with salad Nicoise (12.50 [pounds sterling]). In the end, though, I go for crispy fillet of red snapper with sauteed pak choi, shitake mushrooms, baby sweetcorn and a sweet chilli sauce. It arrives speedily, the portion is generous, and the fish is delicious: crispy on the outside; succulent, opalescent and juicy on the inside. The pak choi is crunchy and the shitake mushrooms are plump. My only complaint is that the sweet chilli sauce could have been a little less sweet and a little more chillified, that it lacked kick, but I think we can let that go. My partner and son both have the chargrilled chicken breast, chorizo and avocado Caesar salad. ‘Good. Very good,’ says my partner, who may be emerging from his London rage. ‘Lots of avocado. Very spicy chorizo. They haven’t been mean with the chicken which has a good chargrilled flavour.’ We share three of the puddings: a banoffee pie, a tarte tatin and a raspberry creme brulee. All are 3.50 [pounds sterling] and heavenly. It’s turned out to be a pleasurable evening, plus we not only get home without killing any fat pedestrians but we also make it in time to see a lady from Ukraine dressed like a low-class hooker win Eurovision. Perfect. (Next week, I’ll be travelling from Archway to Camden, if you want to get your A-Zs ready.)

The Lord Palmerston, 33 Dartmouth Park Hill, London NW5; 020 7485 1578.

Live poets’ society: writers take their rhymes on the road

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“What’s it take to get a little notice when you’re a Canadian poet?” asks Vancouver’s Michael V. Smith on his website. Faced with low sales, threats to government funding and a lack of interest even among the fiercest supporters of CanLit, Smith and other poets across Canada are extending their creativity beyond their work to get people to pay attention.

For Smith, whose writing often touches on sexuality, getting creative has meant holding a reading in a Vancouver sex shop and using improv comedy and videos to keep his events entertaining. “I think it’s important to celebrate the moment but not to get lost in the preciousness of the work. I think you have to enjoy yourself,” he explains. He has also toured his work across BC and Ontario, cramming himself and two other poets into a car for a series of readings in different cities–something most poets don’t bother with.

A counterpart to Smith’s 5pt Tours is the highly successful Perpetual Motion Roadshow, founded by Toronto novelist Jim Munroe. Since 2003, PMR has been successfully stuffing poets, novelists, musicians and visual artists into vans and driving to events in seven North American cities over eight days, offering the guarantee of “No boring readings or your money back!”

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And it appears that engineering entertaining events that extend beyond the poetry-only lineup is catching on.

Since 2004, poet and editor Damian Rogers has been putting on Pontiac Quarterly at the Drake Hotel in Toronto. “I’d wanted to start a literary magazine for a while and I enjoy the ephemeral and charged atmosphere of performance, so it suddenly occurred to me to try to combine them,” says Rogers, who regularly invites poets to read their work alongside journalists, dancers, musicians and visual artists. The close proximity of all these genres and different sorts of performance gives PQ a unique chaotic energy and draws a larger crowd than a standard poetry reading would.

If the goal of Perpetual Motion Roadshow and Pontiac Quarterly is to bring poetry into the fold with other genres of performance, then Toronto’s 14-year-old Scream Literary Festival has worked hard to spread poetry out into everyday life. It’s had success in recent years hosting dinners inspired by and featuring readings of full-length works by poets like Dionne Brand and Christian Bok–this year’s fest pairs Paris-based poet Lisa Robertson with a meal of French food.

The organizers of Scream have also infused poetry into a literary walking tour of the Annex and substituted the previews before screenings at a local cinema with poetry readings–both initiatives are part of the fest’s informal mandate to place poetry in unexpected places.

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“We try to demonstrate that poetry exists and thrives all day every day, throughout the country, not just in proscribed, scheduled chunks,” explains Scream’s Mark Higgins.

Similarly, the organizers of Random Acts of Poetry (a made-in-Canada event that’s now spread to the UK and Ireland) have found it’s more effective to take poetry to the people than wait for people to pick up their books or come to readings. Once a year, participating poets read poems to people in public places and then give the person a copy of the book that includes the poem.

“We can, and should, break out a poem any time, anywhere,” says participating poet Lorri Glenn Neilsen. “Poetry itself is a random act–of celebration, insight, wonder, compassion, mourning. I’ll take a poem with my coffee any day.”

The insatiable north: we have more sex and more adventurous sex, but fewer teen pregnancies and STDs

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If anyone knows how we behave behind closed doors, it’s Sue Johanson. The Canadian sex educator has been on the air since 1984, and over the years she’s heard it all–questions ranging from “How do I have an orgasm?” to “My girlfriend is pregnant. If I have more sex with her, will the baby look like me?” But of all the questions she’s asked, “How do I spice things up in the bedroom?” is the most common. “I’ll say, ‘Have you ever gotten dressed up as a prostitute?'” says Johanson, who’s hosted sex-advice shows on both sides of the border. “Americans don’t like the idea of dressing up. But Canadians just think that’s wonderful.” After more than 20 years of tailing about sex, Johanson knows that the stereotype of the Canadian as frigid northerner–who prefers ice hockey to other, more steamy pursuits–is far from true. The numbers agree: compared to our American cousins, Canadians have more sex, with more partners, in more creative ways. But the numbers also tell us that we have fewer teen pregnancies and we’re less likely to get sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In short, we have it made.

