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The Science of Orgasm by Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores, and Whipple

By Tom Hummer | 5.07.07

Of all the ways to experience orgasm, writing a book titled The Science of Orgasm is probably not the most exciting option. Nonetheless, Drs. Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple have consummated just such a work. Orgasm is an attempt to discuss the interplay between hormonal, neurological, pharmacological, and physiological factors that combine to produce the climax of sexual behavior. Normal and atypical biological processes are illustrated, and functionality, types, and effects of orgasm are all explored in an in-depth look at the unique experience. Unfortunately, the authors failed to grasp two major points that could have vastly improved their work: (1) they are writing a BOOK about orgasm, and (2) they are writing a book about ORGASM.

For scientists, a book provides a chance to break the shackles of the peer-review ideal. The authors can expand on a scientific topic for an extensive audience, fully develop and support a broad theme, and freely expound upon ideas in a manner or language that don’t suit the boring old journal article format. Unfortunately, the threesome fails to take advantage of this freedom. The writing is cold and mechanical, making for a tedious read at times, especially considering the topic (I’ll get to that). The entire text feels at best like an extended review, delving into a rote rehearsal of facts and percentages or, at worst, reading like a medical pamphlet.

Although certainly well-researched (with 47 pages of references), there isn’t always a clear direction or theme for the included material; rather, it’s more a list of what we know about the topic (although, to be fair, A Bunch of Stuff We Think We Know About Orgasm isn’t quite as captivating a title). The chances to incorporate overarching themes and big-picture concepts that the book format allows are largely wasted. When attempts are made to create a full story, these feel like too much of an afterthought. Too many chapters fall into a cycle of listing hormones, diseases, or medications and their occurrences and effects, essentially a review of the whats and whens, with only passing attention paid to the whys and hows. While informative at times, the details and percentages run together without any macro-level organization. A prime example is the treatment of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is covered substantially throughout the book. Dopamine is implicated in orgasm: as the book points out, blocking dopamine action inhibits sexual response, and promoting dopaminergic activity hastens the onset of orgasm. But that’s not the whole story – dopamine actually plays a vital role for experiencing any reward, including food, money, or drugs. And guess what? Orgasm, too, is rewarding (also, fire is hot and smurfs are blue). But Orgasm only briefly touches on this overlap, and far too late to create a meaningful context for the neurobiological details. Instead, drugs of abuse (cocaine), medications (clozapine), and diseases (Parkinson’s) that alter orgasmic experience are mentioned solely on how they affect dopamine activity, with no general mention of reward. It’s like ignoring the elephant in the room while talking about his toenails.

Also discomforting is the failure to focus on a target audience and, thus, a true identity for the book. The authors can’t decide to whom they are writing: the heavy number of parentheticals in the opening paragraphs seems to indicate an attempt to appease a scientifically interested, yet uninformed, crowd; a later anatomical discussion assumes a thorough knowledge of vertebrate locations and cranial nerves. This uncertainty is particularly evident in chapters about sexual health and disorders, which waver from basic science to reference lists of symptoms to medical advice. So, during your next experience with priapism, an erection (undesirably) lasting longer than four hours, it’s nice to know that “cold showers or ice packs may be beneficial during the early stages.” (p. 60) If that doesn’t work, withdrawing blood from the penis with a hyperdermic needle is an option, but I’m guessing that’s for your doctor to know. My own recommendation is to read Chapter 7, “How Aging Affects Orgasm,” which should alleviate the problem.

The overwhelmingly, and unfortunately, staid nature of the book is set by the opening sentence of the preface: “We wrote this book because orgasm is a remarkable phenomenon and one of life’s most intriguing experiences.” Yawn. Remarkable phenomenon? The former popularity of Zubaz pants is a remarkable phenomenon. And I’ve yet to hear, “Yes! Yes! What an intriguing experience!” in the throes of passion, though that may be due to my own inadequacies. No, orgasm is fascinating as the supreme combination of raw power, intense emotion, and utter ridiculousness. It is for this reason I recommend not making any major life decisions within five minutes, on either side, of orgasm. The tone of the text is perhaps understandable, as the authors typically communicate with their scientific and medical brethren. But, especially for a broader audience, can we let down the guard a little? Orgasm is supposed to be fun (as for science, that’s debatable, but nonetheless). Would it kill to throw in a Woody Allen quote? And I can’t be the only one who finds a little amusement in the reported correlation between a woman’s reported intensity of orgasm and the number of cigarettes she’s smoked. (An entertaining look at a similar topic is Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice for All Creation, which I highly recommend.)

Acknowledgement of these faults isn’t to say the book is without merit. The science is informative, particularly within the behavioral, physiological, and hormonal realms, in which the authors are most familiar (the brain imaging sections aren’t as solid). Some notable ideas are put forth, such as the theory that the hormone oxytocin, released during female orgasm, may direct sperm to the correct fallopian tube. Plus, I did learn quite a bit, like how Viagra works. And that testosterone is the primary hormonal mediator of female sexual arousal (testosterone in women, that is—not in their potential male suitors). So it’s not that Orgasm is devoid of decent material; it just scores low marks on presentation.

So read The Science of Orgasm at your own peril. Just be prepared for some slow and dry material that doesn’t necessarily fit with the subject matter. While a plus is the chance to raise some eyebrows with your choice of public reading material (I chose the subway and a wait for jury duty), consider yourself warned: The Science of Orgasm is far, far closer to science than to orgasm.