Getting it on for science

Bonobo porn, MRI sex, female Viagra. "Bonk" author Mary Roach on the scientific quest to understand arousal -- and how little we still know.

Published April 4, 2008 11:34AM (EDT)

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Mary Roach is that unflappable science writer who isn't shy about playing guinea pig in the lab, even if it means convincing her husband to participate in a "coitus" study while a doctor stands by waving an ultrasound wand over the couple.

Roach, a former Salon columnist, is best known for treating the human corpse with surprising humor and respect in her 2003 bestseller, "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." After the dead, she moved right along to science's attempt to grapple with the afterlife in "Spook." For her latest adventures in weird science, she ventured back to the land of the living for "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex." Roach finds that, over the centuries, doctors have gone to some funky extremes to try to improve their patients' sex lives. But first, they had to try to figure out what the heck is going on during sex, which turns out to be harder than it might sound.

As a read, "Bonk" is more clitoral surgery than cleavage. There are few cheap thrills here, but Roach finds much to be fascinated by -- and laugh at -- from prescription-strength vibrators to the surgical testicular implants for neutered dogs. (Hint: It's really about making the dog's owner feel better.) She travels to Taiwan, London, Denmark and Egypt, witnessing penile implant surgery and watching pig farmers titillate sows for artificial insemination along the way. But observing hot live action in the field of sex studies can be harder than achieving multiple orgasms without foreplay. There is the privacy of the research subjects to consider, and, besides, much research on human sexuality is now done through behavioral questionnaires rather than bonking away in the lab. In the end, sometimes Roach just has to go under the microscope herself with a vaginal photoplethysmograph probe or, of course, her husband, Ed.

What's most delightful about "Bonk" is not only the bizarre things it reveals about the history of sexual beliefs -- if two testicles are good, aren't three better?! -- but also how little is still known about some basic mechanics of human sexuality. Salon spoke with Roach about the science of sex in our offices in San Francisco.

Who were the earliest sex researchers?

Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of amazing physiological, anatomical drawings from cadavers. He got interested in what happens when people have intercourse. He just tried to imagine it, and he drew the coition figures. They're these detailed -- unfortunately not very accurate -- drawings. I like to think of him as the original.

Fast-forward a bazillion years to Robert Latou Dickinson, who was this amazing guy, who got Kinsey started. Kinsey had been studying gall-wasp speciation -- sex not on the radar -- and he met Dickinson. Robert Dickinson was a gynecologist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and he began interviewing patients about their sexual practices. First, he just started asking them questions, and then he had them actually demonstrate how they masturbate. For the time, it was kind of astounding.

You'd think: "Oh, he must have been some sort of pervert with an ulterior motive," but he wasn't at all. Dickinson felt very strongly that bad sex was laying waste to a lot of marriages. He had people coming in who thought that the outer labia was as far as the penis was supposed to go. They thought they were having sex, and couldn't figure out why they were not getting pregnant.

Does this idea that the people who study sex are kind of perverts persist even today?

Oh, yeah. This woman Cindy Meston, who has a lab at the University of Texas at Austin, said: "If somebody on an airplane says 'Well, what do you do?' I don't say, 'I'm a sex researcher.'" Because they inevitably think you're a pervert, or you must really dig sex. Whereas if you're a geneticist, people don't think: "Oh, you must really dig genes!" Sex researchers get that all the time -- a lot of raised eyebrows.

How does this attitude hovering around sex researchers and research affect their funding?

It definitely makes it harder for them, especially in the age of the Internet because now conservative groups can go to these databases of government-funded research and plug in keywords, like "sexual" or "penis," and then get a listing of these researchers whom they want to then "expose" as "spending government dollars on frivolous, immoral research."

So how do the researchers get around that?

They use a vague term. So instead of "sexual," you would say "physiological" responses. Research tends to gravitate where the funding money is, and for the past 10 years, really since Viagra came out, there has been a push toward finding a "female Viagra."

Obviously, you can't just use Viagra. They tried. Believe me, they tried.

It just doesn't work at all?

What happened is that it does cause an increase in blood volume in the genitals, but not to the point where the women were really noticing. If you did a physiological measurement: Yes, there was a difference, but when you asked questions, the women were like: "Huh, I didn't notice anything." So, it wasn't significant. On paper it was a significant difference, but not in their lives.

There can be a split between what the sex researchers measure happening in their genitals, and what women report feeling?

When sex researchers are doing female arousal studies, they tend to use sexually explicit clips -- porn. One researcher found that women say that they prefer female-centered porn. In other words, the guy is attending to the female's sexual needs, rather than just banging away. Women will say: "That is more arousing to me. That other stag film, I hated that one. It had no effect on me." But if you look at their blood volume, they were responding to both of them the same. So, it's just all much more subtle for women.

