The Juicy Cuts: Nicole Prause, PhD, Part 3—On Obsessions, Disproving Theories, and Science Over Assumptions

As part of my ongoing “Juicy Cuts” interview series, I present Part 3 of my interview with Nicole Prause, PhD, the neuroscientist behind Liberos! In this segment, we talked about people’s obsessive discomfort with studying sex—especially porn—how science really works, and disproving theories.

You can read Part 1 right here, and Part 2 over here!

nicole prause part 3 juicy cuts interview lynsey gLG: What is it about the idea of studying and understanding pleasure that is so upsetting to people?

NP: So, you’ve got to be fair. Studying cancer is more important than studying orgasm, I think. There may be therapeutic properties of orgasm that can be useful for for depression or something down the line. So they’re worth pursuing. But you know, if I’m the federal government, and I have so much money to give out, I’m going to fund cancer first, too. You have to look at it from their perspective and assume not everyone is just being a jerk or is trying to control women’s sexuality. But, clearly that’s part of it.

LG: So, you left academia and decided to start your own company that’s a lab. I’m not really sure what the right language is…

NP: Yeah. Nobody knows because I don’t know anyone else who did this. I’ve been describing it as an independent lab.

LG: What are some things your independent lab is working on?

NP: One thing I’m working on is an intervention for sexual harassment. So not offender class, per se, but there isn’t currently a tested treatment for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. I mean, obviously, I don’t know him or his case really in any personal way, but you have someone who’s lewd at work, who’s making inappropriate comments—you know, not overtly physically [assaulting] someone, but clearly out of line. Is there anything we can do that’s gonna shift that needle with the individual? So, I’ve got a reasonable assessment battery put together, and I’ve got a good consultant, but I need to decide what exactly it is I want to offer.

LG: That’s really great idea. That has been one missing piece with #metoo, and everything that’s happened afterward. Like, okay, so now we know that this is a problem. What do we do?

NP: Yeah. Well, and a lot of people are understandably objecting to doing anything to rehab these guys—mostly guys. Because they’re, like, “Well, they’re the criminals! Lock them up!” But these people, if they get locked up at all, are not going to be locked up long. And right now they’re getting sent to sex addiction treatment, which—guess what, has no validity for the treatment they’re using. Zero. And they could be making them worse! We don’t know! So I was like, “Let’s do something that’s got validity and is tested that so we can understand how people are responding to it and improve it over time.”

LG: That will be extremely valuable and helpful. I saw that something that you had done with Liberos was look at sex-slash-porn addiction.

NP: Oh god.

LG: Why the “oh god”?

NP: So, that’s where I get…I have rape threats and complaints to my board every place I’ve been employed, and it’s all off of that work with pornography. There’s a really large anti-porn group in the US. There are a ton of nonprofit anti-porn groups. There are no groups for porn. So there is no one pushing back.

That’s why I don’t publish the address of my lab anywhere. I have security so that you can’t come up unless your name is downstairs with the security office. Even at the front desk, I don’t post that my lab is on that floor. It’s just part of what has made my work really unsafe. Cause the rest of it, I think people may not care about it, but it doesn’t make them angry. Yeah. Porn makes people mad.

LG: I am so sorry.

NP: Thanks. But this is not unique to me. When I was training at the Kinsey Institute, we used to get bomb threats there. And a lot of it was off this rumor. They said [Alfred] Kinsey was secretly molesting children in his laboratory, and they claimed at this one table in one of his books proved it. It’s a conspiracy theory; it was proven not to be true. There’s no evidence for it. But now they’ve linked me to it, and they said, “She was taught at the Kinsey Institute to molest children. Now she’s molesting children.”

So, it’s not safe. They posted pictures of me online with claims that I’m molesting children in my lab, and it’s just gone crazy. It makes me nervous because I know some people don’t investigate that kind of stuff. They read something on the web and they think it’s true. And that makes me nervous.

LG: I don’t understand it. It is just bizarre, the strength of people’s revulsion around the idea of pornography.

NP: Yeah, that’s why I say there are reasons to be concerned about it. Like, I don’t want kids getting their all their sex education from there. But the funny thing about it is, people that watch more pornography have more accurate genital knowledge. People who watch pornography are more likely to stimulate the clitoris, which is more likely to lead to a female orgasm.

You can’t just say, “Oh, it’s bad.” It has it has some positive educational effects that have been well documented and are replicated by independent labs.

LG: And you are working to generate more knowledge around all of these issues to make things less scary for everybody. But people are so scared that they can’t stop being scared long enough to learn to not be scared.

NP: That’s what I think. So one of the things a lot of people seem to think about and worry about with porn is [that] we’re going to watch so much that we won’t respond to our partners anymore. And one of the things that we’ve been publishing and finding more recently is that is absolutely not true, because the nature of intimate touch between two people is very different than visual stimulation.

So, you get sexually aroused to both of them, but I’ve never seen anyone go into the state of reduced cognitive control that we see in high states of sexual arousal—from porn. Never seen it. If you want to make the case that watching too much porn is going to impact your ability to be with a partner, it might, if you’re doing that instead of dating. I can see obvious, non-sinister ways in which that might occur. But I just don’t see evidence that would ever generalize. The touch receptors in the genitals are really specific, and they respond very differently to touch from another person versus from yourself.

