Monthly Archives: April 2012

Network premiere: Can Facebook be addictive?

Back in 1995, I published a paper entitled ‘Technological Addictions” that (as far as I am aware) was the first ever paper published using the term to encompass a wide range of activities that involved the potentially addictive use of technology. In that paper, I mainly made reference to slot machine addiction, video game addiction and television addiction (with a cursory mention of internet addiction thrown in for good measure). I never would have predicted that years later I would be writing on topics such as “social networking addiction”.

This month sees the publication of a new scale in the journal Psychological Reports that measures “Facebook Addiction”. The scale was led by a good research colleague of mine (Dr. Cecilie Andraessen at the University of Bergen, Norway) who I have have recently been working with on some research into other behavioural addictions (e.g., workaholism, shopaholism).

The measure has been named the ‘Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale’ (BFAS). The scale initially comprised a pool of 18 items, three reflecting each of the six core elements of addiction (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse) that I overviewed in my very first blog. The scale was constructed and administered to 423 students together with several other standardized self-report scales (e.g., including various measures that assess personality and sociability characteristics, attitudes towards Facebook, the Addictive Tendencies Scale and questions about sleep). The items within each of the six addiction elements with the highest correlation were retained in the final scale. Scores on the BFAS converged with scores for other scales of Facebook activity. The scale was also shown to positively relate to various personality traits (e.g., neuroticism, extraversion), and negatively related to others (e.g., conscientiousness). High scores on the new scale were also associated with going to bed very late and getting up very late.

While I have no problem with the paper by Dr. Andraessen and her colleagues, I believe there are a number of wider issues that require further consideration and comment. As a consequence, I wrote a response to their paper published in the same issue of Psychological Reports – not so much a critique of the paper but a commentary on the field of those working in the area of ‘Facebook addiction’.

Over the last five years, the field of research into online social networking has developed rapidly (there is even a journal – Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking – that publishes papers dedicated to the topic). As with the introduction of other new technological phenomena and activities, research papers examining excessive, problematic, and/or addictive use of such new technological phenomena typically tend to follow. My research colleague (Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University, UK) and I recently wrote a comprehensive literature review on ‘social networking addiction’ and we have also published a number of articles examining particular sub-groups use of social networking sites (such as teenagers).

The development of the BFAS is most likely a proactive response to the fact that researchers studying problematic Facebook use currently have no psychometrically validated tool. On this level, the new BFAS is clearly of use to those in the field. However, there are a number of key issues that must be addressed for the ‘Facebook addiction’ field to move forward. These are the things that I have commented on in my new paper responding to the publication of the BFAS.

Firstly, I argued that from the spate of academic papers that have appeared over the last five years that Facebook has become almost synonymous with social networking. However, I made the point that researchers need to remember that Facebook is just one of many websites where social networking can take place. Therefore, the BFAS has been developed relating to addiction to one particular commercial company’s service (i.e., Facebook) rather than the whole activity itself (i.e., social networking).

Secondly, I argued that the real issue concerns what people on social networks are actually addicted to and what a Facebook Addiction Scale actually measures. These arguments are almost identical to those I have made in relation to Internet addiction and mobile phone addiction. I am the first to admit that Facebook is the biggest site for social networking activity in the world but there are other sizeable ones but which cater for a different demographic (e.g., Bebo, is a social networking site primarily used by young teenagers). Therefore, the new scale may only be relevant and/or applicable to people that are socially networking of the Facebook website.

Thirdly, I argued that although Facebook was originally set up to facilitate social contact between individuals, it is now a site on which people can do so much more than just communicate with other people. For instance, Facebook users can play games like Farmville, can gamble on games like poker, can watch videos and films, and can engage in activities such as swapping photos or constantly updating their profile and/or messaging friends on every minutiae of their life. In short – and just like the term ‘Internet addiction’ – ‘Facebook addiction’ as a term may already be obsolete because there are many activities that a person can engage in on the medium. Therefore, ‘Facebook addiction’ is not synonymous with ‘social networking addiction’ – they are two fundamentally different things as Facebook has become a specific website where many different online activities can take place.

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, there is a fundamental difference between addictions on the Internet and addictions to the Internet. The same argument now holds true for Facebook as well as activities such as mobile phone use. What this suggests is that the field needs a psychometrically validated scale that specifically assesses ‘social networking addiction’ rather than Facebook use. In the new scale, social networking as an activity is not mentioned, therefore the scale does not differentiate between someone addicted to Farmville or someone addicted to constantly messaging their Facebook friends.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading 

Andraessen, C.S., Tosheim, T., Brunberg, G.S., & Pallesen, S. (2011). Development of a Facebook Addiction Scale. Psychological Reports, 110, 501-517.

Choliz, M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: A point of issue. Addiction, 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Internet addiction: Internet fuels other addictions. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 428-429.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Facebook addiction: Concerns, criticisms and recommendations. Psychological Reports, 110, 2, 518-520.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the internet: A literature review of the psychological literature. International Journal of Environment and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.

Sleeping thrills: A brief overview of sexsomnia

Over the last decade there have been an increasing number of papers published on sexsomnia (more commonly known as ‘sleep sex’). There have also been a lot of high profile media cases where women have claimed that their sexsomnia has ruined their lives or men who have been arrested for committing sexual assaults while asleep. Sexsomnia is a condition that is highly prevalent among sleepwalkers and is where people engage in sexual acts while still asleep and can include masturbating and fondling of either themselves or others, or oral sex and sexual intercourse with another person.

Sexsomniacs do not recall or remember anything that they did while asleep which raises interesting questions if criminal sexual acts are performed without the person being aware that they have even done anything wrong. Some in the field have claimed the disorder is relatively common but often goes unreported because of shame and embarrassment related to the condition. In addition to sleepwalking, other sleep-related disorders that sexsomniacs may suffer from include nightmares, bedwetting, and sleep apnea (abnormal breathing while asleep). Many of these behaviours are known as parasomnias (i.e., sleep disorders that involve abnormal and unnatural movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions, and dreams and are events that occur intermittently or episodically during the night).

The first academic paper on sex during sleep was published in the mid-1990s in the journal Sleep Research by Canadian researchers Colin Shapiro, Nik Trajanovic and Paul Federoff (at the Universities of Toronto and Ottawa). They claimed that having sex during sleep could be conceptualized as a new type of parasomnia. Then, in 1998, the term ‘sleepsex’ was first used in a paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior by American neurologists Dr. David Rosenfeld and Dr A.J. Elhajjar. They described two case studies of people having sex while asleep. The more interesting second case concerned a sleepwalker who committed a sexual assault and used somnambulism as his legal defence. In 2003, the term ‘sexsomnia’ was first used by Shapiro, Trajanovic and Federoff in a case report published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Unsurprisingly, sexsomniacs are often told by others that they are engaging in sex while asleep, and for many the disorder may not be problematic – particularly within the confines of a stable romantic relationship. According to a 2007 paper by Dr Michael Mangan (University of New Hampshire, USA) and Dr. Ulf Reips (Zurich University, Switzerland), some couples embrace sexsomnia, describing it as an exciting addition to their normal waking sex lives. The behaviour may have been going on a long time – sometimes years – before they seek medical help. Despite many people not believing that sexsomnia is a genuine medical condition, the condition has been confirmed by various sleep disorder specialists by video recording sufferers while they are asleep.

In 2007, Dr Carlos Schenck and co-workers (University of Minnesota Medical School, USA) reported in the journal Sleep, that bouts of sexsomnia can be triggered by such factors as physical contact with another person in bed (64%), stress (52%), fatigue (41%), alcohol use (14.6%), and drug abuse (4.3%). Sleep deprivation was also identified as a risk factor.

