The Science of the Female Orgasm

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Since the beginning of humanity, humans have been fucking. And since the beginning of the scientific method, humans have been fucking for science. In the olden days that probably meant fucking while a beardy old man used a protractor to measure the angle of your dick and compare it to the phases of the moon, or something, but these days that means fucking in an fMRI scanner.

An fMRI scanner is basically a big hole that you push a cylindrical object in and out of repeatedly, but despite that it is not a particularly sexy place to fuck. And yet, humanity perseveres with countless studies involving people getting down and dirty in a clean and cold imaging room.

The fMRI is used for a lot of brain research. It’s a machine that measures changes in blood flow in the brain, and it can do that without any invasive procedures and it can show researchers what’s happening in the brain in real time. That’s why it’s so handy for studying what happens when we have sex and when we orgasm.

In a recent study, researchers at Rutgers University put 10 heterosexual women in the fMRI while they brought themselves to orgasm. Then they had them do it again while a partner brought them to orgasm. The researchers found that contrary to previous research, women’s brains don’t “turn off” during orgasm.

This is one of those things that can be tricky to learn about just from asking women what happens when they orgasm, as it’s so subjective and it’s so intense that it might be difficult to describe. Previous research using PET scans suggested that when women orgasm, our brains shut out everything except for our sensory regions. As always with a finding like that, people were quick to make up a just-so evolutionary story to fit it, like how women in the Pleistocene needed to only focus on orgasming even at the risk of being mauled by a tiger because they needed to make sure they conceive a child, which, yes, makes no sense on multiple levels, like how female orgasms aren’t proven to aid in conception and also how it is very hard to bring a baby to term and give birth to it after you’ve been mauled to death by a tiger during conception.

This study, though, found that there was actually an increase in blood flow to the areas of the brain responsible for emotions, which peaked at orgasm.

The researchers suspect the different result may be due to the fact that PET scans are lower resolution and not as rigorous as fMRIs. PET scans use radioactive elements injected into the bloodstream in order to follow blood flow in the brain — the only real benefit to using them over fMRI is that the subject can move around a bit without corrupting the data. In an fMRI, the subject has to stay perfectly still or else the resulting image will be a mess.

It’s worth noting that this and other noise problems can make fMRI tricky to use, as proven in the past by a clever researcher showing interesting brain activity in a dead salmon using an fMRI. Feel free to insert your own joke here about the similarities between a dead fish and trying to make your wife orgasm. It’s YouTube, I’m sure you have some good ones.

Anyway, even more interesting than the increase in emotional response during orgasm is the fact that the researchers learned why women are less likely to feel pain during orgasm (something they showed in previous research where they pinched women while they orgasmed — I know, science is a magical occupation). They found that during orgasm, women experienced increased blood flow to the dorsal raphe nucleus area, which is responsible for pumping out serotonin, a pain reliever (and all-around happy-time hormone).

The study authors then take a stab at why this happens, guessing that it might have something to do with making childbirth hurt less. While it’s true that some women experience orgasm during childbirth, this frankly sounds as dumb and poorly researched as the previous study’s authors guessing that women mauled by tigers might give birth. This study is purely, exclusively about the “how” — maybe some future research can try to tackle the “why.”

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Being stuffed into an MRI with nine other women, and their partners, just MIGHT tilt the observed results just a bit.

    And wouldn’t we need Pleistocene women, and tigers, to volunteer to test the Just So Story?

  2. I have a better just so story than the evo-psych mob.

    1 Woman climaxes
    2 Man totally cannot hold back anymore because 1 and dumps load
    3 Man instantly falls asleep
    4 Tiger consumes man while woman escapes
    5 ???
    6 Profit!

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