Sex with Mish Way: Rat sex and the female orgasm

Professor Jim Pfaus of Montreal’s Concordia University studies female rats. More specifically, he studies the neurological changes in female rats when they are mating. He’s interested in how female rats feel desire, stimulation. He’s the rat sex guy. 

I came across Pfaus’s work in Daniel Bergner’s 2013 book What Do Women Want: Adventures In The Science of Female Desire. Bergner’s coverage of various scientists studying female desire is fascinating and ground-breaking, but Pfaus’s work with the female rats was particularly intriguing to me, because not only did he find that female rats are capable of desire, but that their reason for wanting sex is based on pure pleasure. How long has female pleasure been ignored from the mix of variables of scientific research about sex? Got three hours for me to spout it all off?

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Rats, like all animals, do not fuck with the conscious motivation of reproduction. They have been designed by evolution to perpetuate their species, but the individual rat does not sit there and think, “Today, I would like to get pregnant and have a million babies.” A rat’s sex drive is based on immediate reward: A desire to bang and get off. We’re talking the battle between seretonin, dopamine, and opioids in the brain. 

Pfaus did a bunch of studies. Basing his work off Martha McClintock’s earlier studies on sex with rats (she pioneered the idea that female rats had the will to fuck, they were not just passive vessels as they had been thought of up until the ‘90s), Pfaus set up a cage with a Plexiglas divider big enough for a female rat (not a male) to crawl through. A female rat would determine the pace of sex (like McClintock had discovered years earlier), she would pop in and out of the divided sections, prolonging the sex for as long as she could. She would also always choose a chamber that reminded her of the sex she just did, even when the chamber not associated with sex was much more pleasant than the prior.

Pfaus wasn’t sure about clitoral orgasms in rats, until he had one of his students take a tiny brush and stimulate a female rat’s clitoris for a moment or so, then put the rat back in it’s cage. Almost immediately, the rat climbed up the cage, clamping her teeth down on the student’s sleeve, trying to tell her, “More!” The student brushed the rat again and put her down. She crawled up and begged again. It went on. 

This is the thing: The rat’s clitoris had been completely ignored by science for decades. This totally active, nerve-rich protuberance that distinctively stuck out of the animal’s genitals was viewed as unnecessary to the animals mating process because, like the human clitoris, doesn’t serve the body to reproduce, but for pleasure. 

The scientific language surrounding heterosexual mating has largely ignored a woman’s pleasure. If you are a woman who has gone through menopause and can no longer make babies, your sexuality is basically invisible. 

Last month for a research piece in VICE, I tried out Foria: A THC-infused, coconut oil pre-lube designed to help women who have trouble orgasming relax enough to get in that zone. Foria’s creator, Matthew Gerson, told me his carefully designed product has been most successful for women past menopause. I used it on my vulva as well as ingested it orally, because being slightly stoned makes sex all that much better. Foria is the only thing on a market today of it’s kind: An aid to female sexual dysfunction with the prime concern being pleasure. It’s not approved by the FDA and you can only get it in California, but Foria has become a sensation and curiosity worldwide. 

Fucking isn’t just for function. Yes, reproduction is beautiful and I think being a mother is the most incredible job in the world, but sex is also about pleasure. And focusing on only reproduction excludes so many couples who don’t identify within heterosexuality. 

Regardless, the pleasure conversation has been opened up. Even science recognizes the importance of female pleasure. If female rats crave orgasms, the most satisfying and basic of all rewards, then of course female humans do too. 

When Daniel Bergner titled his book, “What Do Women Want?” I don’t think he expected the answer to mirror that of his own.

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