In 2003, Shapiro and his Canadian colleagues asserted that sexsomnia should be considered a distinct entity in the family of parasomnias, since there was were specific motor, and autonomic activation systems. However, they did make the point that it can be difficult to distinguish between typical sleepwalking and sexsomnia. They claimed that the uniqueness of the condition is the involvement of a partner (usually more than a witness). A recent 2011 review published in the Delhi Psychiatry Review pointed out the main differences between sleepwalking and sexsomnia:

  • Sexsomnia originates in most cases from non-rapid eye movement sleep (whereas sleepwalking usually originates from slow wave sleep)
  • Sexsomina can occur any time during sleep (whereas sleepwalking usually occurs in the first one-third of the night)
  • Sexsomnia involves widespread autonomic activation (whereas in sleepwalking autonomic activation is largely limited to cardio-respiratory functions
  • Sexsomnia involves frequent sexual arousal frequently (whereas in sleepwalking sexual arousal is not present)
  • Sexsomnia bouts possibly exceed 30 minutes (whereas sleepwalking bouts are usually under 30 minutes)
  • Sexsomnia can involve exceptional violence or injurious behaviour (whereas sleepwalking involves occasional violence, injury, and self-injury)
  • Sexsomnia occurs predominantly in adults (whereas sleepwalking predominantly occurs in children)

These bullet point differences do at lest suggest that sexsomnia and sleepwalking may be distinct clinical entities. Shapiro and colleagues state that the main features of sexsomnia often include sexual arousal with autonomic activation (including nocturnal erection, vaginal lubrication, nocturnal emission, wet dreams, sweating, and cardio-respiratory response). However, there are some case studies reported in the literature that do not appear to have shown signs of sexual arousal. Despite these differences, most sleep experts consider sexsomnia to be a variant of sleepwalking, as most sexsomniacs also sleepwalk.

Based on a review of all the published case studies, Dr Andersen and her colleagues asserted that sleep sex somnambulism was a predominantly male disorder, but that the basis for male predominance in sexsomnia is not known. They further reported that females almost exclusively engaged in masturbation and sexual vocalizations, whereas males commonly engaged in sexual fondling and sexual intercourse with females.

Mangan and Reips carried out an online survey using visitors to the Sleepsex.org website (run by Dr. Mangan). Data were collected over a three-month period and generated 226 responses. Up until their 2007 study, only seven academic papers had been published with the number of sexsomniacs totaling 30 cases (the largest sample size being 11 people and six of these were reported in a previous paper by the same authors). Unfortunately, the focus of the paper was on how the internet can be used to collect data on little studied groups and as such presented very few of the results. They noted that adult sexsomniacs sometimes coming into contact with minors (in this survey 6%), and that the legal implications of reporting this are serious.

Using the same dataset, Nik Trajanovic, Michael Mangan and Colin Shapiro joined forces and published yet another paper from the Sleepsex.org data in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. The results showed that females accounted for almost one-third of the sample (31%) and that the mean age of the total sample was just over 30 years of age. The participants typically reported multiple sexsomnia episodes that were typically ptriggered by body contact, stress and fatigue. A small number of participants reported that their sexsomniac behaviour had led to police and legal intervention (8.6% males and 3% females) some of which had involved minors (6% of the total sample). The authors claimed the study confirmed previous anecdotal evidence about the gender and age distribution, trigger factors, and medico-legal aspects.

An earlier 2004 paper by Dr Mangan published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, examined first-person reports of individuals’ experiences of sexsomnia. Qualitative analysis of 121 sexsomniacs resulted in six distinct themes: (i) fear and a lack of emotional intimacy; (ii) guilt and confusion; (iii) a sense of repulsion and feelings of sexual abandonment; (iv) shame, disappointment, and frustration; (v) annoyance and suspicion; (vi) embarrassment and a sense of self-incrimination. Mangan claimed that his results suggested that sexsomnia can elicit negative emotions and cognitions that may become a source of personal and relational distress.

Research published in 2010 by Lisa Klein and Dr. Daniel Houlihan (both at the Minnesota State University, USA) in the International Journal of Sexual Health examined relationship and sexual satisfaction, sexual functioning, and sexual desire in 32 sexsomniacs who were recruited online. Compared to controls, sexsomniacs reported lower levels of sexual satisfaction, lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and similar levels of sexual desire. They also reported that more frequent incidence of sexsomnia resulted in lower sexual satisfaction. However, frequency was not found to impact on the level of sexual desire or relationship satisfaction Four-fifths of the sexsomniacs (81%) also reported at least one sexual problem.

A review paper led by Dr Monica Andersen (Universidade Federal de São Paulo, Brazil) published in a 2007 issue of Brain Research Reviews, attempted to assemble the characteristics of sexsomniacs based on the small empirical base. They noted the sexsomnia should receive more attention and concluded:

“Reports describing sexual activity of sleeping humans are still rather infrequent and the etiology of this peculiar sleep disorder is still obscure… Moreover, sexsomnia is often a longstanding disorder that carries major adverse physical, psychosocial, and legal consequences. We anticipate that this condition is currently underreported”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andersen, M.L., Poyares, D, Alves, R.S.C., Skomro, R. & Tufik, S. (2007). Sexsomnia: Abnormal sexual behavior during sleep. Brain Research Reviews, 56, 271-282

Anubhav, R. & Bhatia, M.S. (2011). Is Sexsomnia a New Parasomnia? Delhi Psychiatry Journal, 14, 378-380.

Klein, L.A. & Houlihan, D. (2010). Relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and sexual problems in sexsomnia. International Journal of Sexual Health, 22, 84-90.

Mangan, M. A. (2004). A phenomenology of problematic sexual behavior occurring in sleep. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, 287-293.

Mangan, M. A. & Reips, U. (2007). Sleep, sex, and the Web: Surveying the difficult-to-reach clinical population suffering from sexsomnia. Behavior Research Methods, 39, 233-236.

Rosenfeld, D.S. & Elhajjar, A.J. (1998). Sleepsex: A variant of sleepwalking. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 27, 269-278.

Schenck, C.H., Mahowald, M.W. (2005). Rapid eye movement and non-REM sleep parasomnias. Primary Psychiatry, 12(8), 67-74.

Schenck, C.H., Arnulf, I., Mahowald, M.W., 2007. Sleep and sex: what can go wrong? A review of the literature on sleep related disorders and abnormal sexual behaviors and experiences. Sleep, 30, 683–702.

Shapiro, C.M., Fedoroff, J.P., & Trajanovic, N.N. (1996). Sexual behavior in sleep: A newly described parasomnia. Sleep Research, 25, 367.

Shapiro, C.M., Trajanovic, N.N., & Fedoroff, J.P. (2003) Sexsomnia: A new parasomnia? Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48, 311-317.

Trajanovic, N.N., Mangan, M. & Shapiro, C.M. (2007). Sexual behaviour in sleep: An internet survey. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 42, 1024-1031.

Basic instinct: Counting the cost of blackjack

Playing blackjack is relatively straightforward. Most of us played variations like ‘21’ and ‘pontoon’ as children. In the casino, all a player has to do is make a bet before a card is dealt and decide whether to ‘hit’ or ‘stand’ on the total. Simple. However, as with the psychology of all great games, the rules are easy enough for almost anyone to play but can take a lifetime to master.

One of the main reasons that blackjack attracts regular gamblers is that it is a game that the skilful player can expect a profit in the long run. It is the only game that casinos offer where the chances of winning favour the gambler. A gambler’s playing strategy is dictated by how they can influence the outcome simply by taking or avoiding extra cards. Research into the psychological strategies of blackjack playing have shown that gamblers fall into one of three main types. Firstly, there is the ultra-conservative “never bust” approach where the gambler sticks on any hand that could go bust on the next card (i.e., any hand of 12 and over). Since the dealer must draw until they reach 16, this approach will certainly pay off some of the time. A second popular strategy is ‘mimic the dealer’ where gamblers sit on 17 or more but draw to 16 or less. The psychology here is that if it’s good for the dealer it must be good for the gambler. However, very few regular players will follow either of these simplistic strategies.