Didn't you also find that one study showed that women responded to gay male porn?

And bonobos, too. This is something that was completely unexpected. Women are really indiscriminate in what they respond to, which is totally counterintuitive. It doesn't matter who is having sex in the video, women have a physiological response. It doesn't mean they are inclined to have sex with bonobo apes, it was just that [what aroused them] didn't align with their own sexual preferences, unlike men. Straight men were turned on by straight sex. There was a little hitch in that lesbian sex also turned them on, but they're seeing two naked women.

Women also seem to be more easily distracted during sex. Kinsey had this line in one of his books that said, "Cheese crumbs spread in front of a pair of copulating rats will distract the female, but not the male."

There's a twisted history of attempts to improve women's sexual experiences. For instance, the case of the princess who had her clitoris moved. Can you talk about this princess, and why she did it?

Marie Bonaparte, who was the great-grand-niece of Napoleon Bonaparte, had this notion that the distance between the vagina and the clitoris would determine how aroused the woman got during intercourse. She was very frustrated that she never had orgasms during intercourse. By the way, her husband was gay; I don't know if that played into it at all.

She couldn't manage to have an orgasm during missionary position intercourse. Rather than try a different position, she decided it had to do with clitoral-vaginal distance. She did a lot of measurements on women, and then asked them, "Do you orgasm during intercourse?" and found a correlation between the distance between the clitoris and the vagina. In other words, the clitoris wasn't getting stimulated at all during intercourse, in some of these women with a far distance. She called those, like herself, the "téléclitoridiennes" -- "she of the distant clitoris."

For the surgery, she worked with this French doctor, and he tried it on a cadaver first, and then he did it on her, twice. Sadly, it didn't work the first time, or the second time. She's kind of a tragic story in the annals of sexual surgery.

Men haven't been immune to strange surgeries in pursuit of better sex either. Why was it once thought that if two testicles were good, maybe a third would make things even better?

In the Ottoman empire, there was this pasha who had 80 wives, and the family obstetrician noticed that every morning the pasha was drinking this consommé made from the testicles of hoof stock, like goats and sheep.

This doctor thought: "Hey, testicles seem to be the root of potency, because this guy has 80 wives, and he keeps having kids, and so there must be something in that broth." This doctor then started experimenting on animals, inserting a slice of one animal's testicles into the scrotum of another, and then thinking that they seemed more robust.

It was essentially like a transplant, so the immune system would sort of seal it off, and it would be this hard little lump in there. And that was about what they gained from the whole thing, a hard little lump.

But, amazingly, it caught on. In the 1920s, testicle grafting was this huge thing. There was a guy, Dr. Brinkley, in the Midwest who had this radio station, and he would broadcast, "A man is only as old as his glands!" People would take a train down to his facility, and they could go pick out their own sheep to get a piece of the testicle stuck in their own scrotum. The placebo effect goes a long way. I'm sure a lot of people were very happy with their testicular grafts.

Today, about a quarter of men who have erection problems Viagra can't help. What surgical treatments are there for them?

In Taiwan at the Microsurgical Potency Reconstruction and Research Center, there is a doctor who does this technique where he ties off some of the veins where blood drains out of the penis. In other words, if you have fewer drainage outlets from an erection, it's going to stay erect longer. The problem with it is over time the body reroutes the blood. If you block one route, the body will regrow veins, and so after four or five years, usually, people's satisfaction levels start to go down. It could be that this doctor in Taiwan is just really, really good at it. But people in the States who have looked into it find that it's not a long-term fix.

How do researchers today study sex in the laboratory?

The preponderance of physiological sex research going on now has to do with female libido and arousal. It's studied using this device that is called a vaginal photoplethysmograph. It looks like an acrylic tampon, and it's attached to a cable that comes curling out from between your legs, and it goes to a computer. Really, all it measures is how much capillary blood action there is, which is a way to measure arousal.

Say that it's a drug trial. They'll show women erotic clips while they're being measured, before taking the drug, and then after taking the drug, and then compare it. And there'll also be a subjective measure. That's really important with women to make sure there's subjective improvement, too. So, this one researcher came up with something called an arousometer, which looks like an automatic gearshift on a car. As a woman's watching the porn, she would move the little indicator up or down according to how aroused she was. Then, the researcher would have both the subjective and a physiological marker of how aroused they were in a sexual situation.

Do they have trouble getting people to do these studies?

These are mostly undergraduates, who are getting some course credit or some cash, and to answer your question, no, they have no trouble. College students can be easily enticed to do something for a quick buck.

But in terms of studying couples in a lab, that's a lot more challenging right?

