Above his desk at Rutgers University, psychology professor Barry Komisaruk has a framed image of what female brain activity looks like during orgasm. It looks like a sunset. Every major region of her brain ignites at the height of climax. He is the first to record such an image, and in recent years has used his research to improve women’s lives.
It started with hormones and doves. Back in the 1950s, Komisaruk, a behavioral neuroscientist and an author of The Science of Orgasm and The Orgasm Answer Guide, was looking at what he called “invisible forces that act at a distance” or, more specifically, at how neurons produced consciousness. He was anesthetizing doves, clamping them down, and drilling minuscule holes in their skulls to then implant hormone crystals into their brains. He was studying how hormone production stimulates behavior, and how behavior stimulates hormone production. This was his initial claim to fame, and the beginning of a long series of sexual behavioral studies that eventually revealed important facts about women, pleasure, and pain.
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Maybe you remember the old joke: “Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can.” Here’s a new one I just made up: “Why do women lie about sex? Because they can.” It’s not really funny, I admit, but it does have the benefit of being true. Women are anatomically secretive. Our stuff is neatly tucked away, and the obvious signs that connote female arousal—arching, gasping, and so on—are secondary and unreliable. They might be genuine, or they might not be.
Men are all evidence. A character in Sophie Fontanel’s new memoir of celibacy, The Art of Sleeping Alone, succinctly describes the male dilemma. Carlos has ended his marriage because he no longer wants to have sex with his wife. Fontanel asks him whether he has told his wife the true reason he left. Carlos replies: “How could I have lied to her? With love, you can always get out of a bind because you can’t see it, but getting a hard-on, or not, you can’t wriggle out of that; might as well be frank about it.” When your hard-ons are invisible, there’s room for lots of wriggling.
By now, of course, it’s difficult to think of female desire as in any way hidden. The cultural speculum has been firmly inserted for a good look around. Women have long since learned all about how our tucked-away stuff works, with pioneers of second-wave feminism as our guides: Our Bodies, Ourselves was practically standard-issue along with the dorm-room furniture when I arrived at my very liberal college in 1985. Meanwhile, female lust has been thoroughly documented (or at any rate, endlessly and theatrically depicted) by the adult-film industry. How would porn get along without horny females? Science, too, has lately been busy substantiating the existence of girl lust. In his recent tour of burgeoning research into female desire, What Do Women Want?, Daniel Bergner reports a current verdict: women are at least as libidinous as men.
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Laci Green grabs a thin sheet of latex, stretches it over the end of an empty toilet paper tube, and starts cutting away with a pair of scissors. “I’m makin’ a hymennn,” she sings before holding up the finished product to the camera, where, on the other side, more than 700,000 subscribers now await her every upload. “Ta-da!”
Since 2008, the 24-year-old YouTube sex educator has been making informational videos about everything from slut shaming and body image to genital hygiene and finding the G-spot. This particular scene comes from a clip called "You Can’t POP Your Cherry (HYMEN 101)" which explains, with the kind of bubbly, web-savvy humor that makes her a popular vlogger, that the hymen isn’t a membrane that needs to bleed or be broken during intercourse—it’s actually just small, usually elastic folds of mucous tissue that only partially cover the vaginal opening and can, but don’t always, tear if stretched. A year and a half after it premiered, with well more than one million views, Green’s video debunking one of the most enduring misconceptions about virginity is also one of the most popular segment she’s ever recorded.
For a lot of women (and men), Green’s message is hardly news, for any number of reasons. Several comments on the video, which still arrive almost daily, point that out. But other comments tell a different story: that myths about virginity, sex, and basic biology still pervade even among sexually active adults, and when those myths get reinforced by vacuums of reliable information and sexist messages ingrained in popular culture, they can have serious consequences for women’s health.
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Science can teach you new things, or it can provide official validation for things you’ve long known to be true. And with things like love and sex, it’s sometimes nice, comforting even, to impose a structure on the chaos, to realize that every lap you take around the track falls into the well-worn groove of humanity—that a lot of the time, we do the same things, for the same reasons. Over and over again. Like having rebound sex to get back at your ex. For example.
