Feature

Building a Better Female Orgasm

With publicly funded sex research under fire in the United States, Canada is taking the lead in the science of sexuality

Photography by Alana Riley

When your job involves showing erotic films, ­explains Meredith Chivers, director of the ­Sexuality and Gender Lab, or SageLab, at Queen’s ­University, it helps to reassure test subjects if you dress ­plainly and professionally. “I’m wearing a lab coat; I’ve pulled my hair back into this little ponytail; I’ve no makeup on whatsoever,” she says, laughing.

In a private room, volunteers lie back on pillowy La-Z-Boy recliners. When they’re ready, they notify Samantha Dawson, a PhD candidate who studied under Chivers. Dawson wheels in a flat-screen monitor. It comes across a little like the TV setup at a hospital bed, but with one big difference: the observer is asked to answer questions, rating their reactions on a scale of zero to nine.

How aroused do you feel?

How bored do you feel?

How disgusted do you feel?

Do you wish to masturbate?

Under the sheets placed on female subjects’ laps, delicate wires lead up to two cool, light-sensitive gauges. A tampon-shaped device sits ­inside the vagina, while a bulb-shaped accessory (scientists have ­nicknamed it “the nose”) nestles against the clitoris.

In the video that comes up on the screen, a tiny blond woman in a white bikini by the side of a swimming pool graciously accepts oral sex from a kneeling man who looks passably like Vin Diesel. (This ­particular video is used because of the generous screen time it allots to female pleasure—rare enough in porn to be considered niche.) On a black panel just below the screen blink small, unobtrusive infrared lights. Those lights are busy watching the test subject’s eyes. They’re watching her eyes as she watches the porn.

In another room, an eye-tracking computer processes the results at the high speed of sixty data points per second. This equipment is making a video of its own—a video that is porn for psychologists. It’s the same clip featuring the swimming-pool tryst, but this time, the actors’ bodies are covered with graffiti-like red dots. The dots show where the subject’s gaze is falling in real time. The bigger the dot grows, the longer the viewer has been staring, increasingly absorbed by the sight of a body part or an act. Sweeping lines mean she is shifting her gaze, not interested enough in anything to settle on it. Dots in the wrong place—in the margins of the screen, for example—mean she is averting her eyes in distraction or distaste.

Chivers and her team of researchers at the SageLab are trying to understand how we literally see sex. This eye-­tracker brings them as close as they can get to climbing inside someone’s head—retracing her desire. It’s the private ­experience of lust made visible, even more intimate than the curving graph that shows blood flowing to the clitoris. On the eye-tracker, red dots bloom and multiply over the actors’ bodies, growing larger on the man’s face, the woman’s face, on her breasts, on her genitals. A tent forms in the male actor’s black nylon trunks, and it is eventually obscured by an interested red dot.

Sex researchers have historically relied on a combination of genital measurements and written questionnaires (which are dependent upon respondents’ clarity about their desires and honesty about expressing them to scientists). Chivers and others are increasingly using eye-trackers, brain scanners, and other gadgets to get a more direct look at our largest sex organ—the brain itself. Such instruments are useful because they can track the desires we hide even from ourselves. The work is also important because it expands on the counterintuitive findings with which Chivers made her reputation, on the nature of what turns women on. Her work has brought Kingston, Ontario, and Canada more ­generally, to the forefront of sex science.

“We are starting to see this [research] as something that Canada gives the world,” says Jim Pfaus, a psychology professor at Concordia University. Pfaus, who is originally from Maryland, says ­Chivers’s work with erotic video and genital ­response surprised some of their American counterparts—in part because it came to be at all. “When she wrote the paper on that, everyone was like, ‘Holy shit,’” he says. ‘“You got the funding to do this?’”

