How do women really know if they are having an orgasm?

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Dr Nicole Prause is challenging bias against sexual research to unravel apparent discrepancies between physical signs and what women said they experienced

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It’s not always clear if a woman is really having an orgasm, as Meg Ryan demonstrated in When Harry Met Sally.

It’s not always clear if a woman is really having an orgasm, as Meg Ryan demonstrated in When Harry Met Sally.

In the nascent field of orgasm research, much of the data relies on subjects self-reporting, and in men, there’s some pretty clear physiological feedback in the form of ejaculation.

But how do women know for sure if they are climaxing? What if the sensation they have associated with climax is actually one of the the early foothills of arousal? And how does a woman know when if she has had an orgasm?

Neuroscientist Dr Nicole Prause set out to answer these questions by studying orgasms in her private laboratory. Through better understanding of what happens in the body and the brain during arousal and orgasm, she hopes to develop devices that can increase sex drive without the need for drugs.

Understanding orgasm begins with a butt plug. Prause uses the pressure-sensitive anal gauge to detect the contractions typically associated with orgasm in both men and women. Combined with EEG, which measures brain activity, this allows for a more accurate picture of a woman’s arousal and orgasm.

Dr Nicole Prause has founded Liberos to study brain stimulation and desire.

Dr Nicole Prause has founded Liberos to study brain stimulation and desire.

When Prause began studying women in this way she noticed something surprising. “Many of the women who reported having an orgasm were not having any of the physical signs – the contractions – of an orgasm.”

It’s not clear why that is, but it is clear that we don’t know an awful lot about orgasms and sexuality. “We don’t think they are faking,” she said. “My sense is that some women don’t know what an orgasm is. There are lots of pleasure peaks that happen during intercourse. If you haven’t had contractions you may not know there’s something different.”

Prause, an ultramarathon runner and keen motorcyclist in her free time, started her career at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, where she was awarded a doctorate in 2007. Studying the sexual effects of a menopause drug, she first became aware of the prejudice against the scientific study of sexuality in the US.

When her high-profile research examining porn “addiction” found the condition didn’t fit the same neurological patterns as nicotine, cocaine or gambling, it was an unpopular conclusion among people who believe they do have a porn addiction.

The evolution of design of the anal pressure gauge used in Nicole Prause’s lab to detect orgasmic contractions.

The evolution of design of the anal pressure gauge used in Nicole Prause’s lab to detect orgasmic contractions.

“People started posting stories online that I had falsified my data and I received all kinds of sexist attacks,” she said. Soon anonymous emails of complaint were turning up at the office of the president of UCLA, where she worked from 2012 to 2014, demanding that Prause be fired.

Does orgasm benefit mental health?

Prause pushed on with her research, but repeatedly came up against challenges when seeking approval for studies involving orgasms. “I tried to do a study of orgasms while at UCLA to pilot a depression intervention. UCLA rejected it after a seven-month review,” she said. The ethics board told her that to proceed, she would need to remove the orgasm component – rendering the study pointless.

Undeterred, Prause left to set up her sexual biotech company Liberos, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, in 2015. The company has been working on a number of studies, including one exploring the benefits and effectiveness of “orgasmic meditation”, working with specialist company OneTaste.

Part of the “slow sex” movement, the practice involves a woman having her clitoris stimulated by a partner – often a stranger – for 15 minutes. “This orgasm state is different,” claims OneTaste’s website. “It is goalless, intuitive, and dynamic. It flows all over the place with no set direction. It may include climax, or it may not. In Orgasm 2.0, we learn to listen to what our body wants instead of what we think we ‘should’ want.”

Prause wants to determine whether arousal has any wider benefits for mental health. “The folks that practice this claim it helps with stress and improves your ability to deal with emotional situations even though as a scientist it seems pretty explicitly sexual to me,” she said.

Prause is examining orgasmic meditators in the laboratory, measuring finger movements of the partner, as well as brainwave activity, galvanic skin response and vaginal contractions of the recipient. Before and after measuring bodily changes, researchers run through questions to determine physical and mental states. Prause wants to determine whether achieving a level of arousal requires effort or a release in control. She then wants to observe how Orgasmic Meditation affects performance in cognitive tasks, how it changes reactivity to emotional images and how it compares with regular meditation.

Brain stimulation is ‘theoretically possible’

Another research project is focused on brain stimulation, which Prause believes could provide an alternative to drugs such as Addyi, the “female Viagra”. The drug had to be taken every day, couldn’t be mixed with alcohol and its side-effects can include sudden drops in blood pressure, fainting and sleepiness. “Many women would rather have a glass of wine than take a drug that’s not very effective every day,” said Prause.

The field of brain stimulation is in its infancy, though preliminary studies have shown that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which uses direct electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain, can help with depression, anxiety and chronic pain but can also cause burns on the skin. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a magnet to activate the brain, has been used to treat depression, psychosis and anxiety, but can also cause seizures, mania and hearing loss.

Prause is studying whether these technologies can treat sexual desire problems. In one study, men and women receive two types of magnetic stimulation to the reward center of their brains. After each session, participants are asked to complete tasks to see how their responsiveness to monetary and sexual rewards (porn) has changed.

With DCS, Prause wants to stimulate people’s brains using direct currents and then fire up tiny cellphone vibrators that have been glued to the participants’ genitals. This provides sexual stimulation in a way that eliminates the subjectivity of preferences people have for pornography.

“We already have a basic functioning model,” said Prause. “The barrier is getting a device that a human can reliably apply themselves without harming their own skin.”


 
There is plenty of skepticism around the science of brain stimulation, a technology which has already spawned several devices including the headset Thync, which promises users an energy boost, and Foc.us, which claims to help with endurance.

Neurologist Steven Novella from the Yale School of Medicine uses brain stimulation devices in clinical trials to treat migraines, but he says there’s not enough clinical evidence to support these emerging consumer devices. “There’s potential for physical harm if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “From a theoretical point of view these things are possible, but in terms of clinical claims they are way ahead of the curve here. It’s simultaneously really exciting science but also premature pseudoscience.”

Biomedical engineer Marom Bikson, who uses tDCS to treat depression at the City College of New York, agrees. “There’s a lot of snake oil.”

Sexual problems can be emotional and societal

Prause, also a licensed psychologist, is keen to avoid overselling brain stimulation. “The risk is that it will seem like an easy, quick fix,” she said. For some, it will be, but for others it will be a way to test whether brain stimulation can work – which Prause sees as a more balanced approach than using medication. “To me, it is much better to help provide it for people likely to benefit from it than to try to create fake problems to sell it to everyone.”

Sexual problems can be triggered by societal pressures that no device can fix. “There’s discomfort and anxiety and awkwardness and shame and lack of knowledge,” said psychologist Leonore Tiefer, who specializes in sexuality. Brain stimulation is just one of many physical interventions companies are trying to develop to make money, she says. “There’s a million drugs under development. Not just oral drugs but patches and creams and nasal sprays, but it’s not a medical problem,” she said.

Thinking about low sex drive as a medical condition requires defining what’s normal and what’s unhealthy. “Sex does not lend itself to that kind of line drawing. There is just too much variability both culturally and in terms of age, personality and individual differences. What’s normal for me is not normal for you, your mother or your grandmother.”

And Prause says that no device is going to solve a “Bob problem” – when a woman in a heterosexual couple isn’t getting aroused because her partner’s technique isn’t any good. “No pills or brain stimulation are going to fix that,” she said.

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