Blurred Lines: The Science of Sex

depicted in Channel 4’s Masters of Sex

For most students, watching 1,000 hours of sex over the course of their education might indicate a severe porn addiction. Yet for Virginia Johnson, a student at Washington University in 1965, this is exactly what her training in medical research entailed.

The pioneering gynaecologist Dr William Masters and his assistant – recently depicted in Channel 4’s Masters of Sex – weren’t content with analysing self-reports of past experiences, instead using live footage of everything from self-masturbation to sex between same-gender couples. They tested blood flow and electrical activity in the brain, as well as inventing a camera which could be inserted into the woman’s vagina. By the end of the twelve year project they had analysed the sexual arousal patterns of over 694 men and women and outlined how humans achieve sexual orgasms in the 1966 bestseller ‘Human Sexual Response’.

Despite their extensive research, Masters and Johnson only gave us a glimpse of ‘sexology’ and even now, many questions related to sex are unanswered. In 2011, 1 in 4 women in the US were estimated to have had trouble climaxing and between 53 and 65 percent of women are said to have faked orgasms during sexual intercourse. But why is this the case? Are female orgasms really that dissimilar to those of men? And (without sounding like a bore) what is the point of them anyway?

MRI and PET scans have shown that brain activity in men and women during sexual activity is surprisingly similar. Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, used PET scans to show that over 30 areas of the brain are stimulated during orgasm, including those for memory, reward and pain. Pleasure-promoting dopamine and oxytocin, a hormone which mediates bonding, are released in both men and women.

There are only two key differences between the sexes: 1. the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (which promotes self-evaluation) is switched off in women and 2. the amygdala activity, which controls aggressive instincts, is slowed down in men.

Move away from the mechanics though and the differences become more obvious. For example, women take approximately 8 to 15 minutes longer to reach climax than men and when they do, it can last up to twenty seconds longer. Unfortunately for men –and any impatient girlfriends out there – they enter a refractory period post-ejaculation so that, unlike women, they can’t experience multiple orgasms. The main difference between orgasms in men and women though, as mentioned earlier, is the ease with which they are achieved.

From an evolutionary perspective it’s easy to see why men more readily orgasm. The speed and consistency with which men can ejaculate increases their chances of passing on their genes to the next generation, and the pleasure which accompanies it gives them an incentive to do so. Women, on the other hand, don’t need to orgasm in order to pass on their genes and therefore, there is no driving factor for faster and more consistent orgasms. In fact, there is still some confusion about why women orgasm at all.

One explanation is that orgasms help to bond females to a partner and allow them to evaluate mates by revealing who could excite them towards ecstasy. Considering that the regularity of female orgasm increases from 64% to 79% in intercourse with dedicated sexual partners, this is quite feasible. The second theory was that orgasms are purely a by-product of the foetus and that the hooded glans, like male nipples, was under no evolutionary pressure to disappear.

Another mystery sexologists have tackled with over the years is that of the elusive G-spot. First identified by Ernst Grafenberg in 1950s, this pleasure zone’s existence has been a matter of debate ever since. In 2010, a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine took 1800 women, all pairs of identical and non-identical twins, and asked whether they had a G-spot. As they possessed the same genes, both identical twins were expected to give the same answer. When this pattern did not emerge, researchers concluded that there was ‘no proof’ of such an organ.

This research was marked as ‘flawed’ by sexologist Beverly Whipple who pointed out that the study excluded experiences of lesbian or bisexual women and failed to consider the effects of having different partners with different love-making techniques. It’s more likely though, that any increased chances of orgasm in lesbian couples is due to the integration of clitoral stimulation, something which, in previous studies, has been rated as giving more satisfyng orgasms than those given through vaginal stimulation.

More recently, Ostrzenski claimed that he had found the G-spot in the cadaver of an 83-year-old woman. However, other researchers in this area, including Kilchevsky who has dedicated 60 years to the discovery of the G-spot, were quick to fault his findings, reminding us that Ostrzenski ‘did no testing on the actual organ, and had no background information on the patient before her death’. It seems then, that the G-spot remains as elusive as ever.

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