Mary Roach: 10 things you didn't know about orgasm
February 6, 2009
"Bonk" author Mary Roach delves into obscure scientific research, some of it centuries old, to make 10 surprising claims about sexual climax, ranging from the bizarre to the hilarious. (This talk is aimed at adults. Viewer discretion advised.)Mary Roach
Death, the afterlife, and now sex -- Mary Roach tackles the most pondered and least understood conundrums that have baffled humans for centuries. (She's funny, too.) Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Alright. I'm going to show you a couple of images
from a very diverting paper
in The Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine.
I'm going to go way out on a limb and say that it is the most diverting paper
ever published in The Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine.
The title is "Observations of In-Utero Masturbation."
Okay. Now on the left you can see the hand -- that's the big arrow --
and the penis on the right. The hand hovering.
And over here we have,
in the words of radiologist Israel Meisner,
"The hand grasping the penis in a fashion resembling masturbation movements."
Bear in mind this was an ultrasound,
so it would have been moving images.
Orgasm is a reflex of the autonomic nervous system.
Now this is the part of the nervous system
that deals with the things that we don't consciously control,
like digestion, heart rate and sexual arousal.
And the orgasm reflex can be triggered
by a surprisingly broad range of input.
Genital stimulation. Duh.
But also Kinsey interviewed a woman
who could be brought to orgasm
by having someone stroke her eyebrow.
People with spinal cord injuries,
like paraplegias, quadriplegias,
will often develop a very, very sensitive area
right above the level of their injury,
wherever that is.
There is such a thing as a knee orgasm in the literature.
I think the most curious one that I came across
was a case report of a woman
who had an orgasm every time she brushed her teeth.
This was something in the complex
sensory-motor action of brushing her teeth
was triggering orgasm.
And she went to a neurologist who was fascinated.
He checked to see if it was something in the toothpaste,
but no -- it happened with any brand.
They stimulated her gums
with a toothpick, to see if that was doing it.
No. It was the whole, you know, motion.
And the amazing thing to me is that
now you would think this woman would like have
excellent oral hygiene.
Sadly she -- this is what it said in the journal paper --
"She believed that she was possessed by demons
and switched to mouthwash for her oral care."
It's so sad.
I interviewed, when I was working on the book,
I interviewed a woman who can think herself to orgasm.
She was part of a study at Rutgers University.
You gotta love that. Rutgers.
So I interviewed her in Oakland,
in a sushi restaurant.
And I said, "So, could you do it right here?"
And she said, "Yeah, but you know I'd rather finish my meal if you don't mind."
But afterwards she was kind enough to demonstrate
on a bench outside.
It was remarkable. It took about one minute.
And I said to her,
"Are you just doing this all the time?"
She said, "No. Honestly when I get home I'm usually too tired."
She said that the last time she had done it
was on the Disneyland tram.
The headquarters for orgasm, along the spinal nerve,
is something called the sacral nerve root, which is back here.
And if you trigger, if you stimulate with an electrode,
the precise spot, you will trigger an orgasm.
And it is a fact that you can trigger spinal reflexes
in dead people --
a certain kind of dead person, a beating-heart cadaver.
Now this is somebody who is brain-dead,
legally dead, definitely checked out,
but is being kept alive on a respirator,
so that their organs will be oxygenated
Now in one of these brain-dead people,
if you trigger the right spot,
you will see something every now and then.
There is a reflex called the Lazarus reflex.
And this is -- I'll demonstrate as best I can, not being dead.
It's like this. You trigger the spot.
The dead guy, or gal, goes ... like that.
Very unsettling for people working in pathology labs.
Now if you can trigger the Lazarus reflex in a dead person,
why not the orgasm reflex?
I asked this question to a brain death expert,
Stephanie Mann, who was foolish enough to return my emails.
I said, "So, could you conceivably
trigger an orgasm in a dead person?"
She said, "Yes, if the sacral nerve is being oxygenated,
you conceivably could."
Obviously it wouldn't be as much fun for the person.
But it would be an orgasm --
I actually suggested to -- there is a researcher at the University of Alabama
who does orgasm research.
I said to her, "You should do an experiment.
You know? You can get cadavers if you work at a university."
I said, "You should actually do this."
She said, "You get the human subjects review board approval for this one."
