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Undressing the Orgasm
Mary Roach Headshot

Let's Talk About the Orgasm

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In 2009, I walked onto the TED stage and gave a talk that included video of a Danish pig inseminator. The topic of the talk was orgasm, and the video related to a centuries-old debate over "upsuck": that is, whether the contractions of the uterus during orgasm serve to draw the semen toward the egg and boost the odds of conception. In pigs, research suggests, this is the case. The inseminator up on the screen was practicing the Five-Point Stimulation Plan, a technique developed by Denmark's National Committee for Pig Production, following research that showed a 6 percent higher farrowing rate among titillated sows. In other words, as a group, they produced 6 percent more piglets than sows inseminated while idly standing around the sty.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering sex researchers of the '50s and '60s, were upsuck skeptics. They didn't believe orgasm facilitated conception, at least not in humans, and they worried that the belief might be hobbling fertility research. So they set out to prove their case. Six women came into the lab and were outfitted with a cervical cap filled with artificial semen. A radiopaque marker had been added, such that one could document the goo's travels by X-ray. The women were installed in front of the X-ray machine and invited to bring themselves to orgasm. Before and after images showed no evidence of upsuck, and infertility research was freed to move on to a more productive line of inquiry.

The same goal-directed, out-of-the-box thinking that led to the sow stimulation plan, that led Masters and Johnson into the lab with their cervical caps and six bold women, lies squarely at the heart of TED. - Mary Roach

There were those at the TED organization who felt that the pig footage should be edited out of my talk before posting it online. Not because it was pornographic; there is little overlap between the things a human male does to arouse his partner and the techniques of the amorous boar. The reason, I was told, was that the animal welfare community might look askance. People had tweeted during my talk, and apparently pig foreplay out of context and limited to 140 characters sounds like sow abuse. But the sows' quality of life is, if anything, improved, and I am guessing that the larger concern -- as reflected in some of the early comments posted for my talk -- was that the video was sensationalistic. That the footage and the topic of orgasm were a cheap grab for hits that debased the goals and principles of TED. I understand that sentiment. But to me, the talk was quintessentially TED. The same goal-directed, out-of-the-box thinking that led to the sow stimulation plan, that led Masters and Johnson into the lab with their cervical caps and six bold women, lies squarely at the heart of TED. What good are good ideas if you keep them to yourself? Raised eyebrows be damned! People are drawn to TED for the freshness of the ideas and the willingness to confront the inevitable blowback of skepticism. TED is the antithesis of knee-jerkism, of political correctness and fear-based passivity. That's why we love it. I do realize I'm likening TED to the Danish pork industry. I do so with the utmost respect.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.

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Think of TED Weekends as time to be curious about the world of ideas... a weekend break from shouting heads, celebrity soundbites and kitten videos. We combine a thought-provoking TED Talk with new perspectives from contributing writers and invite you to join in the conversation. (Coffee and OJ not included.)