Orgasms are big business, but there’s surprising little scientific research being done into how they actually work. There are urgent reasons to fix this
As a DPhil student on a four-year funded programme, I had the rare luxury of a year to decide on the major focus of my research. After reading around, I got interested in the science of orgasm and anorgasmia (difficulty or inability to orgasm). It seemed like an ideal research topic – it has social value, it’s a young field with lots of progress ready to be made, and it wouldn’t leave people at parties yawning when they asked what I did.
Unfortunately, it didn’t come to fruition – partly because almost nobody is doing research on it, and I couldn’t find an appropriate supervisor.
When I’ve brought up my enthusiasm for orgasm studies with people, some – mostly non-scientists – react with surprise and positivity. Others, mostly scientists, are bemused, sceptical, and think I’m joking. But (for once) I am quite serious, and here’s why I think science should start taking orgasm seriously too.
Firstly, orgasm and sexual pleasure are fun. Not all scientific research has a grand purpose, so an immediate question is “why not study orgasm?”. But there are more urgent reasons too.
A significant percentage of women experience anorgasmia, as do a smaller number of men. Anorgasmia can also be caused or worsened by surgery, injuries, and as a side-effect of medicines, especially psychiatric ones such as SSRIs, a common class of antidepressant.
The links to mental health issues run deep. Apart from medication side-effects, anorgasmia can be caused or worsened by mental health issues such as anxiety. The link goes both ways: anorgasmia is only considered a disorder when it causes distress to the sufferer. It can contribute to self-esteem issues and to depression and anxiety. It can have a negative effect on relationships, which can cause stress and have a knock-on effect on mental health issues.
If someone is experiencing anorgasmia, they might go to the doctor about it. But often there is not much for the doctor to say. Since we don’t really understand how orgasm works, it’s very difficult to fix it when things go wrong. And since we don’t understand exactly what happens when things go right, there is a risk of being told something is wrong when it’s not, or vice versa, which can be dangerous. Often the only way to turn is towards anecdotal and unqualified advice, which is often wrong and can do more harm than good.
Orgasms are big business. There are countless books, blogs, and magazine articles on how to experience and improve orgasms. People have built whole careers on going around talking about how to tackle anorgasmia. Sex toys are designed, built, and sold with this selling point. Alternative medicines are sold on this basis, and drugs are sold through back-channels, claiming to improve ability to experience orgasm.
Some of this is great. Some of it is wrong, and dangerous to physical and mental health. Much is based on outdated cultural ideas passed off as biology. The trouble is that in many cases it’s very difficult to tell what’s doing good and what’s doing harm because there is so little quality scientific research on the topic.
With sexual pleasure it can be difficult to distinguish between biological effects and psychological effects, which can be heavily affected by culture. Much scientific research on orgasm and anorgasmia draws subtly but heavily on cultural ideas which go back to Freud rather than on modern sciences. They also rely heavily on anecdotal evidence, failing to account for the cultural-psychological influences that may be at play. The result is that what sparse scientific literature there is on the physiology of orgasm tends to be inconsistent and unreliable.
This poor science only adds confusion and lends weight to misleading claims made by people out to make a profit.
A more promising (but still tiny) branch of research on orgasm has taken a neuroscience perspective. I have encountered research and data sets acquired by taking MRI scans of people experiencing orgasm. But in almost every such study that I have seen, the subjects has been cisgender men, a group affected by anorgasmia disproportionately rarely.
My attempt to jump in and save the world from anorgasmia has been stymied for now. But it’s not too late for the scientific community to start addressing these issues.
Human physiologists, neuroscientists, and others should use their expertise to study orgasm from basic principles. Divorce our cultural and acquired ideas about orgasm from our scientific approach, and treat it like a poorly-understood biological process. Then apply the scientific expertise and rigour that would be applied to any other biological problem. And include women in your research for more relevant and useful insights than research geared exclusively towards understanding orgasm in cisgender men (or, even worse, mice).
In short, it’s time to recognise that anorgasmia is an issue worthy of serious scientific study.
Jimi Cullen is a DPhil student in systems biology at Oxford, the secretary of the Jewish, Arab, and Muslim Alliance (JAMA), and dreams of a better science of orgasm.