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 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.)


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.


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