Unlocking the Female Orgasm: Is a Woman's Sexual Satisfaction a Mind Game?

PHOTO: Kayt Sukel in mesh MRI mask
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The secret to releasing the mysterious female orgasm might be all in our heads -- literally. Surprising research suggests that the concept of female sexual dysfunction as a disease could be a myth, and that women may be, well, just over-thinking sex and love.

Acclaimed sex scientist Barry Komisaruk and his team of researchers at Rutgers University are studying the female orgasm, hoping to unlock the elusive secrets of a woman's pleasure peak. And they are analyzing whether female sexual dysfunction is even a real disease.

Kayt Sukel volunteered to masturbate in an MRI machine while Komisaruk's team monitored her brain activity as she reached her climax. Sukel said she was happily married with a superb sex life, until she gave birth to her son. When her libido crumbled, so did her marriage. As a newly single mom, she set off to find out how love and lust impact our brains. Her book, "Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships," explores the notion that the brain is a woman's most powerful sex organ.

"The answer may just be in trying something new, being open, being able to communicate, and, you know, maybe getting a little bit outside your comfort zone," Sukel said.

In looking at a female brain's activity during orgasm, Komisaruk said he saw that 80 out of 80 different regions of the brain all hit their maximum activity.

"Orgasm is one of the most all-encompassing phenomena in the brain. The only other thing that is known to produce such widespread [brain] activity is epilepsy," he added.

After the FDA approved Viagra in 1998 and it became a blockbuster drug, millions of men were suddenly diagnosed with erectile dysfunction and written prescriptions for the little blue pill, or one of a slew of others, including Cialis and Levitra, all of which were covered by insurance. According to the National Institutes of Health, 18 million American men, aged 20 years or older, had been diagnosed with ED by 2007.

More than a decade after Viagra hit pharmacy shelves, women are still feeling left out.

Komisaruk said he hopes to find an answer for women lacking sexual desire, especially those who seem unable to orgasm at all.

When women take a stimulating drug, such as Viagra, it gets the blood circulating in the appropriate areas, but does not produce orgasms.

Filmmaker Liz Canner's documentary, "Orgasm, Inc.," follows the pharmaceutical industry's quest for an FDA-approved drug to treat female sexual dysfunction. Several drug companies launched clinical trials with creams, gels and even nose sprays, according to the documentary.

"They turned to women and they said, 'this drug will probably work on you,' but the problem was, in order to develop the drug, [the companies] had to have a disorder," Canner said. "Eighteen of the 19 doctors who came up with the disorder, female sexual dysfunction, had ties to 22 drug companies."

At the time, one widely quoted -- and according to Canner wildly overstated -- survey suggested that 43 percent of women aged 18 to 59 had some kind of sexual dysfunction, which meant a lack of desire or pleasure, and painful intercourse.

"The 43 percent figure refers to how many women are sexually dissatisfied, which is actually very different than the number of women that have a disorder," Canner said." The 43 percent really refers to the market share, I think, that the pharmaceutical industry believe that they were going to have. It was saying to Wall Street, 'There's a huge market here if we can come up with a female Viagra drug.'"

The purpose of an orgasm, Komisaruk theorized, is that it provides pleasure, ensuring reproduction.

"Sexual activity has to be pleasurable. It can't be aversive," he said. "If it were aversive, animals wouldn't do it. Humans wouldn't do it. So pleasure, per se, is an extremely important physiological process."

But there seems to be a bit of a Catch-22 for married women; studies have shown that having a new lover improves your sexual arousal. Watching pornography can also help. But if a woman is uncomfortable with porn, sex experts suggest using a vibrator.

Today, the only FDA-approved device for female orgasms involves a small vacuum-like contraption, the EROS Clitoral Therapy Device. Most experts don't think there ever will be a pill for women.

Both Sukel and Canner agree that if women are simply open with their partners about what they are willing to try and enjoy, they might be able to reach orgasm more often.

"We often hesitate to talk about sex and teach our partners what works for us," Canner said.

Nan Wise, who works with Komisaruk's team, said, "Sex is so important. We need to get over our anxiety and our distress about sex, because when people are uncomfortable with sex and uncomfortable with their bodies, they're uncomfortable with themselves. They're uncomfortable with each other. We live in a country where people are really obsessed about sex and also very hung up about it. So I think we need to get over that."

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