They say to get over somebody, you need to get under somebody else. By “they,” I mostly mean “best-friend characters in romantic comedies.” Though such questionably helpful bon mots abound in our interpersonal relations and pop culture, there wasn’t much scientific evidence to back them up. Until now.
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Say you’re a Godly fellow of pure heart and intention in the seventh century, and you’ve met a lady, and the two of you would like to have some sex. There are so many rules, though. Where does one begin?
In 1993, Snoop Dogg titled his album “Doggystyle.” A year later, Nine Inch Nails famously roared, “I wanna fuck you like an animal” in their song “Closer.” In 1999, Bloodhound Gang declared: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals.”
As I drive the five miles from my house in suburban New Jersey to Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center, I take a mental inventory of my data. So far, I have collected 13 self-stimulation orgasms but only 6 orgasms brought about through partner stimulation. The goal is to have an equal number of both.
I feel the familiar wash of anxiety about to launch me into the low-level panic typical of a graduate student in her dissertation year. Except I am no typical graduate student—I am a 56-year-old sex therapist turned cognitive neuroscientist whose day job is to study the human sexual response, and my dissertation is on genital stimulation and female orgasm.
Pulling into the parking lot, I brace for the day. There is much to do to prepare for the study scheduled for 1 p.m. The participant and her partner will arrive at 9:30 a.m. They will need to complete a stack of paperwork—consent forms, MRI safety checklists, and an additional form that verifies that the female participant is not pregnant—and then will have to be carefully trained in the protocol for the study.
I wear a number of hats in the lab. As a therapist with three decades of clinical experience, I am foremost a people-person. My job requires that I make our participants comfortable and keep them safe as they go about the unusual business of donating orgasms to science. My other role—as the principal investigator of my dissertation study—means that I am responsible for making sure that the technical aspects of the study are properly executed and all the details necessary for a smooth study come together simultaneously. And then I must be the one to analyze the data afterwards, a laborious, pain-staking process that has taken years to learn.
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Forget mindfulness meditation, computerized working-memory training, and learning a musical instrument; all methods recently shown by scientists to increase intelligence. There could be an easier answer. It turns out that sex might actually make you smarter.
Researchers in Maryland and South Korea recently found that sexual activity in mice and rats improves mental performance and increases neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) in the hippocampus, where long-term memories are formed.
In April, a team from the University of Maryland reported that middle-aged rats permitted to engage in sex showed signs of improved cognitive function and hippocampal function. In November, a group from Konkuk University in Seoul concluded that sexual activity counteracts the memory-robbing effects of chronic stress in mice. “Sexual interaction could be helpful,” they wrote, “for buffering adult hippocampal neurogenesis and recognition memory function against the suppressive actions of chronic stress.”
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I get it, sort of. Your favorite team wins the big game by being the absolute best at putting whatever sized ball in a pre-determined location that we arbitrarily assign value to, and the world seems a little brighter. Less cruel. Maybe like a place you could bring a child into after all. There’s revelry in the streets, or just in your living room, and you want to celebrate.
On May 6, 2009, there was just such a celebration in Catalonia, Spain when Andrés Iniesta scored a last-minute goal for Football Club Barcelona (Barça) against Chelsea FC, moving Barça into the UEFA Champions League final. Nine months later, the media reported a 45 percent increase of births in the region.
That was a bit of an exaggeration, according to a new study in the British Medical Journal, but the birth rate did spike after the season-making goal—by 16 percent. That’s still a lot of babies Iniesta could conceivably (sorry) take credit for.
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Smoking is declining in many countries, but the Cancer Society of Finland has a terrifying vision of the future for people who still light up. Within a few years, the organization claims, smokers will resemble fat, sexless, acne-covered zombies.
Okay, perhaps not quite. But a new site launched by the nonprofit group offers an interactive look at the impact of smoking on nearly every part of the body.
The site covers tobacco’s effects on everything from stress to sex, allowing users to move a slider to see the smoker’s transformation.