S=EX [superscript 2]: The Science of Sex

S=EX [superscript 2]: The Science of Sex

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Pere Estupinyà

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem

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Book Details
 373 p
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 7,488 KB
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 PDF format
 978-3-319-31726-7 (eBook) 
 Springer International Publishing Switzerland

About the Author
Pere Estupinyà is a trained chemist and biochemist and a science communicator
by vocation who, after a short time as a PhD researcher, switched to
science journalism. After serving as the editor of a leading Spanish television
program on science, he is currently the director and presenter of a new show
on Spanish public television named after his book “The Brain Snatcher.”
Pere Estupinyà has lectured on Science, Technology and Society at the
Ramon Llull University in Barcelona and spent an academic year at the prestigious
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University
as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. He has been a consultant for the Inter-
American Development Bank (IADB) and the Organization Of American States
(OAS) on topics concerning the improvement of science communications in
Latin America. His remarkably transparent and clever writing led him to write
about science in the main Spanish newspapers.
In November 2010 Pere Estupinyà published his first book on science for
the general public: “El Ladrón de cerebros” (The Brain Snatcher), which is
now in its fifth reprinting. In summer 2011 he released the eBook “Rascar
donde no pica” (To Scratch Where It Doesn’t Itch), and in 2013 he published
the Spanish and Catalan editions of S = EX 2. In 2016, Pere Estupinyà published
his most recent book “Comer cerezas con los ojos a ciegas” (Eating
Cherries with Blind Eyes).
Pere Estupinyà lives in Washington, DC and Barcelona, and defines himself
as a scientific omnivore who writes about science as an excuse to learn more
about, and enjoy, its wonders.

When neuroscientist Barry Komisaruk asked me to participate in one of his
studies on the physiology of sexual response, I immediately accepted. It was
January of 2012 and I was doing research for this book on the science of
sex. Volunteering in an experiment at Rutgers University seemed like a great
opportunity to get to know this sort of research from the inside. I was ready to
leap in without the slightest hesitation. Later, when Barry explained that my
task would be to stimulate myself manually while an MRI scanner measured
activity in different parts of my brain as I got myself aroused and reached
orgasm, I told him I needed to think about it. Oh man! The image that came
into my mind was pretty terrifying. A few days later, I sent Barry an email
apologizing and saying: “Barry, I’m sorry, but it’s too embarrassing. And, honestly,
I don’t know if I would be able to complete the objective in those conditions.”
He insisted that the experiment would take place in complete privacy,
that the only thing that the team would see would be my brain on the computer
screen, and that I shouldn’t worry about being nervous, and that even
without climax, part of the data would still be just as useful. He added that
I would be paid two hundred dollars, but I wasn’t sure whether, under those
conditions, that was an incentive or a setback.

In Chapter 3, I’ll tell you if I ended up becoming the first man in history
to have an orgasm under a magnetic resonance scanner. But first I want to
take a moment here to reflect on the sudden reaction I had after declining:
“Embarrassed? What was I really embarrassed about?” After all, while researching
my last book, The Brain Snatcher, I was happy to participate in a Harvard
study to see if a brain scanner—identical to the one Komisaruk would use—
could detect my lies. I also let them electrically stimulate a part of my frontal
lobe at the National Institutes of Health to find out whether I would learn a
motor task more quickly. I got dizzy spinning around in a short-radius centrifuge
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to analyze how my
body reacted to the absence of gravity. And I’ve gone into all kinds of laboratories,
including military research labs, with much more questionable ethics
than Barry’s. My objective has always been to get to know science from as
much of an insider’s perspective as possible. And every time I’ve had a chance
to observe or actively participate in experiments, I’ve done it. So where did this
sudden reticence come from? I had the opportunity to collaborate with a top
researcher studying the relationship between the nervous system and sexual
response, and I was turning it down out of “modesty”? Strange. Especially since
I’ve always thought of myself as an open-minded person who approached sex
as the most natural thing in the world. Besides, when a researcher from Barry’s
team explained to me, weeks earlier, how they’d stimulated different parts of her
genitals to see which nerves and parts of her brain were involved in each type of
arousal, I was surprised to hear that she could reach orgasm in 15 seconds, but
at no point did I judge her participation in the study as something unseemly or
in poor taste. It had all seemed fine, and very interesting. Until it was my turn
and I saw for myself how deep our sexual prejudices run.