Most gamblers adopt optimum “basic” strategies in which the decision to hit or stand depends on the ‘up-card’ held by the dealer. The player knows that as the game progresses, the number of cards left in the shoe is limited. If a player keeps count of the ratio of 10 value cards to non-10 value cards they can place minimum bets when the deck is favourable to the gambler and maximum bets when the ratio is favourable. The smaller the ratio, the richer the deck is with 10 value cards and the greater the advantage to the gambler. This well known card counting method was first laid out over 40 years ago by the mathematician Ed Thorp in his classic 1966 book Beat The Dealer.

Some people have said that the book stands in relation to gambling as Einstein’s theory of relativity does to physics – it changed perception of reality! More elaborate counting methods are available based on awarding points to low, medium and high cards and by keeping a running count of unseen cards. Over the years, many people have used elaborate systems in order to keep count.

The reaction of the casinos to card counting has been predictable. Many in the gaming industry view card counting as cheating and will ask players to leave the casino. Many casinos use up to eight packs of cards in the shoe to make counting hard. In casinos where only one or two decks are used, the cards are constantly reshuffled. Some casinos even teach the dealers how to card count so that they will only reshuffle when the odds are favouring the gambler. What’s more, the casinos find card counters easy to spot. They will make minimum bets on most hands and then occasionally make very large bets to take advantage of favourable decks. Therefore, really good counters must also be able to ‘camouflage’ their counting methods by being more variable in their betting strategy.

The good news for card counters is that most casinos prefer smaller decks so that more games can be played per hour (which means more money for the casino). Most casinos know that card counting gamblers may lose count or patience. Furthermore, some gamblers are competent in the short term but may crack under pressure with the long hours needed to make a consistent profit. It is estimated that one out of 20,000 players is a genuine counter and of these only one in twenty is a winner.

Research has been carried out into the most common errors that blackjack players make while gambling. One of the most well known was a study carried out in Holland by the psychologists Dr Gideon Keren and Professor Willem Wagenaar on 112 regular blackjack players. Wagennar showed that 44% of playing errors involved not taking an extra card when they should have and that 16% of errors involved taking an extra card when they shouldn’t have. They also found that the error rates were related to the value of the dealer’s up-card. When the players should have stood they were less likely to do so when the dealer’s up-card had a low value. Where they should have taken an extra card, they were also less likely to do so if the dealer’s up-card had a low value. Keren and Wagennaar also showed that players exhibited poor insurance strategies when the dealer’s up-card was an ace. These findings clearly show that most gamblers play conservatively in an attempt to stay in the game. They stand when extra cards should be taken, do not double up when they should do, and take out insurance unnecessarily.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Nicholas A. Bond (1974). Basic strategy and expectation in casino Blackjack. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 12, 413-428.

Keren, G.B. & Wagenaar, W.A. (1985). On the psychology of playing blackjack: Normative and descriptive considerations with implications for decision theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114, 133-158.

Thorp, E.O. (1966). Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. New York: Random House.

Wagenaar, W. (1988) Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

Sneezy does it: Sex, sneezing, and sneezing fetishes

Woman: (sneezes and moans several times)

Man: “Excuse me, but is everything OK?”

Woman: “Yes, it’s just that I have this condition where every time I sneeze I have an orgasm.”

Man: “Are you taking anything for it?”

Woman: (smiling) “Yes. Pepper.”

Apologies for starting this blog with an old joke but I thought it was a good way to bring up the relationship between sex and sneezing. There are reports in the medical and psychological literature dating back to the 1890s of sexually induced sneezing in both men and women. The phenomenon is characterized by sneezing during sexual arousal and/or orgasm. In such cases, these individuals sneeze as a direct result of sexual thoughts, arousal, intercourse, and/or orgasm. Furthermore, the sneezing may occur at any point during a sexual experience, and most importantly occurs independently of any external nasal stimuli or allergens.

The first verified report of the phenomenon was thought to be in 1898 when John Noland Mackenzie wrote about the phenomenon (“The physiological and pathological relations between the nose and sexual apparatus of man”) in the Journal of Laryngology, Rhinology and Otology. A few years later (1901) reference was also made to the condition in George Gould and Walter Pyle’s Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. I managed to track down the original quote about a man:

“who, when prompted to indulge in sexual intercourse, was immediately prior to the act seized with a fit of sneezing. Even the thought of sexual pleasure with a female was sufficient to provoke this peculiar idiosyncrasy”.

More recently, and based an a paper submitted to the American Medical Association, Dr. Jeffrey Wald, a specialist is asthma and allergies, was quoted in the US newspaper Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 6, 1988) about the of case of an American middle aged man who continuously sneezed following sex. He attributed the sneezing to “vasomotor rhinitis”, a condition in which the nasal passages are chronically inflamed (and characterized by hyperactive or imbalanced control of the central nervous system responses).

Even more recently, I read an iteresting paper by Dr. Mahmood Bhutta (Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, UK) and Dr. Harold Maxwell (West Middlesex University Hospital, Middlesex, UK) entitled Sneezing induced by sexual ideation or orgasm” published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Bhutta and Maxwell’s paper cited a case from 1972, a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association involving a 69-year-old man who suffered severe bouts of sneezing after orgasm or whenever he thought of sex.

In their paper, it was noted that both men and women were using online forums to seek out help or explanations for their experienced phenomenon. These people often felt embarrassed about bringing up the matter with the medical profession, and preferred to seek help and advice anonymously. They also reported on these online data and noted (i) three people who claimed they always sneezed after orgasm, and (ii) 17 people who reported that they sneezed immediately when they thought about sex. They speculated that the link between sex, orgasm and sneezing was most likely caused by a fault in the autonomic nervous system (i.e., the part of the nervous system that is involved with heart rate, blood flow and digestion). They argued that the nerves that control breathing, blood pressure, pupil construction, sneezing and digestion run close to each other in the brain stem. They speculated that light-sensitive sneezing and sex-related sneezing occurred when these signals became “muddled”. Dr. Bhutta told the BBC in an interview:

“[The relationship between orgasm and sneezing] certainly seems odd, but I think this reflex demonstrates evolutionary relics in the wiring of a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. This is the part beyond our control, and which controls things like our heart rate and the amount of light let in by our pupils. Sometimes the signals in this system get crossed, and I think this may be why some people sneeze when they think about sex”.

Dr. Bhutta also told the BBC that embarrassment or social inhibition may have prevented others from admitting the problem to the medical or psychological community. Another potential explanation may relate the fact that – like genitalia – the nose also has vascular (erectile) tissue, which has the capacity to become engorged during sexual arousal, and triggering a sneeze. Others have noted the ejaculatory-like qualities of the sneeze, and 1980s television ‘sexpert’ Dr. Ruth (Westheimer) observed that “an orgasm is just a reflex, like a sneeze”.

On a related issue, there is also a condition that has been coined “honeymoon rhinitis” in which men and women experience nasal irritation and inflammation of the mucous membrane inside the nose during sex. Spanish medics led by Dr J. Monteseirin published a small article in a 2001 issue of the journal Allergy. They reported a study of 23 allergy sufferers (9 women and 14 men), all of whom had experienced sneezing, rhinorrhea, and nasal obstruction immediately after (but never before or during) sexual intercourse (lasting for approximately 5-15 minutes). The research team also got all 23 participants to climb two flights of stairs on three separate occasions to equate to the energy expenditure during sex but none of them suffered any rhinitis following the task. The exact mechanism by which sex initiates and/or facilitates honeymoon rhinitis is not known. However, the authors speculated that emotional excitement and anxiety may be the trigger factors for post-sex rhinitis rather than exercise.

For most people, sneezing is just a common every day biological act. However, for some, a sneeze appears to be much more and something sexual. If you think sneezing fetishism is rare, just type “sneeze fetish” into Google and see what you get. There are loads of dedicated websites on sexual and sensual aspects of sneezing.

