A few years back, journalist Mary Roach gave a brilliant and hilarious TED talk based on research from her fantastic book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
The TED talk is called “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm” and it is, in her own words, “diverting” and hilarious. It also points to a somewhat darker underlying truth: there is a great deal we don’t know about sex and sexuality, on a scientific and societal level, because we have simply not broken through those taboos fully. She also highlights some of the absurd information, claims, and approaches in old scientific literature on sex, reminding us that science is culturally influenced and not always reliable when it comes to sex.
Roach’s ten lessons are:
A fetus can masturbate in utero.
Because we all have to start somewhere, right?
You don’t need genitals.
There are recorded cases of people having orgasms as a result of eyebrow-stroking, tooth-brushing, stimulation near the site of a spinal cord injury, or pure thought.
You can have them when you’re dead.
Orgasms can be triggered in beating-heart cadavers by stimulating the sacral nerve root on the spinal cord, which Roach describes as “the headquarters of orgasm.”
They can cause bad breath.
One marriage manual writer in the 1930s believed that about an hour after sex, “a slight seminal odor can be detected on the breath of a woman.”
They can cure hiccups.
I will be looking up the medical journal article “Sexual Intercourse as a Potential Treatment for Intractable Hiccups.” Don’t wait up.
Doctors once prescribed orgasms for fertility.
The charmingly named “upsuck theory” asserted that a woman’s orgasm during intercourse increased her body’s chances of conceiving a child.
Pig farmers still believe in the above.
There is real evidence of “upsuck” being true for other animals!
Female animals are having more fun than you think.
Many animals, like pigs, experience sexual pleasure, but express it differently than we do. Other primates, however, are just as expressive with their faces as we are.
Studying human orgasm in a lab is not easy…
Sexology giants Masters and Johnson created what they called an “artificial coition machine”—essentially a clear dildo with a light and a camera on it, which recorded the internal responses of female subjects’ bodies.
…But it sure is entertaining.
Their predecessor in the field, Alfred Kinsey, studied a few pretty odd things. To find out about his more entertaining approaches—watch the talk!
Roach’s anecdotes from her conversations with researchers and her perusal of the literature highlight the awesome reality that when it comes to sexual science, informative can also be fun and funny. And while a narrow focus on orgasm as the be all end all of sex can be troublesome, her greater point is well-taken: there is so much we don’t know about orgasm, pleasure more broadly defined, and sex in general.
What do you wish you knew about sex and pleasure? What do you know that you wish was more widely understood? Tell us in the comments!