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Dr. Nicole Prause has made a career of doing high quality peer reviewed research on human sexuality and its impact on our lives. Join us as she shares the incredible inaccuracies, half-truths, and blatant lies that have perpetuated through the ages. I guarantee you will be surprised.
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The Science of Sex with Dr. Nicole Prause
Welcome back, listeners. I think excited is the right word to have my friend Nicky on. Nicky, please introduce yourself.
I’m Dr. Nicole Prause. I founded Liberos, a sexual biotechnology research group in Los Angeles after a ten-year career in academics.
Tell us about what it is that you work on. What does it even mean that you’re doing this?
Broadly, we do research that tries to answer the question, “What good is sexual stimulation for general health?” We investigate everything from how does orgasm incentivize sexual behavior. How does it impact our ability to focus? Also things like how does partner genital stimulation impact our emotional responses. Those can lead to things like better interventions for affective disorders, which are things like depression and anxiety disorders. It’s the pretty basic groundwork for those kind of questions, really mechanistic basic neuroscience in humans.
When people discover what you do, what’s their most common question?
They often have no questions when they discover what I do because I think it’s just not a known field or profession. They’re often not sure what that means. Often, there’s some discussion of exactly, “What is it that you do?” I found people make assumptions all over the map sometimes just thinking I must be a sex therapist, which I do but not actively anymore all the way up to that I’m Masters in Johnson. We are sitting between people’s legs using a shot glass to monitor their vagina while they masturbate which we do not do. There are usually a long period of just clarifying what exactly the job is and what the background skills are to do something like that.
It seems something that a bunch of hacks could theoretically do or claim that they do and just be terrible at. It’s something that you do with real scientific vigor and quantification. I constantly hear people being, “I’m a sexologist,” and I know that that’s not what you do but then the things that come out of their mouth sound so completely absurd and not based in any research whatsoever.
It is a real struggle in our field. There are lots of folks who want to be sex educators or practice within their therapy providing some sexuality services. By and large, they’re great as far as sex positivity and really trying to go against shame and make people feel better about whatever their preferences are. Sometimes the stuff we hear, it’s really hard to collaborate with those groups at times because they promote ideas about physiology that are simply wrong oftentimes. How many decades is it going to take for us to go back and undo the idea of a G-spot? We’re still fighting that garbage. We still see advice for how to find that thing that doesn’t exist. That’s one example but it is a real challenge.
Can you explain your statement because many of the listeners might not have any background on this?
Usually when folks talk about the G-spot, this is the idea that the anterior wall of the vagina, that is the part of the vagina facing the belly, has some heightened area of sensitivity that can trigger orgasm and/or female ejaculation. That is by and large an idea that has now been rejected. People have looked for areas of sensitivity. They have done physiological testing, various forms of imaging to try and locate a sensitive spot and the wall does vary in terms of the innervation. It’s not consistently innervated throughout but it varies by individual. There’s no consistent area of sensitivity. As far as the physiology is concerned, it’s rejected. We’re done with this idea. Yet this is where we keep saying, “How do you find the G-spot?” I get journalist questions about, “How do you best stimulate the G-spot?” I was like, “You don’t. Leave it alone.” It can be very difficult to challenge this mythology that keeps getting repeated by folks who don’t have a background in physiology, to know or read the original science to discern what is really happening in the vagina. You have to know. It is published. It has been investigated. The mythology around it is pretty profound. I think that maybe more interesting just, “What is it that causes that idea to persevere and to be so sticky?” I don’t know but there are many like it in sex. It’s perhaps just the clearest example.
Could you give a few more examples? If these are so pervasive, I’m sure there’s confusion for all of us on what’s accurate and what’s myth? What I’m trying to say is that I’m probably screwing up a lot of things and I want you to help me do it right.
The idea of blue balls for example, that there is this specific physiological condition that strictly affects men and does something special around orgasm has actually never been documented to be anything atypical in male physiology. There’s no underlying basis for it. However, women also get engorged in the vagina when they get aroused. The general idea that, “There’s more blood there. It’s uncomfortable when I try to walk around like that,” is reasonable but there is truly no such thing as a distinct physiological event of blue balls like that does anything special, just general vasocongestion that is easily taken care of by yourself. That’s perhaps the common one.