Who knows whether the root of my embarrassment was a biological instinct
or the result of cultural influence. Sex is an irrational act and, as such, coolly
predicting our reactions in the face of new, emotionally intense situations
is arduous and complicated. It is not easy for the human mind to reconcile
reason and emotion.

In fact, with our friends and family members, and even with our partners,
as absurd as it may seem, sometimes we have a lot of trouble talking about sexuality
without a hint of shame hindering our words and making us look away.
That worried me, since my intention was to write a book about the science
of sex that could be recommended by a father to his son and by a grandson
to his grandmother. I’m convinced that sexuality is the perfect topic to illustrate
the workings of our hormonal and nervous systems, the physiology of
our brains, and the scientific analysis of our minds and social behavior. That’s
why I wanted to write about sex just the way I do about science, making it
accessible to everyone. So I’ve tried to avoid using crude or excessively explicit
language that could make some readers uncomfortable. Of course, I won’t
draw on obscure euphemisms when describing the different nerve endings
that lead to the clitoris, vagina, or cervix. I’ll also admit that I like to spark
readers’ playfulness and imagination, that I won’t be able to avoid some sarcasm
when talking about the circumstances that cause premature ejaculation
in guys who act all macho, and that I’ll resort to failsafe humor when I find
myself blushing in front of the computer. I am firmly convinced that medical
education and practice really need to work on communicating about desires,
fantasies, doubts, and problems in the sexual realm, and that this deficiency
limits our ability to enjoy one of the activities that brings us the most wellbeing and satisfaction.

Take a look at the study carried out in 2010 by Harvard psychologist Daniel
Gilbert: in 2,250 cell phones they installed an app that asked men and women
at random times what they were doing and how happy they felt. With 0 being
the lowest and 100 the highest, the subjective happiness of working came in
at last place with a 61. Reading, watching TV, taking care of the kids, and
listening to the news were activities that all rated around 65. Shopping was
in tenth place at 68. Then taking a walk, praying, or meditating. Eating came
in seventh. Listening to music was fifth, chatting was third with 74, exercising
took second place with 77, and yes, you guessed it, having sexual relations
took top ranking with 92. The conclusion was obvious: sex is the activity that
makes us most happy, at least temporarily.

It’s true that the study was limited to one sector of the population and that
this general tendency doesn’t reflect the enormous diversity within humans’
highly varied sexual conduct and culture. But I’d like to make an important
point here: some of you believe that sex is so heterogeneous and depends on
so many factors that it can’t be studied scientifically. I completely disagree. It
would be absurd to suggest that sexual behavior can only be understood via
science or that one piece of data on hormones is more relevant than the hundreds
gathered by anthropologists. Of course not. But the scientific method
does have a lot to contribute to the academic study of sex, particularly due to
its ability to separate a whole into various parts, isolate the diverse factors that
influence our behavior, and systematically analyze and provide solid information
that, when put together with data from other disciplines, contributes to
creating a more accurate global vision than one based on unproven opinions.
We are in the multidisciplinary age. It would be outmoded academic
extremism to try to give complete answers from merely the biological or sociological
perspective. The paradigm of sexual investigation that is in vogue,
and which we will use in this book, is biopsychosociological. That’s not just
some trumped-up big word, it’s the one used by many sexologists to define
how biology, psychology, and sociology should work together as a team in
which each field, using their best tools, contributes to the scientific understanding
of human sexuality.

But that’s enough of that straitlaced tone! Obviously this book endeavors
to be accurate and informative, but also to be entertaining, surprising, and suggestive.
And in order to do that I will stick to my maxim of being
incredibly scrupulous when selecting the most rigorous scientific information
available, and presenting it in the most accessible and fun language possible.
I don’t call my father sir and I don’t put science on a pedestal. And besides,
when you’re someone’s friend—and I consider science my friend—you can
criticize them, joke around, and make light of things. Your friends know how
to tell the difference between a joke and an insult.

