Sex missionary under fire
by Gillian Bowditch
Sex is good for you. It doesn’t sound like a controversial assertion, but work by Professor Stuart Brody, one of Britain’s leading "sexperts", on the physiological and psychological effects of sexual intercourse has sent the radical left into a lather and has led him to fear political correctness is in danger of stifling academic research in Britain.
Brody is the American-born professor of psychology at Paisley University. At the heart of his thesis is the claim that one kind of sex - penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) or, in tabloid parlance, a good old-fashioned "bonk" - is better than any other. According to Brody, no other form of sexual activity conveys the same benefits. If he is correct, his work has profound implications for the way sex education is taught in Britain and how sex therapy is practised.
In a week in which gay rights were extended to prevent businesses discriminating against homosexuals and in an era that has seen the removal of social stigma from a wide range of sexual practices, the instruction to lie back and think of Scotland is not a fashionable message. But Brody, who could become Scotland’s answer to Dr Ruth - the suave New Yorker has been approached by a television company with a view to making a series about his work - believes his research has important health implications.
Brody’s findings show that sexual intercourse, but not other forms of sex, can be an effective stress-buster. To keep the nation in the peak of rude health, GPs, it seems, should be dispensing sexual advice along with the cholesterol-lowering statins to patients with high blood pressure.
"One of my particular research interests is to look at physical and psychological differences between different sexual behaviours," says Brody over coffee in Glasgow’s Merchant city. "Since the time of (Alfred) Kinsey it has been asserted, but never supported by evidence, that all sexual behaviour is equivalent. That has been more an assertion of ideology than fact.
"I have been measuring with hard variables, such as blood pressure and hormone levels, as well as softer variables, such as psychological reports, the differences between major categories of sexual behaviour."
In his most celebrated experiment, Brody asked 24 women and 22 men to keep sex diaries for a fortnight. The volunteers then took a stress test that involved public speaking and doing mental arithmetic out loud. Those who’d had intercourse but none of the other kinds of sex were least stressed and their blood pressure returned to normal faster than those in the other groups.
The abstainers had the highest blood-pressure response to stress. The effects were not attributable to other stress-related factors such as work, anxiety or the quality of the relationship and the findings were equally valid for men and women.
According to Brody, the health benefits of "bonking" can last up to a fortnight. "They certainly last beyond the immediate warm physical and emotional feeling," he says. And the more heterosexual intercourse, the greater the benefits. "There is no critical threshold, but the more days per month you do it - and that is the issue rather than number of times - the better it was. Zero was bad, 30 days out of 30 was great."
Because of the difficulties of getting ethical approval in Britain for his research, Brody often uses European subjects. In another study using German health workers, heterosexual volunteers were assigned one of three activities in the lab: watching videos; watching videos and masturbating; or watching videos and having sex with their partners. While this was going on their blood was measured for the hormone prolactin, which is associated with satisfaction.1 The results were bad news for Woody Allen, who described masturbation as "sex with someone I love".
"What I found in that study was that the post-orgasmic surge of prolactin was 400% greater in the intercourse group than in the masturbation orgasm group," says Brody. "That has some implications for mental health."
The findings, while highly controversial, are not unexpected, according to Brody, who also works on transmission of the Aids virus and has published more than 100 papers in a variety of journals. "I wasn’t surprised by my findings at all," he says. "There are many reasons why it should be so. Evolution is not politically correct. It strongly rewards any behaviour which has even a trivial association with an increasing likelihood of passing on genes."
Not surprisingly, his work has been condemned by radicals at both ends of the political spectrum. "The anti-scientific right not only denies evolution but would rather no sex research was done at all," he says. "That is less of a problem than the radical left, which wants sex research done, but only if the results are politically acceptable to them. It’s not the gay lobby per se that objects, but a subset of the radical left. I’ve met a lot of homosexual men who have a great interest in truth, but there will always be some people who put maintenance of their ideology above science. Ultimately it’s counterproductive. Truth is no enemy of compassion."
Sex and sexual preferences are far more subtle and emotional than even the most objective research experiment can accommodate. How can Brody be sure the positive results he has found are not due to some other factor, such as a happy marriage? "I’ve looked at that," he says. "The results were not confounded by whether subjects were in a relationship, their age or a number of other sociological predictors. As a scientist in the research study I can say love doesn’t matter. As a man, I know love matters a great deal. Some things are mechanistic, but in the softer studies I can look at the effects of emotion."
Brody, who is in a heterosexual relationship, finds it distasteful when the American religious right twists his work for its own purposes - "having sex the way God intended" - but he maintains that at the very least we should be teaching that different sexual behaviours are not equivalent and that PVI is the only sexual behaviour consistently associated with better psychological and physiological function. He believes that among the scientific establishment there is "a seemingly intentional avoidance" of looking at differences.
"I’m in favour of people being made aware of the relative benefits and then they live their lives as they choose," he says. "Sex education and sex therapy need to be rewritten. A lot of what they teach or practise is either false, or at least doing a disservice to the clients. We could do it much better. There are also practical applications for health care."
Brody believes GPs should ask their patients about their sexual behaviour as part of their general healthcare, but only if GPs are properly trained in sexual medicine.
"There are countries where this happens," says Brody. "In France, for example, sex is an important part of life. Its absence is noteworthy. It can be a sign of depression or one of the first signs of heart disease. When one looks at the magnitude of difference in terms of blood-pressure activity between the different sexual behaviour groups in my study, and knowing that blood-pressure activity relative to stress is a good predictor of the long-term development of hypertension as well as other cardiovascular diseases, it becomes something people need to consider."
Dispensing sex advice with the Solpadeine may be some way off. Brody acknowledges the Scottish reluctance to be open about sexual matters. "It’s not just reticence about sex, it’s reticence about any emotional expression other than rage and that’s a big problem," he says. He recently got ethics committee approval to do an anonymous online survey in Scotland, which may shed more light on Scottish attitudes to sex.
In the meantime he is concerned about the tacit censorship of academics whose work does not fit the politically correct ideology of the left. "I am unable to play the piano, but it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Vladimir Horowitz," he says. "I don’t say that he doesn’t exist and I don’t try to break his fingers. We need to let the science speak for itself."
What the science appears to be saying is: "Yes, yes, oooooh yes!"
- 1. More acturately, prolactin is associated with sexual satiation, and it may have little to do with the benefits from intercourse, which we believe come from intimacy itself, and are probably more closely tied to oxytocin than prolactin. Prolactin, in fact, may account for the cooling effect that partners notice over time. Intercourse more often leads to fertilization than other kinds of sex, and the big jolt of prolactin may simply signal that "the job is done." In any case, high prolactin has also been associated with some unpleasant symptoms, which are suspiciously like the things lovers complain of as their relationships cool. These include weight gain, mood swings, low libido and, in women, hostility.