The idea that vibrators are for women. We use vibrators to stimulate men’s orgasm in the laboratory. Previous labs have done this. Vibrators work perfectly well for guys. They are just as effective of a stimulus and bring men’s orgasm for our studies. Nothing specific there that should shy a person away from trying other than social prohibitions perhaps. The idea that some women can have 50 orgasms in three minutes. The timing on that is simply not possible. It’s depending on the nature of the claim. You should be highly, highly skeptical of people that are trying to tell you they can make you have an hour-long orgasm or have many orgasms in a finite period. Orgasm is actually pretty well-defined physiological process and those claims have never been demonstrated. There are a few for you specifically in the sex domain.
It seems that research in your field is really an uphill battle. Even you were explaining that at your university, you used to be at UCLA, you had a really tough time. Could you share a little bit about that?
I’ve worked at three different universities since my graduation. They each present challenges because the schools are never familiar with the work that I do because it’s fairly rare, especially difficult challenges at UCLA. First we attempted to record orgasm in the laboratory and this was a dual site project with University of Pittsburgh. For some reason, the UCLA ethics board refused to allow the protocol to move forward despite citing no privacy or safety concerns and Pittsburgh approved it with no changes. It made very clear that the protocol, they just didn’t want that on campus regardless of what the purpose of it was, which makes it impossible to do your research. If you don’t have ethics board over site, you can’t move forward so we ended up conducting that study in Pittsburgh. We obtained some grant funds that were to study partner genital stimulation that would have extended my contract, covered my salary, which is the typical approach in soft-money positions at universities. The school refused to accept the grant. I have never heard of that happening before or since. As far as I understand and have experienced, that’s proforma. The school takes the money. Why would you not support your faculty? In this case, they didn’t want it done on campus and that effectively ended my time at the end of my contract with UCLA.
This is something that seems a little bit prevalent in your field. There’s a lot of discrimination against this kind of research. Is that right?
There is extensive formal discrimination against our research. For example, program officers at the National Institutes of Health, that are our main federal funding agency in the US, will tell you not to put the word sexual in your grants applications. That rules me out almost entirely because that’s what I do. When you are funded, there have been five grants that were brought before Congress after their funding was awarded to have their funds rescinded for no reason other than being sexuality grants. In one case, Congress was successful and took the researcher’s money back from them. The other four, they were able to retain their funds by one voting Congress. Their own congressman voted against them in one case. The work is highly politicized even if you’re able to get a grant in this highly competitive grant environment. There is a high risk of it being taken away for no reason.
What are some of the pitfalls that you found in your field?
One of the major challenges in our field is the scientist themselves sometimes recognize the lens to which they’re investigating sexual behaviors. Broadly, sexual behaviors are incredibly shamed and constrained in the US. A number of times for example, we see this heavily in pornography research where people are saying, “Pornography is the downfall of marriage.” We’re saying, “Could that have nothing to do with the fact that people are masturbating rather than having sex with their partner who they’re having conflict with?” That is the parsimony rule suggest that relationship conflict not the magical pornography is causing these problems. Even the scientist lose their mind sometimes and just think, “No. It has to be magic porn. It must be magic porn,” and failed to see past their own biases there. We also see that just in general to understand sexual behaviors. Nobody studies actual sexual behaviors in the US. They all study models using sexual imagery like sexual images and videos and that’s a problem.
If you want to characterize what are the potential benefits of partner stimulation, you can’t use porn to do that. You need couples interacting in the lab. I’m sorry if you’re too chicken to try and get that through your ethics board or if you don’t have the technical know-how to make it go. I don’t care. Make it happen. Do the science right. It’s very frustrating sometimes to see people doing dumb things, asking people how sating their orgasm is and using a self-report of satiation when I was like, “We have so many good models for how you could actually objectively measure that in a physiological way.” They just say, “Too hard. Too much of a pain. I’m just going to do it this hacky crappy way,” when it’s not necessary. We are studying satiety right now. There are good ways of approaching that scientifically. If they’re too chicken to try them, then we’ll do it.
What’s something completely unexpected about doing the work that you do?
