Browsing posts tagged with research Archives – She Bop's Blog

What does being a sex researcher really entail?

Dr. Debby Herbenick, Dr. Justin Lehmiller, Dr. Kristen Mark, and Sarah Merrill

Ask the average person what a sex researcher does, and they’ll likely guess that researchers watch people have sex in a lab. The truth is, sex researchers don’t usually come that close to their subject — but they still love their jobs and are producing excellent and insightful work (which we have highlighted on this blog many a time!).

To show how varied the field of sex research is, Nerve interviewed four different researchers: Dr. Debby Herbenick, a research scientist who studies consumer sex products, self-image, and health, Dr. Justin Lehmiller, an expert on casual sex, Dr. Kristen Mark, who focuses on sex within long-term relationships, and Sarah Merrill, who studies physiological and subjective arousal.

Dr. Debby Herbenick fell into sex research first by working at The Kinsey Institute. She now teaches human sexuality classes at Indiana University, gives talks, writes articles, and of course, conducts research. She does a lot of survey research focusing on genital self-image and health, sexual behavior (such as use of condoms, sex toys, and lube), and exercise-induced orgasm. She is the innovator behind Make Sex Normal and believes the most important thing to remember about sex is that “we’re all a little unique with our sexuality — and that uniqueness is something to appreciate, not fear.”

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a casual sex specialist who conducts anonymous surveys and runs a blog called Sex and Psychology. His interest in sex research was piqued when he was assigned a teaching assistant position for a sexuality course in graduate school. He firmly believes that the modern hullabaloo about “hook-up culture” is unfounded — young people aren’t having any more casual sex than in the 80s and 90s. He finds that being a sex researcher makes him a hit at parties: “Every time I tell new people what I do, whether I am at the bar or at a formal dinner, everyone wants to talk about sex and ask their burning questions for the rest of the evening.”

Dr. Kristen Mark works at the University of Kentucky as director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab. She is interested in how couples can maintain satisfying sex lives in long-term relationships (short answer: communication). When not conducting surveys, she also teaches several courses and seminars on sexuality education and healthy relationships. What people forget about sex, she says, is that “Individual preferences outweigh any tips or tricks. Talk to your partner. Learn what they like. Explore.”

Sarah Merrill is a Developmental Psychology Ph.D. student at Cornell University. Her research focuses on sexual orientation fluidity (“There can be, and should be, a significant amount of nuance when talking about a person’s sexual orientation”), the role of sex in adult attachments, and the gap between physiological and subjective arousal. Using a combination of eye tracking and pupil dilation measurements, her lab tracks sexual arousal in participants and compares it to the participants’ subjective accounts of what arouses them. Often, subjective arousal and physiological arousal don’t match, and Merrill is trying to figure out why — and if any alterations to the studies can make them match more closely.

Read full interviews with all four researchers here!

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Altered consciousness for sadomasochists?


It may come as little surprise for those who regularly engage in BDSM, but researchers are proving why sadomasochism is so alluring: it may actually lead to a different level of consciousness.

James Ambler, a graduate student in psychology at Northern Illinois University, set out to understand why some people engage in sexual behaviors that others consider painful. He enlisted 14 “switches” (people who enjoy both giving and receiving pain), who were each randomly assigned a role for an ensuing sexual experience.

Afterward, participants took a cognitive test called the Stroop task and also reported on their “flow,” a state of focus and enjoyment that people enter when engrossed in an activity.

Both givers and receivers described similar levels of “flow” during the sexual experience, but pain-receivers produced lower Stroop task scores. Low Stroop scores are associated with short-term dips in function in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that manages memory and control.

What does this mean? It means that during sadomasochistic activities, the brain is forcing blood flow away from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — facilitating an altered state of consciousness.

This conclusion is bolstered by another couple of researchers at the same university. They studied “energy pulls,” during which folks get temporary skin piercings through which hooks and ropes are looped, then pulled taut. Saliva samples from the 22 participants showed a spike in cortisol, a stress hormone, during the ritual — but participants reported feeling both less stressed and more connected to others.

Researchers believe this disparity is due to an altered state of consciousness, as well as a reduction in function in that same dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Among other things, that part of the brain is responsible for distinguishing the self from others, so less blood flow to the area can cause a sensation of oneness.

These results may be fairly general, but they lay the groundwork for future studies. Down the line, researchers hope to enact real-time monitoring of participants to examine the physiological and psychological components of BDSM and how they mingle during a sexual experience. Now that would be really interesting.

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Orgasms better for your brain than puzzles

Photo via GettyNext time you find yourself reaching for your book of Sudoku puzzles, perhaps you should be reaching for a partner or a sex toy instead.