Here is one snippet I came across from a male (Greg, from Arlington, Virginia, USA):

“A gentleman with whom I have a mutual interest in companionship told me that he becomes sexually aroused when an attractive man sneezes. He said it makes no difference whether the sneeze is authentic or simulated. (He has never asked me to “fake” one for him; I told you, he’s a gentleman. And no, as fate would have it, my allergies have remained in check during the times we’ve been together, so I’ve not had occasion to observe his reaction firsthand.) My friend tells me that other folks, gay and straight, have this fetish”

Despite the many sites, I know of only one academic paper on sneezing fetishes. This was published over 20 years ago by Dr. Michael King in a 1990 issue of the journal Sexual and Marital Therapy. Dr. King reported the case of a 26-year-old homosexual male who was sexually aroused by observing other people sneeze and who also had an obsessive fear of vomiting in public. He was treated for his fear of vomiting with desensitization techniques, resulting in a rapid improvement in the man’s vomit phobia. Treatment was also attempted for the sneeze fetish through the use of covert sensitization. However, it had little effect on the man’s fetishistic impulses. Following this, he was taught to use thought-stopping techniques to reduce his preoccupation with fetishistic sneezing. I also came across a first person female account in a 2001 issue of The Straight Dope:

“I do know that my first love of sneezing came from the Smurfs. I doubt anyone else ever looked twice at a little blue sneezing midget (aptly named Allergic Smurf). Then, there was that scene in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, the one where Alice is trapped inside White Rabbit’s house and has her nose tickled by smoke. I remember sitting entranced in front of the television set, watching that scene over and over and over again. As I grew older, I kept on watching out for sneezes on television shows. If I happened to see one, I would rush over to where the blank cassettes in our house lay and whip one out for the express purpose of taping the sneezes. [I married a man with] the most adorable stifled sneeze I’ve ever heard [and then divorced because] there was a hell of a lot more to making a relationship work than enjoying a great guy’s sneezing over the weekends”

After the break up of her marriage, this particular woman discovered a sneezing fetish site on the Internet, and fortuitously met a man with “photic sneeze reflex” (also known technically as ‘photoptarmosis’ but more colloquially called “sun sneezing” – comprising uncontrollable sneezing in response to numerous stimuli such as bright light). While sexual aspects associated with sneezing appear to be rare, there is more than anecdotal evidence suggesting that for a minority of people, this is not a subject to be sneezed at.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bhutta, M. F. & Maxwell, H. (2008). Sneezing induced by sexual ideation or orgasm: An under-reported phenomenon. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 101, 587-591.

Foxhall, K. (2010). The Myth of “Seven Sneezes Equals an Orgasm”. February 7. Located at: http://kelly-foxhall.suite101.com/the-myth-of-7-sneezes-equals-an-orgasm-a198861

Gould, G.M. & Pyle, W.L. (1901). Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. London: W.B. Saunders.

King, M.B. (1990). Sneezing as a fetishistic stimulus. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 5, 69-72

Mackenzie, J. N. (1898). The physiological and pathological relations between the nose and sexual apparatus of man. Journal of Laryngology, Rhinology and Otology, 13, 109-123.

Monteseirin, J., Camacho, M.J., Bonilla, I., Sánchez-Hernández, C, Hernández, M. & Conde, J. (2001). Honeymoon rhinitis. Allergy, 56, 353-354.

Starstruck: Is fame addictive?

Back in the mid-1990s, I started doing some research on the psychology of fame with Dr. Adam Joinson (then at the University of Glamorgan but now at the Open University). One of the first things we did after setting up our website (the not-so-originally titled ‘The Psychology of Fame Project’) was go and interview PR guru and ‘fame-maker’ Max Clifford. We enjoyed our interview and published it in a 1998 issue of Psychology Post. One of the more interesting claims made by Max Clifford was his assertion that fame is addictive. Below is an extended extract from our interview with him. He said that:

“The sad part about [fame] is people that desperately need to become famous. It’s like a drug, it’s like a drug addict, and there’s so many people that come up and then they go, and when you meet them they are desperate, desperate for it. I mean, they are living ten, fifteen, twenty years ago when they were famous, they can’t accept they are no longer famous. It is an addiction. It’s a craving. It varies from individual to individual but it’s the same as drugs or alcohol or anything else. At it’s worst – and I’ve known a lot of the worst – it totally takes over your life, your philosophy, your outlook on everyday life. It’s tragic. The way it normally works is that somebody becomes famous so they follow the natural path. In other words, the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger everything. They tend to isolate themselves from people that actually know them and possibly care about them because they aren’t there any more.

They then become surrounded by people who live off them, pick off them – PR’s, managers, PA’s – who say what the person wants to hear all the time. They become wrapped up in fame and get a totally jaundiced picture of life and reality. Life becomes emptier and emptier and then when the fame’s gone, they can’t handle it. There’s so many people who would do anything. Anything to be famous. It’s more important almost than life itself. It’s sad, it’s shocking, and it’s frightening. Not everybody, but there seems to be more and more and more. Maybe just more and more of them are making their way to my door. I don’t know. Fame is becoming a bigger drug than ever”.

So can fame really be an addiction? There are certainly those in both the academic and medical community who think that it can although empirical evidence is hard to come by.

In a 2011 interview with the US newspaper Palm Beach Post about his conference paper ‘Power, fame, and recovery’, the US psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim said “Little kids today don’t want to be doctors or lawyers. They just want to be famous”. He is concerned about what happens when fame is the actual addiction. As I have noted in my own research, fame used to only be a by-product of a person’s talent in another field (acting, singing, sport, politics, etc.). However, we now live n a culture where some people are just “famous for being famous”.

Dr. Karim said he has been treating people for “fame addiction” for a number of years and claims it is inextricably linked to the rise of television and the internet. (And I have also commented a number of times in the media that the rise of reality TV shows also play a role in fuelling the desire to become famous). Karim says there is a need to be validated and be adored externally.

In an interview with MSNBC News website, Beverly Hills psychologist Dr. Bethany Marshall appears to agree with Karim as she was quoted as saying: “a lot of our youth, their parents don’t love them unconditionally for who they are. The fantasy of being loved just for who you are without having to do anything”. In the same article, the anthropologist Dr. David Sloan Wilson (SUNY-Binghamton, USA) said: “Our minds are adapted for a small-scale society and what’s happening today is an out of control version of that. The lust for fame has taken on this pathological form that is much like our eating habits making us obese.” Dr. Robi Ludwig (again in the MSNBC story) commented that:

“Fame is so fleeting. People who achieve it, there’s no guarantee that they’ll maintain it. So, therein lies sort of the addictive loop. One of the concerns with celebrities who have made it is that they will lose it. There is this need for more and more. And just like with any addiction, it has less to do with actually the item that you’re seeing, so the fame is actually used as a mood enhancer. Fame helps a person to feel important, invaluable –  that they matter.”

As noted above, empirical evidence on fame being addictive is lacking. Jake Halpern (author of the book Fame Junkies) carried out a study with Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and surveyed 650 children from New York about their attitudes toward fame and pop culture. When given the option to become stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful, boys chose fame almost as often as they chose intelligence, and girls chose it more often.

Psychologists Dr Donna Rockwell (Michegan School of Professional Psychology, USA) and Dr David Giles (Winchester University, UK) carried out a qualitative interview study with 15 well-known American celebrities (from the fields of politics, law, business, writing, sports, music, film, television news and entertainment). The study found that those interviewed felt that being famous had (for the people themselves) led to a loss of privacy, demanding expectations, gratification of ego needs, and symbolic immortality. Areas of psychological concern for celebrity mental health included isolation, and an unwillingness to give up fame. Based on their data, Rockwell and Giles argued that celebrity is a process involving four temporal phases – (i) a period of love/hate towards the experience; (ii) an addiction phase where behavior is directed solely towards the goal of remaining famous; (iii) an acceptance phase, requiring a permanent change in everyday life routines; and (iv) an adaptation phase, where new behaviors are developed in response to life changes involved in being famous. In relation to addiction, the authors noted:

“The lure of adoration is attractive, and it becomes difficult for the person to imagine living without fame. One participant said, ‘It is somewhat of a high,’ and another, ‘I kind of get off on it.’ One said, ‘I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.’ Where does the celebrity go when fame passes; having become dependent on fame, how does one adjust to being less famous over time? ‘As the sun sets on my fame,’ one celebrity said, ‘I’m going to have to learn how to put it in its proper place.’ The adjustment can be a difficult one”.

