JEDI SEX TRICKS
Use the latest findings on the female orgasm to become a maestro between the sheets.
Oh God, I’m going to come
I know it when I feel it. I know what works when I take my pleasure into my own hands. Still, I’d been told to expect performance anxiety – after all, I’m in a strange room far from home, with someone just outside the cracked door. You’d have to be an exhibitionist not to feel weird. (I’m not an exhibitionist.) But that familiar, wondrous feeling arrives not long after I settle in, close my eyes and put my mind and fingers to work. A tingling between my legs, warmth in my feet. Then, pure pleasure washes over me and a pulsing sensation sends shivers throughout my body. For a brief while – 21 seconds, I’d later learn – I check out. When I open my eyes and will myself back to reality, a flatscreen deadpans: “You’re done. Get dressed.” I straighten my dress, cast off the blanket covering my bare legs, and try to regain my composure. “Okay,” I say, “you can come in.”
Dr Nicole Prause enters the room. She’s tall, lean, pretty in a no-bullshit kind of way – face makeup-free, blonde hair in an untidy bun. At 39, she stands out in her field because (a) she’s a woman and (b) she runs her own lab, called Liberos. After leaving UCLA last year and securing grant money, Prause became her own boss, unfettered by university politics.
Her focus: sex as a way to promote general health – as a treatment for depression, chronic pain, sleep disorders, even arthritis. Someday, Prause says, doctors could prescribe masturbation. “Natural, free, accessible – what more do you want from your health care?” she asks me.
Researchers have been studying sex for more than half a century. I watched Masters of Sex on Showtime and figured that by now we’ve learned all there is to learn about this fundamental act. Boy, was I wrong. There remains a remarkable amount of uncertainty about the supposed best part – that intensely pleasurable climax.
That’s finally changing. In fact, Prause (PROW-SEE) is at the forefront of a race to decode the complex cascade of signals and inputs underlying the female orgasm. It’s a pursuit fraught with complexity: scientists can’t be in the room while a volunteer is sexually aroused; grant money is limited and tends to be weighted toward studies on diseases like cancer. And sex research, well – let’s just say it’s a tough sell at a cocktail party.
For scientists – and many women – female orgasm is elusive and complex. Heterosexual women report reaching orgasm during sex only 65 per cent of the time, versus 95 per cent for straight men. And being in a lab doesn’t exactly set the mood.
But Prause, from her small, unassuming office, is tackling these challenges in new ways that promise to seriously advance the field – and your sex life.you might think that women have a leg up on men (sometimes literally) when it comes to pleasure. After all, research suggests that female orgasm can be generated from
at least five areas – the clitoris, the G-spot, the cervix, the nipples and (believe it or not) the earlobes. Some women may even be able to achieve orgasm using their imagination alone.
Obviously evolution wanted us women to enjoy sex. As the renowned biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher puts it, it’s to a man’s advantage to please a woman in bed so she’ll come back and do it again. “The only way he’ll send his DNA down through eternity is if a woman has his baby. So it’s an adaptive mechanism to want to please her.” In the here and now, you’ll have better sex, which leads to more sex. Who doesn’t want that?
The dean of current orgasm research is Dr Barry Komisaruk of Rutgers University, who’s been studying orgasms for 15 years. In 2004, Komisaruk and his team, which included the author Beverly Whipple (The G Spot), became the first to show where brain activity occurs in women at climax. Komisaruk uses FMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. His team slides a woman into a scanner where she masturbates while they snap pictures of her brain. (Hot, right?) The machine records bloodflow and oxygenation, indicators of neural activity. Among their findings: the brain has no dedicated “sex part,” but areas associated with pleasure and memory do light up at orgasm. That’s what keeps us coming back for more. During orgasm, Komisaruk told me, “so many different brain regions are activated. That’s not surprising, because so many body systems are activated.”
Orgasm starts with the genital sensory cortex and then spreads to areas in the limbic system, including the amygdala (emotional processing) and hippocampus (memory, fantasy) along with the insula and anterior cingulate cortex (visceral sensation and internal feelings). Those last two are also activated when you feel pain, says Komisaruk, which may explain why orgasm can have a pain-blocking effect. And why your O face can look like you just threw out your back.
The way the brain “lights up” is the same in men and women, Komisaruk says, with one key difference: after orgasm, the male brain tends to respond less to stimulation, while the female brain continues to respond. That may explain why women can have multiple orgasms, while men usually need a break before going again.
The other significant contributor to orgasm research is Dutch neuroscientist Dr Janniko Georgiadis, who’s done about 60 studies on orgasm from his University of Groningen lab. For him, what’s more telling is not what lights up in the brain but what shuts down.
Georgiadis primarily uses PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which also track bloodflow and brain activity. Like FMRI, PET can localise the brain activity, but it’s slower, so the true flash point is easier to miss.
With his PET scans, Georgiadis saw some brain regions respond, aligning with some of Komisaruk’s findings. But to his surprise, he also found an orgasm-related decrease of bloodflow in certain regions, especially the prefrontal cortex and the temporal cortex, areas linked to planning and comprehension, respectively.
