Interview with Nicole Prause

We talk to the neuroscientist and sex researcher about prudish attitudes, personal threats and what goes on in a sex research lab

May 18, 2017
Nicole Prause
Source: Neal Preston

Nicole Prause is a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist specialising in the study of human sexual behaviour. She has worked at Harvard University, Idaho State University and, in an associate scientist position, the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the founder and chief executive of Liberos LLC, an independent sexual research institute. In April, she was a consultant on the UK TV documentary The Super Orgasm.

Where and when were you born?
Houston, Texas, 1978.

How has this shaped you?
Coming of age in Houston has made my entire career an act of rebellion. It was harder than it should have been, and I certainly feel like nothing can stop me now.

You lent your expertise to The Super Orgasm; can you give us a brief breakdown of the science behind this phenomenon?
There is very little known about what an orgasm itself is physiologically, so multiple orgasms are extremely poorly characterised. The show was a chance for me to think about how we might proceed as a science if we really want to understand these reported differences, including the basic issue of what exactly we mean by “multiple”.

What makes your area of research more interesting or intriguing than other aspects of neuroscience, or are they all interlinked?
Many people think that sexuality is a niche area of neuroscience. These people are prudes. Sexual arousal is a strong approach motivation, clear primary reward model, and it has many features of positive emotions, too: “emotion” scientists ignore sex at their peril! 

You were spurred to found Liberos by “institutional attitudes towards sex research” and by “prohibitions…on crucial research”, among other things. Does the academy have a problem with research in your field?
Yes – the US has nearly chased out every last sexual psychophysiologist purely because of social prohibitions on our science. You are not allowed to use sexuality words in grant applications; if you do get a grant, it is regularly brought up by Congress for defunding; and we all endure intense, personal anti-sex attacks. Our institutions are threatened by activists regularly. This new model of research is my attempt to respond to these attacks on academics from anti-sex activists in the US.

You’ve also had some trouble from anti-pornography organisations. Do you ever feel threatened by groups opposing your research?
I feel very threatened. One activist has my name on his website more than 1,500 times. Anyone that obsessed makes you research whether citizens are allowed to know who has applied for gun permits. I had to shut down my lab when one searching for images of me daily started mapping the route from his house to my lab. [Such people] also have no problem with libel, often posting that I personally appeared in pornography, was fired from a job (where I actually was promoted), and that I faked my data. They write to journal editors and conference organisers trying to have me disinvited based on these accusations. Climate scientists ain’t got nothin’ on a sex researcher in the USA.

What is the worst thing anyone has ever said about your academic work?
That I faked my data. I have always been extremely honest with my data, which is why they sometimes look like crap and have small effect sizes. All my colleagues knew my data practices and had no doubt [about the rigour of my work]; it was just the activists. But those are very serious false charges to a principled scientist.

What’s your biggest regret?
I spent most of my career doing what most of my field was doing: arguing for the importance of sex. That was wrong. If you cannot feed your kids, you don’t care how many orgasms you have. I used to think about this as a problem of selling it to your funding agency. That works in Canada, where they value sexual pleasure, but not in the US. I wish that I had been thinking about sexual stimulation as a method of promoting general health from the start. This makes sense, and matters, and not just to the First World, white, wealthy crowd reading Cosmo.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
See that over there? Facebook? Instagram? Yeah, stay off those.

What brings you comfort?
Orgasm. Come on. 

What one thing would improve your working week?
I need a good writing partner. Especially moving into the private sector, I feel strongly about maintaining my scientific publications, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
People think that studying sex is just about improving sex or that we are all just here sleeping with each other or masturbating in the lab. Small minds, these people.

What event divided your life into “before” and “after”?
Leaving my tenure track job at Idaho State University for a research scientist position. Evidence of the shift was, I created a pneumatic vibrator (with a colleague) that contained no metal so it could be used in the fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner] for research. The Idaho State University job would never have given me the latitude, funding or design resources to try something like that. That was the first time that I really chose science: willing to take big risks to do science in the way that I felt it needed to be done to answer big questions.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
When I run marathons, there is always a point when you start to think that running is stupid. You could literally stop running at any second. At this point, I start repeating, “no stopping”. That general idea has carried over. I have had protocols lose funding, pulled from ethics review and attacked by activists. There is no reason that I should be facing any of that for my field; the only answer, to me, is just “no stopping”.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I want to discover applications for sexual stimulation in general health. I want to be known for helping to transition sex research into the general health domain, where it damn well should have been to start with.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Ole Petter Ottersen has been chosen by the Swedish government as the next vice-chancellor of the Karolinska Institute. Professor Ottersen, who is currently rector of the University of Oslo, will take up the position on 1 August. He was appointed professor of medicine at Oslo in 1992 and has held numerous senior positions before being made rector in 2009. He was also head of the Centre for Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, one of Norway’s research centres of excellence. He said: “I look forward to getting started and to working together with KI’s many talented researchers, board members, staff, students and multiple collaborative partners nationally and internationally. Together we will strengthen public trust and internal enthusiasm and pride.”

Tim Middleton has been announced as the new vice-chancellor of Writtle University College. Professor Middleton is currently pro vice-chancellor at Bucks New University. He will take up his post at Writtle at the beginning of August. Formerly vice-provost at Bath Spa University, he said: “I believe Writtle is well placed to address the growing demand for applied and vocationally relevant professional development courses offered across the full educational spectrum. Our innovation and research work has the capacity to grow and develop in partnership with others.”

Jo Horsburgh has been named the new registrar and secretary of the University of York. Currently strategy director at the University of Warwick, she will take up her post in June. Ryszard Piotrowicz, of Aberystwyth University’s law school, has been elected vice-president of the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Gary Hua has been named managing director of the Penn Wharton China Centre in Beijing, the University of Pennsylvania’s only centre outside the US.

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