"Why do you study sex?”
It’s winter 2012. Having spent countless hours over the previous three years examining brain imaging studies that involve women donating their orgasms to science, including piloting my own study with endless hours in an fMRI machine, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this question. I have presented my pilot data to the Society for Neuroscience at their yearly gathering of twenty-thousand-plus brain nerds featuring a dozen or so special lectures given by the rock stars at the cutting edge of the hottest neuroscience topics. Although other neuroscientists have conducted studies on how the human brain responds to sexual arousal, only two labs have been crazy enough to go all the way and study the brain on the big “O.” The media loved the results of my team’s study, which showed that orgasm was associated with increased blood flow—and therefore more oxygen—to more than eighty regions of the brain. “Have an orgasm instead of doing a crossword,” one outlet wrote, “It’s better for your brain, says scientist.” You would think that people would know more about the sexual brain in general and orgasm in particular by this point, but that is not the case.
The “female brain orgasm video,” as it has come to be known, had so many hits it crashed the hosting website and went viral (you can Google it for a view). No doubt this video is what got the attention of the Nightline producers and why Juju Chang was now waiting outside my lab, ready to roll her cameras.
I am mildly agitated at the prospect of having to stop everything to make arrangements for the crew to witness one of our studies, but I am also eager to do the show because I believe we have an obligation to validate the importance of human sexuality—and this gives us the opportunity to show our work to a large national audience.
So, before we start up the fMRI, I think about how to respond to Juju’s question, “Why do you study sex?”
This is the same question that I have been asked since I first got into the sex research biz. I’ve been asked this question in my own psychology department by colleagues who seem uncomfortable with our work and who have expressed the opinion that our participants must be “exhibitionists”—the same colleagues who on occasion let little comments, like “Hey, sex maniac,” slip when they bump into me in the hall. It’s the same question I am always answering to justify our work. But, in a way, this question is also my own—it’s what has been nagging at my curiosity over the past thirty years, from when I first began working as a psychotherapist, then a sex therapist, and now as a neuroscientist. I’ve been investigating this question in all sorts of settings because it raises so many issues about happiness, health, well-being, and pleasure, and, yes, about sex itself. Indeed, that’s why I am writing the book that you now hold in your hands.
The scan fortunately goes well in spite of all the distractions, yielding yet one more orgasm to add to my data. At the end of the clip, there I am in my lab coat, giving my final sound bite. “We live in a country where people are really obsessed about sex and also very hung up about it. I think we need to get over that!”
Juju seems to agree as her voice-over immediately chimes in, “Our sexual happiness, it seems, depends on it.” So why do I study sex?
Sex is important for overall physical and emotional well-being. Yet we know less about human sexuality and the brain than we do about possible life in outer space. In fact, until we understand how sex is wired in the brain, we will not fully understand how genitals, especially female genitals, work, how to help people with sexual disorders, and how and why addiction and mood disorders take root.
Interestingly, this question never came up when I was a sex therapist working privately with women and men on their complications and challenges in the bedroom. Sure, I’d been interviewed by magazines and newspapers, and some of my more interesting cases as well as my approach to sex therapy have been featured in books. But no one ever seemed to ask me why I chose a career focused on sex in the first place. That all changed when I decided to go to graduate school and pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience with a focus on sex.
Why did I want to understand how the brain and sex relate? Really, it all started with a hunch that was formed during my clinical practice as a psychotherapist (this was before I specialized in sex therapy).