These areas light up during the day when you’re speaking, listening, thinking, engaging – anything to do with conscious thought. During orgasm, they’re about 10 per cent less active compared with the stages before.
When you climax, Georgiadis says, you have “an altered perception of things going on around you. There is less awareness, less fear. Everyone knows that you’re less able to think clearly while you’re having an orgasm. This fits this phenomenon really well.”
Translate this to the bedroom and you see why it’s easier for a woman to climax when she’s relaxed – and why planning your fantasy football team helps you delay the inevitable. In her case, she can more easily shut off those parts of her brain; in yours, they’re being prompted to light up. The gateway to orgasm is in letting go.
The reason one researcher sees the brain light up while the other sees it dim could be due to the different methods they use: turns out, what we believe about orgasm is coloured by the lens through which we view it.
“It’s more an apparent contradiction than a real one,” says Dr Jim Pfaus, a Canadian neuroscientist who studies orgasm in rats. (It’s a living.) One tool (PET) takes a single>
snapshot that represents everything that came before it, from desire to arousal to the main event. The other (FMRI) shows precise moments along the way, moments that may or may not be consistent from one test subject to another.
What’s more, “activation” does not always mean excitation: when Komisaruk sees frontal brain regions lighting up, that may simply be the command centre telling other parts to stand down. An FMRI can see that activation but can’t identify it; PET might be able to make that distinction but doesn’t isolate specific moments.
To understand orgasm, says Pfaus, “you just have to find the right time point”.
That’s where Prause has the advantage – because her method is significantly faster.
IN HER LAB Prause navigates past me through the tiny room. There’s a vintage desk, a yoga mat, a guitar. A plastic tub holds electronic devices; some are connected to the fingers on my left hand. (My right had been occupied.) A plated band wraps around my right upper arm and a multipronged headset clings to my skull.
Prause parks herself on a wooden chest beside the computer screen, which now displays a single line that slopes gradually down before breaking into wild undulations at about the 15-minute mark. “That could be orgasm,” she says, peering closer. “Yeah, that could work.”
With data like this, Prause hopes to answer some surprisingly fundamental physiological questions: what kind of touch and movement intensify arousal? Is orgasm distinct from heightened arousal, or just more of the same? Is it the pinnacle of pleasure or, technically speaking, the moment the brain puts on the brakes?
My orgasm in Prause’s lab was recorded by an EEG, or electroencephalogram, which measures brain activity; hence the headset. Prause pulls up images of my brain captured as I was masturbating. We’re looking at alpha, one of many electrical waves fluctuating through the brain constantly. Alpha is present when your brain is idling or in a wakeful relaxed state – as in daydreaming or just zoning out. Along with another wave called theta, it’s linked to
meditation and what athletes call “flow state”. When alpha’s high, you’re feeling chill. Let’s call it “chill wave” for now.
A colour spectrum on the monitor goes from dark blue (low chill) to green to orange to yellow (high chill). Only one brain image is completely yellow – the “stimulate to orgasm” brain. (But crucially, not during actual orgasm.)
Another chart, a spectogram, shows a bright line extending with a few breaks across the graph. That line indicates chill and should be brighter during higher levels of sexual arousal. Sure enough, it starts at a point when I’m self-stimulating and fantasising. (Sorry, not telling!)
The line is brightest just before orgasm, indicating where my brain has gone full chill. But during orgasm (I’d hit a button at start and finish) the line disappears, as if my orgasm turned my normal consciousness back on.
Generally, my alpha activity fits a pattern Prause has seen before. That pattern is her most surprising discovery so far, a working hypothesis she described to me as the “sympathetic nervous system switch”. (Her research on the topic has been accepted for publication by the Archives of Sexual Behaviour.)
THIS “SWITCH THEORY” (my term) holds that climax is linked to an off-switch in our brain. Both Komisaruk and Georgiadis had concluded something similar. Prause’s twist: the switch is flipped well before orgasm happens.
To begin, Prause had me think of something sexy. Sometimes she shows her study participants a pornographic image; sometimes they self-stimulate with a genital vibrator. When her volunteers first become aroused, their chill generally quiets down. They’re paying attention. But when they’re asked to attempt an orgasm, the chill shoots up. To trigger orgasm, your brain may have to zone out, as indicated on my results.
For Prause, it’s not that the orgasm triggers deactivations in the brain; it’s that the deactivations in the brain are necessary to trigger orgasm.
“Janniko, and to some extent Barry, are arguing that there’s increased activation especially in frontal areas, and that after orgasm happens the brain shuts down,” Prause told me. “We’re arguing that orgasm is not the off switch, that to get to orgasm you had to flip that switch before.” She suspects that if Rutgers researchers were to sample more rapidly and look at the time period preceding orgasm, they’d find data to support her hypothesis.
If orgasm marked the height of pleasure, you’d think chill waves would keep rising. But they don’t; they drop. That makes orgasm not an off-switch but more like a “back on” switch, pulling you out of the trance that preceded it.
