Weird Science

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Weird Science by Ada Calhoun


Surrender the Pink by Lisa Carver

The sign read, “Wanted: Healthy Females 18-35 for UT Psychology Sex Study $200.” As a healthy, sexually-aware, twenty-four-year-old female, I qualified; I had plenty to offer the field of sex research and besides, I was way behind on my bills. So I signed up to test-drive Lilly’s IC351, a.k.a. the new “Female Viagra.” The drug, which, like its male analogue, comes in pill form, is supposed to relax blood vessels in the genital region, thereby increasing sexual arousal and easing the path to orgasm.

It was a romantic prospect: bravely contributing to the sum of the world’s knowledge, easing the sexual dysfunction of other women in the process. Sixty women were to participate in the study, but each of us went through it alone. In the battle against female sexual dysfunction, I was an army of one.

Visit #1: The Intake

“Do you ever have multiple orgasms?” “How many partners have you had in the last three months?” “Have you ever had a venereal disease?” “Do you orgasm during intercourse?” The interviewer was grim, vampiric. “Uh, is there a more private place to do this?” I asked the tester — a grad student with a mass of dark curly hair she kept carefully pushing back, though it was nowhere near in the way. We were at the nurse’s station in the gynecological wing of a women’s health center surrounded by bored patients and nurses. Grudgingly, she took me into an empty examination room, then continued her battery.

“Rarely,” I replied. “Two.” “No.” Then, in response to her last question, hoping to add levity: “Not with people who suck in bed.” I expected a light-hearted slumber party discussion about men’s sexual inadequacies. She looked perturbed.

“Do you mean ‘no’? ” she asked.

“No, I mean yes . . . yes, usually,” I said, flustered. She nodded and made a mark on her clipboard. There would, I realized, be no bonding. Perhaps I am in the control group, I said to myself, meaning I must be controlled. I was led into a room to wait in a paper gown for a gynecological exam.

About a half an hour later, the gynecologist arrived. An aerobicized, middle-aged woman, she peered at my vagina over her half-glasses, her sensible gray hair hovering between my thighs. When she found out I was part of the study she became extremely personable and told me all her patients ask her how they can have more and better orgasms. She said it was high time someone came through with a drug that would do for women what Viagra does for men. She told me I was brave and she was proud of me and that I had a perfectly shaped cervix. It was the best gynecological exam ever.

Visit #2: Drugs and Porn, Part I

On the sixth day of my cycle, in the early evening, I got off the fourth floor elevator of a university building in which I had once had a class in, of all things, the History of Mormonism. At the end of a dim corridor I found the curly-haired tester waiting in her white lab coat. She led me into a fairly dingy room with only an easy chair covered with doctor’s office paper, a large TV, a scale, tables and a treadmill. The walls were covered with Monet posters. A Monet book sat by the chair. It was like a freshman dorm room writ large.

“That’s your probe,” she said, pointing to a plastic tube sitting innocuously on a piece of gauze. It looked innocent enough — very much like a clear tampon, only with wires leading out of the bottom instead of a string. The wires went through a hole in the wall next to the chair, and then into another room, where they were connected to a computer. “Just put that in and have a seat. You can cover yourself with the blanket if you like.” A pink, faux-felt blanket sat next to the chair. Because I’d planned ahead, I was wearing a skirt and thigh-high tights so I didn’t have to take any clothes off. Pretending it was an ordinary applicator-less tampon, I inserted the probe until the rubber guard stopped it from going in any further. The tester had been thoughtful enough to leave the probe on a heating pad so it was warm and felt like nothing so much as an incredibly small dildo. It was so small, in fact, that I could barely feel it inside me. But the wires running out of it and into the wall made me wonder if they weren’t going to start pumping alien semen into me.

I sat down, put my feet up on another chair and pushed the intercom button. “Okay, it’s in,” I said. “Good,” said the disembodied voice of the tester. “Now it’s just going to register for a few minutes and then I’ll show you the first film to get your baseline response.”