I have often been surprised the participants that we have come in for our research generally are pretty sex positive folks, tend to be a little more sensation-seeking, have a little more fun in their lives. Yet, a lot of the questions that we get are people who are really confused about their own response, about whether what they’re doing is okay or normal. There continues to be a tremendous fixation on this. Our research participants often will ask, “How did I do?” “What do you mean how did you do? This is not a pass-fail graded thing. We’re learning that’s the whole point.” There’s a really strong sense from folks that come in that, “No. I need you to tell me. Why are you not telling me?” We’re keeping a secret from them. I think it just speaks to the tremendous amount of shame around sexuality and lack of conversation in this country that people really feel they don’t have information.
They don’t understand what their bodies are doing or if what they’re doing is okay or acceptable and they want some approval. I can’t give that to them so I try and do the best I can to communicate that these are not medical tests and to also provide them some comfort or relief from shame. There is a wide variety of responses all of which are normal. We’re trying to characterize the differences just as a general science approach, not as an attempt to judge. I think that’s been pretty surprising and remarkable. Even amongst these pretty progressive, usually better educated folks who often come in to our lab, that they still have a tremendous amount of questions and shame and concerns. I can’t imagine what the rest of the country looks like if this is what we see.
I think that makes a lot of sense. When your best move is to search something on the internet and you don’t know the viability of the information and you don’t know who’s really providing it, it can be very strange and scary for people especially on a topic that there’s so much really no reason shame created around it in our culture, that people don’t know where to turn. I have to say I’m grateful that you’re doing research to answer these questions. I think it would have made my teenage years a lot less awkward. On a completely different note, is there a certain book that’s really inspired you or any person that you really look up to besides your undergrad advisor?
I’m a fan of the classics. I feel that Paul Meehl is underappreciated in our day. A lot of this person’s original messages have been lost. Meehl is an unusual character in our field. He is a therapist who largely rallied against assumptions of therapy. For example, he overtly questions his colleagues who would present case studies and say, “Why are we doing this? What this is doing is causing us to bias our assumptions to think we know more about our patients than research suggest we really do and relying to ourselves.” He was very controversial and outspoken in these respects and was an absolutely essential voice that has really influenced my desire to speak out and to be clear about, “I am saying therapists are doing it wrong. I am saying they’re harming patients and here is why and that this is an important thing to do.” He laid a lot of that groundwork to say we owe patients better than this. We need to challenge our own assumptions.
I think one of the main differentiators between arguments we get in on Twitter and with random folks and actual trained PhDs is we are taught to doubt our own experience. I’ve been on television shows where they wanted me to test their comments on something and I have personally had the experience myself. From that perspective, let’s say absolutely this thing happens but the science wasn’t there. I had to say despite that I have had the experience myself, no, there is not currently sufficient evidence. I think Meehl and those like him, more modern day clinical science folks like Lilienfeld, have thought us to doubt our own experience, to defer to science over what we perceive and that is something that is not trained in the general public. He says, “But my friend said this so you’re wrong. But I have felt this so you’re wrong.” They don’t understand and there’s no way of communicating it in a tweet why you have to doubt your own experience.
Meehl has a very nice layout for why this is a problem and why we might to continue to do it. Now there is much more empiricism around this. The idea for example that a therapist who advertise himself by saying, “I have 24 years of experience treating these problems.” Don’t go to them. Those are the worst. Basically with experience, their sense of efficacy increases and their actual efficacy has plateaued and often decreased because they don’t stick around the science. That’s crazy. They’re literally advertising something that if you follow the numbers is bad. It does not speak to their expertise. To keep your skepticism about you in these cases and appeal to authority should fail miserably on this but it doesn’t. I hope there are more folks who are interested in the clinical science issues investigating these early ideas that Meehl put out in a more controversial, flamboyant way years ago to continue to question our own experience and rely on the data not our personal feelings.
Imagine you get a message from a complete stranger and the person wants to meet you for coffee. What would have you accept the invitation?
I will meet almost anyone for coffee. I feel scientists often do a bad job socially. We’re known for being socially horrible. Let’s just say it. The brighter you are, you might be more on the Asperger-y, difficulty communicating spectrum. I don’t worry too much about someone who is bumbling around a little bit or doesn’t have the slickest come on but if they have an interesting idea and some credibility behind them, I am there in a heartbeat. Why do they want to talk to me? What might be hiding behind their interest? Many times, people don’t want to put something in an email because it’s related to sex. They have this whole thing going on but they need to be able to give it some context. This does sometimes cause problems because I have had many issues over the years, whether it’s meeting with venture capitalist or potential colleagues only to find out that they were definitely interested in sexual harassment, not ideas. That’s very difficult to filter on the frontend. I think if you meet with someone once, you can assess that out pretty quickly. So long as they have some background that suggest they may have an interesting idea, if they’re smart in their field, I don’t care if they have any history in my field, I want to talk to them. Brilliant mathematician, I’m there. Revolutionary computer scientist, I am there. I don’t care if you have background in sex, it’s just smart people are good to talk to in the work, in general, in the world.
