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Phantom orgasms, masturbation, and the female "problem"

Happy Valentine's Day! So I know it's all the rage to take a popular culture topic and write science-y about it. So I'm doing it, too. Whatever. I like to indulge once and a while.

To celebrate the love and intimacy of this beautiful day, we're gonna talk about some nice, classic, sex studies from days gone by. There've been some... interesting hypotheses and theories about sex, sexuality, and orgasm over the years, which have produced some good, chuckle-worthy studies (and quite a few serious ones).

First is a paper from 1954 titled, Some Considerations Concerning Orgasm in the Female. It really sets up the mood with a quote from Freud:
The sexual frigidity of women . . . is still a phenomenon which is insufficiently understood.

Bradley Voytek Neuroscience Orgasm

Frigidity indeed! Oh yeah, this paper's gonna be a good one.

In reading this I tried to be objective; you know, take into account the context of the times and all of that. But really this is such an odd paper to read and at times I couldn't help but find my jaw dropped. Right out of the gate, the Introduction establishes the scientific "problem" of interest:
...the mechanisms underlying orgasm in the female remain shadowy and obscure. On the physiological side is the fact that the female orgasm is not accompanied by an objectively perceptible emission as is that of the male, which not only makes it difficult at times for the woman herself to recognize, but also makes it impossible for any external observer to be certain about it.

::blinks:: "difficult at times for the woman herself to recognize"? Huh.

The paper starts by taking a "pathologization" tone toward female sexuality, with a strong Freudian basis, e.g.:
Freud advanced the thesis that genital erogenicity in the normal female, although first centered in the clitoris, eventually becomes transferred to the vagina; and that sexual orgasm in the mature, healthy female should be in response to vaginal rather than clitoral stimulation.

But it does end with a rather more tempered tone. Since I've got a few papers to talk about, I'll just recommend that the reader check this out. It's easy to read and gives a fascinating insight into 1950s era psychiatry. It has section titles such as "Importance of Clitoris" and "Orgiastic Impotence", and discusses research by folks such as "Horney". Teasing aside, it does adopt a somewhat mature neuroscientific view by the end:
As in the male, the intensity of orgasm in the female varies with the degree of psychological excitation present. In a purely spinal reflex, due only to mechanical stimulation of either the penis or the clitoris, the orgasm is generally experienced as a localized and limited reaction... Where the cortical excitation is of a particularly high order, the orgastic reaction may be so intense and generalized as to result in convulsive twitchings which are almost like minor epileptic seizures... It would be pertinent in this regard to do electroencephalographic studies of cortical patterns during intense orgasm.

EEG studies of orgasm you say? Don't mind if I do!

Here's a paper from 1985 titled, EEG during masturbation and ejaculation. In this study, they had three men masturbate and ejaculate while undergoing EEG. If you don't know about EEG, read my post on neuroimaging techniques. My first thought when reading this paper was along the lines of: I worry so much about eye, muscle, and movement and other artifacts in my EEG research... how'd these researchers deal with the... "movements"... associated with their behavior of interest in this study?!

However, the authors didn't really do any strong quantitative analyses of their EEG. More just qualitative observations. The methods in this paper are a great read, though. They recorded 14 channel scalp EEG. In addition, they also recorded:
  • "Anal Contractions" with a "pressure-sensitive anal probe".
  • "Penile Tumescence" with a "mercury strain gauge". Unfortunately, "[t]he masturbatory movements interfered with the recording".
  • "Wrist Accelerometer" that was "taped to the dorsum of the hand (right) used in masturbation".

And the procedures really give you a sense of the beauty of the entire setup:
Subjects were instructed to avoid unnecessary movements, and their compliance was verified by video monitoring of head and torso throughout the session.

That seems like a very comfortable situation. But luckily:
All subjects successfully achieved orgasm, as indicated by self-report in the questionnaire results, by their button-press responses during the masturbation sequence, and by the presence of a sequence of repeated rhythmic contractions of the anal muscles registered by the anal probe.

The average length of masturbation to the first anal contraction was 402 seconds (range, 157-733 seconds), and the average duration of anal contractions, measured from initial to final contraction, was 37 seconds (range, 25-49 seconds)... In addition, subjects reported a variety of common accompaniments of orgasm, including erection, ejaculation, muscular contractions, and alterations in awareness... [and] [t]he wrist accelerometer tracings showed rhythmic masturbatory movements.

Overall the paper is quite devoid of any real theoretical grounding for why they recorded EEG during masturbation, or what an effect of interest would look like or mean... but it made for a fun paper.

The last paper is a 1960 manuscript titled Phantom Orgasm in the Dreams of Paraplegic Men and Women. There's not a lot to make light of with this one. It's fascinating, and very thoughtful and considerate of the patients interviewed. I'll close out with the authors' words:
Though there were individual variations and exceptions on many points, a general finding was that patients did not have the subjective feelings of sexual urge and gratification they formerly could experience. The finding of most importance was that it is possible for vivid orgasm imagery to occur in the dreams of paraplegics, despite total lack of somesthetic sensation from, and paralysis of the genitopelvic area. Congnitional eroticism is a variable of sex that may be entirely independent of genitopelvic sensation and action. The imagery of orgasm in paraplegic's dreams may be regarded as a special example of the phantom phenomenon.

ResearchBlogging.orgMarmor J (1954). Some considerations concerning orgasm in the female. Psychosomatic Medicine, 16 (3), 240-5 PMID: 13167252

Graber B, Rohrbaugh JW, Newlin DB, Varner JL, & Ellingson RJ (1985). EEG during masturbation and ejaculation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14 (6), 491-503 PMID: 4084049

Money J (1960). Phantom orgasm in the dreams of paraplegic men and women. Archives of General Psychiatry, 3, 373-82 PMID: 13772009


  1. Sarang14:47

    Another amusing(ly unethical) one:
    "Electrodes were stereotaxically implanted into a variety of deep sites and over the cortex of the brain by techniques previously described.
    "[The homosexual patient] was then introduced to the [21-year-old female] prostitute, and EEGs were obtained throughout his relationship with her."

    Heath RG. Pleasure and brain activity in man. Deep and surface electroencephalograms during orgasm. J Nerv Ment Dis (1972) vol. 154 (1) pp. 3-18

    Happy Valentine's Day! :-)

  2. HOLY CRAP! That's amazing/horrible. I might have to write a whole other post about that. How'd you come across that one?!

  3. keywords: homosexual, prostitute, depth EEG

  4. Hahahaha sadly that didn't work... but "homosexual" and "prostitute" turns up some interesting results in PubMed...

  5. I think it's referenced in Elephants on Acid http://www.amazon.co.uk/Elephants-Acid-Other-Bizarre-Experiments/dp/0156031353

  6. Which thing is referenced in that book? The Heath study?

  7. i have to agree with you bradley on the amazingly/horrible part. I have read a ton about this but not in a long time, the fact that you include in dept eeg is very indebt. Wish i could have read these a while ago.