Researchers Barry Komisaruk and Nan Wise at Rutgers have discovered that orgasms increase blood flow to more parts of the brain than mental exercises. Orgasms even bring nutrients and oxygen to the brain to keep it healthy! Those measly little puzzles, on the other hand, only increase brain activity in certain regions.

The study involved female subjects lying down in fMRI machines and bringing themselves to orgasm, which obviously presented some challenges for participants. Kayt Sukel, a volunteer for the study, has written a few pieces about her experience, complete with a picture of the “Orgasm Mask” she had to wear:

Komisaruk’s associate, PhD student and sex therapist Nan Wise, walked me through the procedure. She said to help keep movement to a minimum (and the data clean), I would be fitted with a breathable plastic mesh helmet that would be screwed to the scanner bed. I’d be locked in and need the assistance of others to get out of the contraption.

. . . “I know you can do it. Just practice,” she said. “You know what they say. Practice makes perfect!”

For the next two weeks, I did just that. To help optimise my body movement for fMRI, I attached a small bell – an ornament belonging to my cat – to my forehead with some duct tape.

Wise was right. With practice I diminished any jingling sound to something manageable, no matter how raucous I may have felt on the inside. And once she and Komisaruk had bolted me to the scanner bed, while it wasn’t easy to work up to an orgasm, I found it wasn’t quite as difficult as I had imagined.

We thank you for your public service, Kayt! And are impressed with your ingenuity.

Of course, it probably takes a lot longer to solve a crossword puzzle than an orgasm lasts, but… that’s just a good reason to have more and more of them.

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Science proves that communication and flexibility make relationships better

It seems that when scientific studies tackle something sex-related, their findings are often just verification of what sexperts have been talking about for years (remember when scientists proved that stimulation of the clitoris and stimulation of the vagina activate different regions of the brain?). But there’s still something satisfying about qualitative research backing up these things. Two recent studies reminded us of this.

The first study, conducted by Elizabeth Babin, an expert on health communication at Cleveland State University, asked participants to complete surveys about their own personal sexual communication (both non-verbal and verbal), sexual self-esteem, and sexual satisfaction. 207 people participated.

As it turns out, low apprehension about sexual communication plus high sexual self-esteem were linked to more communication during sex, and communication during sex was linked to more sexual satisfaction. Vice versa, apprehension over talking about sex caused less sexual satisfaction overall. Moral of the story: communicate with your partner! It’s good for you!

The second study, published in the Journal of Sex Research and undertaken by researchers at the University of Arizona and Hanover College, studied “sexual transformations” — changes that people make to their sex lives for the sake of their partners — and how they impact relationships. 96 couples were asked about sexual changes they made — such as frequency of sex and types of sexual activity — and how they felt about them. They were also asked how often they cuddled, because why not?

The results showed that folks reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction when their partners were willing to undergo “sexual transformations” for them. Also, those who felt more positive about the changes reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Overall, a willingness to adapt and be flexible when it comes to sexual activity seems to be a positive force in relationships — which isn’t much of a shock.

Writer Debby Herbenick sums it up nicely:

As with movies, drinks and food, it’s common for people in relationships to have different preferences. One person likes beer and the other digs wine. One likes action flicks and the other favors anything starring Audrey Tautou. One likes vanilla intercourse and the other wants to hold a vibrator to their partner’s clitoris while she’s upside down in wheelbarrow, wearing a pirate costume.

Nearly all couples have different wants and needs, likes and dislikes, when it comes to sex. And that’s OK. Very few couples line up exactly in terms of how often they want to have sex, the positions they want to twist their bodies into, how long they want to spend from kissing to falling asleep, and the types of sex they want to engage in. What matters is how couples fill in those gaps — how they make changes for each other, how they feel about and approach the ways they’re willing to bend, and how they stay connected through affection.

Also, unsurprisingly, cuddling (and kissing, massaging, and hugging) resulted in higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Moral of the story: cuddle often, and be, as Dan Savage says, “good, giving, and game.”

It should be interesting to see what comes next in the field of sex research. Elizabeth Babin’s next move is to research couples and their communication styles as they relate to sexual satisfaction. Ultimately, she is hoping to develop ideas for therapists and sex educators in teaching folks how to discuss sex more freely with their partners. A very good goal, we think!


Does the G-spot exist?

The G-spot gets a lot of attention in the media. From a glance at the headlines or even a flick of the TV remote, one might assume that the G-spot is nothing more than an imaginary pleasure center invented by Cosmo. And many are understandably put off by the way the G-spot is often hyped as the holy grail of pleasure.

Of course, nothing in particular is the holy grail, since everyone experiences pleasure differently. But the G-spot does exist — and every person with a vagina has the potential to feel G-spot stimulation.

