interesting, but unhelpful

It’s inevitable that a brain scan of a woman having an orgasm would be in the news. The combination of orgasms and brain scans makes it totally irresistable. I get that.

And when I read about it, my first reaction was, “We need massive, expensive technology to tell us that orgasm “lights up the brain’s pleasure centers.” And indeed that is how it is being reported (as in, “During orgasm, activity… peaks in the nucleus accumbens, an area linked to reward and pleasure.”)

Apart from that, there are a couple errors in the article that I need to point out.

1.) Women don’t have a refractory period. This matters because it’s one crucial example of the ways in which we assume male sexual functioning is default the model of “normal” sexuality and interpret women’s sexuality in that context, rather than thinking about women in their own biological terms.

2.) Oxytocin is released in massive quantities at high levels of sexual arousal; orgasm is not the trigger for this. This matters because it counteracts claims that “orgasm is for bonding.” No, if anything AROUSAL leads to bonding; orgasm is not required. See Elisabeth Lloyd’s excellent Case of the Female Orgasm for details.

A broader difficulty with this kind of research is the very problem that Kaplan, with her Triphasic Model, attempted to counteract in the 70s, and which Laan, et al have been trying to counteract with their research on spontaneous versus responsive desire, viz., this kind of study can only show us “how the orgasm builds up from genital stimulation.” In real life (which is the life where human sexuality evolved) orgasm doesn’t just build up from genital stimulation, it builds up from relationships and interpersonal connections and how your day has gone and whether or not the kids went to bed on time.

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon. I’m as entertained as anyone by the idea of jilling off in a fMRI machine, and I’m probably MORE entertained than most people by pictures of brains changing color. It’s just that I work so hard every day to persuade people that women’s sexuality doesn’t have to be like MEN’S in order to be okay, and that sexuality happens in and is influenced by the context of a whole life, a whole body, a whole relationship.

Do I think this research is interesting? Hell yes. Do I think it’s important? In the end, I think it’ll be really important for us to understand how the brain operates during arousal and orgasm, yes. Do I think this article is doing its readers any good? No. I think it’s reinforcing the idea that sexual arousal and orgasm are products of the mechanical stimulation of genitals, rather than being processes that are crucially couched in a larger emotional, physical, and relational context.

But it’s the most viewed and the highest trending article at the Guardian. So.

You’re swimming upstream, Emily.

I know, I know.