As part of my ongoing “Juicy Cuts” interview series, here is Part 2 of my long, fascinating interview with Nicole Prause, PhD, the neuroscientist behind Liberos! In this segment, we talked about orgasm vs. squirting, false claims on sexuality products, and why the sexual research community is so depressingly small.
You can read Part 1 right here!
Nicole Prause: Very often, women think squirting is the same as orgasm, and it’s not. Those two things are not the same process. When you’re seeing urination portrayed in, um, sexual films, they’re done with ecstatic faces and responses and [the]excitement of the partner, usually. So I think they’re getting a message that that’s an orgasm, and it’s not. It’s misinformation. Again, if you enjoy it, knock yourself out, but it’s not an orgasm
Lynsey G: That’s a good example of a lot of the general knowledge that is spread around by word of mouth, by porn films that people see, and so on. But there’s a real lack of actual top-down knowledge coming from medical research down to people in everyday life.
NP: Yeah. There’s such a media obsession with sexual information, and yet they get some of the stuff wrong all the time. The folks they sometimes chat with are sex educators who are well-meaning. I think they’re very sex-positive, and giving the best information they know, but it’s wrong. Often. So, I went to Sexpo [recently], and I was like, “Maybe this is where they are! We can get the information corrected!”
I’m a member of Women of Sex Tech, and I’m always a thorn in their side because they’ll post something about, “Oh, we designed this new thing that does this.” And I’m like, “Okay, it couldn’t possibly do that. I hate to be a jerk about your device, but don’t claim that.” Because then I tell them, “If the media calls me, I can’t support your claim. I want to be able to support you. So either don’t make that claim, or you know, make it so that your device will do what you claim.”
LG: Do you think that comes from those people just not having access to the correct information?
NP: Oh, I don’t think it’s malicious at all. I get the sense, by and large, it worked for them by their definition of what that response is. For instance, if you’ve seen this device, the Womanizer claims to help women. It has a suction cup that sucks on the clitoris, and now they have a bunch of permutations of it. But they initially claimed that it produces stronger, faster orgasms. And I was like, “No, it doesn’t. Because if that work had been done, it would have been from my lab, and you never called me.” So, you know, I was like, “I know that’s not true.” They never showed that.
And the problem with that is, if a woman buys that, and she uses the device, and she has struggled with orgasm and continues to struggle with it, then she thinks she’s broken. You know, like, “I got the expensive thing that promised it works like this, and it didn’t work on me. So I guess I just don’t have orgasms. I guess I’m just broken.” And I hate that idea. Like, you don’t need to give false information to women to sell your device. And that’s what I really wish they would be more cautious about, is think about making a specific claim that can be tested.
LG: That’s a good point. Any claim to be able to give you this experience or that experience, especially if it’s for people with the vulva… Everybody is so different. And that’s the struggle. I’ve been reading a little bit aboutall the confusion over the clitoris, and how many times the actual internal structure of the clitoris has disappeared from our understanding over the years, and then comes back. I’ve been looking at research into the G-spot, and how people still can’t agree whether it’s a real thing or not. It almost feels as if the research community has collectively thrown up its hands, like, “We don’t know. It’s too complicated. We’re done. We can’t do this anymore.”
NP: No, I don’t get that sense at all. I don’t know if people realize how small our research community is—people that actually study genital physiology. There’s four labs in the US right now. Most people have moved to Canada because the US is very unfriendly to that type of work, but even in Canada, that’s another five labs or something. And of those, I would say 95 percent of them study female sexuality in the same way: they use an intra-vaginal probe that measures a pulse. Which has its pluses and minuses. I don’t especially like that instrument, so I don’t use it.
But the entirety of our field in North America is like 10 people. So for us to be able to answer all those questions, it’s going to take some time. I can appreciate where it might seem like, “Oh, there’s just no consensus.” And I’d say, “No, there’s great data!”
You know, there was a really convincing study that did bladder imaging last year, and it was helpful for the kind of content of female, “ejaculate” debate. I really loved it. It was a relatively small sample, but it was really well done. And finally someone did it! Like, we all knew that that technology existed. But someone getting a team together and taking the time and putting it through IRB?