She did. Chivers is a “triple-­crowner,” an academic who has been smiled ­upon by all three Canadian federal granting agencies: the Natural Sciences and ­Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and ­Humanities Research ­Council (SSHRC). To qualify, her work had to be considered both an advancement of basic science and biomedicine and also ­socially relevant. Since she founded her lab in 2009 with a Canadian Foundation for ­Innovation grant of $183,000, ­roughly 500 test ­subjects of all sexual orientations have sat in its La-Z-Boys.

Chivers, forty-four, first caught mainstream attention in 2009, in part for her work’s shock factor. She had found that heterosexual women’s genitals become aroused when they view a bizarre range of sexual stimuli, from lesbian sex to copulating bonobo apes. Her studies established that vaginal blood flow and lubrication don’t always mean a woman feels subjectively aroused. One existing hypothesis was that vaginal wetness could sometimes just be a protective reflex. The grim theory—that women’s genitals might have adapted to react to possible sexual violence in their environment, lubricating to protect delicate tissues from injury—made ripples.

Her findings may seem disquieting. Yet when her discovery was reported in the media, Chivers says, women wrote to thank her. “The experience I have is that women nod ‘yeah’ and men cringe because of the implication,” she says. Paradoxically, the knowledge that their minds and bodies weren’t always aligned during sex freed these women from feeling as if they were personally broken. It gave the lie to such harmful misogynist myths as “If you’re wet, you must want it” and “Your mouth says no, but your body says yes.”

“Women have contacted me and told me stories about being sexually assaulted…and living with this haunting feeling that [the lubrication] somehow meant that they wanted the sex that happened,” says ­Chivers. “A lot of women haven’t had the opportunity to have these conversations at all.”

More recently, Chivers has been testing new models of desire, studying ­non-binary gender populations and measuring clitoral blood flow. Her new project isn’t ­strictly about genitalia—it’s about the connection between the genitals and the mind. That’s where the approximately $50,000 eye-tracker—the producer of the red dots—comes in. The innovative technology is one thing that led Dawson, an Australian, to study with Chivers at Queen’s. “Sam came to work with me in 2012, and I basically handed her an eye-tracker,” says ­Chivers. “I’m like, ‘Figure out how to use this.’” The tool doesn’t measure ­physical arousal—it takes note of visual interest. Their current joint study compares the eye movements of men, women, and women with sexual dysfunctions as they watch erotic videos. Some female test subjects’ gazes don’t land on genitals or faces—their red dots land on trees or the swimming pool in the background, or flee to the margins of the screen. Chivers and Dawson want to know whether distracted watching correlates with sexual dysfunctions such as distressingly low desire and arousal. Could negative ­associations with sex—learned through trauma or taboo—run so deep as to rewrite the mind’s attentional process?

“You’re getting a real-time, whole-body reaction to erotic cues, not just the genital,” says Pfaus, whose own work at Concordia studies sexual behaviour and the brain’s reward system. “That’s important, because we think about sex even as we’re doing it…. The thinking for so long has been that if the genitals aren’t part of it, it’s not sexual. We’re starting to understand sex as a whole-body phenomenon.”

Chivers and other leading sex researchers, such as Lori Brotto at the University of British Columbia, believe that one of the most promising therapies for women’s sexual dysfunction is an ­unlikely one: mindfulness. Originally based on ­thousand-year-old Buddhist principles, mindfulness has lately come to be seen as a panacea for everything from honing ­golfers’ focus to managing depression and severe pain. In this context, it would work as a bridge to sexual awareness. Just as the little red dots produce a kind of ­secret transcript of our erotic attention, so, too, can desire itself—or the ­absence of it—tell us much about who we are. ­Approached in this way, sexuality is a window ­into one of the greatest human mysteries: communication between the mind and the body, and how we can better align the two.

To Chivers, even this is just one big project in an even more ambitious picture. Her ultimate career goal is nothing less than to create a complete, evidence-based picture of sexuality. “There is a huge gap in our knowledge about humans,” she says.

