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Weird Science: Sex and Stress Study Takes Too Many Leaps

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Updated September 03, 2011

Scientific research with a sex hook always makes me wary. Partly because I’m a frustrated sex research geek and partly because I know there is a whole mess o’ things that the cheeky journalists aren’t reporting. The recent spate of postings about the research tying sexual intercourse to reduced stress levels, is a good case in point.

As reported, this study, conducted by Prof. Stuart Brody (who has authored several studies specifically examining the benefits of penile-vaginal intercourse) showed that people who had penile-vaginal intercourse (as opposed to masturbation or other vaginal intercourse behaviors) scored lower blood pressure values in a stressful situation.

Sounds interesting. But my curiosity was obviously peaked by the narrow focus on penile vaginal intercourse. Why differentiate it from other forms of penetration play (solo or partnered)?

Reading the full study (which will cost you $30 if you don’t have some sort of library privileges) answers these questions in short order.

The author begins by using a combination of physiological, evolutionary, and Freudian citations to argue why penile-vaginal intercourse could confers special health benefits over masturbation and other partnered sexual behaviors. Mind you there is no discussion of what “other sexual behaviors” actually means, or what sort of masturbation we’re talking about.

Using an evolutionary argument to explain individual sexual behaviors is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (or maybe it’s like a snake consuming its own tail, I can’t figure out which). The point is that one can make almost any argument and tie it to adaptive reasoning.

Using Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual development is another story. The author cites Freud who argued that penile-vaginal intercourse was the end result of health psychosexual development. If someone became arrested at an earlier stage, they might be more likely to engage in less “successful” sexual behaviors, including masturbation, which don’t confer the same “disburdening” function as mature penile-vaginal intercourse. The author uses this argument to bolster the notion that penile-vaginal intercourse has more health benefits than other forms of sexual behavior.

Now, I love Freud as much as the next former-psych-student-who-had-a-crush-on-his-Freudian-thesis-supervisor. But citing Freud in a biological paper about sexual functioning is specious at best. Next thing you know, he’s going to be suggesting that clitoral orgasms are “immature” and vaginal ones are “mature”. And this is precisely what he does.

The holes in this approach are many. Here are a few obvious problems.

First, is the author's complete conflation of vaginal penetration with penile-vaginal intercourse. The author uses research by Komisaruk and Whipple to point to the physiological benefits of penetration in terms of stimulating the pelvic nerve. But he ignores the fact that most, if not all, of Komisaruk and Whipple's research is done with women who were engaging in solo cervical stimulation, not with heterosexual couples engaged in intercourse. The stimulation and whatever health benefits come with it, of the cervix and pelvic nerve, can be accomplished through solo sex with a dildo just as well (and possibly better) than through penile-vaginal intercourse.

Secondly, implied in this work is the notion that all penile-vaginal intercourse is alike (and for that matter, that all masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex, is alike), and therefore any penile-vaginal intercourse would confer the health benefits similarly.

Value laden language is also slipped in throughout the study. Thus we have the author stating that intercourse requires more involved brain activity and this more “complex” brain activity is likely what is producing greater physical benefits. Has anyone studied the brain activity of Betty Dodson when she’s masturbating? Or Midori, in the middle of a verbal humiliation scene? I know they haven’t. But I’d sure be interested in reading those MRIs!

The author doesn’t stop at suggesting that penile-vaginal intercourse is the best sex there is, he also proposes that his results show that masturbation and non intercourse partnered sexual behavior “might detract from the benefits of intercourse.”

I’m being a bit bombastic here, and although I remember my “p values” there is a fair portion of the results section of this paper that I needed to read with my statistics book open for reference.

But in the end, what continues to amaze me is how some sex research continues to be done in a complete academic vacuum, as if no one has been thinking about sexual behavior since Freud, and Queer theory didn’t exist. Of course, for this researcher it’s entirely possible that it doesn’t. Maybe I should send him a copy of Sex for One and point out researchers like Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser who are busy researching how sex is much more complicated that we think, not how it is much simpler.

Source:

Brody, Stuart. (2006). Blood pressure reactivity to stress is better for people who recently had penile–vaginal intercourse than for people who had other or no sexual activity. Biological Psychology 71(2), 214-222.

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