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Orgasmatron – The science of sex, or just another TV swindle?

February 7th, 2005

Dr Petra

Channel Four offered us up a real treat tonight. ‘Orgasmatron’ (part of the BodyShock series which lived up to it’s name, although not in a good way), managed to churn out a record number of incorrect sex statistics, outdated theories, and medicalisation of sex on a grand scale.

While a number of reputable academics and sex researchers shared information on the programme, whoever did the research for the show really needs to update their sexological knowledge.

There was the predictable 43% of women have a sexual dysfunction – a consistently misreported figure.

Then we had the ‘women are very complicated men are very simple’ routine. Men’s orgasms were presented as ‘get aroused, get an erection, and then ejaculate’.

Women, the programme told us, are very complex and nobody can even agree on what happens to them at orgasm, and it’s very, very difficult for them to come.

Most traditional sex research has made out women’s orgasm to be hard to achieve (perhaps because studies weren’t being completed by or for women). Yet many women are able to enjoy orgasm when they masturbate. The problem lies with penetrative sex, and partners who’re not necessarily able to pleasure them – and women feeling that during sex they shouldn’t touch themselves, or enjoy any other pleasurable feelings other than penetrative sex alone.

Although the programme did state the female orgasm was more than just pressing buttons, and was a lot to do with women’s thought processes and emotions (something that’s frequently neglected in men and overemphasised in women), the way this was illustrated was to show a woman’s brain scan at the moment of orgasm. Still keeping sexual responses firmly located within the body.

Moving swiftly on, we were treated to ‘The’ Human Sexual Response Cycle, developed by Masters and Johnson’s 1960s lab-based studies of 600 or so volunteers who were trained to have sex whilst being observed and wired up to measuring devices. Not your average person to model sex upon – and a theory which many sexologists feel is outdated and unhelpful. To find out why read Leonore Tiefer’s ‘Sex is not a natural act, and other essays (Westview Press) – something the researchers on this show might have benefited from.

Women’s orgasm was presented as being all about procreation, enabling conception, to bring her closer to her partner, and to bond with him so they can raise a family. So, women who masturbate aren’t included in that model – or lesbians for that matter.

The programme was advertised as being about about female sexual dysfunction – women who’ve never had an orgasm. Yet all the participants in the show could orgasm through masturbation. Like most women, they were just not able to orgasm through penetrative sex alone, and felt they’d let their partners down.

The solution, according to the programme, was not expanding the women’s masturbatory skills. It wasn’t realising that most people don’t orgasm through penetrative sex alone, nor that sex toys and a wider sexual repertoire might help, as might developing a more positive view about sex.

Sex therapy wasn’t recommended, although clearly some of the couples could have benefited from it. Nor was negotiating with partners who didn’t always seem to be sympathetic – blaming the women for not being able to orgasm. The answer to all the problems was surgery – the orgasmatron – manipulating the nerves in the spinal cord to lead to orgasm. And within a medical setting, dressed in surgical clothing, the women were encouraged to ‘feel something’ as the surgeon fiddled with their spine. Sexy? Hardly.

The women clearly expected miracles from the surgery, and, predictably became distressed when orgasm eluded them yet again. Watching those who couldn’t orgasm even after trying with the surgical intervention was heartbreaking. No counselling or support appeared to be offered to the two of the three women for whom the surgery wasn’t successful.

The ‘orgasmatron’ hasn’t been widely tested or trialled. It’s not a commonplace medical intervention. The long term after effects of the surgery haven’t been assessed. The programme didn’t make this clear, and I’m sure many women watching may feel that this is an option for them – when in fact there are a great many other sources of help or information available.

What Channel Four should have done is commissioned a programme that showed women how to masturbate, that gave them the skills to talk to their partner, to identify why they had problems with orgasm, build their body confidence and sexual horizons, and reassure them they were normal.

But brain scans, and surgical settings are so much more dramatic, and anyway women masturbating and showing how they orgasm (outside the medicalised setting of this programme) is far too rude for television.

Want to know why women have problems reaching orgasm? Because TV shows like this continue to miss the point, blind us with science, and set up sex to be tricky.

If you tell people enough times that the female orgasm is a complex holy grail that’s hard to reach, you can hardly be surprised when they find it so.

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