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Sexual being: Examining pleasure and desire throughout the ages

By in Features/Sports & Health

Sex evokes a lot of complicated emotions in people, but despite the feelings that bubble up inside us with mention of the word, sex is both ancient and ubiquitous.

We humans have been copulating for millenia, and while the history of sex can be as complicated as the feelings that surround the act, there are some key features that have lasted while we’ve roamed the earth searching for pleasure and desire.

Sex, for many other organisms wandering the planet, is an activity with the singular goal of seeding the future with their genetic loads. This is not the case for many of us humans, at least not in this century. We — mostly — engage in sex for the pleasure, the big O, the ever sought-after orgasm.

In her article for The Daily Beast, Candida Moss gives a great rundown of orgasms throughout history. Good ol’ Aristotle recognized that pleasure and procreation — albeit often intertwined — are separate acts, at least in men. He deduced that, since older men and prepubescent boys can achieve orgasms but are not able to readily produce offspring, then the two experiences must be different.

Moss goes on to explain that, while there is no mystery to the male orgasm, the female orgasm has a strange, elusive history. It was believed to be crucial to conception in the Middle Ages. Midwives of the era thought that the shudder of a woman’s orgasm snapped the doors of her uterus shut — ready to be open again in nine months’ time.

Yet, the church frowned upon women attaining pleasure during intercourse. Women were encouraged to lay still, be stoic and pray for their husbands to quickly achieve orgasm.

Thankfully, attitudes towards sexual activities have shifted in the 21st century, and sex acts that are pleasurable for both — or all — parties involved are a normal goal in healthy, consenting relationships.

Sex and orgasms are part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Sex makes us feel great, and that feeling can be attributed to the chemical cascade that happens during the act.

There is a release of several neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine during orgasm. Oxytocin is a chemical that facilitates bonding with your partner. Dopamine is a nondiscriminatory feel-good molecule — it is part of the reward system in the brain. It is a substance that floods your cortex when you have sex or get that long-awaited positive interaction with your crush.

Thanks to the hard work of participants who donated their precious time and warm bodies to science, we have mapped the areas of the brain that are active during arousal and orgasm.

A surprising number of people have gotten off inside of an fMRI machine. From these individuals, science has found that areas in the brain like the hypothalamus, thalamus, substantia nigra, as well as reward centres like your nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus, are all active during climax.

These areas involve hormone release, information relay and dopamine release, respectively. In other words, orgasms involve many of your key brain regions. Discover Magazine once described the orgasm as a “blitzkrieg of ecstasy,” and frankly, there is no better way to describe it.

However, it should to be noted that this dopamine surge can leave some individuals bathing in a blue, melancholy afterglow. Post-coital tristesse, or post-coital dysphoria as it is often referred to, has been documented for centuries.

This phenomenon was first noted by the Greek anatomist Galen, who wrote that “every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster.”

So what gets us in the mood? Or should I say who gets us in the mood? Sexual attraction is individualized, varied and hard to put your finger on. It carries its own mystique.

The biological basis of sexual attraction, however, isn’t very sexy.

Sex pheromones have been a prevalent theory for years. Pheromones are chemical signals that animals use to communicate with and alter the behaviour of other animals. This includes territory marking and sexual arousal — think cats in heat.

The idea is that humans also give off these chemical signals to attract a sexual partner, and these unconscious scents are wrapped up in that strange tingling feeling you get when you meet someone you are sexually attracted to. Consider the phrase “lust at first sight.”

You can even buy human sex pheromones online to lure yourself a lover if you so desire. But there is one major hitch in this hypothesis — we humans do not have the organ that detects pheromones. Other animals and insects have a vomeronasal organ, which has a direct line to the hypothalamus, while ours has atrophied and is essentially useless.

But scent still appears to play a major role in sexual attraction. Body scent is influenced by many things, but most heavily, by the immune system. The major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, is a complex of genes that encode for receptors on immune cells and play a huge role in immune responses.