A few minutes was plenty of time for me to get comfortable and imagine how this would go down. The computer would light up and my vaginal responses would spell out “sex kitten.” The pharmaceutical company people would gather around looking at my charts saying “It’s not possible! She’s off the scale! Let’s get her back in for more testing so we can bottle her pheromones.” Or at least they would call me asking for dates and plying me with the really good sex drugs they’d been saving for just such a femme fatale.

The TV flickered. I put on the headphones, hit the tap-light and watched a five-minute nature film about the maternal instincts of cats. When it ended, the voice came back and instructed me to fill out the questionnaire by my chair.

The questions followed the format “On a scale of one to seven, how ______ do you feel?” I scanned a page of adjectives: sexually aroused, anxious, feminine, loving, guilty, angry. If it weren’t for this questionnaire I would never have realized that on any given day I was a solid three or four on pretty much every front. Am I feeling masculine? I asked myself. Well, sure, a little. I’ve been really bossy lately. Is that what they mean? Maybe like a two or three. Am I feeling depressed? Sure, I had a kind of lousy day. Okay, three. Am I feeling nervous? Fuck, yes. I am in a lab with a probe in my vagina. But still, I am maintaining a detachment befitting a control group member, so four. And so on. I tried very hard to be honest, but how aroused was I? Well, after reading the word “aroused,” I started to get a little turned on and went to put down five, but then I noticed I had a run in my stocking and my state of excitement plummeted to three. I averaged it out to four.

When I was done, I intercomed the tester and she came in to give me the study medication. It was a little off-white pill shaped like a piece of candy corn. It arrived in a paper cup along with a paper cup of water. Then she went back to her room to talk on her cell phone while I sat waiting for the drug to kick in. I kept second-guessing my questionnaire answers even though it was too late to do anything about them. Like my sexual arousal in general, my responses had felt completely random. What makes me aroused anyway? Sometimes some guy’s eyebrows set me off. I began to wonder how the other women in the study group were faring. Were they all machines of consistency, only feeling one or two emotions at a time and getting turned on as soon as they saw a penis? Is that how things are supposed to work? After ninety minutes of wondering how I stacked up, staring at the Monet posters and reading make-up tips in the Self magazines that sat in the magazine rack, I heard the voice on the intercom say the next round (the real round) of films were about to begin. I tapped the light off, saw five more minutes about the nobility of the house cat, and then . . .




Until that moment, I never knew what people meant by the term “Lifetime Porn.” In the first of three short films, a boring but “sensual” couple engage in soft-focus foreplay in the sunlight next to a gazebo. I started to think of that crappy ’70s song “Afternoon Delight” so by the time the woman had the man’s dick in her mouth I was completely turned off. Cut to a slightly overweight businesswoman wearing glasses and her hair in a bun. She and a man in a suit go at it on a desk while phones ring in the background. That was a little more interesting because I could extrapolate a story about their office relationship, which involved lots of power plays and suggestive but mean remarks written on Post-It notes. In the third, a young couple screws on a rooftop while muttering dirty things to each other in French. I was so proud I understood what they were saying I wanted to intercom the tester and tell her, but I held my tongue.

The porn itself did nothing for me. But the surreal dirtiness of the situation — sitting on campus in the dark under a pink blanket with my vagina hooked up to a computer — did have some effect, although I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was, and even if I could figure out what it was I couldn’t figure out how much I was feeling it on a scale of one to seven. When it was over, the intercom told me to fill out the same questionnaire again. “Kafkaesque” was unfortunately not on the list.

Visit #3: Drugs and Porn, Part II

As soon as I stepped through the door each visit, I was asked to pee in a cup, presumably because pregnancy would have thrown off the results of the experiment. After this third test/third sigh of relief, the tester said she had to have me initial a crossed-out answer on the previous questionnaire. While I had been trying to figure out how much my breasts were throbbing, they stopped, so for “breast sensations” I had crossed out three and circled two. I thought she would commend my attention to detail, but instead she said she could be charged with fraud if any answers were changed without initialing.

Something had been weighing on my mind. “I guess I should have asked you this before,” I said, “but am I supposed to think sexy thoughts or anything? Should I try to be aroused?”