I probably won’t always use the nomenclature preferred by researchers; I
will mercilessly edit their preambles to talk more about the topics I think you
will be interested in, yet always with the deepest respect and never trivializing their message.
If you take a look at the bibliography you will see that for most of the topics,
I not only cite isolated scientific articles, but I also consult expert peer-reviewed
studies published in high-profile magazines.

I should admit from the beginning that the science of sex is still in its
infancy and is rife with gaps. In many theoretical and practical aspects, I have
learned much more from therapists, experts, and people from various subcultures
than I have from the academic world. Not only did I visit laboratories
and analyze rats, hormones, and statistics, I also participated in a tantric sex
workshop, met with porn actors and actresses, visited S&M and swingers’
clubs, operating rooms, and doctors’ offices, and spoke with people who told
me about all sorts of experiences, from the most fetishistic to the most mundane.
All in the name of science, of course! My own sexual life has expanded
and improved because of it, and my hope is that the same thing happens to
you when reading this book.

Once I had gathered so many interesting testimonials, I decided to use
these personal stories as a resource that researchers usually call a case report.
Here we will meet asexuals who are perfectly happy with their sexless lives,
young women worried about not reaching climax, others who have multiple
orgasms, people with physical disabilities who want to continue giving their
partners pleasure, intersexuals whose gender identity doesn’t coincide with
their chromosomal sex, and bisexuals who, contrary to what some scientists
defend, clearly state no preference for men or women. We will hear stories of
withering erections, and orgasms in strange circumstances. They will all be
real cases that, accompanied by statistics, will be our starting point for fascinating
subjects such as the relationship between pain and pleasure, the evolutionary
determining factors of our behavior, the arousing effects of jealousy,
or the benefits of yoga in solving sexual problems.

I am sure that some of these stories will make you say “well, that’s not the
case for me.” Of course, that’s a result of the diversity we mentioned earlier.
But don’t reject the statistical data. It is true that the expression “in general” is
deceptive, and that normality only exists as a statistical average. But you can generalize
in science; what you should never do is individualize. If they tell us
that “men have higher sexual drive than women,” we should interpret it as a
piece of data along the lines of “boys are taller than girls” or “smokers have a
higher risk of lung cancer.” Science doesn’t look for patterns in order to deny
diversity or make us fit into a stereotype, but because they are the clues along
the trail to confirming differences, trying to explore their origin, and discovering
how nature functions on the most intimate levels, from the pituitary gland,
cellular oxidation, or the role of testosterone in sexual desire. No one negates
the exceptions, but recognizing trends is very useful, hence the revolution supposed
by Alfred Kinsey’s work, which we will obviously discuss in this book.
I work with hypotheses, not ideas. We trust scientific data more than intuition
biased by personal experiences, but we would be very naive if we didn’t
take into account that researchers’ interpretations are conditioned by their
social context. It is very good to maintain our own independent opinions,
but again the ideal is that they aren’t hermetic and can be adapted based on
the best available information. So you won’t find lectures here, or indoctrination
of any kind, but you will find some suggestions and practical advice, all
of which are approved by the therapists, psychologists, and sexologists I’ve
spoken with, and based on a complete respect for diversity and free thought.
I like to vindicate sex as something fun. Not only is it a wonderful exchange
of love and pleasure between couples, but its mix of diversity and taboos also
leads to extremely suggestive conversations, private games, and provocations.
If we can manage to take the drama out of it and shed the outsized importance
that society gives it, sex is really a world filled with curious things to
discover—from an intimate perspective, but also from an intellectual one.
I hold curiosity in the highest regard, for me it’s the fuel of knowledge.
Surely you can live without knowing about the mechanism through which
sexual arousal triggers an erection in the penis and the clitoris. But if you
don’t know it and someone offers to explain it to you, I can’t imagine you not
being intrigued to find out, or the answer not leading to more questions. It is
that curiosity, and realizing that no one had ever explained anything medical
or scientific about sex to me, that motivated me to write this book. And it is
that curiosity that will lead us to talk about the phenomenon of the phantom
penis after amputation, the possible relationship between clitoral position
and a higher frequency of orgasms during penetration, historical anecdotes,
and the neurophysiological explanation of the Coolidge effect, which proves
that the time it takes a male rat to have a new erection after ejaculation is
shorter if he is given a new female partner.

