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Brain scans and orgasms

June 21st, 2005

Dr Petra

A hilarious sex story has been doing the rounds this week. Okay, so the study isn’t all that funny, but the press coverage is.

The research in question has come from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Copenhagen where researchers from the University of Groningen presented brain scan research to ‘prove’ when women were having ‘real’ orgasms as opposed to faking.

Their study of 13 heterosexual couples aged 19-49 required each person to lie with their heads inside a brain scanner whilst their partner stimulated them to orgasm. Apparently giving them socks to wear increased their chances of having an orgasm, and women were also invited to fake orgasm so scientists could see the difference between real and fake responses on the brain scans.

Press coverage has focused, predictably, on women faking. However there are other issues at play within this research.

A study of 13 heterosexual couples that’re young (aged under 49) is too small a sample to make any conclusions. These are couples that volunteer not only to have sex in a laboratory, but also have sex when one has their head stuck in a brain scanner – and they can orgasm under those conditions!

Basically this study is based on a small group of people who’re probably not representative of the wider population. Unless your kink is brain scanners, it’s probably unlikely you’ll find it easy to orgasm in such a study.

They’re also all straight, so this study doesn’t really tell us about bi, lesbian and gay reactions to orgasm. Since the research is talking about women’s orgasms, it’s a shame bi women and lesbian participants weren’t included. I’m assuming they were only talking to cis gendered participants too, excluding Trans women.

It’s interesting that the orgasms had to be provided by a partner. In many newspaper accounts there’s been a heavy focus on the usual (and very boring) ‘women are complex creatures, men aren’t’ angle. I find this really unhelpful given that some women do struggle with orgasm, but then so do many men. Presenting male sexuality like pressing an on/off light switch just puts additional stress on men.

One newspaper stated “while the male brain focuses heavily on the physical stimulation involved in sexual contact, the experience for women is much more complex. The key to female arousal seems to be deep relaxation and lack of anxiety, with direct sensory input from the genitals playing a less critical role”.

Well the first bit’s true, but actually if you put pressure on men and increase anxiety they find it very difficult to reach orgasm or come too soon – it’s surprising this study didn’t pick up on this commonplace issue.

The press coverage continued: “During female orgasm, the part of the brain that deals with fear, anxiety and emotion begins to relax and reduces its activity. This process peaks at orgasm, when the female brains emotional centres close down to an almost trance-like state. The male brain was harder to study during orgasm, the team says, because sexual climax is a shorter process in men. The emotion centres are deactivated to a lesser extent than in women and men appear to concentrate more on the sensations transmitted from the genitals”

Oh for the love of…! Women go into a trance like state but men do not? Haven’t these guys heard of Tantra? Perhaps they couldn’t study that in their brain scanners. And what’s with the whole gendering of the brain approach? (Update September 2012, since publishing this post a really excellent book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine sets out to debunk a lot of the bad science around gender and neurobiology. Highly recommended).

I love the idea that the male brain is harder to study because sexual climax is a shorter process in men. Most women are able to reach orgasm pretty rapidly when masturbating on their own using a sex toy or fingers. They take longer when a partner stimulates them.

This study would have been a whole lot more useful if participants had also masturbated on their own – I’m sure different reactions in time; response and brain activity would have been measured. What’s the point in running a study where only the women were asked to fake? If you’re doing a gender differences study (which this was) then you need to match female faker brain activity with male faker activity and see what happens. Since men do fake orgasm it seems like a bit of an oversight that this was omitted.

This is a very small sample of a very specific group of participants in a highly unusual setting. It continues to problematise the female orgasm (for taking too long), and implies men are driven by their physiology, women by their emotions – which is very outdated and stereotypical and causes no end of sexual problems within relationships.

Before we get into a flap about brain scans, why don’t we ask, “What’s an orgasm?” These researchers assumed there was such a thing that could be measured and tested. I find it depressing that we have to quantify our orgasms and have them scientifically proven – surely if it feels good, you like it, and you want to say ‘I just had an orgasm’, then that’s good enough? Why do scientists have to define it for you?

It’s weird because if you ask most scientists or even sex researchers to describe an orgasm in words they frequently struggle. Yet they’re super confident to say they can spot an orgasm when it appears on a scanner.

Research like this, and certainly the reporting of it, simply taps into our sexual anxieties. Straight guys are keen to know their partner has ‘really’ had an orgasm so they can feel reassured they were ‘good’. Women feel under increasing pressure to perform – which often leads to greater sexual anxieties. And that kind of ties this study up in knots since the researchers were claiming anxiety causes women’s sexual problems, yet their study results are most likely to also contribute to women worrying about performance.

Why do we need to know about brain activity at orgasm? Are we going to go for increased surveillance in the future where a person says ‘hold on darling, I’ll just fit you into the brain scanner so I can be sure you’ve come – I don’t want you faking!’?

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