On Friday, The Atlantic published the essay Donating Orgasms to Science: A Day in the Life of a Real Life Sex Researcher. In it, sex therapist and cognitive neuroscientist Nan Wise details the anxieties and intricacies of doing research that requires people to engage in sex acts while being observed by a team of scientists. Wise's stories range from stressful to humorous (dildos launching out of vaginas), but never are they particularly sexy. Which — unless you find banging it out on a cold metal table while wired up to expensive research equipment the height of kink (live your life, gurl) — is probably not all that surprising.
Wise's primary focus in her research is genital stimulation and the female orgasm — specifically, how it all connects with the somatosensory cortex (the part of the brain that "processes the input from parts of the body that are sensitive to touch, temperature, and pain"). Her own particular worries in the study range from having clean linens to making sure subjects' heads don't move too much during orgasm (too much movement disrupts the MRI) to occasionally having to participate in the study herself:
I know my participants will be anxious when they arrive. No matter how comfortable they may be with their sexuality in the real world, donating an orgasm to science in the context of the sterile environment of the scanner is awkward at best. I should know. In the tradition of many scientists who have experimented on themselves, I have been the guinea pig for my own studies.
Wise details one of these more hilarious experiments here:
Armed with a Xanax tucked into my bra just in case, I am about to go into the MRI scanner for the first time—a daunting task for a claustrophobic, panic-prone individual under any circumstances. And the task at hand involves inserting a plastic dildo into my vagina while my colleagues sit in the control room next door. Having recently joined the team as a sex therapist and collaborator, thanks to the brilliant Dr. Beverly Whipple—an eminent sex scientist who is known for many things, including the naming of the G-spot—I am piloting a prospective study in which we will systematically map the projections of the clitoris, anterior wall of the vagina, cervix, and nipple onto the somatosensory cortex...
So the plastic purple dildo and I are in the scanner, trying to make friends, and things get out of hand. The dildo is slippery and since my head and the upper half of my body is encased in the bore of the scanner, I can't see what I am doing. The dildo sails across the small room that houses the big magnet, only to land somewhere. The scan runs another five minutes during which I am supposed to be rhythmically stimulating the anterior wall of my vagina. I entertain myself by contemplating how I am going to inform my colleagues of the situation. When the banging of the coils subsides, indicating that the run has timed out, the MRI tech, Gregg, asks through the wired-in microphone, "How's it going, Nan?"
"Houston, we have a problem," I respond. "The dildo went into orbit." I laugh so hard I can hardly speak.
Can't wait for them to borrow this story for the next season of Masters of Sex.
Wise's essay (you can read the whole thing here) is funny and informative. It's also interesting to see how sex research is one part boring paper filing, another part painstaking technical work and finally, one part actual sex — sex which, if Wise is to be believed, never gets any less stressful, awkward or uncomfortable for the any of the people involved. "If I ever write a memoir, it will be called A Watched Orgasm Rarely Boils," Wise jokes.
To be fair, I know a lot of people who would read that.