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10 Things Scientists Discovered About Sex This Year

10 Things Scientists Discovered About Sex This Year: 1001nights

1001nights

This year has been memorable for a lot of reasons, but one that may not be immediately obvious is that we learned a lot about the science of sex in 2016. Among other things, sex researchers brought us one step closer to a male version of the birth control pill, they debunked the idea that porn kills love, and they discovered that having a cat just might make you more inclined toward kinky sex (yep, you read that right). Let’s take a closer look at these findings and some of the other fascinating things scientists taught us about sex in 2016.

Americans are warming up to the idea of open relationships.

Americans are more interested than ever in consensual non-monogamy (CNM), or the practice of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships at the same time. A study published in The Journal of Sex Research in May found that Google searches for two forms of CNM—open relationships and polyamory—have significantly increased across the past decade. At the same time, a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that more people are practicing CNM than previously thought: in a nationally representative survey of single Americans, more than 1 in 5 said they had been in a sexually open relationship before. Table for more than two, please.

We’re getting closer to a male version of the birth control pill.

An October study from The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reported the results of a clinical trial in which men were given hormone injections designed to suppress their sperm production. The results were stunning: over the course of a year, the pregnancy rate for couples taking part in the study was just 1.57 out of 100. Unfortunately, however, the rate of side effects was very high, which led an external review board to recommend shutting down the study. Although this injection won’t be hitting the market, this study provides optimism that we’re not too far off from having a male equivalent of the female birth control pill.

Millennials are identifying as LGB at much higher rates than Gen Xers.

In January, the CDC released a report revealing major generational differences in Americans’ sexual identities. Specifically, millennials aged 18-24 were almost twice as likely to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual than Gen Xers aged 35-44. Millennials were more likely to report having engaged in same-sex behavior, too. However, whether this means same-sex attraction is actually increasing or if it’s just a sign that younger folks are more comfortable acknowledging their non-heterosexuality, we can’t say for sure.

The HPV vaccine has been wildly effective at reducing cancer.

In August, scientists reported that, in the ten years since the first vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV) was administered, rates of cervical cancer have been halved. If we can increase vaccination rates even further, there’s a chance that HPV-related cancers—including those of the cervix, anus, throat, and penis—could be eradicated within just a few decades.

Porn doesn’t change how men feel about their relationships.

A classic study from the 1980s found that heterosexual married men reported less love for their wives after viewing images of sexy magazine centerfolds compared to images of abstract art. This year, researchers tried three times to replicate the effect, but found nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. These findings suggest that porn probably doesn’t kill love after all.

BDSM acts can produce an altered state of consciousness.

In May, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE looked at the psychological experiences of people who took part in an extreme masochistic ritual in which their skin was pierced with hooks that had weights attached. These participants demonstrated evidence of an altered mental state known as transient hypofrontality, described as “reductions in pain, living in the here and now, little active decision making, little active logic, and feelings of floating and peacefulness.” This suggests that BDSM acts have the potential to be a very spiritual experience.

We might be able to treat low sexual desire by electrically stimulating the brain.

In a November study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers found that delivering electrical stimulation to the brain changes the way we respond to sexual stimulation. Specifically, a targeted cranial “zap” appears to enhance the response that occurs in the brain’s pleasure centers. This suggests that we might actually be able to use brain stimulation as a treatment for people who complain of low sexual desire in the not too distant future.

Sexual arousal puts us in a risk-taking state of mind.

A January study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior reveals that being horny can make us susceptible to taking risks, including those that are both sexual and non-sexual. In one study, participants who watched an X-rated film subsequently expressed more willingness to keep having sex after noticing a broken condom. In another study, sexually aroused participants made riskier moves in a game of computerized blackjack. These findings suggest that, when we’re feeling hot and bothered, well, we can’t be bothered to properly evaluate risks.

Women can detect when other women are ovulating, an ability they might use to protect their relationships.

In an April study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers showed female participants photos of a woman who was either ovulating or not. Those who saw an ovulating woman were the most worried about keeping their partners away from her, but this was only true for participants with attractive partners. This suggests that women may have evolved the ability to pick up on other women’s ovulation status as a means of helping them to guard desirable mates from potential relationship threats.

Having a cat might increase your interest in kinky sex.

A July study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology reported that people’s attraction to kinky sex depended upon whether they had been infected with toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that can be passed from cats to humans. Specifically, those who said they had been infected were more into bondage, violence, zoophilia, and fetishism. Why is that? The researchers suspect that it’s because this infection affects the circuits of the brain involved in fear, given that in mice and rats, toxoplasmosis switches their natural fear of cat smell into an attraction toward it.

Here’s to hoping 2017 is another mind-blowing year for sex research!


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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