LG: That’s fascinating.

NP: Well I think, yeah, some of it is stuff we have under review. So, hopefully, as we publish more, we’ll work to disseminate that information. And some of it is not totally clear to us, or the logical leap is there, but the actual comparison in the lab we’ve not made.

LG: Really, when you look at the internet and what people say about science, it’s always like, “Science says this thing is now true!” And that’s not really how science works.

NP: Yeah. The case is usually, I think, the opposite. We falsify things. That’s our job, to disprove things. And that’s really easy to do. You know, if you have a good theory, then all you have to do is disprove one part of it, and that means the whole theory doesn’t hold. So supporting that theory, I think that’s where you run into trouble.

If you ever see someone that says it’s been proven that porn is addictive, don’t read the rest of that source. The appropriate scientific wording is, “There is some evidence supporting a porn-addiction model.” However, supporting a model is different from proving a model in the same way we talk about, like, the theory of gravity well. I believe in the theory of it has so much support at this point, I feel pretty secure with it. But we would still never say, “You know, gravity is proven.” No. It’s the theory of gravity.

And the same happens with all theories, whatever type of science. It’s not about soft versus hard science. That’s one thing I see a lot of is people saying something is proven to be the case with sex. And just that alone tells you that that source is not scientifically sound. Because we just don’t. We would never say that in science.

LG: What are some things that you’re looking at disproving in the coming years?

NP: There’s one paper I can’t tell you the results of, but I’ll tell you the set-up. It’s under review right now, and I’m very excited about it. We had people come into the lab as couples, and half the couples were romantic couples and the other half were just buddies, basically. And they engaged in a genital stroking practice that was 15 minutes long. So, it’s all women receiving the stimulation from the partner. And they do it just with their hands, so it’s just manual stimulation.

When we initially started the study, we hadn’t honestly planned on being able to compare these types of couples because we assumed most people would be romantic couples. We were like, “No way are people going to come in and do this as friends.” But they did! So there’s a golden opportunity here, because there’s a lot of literature from therapists who treat sexual trauma, and from sex addiction therapists, and from emotion-focused therapists, that will say that women who have a lot of sex partners are acting out, and it’s evidence of pathology.

And I said, “That’s crazy, because women aren’t stupid.” We know that women who have had sexual traumas have more sexual partners in their life. Yeah. It’s really well-replicated finding. But they’re saying all these women are dumb! You know, that they’re just being taken advantage of and they don’t see it. I don’t buy that.

So in this one, [the questions is]: Do women who were with a partner that wasn’t the romantic partner experience less benefit from the procedure? Did they grow closer to that partner? Did they feel supported? Loved? General kinds of things that we know are associated with good health outcomes? And as far as I know, these will be the first data to really look, in a laboratory study, at the health benefits of stimulation from a non-romantic partner.

There’s all this work around hookup culture, asking why do people do this? I think this is a little bit different, [since] this is not just about having sex. It’s a very discrete kind of a practice, but to me, it really speaks to, if a woman with whatever kind of history she’s had was coming into these settings with a sexual partner that’s not her romantic partner, what is she getting out of it? We should know that. We should understand what that benefit might be instead of just pathologizing the behavior and saying, “Well, because they’re sluts. That’s all.”

LG: You’re right, there’s so much baggage that goes along with that. I feel like it’s a lot of what we are told to think about women is very pathologizing. And it’s so infantilizing, too. Anything else like this coming up from Liberos?

NP: Oh, there are a few things. So the orgasm study I just did with LoveHoney is more of a pilot. We had 20 women come in two times each. As far as I know, these will be the first data that have ever quantified orgasm length in women. How long does it last?

This is a small sample, but I was really pretty surprised by how consistent women were. It wasn’t like some women said five seconds, and some were saying three minutes.

And similarly, there have been a few more attempts to see how long it takes to experience orgasm from the time you start trying. But even that is all questionnaire research. And I don’t buy it. You’ve got to test that in the lab, because I don’t think we can accept women’s records just by themselves. And so we have that as well, an estimate of time, time from the time you start trying.

I’m always surprised. Again, you see all that information in print, and you’re like, “Where did they get that [information] from? That doesn’t actually exist anywhere.” So somebody, somewhere along the way, made up this story…

LG: …and then somebody else saw it and then somebody else saw it. And now that’s what everybody thinks is true.

NP: You’ve probably already seen the orgasm/hysteria paper? By chance I was a reviewer on the paper when they submitted it. So, you know this idea that vibrators came about because doctors were using it to treat hysteria in women, and their hands were getting tired, so they came up with this device? Not true! Turns out there’s no evidence for it.

LG: That’s kind of a bummer. I kind of love that story.

NP: I’ve certainly heard it myself. But, yeah, the first place that [story] was ever published was just in a book, which of course is not subject to peer review. So these scientists went in and tracked down her sources, and they’re like, “That source does not say what she claims it said.” And I went and looked it up myself because I’m a reviewer, and I like to make sure they’re saying things that are accurate. And, they’re right. This woman made a claim that was not in the text she claimed, and made this other claim that the vibrator appeared here. And if I can’t find any mention of it, either…I don’t know if it was bad scholarship or intentional or what she was doing, but…

LG: Oh man, there’s a whole movie about that!

NP: Exactly. It’s such a wild myth!

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