As I drive the five miles from my house in suburban New Jersey to Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center, I take a mental inventory of my data. So far, I have collected 13 self-stimulation orgasms but only 6 orgasms brought about through partner stimulation. The goal is to have an equal number of both.
I feel the familiar wash of anxiety about to launch me into the low-level panic typical of a graduate student in her dissertation year. Except I am no typical graduate student—I am a 56-year-old sex therapist turned cognitive neuroscientist whose day job is to study the human sexual response, and my dissertation is on genital stimulation and female orgasm.
Pulling into the parking lot, I brace for the day. There is much to do to prepare for the study scheduled for 1 p.m. The participant and her partner will arrive at 9:30 a.m. They will need to complete a stack of paperwork—consent forms, MRI safety checklists, and an additional form that verifies that the female participant is not pregnant—and then will have to be carefully trained in the protocol for the study.
I wear a number of hats in the lab. As a therapist with three decades of clinical experience, I am foremost a people-person. My job requires that I make our participants comfortable and keep them safe as they go about the unusual business of donating orgasms to science. My other role—as the principal investigator of my dissertation study—means that I am responsible for making sure that the technical aspects of the study are properly executed and all the details necessary for a smooth study come together simultaneously. And then I must be the one to analyze the data afterwards, a laborious, pain-staking process that has taken years to learn.
I arrive at our campus office—a cinder-block, fluorescent-lit room that also serves as home to the psychology department’s part-time lecturers who are often entertained by the circus that sometimes is our lab—and promptly dump a bag full of linens onto an empty desk. We will need them later. When I first started this tour of duty in grad school, we did our studies at the medical school, which provided hospital linens. Now I am the laundry lady as well as the project chief. I have heard through the grapevine that some of the other users of the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner facility were perturbed at the prospect of the scanner table being contaminated by bodily fluids, so I am vigilant about maintaining the pristine condition of the equipment.
I glance at the checklist tacked on the bulletin board. All it takes is one careless misstep and the consequences could range from catastrophic—for example, if we neglect the proper fMRI safety practices and some metal propelled by the powerful magnet hurtles into the bore of the scanner and impales a participant—to stupid—if a minor glitch in a computer program renders the expensive scan and subsequent data useless. Setting up my laptop to run the practice experiment for the participants to review once they arrive, I savor the stillness before the chaos begins.
I know my participants will be anxious when they arrive. No matter how comfortable they may be with their sexuality in the real world, donating an orgasm to science in the context of the sterile environment of the scanner is awkward at best. I should know. In the tradition of many scientists who have experimented on themselves, I have been the guinea pig for my own studies. I often share the experience with participants to make them feel more comfortable.
Armed with a Xanax tucked into my bra just in case, I am about to go into the MRI scanner for the first time—a daunting task for a claustrophobic, panic-prone individual under any circumstances. And the task at hand involves inserting a plastic dildo into my vagina while my colleagues sit in the control room next door. Having recently joined the team as a sex therapist and collaborator, thanks to the brilliant Dr. Beverly Whipple—an eminent sex scientist who is known for many things, including the naming of the G-spot—I am piloting a prospective study in which we will systematically map the projections of the clitoris, anterior wall of the vagina, cervix, and nipple onto the somatosensory cortex. Suffice it to say if you enjoy the sensation of touch, you are already a fan of the somatosensory cortex. It is the area of the brain that processes the input from parts of the body that are sensitive to touch, temperature, and pain. The valuable real estate of the somatosensory cortex is arranged proportionally to reflect how much sensory acuity a given body region has. The somatosensory cortex is sometimes represented by a figure called the sensory homunculus or “little man” —looking like a cartoonish Mick Jagger—all lips, fingers, and penis. The figure resizes body parts based on how sensitive they are to touch.
Since the neurosurgeon Wilfred Penfield originally mapped the somatosensory cortex in the 1950’s, not much has been done about fine-tuning the representation of genitals in the somatosensory cortex. And even less is know about what some of have called the hermunculus, or “little woman,” in the brain. This information has clinical implications in the treatment of pelvic pain disorders, sexual dysfunctions such as the inability to orgasm, (anorgasmia), painful intercourse (dysparuenia,) low sexual desire (hypoactive sexual desire disorder), and other disorders affecting both men and women. The astounding gaps in the scientific literature about all things sexual are what motivate me to get up in the morning.
By a process of elimination, I am the only suitable guinea pig. My advisor, Dr. Barry Komisaruk, lacks the requisite genitalia—and the other team members are too young and green for the task. A good researcher pilots her own study. We wouldn’t want to subject our participants to this investigation until we work out the kinks, so to speak.
So the plastic purple dildo and I are in the scanner, trying to make friends, and things get out of hand. The dildo is slippery and since my head and the upper half of my body is encased in the bore of the scanner, I can’t see what I am doing. The dildo sails across the small room that houses the big magnet, only to land somewhere. The scan runs another five minutes during which I am supposed to be rhythmically stimulating the anterior wall of my vagina. I entertain myself by contemplating how I am going to inform my colleagues of the situation. When the banging of the coils subsides, indicating that the run has timed out, the MRI tech, Gregg, asks through the wired-in microphone, “How’s it going, Nan?”
“Houston, we have a problem,” I respond. “The dildo went into orbit.” I laugh so hard I can hardly speak. The unflappable tech comes in to search for the missing phallic projectile. They leave me alone in the scanner while he goes to disinfect the dildo outside. Jim, a tall nuclear medicine tech walks by while Gregg is washing the dildo in the sink by the nurses’ station. “What in the world are you doing?’ Jim asks.
“I’m working," Gregg replies. Jim shakes his head and walks away.
For many months, the flying purple dildo story was a favorite topic at the grad student happy hours, which I learned later when I enrolled in the Ph.D. program and joined the ranks.
Six years have passed since my maiden voyage in the magnet. Since then, I have logged enough hours in the scanner to qualify for frequent flyer points. In the scanner, I have had orgasms through clitoral self-stimulation, orgasms through vaginal stimulation, cervical stimulation, and even orgasms through thought alone. I could think myself to orgasm without any physical stimulation even before I started studying sex. I attribute that ability to many years of intense yoga study.
But the only yoga I do these days amounts to a few forward bends in the shower. I am a woman obsessed with my work. There is nothing that can kill the buzz like thinking too much about what is happening in your brain while you are having sex. If I ever write a memoir, it will be called A Watched Orgasm Rarely Boils.
Now, six years later, the participants have completed the paperwork and been painstakingly prepared for the study protocol. The first part of the experiment alternates between imagined stimulation and actual stimulation, to see how the brain represents them differently. Then after the imagery segment of the study, the participants are asked to have two orgasms in the scanner, one through self-stimulation of their clitoris; the other through clitoral stimulation provided by their partner.
After we brief the subjects on the protocol, it is time to make what we call the Hannibal Lechter Happy Helmet, a scary looking contraption we have designed to stabilize the participant’s head during the scan. It is exceedingly hard to keep ones’ head still during genital stimulation, and even more so during the involuntary movements of orgasm. If, during the course of the scan, the participant’s head moves more than 2 mm, (corresponding to the thickness of two dimes), the data becomes noisy and unreliable. “Head movement is the enemy,” I say, as I put the participant into position on the table of the scanner. And then the study begins.