The Pleasures of Sex

How the science of sex can lead to more pleasurable sex

Sex, Pleasure and Orgasm: How Much is Mind, How Much is Body?

How the body and mind shape our sex lives.

Some scientists believe that sexuality is becoming increasingly "medicalized" - that is, sexual problems are often viewed as medical problems with medical solutions. Case in point: with the introduction of Viagra, erectile dysfunction started to be viewed by some people as a medical problem (lack of blood flow to the penis) with a medical solution (the little blue pill!) rather than the complex interplay of mind and body that erectile problems had previously been viewed as.

And while many men find help with medical treatments for erectile dysfunction, many do not. Many men are helped by sex therapy, by learning to relax during sex, or by learning to better communicate with their partner so that they don't feel so pressured during sex or so inadequate even when they're not having sex (relationship dynamics, or how a couple gets along in and out of bed, play a role in many sexual issues).

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This erection example is part of a larger question that people have about sex: how much of sex can we attribute to the body? How much to the mind?

Certainly, both mind and body play an important role in a person or couple's experience of sexuality. Let's take a look at orgasm. The more we learn about female orgasm, it seems that the anatomical structure of a woman's genitals may play a role in her ease of orgasm. Personality factors, which are at least partly accounted for by genetics, are also linked to women's ease of orgasm. Both of these support the "body hypothesis." However, the way a woman feels about her own genitals plays a role, too, as does her ability to relax, to let go, and to feel sexually excited or aroused (the "mind hypothesis"). Perhaps for most women, the intersections of the body and mind will be key to easier orgasm.

Along similar lines, I am currently conducting a survey of women who experience sexual pleasure or orgasm during physical exercise such as sit-ups, lifting weights, cycling, dance, etc. (to learn more about the study, click here). While at first glance it may seem that it's the physical nature of the exercise that triggers pleasure or orgasm in women, that may not be the case for all women. Some may engage their mind through fantasy, determination or relaxation. Others may feel as though it is purely a physical act. When I learn more, I'll be sure to share it with you.

What does this mean for you? I would encourage you to explore these two sides of your sexuality, the mind and body, and not to stop there. Some of you may find that exploring your spiritual side is important to your sexual growth as well. While it may seem tempting to turn to body-centered sex guides, they are only part of the roadmap to better sex. Similarly, therapy that focuses only on the mind may fall short; rather, it should seek to educate people about their bodies, how sex may be modified to be more pleasurable or how certain medical conditions or prescription medications can interfere with sexual response. As you seek to improve your sex lives, try to pay attention to the multi-faceted ways that the body and mind play together.

To learn more about how the mind and body play a role in women's sexuality, check out Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure & Satisfaction or, for men, The New Male Sexuality.

Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, a widely read sex columnist and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure & Satisfaction. Follow her on Twitter @mysexprofessor and make friends with her on Facebook. 

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Research Scientist and Associate Director at The Center for Sexual Health Promotion and a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute.

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