What You Might Not Know About Sex

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We are fascinated by sex. We are titillated too, of course, and often embarrassed, but more than anything else, I believe we are curious. Showtime’s new drama focused on the lives and work of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson is counting on that curiosity.

The show, titled Masters of Sex, is based on well-regarded 2009 biography of the same name, written by Thomas Maier and published by Basic Books. It is not the first time that the work of such ground-breaking sex researchers has caught our attention: Masters and Johnson was also the subject of a 1996 A&E biographical portrait titled “Masters and Johnson – The Science of Sex.” And then there is Alfred Kinsey, whose research into human sexuality paved the way for Masters and Johnson, and who was himself the subject of (among other works) a 2003 musical (Dr. Sex), a 2004 biographical film (Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson), a 2004 novel (The Inner Circle by T. Coraghessan Boyle) and a 2005 PBS documentary.

Maybe this simply means we are all a little bit voyeuristic: we tune in to see couples having sex in Masters and Johnson’s lab, or up in Kinsey’s attic. (Already The Atlantic Wire is at least one website listing the minute markers for all eight instances of sex or nudity in Showtime’s pilot episode, for anyone eager to skip all the talking.) I think, though, that it means we really do have questions, and we are fascinated by the scientists who are brave enough to ask them.

Not a scientist herself, Mary Roach nonetheless demonstrates her bravery when it comes to the big questions of sex in her excellent book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. For anyone intrigued by the Showtime drama and curious for a more substantive look at sex research, Bonk is a very good place to start.

Take for example the always mystifying topic of female orgasm. As reported by Roach, 70 percent of women say that intercourse by itself fails to bring them all the way. Many researchers and psychologists have tackled this problem, exploring the possibility of vaginal orgasms (real or mythical?) versus clitoral ones. This distinction started with Freud, who argued that a young girl focused her sexual feelings on her clitoris as a penis substitute. A woman who developed normally would eventually experience the more “mature” vaginal orgasm.

Freud might have much to say then about Princess Marie Bonaparte, whose research connected the distance between a woman’s vagina and clitoris with her ability to orgasm during sex. The poor princess went so far as to have her own clitoris surgically moved in the hopes of achieving a more satisfying sex life. It didn’t work, but at least she seems to have proposed some valid theories: Kim Wallen, a professor of behavioral neuroendrocrinology at Emory University who was interviewed by Roach, found a strong statistical relationship suggesting Bonaparte’s conclusions were correct.

Masters and Johnson’s research also debunked Freud. Aided by a “thrusting mechanical penis camera,” Masters documented the physical responses to arousal and orgasm, and ultimately concluded that all orgasms derive from the clitoris. Half a century later, Ken Maravilla at the University of Washington used MRI to measure blood flow, demonstrating that an aroused clitoris actually enlarges, just as a penis does, though most of this enlargement occurs out of sight.

Perhaps, then, Freud was correct in thinking of the clitoris as a penis substitute; it was his conclusion that women should therefore “hand over its sensitivity…to the vagina” that was dubious.

As the season progresses it remains to be seen how educational Showtime’s new drama will be. The show favors the dramas between characters over the lessons learned about sex (rightly so, as it is entertainment). So, while we get to see the penis camera and have a chuckle as Masters positions the Provost of his university to watch it in action, we don’t actually learn (at least not yet) what the camera reveals.

While you wait for the season to unfold, Bonk may just have the answers to all your questions. How were men in sixteenth and seventeenth century France expected to prove that they weren’t impotent? What is it like to have sex in front of ultrasound equipment? Check out the book if you’re just dying to know.

received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor. Her clients include many first time authors, and she delights in helping them give voice to their stories. She has recently completed work on her own first novel, Besotted, literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is currently seeking representation. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, two children, and Yorkshire Terrier, Saunders.

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