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Forbidden Knowledge

Parental Advisory: Explicit Content

One of the truths about our neurophysiology is habituation, feeling less and less with repetition of the same stimulation over time. But our habituation can be overcome by our capacity for attention. Attention can be drawn by survival relevant events and powerful emotion, but also by our cortical capacities. We can pay attention to things because of conscious goals, things we are actually aware (or have convinced ourselves) that we are trying to do. We really can “engage brain” on purpose, because doing so may give us perspective, or advantage we otherwise would not have. Arousal is reduced by habituation, but attention can mitigate it.

If you know everything someone is going to do, you may stop even being aware that they are doing it. The surprises of someone being more than you expected cannot last. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it hardly sustains desire, especially when a partner becomes a “sure thing.” So what happens when we remember Zillman’s suggestion that coition be added to fight and flight as a third variety of sympathetic hyperactivity? What are the practical implications of the interdependencies produced by the sympathetic commonality? Preceding and concurrent arousing events that are not sexual can nevertheless alter precoital and coital behaviors as well as their experiential quality.

We’ve got a big overlap of coition with fight/flight. There are close brain proximities. Electrically stimulating near areas that control erection in male nonhuman primates produce fight/flight responses, and vice versa. Directly stimulating fight/flight areas eventually produce sexual excitement. Fight, flight, and coition are all served by sympathetic outflow from T12 and L1, the last thoracic and first lumbar nerves (the middle of the back), which prompt the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medullae. This also reaches the sexual organs, producing what is called the psychogenic sexual center, i.e. the one responding to distal (visual and auditory) sexual stimuli, which produce both sympathetic excitation and genital tumescence (not just limited to men).

For sexual arousal, Masters and Johnson reported heart rates from 110-180 bpm for both genders, respiration rates of 40 per minute, BP increases of 40-100 systolic for males, 30-80 for females, even diastolic up 20-50 in males, 20-40 for females. Of course, the skeleto-muscular activity is also up. Really? But you also get the increases with the “auto-manipulative techniques” employed in research, and only slightly lessened effects when all you are doing is looking at porn (excuse me, “explicit portrayals of precoital and coital behaviors”). The second reflexogenic center, of parasympathetic outflow from S1 and S2, the first two sacral nerves, produces “sexual reflexes” including, you guessed it, “genital vasocongestion,” which means that, with direct tactile stimulation it will also happen for someone who is in a wheelchair. The good news? Reflexes don’t habituate! Obviously there is an “obtrusive discrepancy” between fight/flight and sexual arousal with the “ “parasympathetic outflow that makes for the reflexogenic sexual center.” Ahem. This also reaches the detrusor muscle of the urinary bladder and the distal colon and rectum, which not only plays a specific part in sexual functioning (as Masters and Johnson point out), but in nonsexual emergencies as well (which we talked about in “Passion and Ease”), so it isn’t exactly fair to view sexual arousal as clearly differentiated from nonsexual emergencies. Moreover, anthropological research also points out that “uncovered men” show some degree of erection during most sympathetic emotions. But I guess the rapine commonly associated with combat for most of human history is too shocking and offensive for modern sensibilities. So let’s just not talk about it. I remember my Latin teacher trying to convince us that rapio just meant “to grasp,” so that the Rape of the Sabine Women in Caesar’s Gallic Wars was actually about the “grasping” of the Sabine women. Even we virgin teens understood that rapio might not be just “grasping.” What about Wendy and the pirates? Shut up!