A 2013 survey in Britain found that a higher proportion of women than men—more than half, by one ­measure—­report some form of sexual complaint, from lack of interest in sex to pain during intercourse. The most common diagnosis is female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD), an umbrella term that encompasses low desire and the inability to become aroused when adequate stimulation is present. (To clarify: FSIAD is considered a disorder ­only if the patient is distressed about it). As many as 28 percent of women experience problems becoming aroused, according to a literature review in The ­Journal of Sexual Medicine. For many patients, problems overlap. Difficulty in reaching orgasm is another common issue.

Doctors can’t treat sexual dysfunction, however, if they don’t have a baseline for what “normal” female sexuality looks like. And to date, they don’t. This is somewhat remarkable considering that the West has been studying sexuality since at least the time of ancient Greece. Most of the research, though, has focused on men—who were thought for centuries to rightfully hold the active role in courting and copulation. ­Taboos around female sexuality discouraged study until very recently (even ten years ago, studies on sexual disorders were found to focus on the male experience by a ratio of approximately three to one). ­Descriptions of women’s complete clitoral anatomy are missing from many basic contemporary medical textbooks, while pages of them are devoted to penile anatomy. The internal clitoral structure—which extends into the body and contains as much sensitive tissue as a penis—is only beginning to be fully diagrammed in medical literature. (Research on transgender and non-binary people lags even further behind.)

When half of the population doesn’t fit the accepted model for sexual desire, what does that mean?

Right now, Canada is the best place in the world to find out.

The urgency of the work being done by Chivers and other Canadian scientists has intensified of late. On ­November 9, 2016, Justin J. Lehmiller, a faculty ­affiliate of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and the director of the ­Social Psychology Graduate Program at Ball State University, posted on his blog: “As I watched last night’s U.S. election results come in, I was stunned and shocked. When I woke up this morning, I was terrified.”

Lehmiller, who also writes a column for Playboy and is often approached for commentary by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and CNN, had woken up to an America that seemed less liberal, more suspicious of “sexperts” like him and of why the taxpayer should fund them. It wasn’t just the election of ­Republican Donald Trump to the White House or social conservative Mike Pence as vice-president—it was also what had ­happened overnight in his home state. ­Indiana had just elected as its governor Eric ­Holcomb, who in an ad against his opponent back in 2000 had railed against giving Indiana University—and so, by association, the Kinsey Institute—state funding to “collect pornography and conduct studies on bestiality, homosexuality and pedophilia.”

Lehmiller’s blog aired publicly the angst many American sexologists were sharing privately. “Are there any job openings up there right now?” read an email Chivers received from a researcher in California. Before the election, another colleague from the United States was asked to pull a study involving the measure of genital responses. Chivers is saddened that American universities are already self-censoring sex ­studies for fear of, as she puts it, “­drawing the eye of Sauron.”

Research on sexuality, gender orientation, and gender identification is generally dependent on granting bodies that are themselves dependent on government funding. That makes it vulnerable to political shifts. “I think people are worried,” says Chivers. “And I think they have every reason to be, given the history.”

In 2003, Chivers earned her PhD at Northwestern University in Chicago. She was likely on track to spend her career in the US, just another bright Canadian drawn south of the border. Then came the blacklist. A religious lobby group called the Traditional Values Coalition compiled the names of 157 sex researchers doing federally funded studies on everything from the Native American transgender population to Asian sex workers in San Francisco, and denounced their work as “prurient.” ­Chivers’s supervisor, Michael Bailey, was on the list. Officers from the ­National ­Institutes of Health (NIH) scrambled, demanding that the named researchers ­offer “­additional information” about their already-funded studies and explain how they might result in medical benefits for the population.

Pat Toomey, then a Republican representative from Pennsylvania, authored an amendment in July 2003 seeking to strip funding from four projects that examined sexual behaviour. To the horror of the US scientific establishment, it came just two votes shy of passing.