Put simply, the G-spot is an area on the roof of the vagina through which the urethral sponge can be stimulated. Some women enjoy the sensation; some have to learn to enjoy it; others don’t care for it at all. G-spot stimulation may or may not lead to orgasm or ejaculation. But the G-spot is still quite misunderstood because, for its entire existence, we’ve been given conflicting stories about it.

German gynecologist Ernest Grafenberg was the first to write about what is now known as the G-spot, in a 1950 paper entitled “The Role of Urethra in Female Orgasm.” This controversial piece posited that the urethra was surrounded by erectile tissue which, when stimulated, swelled and became more sensitive. Grafenberg also noted that some women’s orgasms were accompanied by a release of non-urine fluid from the urethra.

30 years later, a book called The G-Spot: And Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality came out, and quickly became a best seller. The book detailed the authors’ original research study of 400 women, and concluded that yes, there is an area on the front wall of the vagina that responds to pressure. They called it the Grafenberg Spot.

As the G-spot began to permeate the popular consciousness (thanks in no small part to sex toy shops and curved G-spot toys), scientists felt it was time to study it. Only, they didn’t do a particularly good job. A 2001 opinion piece published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology — which called the G-spot a “gynecological UFO” — received a lot of mainstream press, but the essay merely concluded that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to prove the G-spot was real.

Then came the bombshell study of 2010 that incited alarming headlines. 1,800 women, who were all twins, were studied by scientists at King’s College in London. The study consisted entirely of interviews, including the questionably-phrased query, “Do you believe you have a so-called G-spot, a small area the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure?”

While 56 percent of the women said “yes” to that particular question (and 40 to 48 percent said it was “not difficult at all” to have a vaginal orgasm), media sources overwhelmingly reported that this study was proof that the G-spot doesn’t exist. Why? Because that’s what the researchers concluded. Finding no pattern in the pairs of twins, they concluded that the G-spot was subjective.

The bias of the researchers wasn’t the only flaw in that study. Scientists specifically excluded lesbian and bisexual women from participating, and failed to ask questions about digital or sex toy penetration — only vaginal intercourse and clitoral stimulation. They didn’t ask about sexual positions, either.

Some sex educators — such as Rebecca Chalker (author of The Clitoral Truth) and Betty Dodson — believe that the urethral sponge is part of the clitoris, and therefore that G-spot orgasms are still clitoral orgasms. A 2006 article from a neurologist named Helen O’Connell, entitled “Anatomy of the Clitoris,” agreed, explaining that the walls of the clitoris wrap around the urethra and are composed of erectile tissue. But, as Tristan Taormino explains,

These works technically refuted the G-spot; however, it was more a matter of semantics. They clearly supported the idea of the urethral sponge made of erectile tissue and a sensitive area on the front wall of the vagina — they just reframed it with different language.

The truth is, while science can certainly help us understand a great many things, it is still pretty far behind. Right now, what matters more than scientific proof is overwhelming anecdotal proof — and the support of sex educators and sexperts such as Carol QueenSusie BrightViolet Blue, and Annie Sprinkle.

Several sex educators have written entire books on the G-spot, such as Tristan Taormino’s The Secrets of Great G-Spot Orgasms and Female Ejaculation, Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to the G-Spot, Deborah Sundahl’s Female Ejaculation & The G-Spot, and Female Ejaculation: Unleash the Ultimate G-Spot Orgasm by Somraj Pokras and Jeffre Talltrees. Plus, other sex ed books mention and validate the G-spot: The Ultimate Guide to Orgasm for Women, I Love Female OrgasmThe Multi-Orgasmic Woman, and Getting Off, to name just a few.

Tristan Taormino put it best in her new G-spot book:

For all the women who answered yes to that British survey question, the hundreds interviewed for The G-Spot, and the thousands I’ve talked to in my fifteen-year career as a sex educator, the G-spot definitely exists. And although it’s very sensitive, it doesn’t care what its critics say about it.


Brain scans pinpoint female sexual response

This graphic just about says it all:

60 years after mapping out the male brain in response to sexual stimulation, scientists have finally scanned the female brain. The findings? Stimulation of the clitoris and stimulation of the vagina each activate different regions of the brain’s sensory cortex. And nipple stimulation causes the genital area of the cortex to light up, which scientifically explains the very obvious fact that nipple stimulation is erotic. Thank goodness!

The research was conducted first by a team at University Children’s Hospital in Switzerland, where the team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the area of the sensory cortex that responds to clitoral stimulation. The position of the clitoris on the sensory cortex corresponded pretty closely to the position of the penis in men.

A second team of researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey picked up where the others left off, determining the positions of the clitoris, vagina, and cervix on the sensory cortex as women stimulated themselves. Sadly, they only stimulated “the front wall of the vagina generally,” so no word yet on what G-spot stimulation does in the brain.

This is definitely a “well, duh” news item, but at least researchers are finally taking more interest in female sexual response!

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