Orgasms on Demand May Soon Be a Reality
Scientists have been trying to deliver a so-called orgasm button for decades. How close they are to realizing one is up for debate.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz for VICE.
Talk to transhumanists about the future of sex and you'll get an earful of supremely unusual ideas. A breed of futurists who believe in enhancing or transcending the human condition using tech, they envision a world in which humans pop pills to eliminate refractory time between orgasms, link their brains to new and ineffable external robotic pleasure organs, or send out digital copies of their brains to have virtual sex before downloading those experiences into their bodies for a flood of perfect pleasure concentrate.
Some transhumanists even believe science is on the cusp of realizing one of their more outlandish goals: creating an orgasm button that could allow humans to climax on demand. In fact, one doctor—Stuart Meloy of Winston-Salem, North Carolina—already patented one, in 1996. (More on that in a bit.) This outlook rests on reasonable foundations: Orgasms are just energy and drugs surging through brains, and we can trigger them without genital stimulation, even by thoughts alone.
They usually (but not always) unfold thanks to (not always sexual) stimulation of the genitals or the nerves tied to them, which send signals up the spinal cord and into the brain. At first sign of arousal, according to neuroscientist of sex Nicole Prause, our brains look like they're very focused during stimulation. But as orgasm approaches, we get out of our own heads and go into a trance-like state. We don't know precisely why this happens or what flips us from stimulation into orgasm, although Adam Safron, a researcher who works alongside Prause, recently set out a theory positing it's the result of synchronization between brain waves and the rhythm of whatever external stimulus is at play.
However the switch is flipped, once an orgasm hits, our pelvic and (usually) anal muscles contract rhythmically, and more than two dozen parts of our brain also light up. With possible small exceptions, this activity looks largely the same from person to person, and it coincides with a flood of neurochemicals into our bodies.
Scientists have played with the idea of bypassing the build-up to this neural surge of energy and chemicals for over half a century. In the 50s and 60s, a Tulane University psychiatrist named Robert Gabriel Heath sliced holes in some of his patients' skulls and ran wires into their brains, juicing one area until they felt a sensation some reportedly described as orgasmic. Even today, some patients who undergo deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson's symptoms or other neural disorders with focused electoral signals report feeling sexual pleasure. Drugs that cause a massive dopamine release have also been tied periodically to self-reported orgasms.
Meloy's orgasm button happened by accident when he was threading an electrode into a woman's spinal nerves while she was under a local anesthetic—part of a treatment for severe and chronic back and leg pain—when she felt a deeply sexual sensation. Meloy soon learned how difficult it can be for women to reach orgasm, and decided to systematize and operationalize this woman's experience to help those who cannot orgasm organically, partnering with a medical company in 1998 and snagging the previously mentioned patent for his so-called "Orgasmatron" in 2001. It consists of a small generator, to be implanted near the spine, linked to electrodes running into spinal nerves that take signals from an external remote. Those electrodes would zap the brain, via the nerves, to orgasm.
Only about a dozen women have tried the Orgasmatron, and only a few reported full orgasms. It has yet to undergo a long-planned FDA trial for lack of cash and potential patients. As such, it's attracted heavy skepticism from experts like Prause. However, Safron acknowledges that it's possible the machine could "just be a really strange hack that pushes you past thresholds" and to orgasm in some way, like jolting loose a flood of happy chemicals from the brainstem and hypothalamus. And even if the Orgasmatron is bunk, Prause expects that someday we may be able to reliably trigger the mental and physical state of orgasm.
"State of orgasm" is a key phrase here. However similar they look in a textbook or on an fMRI screen, "the diversity of orgasms is enormous," said Safron, "both between and within individuals." Innumerable variables—the kind of stimulation we receive, who gives it, what happens beforehand and what mindset we're in—prime our minds and bodies to read the identifiable sensation of orgasm in radically different ways. "Every partner could be different, every action that preceded it… whether it's make-up sex or angry sex or S&M sex or whatever it might be," said Jim Pfaus, a sexual neuroscientist. "The quality of [an orgasm] is going to change. Your brain is interpreting it differently because of the antecedent conditions."
We don't know much about how differing build-up colors an orgasm, or what brain activity during orgasm ties to how we interpret it. At best, the orgasm button of the near future will probably produce something that's really just orgasm-adjacent. It could still be intensely pleasurable, but it'd likely be prohibitively pricey (the Orgasmatron's generator alone would likely cost $25,000) and invasive (think spinal surgery or wires running into your skull). It'd also just be an orgasmic drug, almost certainly divorced from the context and meaning that really make or break our most beloved sexual escapades, not an orgasm.
So in the imminent techno-future, you might have access to a new happy drug mainlined to your pleasure centers. But if you really want to get off, you'll have to do it the old—and wet, squishy— way.
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