A similar witch hunt against publicly funded sex research was depicted, a year later, in an episode of The West Wing. Concerns about academic freedom sent a wave of young sexology draft dodgers north to Canada. Chivers was one of them. Another was one of her future collaborators, Lori Brotto. In 2004, Brotto, a native of Surrey, British Columbia, was finishing a post-doc at the University of Washington under Julia Heiman, a pioneer in the study of ­female sexuality and orgasms in the 1970s.

When Heiman was hired to be the director of the Kinsey Institute, she invited Brotto to take over her work in Seattle. But after eyeing the political climate and various other factors, Brotto turned down the offer (“I couldn’t have asked for a better setup,” she says now). Today, Brotto is the director of the UBC Sexual Health Lab and a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. She has earned more than $14 million in grants for her studies. She’s looked at questions as diverse as ­whether asexuality is a sexual orientation, and what effects cancer has on women’s sexual function. She also puts UBC at the forefront of the development of mindfulness as a sexual therapy.

In Montreal, Pfaus has earned the spotlight for studies involving stimulating rat clitorises with a tiny paintbrush (they have “orgasm-like responses” and will ­vocalize, as if squeaking for more). The notion that America is a land of greater opportunities is a misconception, because American academics often have to pay part of their own salaries out of their grants. At Concordia, Pfaus’s grants go entirely to research. Then, there’s America’s peculiar Puritanism.

“You can’t even use the word sex in your grant in the US,” he says. “You’re not ­allowed to use the s-word unless you have an adjective in front of it that makes it bad. You can talk about ‘risky sex’…. But you can’t talk about pleasure.”

Photograph by Alana Riley
A researcher demonstrates eye-tracking technology at Concordia University.

North Americans are becoming more comfortable talking about sex as an ­aspect of well-being—we’re slowly catching up with parts of Europe, where fulfilling sex is more often presumed to be an aspect of good health. (French women are entitled to receive ten to twenty sessions of pelvic floor physiotherapy after childbirth to help ward off incontinence and speed the new mother’s return to l’amour.) ­Evidence is mounting that a happy sex life is correlated with a wide array of positive health outcomes, such as more sleep, lower stress, and healthy relationships. It’s ­associated with better overall ­physical health and has the ability to relieve pain. Still, even some European countries such as the Netherlands, which once cranked out jaw-dropping imaging studies of the brain in the midst of stimulation and ­orgasm, have seen budgets slashed for sexuality studies in the era of austerity. Chivers and her cohort in Canada are at the vanguard of a generation of scientists aiming to reduce dysfunction and optimize fulfillment.

The chill on sex research in the US is once again propelling some young international students to study in Canada. Dan Tassone, a student in the first year of his master’s program in clinical psychology at Queen’s, is from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In high school, he read a New York Times Magazine story on Chivers and her work. “My initial thought was, ‘I didn’t know you could quantify something as ­complicated as sexuality,’” he says. Chivers is now his thesis supervisor. “People in Canada are just more willing to have these kinds of conversations,” Tassone says. His ambition is to take recent discoveries about the fluidity of women’s sexual orientation and pose the same questions about men. We tend to think of men’s sexual identities as steady and solid, he says. But we don’t know for sure.

Chivers and Dawson’s use of eye-tracking is part of an innovative experiment that might not have received funding anywhere else but here. It’s an inquiry into the basic underpinnings of our sexual impulses—pure knowledge without a stated public health benefit, such as improving reproductive outcomes or battling STDs. Such abstract knowledge is typically underrated in a world of quantifiable data and shareholder value. However, researchers know that these experiments will help us develop better therapies, because we’ll know more about what basic sexual function looks like.

Chivers pours cups of roasted hojicha tea in her stylish office, where the only hint of her life’s work is on her windowsill—two sculptures of genitals she bought during a fertility festival in the village of Komaki, Japan. She points out a detail on a ceramic figurine of a phallus: it has a tiny vulva nestled between its polished testicles. Sex is never simple.