The tester looked shocked. “No!” she said. “It’s totally passive on your part.” I felt dirty for asking, though not as dirty as I guess I would have felt had I started masturbating during the film and been yelled at through the intercom.

Past that, everything was the same as visit two, except that when the drug was supposed to be kicking in, my cheeks flushed and I started feeling more conscious of the probe in me, though I couldn’t figure out if it had just moved out of place a little, like when you insert a tampon wrong. I also felt kind of speedy and couldn’t stop making weird faces at the TV. The cat films began to take on a sexual significance. I wondered if they had included these particular nature films because of lines like “the soothing sensation of the tongue against fur.”

The porn did less for me than the cat film, but it was even more hilarious this time. The first one was of a couple in front of a campfire, with the girl’s ass torn out of her jeans, much to her rugged boyfriend’s delight. The second was of a couple on the edge of a bed in an L.A. glam apartment with oceans of fog on the floor. In the third, a forlorn-looking sheik and a well-eyelined temptress did it in black-and-white, a ceiling fan above them, a dourly erotic French song playing in the background. They seemed fascinated with each other’s toes.

When I opened my bag to schedule the last appointment, I hoped the tester wouldn’t notice that I’d swiped the samples of Surgilube she’d left out to help insert the probe. (FYI, it smells too much like a hospital to be useful in a romantic context, unless you’re playing doctor and patient). I asked her why they use porn when it doesn’t seem to work so well at getting women aroused. I was told there’s no alternative and that even women who register disgust on the subjective questionnaire tend to show a vaginal response on the read-out.

But when I saw my charts I was disappointed by how insignificant all the clusters of lines seemed. There weren’t huge peaks, as I was told some of the other women had produced. It seemed like my arousal had in fact dropped when the porn was being shown, and been highest at the beginning, when I was sitting around looking at the Monet picture and the wires and thinking about whether wearing lots of eyeliner on that particular day had bumped my femininity quotient from a four to a six.

“What are those?” I asked, intrigued by the sharp lines that jutted almost to the edge of the page. “That,” she said scoldingly, “is where you moved.”

Visit #4: The Outtake

The nurse checked my vitals, drew some blood and we bantered about the austerity of the sex study room. “They should at least have a candle in here,” she said. After I’d had the blood taken and the nurse and I had discussed design possibilities for the room, the tester came back in to ask me if I’d had any side effects. All I’d really noticed was that I felt a little flushed the second time.

She seemed satisfied, but I wasn’t. There are worse ways to spend two evenings of one’s life than in a university building being paid to watch lousy porn, one’s vagina nestled snugly in the hands of science, but still, I felt a little cheated. Emotionally, it was like a “too much, too soon” romance. After all, who else but an over-inquisitive lover would ask so many questions about my sexual history and tendencies? Who else would be so interested in how often my vaginal muscles contracted in a given two-hour period? But one minute I’m being deluged with attention and probes and tests, free to fantasize about being discovered as the most sexual being on earth and recruited into some sexual intelligence agency, or at least being impregnated by aliens; the next I’m standing on the steps with a check in my hand and a stash of smelly Surgilube in my bag.

And from a more detached, clinical perspective, what exactly do they think they’re measuring, anyway? I can’t help but think that if I’d wanted to I could have thought sexy thoughts at any point and started having sexual responses irrelevant to the drug, porn or situation. Let’s face it, female sexual arousal isn’t as simple as men’s (if it goes up, the drug works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t). I wasn’t turned on, at least not in the way it appeared I was supposed to be. Being stoically passive in the face of such invasive psychological and physical probing was hard. Being emotionally passive and aroused at the same time proved pretty much impossible. Drug or no drug, it was only when I started eroticizing the clinical setting that I felt anything like arousal. More power to the drug companies for trying to find something that will help sexually dysfunctional women, but what it is they’re learning from this process, surreally replete as it is with supple Monet haystacks, informative videos on feline science and European pornography, doesn’t seem like anything that’s going to coax the female orgasm out of its scientific hinterland, far from the medicine cabinets of America.



Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com