I often ask my guests to share an embarrassing story or a personal note that people wouldn’t expect. One of the guest that I interviewed recently shared that they suffer from extreme panic attacks and anxiety. Other people have shared anecdotes of their most embarrassing experiences. Stories are always good. Do you have a fun story of how you embarrassed yourself or something completely unexpected that you’d share with the audience?
When we were developing a protocol to test orgasm, we wanted to automate the process so that we were providing stimulation that they wouldn’t have to stimulate themselves. There’s no established way of doing this. We were testing ourselves because that’s what you do in general in science. It just happens within sex this is a little goofier. My colleague, Greg Siegle, and I were very good about boundaries and making sure that we maintain our professionalism. He had set me up in the lab to try this new protocol. He had programmed something and he’s like, “I don’t want to tell you what it does. I just want you to experience it.” He goes next door and the protocol starts. I had this vibrator on my body in a good place. The stimulation period is getting longer with brief interludes and it’s getting longer. As the situation becomes important, crucial, there’s a spark and the vibrator goes out. The Arduino board had burned out because we put too much power through it. I was so angry. I just remember walking out of the lab and he took one look at me. He’s like, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this mad.” I said, “Don’t talk to me.” Being brought up right before orgasm and then being denied in the lab late at night while we’re trying to work towards finishing a protocol and then having to share, knowing that your colleague knows what just happened and trying to continue being professional is very challenging.
Let’s change things up a bit here. You know I’m a total geek and I love comic book heroes. Who’s your favorite comic book hero?
I am totally biased because I just saw Wonder Woman. It’s such a stereotype. I worked at a gaming company for a little while so I had more exposure than this. I really just love some of the mythology around Wonder Woman and what I understand of it, do it herself last, I like it.
She was developed by the same person who created the lie detector, which is why there’s the Lasso of Truth. Last question, you’re invited to dinner with three other people. They could be any three people you want but they have to be living. Who do you pick?
I am really interested in Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti. I think he has some revolutionary ideas and he’s a politician who doesn’t suck. I am really interested in the resistance and change and trying to understand how we can affect that being in a blue state to improve our current status. I would love to share a room with him and talk about some of the concerns and ideas that I and friends have had that we don’t know how to affect better than what we’ve done so far. I’m a huge fan of distance running and have had the chance only to briefly meet Paula Radcliffe. She is the fastest female marathoner today and a strong advocate against illegal drugs in her sport, very strong human being, and remarkable woman. I would love to talk to her about her perseverance and the struggle she’s had about being outspoken in her field and as a female, and just incredible athlete.
I’m trying to pick among scientist now. It might be Scott Lilienfeld. I wanted to be more involved in the broad area of trying to move clinical science forward and what that should look like, what it does look like, how we can engage our legislators to support research-supported treatments so that people aren’t getting fraudulent treatments from therapist. I think that’s a huge place where I can actually have an impact. As far as I know, he very much leads a lot of those research efforts and also the political efforts in that area. I would love to find a way to team up with him and think through what that might look like and how we can contribute to those efforts.
If the listeners want to find out more about your work and follow you on social, where can they find you?
Nicky, thanks a ton for coming on. This has been a real treat. Thank you for educating us and for dispelling falsehoods and rumors. This has been really enlightening for me and I’m sure that all the listeners agree. Listeners, stay tuned for the anonymous interview.
About Dr. Nicole Prause
Nicole Prause, PhD is a neuroscientist leading research on the general health benefits of sexual stimulation. She is extensively published in peer-reviewed journals and conducts grant-funded science unique in the world of partnered intimate stimulation.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now for my favorite part. You know how much I love the anonymous interview. Today, we have an incredible person with us. Eric, thank you so much for coming on.
John, it’s my pleasure.
Let’s start giving the listeners some hints about who you might be and see if they can figure this out. Let’s start with the basics, where did you grow up?
