University of Vermont

Documenting Desire

Researcher takes the taboo out of female sexuality

It takes about 20 milliseconds for our brains to process whether a picture is sexual or not. That’s about half the time it takes before we consciously process that a picture is even there. It’s an example of the human hardwiring that has sex occupying our brains constantly from puberty until we die, according to Allessandra Rellini, assistant professor of psychology and director of the University of Vermont’s sexual health and research clinic.  

So she’s bemused, at best, that while we understand a lot about sexuality in men, this topic that’s integral to developing and maintaining healthy relationships as well as general wellbeing is largely out of bounds for study in women.

“Women are left untouched, a mystery,” says Rellini, “because it’s not appropriate to study them. It’s a taboo topic.”

She runs, in fact, one of only three laboratories in the U.S. that conducts sex research on women and her funding is almost nonexistent. That’s why she agreed to take part in the Discovery Channel’s documentary, The Science of Lust, to emphasize science in the conversation about sex.

Rellini and her students, both graduate and undergraduate, volunteer time for this work (Rellini’s research necessarily extends into other areas) because they see a real need in women, evidenced in part by the fact that study volunteers come to them regularly seeking help.

Body and Brain

UVM’s lab is known in particular for a series of studies with female survivors of sexual abuse, a population with a higher likelihood of experiencing sexual dysfunction than other women. Integral to her work is studying how both the mind and the body respond to sexual stimuli. How the two correlate is key to sexual function.

“Subjective experiences of sexual arousal and physiological experiences of sexual arousal,” Rellini says, “are two independent events and while for some women they are intrinsically connected, for other women the two experiences are much more in dyssynchrony… a woman who has a problem with sexual desire (the motivation to engage in sexual activity) or sexual arousal (response to sexual stimuli) will show a stronger dyssynchrony in her physiological and subjective sexual responses compared to a woman who has no problems in those areas.”

The power of concordance between the two, according to Rellini, is demonstrated by the failure of the drug Viagra to improve sexual functioning in women as it has so successfully in men, whose bodies and minds are, on the whole, decidedly in sync in the presence of sexual stimuli. Viagra did, in fact, increase women’s physiological sexual responses but it had no effect on their subjective experience.

"Actually, women with a history of sexual abuse,” says Rellini, “will find themselves very upset by their responses to the Viagra pill. We think now that those results were coming up because the pill actually increased this dyssynchrony, so there was even more physiological response and even less subjective, so women were not feeling in tune with their bodies and that exacerbated their problem rather than improve it like it does for men.”

Sync in Progress

The part of her work that offered the tease for television, an inside look for Discovery viewers into how she measures these responses, for Rellini is just a means of collecting data to get to her end goal: treatment for a problem that is highly distressing for many women.

“I’m more interested in cognitive mechanisms and the interaction between cognition and biology, the neurotransmitters involved in desire or arousal,” she says.

Rellini is now in the early stages of a trial she is developing with an undergraduate student intended to help women experiencing problems integrate their emotional and physical responses to sexual stimuli. Participants will come to the lab, meet in groups and be given specific tasks and skills to practice at home. The intent is to increase positive experiences during sexual arousal and pay attention to physiological responses, creating connections that will enhance sexual experiences with a partner.

This is a psychological treatment that Rellini believes could pair nicely with new pharmacological approaches that are targeting dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters, mechanisms that impact subjective sexual response. That begs Rellini’s response to recent documentaries such as Orgasm, Inc. that have targeted outrage at pharmaceutical companies. The suggestion is that “female sexual dysfunction” -- quotations are from the film’s marketing materials -- is the invention of an industry in pursuit of profits.

Rellini’s view is that the filmmakers, acting under a misguided framing of feminism, are oblivious to the fact that sexual dysfunction in women was identified decades ago by Alfred Kinsey as well as Masters and Johnson.

“They are claiming that it’s completely normal for a woman to feel no sexual desire, not be able to have an orgasm and have difficulty becoming sexually aroused,” says Rellini. “That’s just how women are and we should all accept it. That is telling a lot of women who are actually experiencing distress because of sexual dysfunction that it’s all in their heads and they just need to get over it. It doesn’t seem that different from when we were telling people the same thing about depression.”