There are also addiction links in relation to whether those who are famous are more susceptible to developing other types of addiction. I have appeared on a number of television shows (such as Channel 4’s Celebrity Rehab) and the film Starsuckers talking about this issue.

In a recent article on the magazine The Fix, Dr. Dale Archer (Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, USA) made some observations that I have noted myself. He said:

“Fame and addiction are definitely related. Those who are prone to addiction get a much higher high from things – whether it’s food, shopping, gambling or fame – which means [the behavior or situation] will trigger cravings. When we get an addictive rush, we are getting a dopamine spike. If you talk to anyone who performs at all, they will talk about the ‘high’ of performing. And many people who experience that high report that when they’re not performing, they don’t feel as well. All of which is a good setup for addiction. People also get high from all the trappings that come with fame,” he says. “The special treatment, the publicity, the ego. Fame has the potential to be incredibly addicting”.

I suspect it will be a long time – if ever – that fame is described as a genuine addiction, mainly because there is the question of what such people are actually addicted to (a point that I have made in other papers of mine in relation to ‘internet addiction’). Are they addicted to the adoration and praise of their fans? Greater access to sexual partners and sexual conquests? The money they earn? The buzz of performing? All of the above? The bottom line is that “fame” is not an activity like gambling, sex or exercise that have definitional boundaries. Therefore, in the case of “fame” the object of addiction and the rewards gained may come from many different forms of reinforcement.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. & Joinson, A. (1998). Max-imum impact: The psychology of fame. Psychology Post, 6, 8-9.

Halpern, J. (2007). Fame Junkies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

McGuinness, K. (2012). Are Celebrities More Prone to Addiction? The Fix, January, 18. Located at: http://www.thefix.com/content/fame-and-drug-addiction-celebrity-addicts100001

Rockwell, D. & Giles, D.C. (2009). Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 40, 178-210.

Streeter, L.G. (2011), Doctor helps people beat their fame addiction. Palm Beach Post, October 3. Located at:  http://www.palmbeachpost.com/health/doctor-helps-people-beat-their-fame-addiction-1892781.html

Turner, M. (2007). Addicted to fame: Stars and fans share affliction. MSNBC Entertainment News, August 9. Located at: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20199608/ns/today-entertainment/t/addicted-fame-stars-fans-share-affliction/

Animal magnetism: Inside the world of the furries

Back in the early 1995, one of my good friends (who knew that I had an academic interest in sexual paraphilias) asked me if I knew of any psychological research on ‘furries’. He told me that his girlfriend preferred to have sex with him when she was dressed up in animal clothing (in this case, a fox). At the time I knew absolutely nothing about the ‘furry fandom’ community but I always kept an eye out for academic research on the topic.

It wasn’t until 2001 that I saw the first article on the phenomena – a journalistic feature by George Gurley in Vanity Fair. Gurley proclaimed “This is no hobby. It’s sex; it’s religion; it’s a whole new way of life”. Although I didn’t know anyone personally in the furry community, I was led to believe that they weren’t very happy with the way that Gurley had portrayed them. My next memory of furries in the mainstream was when I watched a 2003 episode of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ (called ‘Fur and Loathing’) where furries were the main focus of the show when a man was found dead fully dressed as a raccoon.

The furry fandom community has also developed its own vocabulary including words such as ‘fursona’ (furry persona), ‘plushie’ (person who loves cuddly toys), ‘fleshie’ (a non-furry person), fursuiters’ (people who dress in animal costumes), ‘yiff’ (furry pornography), and ‘skritching’ (scratching and grooming). It should also be noted that the word ‘plushie’ has also been used to describe someone who has a sexual paraphilia concerning sexual arousal to stuffed animals. However, an old and unpublished survey from data collected in the late 1990s by David J. Rust of 360 members of the furry community (325 respondents from furry conventions and 25 respondents online) suggested less than 1% of them were plushophiles (0.3%). It was also reported that 2% of the sample were also zoophiles.

In a more recent attempt to replicate Rust’s study, Evans (2008) carried out a survey on 276 people who self-identified themselves as being furries and who were recruited from furry or furry-related online message boards and forums. Evans reported much higher prevalence rates of both plushophiles (7%) and zoophiles (17%) than the study by Rust. Evans claimed that because the majority of Rust’s survey was conducted in person at conventions, participants were susceptible to the social desirability bias when it came to zoophilia and plushophilia.

Despite the existence of the furry fandom community being around for over the years, it took until 2008 before the first peer reviewed academic paper was published that included some primary data on furries. The research was led by Dr Kathy Gerbasi (Niagara County Community College, New York State, USA). She carried out research on the topic, and the paper was published in the journal Society and Animals.

Before presenting their findings, Dr Gerbasi and colleagues overviewed the cultural, media, and minimal academic writings on the topic (such as a passing reference to Shari Cauldron’s discussion of furries in her 2006 book ‘Misfit furries: Who are you people?’), as well as defining two central concepts as defined by the American Psychological Association:

  • Anthropomorphism: “The attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities”
  • Zoomorphism: “The attribution of animal traits to human beings, deities, or inanimate objects”

There is no official definition of what a ‘furry’ actually is although most furries would agree that they share an interest in fictional anthromorphic animal characters that have human characteristics and personalities and/or mythological or imaginary creatures that possess human and/or superhuman capabilities. Furthermore, furries are often said to identify with (and may even desire to assume) characteristics of non-human animals. Given the lack of official definitions, Gerbasi and colleagues gave this detailed description of furries and furry fandom:

“A furry is a person who identifies with the Furry Fandom culture. Furry Fandom is the collective name given to individuals who have a distinct interest in anthropomorphic animals such as cartoon characters. Many, but not all, furries strongly identify with, or view themselves as, one (or more) species of animal other than human. Common furry identities (“fursonas”) are dragon, feline (cat, lion, tiger), and canine (wolf, fox, domestic dog) species. Some furries create mixed species such as a “folf” (fox and wolf) or “cabbit” (cat and rabbit). Furries rarely, if ever, identify with a nonhuman primate species. Many furries congregate in cyberspace, enjoy artwork depicting anthropomorphized animals, and attend Furry Fandom conventions”

This study’s aim was to explore the furry identity. The participants comprised a convenience sample of 217 furries and 29 non-furry individuals that attended the world’s largest annual furry convention (plus a small comparison group of 68 students). The research team was helped by the fact that the conference chairman supported the study being undertaken. A lot of data were presented throughout the paper and I will only report a few of the main findings here.

In relation to gender, the majority of the furries were male (86%). In relation to their sexuality, male furries were 31.5% homosexual, 28%, heterosexual, and 40.5%, bisexual. (These findings were also similar to unpublished surveys of socio-demographic among 600 furries carried out by the University of California Davis Furry Research Team. This same survey reported that only 18% had a fursuit and that 76% were in a relationship with another furry). Among female furries, none were homosexual, 58.3% were heterosexual, and 41.7 % were bisexual. In relation to preferred species identity, furries were most likely to report being wolf, fox, lion, tiger, folf (fox/wolf), and cabbit (cat/rabbit hybrid).

The researchers were also interested in either confirming or disconfirming some of the stereotypes surrounding the furry fandom (many of which emanated from their journalistic and media portrayal in the early 2000s). Below is a list of the main stereotypes followed by the extent to which Gerbasi and colleagues data either confirmed or disconfirmed them.

