Thursday, 2 October 2014

Minds, Placebos & Orgasms ...

Now here's a funny story. There was this woman, see ... and she hadn't had an orgasm in three years, wasn't making love to her husband, got no pleasure from touching herself and had no sexual fantasy life at all.

And, then, suddenly everything changed - orgasm, love-making, pleasure, fantasy. So what miracle drug delivered all this? No drug at all! She was in a blind test for a testosterone patch and she believed that she was getting the drug when, in fact, she wasn't.

The belief was sufficient to shift her from a state of cold sterility to rampant sexuality and pleasure. This is the power of the placebo effect, the simple belief that something is happening when it may not be.

We make what we are from our beliefs but if the mechanical, technological or physical input is not there, then we may still need some input, something that triggers the re-organisation of our mental state in order to make us something different, in order, indeed, to make us happy.

This is perhaps the tragedy of thousands of years of sterile communitarianism. It has removed joy and pleasure for reasons both good and bad in their time but nothing has yet emerged to strip away this nonsense and give us back our bodies, place them under the command of our own free minds.

The mystery is not that the environment, including our culture, can drive hormones but that we continue to believe that hormones cannot be under the command of minds, that we are not the commanders of minds that can command, to a much greater degree than we believed, our hormones.

We can, within reason, will ourselves to happiness and pleasure - and be willed to misery and happiness by powerful cultural forces which we allow to control us at our own peril. Perhaps we can will our destinies and perhaps we can defy the attempt by others to will our destinies for us.

The dessicated cultures of Middle America and the Greater Syrian desert alike both fear sexual imagery because such imagery can trigger our own wilfulness.

To get sexual pleasure requires that we allow ourselves to close down the centres of our brain that make us watchful (if we are males) or thinking and feeling creatures (if we are female).

To be anxious if you are male or to be thinking or feeling too much (as a female) is to create a huge block in our ability to experience sexual pleasure. Anxiety and thought, in particular, dampen desire - worry, defensiveness and inability to communicate compound the problem.

Is this why intellectuals so often have sexual hang-ups?

Nor does desire have to lead to orgasm - sexologists see the erotic and the satisfaction of the erotic as a matter of achieving pleasure at any stage of the sexual cycle. Orgasm does not become iinvariably central to the process. There is an obsession here in our culture with epiphenomena.

As with so much in the post-ideological age, the game is not one of some 'normal' progressive fulfilment of some pre-arranged cycle regulated by the average person's response times but is, instead, a matter of a variation of responses within an almost infinitely variable sexual community.

The evils of Iron Age religiosity and State involvement in sexuality become clearer when one sees how prescribed models for sexual expression result in proscription of anything out of the allegedly normal range, a normal range experienced by no living person precisely because it is an abstract.

So what is desire? As so often we have been lied to in the rational man's determination to simplify and regulate matters. The standard line is that beastly men are triggered by external tactile and visual stimulation and gentle women by 'a richer cognitive and emotional context'. This results in the dangerous courtly myth of the moral superiority of the female.

This becomes a story of women requiring safety and bonding without ever really teasing out what it is that can make anyone, let alone a woman, feel safe and bonded. If a society prescribes particular forms of bonding and norms of safety, then a woman will bend to that social will instead of her own - and so will a man.

Yet scientists seem to have demonstrated (one is always cautious about scientists) that women can just as much be aroused by sexual imagery devoid of emotional connection as can men (according to the 2007 study of Meredith Chivers at the Toronto Center for Addiction and Mental Health). A whole range of visual sexual activity (including that of bonobos)  was shown to men and women and it was the men who differentiated between the type of actor in the sexual drama.

Heterosexual women, it seems, saw their levels of sexual excitement increase with the intensity of the imagery regardless of the type of performer. Hetero women will get excited by men, women and bonobos alike, whereas men are focused wholly on their preferred sexual style (hetero or homo with no interest in bonobo bonking) and only gay women do not 'get' male sexuality.

Women, it seems, are far more flexible than men in their sexual responses - but are they more enslaved to the social? A 'normal' (ouch!) woman may think in terms of security but this may be misdirection ... it may be that social acceptance is of more consequence.

The key point is that orgasm itself is not purely physical - sense inputs construct an orgasm out of a variety of cognitive and emotional responses but where the orgasm ultimately leads in men and women is instructive.

There seem to be neuroscientific observable differences (leaving open whether they have evolved within the species or within the individual through acculturation) between the way sense and emotion are balanced between men and women.

If there is a species-specific element it may be this. Male orgasm reproduces. Female orgasm may have reproductive benefits but seems to have much more to do with the bonding process referred to above. So much, so cliched.

But we need to tease out this bonding because it may be the context for the possibility of orgasm yet not necessarily relate to the experience itself except tangentially. The bonding impulse may be prior to the pleasure principle. And bonding may be disconnected from pleasure.

Female orgasm is possibly more contextually 'social' than male, more contingent on social reality (the conditions for bonding) and far more prone to have its terms of engagement defined by male proprietorial demands or the jealous communitarianism of matriarchal society.

