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Sex and the brain

One of the UK’s best brains Dr. Karen Gurney chats about sex and its effects on the brain.

March 03, 2021
5 min read


Billie Quinlan: Co-founder of sexual wellness company Ferly

Dr. Karen Gurney: Clinical psychologist and certified psychosexologist at 56 Dean Street and Director of Havelock Clinic.

Georgia Rose: Clinical sexologist and sex coach in training.

Dan Murray-Serter: Co-Founder of braincare company Heights, and host of our Braincare Podcast 

(Resources can be found at the bottom.)

How do you define sexual problems for both men and women? Why don't we know about women's sexual problems as much?

  • If you were to look at the definition of sexual problems, you'll see quite a narrow definition based on old ideas about how human sexual response works. The diagnostic criteria characterises it as having difficulties with penetrative vaginal sex, concerns about low desire, difficulties with erections, etc.  That’s often what people mean when they talk about sexual problems.

  • In reality, a good sex life is the absence of a problem. Sexual problems and sexual satisfaction is much broader than that criteria. 

  • A good sex life means being able to know what we want, to communicate it to somebody else, and take pleasure from that. 

The Brain & Its Impacts on Sexual Response

  • We have the idea that sex is something that happens in our bodies, and of course it does. But actually, the way in which our body responds to sex is totally dictated by our brain.

  • The brain is essentially responsible for sexual response.

  • Have you ever found yourself watching a sex scene on TV that you actually find politically difficult to stomach, but notice your body getting turned on? The reason for that is because part of sexual response bypasses the conscious part of your brain. It just kickstarts an automatic kind of animal arousal response.

  • Automatic arousal is what we call offline brain activity, but there is a conscious process to what happens in sex.

Sexual Stimuli

  • Cisgendered lesbians generally show more specificity as to what they're turned on by in the same way that men do.

  • Research shows that cisgendered heterosexual women generally automatically get turned on by a broader range of sexual stimuli compared to any other group. 

  • Gay and bi men also show more specificity. 

Should people be consuming porn in a relationship?

  • I think it's always down to the particular couple, boundaries, and what they communicate with each other. We're all really different.

  • Porn has been around since the dawn of time in many shapes and forms.

  • Nowadays, because it's online and easier to access, you’ll see a lot in the media about how porn has a negative impact on sexual function. It’s important to say that porn is not harmful, and it doesn't affect your sexual function.

  • There is nothing wrong with porn and it's okay to not enjoy it or feel that it’s not for you.

  • Even when we're in a relationship, our sexuality exists for ourselves. Being attracted to other people, having fantasies, masturbating, having thoughts about sex, and watching porn are all part of how we might express our sexuality.

  • We don't always need to express our sexuality just with that one person, we can express it on our own as well. And for some people, porn is one of the ways that they enjoy doing that.


Is there anything that sets apart men and women with risky sexual behaviour?

  • Society and culture is all that separates us when it comes to risk taking. 

  • There are inherently more risks in being sexual for women than there are for men.

  • When we become turned on, we have a propensity to take more risks- this applies to all of us. 

Can self-induced orgasm heal parts of the brain that may have been injured? 

  • Although it’s not the same thing, I recently met a woman who had suffered very badly with eating disorders for a long time. She used self-pleasure, masturbation, and orgasm as a tool to overcome that.

  • There are no research studies on this yet but that's not to say that it's not possible.

  • We know that orgasms and sex produce quite intense brain changes. They produce endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and all of those things impact our mood. 

  • Sex science still has so much to catch up on, and we have a long way to go.

Does excessive masturbation desensitise my genitals? Will this affect my ability to orgasm with a partner?

  • Absolutely not! 

  • The majority of women can't climax from penetrative sex- there has to be clitoral stimulation involved.

  • An important factor is being able to communicate what works for you. Show your partner your masturbation patterns so that they can learn and help you reach those levels of pleasure.

You can use the code "clubhouse10" for 10% off to give your brain the love it deserves.

Find out more


  • Discover who you are sexually on Ferly

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