  • “Males are more likely to be furries than females” (Confirmed)
  • “Furries recall liking cartoons more as children than others” (Confirmed)
  • “Furries like science fiction more than others” (Confirmed)
  • “Common furry species are wolf and fox” (Somewhat confirmed)
  • “Male furries wear both beards and glasses more than other males” (Not confirmed)
  • “Furries are employed in computer or science fields” (Somewhat confirmed)
  • “Furries wear fursuits” (Somewhat confirmed)
  • “A preponderance of male furries are homosexual” (Not confirmed)
  • “Furries consider themselves less than 100% human” (Somewhat confirmed)
  • Furries would be 0% human if possible” (Somewhat confirmed)
  • “Furries are perceived as having behaviors common to personality disorders” (Not confirmed)
  • Furries have specific kinds of connections to their species which parallel aspects of gender identity disorder” (Somewhat confirmed)

For me, the most interesting part of the published research was the creation of a “furry typology” based on participants’ responses to furry-identity questions. Basically, being furry means different things to different furries. More specifically, furries were asked to respond either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following two questions:

  • “Do you consider yourself to be less than 100% human?”
  • “If you could become 0% human, would you?”

These give rise to two independent dimensions of (i) self-perception (undistorted versus distorted) and (ii) species identity (attained versus unattained). Approximately 25% of the furries responded positively to both of these questions. The research team claimed that these responses meant the furries in this particular grouping had “distorted and unattained” identities (i.e., what could possibly be termed a “species identity disorder”). The implication of this finding has lead to some debate as Gerbasi and colleagues speculated that this particular type of furry that has ‘species identity disorder’ has certain characteristics that parallel individuals that have gender-identity disorder (GID).

“For the largest group of furries, the undistorted attained type, being furry may simply be a route to socializing with others who share common interests such as anthropomorphic art and costumes. For distorted unattained furries, the similarities between their connections to their species and aspects of GID are striking. For these furries, considering the self as less than 100% human and wanting to be 0% human is often accompanied by discomfort with their human body and feeling that they are another species trapped in a human body. These connections parallel criteria for the diagnosis of GID”

This has led to some debate as Dr Fiona Probyn-Rapsey (University of Sydney, Australia) contested the ‘species identity disorder’ versus ‘gender identity disorder’ analogy in a short 2011 paper also published in the journal Society and Animals. Her main argument was that GID is itself a highly controversial diagnosis that has been criticized for pathologizing homosexuality and transgendered people. She also tried to argue that the constructs used were based on unexamined assumptions about what constitutes “human” identity and regulatory fictions of gender identity. Predictably, Gerbasi and colleagues provided a vehement response to Dr Probyn-Rapsey and claimed that Probyn-Rapsey’s focus on gender identity disorder completely missed the main point of the study (which was in essence to report the first ever empirically published data on the often misrepresented subculture of furry fandom).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

American Psychological Association. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. (2007). Washington, DC: Author.

Caudron, S. (2006). Misfit furries: Who are you people? Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books.

Evans, K. (2008). The furry sociological survey. Located at: http://www.furrysociology.net/report.htm

Gerbasi, K. C., Paolone, N., Higner, J., Scaletta, L. L., Bernstein, P. L., Conway, S., & Privitera, A. (2008). Furries from A to Z (anthropomorphism to zoomorphism). Society & Animals, 16(3), 197-222.

Gerbasi, K.C., Scaletta, L.L., Plante, C.N. & Bernstein, P.L. (2011). Why so FURious? Rebuttal of Dr. Fiona Probyn-Rapsey’s Response to Gerbasi et al.’s Furries from A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism). Society and Animals, 19, 302-304.

Gurley, G. (2001, March). Pleasures of the fur. Vanity Fair, 174-196.

Padva, G. (2005). Dreamboys, Meatmen and Werewolves: Visualizing Erotic Identities in All-Male Comic Strips. Sexualities, 8, 587-599.

Probyn-Rapsey, F. (2011). Furries and the limits of species identity disorder: A response to Gerbasi et al. Society & Animals, 19, 294-301.

Rust, D.J. (2001). The sociology of furry fandom. Located at: http://www.visi.com/~phantos/furrysoc.html

University of California, Davis Department of Psychology (2007). Furry Survey Results. Located at: http://studyf3.livejournal.com/1383.html.

Tell-tale signs: Non-verbal communication in poker playing

I have to admit that I am not a good poker player. However, if I was, I would certainly try to use the psychology of non-verbal communication to my advantage. A number of years ago, Peter Collett (formerly at Oxford University) published a book on the psychology of ‘tells’. Collett deliberately lifted the core topic of his book from the non-verbal world of poker players. A ‘tell’ is basically an action that reveals what a person is thinking and are often so tiny that they may not even be noticed.

In poker, many players try to infer what kind of hand a person has by looking at the way the card player holds their cards, gazes at the chips or scratches their face. Tells can be both conscious and unconscious. Collett has spent time studying politicians and has highlighted the ‘tells of power’ such as the way George W. Bush used to bite the inside of his cheek when he is highly nervous or anxious, and Bill Clinton’s tendency to bite his lower lip as a way of demonstrating his sincerity. Most of these behaviours are intended to be hidden, but are what psychologists call ‘emotional leakage’. Many psychologists have carried out research into non-verbal communication. However, as soon as a non-verbal ‘rule of thumb’ is well known by the general public, the knowledge can be used to their advantage. For instance, if police are told that criminals scratch their nose or look to the left when they are lying, they will obviously avoid such actions when being questioned.

When it comes to playing poker (or any card game of skill for that matter), an already skilful player will have the upper hand if they can learn to read the non-verbal cues of the other players. One of the problems is that most ‘tells’ differ from person to person. The trick is to try and memorise what the person did at a particular point such as the way they act when they raise the amount of money being staked, or the behaviour they display just before they are about to fold.

Unconscious tells are linked to negative emotions such as anxiety. If a player has been dealt a bad hand, naïve players are likely to show their psychological discomfort through nervous reactions such as unconscious leg or finger tapping. Serious poker players will already know all about tells and will usually have learned to develop their own type of ‘poker face’ to bluff opponents. This is all part of the psychological battle in playing most card games of skill. There are also what have been described as ‘transition tells’ where people display common but repetitive behavioural patterns in times of uncertainty and/or where people cross psychological boundaries.

Collett provides the examples of politicians such as ex-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who plays with his shirt cuffs and strokes his hair. Obviously, with so much television footage, psychologists have a much easier time in trying to analyse the unconscious everyday tells of those in the public eye. Playing cards with someone you’ve only met a few times where there is no opportunity to replay the event over and over is clearly much harder! But some good poker players do appear to have the ability to read other players and it is this ability that can separate the very good poker player from the great.

Players can also learn to use false tells as a way of bluffing their opponent. The most common that Collett has described is the ‘power tell’ which is often used by political leaders in some of their actions (such as the way they walk). Just like at the way George W. Bush walked. His arms swung and swaggered. His shoulders were very exaggerated. He was trying to show the public that he was the leader of the Western world and what a powerful position he was in.

In a game of cards, poker players will also try to assert their dominance by using more subtle ‘power tells’ by smoking a cigar in a particular way or showing off when shuffling the cards before dealing. The whole point of power tells is to look sincere and dominant and they can be used in a wide variety of contexts including poker. In essence, power tells are about ‘one-upmanship’ and this is the bedrock of most skill-based card games. Even the language of power tells is lifted from the gambling world. In everyday human behaviour, Collett describes power tells as behavioural actions which “raise the stakes” and allow people to metaphorically or symbolically “put their cards on the table”. While power tells are usually conscious and deliberate, most non-verbal human behaviour is totally unconscious and the vast majority of people can’t help but show their inner thinking through actions such as folding their arms.