Chivers has made a career of ­noticing details other scientists have ignored. Wrinkles in the accepted model of how sex works are welcome—enticing clues that the model might be flawed. A phrase she repeats often is “We don’t know.” She says it not with regret, but with a note of possibility. We don’t know. See how much ­remains mysterious? See how much work there is to be done? Her contentment with incongruity would be an asset to any scientist. Whenever a subject is as weighted with cultural beliefs as sex is, it is crucial to develop a sense of ease in the midst of the unknown—along with the ability to keep twelve different hypotheses in play.

Born in Ottawa, Chivers picked up a love of science from her father, an air force colonel and engineer who worked with ­fighter jets. As a child, she’d listen to Quirks and Quarks on CBC Radio; at ten, she wanted to grow up to be a neurosurgeon. “I was such a nerd child,” she says. For a grade-seven project, she built a maze for her two hamsters and systematically timed how long they took to run it under different conditions, ­offering them various rewards.

While earning her bachelor of science in psychology at the University of Guelph, Chivers had the first of two epiphanies that would shape her later work. In a second-year human sexuality course, her class was shown close-ups of genitalia on a huge projector screen. A naked penis provoked no reaction. When a vulva appeared, however, the room erupted into a disgusted “Eeeeeeeew!” Chivers looked around. The repulsed squeals were mostly coming from women. She realized two things: Women have complicated relationships with their bodies. And she felt more at ease with the topic of sex than most people did.

Amid the wider gay and lesbian activism of the 1990s, Guelph was a particularly open and sexually diverse campus. Excited by new research on the biology of sexual orientation, Chivers continued to focus on psychophysiology—how the body and the mind interact.

A second epiphany came in 1997. ­Chivers (who identifies as queer herself) heard about a researcher in Holland named Ellen Laan, who was conducting some unusual studies on lesbian sexual response. When Chivers read Laan’s work, she was surprised by its conclusion that gay and straight-identifying women had similar genital responses to both gay and straight erotica.

“I went, ‘Wait a second!’” Chivers says. “My [graduate] supervisor at the time was like, ‘I have no idea.’” In the 1980s, studies revealed that some women display low concordance: what they said turned them on sometimes differed from the stimuli their bodies responded to. But few researchers had understood what those results meant. Were women turned on by everything? Did it mean that sexual orientation works differently in women? Or was something else going on, something harder to see?

Chivers focused on solving the puzzle. She did multiple studies while obtaining her PhD and then founding her lab at Queen’s, replicating Laan’s results and getting noticed. In 2010, she conducted a metastudy of 132 other papers on ­genital response.

When it comes to sex, it should be said, men and women are far more similar than they are different. But this study, which Chivers co-authored with her ­husband—the forensic psychologist ­Michael Seto—along with Ellen Laan and two others, pinpointed one big difference. Men’s self-reported ­arousal showed a “correlation coefficient” of 0.66 with their ­genital behaviour. In other words, if men had an erection, they likely also felt that they were aroused. Female subjects had a strikingly lower concordance correlation coefficient: 0.26. Different studies brought additional evidence to light. ­Vaginal blood flow increased for women while they watched videos of lesbian, man-on-man, and heterosexual sex, and went up somewhat less while they watched ­bonobo sex. But women’s subjective arousal, what they said turned them on, was more selective, leaning toward straight couples and ­depictions of female pleasure. In other words, their minds and vulvas were out of sync. Another study showed that gay women, interestingly, had a slightly ­higher degree of concordance than straight women, though it wasn’t as high as men’s.

The news came as something of a surprise. Conventional wisdom says women are more “in touch with their bodies.” Yet the data said the opposite was true. It would be easy to surmise, upon reading Daniel Bergner’s 2009 New York Times Magazine feature on Chivers’s work, and his bestselling follow-up book, What Do Women Want?, that women might secretly be cauldrons of indiscriminate, bisexual lust, but are politely lying about it—or repressing it.