A woman's ability to exercise wilfulness in choosing her own orgasm faces far more pressure from society, patriarchal or matriarchal, gerontocratic or priestly, than does a male's wilfulness. She is far more likely to be an easy victim of the social norm than a male whose discipline is more likely to be externally imposed than internally accepted.

Research has looked at actual brain behaviour in men and women. Neuroscientists at the University of Groningen scanned brains in a state of orgasm. The results were fascinating. The intensity of male response in the ventral tegmental area was so intense as to be likened to the effect of heroin - suggesting to this author (me) that the global drugs problem is little more than a mass cultural response to sexual deprivation. Ejaculation is a just a high that is designed to create babies.

More to be expected, the ejaculating male shifts energy from the watchful centres of the brain where vigilance and anxiety are to be found into those areas where memory, the visual and emotional are located. In short, the male is deeply engaged in his act at the time of the act, almost certainly fantasising to a degree his reality. We have written on the tantric-spiritual impulse elsewhere and there may be some evidence for this in the language of that curious sub-culture.

However, the opposite happens with a woman. At the point of orgasm, it is as if she temporarily ceases to be - most of the brain goes silent in a way that is still clearly not perfectly understood. The signs are that a woman, at that moment, is liberated from tension and inhibition but also from all moral reasoning and social judgement - blanked out as a person, as a socialised thing.  The woman ceases to think, in effect.

The orgasm may be regarded (and this is me, not the scientists) as a dramatic point of liberation from what social reality demands of a woman, from communitarianism, from priests, from mothers, from patriarchs, from the old and the dessicated. How very dangerous for society!

Paradoxically, the bonding (unless in the oxytocin context noted below) is really a complete non-bonding - as if the female's unconscious is saying, "the bond lies in a total loss of fear of you (the sexual partner) and the world". The silence in the brain is almost deafening.

Perhaps this helps to explain the age old mystery of why authority seeks to control sexuality - perhaps the dangerous liberation of that orgasmic moment (from which, as every man knows, a woman may awake as unbonded as bonded) might liberate women from an allotted role in the past designed to hold things together in societies of scarcity.

The constant allusion in (male) literature to the 'fickleness' of women might also well relate to this orgasmic nature because the loss of being in the act does mean that a woman is not addicted to the partner but can look at the partner afresh if the oxytocin has not kicked in. Above all, the essence of the female orgasm is that the removal of fear and anxiety in a woman's mind is very much more central to her than for a man. And that it is not necessarily replaced romantically by 'love' or its cognates.

Instead the woman may have all emotion stripped out from her at the moment of orgasm - a level of almost Buddhist detachment being evidenced by the neuroscience although there is other important evidence that some types of orgasm are connected to a very specific heightened emotional response, linked to oxytocin, that does imply bonding. Again, there are tantric analogies.

Perhaps (the science is as yet unclear) there are 'detached orgasms' and 'bonding orgasms' for women that exist according to circumstance but that the male simply has a 'high orgasm' that leaves him begging for more and his oxytocin comes from the 'cuddle' and the touch and not the fuck.

Much would be explained by this model. Which type of orgasm a woman has or even whether she has one may have surprisingly little to do with the flow of chemicals into the body but a great deal to do with the intimate, community and social conditions in which it takes place. These are ideally ones of trust but also one where there is no fear or anxiety and the woman herself makes all the choices. But one other thought arises - the fear of addiction.

Sex therapists appear to fall into two camps which tell us more about the libertarian and puritan cultural tensions of America than they do about what it is to be human: those who see the erotic and the orgasmic as essential to long term bonding and those who see it as dangerously addictive.

This is a nonsensical dichotomy. The issue should be one of either will to pleasure or a firm decision, based on full facts, that pleasure is not appropriate in such-and-such a situation for rational reasons. For centuries, pleasure has been denigrated but it may be that there are conditions where survival suggests that this negativity has been appropriate.

Yet, all things being equal, there seems to be no rational reason why any person should actively avoid pleasure, with all its other associated bonding and health benefits, out of an irrational acceptance without question of the values of an earlier age or those of the local dominant culture. Above all, the type of 'liberatory' feminism that sees the male as oppressor rather than as a useful tool for that beautiful state of non-being (alongside the more practical matter of providing for a family) is particularly odd.

A society where males get their regular 'hits' and females get to lose anxiety and their duty of care to the world in an explosion of pleasure periodically is actually more likely to end up in long term stable relationships and well balanced children than one where the males are permanently frustrated and the females see only a world of anxious drudgery as the norm.

Neuroscience can make few claims to understand the sociology of sex but the evidence is heading in one direction - the acceptance of pleasure and the elimination of our fear of addiction in favour of a world of life-enhancing natural highs for men and of brief tastes of nirvana for women.

[This essay owes a great deal to neurologist Martin Portner's article in Scientific American on 'The Orgasmic Mind', 2009/2010. The opinions are, however, wholly mine.]