According to 1930s marriage manual author,
Theodoor van de Velde,
a slight seminal odor can be detected on the breath of a woman
within about an hour after sexual intercourse.
Theodoor van de Velde was something of a semen connoisseur.
This is a guy writing a book, "Ideal Marriage," you know.
Very heavy hetero guy.
But he wrote in this book, "Ideal Marriage" --
he said that he could differentiate between the semen of a young man,
which he said had a fresh, exhilarating smell,
and the semen of mature men,
whose semen smelled quote,
"Remarkably like that of the flowers of the Spanish chestnut.
Sometimes quite freshly floral,
and then again sometimes extremely pungent."
Okay. In 1999, in the state of Israel,
a man began hiccupping.
And this was one of those cases that went on and on.
He tried everything his friends suggested.
Nothing seemed to help.
Days went by. At a certain point, the man,
still hiccupping, had sex with his wife.
And lo and behold, the hiccups went away.
He told his doctor, who published a case report
in a Canadian medical journal under the title,
"Sexual Intercourse as a Potential Treatment
for Intractable Hiccups."
I love this article because at a certain point they suggested
that unattached hiccuppers could try masturbation.
I love that because there is like a whole demographic: unattached hiccuppers.
Married, single, unattached hiccupper.
In the 1900s, early 1900s
gynecologists, a lot of gynecologists believed
that when a woman has an orgasm
the contractions serve to suck the semen up through the cervix
and sort of deliver it really quickly to the egg,
thereby upping the odds of conception.
It was called the "upsuck" theory.
If you go all the way back to Hippocrates,
physicians believed that orgasm in women was not just
helpful for conception, but necessary.
Doctors back then were routinely telling men
the importance of pleasuring their wives.
Marriage-manual author and semen-sniffer
Theodoor van de Velde --
has a line in his book.
I loved this guy. I got a lot of mileage out of Theodoor van de Velde.
He had this line in his book
that supposedly comes from the Habsburg Monarchy,
where there was an empress Maria Theresa,
who was having trouble conceiving.
And apparently the royal court physician said to her,
"I am of the opinion
that the vulva of your most sacred majesty
be titillated for some time prior to intercourse."
It's apparently, I don't know, on the record somewhere.
Masters and Johnson: now we're moving forward to the 1950s.
Masters and Johnson were upsuck skeptics,
which is also really fun to say.
They didn't buy it.
And they decided, being Masters and Johnson,
that they would get to the bottom of it.
They brought women into the lab -- I think it was five women --
and outfitted them with cervical caps
containing artificial semen.
And in the artificial semen
was a radio-opaque substance,
such that it would show up on an X-ray.
This is the 1950s.
Anyway these women sat in front of an X-ray device.
And they masturbated.
And Masters and Johnson looked to see if the semen was being sucked up.
Did not find any evidence of upsuck.
You may be wondering, "How do you make artificial semen?"
I have an answer for you. I have two answers.
You can use flour and water, or cornstarch and water.
I actually found three separate recipes in the literature.
My favorite being the one that says --
you know, they have the ingredients listed,
and then in a recipe it will say, for example,
"Yield: two dozen cupcakes."
This one said, "Yield: one ejaculate."
There's another way that orgasm might boost fertility.
This one involves men.
Sperm that sit around in the body for a week or more
start to develop abnormalities
that make them less effective at head-banging their way
into the egg.
British sexologist Roy Levin
has speculated that this is perhaps why men
evolved to be such enthusiastic and frequent masturbators.
He said, "If I keep tossing myself off
I get fresh sperm being made."
Which I thought was an interesting idea, theory.
So now you have an evolutionary excuse.
Alrighty. There is considerable evidence for upsuck in the animal kingdom --
pigs, for instance.
In Denmark, the Danish National Committee for Pig Production
found out that if you
sexually stimulate a sow while you artificially inseminate her,
you will see a six-percent increase in the farrowing rate,
which is the number of piglets produced.
So they came up with this plan, this five-point stimulation plan
for the sows.
And they had the farmers -- there is posters they put in the barn,
and they have a DVD.
And I got a copy of this DVD.
This is my unveiling, because I am going to show you a clip.
So uh, okay.
Now here we go in to the -- la la la, off to work.
It all looks very innocent.