The real story is more complex. If a woman’s vulva signals arousal but she’s not feeling it, says Chivers, that doesn’t mean she’s lying. “I believe people and what they tell me,” she says. So why aren’t women and their junk on the same page? Or rather, why do men have such an unusually acute attunement to their penises’ needs? (­Another researcher, Rosemary Basson, tells of asking male subjects to rate the hardness of their erections on a scale of zero to ten without looking down: “They’ll say, ‘I’m five and three-quarters.’”)

First, says Chivers, genitals are not the only arbiters of sex. The mind is a powerful sex organ, particularly in women (the “thinking orgasm,” or climax without any genital contact, is thought to be more common in women than men). The hypothesis that vaginal engorgement and lubrication could have evolved as an automatic, protective response to sex—whether a woman personally wants to have sex or not—has gained wide acceptance among academics.

By its very definition, desire tends to evoke the idea of wanting one thing—one gender or another, a specific person, a certain activity. Yet our minds and bodies and what we tell others about them have always fallen in and out of sync. Psychologists have often observed that the seemingly unified “self” is made up of multiple processes that can sometimes come into conflict. The left and right hemispheres of our brains have been said to have separate experiences, and some neuroscientists hold the theory that the brain is made up of segmented, modular elements that interact. We are not one thing—none of us are. Even the phrase “mind and body” is a simplistic shorthand for the myriad entangled systems that make up a human being. ­Chivers is attempting to apply this thinking to the world of sexuality.

If some dissonance within us is normal, then how much is problematic? Why are some women (gay women, for example) more tuned into their bodies’ responses than others? Research has found that women who masturbate more often have a higher concordance rate: they’re more sensitive to their genital signals. Masturbation holds a clue to men, too. Men on the whole masturbate more frequently than women; far more men than women do it multiple times per week. Men, with their higher concordance, also tend to just check in with their genitals more often, adjusting and prodding them throughout the day.

Chivers has also found that the ­higher a woman’s rate of sexual dysfunction is—distressingly low desire, the inability to orgasm, and so on—the lower her concordance. If your body is aroused but you’re bored, or you’re fantasizing but your body is numb, it can lead to the sense that sex is happening, but that you’re not ­really there for it.

Chivers does not know what drives wedges between women’s minds and ­bodies. But she and Brotto have ­hunches. They believe a child’s environment could play a role in shaping her judgments about her sexual feelings—that sex is gross, wrong, or traumatic—and that could lead to dissonance. Repeated negative messages could lead girls to dissociate from their bodies, to avoid the normal process of touching and exploring themselves and forging ­genital-neural pathways. This feedback could result not just in girls ­ignoring their sexual impulses, but also in their being ­unable to make sense of them at all.

The researchers also wonder why men’s concordance is so high. Anatomy could play a role here, since boys’ genitalia (and genital responses) are more prominent. “Women’s genitals are hidden, number one,” says ­Brotto. “Number two, many of the messages women grow up with—‘Don’t touch,’ ‘It’s dirty,’ ‘Keep your hands to ­yourself’—may contribute to women ­being less aware.” Boys may get negative messages about masturbation, says Chivers, but with a key difference. “Part of that narrative for men is ‘You shouldn’t do it, but we all understand if you do,’” she says. “[There’s a perception that] men need it more than women do.”

Layered on to that are media messages to girls about how women should look in ­order to be desirable. These encourage them to micromanage their attractiveness ­rather than dream about what actually turns them on. Lost in a performance of sexiness, girls lose touch with what they find sexy.

Distraction is the number one thing that prevents women from feeling desire during sex, even if they’re getting enough stimulation and foreplay, says Basson, a researcher and doctor at UBC who ­studies and treats desire and arousal disorders. Cosmopolitan reported on a US survey in which 32 percent of women between the ages of eighteen and forty who had difficulty reaching orgasm said they were too “in their heads.”