Where do you live now?
I live in the New York area.
What brought you here originally?
Like a lot of people coming from the Midwest to the big city, I came here to make my fortune. I actually came to become a famous actor. That didn’t work out, but otherwise things have been perfect.
Was there an incident or a moment, maybe a teacher or an inspiration that took you into this industry that you’re actually in?
Yes. I saw a 60 Minutes about people working in this industry and I thought, “These people are all so articulate and they’re doing such important work and they seem to be having a lot of fun. That’s what I want to do.”
Is there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
The one that I’m most proud of I think are the writing awards I’ve won; National Magazine Award, Global Award, those are very competitive. They are hard to get and they were the sort of thing that you can claim as a real individual accomplishment.
Do you feel like you’re as articulate as the people that you admired when you were considering entering this industry?
As it turned out, I’m the same person I always was. Joining this industry did not make me suddenly articulate or give me a particular gift of gab. However, I did find myself surrounded by that kind of articulate person doing good work. Even if I didn’t change myself fundamentally, I ended up surrounded by people that I admired. That served me pretty well. I’m happy with that.
It seems like you get to do really exciting work. I’m a big fan of what you publish and I know many people are. Let’s give people a sense of what you look like. If somebody were to play you in a movie, who would it be?
Anderson Cooper, although that’s way flattering to me but there are some physical characteristics that he and I share.
I also think the guy who plays in Mad Man.
Yes, I hear that one a lot, too.
You’re much friendlier than that character. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done that has led to success?
One of the companies I worked at, which is a deep pocketed publishing company, I managed to arrange a boondoggle on the company dime fully with their support. We had just merged with the owner of CNN and there was a premium put on projects that would combine our publishing company with CNN projects. I convinced them that it would be a great idea if I shepherd in a bunch of CEOs to fighter pilot fantasy camp. You could imagine what that is. It’s like a baseball fantasy camp where you get to play baseball with your heroes and you get a little coaching. This was like that. I didn’t have fantasies about playing baseball but I had fantasies about being a fighter pilot like Tom Cruise. There are a couple of schools, if you want to call them that, around the country that indulge this fantasy. I really wanted to do it and I manage to convince my superiors that it would be a fun story and it could be filmed for CNN if I and a bunch of CEOs who share the same fantasy went to one of these fantasy camps. You go up in retired military training aircraft with a retired fighter pilot in the seat behind you or next to you. Then you go and have dog fights, fake dog fights with opponents. It was amazing. It was wonderful. Pulling a lot of Gs and aiming these ersatz guns at the other plane, imagining that you were the Red Baron or Tom Cruise. It was great.
It’s pretty clear you work in media. Before you were at your current publishing, you were at this company that merged with CNN, what else have you done that you really loved?
I’ve had leadership roles in a number of publications that I thought did good work. That has been really rewarding. One of them in my mind helped people manage their personal finances. Managed that as an important part of their life, kept them out of the hands of people who would take advantage of them in that regard and allow them to exert control over this important facet of their life and achieve security I hope and happiness and a state of comfortably providing for their family’s welfare. That I thought was an important calling.
What publication was that?
That was Money.
Everybody does love Money. Was there a certain moment or experience that made you feel like you had arrived to some degree? Not that any of us really arrive.
That’s a great question. This is a very personal answer. I had mentioned earlier that I had come to New York to be in show business and I tried that for a number of years and occasionally had some pretty good gigs but I never felt like I fit in. Then, later on, after I joined publishing, I remember going out for drinks with my colleagues and listening to that articulate chatter and intellectual word play and being surrounded by smart people doing important things. That same thing that had impressed me when I saw it as a kid on 60 Minutes. I was struck by the thought that this is what it feels like to be happy where you are. This is what it feels like to fit in. That moment of feeling like I had arrived, that I was doing the work that I was meant to do, came to me in a bar with a bunch of friends.
It’s rare that people find satisfaction and the true completeness in a bar, but I’m very happy you did. Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
I would say that the publication I now work for sounds like it’s a publication that serves the tattoo industry, and yet it’s not.
That’s absolutely brilliant. Listeners, you have a bunch of super fun hints and I venture to say that I’m sure some of you will figure this out. Those of you who do have a chance to win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers where you’ll get the opportunity to hang out with people like Eric and our other podcasters. Best of luck to you and I hope to meet you soon.