The whole area of non-verbal communication is a fascinating area of psychological study. Human behaviour is complex and there are too many individual differences to predict what any given person will do in a given situation (such as playing poker). However, by learning to understand what all these unconscious movements mean, we can start to gain access to the window of the gambler’s mind.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Collett, P. (2003). The Book of Tells. London: Bantam Books

Ants in your pants? A beginner’s guide to formicophilia

In my blogs I have looked at a wide range of paraphilic behaviours. A quick look through my site statistics revealed that my previous blog on zoophilia has been the most read blog on my site (by quite some margin). Another paraphilia that has been conceptualized as a sub-type of zoophilia is that of formicophilia (i.e., being sexually aroused by insects crawling and/or nibbling on the individual’s genitals). There also appear to some cultural variations such as Genki Genki in Japan. Genki Genki is a style of erotic art and pornography that features women with various creatures, many from the ocean but may also include insects.

According to Dr Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, other areas of the body can also be the focus. It is thought that the desired effect may come from a tickling or stinging sensation, or the infliction of psychological distress on another person. Nancy Butcher in a book on medical mysteries, curious remedies, and bizarre folklore also said that formicophiliacs may smear themselves with honey and have insects feed off them. She also claimed that some formicophiliacs may even place insects in various bodily orifices as they experience sexual pleasure from the insects trying to escape.

To date, only two academic papers have ever been published directly concerning formicophilia. Both of these papers were published in the 1980s by Ratnin Dewaraja (who at the time was at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka). The first paper (co-written with renowned paraphilic expert Professor John Money) was published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. It was in this paper that formicophilia was defined as paraphilia where the focus of sexual arousal is on small creatures, such as “snails, frogs, ants, or other insects creeping, crawling or nibbling on the body, especially the genitalia, perianal area or nipples”. Brenda Love has pointed out that formicophilia should only technically refer to sexual arousal from ants and that paraphilias concerning insects more generally should be named entomophilia. There are other specific insect-related paraphilias such as arachnophilia (i.e., sexual arousal from spiders)

Dewaraja and Money reported that formicophilia is very rare and presented the case of a young Buddhist male who had developed this particular type of paraphilia. In their paper, they suggested that it arises developmentally during childhood, but just how this occurs was unclear. It was also claimed that it is more common in developing countries, perhaps because houses there are more likely to be infested with insects. The desired effect may be a tingling or burning sensation, or the pangs of psychological distress of another person.

They argued that children whose species-specific, juvenile sexual rehearsal play is thwarted or traumatized are at increased risk for developing a compensatory paraphilia (such as formicophilia). Their young Buddhist exemplified what they considered to be a cross-cultural application of this principle. They reported that his paraphilia was endogenously generated without reference to or influence by commercial pornography. They concluded that a “complete causal explanation of [this] paraphilia will require both a phylogenetic (phylismic) and an ontogenetic (life-history) component”.

In a follow-up paper published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Dewaraja reported how the same Buddhist male formicophiliac was treated. Rather than trying to completely eliminate the sexual deviation, the man received both counselling and behaviour therapy in an attempt to alleviate his feelings of guilt and depression and improve his self-image. Dewaraja reported that the 12-week course of therapy was successful and resulted in a dramatic reduction of the paraphilic behaviour at one-year follow-up.

However, Brendan Kelly (University College Dublin, Ireland) says that when it comes to the treatment of psychological and psychiatric disorders among Buddhists, the appropriateness of treatment depends on factors related to the individual, the disorder and sociocultural setting in which they live. He specifically notes that sociocultural factors may be “particularly important in the context of psychosexual disorders, and individuals with a Buddhist background may benefit from counselling and cognitive-behavioural approaches that reflect an understanding of such concerns from a Buddhist perspective”.

In a 2005 book chapter by Dr Brenda Love examining some of the strangest sexual behaviours from around the world, she recounted this anecdote related to a man who got his sexual kicks from bee stings. Dr Love noted that:

“Bee stings were once used as a folk remedy for arthritis sufferers. The insects were captured and held on the affected joint until they stung. The poison and the swelling it caused alleviated much of the pain in their joints. One male, having observed his grandparents use bees for this purpose, and later having a female friend throw a bee on his genitals as a joke, discovered that the sting on his penis extended the duration and intensity of his orgasm. Realizing that the bee sting was almost painless, he developed his own procedure, which consisted of catching two bees in a jar, and shaking it to make the bees dizzy to prevent their flying away. They were then grabbed by both wings so that they were unable to twist around and sting. Each bee was placed each side of the glans and pushed to encourage it to sting.  (Stings to the glans do not produce the desired swelling and the venom sac tends to penetrate the skin too deeply, causing difficulty in removing them)…Stings on the penis, unlike other areas, resemble the bite of a mosquito…The circumference of the man’s penis increased from 6.5 inches to 9.5 inches. Swelling is greatest on the second day”

Another insect-related fetish is a variant of crush fetishes. Crush fetishists get sexual pleasure from being walked and trod on and is itself a variant of sexual masochism. G.A. Pearson (North Carolina State University, USA), writing in the online journal Cultural Entomology described a fetish where people get sexual pleasure from watching insects, worms and spiders being squashed (particularly men watching women doing it). As Jeremy Biles notes in a 2004 essay on crush fetishists in Janus Head:

“Among the many obscure and bizarre sects of fetishism, few remain so perplexing or so underexamined as that of the “crush freaks.” At the cutting edge of the edgy world of sexual fetishistic practices, the crush freaks are notorious for their enthusiasm for witnessing the crushing death of insects and other, usually invertebrate, animals, such as arachnids, crustaceans, and worms. More specifically, crush freaks are sexually aroused by the sight of an insect exploded beneath the pressure of a human foot–usually, but not necessarily, a relatively large and beautiful female foot. Sometimes the insects meet their demise under the force exerted by a naked big toe. Other times, it is the impaling heel of a stiletto or the raised outsole of a platform shoe that accomplishes the extermination. The crush freak typically fantasizes identification with the insect as he or she masturbates, and savors the sense of sudden, explosive mutilation attendant upon the sight of the pedal extrusions”.

It’s also been reported that maximum sexual excitement comes the more frightened the woman, and the larger the feet doing the squashing. The preference can also be barefoot, high-heels, flip-flops (depending on the fetishist). Pearson concluded that crush fetishists represent a fascinating example of the human ability to eroticize just about any activity”. Interestingly, in her 2000 book Deviant Desires, Katharine Gates contextualizes crush fetishes as a subset of both foot fetishism and macrophilia (being sexually aroused by giants). Jeremy Biles argues differently and says that these practices are best understood as ambivalent manifestations of technophilia (sexual arousal associated with machinery). Personally, I’m more convinced by Gates’ arguments than those of Biles.

Finally, if you have managed to reach the end of this article and still remain unconvinced that formicophiliacs even exist, you could check out the lovebugz website, or two other websites here and here that have to be seen to be believed (you have been warned!)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biles, J. (2004). I, insect, or Bataille and the crush freaks. Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, 7(1), 115-131.

Butcher, N. (2004). The Strange Case of the Walking Corpse: A Chronicle of Medical Mysteries, Curious Remedies, and Bizarre but True Healing Folklore. New York: Penguin Books.

Dewaraja, R. (1987). Formicophilia, an unusual paraphilia, treated with counseling and behavior therapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 41, 593-597.

Dewaraja, R. & Money, J. (1986). Transcultural sexology: Formicophilia, a newly named paraphilia in a young Buddhist male. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 12, 139-145.

Gates, K. (2000). Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex. New York: RE/Search Publications.

Kelly, B.D. (2008). Buddhist Psychology, Psychotherapy and the Brain: A Critical Introduction. Transcultural Psychiatry, 45(1), 5-30

Love, B. (1992). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books

Love, B. (2005). Cat-fighting, eye-licking, head-sitting and statue-screwing. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.122-129).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

Pearson, G.A. (1991). Insect fetish objects. Cultural Entomology Digest, 4, (November).

Autoerotic sex drives! What is the relationship between sex and cars?