Arousal could be seen as a form of trance—a form of intoxication that depends on ignoring the “real world” (laundry, a pinging smartphone, whether you booked the kids’ dental appointments). “If you want to have sex, but when you’re in it you’re thinking about the paint chipping off the ceiling, you’re not in it,” says Pfaus.

Of course, any scientist would admit that sometimes, there’s just bad sex. Sex that turns on part of you, but not enough of you. Or sex that feels good, but that you hate. This division between the body’s needs and the soul’s recoil from the ugliness of most porn is perfectly described by Emily Witt in Future Sex, her recent book about the perils of contemporary pleasure: “My aversion to pornography was not because the images didn’t stimulate, but because I did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex I wanted to have.”

Maybe some women (and men, too) require more than just sex to be fully turned on. Maybe they’re more sensitive to ­context, emotional cues, words. Maybe they just need better sex. Pfaus has found that the memory of unsatisfying sex will quash the libidos of female rats; if he blocks rats’ opioid receptors during sex, they won’t seek it out again later.

A skilled and sensitive partner, unfortunately, can’t be prescribed or sourced out by a doctor. What medical practitioners may soon begin recommending is the distinctly unsexy-sounding therapy of sitting with your eyes closed.

Mindfulness meditation has been ­touted as a way to build concentration and to calm the stressed twenty-first-century mind everywhere from schools to corporations, but it’s rarely been associated with sex. In some ways, it’s a surprising association to make, because of the popular image of ­carnal passion as arising spontaneously out of an uncontrollable and almost animalistic desire. But one of the claims made by psychologists who study mindfulness is that the practice can build neural pathways between the head and the body—bridging what we think and what we feel. Inspired by its uses in the mental health field, ­Brotto first got the idea to apply mindfulness as a therapy for women’s sexual dysfunctions while doing postgraduate work. Her current clinical studies show that a monkish spiritual technique may be the most effective treatment ever seen for sexual dissatisfaction.

Mindfulness is thought to help practitioners more fully experience sensations without being hindered by anxious ­interior judgments: I’m not feeling very much. Am I taking too long? How do I look in this ­position? Should I turn the light off?

Chivers, who had, coincidentally, learned to meditate as a teen, saw the therapy’s potential. A 2016 study by her and Brotto found that just four sessions of mindfulness boosted a measure central to concordance called “interoceptive awareness,” the ability to sense internal processes in the body such as heartbeat, digestion—or pleasure. Emerging fMRI data ­suggests mindfulness can do this because it ­changes the ­insula, the part of the brain involved in body awareness. Brotto and Basson have done clinical tests showing the therapy is effective at reducing even more ­serious suffering: provoked vestibulodynia, the ­debilitating pain that is experienced by some 12 ­percent of women during intercourse or similar activity —and that ­patients are often told is untreatable.

Brotto is writing a mass-market book on mindfulness techniques for both women with diagnosed dysfunctions and untold others who may simply benefit from being more present during sex. This drug-free sex therapy comes at just the right time, since the only FDA-approved drug that is promoted as a treatment for female sexual-desire disorders, Addyi, has been plagued with criticism and low sales since it appeared in 2015.

The tides seem to be shifting to welcome a more complete model of how sex affects every part of us—a new, research-driven sexual revolution. Depending on how political winds blow, it may not be long before it spreads from this corner of the world to others.

“[Chivers and Brotto] are setting the standards for sex research for the next twenty years,” says Pfaus. “When the money starts flowing back in Europe and the US, when attitudes change, you’re going to see their models being used by people as a bedrock.”

Undergirding all her data is Chivers’s hope that if the public knows scientists are studying female sexuality, that will send a message. “It isn’t that you can have great sex, or here’s 500 ways to have better orgasms. It’s that your sexuality matters.”

Sarah Barmak (@sarahbarmak) is a journalist and author based in Toronto. Her first book, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, was published by Coach House Books last year.

Alana Riley is an artist and photographer based in Montreal. An exhibition of her work will be staged at New York's Catinca Tabacaru Gallery this summer.

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