Why I orgasmed in an MRI scanner
January 27th, 2012
07:10 AM ET

Why I orgasmed in an MRI scanner

Kayt Sukel is a passionate science writer and the author of "Dirty Minds: How our brains influence love, sex and relationships" - an edgy, irreverent book that examines all the ways our neurons can wreak havoc with our hearts.

Let me just get this out of the way upfront: I had an orgasm in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

That is, as background research for my book, "Dirty Minds: How our brains influence love, sex and relationships," I participated in a study at Rutgers University where scientists measured the activity in my brain as I self-stimulated to an orgasm.

I wasn’t the first woman to participate in one of these studies - and I won’t be the last.

I know, it’s controversial and perhaps even a bit shocking. And, because of that, I expected readers and commenters to make a few jokes at my expense (and perhaps even question my character) when I wrote about the experience.

But what I didn’t expect was so much outrage about sex research in general.

Time and time again, regardless of the publication discussing my fMRI orgasm, commenters wrote things like, “If only researchers were as interested in finding a cure for cancer,” and “I can’t believe my tax dollars are going to pay for such useless research.”

How can the study of human sexuality be considered useless? This is something that is prevalent in each and every one of our lives. When we’re not having sex, we’re talking about it. When we’re not talking about it, we’re thinking about it. And when we’re not thinking about it, we worry that something is wrong with us.

Sex is a primary source of human motivation and can change the way we act and the way we feel in quite dramatic ways. And this isn’t something that occurs solely in the privacy of our bedrooms: You see sex at play in advertising and marketing, in problems in the work place, in self-esteem and identity, in pleasure and reward, and also in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Human sexuality has direct influence over so many aspects of day-to-day life. Understanding such a universal phenomenon is never useless. Yet, many want to discount its importance - and its study.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Alfred Kinsey, esteemed biologist and founder of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, pioneered the study of sexual behavior with the publication of the Kinsey Reports. That work was the first of its kind: a systematic, scientific approach to understanding variation in normal sexual behavior. And, thankfully, his work has inspired countless brave scientists in the decades since to buck the status quo and study human sexuality.

Yet, while we’ve come a long way in our understanding the biology of sex, there is still plenty left to discover. We now have a good deal of data on the mechanics of sexual behavior.

But as anyone who has ever been involved in a sexual relationship knows, there’s a lot more to sex than pure mechanics - a heck of a lot more. The blossoming field of neuroscience, including neuro-imaging studies like the orgasm one I participated in as well as cellular and molecular research, is now offering us a new window of understanding into age-old questions about sex and related behaviors by focusing on all the ways our brains influence our behaviors.

During the course of my research for "Dirty Minds," I asked neuroscientific researchers about the greatest challenges involved in studying human sexuality. I expected to hear concerns about finding study participants willing to be honest about their sex lives or if what was learned in the laboratory could really be applied to real-world behaviors.

But unanimously, the scientists I talked to said their greatest challenge was finding research grants and financial support for their work. Because so many of us are peevish about the study of sex, funding agencies can be, too. But none of us should be. Human sexuality is important - and its study is something we should all get behind. Because we can’t begin to have discussions about how to best deal with problems concerning sexual behavior, sexual function and sexual intimacy until we have a better handle on what’s normal.

Time and time again, I’m asked how I managed to have an orgasm in an fMRI scanner. But that’s not the right question. The important question is why I had an orgasm in an fMRI scanner. And that’s to help further our understanding of orgasm and human sexuality. When I say I came for the science - I mean it. And it’s my hope that more people will do the same in the future.

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