He's going to be doing things with his hands
that the boar would use his snout, lacking hands. Okay.
This is it. The boar has a very odd courtship repertoire.
This is to mimic the weight of the boar.
You should know, the clitoris of the pig, inside the vagina.
So this may be sort of titillating for her. Here we go.
And the happy result.
I love this video.
There is a point in this video, towards the beginning
where they zoom in for a close up of his hand with his wedding ring,
as if to say, "It's okay, it's just his job. He really does like women."
Okay. Now I said -- when I was in Denmark, my host was named Anne Marie.
And I said, "So why don't you just stimulate the clitoris of the pig?
Why don't you have the farmers do that?
That's not one of your five steps."
She said -- I have to read you what she said, because I love it.
She said, "It was a big hurdle
just to get farmers to touch underneath the vulva.
So we thought, let's not mention the clitoris right now."
Shy but ambitious pig farmers, however, can purchase a -- this is true --
a sow vibrator,
that hangs on the sperm feeder tube to vibrate.
Because, as I mentioned,
the clitoris is inside the vagina.
So possibly, you know, a little more arousing than it looks.
And I also said to her,
"Now these sows. I mean, you may have noticed there,
The sow doesn't look to be in the throes of ecstasy."
And she said, you can't make that conclusion,
because animals don't register
pain or pleasure on their faces in the same way that we do.
They tend to -- pigs, for example, are more like dogs.
They use the upper half of the face; the ears are very expressive.
So you're not really sure what's going on with the pig.
Primates, on the other hand, we use our mouths more.
This is the ejaculation face of the stump-tailed macaque.
And, interestingly, this has been observed in female macaques,
but only when mounting another female.
Masters and Johnson, in the 1950s, they decided,
okay, we're going to figure out the entire human sexual response cycle,
from arousal, all the way through orgasm, in men and women --
everything that happens in the human body.
Okay, with women, a lot of this is happening inside.
This did not stop Masters and Johnson.
They developed an artificial coition machine.
This is basically a penis camera on a motor.
There is a phallus,
clear acrylic phallus, with a camera and a light source,
attached to a motor that is kind of going like this.
And the woman would have sex with it.
That is what they would do. Pretty amazing.
Sadly, this device has been dismantled.
This just kills me, not because I wanted to use it --
I wanted to see it.
One fine day
Alfred Kinsey decided
to calculate the average distance traveled by ejaculated semen.
This was not idle curiosity.
Doctor Kinsey had heard --
and there was a theory kind of going around at the time, this being the 1940s --
that the force with which
semen is thrown against the cervix
was a factor in fertility.
Kinsey thought it was bunk, so he got to work.
He got together in his lab
300 men, a measuring tape, and a movie camera.
And in fact he found
that in three quarters of the men
the stuff just kind of slopped out.
It wasn't spurted or thrown or ejected under great force.
However, the record holder
landed just shy of the eight-foot mark, which is impressive.
Sadly, he's anonymous. His name is not mentioned.
In his write-up,
in his write-up of this experiment in his book,
"Two sheets were laid down to protect the oriental carpets."
Which is my second favorite line
in the entire oeuvre of Alfred Kinsey.
My favorite being, "Cheese crumbs spread before a pair of copulating rats
will distract the female, but not the male."
Thank you very much.
Death, the afterlife, and now sex -- Mary Roach tackles the most pondered and least understood conundrums that have baffled humans for centuries. (She's funny, too.)Why you should listen
Freelance writer and humorist turned accidental science journalist Mary Roach likes to ask the questions we all wonder about but are usually too polite to mention. What happens after we die, anyway? How fast do cadavers rot? Can a corpse have an orgasm?
Writing the Health & Body column for Salon.com quickened her interest in the dead -- that, and looking at the hit count for her columns on cadavers. Her books Stiff and Spook sprung out of research done for a proposed Salon column called the Dead Beat (sadly, it was killed). Her most recent book, Bonk, is a romp through the current landscape of gynecology, sex research and the adult novelty industry.
In addition to her dry (and sometimes silly) wit, Roach has a penchant for funny voices, faking her way through interviews with expert scientists, and wheedling her way into strange locales, among them a dildo factory and under the business end of an ultrasound wand during coitus.
The original video is available on TED.com