The XX Factor

Female Sexuality: It’s Complicated

Brain scientists these days spend a lot of time watching the brain light up prettily in response to various stimuli (deciding what to buy, watching happy or sad movies, etc.).  Recently, they started using the functional MRI machine to map what happens in the head when various female body parts are stimulated. It turns out that in terms of erotic charge the vagina is not just the poor woman’s clitoris, and vaginal stimulation activates different brain regions than clitoral stimulation.  An article in New Scientist about the findings reports, “Some have argued that women who derive pleasure from vaginal stimulation do so because their clitoris is being indirectly stimulated, but the current findings contradict this.”  This discovery seems a little bit like getting one of those cheek swab analyses of your DNA which then tells you  the likelihood is of your having blue eyes, when the answer could be derived by looking in the mirror. But dogma is a powerful thing, so even if actual women having actual sex experience vaginal stimulation and clitoral stimulation differently, for years now we’ve been told we’re confused. So it’s good that science is telling us we’re not wrong.

Years ago I did an article about then-current research into female sexuality and interviewed Beverly Whipple (co-author of The G Spot) and Barry Komisaruk, two scientists at Rutgers quoted in the New Scientist story. During my research I talked to women who were able to have orgasm all sorts of ways. One only needed some gentle stroking of her lower back, another only required her partner to blow in her ear.  Several could simply fantasize themselves to orgasm, the ultimate, “Look Ma, no hands!”  While I was working on the story I went to dinner with three female friends – we had worked at the same office – and when I mentioned the women who were able to think themselves to orgasm, two of them said, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.” One said when going on long plane rides she reclines her seat, closes her eyes, and comes. I realized then why they sometimes looked distracted during long, dull editorial meetings.

Komisaruk is quoted as saying when he tells his male neuroscientist colleagues about how erotically charged female nipples are – the fMRI results show “a direct link between the nipples and the genitals” – his male neuroscientist colleagues are stunned. This is in part because the previous map of how the human sensory system is wired was based on men, and male nipples are generally not that exciting to their owners. When Komisaruk tells his female neuroscientist colleagues about this discovery they say, “Well, yeah?” Maybe a lesson here is that we need more female scientists investigating female sexuality and the male scientists in this field should get out of the lab more.