On the frontiers of embarrassment
Best known research
Charmaine Borg: Sex, disgust, and penetration disorders
Janniko Geogiadis: Neural Correlates of Human Male Ejaculation; Regional cerebral blood flow changes associated with clitorally induced orgasm in healthy women
Pek van Andel: Magnetic resonance imaging of male and female genitals during coitus and female sexual arousal
Willibrord Weijmar Schultz: Psychosexual functioning after the treatment of cancer of the vulva: A longitudinal study
Pek van Andel (1944) is holding a loaf of bread in front of his crotch, the plastic crinkling against his pants. He loves using props to show how processes work, like an MRI capturing a couple in coitus. ‘The scanner makes a series of images, like slices of bread, and then the researchers have to find the best “sandwich”’, he explains.
Van Andel and the sexologists at the RUG are pioneers exploring uncharted territory. All of them freely admit that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing when they began their research: ‘Coitus wasn’t exactly in the manual for the MRI’, Van Andel says.
The Ig Nobel prize-winning study is infamous, but it was truly ground-breaking. It revealed exactly how bodies change during coitus, rewriting anatomy text books that had barely changed since Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches in the 15th century.
It is regarded as having put Groningen on the sexology map, but it wasn’t the first sex-related research at the RUG. Willibrord Weijmar Schultz (1948) investigated how to help women have sex after surviving vulva cancer in the 1980s. Nowadays, sexology in Groningen encompasses multiple fields, including psychology, gynecology and neuroimagery.
‘Sexology is typically a kind of research which you do interdisciplinarily’, Weijmar Schultz says. ‘You respect each other’s contribution and each other’s specific talents, and that makes you strong – like a good relationship.’
Selecting the best porn
There are perks to doing sex research for the scientists’ relationships, too. ‘Part of my job was to ask students to help select the best porn. I had to watch it too, so my husband was very happy with that’, Charmaine Borg (1981) says, unabashed.
The porn was to be used as stimuli in a study in her thesis ‘Sex, disgust, and penetration disorders’. Her interest in sexology began from counseling psychiatric patients on antidepressants with lowered sex drive in Malta. ‘I would tell the men that it was normal to not be able to have an erection or to climax, and they would say, “I’m so happy to hear you say that!”’
Talking to patients also inspired Weijmar Schultz to start his research in the ‘80s. ‘They were so happy that someone was talking about it. I worked in the oncology department, and I saw women as young as 26 with vulva cancer. At that time, everything was removed: the labia, the clitoris, the whole story. I thought: Good heavens. How can these women deal with this?’, he recalls.
Three decades later, with Weijmar Schultz as one of her promoters, Borg was researching a similar question: what happens in the brains of women who are afraid of penetration? ‘You have sex with what’s between yours ears, not between your legs’, Borg says, quoting one of her co-promoters, Janniko Georgiadis.
Georgiadis himself did research on women and men’s brain activity when they climaxed through PET scans. Before every study, the Medical Ethical Committee of UMCG has to approve it. The committee hesitated to approve Georgiadis’ study at first, worrying that sex research could damage the hospital’s image, but the scientific merit won them over.
Perversion is not a scientific quality
‘Deeming something perverse is not science’s job. It’s not a scientific quality, so perversion should not even be on the table’, Van Andel believes. Even though they got approval, both the MRI study by Van Andel (with Weijmar Schultz) in 1991 and Georgiadis’s research beginning in 2003 had to be conducted at UMCG outside of normal business hours. ‘That way, it wouldn’t interfere with patient care and the patients wouldn’t see the nasty stuff going on’, Georgiadis recalls.
The MRI coitus study was even more clandestine. The participants, Ida Sabelis and Jupp Reichert, were street acrobats and ‘skinny as asparagus stalks,’ but they couldn’t fit when they first tried to squeeze into the machine. ‘I was frustrated, so I took the tray out and then the machine stopped working’, Van Andel confesses.
While the MRI was quickly fixed by pushing the right buttons, willingness to take risks and think outside the box is the key to sexology. ‘Dutch researchers tend to approach what is traditionally seen as serious science more playfully, and we approach playful subjects seriously’, Van Andel says. Weijmar Schultz agrees: ‘As a scientist, you need to play.’.
The laissez fair Dutch attitude toward sex without moral judgment makes for an intellectual environment more conducive to studying sex. In 1413, a decree from the city of Amsterdam set the tone for Dutch pragmatism toward sex, saying that whores are necessary in commercial cities and therefore the church, courts and sheriffs would not forbid brothels. Four centuries later, Napoleon demanded in 1810 that prostitution be regulated in order to protect his soldiers from the ravages of venereal diseases. Another 180 years passed before prostitution was officially legalized in 2000, in the same year as gay marriage.
Van Andel: In England, you’d be laughed out of town even now if you tried to do this research.
Weijmar Schultz: I think that the Dutch attitude toward sex plays a part in the scientific environment, I think that’s true. If you see what we can do here, we’re very happy.
Georgiadis: I think the liberalism of the Netherlands helps to create a good scientific environment. It’s a fact that this research could not be done in the UK or Australia. Here, you can do it because you’re interested.
Borg: In Malta, there’s the combination of a Catholic background that sex should not be for pleasure but strictly to have children, and then the macho Mediterranean mentality, and those together make it difficult for sex to be at the forefront. However, here in the Netherlands, the macho factor is way less, and it’s also more liberal, especially in Gronignen. I think we are less conservative here.