“I have a friend that get’s sexually excited by cars and rims, I’ve seen her melt down at the sight of a nice car and big rims. Funny – her mom is like that too, and I always thought she was just a gold digger!”

This opening quote hopefully highlights that for some there is a relationship between sex and cars. This relationship has been written about in both academic and non-academic books for many years (and no, this blog will not be looking at the car as a phallic symbol). However, in the world of paraphilias there are much fewer writings. There are a number of different paraphilias that have some association with cars. These include:

  • Mechanophilia: Sexual arousal from cars or other machines (and sometimes referred to as ‘mechasexuality’).
  • Symphorophilia: Sexual arousal from witnessing or staging disasters such as car accidents. (The main characters in the 1973 novel Crash by British author J.G. Ballard, and the subsequent 1996 film adaptation of the same name, are therefore symphorophiles).
  • Amomaxia: Sexual arousal from having sex in parked cars.

(There’s also case study evidence in a 2003 American Journal of Psychiatry review paper by Dr Jennifer Pate and Dr Glenn Gabbard on infantilism [where people get sexual arousal from being ‘adult babies’] that some ‘adult babies’ enjoy playing with toy cars – but even I think that’s stretching it a bit!). Cars have also been central to other paraphilic behaviours – such as hypoxyphilia – but I’ll return to that later.

In 1992, Dr Padmal De Silva and Dr Amanda Pernet (at the time both at the Institute of Psychiatry, London) published a case study in the journal Sex and Marital Therapy. The case involved an unusual sexual deviation in a young 20-year old British man (‘George’) who had little social interaction and was incredibly shy. They reported that his main sexual interest and excitement was from cars – particularly Austin Metro cars. George’s family belonged to a strict religious sect who strongly disapproved of any sexual involvement by their son with women. Things changed for George when his parents bough an Austin Metro car (the front of which reminded George of a smiling child-like face). George began masturbating inside the car, and then outside masturbating outside the car while crouching down next to the car’s exhaust pipe. Although he occasionally engaged in masturbating over scantily dressed pictures of women, he was far more sexually aroused by the Metro photographs in his bedroom.

So that he couldn’t be caught masturbating, he would go to great lengths to find deserted places to engage in his sexual activity with the car. He also became sexually excited by cars that resembled the look of the Metro (including the Fiat Uno, Ford Fiesta, and various makes of Vauxhall cars including the Astra and the Nova). George used to become very sexually excited when the car’s exhaust pipe was running and pumping out car fumes. This aspect of “elimination” – according to De Silva and Pernet – was an important central element in George’s other sexual preferences – particularly his fascination of urination. As a very young child he had an unusual interest in dogs urinating. After the age of 10 years, he was more interested in children and adult women urinating. The authors also speculated there may have been an increase in George’s arousal due to a “reduction of oxygen intake and related asphyxiation”. This was possibly seen as a mild form of hypoxyphilia.

George was eventually treated by a classical conditioning technique known as orgasmic reconditioning. This technique provided the opportunity for George to change the focus of his sexual arousal from cars to women. However, despite the therapy, he still retained a strong sexual interest in Metro cars. This type of therapy has been used in the treatment of other sexually fetishistic behaviours, but as reported in a number of published papers, overcoming the main fetish is very difficult for affected individuals.

More recently, there was worldwide media interest following a television programme in which Edward Smith, a 57-year old man from Washington State in the US, admitted to having had sex with over 1,000 cars. He also claimed he no longer had sexual interest in humans. His last normal relationship had been an unconsummated affair with a woman when he was 45-years old but he had not had sex since he was a young man. At the time of the programme, Smith was living with ‘Vanilla’ (a white Volkswagon Beetle) but was also having sexual relationships with ‘Cinnamon’ (an Opal GT) and ‘Ginger’ (a Ford Ranger Splash). His previous relationship to ‘Vanilla’ was another VW Beetle called ‘Victoria’. Smith went on to comment:

“I appreciate beauty and I go a little bit beyond appreciating the beauty of a car only to the point of what I feel is an expression of love. I’m a romantic. I write poetry about cars, I sing to them and talk to them just like a girlfriend. I know what’s in my heart and I have no desire to change. I’m not sick and I don’t want to hurt anyone, cars are just my preference. It’s something that grew as a part of me when I was a kid and I could not shake it. I just loved cute cars right from the beginning, but over the years it got stronger once I got into my teenage years and was my first having sexual urges. “When I turned 13 and the famous Corvette Stingray came about, that car was pure sex and just an incredible machine. I wanted it. I didn’t fully understand it myself except that I know I’m not hurting anyone and I do not intend to. There are moments way out in the middle of nowhere when I see a little car parked and I swear it needs loving. There have been certain cars that attracted me and I would wait until nighttime, creep up to them and just hug and kiss them. As far as women go, they never really interested me much. And I’m not gay”

At the age of 15 years, Smith first had sex with a car but had also had sex with other forms of transportation. In fact Smith claimed that his best sexual experience was having sex with a helicopter from the US television series Airwolf. Smith went on to claim he is part of a global community of more than 500 mechasexual “car lovers” that communicate via online forums. Dr. Ian Kerner, a New York City sex therapist commented that in general “there is an exhibitionistic element for the person being stimulated by machine, as well as general submission/domination themes”.

In a 2010 issue of the Internet Journal of Human Sexuality, Amy Marsh described what she claims is the first ever research study conducted on a group of 40 “objectophiles” (i.e., “people who experience emotional, romantic, affectionate and/or sexual relationships with objects”), of which 21 shared their experiences. One of those who shared their experiences of ‘mechasexuality’.

He had been aware of his mechasexuality for one to five years.

“I’ve been in love with my mom’s car and my own car since I got it bought. My car’s appearance is what attracts me the most. [I enjoy intimacy with the cars] between twice a week and once every three weeks [and] involves cuddling and such affectionate activity, and sometimes masturbation…However, I’d like to mention that although there can be a little amount of mental role play, I am fully aware that objects are inanimate and that this mostly is a one-sided relation. Although I may consider a human relationship eventually, it has not happened yet.”

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the case of the 40-year old US male airline pilot (and also married and father of two children). His case was recounted in the Journal of Forensic Sciences by Dr J.C. Rupp (County Examiner’s Office, Texas, USA). The man left his home at 6am in the morning and told his wife that he was going shooting in the country. He was found naked except for a large-link 10-foot chain harness secured around his body. (The harness was tied around the man’s neck in a moderately tight loop and bolted. The chain then went down his chest and was tied into another loop around his waist. This was tied to the bumper of the car) at 7.30am in the morning in a remote area crushed against the left fender of his car (equivalent of a VW Beetle). The engine was still running, ignition was on and the driver’s door was still open. The steering wheel was tied so that it would go round in anti-clockwise circles. His clothes were in the boot of the car. Reconstruction of the events leading to his death showed that he was either being dragged round by the car or following the car producing feelings of asphyxia. When he had finished his sexual turn-on he had tried to approach the car door but had forgotten to undo the chain from the bumper. The chain had got tangled up in the car’s axle and the man was found strangled to death by the chain. This is clearly a case of a car being used to facilitate another paraphilia (i.e., hypoxyphilia). Clearly, this is a very extreme case, but like the other cases outlined in this article, they do at least show that for some people, cars are an integral part to their sexuality and sex life.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Daily Telegraph (2008). Man admits having sex with 1,000 cars. May 21. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2000899/Man-admits-having-sex-with-1000-cars.html

De Silva, P. & Pernet, A. (1992). Pollution in ‘Metroland’: An unusual paraphilia in a shy young man. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 7, 301-306.

Marsh, A. (2010). Love among the objectum sexuals. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 13, March 1. Located at: http://www.ejhs.org/volume13/ObjSexuals.htm

Pate, J. & Gabbard, J.O. (2003). Adult baby syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 1932-1936.

Rupp, J.C. (1973). The love bug. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 18, 259-262.