I confess that there is a huge hidden challenge in this book: to explain
things about sex to you that you’ve never heard before. Sex is overrated;

Table of Contents
1 Sex in Our Cells 1
Searching for the Hormones of Desire 5
Few Differences Between the Male and the Female 8
The Chemistry of Our Sexual Behavior 15
2 Sex in Our Genitals 21
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nerves in Sexual Arousal 23
The Erection of the Penis and the Clitoris 24
Erection Problems and Premature Ejaculation Due to Stress 29
Desire and Arousal Are Not the Same 33
Orgasm Based on the Distance Between the Clitoris
and the Vagina 36
3 Sex in Our Brains 41
Science Is More Interesting than Sex 41
My Orgasm as Revealed by fMRI 46
Want-Like-Learn, and the Empire of the Senses 52
4 Sex in Our Minds 59
Sex Is an Irrational Act 59
Measuring Sexual Arousal at the Kinsey Institute 62
The Lack of Agreement Between the Female Mind
and the Female Genitals 65
Surveys and Statistics on Sexuality 69
A Brief History of Scientific Research on Sex 73
5 Sex in Our Beds 81
Even Scientists Have Trouble Finding the G-Spot 82
The Two Types of Female Ejaculation 86
The Genetic Component to Female
Capability 89
I Was Multi-orgasmic and Didn’t Know It 93
The “Coolidge Effect” and My Envy of Men Without
a Refractory Period 95
Masturbation and Its Disadvantages As Compared to Intercourse 100
Vibrators, Lubricants and Aphrodisiacs to Increase
Sexual Pleasure 105
The Treacherous Effects of Alcohol in Arousal and Orgasm 109
Motivations for Anal Sex 112
Penis Size Does Matter, but Clitoral Size Doesn’t 115
6 Sex in the Doctor’s Office 123
Expectations and Other Male Sexual Dysfunctions 125
Female Concerns. The Key Is Satisfaction, Not Desire 129
The Microorganisms That Cohabitate in or Invade Our Genitals 137
Sexually Transmitted Diseases 141
7 Sex in Nature 145
Why Do Ducks Have Penises and Roosters Don’t? 147
The Origin of Sex in Bacteria, Amoebas and Sea Sponges 148
Hermaphroditic Potatoes and Animal Sex Changes 150
Sexual Dimorphism: You’ve Only Ever Eaten Female Monkfish 152
8 Sex in Evolution 155
The Trap of Hidden Ovulation in Women 156
Monogamy Is Natural, Faithfulness Isn’t 158
“Bonobos’ Way of Life,” Are You More of a Bonobo
or a Chimpanzee? 160
9 Sex in Bars 165
Others’ Beauty Depends on Ours 166
The Power of the Unconscious in Physical Attraction 168
The Internet Has Only Revolutionized the First Few Steps
in the Dating Process 173
Non-verbal Signs of Seduction 175
The Magic of Kissing 179
Sex Without Commitment and “Hookup Culture” 182
10 Having an Orgasm with the Power of the Mind 189
Hyperventilation to Activate the Sympathetic Nervous System 192
Meditation and Yoga Increase Sexual Pleasure 194
11 Pornography: From Distortion to Education 199
Women Prefer Lesbian Porn Over Gay 201
Porn Can Exacerbate Some Problems, but Doesn’t Cause Them 203
12 Let’s Do It Tonight, Dear, I Have a Headache 207
Sexus Sanus in Corpore Sano 209
Corpus Sanum in Sexu Sano 212
Sex in Old Age 213
13 Sex in a Wheelchair, for Love and Pleasure 219
Neurosurgery to Regain Genital Sensitivity 223
14 Science in Sexual Orientation 227
Homosexual Fluidity: Behavior Is Not the Same as Orientation 231
Yes, You Can Be Born Gay 235
What’s Damaging Is Homophobia, Not Homosexuality 243
Does Male Bisexuality Exist? 244
Learning from Asexuals 246
15 Learning from S&M Clubs 251
When Pain Produces Pleasure and Takes Away Another Pain 257
Fetishists from Head to Toe 262
Sexual Fantasies: Inhibiting Sins in Our Thoughts Leads
to More Sins of Word and Deed 267
16 Disorders of Obsession, Impulsivity, and Lack of Control 275
Hypersexuality Is Not an Addiction 276
Paraphilias: When Science Articles Are Stranger than Fiction 282
Involuntary Orgasms During Rape 287
17 Sexual Identities Beyond XX and XY 291
Intersexuality: When Chromosomes and Genitals
Don’t Match Up 294
Transsexuality: The Mind Is in Control 297
Sex Change Operations, and the Phantom Penis 303
18 Marrying Social and Sexual Monogamy in Swingers’ Clubs 313
Polyamory with Emotional Monogamy 317
Partner Issues When Desire Wanes 319
Genes Don’t Justify Infidelity 324
Love Addicts 326
Erratum E1
Epilogue: Sex and Science Don’t End at Orgasm 329
Acknowledgments 339
About the Author 341
Bibliography 343