It turns out that we may be attracted to the scent of a potential partner who has different MHC genes than our own. Studies have shown that heterosexual women prefer the body odour of heterosexual men who possess very different MHC genes, and sexual partners who have dissimilar MHC genes report higher sexual satisfaction than couples who had similar complexes.

Other studies show that gay men preferred the body odour of other gay men, illustrating that scent may have a huge influence on our sexual desire and choice of sexual partner or partners.

A naked man and woman in sexual congress on a bed, depicting an original erotic fresco art piece found in the ruins of the brothel known as the Lupanar of Pompeii.

While scent may be one of the key elements in a satisfying sexual partnership, what else keeps us happy in sexual relationships? Monogamy is the practice of being with one committed partner at a time, and monogamous behaviour is observed in both animals and humans. Yet, humans are not truly monogamous creatures as rates of infidelity remain constant.

Open relationships, where romantic partners engage in consenting sexual relationships with others, are becoming more common. A 2018 Canadian study showed that people in open relationships are satisfied and committed to their main partner, a fact that the lead author says helps to debunk misinformation around these types of relationships.

According to the lead author, individuals in nonmonogamous relationships are often viewed as immoral people in bad relationships. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

A large personified condom proudly gathers his arms around a group of condoms in a variety of guises; a safe-sex and AIDS-prevention advertisement by the National AIDS Secretariat, Guyana, from 1996.

Others argue that people in open relationships are more satisfied and safer than their monogamous counterparts, stating that jealousy and suspicion can be toxic in monogamous partnerships. Cheating partners may not take the same level of precautions and often engage in unprotected sex.

While open relationships may not be everyone’s cup of tea, they do appear to offer a good model for positive communication between partners. A dialogue needs to be sustained in order for these types of relationships to function, to be safe and to be satisfying.

It wouldn’t hurt for all sexual partners to adopt this level of communication and be cognizant of their partners’ needs and desires. After all, great sex is about communication.

Whether you are a “one sexual partner at a time” kind of person or you adopt “the more, the merrier” kind of attitude, safe sex is crucial. Sexually transmitted infections have been slipping into the beds of lovers for centuries.

Syphilis isn’t a household name anymore, but at one time, it was the nightmare that burned through Europe with unrelenting fury. Syphilis is a disfiguring disease that devastated millions before the age of antibiotics and still infects many worldwide today. The disease not only causes lesions on the genitals, faces and heads of those infected but can also be passed onto the next generation. Congenital syphilis afflicted many babies born to women who had contracted the disease.

While mercury was used to treat syphilis, it was a poor remedy, often ineffective and highly toxic. Many died from end-stage syphilis when the infection would ravage the brain, nerves and other vital organs. Fortunately the disease is treatable nowadays. Even better, it’s also preventable with barrier devices.

Yet, syphilis hasn’t disappeared. A 2017 outbreak in Alberta saw six cases of infants born with congenital syphilis, which is a stark reminder of the importance of protection.

Condoms, the oldest of these devices, have been around for ages in one form or another although some of the earlier versions were not very effective. In the 1400s, the Chinese covered the head of the penis with oiled paper or animal intestine while the Japanese opted for tortoise shells and animal horns.

A naked man lies on a bed with his arms resting on the pillow in advertisement for safe sex by the Australian AIDS Council with a list of regional council telephone numbers from 1990.

Luckily, our condom game has improved greatly over the years.

Yet, sexually transmitted infections persist as insidious threats. The first case of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea was reported in the United Kingdom in 2018 with another unrelated case popping up January 2019. It is clear there are more cases that are going unreported.

Antibiotics are the only way we can beat back many STIs, and if they become useless against these common infections, we will have a huge public-health crisis on our hands. So protect yourself and your lovers — it’s a simple practice.

It seems we’ve been playing this game of love and lust for a very long time. Don’t be afraid to explore what gives you pleasure and what — or who — you desire. Learn about yourself and your lover(s), communicate, and play it safe, because let’s face it, sex is fucking great.

Erin Matthews / Opinions Editor

Graphics: Creative Commons / Supplied

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