The 2007/2008 global Durex survey makes it clear that we’re having more sex. It found that 59 per cent of Canadians do it at least once a week, compared to 53 per cent of Americans. We spend an average of 37 minutes on each session, it found, two minutes longer than couples in the States. (And we out-sex them 100 sessions to 85 each year.) Canadian men claim an average of 23 sex partners in a lifetime, almost double the number claimed by U.S. males, and Canadian women claim 10 partners, compared to nine for Americans (so okay, the men might be exaggerating a bit).

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Not only do we have more sex, but we’re more adventurous in the bedroom. We perform an average of 5.1 activities–from role-playing to wearing sexy underwear–while for Americans, it’s 4.2. We’re also more likely to frequent a sex shop, while Americans prefer to quietly buy online. (There is one activity, though, that’s far more popular south of the border: having sex in the bathroom. A 2005 survey showed 70 per cent of Americans have done so, more than double the number of Canadians.) Oh, and we’re more generous lovers, too. In the U.S., “reaching orgasm is the No. 1 concern,” Johanson says. For Canadians, it’s “how to be innovative.” And we’re never really, well, satisfied, that we’re doing enough. A full 40 per cent of Canadians desire even more romance in their lives(compared to just 35 per cent of Americans), while 38 per cent want more time with their lovers (30 per cent of Americans do).

Yet, strangely, even though we have more sex, it’s Americans who suffer more of the unpleasant consequences. In 2006, chlamydia rates among teenage American girls were more than double those in Canada. And roughly one-third of girls in the U.S. get pregnant before age 20. In fact, the teen pregnancy rate there is “the highest among Western developed nations,” says David Landry, senior research associate for the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which studies sex worldwide.

More sex, less disease and fewer teen pregnancies. How do Canadians do it? Johanson says it’s because of the clearest difference between Canada and the U.S.: our approach to birth control. “Our females are much more assertive about condoms,” she says. The studies agree: Canadian teenagers are more likely to use condoms than their U.S. counterparts (see “Canadians have more sex” on page 60). We’re also more likely to believe that choosing contraception is a shared responsibility, according to a 200l Guttmacher Institute report on Canada. Many say our teens are better protected because they’re better informed. “They would never talk about anal sex or masturbation in a school in the States,” Johanson says. “Whereas I can in a school in Toronto.”

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The U.S., on the other hand, remains “a highly conflicted society,” says Alex McKay, research coordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. Just think of poor Miley Cyrus. The 15-year-old Disney star, who’s professed she wants to “stay pure” before marriage, was roundly condemned in the U.S. after posing semi-nude in the pages of Vanity Fair. Then there was that incident back in 2004, when Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” sent some people into hysterics. In Canada, such indiscretions barely raise an eyebrow. We also have few celebrities who decide to take a public chastity vow. While we’ re exposed to most of the same media influences here, messages that describe teen sex as “aberrant, unhealthy and socially unacceptable, or that discourage contraceptive use” are less common in Canada than in the U.S., says the Guttmacher Institute’s Canada report.

All in all, it seems we have more sex with fewer negative consequences because we’re less afraid of it. According to McKay,” “countries with more liberal attitudes to sex tend to have lower teen pregnancy and STD rates.” When young people grow up with a better awareness of sexuality, he explains, “it actually leads them to be more cautious, because they’re armed to make better decisions.” Adds Johanson, “Canadians have the language to talk about sex. They may be a little embarrassed, but they don’t feel cheap or sleazy doing it.”

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Landry, for one, thinks the U.S. is the last place Canada should look for advice on how to handle sex. If we’re looking for a role model, he says we’d do well to look to western Europe, which is even more liberal. Not a bad idea. After all, according to the Durex survey, the French are having 20 per cent more sex than even we are.

CANADIANS HAVE MORE SEX,
BUT FEWER TEEN PREGNANCIES

Canadians have more sex than Americans, but
we're less likely to have teen pregnancies or
sexually transmitted diseases. Why? Because
we're more likely to use condoms.

Per cent who have sex at least
once a week

Canada              U.S.
59                  53

Minutes spent having sex per session

Canada              U.S.
37                  35

Sex sessions per year

Canada              U.S.
100                 85

Lifetime number of sex partners
reported by men

Canada              U.S.
23                  13

Lifetime number of sex partners
reported by women

Canada              U.S.
10                  9

Average number of sexual activities
engaged in (role play, bondage, etc.)

Canada              U.S.
5.1                 4.2

Per cent of teens who say they used
a condom the last time they had sex

Canada              U.S.
76                  62

Number of teen pregnancies per
100,000 teen females

Canada              U.S.
3,050               7,200

Number of teen girls with chlamydia
per 100,000 population

Canada              U.S.
1,367               2,863

Sources

Sex weekly, minutes, sex partners, sex sessions and sexual
activities are all from the 2007/08 Durex Sexual Wellbeing
Global Survey (conducted by Harris Interactive); condom
use: Canadian Association for Adolescent Health (2006,
ages 14-17), U.S. Centers for Disease Control (2007,
Grades 9-12); pregnancy (2004, ages 15-19): Statistics
Canada and the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics;
chlamydia (2006, ages 15-19): Public Health Agency of
Canada, U.S. Centers for Disease Control