The effect of sex on the brain
Sex has a huge impact on brain chemistry and mental health. Find out why.
We recently hosted a discussion about sex, and its impact on the brain. We spoke to Billie Quinlan, founder of sexual wellness company Ferly, Dr Karen Gurney, clinical psychologist and certified psychosexologist at 56 Dean Street and Director of Havelock Clinic, and clinical sexologist, Georgia Rose.
The discussion was enlightening, and we’ve distilled some of the best bits here.
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, and difficulties with erections. 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 are much broader than the old ideas. A good sex life means being able to know what we want, communicate it to somebody else, and take pleasure from that.
The brain and its impact on sexual response
We have the idea that sex is something that happens in our bodies, and of course, in a way, it does. But the way in which our body responds to sex is totally dictated by our brain. It 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 kickstarts an automatic arousal response. Automatic arousal is what we call offline brain activity, but there is a conscious process to what happens in sex.
Should people be consuming porn in a relationship?
We're all different, and it's always down to the particular couple, boundaries, and what they communicate with each other.
Pornography has been around since the dawn of time in many shapes and forms. Because it's now online and easier to access, you’ll see a lot in the media about how porn has a negative impact on sexual function. But porn itself is not harmful, and it doesn't affect your sexual function.
It's okay to not enjoy it, or to feel that it’s not for you. And even when we're in a relationship, our sexuality exists for ourselves. Being attracted to other people, having fantasies, masturbating, 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 more risks in being sexual for women than there are for men, and that changes how they act.
Can self-induced orgasm heal parts of the brain that may have been injured?
Anecdotally, there are examples of self-pleasure, masturbation, and orgasm as tools to heal parts of the brain. However, there are no research studies on this yet.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen—we know that orgasms and sex produce quite intense brain changes. They produce endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and all of those things impact our mood. But ultimately, 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 alone—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.