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everyone talks about sexuality to the point that it becomes so tiresome and
repetitive that it seems there’s nothing new to say about it. Until you talk with
the most interesting professional community on the planet, whose work is
nothing less than discovering the unknown. By definition, if you approach a
scientist in any discipline and ask them what they are investigating, they will
begin to talk to you about the mysteries of the universe, about life, the mind,
your cells, the past, and the future. Honestly, scientific research is the most
fascinating adventure in the world. And when you combine that with sex, the sky’s the limit!
Without science we would have never known about the existence of extrasolar
planets or about neutron stars, or that there are microscopic viruses that
cause illness or that the Earth roars because of movements in the tectonic
plates. Nor which gene on the Y chromosome starts the series of signals that
makes a fetus male, or whether pederasts have more activity in one particular
part of the brain. You could spend hours debating whether female ejaculate is
more similar to semen or to urine, but a chromatographer can quickly clear that up.
Throughout the book we’ll get a little more serious when analyzing medical
aspects and psychosexual disorders. I visited clinics and therapists with different
philosophies, and I have to say that while there are many fabulous sexologists,
I found few professionals who approach sex from a complete, integral
perspective. I’ve met doctors who prescribe testosterone cream with shocking
frequency and psychotherapists who insist that every problem has an exclusively
mental basis. A book’s rigidity and inability to give immediate answers
don’t make it the ideal format to discuss these rapidly shifting topics, but I
will definitely defend this biopsychosociological vision in which the physical,
psychological, and social aspects must all be considered together before any
diagnosis. In no way do I claim to replace the advice of doctors and therapists,
and I recommend you don’t hesitate to see a professional when you think you
need more information.
Something similar happens with the sociological aspects. I want to make
clear that I support the equality of men and women, the definitive acceptance
of homosexuality on all levels, a committed celebration of diversity, and I
encourage a positive vision of sexuality, and absolute respect for the limits
that each person wants to establish with their partner and according to their
convictions. But I am not here to defend any cause and, besides, the “isms”
rub me a little bit the wrong way. The only thing I can say at this point is
that evidence-based science supports a more open vision of sex and makes
some of the more conservative moral statements about the negative effects of
masturbation, pornography consumption, the use of sex toys, or the obsolete
of “abnormality” look silly. And that last one goes for everybody.
Another important message is that the key is to balance desire and satisfaction,
not “the more different kinds of sex, the better.” In fact, I’ve observed
more happiness in asexuals than in confused polyamorous couples.
As I wrap up this introduction, I want to warn you that the first few chapters
are more biological and may make for denser reading. In them I will
try to explain basic aspects of physiology and research methodologies that
I consider important for understanding the following chapters. But if you
feel your interest waning, check the index and go straight to the section that
most interests you. We will start with hormones, followed by the nervous
system, the brain, and the study of human behavior. From there, we will deal
with medical aspects and sexual disorders. We will explore sex in nature and
our evolutionary past, we will be enlightened by tips from some fantastic
therapists, and we will end up having sexual experiences in all sorts of highly
peculiar environments. Again, I hope that your curiosity will outweigh your
embarrassment, as mine did, and that you will scratch where you have no itch,
and both your brain and your body, as well as those of your partners, will get
the most out of this book. The adventure continues.