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Orgasm Research: Climax in an MRI Machine? Been There, Done That

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If you ever want to make even the most cosmopolitan of your friends speechless, telling them you have volunteered to travel to Newark, New Jersey, so you can masturbate to orgasm in an fMRI is a great way to start. Once they overcome the shock, chances are they will start to ask questions. A lot of questions. Most I was able to answer. To start, no, I'm not kidding, I'm really going to do it. Really, it is not a joke, I promise.

Yes, I will be in the scanner, the same sort of claustrophobic tube you got your knee scanned in that one time. Yes, I know it is a very tight fit. Loud too. Yes, I'll be self-stimulating. How? Clitorally, to be exact, until I reach orgasm. Will I use a vibrator? No, most vibrators have metal, which is a no-no in the magnet. I'll have to rely on my own hands to get the job done. Yes, technically people will be watching -- just the scientists who are running the study, I think. But I will be draped for modesty and the only thing they will really be observing, besides my brain on the computer screen, is my hand to signal when ecstasy is upon me. Both Barry Komisaruk and his colleague, Nan Wise, have explained the whole process in detail to me. No, I am not sure I'll actually be able to do it. But, as instructed, I have been practicing at home and will give it my best shot.

It seemed that I was going through the same spiel over and over again. Between Wise's careful instructions and my repeated parroting, I felt I knew the procedure backward and forward. Or so I thought.

It occurred to me only the night before I was due to be scanned that I had forgotten to ask the most important question of all: What do I wear to this session? Neither Emily Post nor my most recent issue of Cosmo could tell me the proper dress code for self-stimulating to orgasm in an fMRI scanner. And my previous experience in other neuroimaging studies was no help. I had automatically packed some yoga pants and a tank top, thinking of comfort in a confined space, not ease of access to my nether regions. Panicked, I picked up the phone to call Wise.

"What does one usually wear for this sort of thing?" I asked.

"I always suggest a loose-fitting dress with no panties. That's what I wear." Wise, a former sex therapist turned neuroscience graduate student, always pilots the fMRI studies before other participants are brought in. It was old hat to her. "Something loose and comfortable and easy to get into is best."

The only dress I packed was meant for your more typical seduction situations, not fMRI scanning. It may provide easy access to my downstairs bits, but the big metal zipper up the side means it is inappropriate for the magnet. "I'm sorry," I apologized. "I didn't know. I didn't think to
pack anything like that."

"That's fine, that's fine," said Wise. "We have access to some hospital johnnies. You can wear one or two of those to cover up."

The thought of a thin, backless nightgown (or two) initiated a growing feeling of performance anxiety. I couldn't help thinking of the confined space, limited movement, loud clanking noises, and me in a hospital johnny. Though I am not the type of girl who needs to light candles, don lingerie, and crank up the Barry White in order to satisfy myself, I do need a little bit of mood to get things going. I was beginning to worry. Would I be able to find any inspiration to explore Ladytown in the kind of setup I was facing?

The next morning, when I arrived at Rutgers University's Smith Hall, a dark 1970s-style building in the middle of the Newark campus, I was in a bit of a panic. Despite spending an hour or two trying to concoct some kind of sexy fantasy about lab coats and confined spaces the previous night, I was still afraid that when push came to shove, I would not be able to reach orgasm.

I recognized Nan Wise immediately; our phone calls had already made her out to be the quintessential mother type, ever ready to nurture and comfort. She wanted to make sure I had eaten a good breakfast, was already asking for my lunch order, and simultaneously reassured
me that the scan would be a piece of cake. We walked upstairs to an older office to prepare for my scanning session later in the day. "O-Team Headquarters" was written in big green letters on a side wall whiteboard. I wondered aloud if the lab had made T-shirts yet. "No, not yet," said Wise. "But that's a great idea!"

Waiting for me there was Komisaruk, compact and dapper. His easygoing manner also had a calming effect. Good thing too -- the first order of business was to fit me for a head mask, a sort of modern Count of Monte Cristo-type restraint system made of tight plastic mesh. White and blue, the contraption was part low-budget bondage porn prop and part clinical radiation treatment kit. But it was not meant to be pretty. Rather, it was needed to keep my head as still as possible during the scan. Once we started the scan, it would be screwed directly to the scanner bed, meaning that I would be unable to get into or out of the fMRI tube without assistance. As I lay down on a table for my fitting, I tried to casually ask whether any other participants had difficulties reaching orgasm during their studies. I figured a conversation would help distract
me from the heated wet plastic he was about to place over my face.

"A few. But not too many." He pressed the plastic, warm and malleable, across my face and ears, making sure it would harden in an exact contour of my head. "No, we really don't have too much of that. Maybe two or three tops in all the people we've scanned."

Ah. No pressure then. None at all.

"Are you worried about that?" he asked gently. I squeaked out an affirmation, since nodding would mess up the mold.

"Well, don't worry about that. We'll ask you to do some Kegel exercises and then just think about doing some Kegel exercises so we can compare the activations in the sensory cortex under the two conditions. Even if there isn't an orgasm, it will still be very useful to us."

"You'll do great," Wise concurred, as she slipped a bottle of CVS - brand lube into the pocket of her lab coat, a coat with many pockets. I imagined it held any number of items she could pull out to help me relax if needed -- some chicken soup, a couple of Dramamine tablets, or perhaps even an fMRI-safe dildo, if that's what the situation called for. The thought made me laugh a little, but only on the inside. I did not want to have to remold my mask.

This essay is excerpted from "Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships" by Kayt Sukel (Free Press, 2012).

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