For Prause, this suggests that the best part of sex – the thing that keeps you coming back for more – is not the orgasm but the part leading up to it, what she refers to as a high-pleasure state and the kids call “edging,” when you deliberately delay orgasm to make sex last longer, potentially making the eventual orgasm stronger.
Your takeaway: if she doesn’t have an orgasm and insists she’s fine, she might actually mean it. “Orgasm isn’t magic,” says Prause. “Not that it’s not reinforcing, but everything before it is also reinforcing.”
Some women may even confuse high arousal for orgasm and still report satisfaction. During her research, Prause found many of the women reporting orgasm did not have the pelvic contractions traditionally used to define it. At first she thought the anal probe – which >
senses the contractions – was faulty. But as the trend persisted, she realised that these women were not experiencing orgasms, even though they believed they were. (She did not see this in men.)
Komisaruk and others maintain that women do know when they’re having an orgasm and enter an almost trancelike state of consciousness. It’s “flow” all over again. In that state, says Safron, “the rhythm is all there is”. When your brain rhythms sync up with an outside stimulus, you can attend to that stimulus more easily. “The more you attend, the more you can be entrained by a rhythm,” Safron told me. “And the more in sync you are, the better you can attend.”
This may explain why we can zoom in on rhythmic experiences like music, he says.
“They outcompete other things for your attention,” says Safron. “This is part of why people like these experiences: they’re engaging with something highly pleasurable in a very focused manner and they’re also able to let go of things that are less pleasurable, like thinking about jobs, taxes or laundry.” Sounds a little like meditation, I point out. “I’d say it’s a lot like meditation,” Safron responds. For Prause, that’s precisely what happens when that off switch flips: you enter entrainment. (Aptly, she’s currently studying whether genital stimulation can offer the same benefits as meditation.)
If Prause’s work shifts the emphasis away from orgasm and toward the journey there, then Safron’s theory takes that shift and brings it home, into your bedroom. Turns out, viewing sex as a form of meditation may actually be a good idea.
Meditation is a practice, something you improve at over time, like learning to play a musical instrument – you get better and better at absorption and at letting go of distractions. Imagine sex as a practice (not a performance), and maybe you can relax.
Meditation also means staying present: if thoughts arise, you acknowledge them briefly and then let them go. That feels good because you’re not stressing out, you’re not ruminating. Staying present in bed, focusing on your breath or the touch of her skin against yours, also feels good and may help turn off the kind of self-monitoring that can lead to anxiety and sexual dysfunction.
All of this can enhance the sexual experience in a powerful way: as you become more in sync with the rhythms, you can tune out distractions more easily, which in turn frees you up to focus on pleasure.
This not only makes sex more fun but can also deepen your connection with your partner. “If two people are attending to the same rhythm,” Safron says, “you could get synchronisation across their nervous systems.” That can lead to an increased ability to communicate with your partner – like making eye contact across a room and seemingly reading each other’s minds. “You’ll see this in armies marching together, in dance partners and in musicians who play duets – they all develop this intimacy,” Safron says. “Literally, as a mechanism, their systems might sync up. This allows them to be closer in a variety of ways.”
This underlines the sexual importance of rhythms (so don’t go spelling the alphabet with your tongue during cunnilingus; establishing a pleasing rhythm is more effective) and attentiveness to your partner. It also poses sex as a means to an altered state of consciousness. And all this time, you thought it was just about getting off.
“People have a bizarre doublethink around sexuality,” Safron tells me. “They think of it as both unimportant and so important that it causes terror in them.” A shift in perspective can help you find a middle ground. Think of sex as stimulation and it can get old; consider it a strange trance state and you might find new ways to enjoy it. “Recognise that sex is really weird,” Safron says. “And appreciate that.”
I’m here to testify: he’s right. My journey into the world of orgasm research not only changed my mindset but also led to some of the best sex of my life.
One night after my return home, my husband joined me in bed. I started kissing him. We kissed for a long time – longer than we ever would have before. To my surprise, he seemed into it. In the past, I might have worried we were spending too long on kissing, but now that fear seemed unfounded and contrary to what I’d learned. Pleasure was something to sink into, not race toward.
It was a much slower build than I’d ever experienced, and then something weird happened. The outside world faded away, leaving the two of us behind. Entrainment had started to kick in. It led to life-changing sex. I enjoyed all of it, not just those last 20 seconds (sorry, I mean 21.)
IF PRAUSE’S WORK SHIFTS THE EMPHASIS AWAY FROM ORGASM AND TOWARD THE JOURNEY, THEN “ENTRAINMENT” BRINGS THAT SHIFT HOME, INTO YOUR BEDROOM
Arousal areas in the brain overlap with the pain matrix. That may explain why your O face can look like you’re in pain. And why her O face is so painfully hot.
MY JOURNEY INTO THE WORLD OF ORGASM RESEARCH NOT ONLY CHANGED MY MINDSET, IT LED TO SOME OF THE BEST SEX OF MY LIFE