LG: Well, what did they find?
NP: So they did this lovely work where they imaged the content of the bladder. So they knew the volume of urine that was present. And they specifically recruited women who said they had a large volume of ejaculate when they had that experience. They had them stimulate themselves, through ejaculating—which they described as orgasm, which I don’t think it’s exactly right, but whatever. So, they had that experience, and then they put them back in the scanner. And the volume of liquid that they collected from the ejaculate was similar to the volume that had left the bladder.
So what that tells us is most likely this content is—we’ve always known—it’s overwhelmingly urea. That’s been tested before. Urea is a little different from urine. So, during sexual arousal, the production of urine is speeded up, and the reason for that is probably to encourage you to urinate afterwards, to help reduce infection risk in the urethra.
LG: Hey, good job body.
NP: Yeah, it’s wired in there. You know, the body is trying to take care of us. And so, there’s gonna be some increase in urine in content during sexual arousal. But in their case, it was very clear the bladder had emptied out. So, to me, that was really strong evidence that like, yes, most of the ejaculate is from the bladder, and is urea.
And, you know, men have urea in their ejaculate, too, which people don’t like to talk about. But if you swallow, you’re also swallowing urea, so get over it.
But hey recruited women who specifically said they had a large volume. [I wonder]: Is there a potential that this is a special set of women who are urinating? And that was part of why they have such a large volume? Whereas, is there some other set of women as yet undiscovered, who have a different content? I don’t think that’s the case. I’d be very surprised if anyone were to find that. But that’s the one thing I think might’ve been a little unusual about that sample.
LG: Well it’s a good question. Hmm. Well… I’m really glad I know all that.
NP: And I understand why people are fighting it. Because, you know, they’re trying to help women feel better about that experience and not be embarrassed. “Oh, it’s not pee, it’s not pee.” But it is pee! And who cares? Let’s turn that corner and just say, “Why does it matter if you’re having fun?”
LG: Exactly. But we’re very far from that culturally, I think. Um, okay. So, backing up a little bit to the tininess of the research community. Do you think that it’s a small community because people are uncomfortable and don’t want to go into that uh field of research? Or is it because it’s so hard to secure funding?
NP: My impression is, to be quite frank, good scientists don’t go into this area. There are lots of students who are so interested in it. Our human sexuality classes are always full. It’s not that people aren’t interested. My lab was always full. I took as many students as I ever needed for that.
But a lot of folks that come in will say, “Oh, I really want to be a sex educator.” But I wouldn’t take them in my lab because they typically aren’t very strong. They don’t want to do stats. They don’t want to learn programming. I think they want to go be a sexpert—whatever that is. You know, some certainly exist. Planned Parenthood has really clear sex educator roles that they hire for, but by and large though, they end up going out on their own and claiming to have sexual knowledge that other people don’t have. So it just doesn’t draw the strongest students, typically.
I think part of it is we struggle for grants, in part because our science is not as strong as other stuff we’re competing against. That’s a little harsh on my community, but that’s what it is. We have the same instrument we’ve had for years. We are the only field in psychophysiology that still edits our signals by hand. No one else does that. We’re just really far behind the times in that respect, and we need more electrical engineers. We need signal processing to work with us to do that. So part of it is we just don’t have the best scientists coming in. We have too many who just think sex is cool, and don’t necessarily want to do some of the math-y, programming kinds of stuff that we need to do well.
But, yeah, I mean the funding, obviously. If you go to Canada, they have a federal grant that’s slated for women’s sexual health, for god’s sake. Our NIH [National Institute of Health] program officers tell us, “Don’t use the word ‘sexual’ in your applications.” If anyone in NIH cared about orgasm, I would have that grant. I’m kind of the only game in town. That’s not a humble-brag so much as a lack of other people.
Why would you go into this field when it’s going to narrow your opportunities that much? And I think that’s part of good scientists aren’t attracted to the field. If they know the history, the only five grants ever brought before Congress for defunding were all sexuality grants. So if you get them, they’ll take them away. In the US especially, it’s not a good career choice.
Read Part 1 of my interview with Nicole Prause here! And stay tuned for Part 3!