It's also very, very rare. Since Masters and Johnson very few people have done physiological research with couples, because in a way you don't need to. When you study sex, you're either studying arousal -- some part of the sexual response cycle -- or orgasm. And so, the simplest way to do it is to have someone come in and masturbate.

If couples are in a lab having sex, it's more because they have a problem, and they're going to a sexual surrogate or a therapist, and they are seeking help for their own situation. You almost never see it, with the exception of Ed and I in the Dr. Deng ultrasound study. There are flukish things that come up from time to time.

How did that come about?

Dr. Deng has this new technique, which is four-dimensional ultrasound film. He's just experimenting with the technique, and he mentioned in one of his papers that he had a plan, he wanted to film "coitus," I think was the term that he used. I wrote him a note, and said, "Could I come whenever you have a couple that's going to do this?" And then he wrote back and said, "I'm having trouble finding a brave couple to do this, so if your organization knows somebody, let me know."

And so my organization, Mary Roach Inc., gave some thought to this, and I badgered poor Ed into doing it.

What was the experience like?

From my perspective, it was just like a kind of strange, mildly awkward medical procedure. First of all, I'm taking notes.

Talk about distracted!

Exactly. Dr. Deng is holding the wand, like you do in a fetal ultrasound, right here on my belly so it was impossible to be aroused. It's like when your gynecologist says, "Now, you're going to feel my gloved finger in your rectum." And you're like, "OK." It was that normal in a surreal way.

Rare though it may be, there have been people who had sex in an MRI machine, right?

Oh, yes. Jupp and Ida were the first people to make love in an MRI machine in 1991.

What was learned by doing that, and who were these people?

There was a Dutch physiologist, Pek van Andel, who was inspired by Leonardo's coition figures, which are a straight cutaway view of two people having sex. He brought in these two friends of his who agreed to do it, Jupp and Ida. They were acrobats. They were very physically adept. It's a very tiny space. They were the first to have managed it. In previous attempts the man couldn't maintain his erection, because you had to hold still for like a minute.

Until Viagra was invented, they couldn't do this study. They shelved it. They just completely gave up for a while, and then when Viagra came -- the "godsend," as one researcher called it -- then they were able to do it, and then there were a bunch of people whom they scanned. Ultimately what did they learn? They learned that the root of the penis is a lot longer than anybody had realized. It's two-thirds again the length of the part that you see, which was kind of interesting, but honestly I think it was more gee-whiz, let's see what we find.

How else has Viagra changed sex research?

When Viagra was discovered, and it took off in such a huge way, suddenly the Holy Grail became, "Let's find something else for the other 50 percent of the planet." So, there's been this mad rush toward finding the "female Viagra," just tremendous amounts of money funneled into that, because whoever gets the prize stands to profit in a fantastical way. So suddenly the spotlight was on women and their sexual responses.

Female sexual dysfunction is now split into libido problems, or "hypoactive desire disorder." "Hypo" as in low. It just means low libido, meaning you don't think about sex, and you're not particularly driven to have sex. And then there's a separate category for arousal disorder, where you may be very horny but the stimulation isn't doing anything for you. That's quite rare. And then there are orgasm disorders.

Vibrators used to be used by doctors to treat women who suffered from "hysteria," but you found that vibrators are still prescribed now. For what?

There's a device called the Eros Clitoral Therapy Device. Essentially, it's got a little suction cup on the end. And it does vibrate, but mostly because it has a motor. It vibrates in the same sense that an electric toothbrush vibrates, and by the way those get used as vibrators -- or they used to a lot.

This device pulls more blood to the clitoris, but so will masturbating. I called people, and I said, "OK, so what's the difference between this $400 device, and a vibrator, or just your own finger?" and they'd say, "You know, I don't really know. That's a good question!"

What Cindy Meston said, who is the woman in Texas who has the Female Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory, is what this does is it adds a layer of legitimacy to a device that someone might be otherwise uncomfortable using or prescribing even. A doctor can say, "Well, there's this device. It's FDA approved as something that increases women's arousal. Why don't you give it a try?"

And then they feel like they have a medical solution to a medical problem. Doctor's orders!

What were some of the things that you assumed were questions about human sexuality that science had totally resolved, which it turns out are still open questions?

What triggers ejaculation? What physiologically determines the point at which the male's apparatus just goes, "OK, let her rip!" They don't know for sure exactly what triggers it.

Orgasm as well. It's a reflex of the autonomic nervous system, but it gets triggered by everything from clitoral stimulation to somebody having their eyebrow stroked. Some people have spontaneous orgasms, which is incredibly embarrassing for them. There was this woman in Saudi Arabia who would have 13 spontaneous orgasms, out of the blue. Epilepsy sometimes triggers it. It's certainly far from simple and clear cut.

There are still mysteries out there.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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