August 18, 2013
An oldie but a goodie: we hosted a session of our ever-popular Anatomical Life Drawing class at the Secret Garden Party this summer, previously hosted to rave reviews at Battersea Power Station, the SGP 2011 and Shambala. For Sex Day at the SGP 2013, artist Evy Jokhova brought the anatomy of our model to life with body paint and a riotous imagination, illustrating the clitoris, breasts, and a misplaced uterus – as well as less obviously sexual organs, such as the skin, brain, and nose. Medical Doctor Hannah Kilner held the audience’s rapt attention as she traced the biology and history of the miraculous combination of organs that create the strange beast that is human sexuality. She shares her research with us here…
When thinking about ‘The Anatomy of Sex’, several obvious anatomical appendages fill the mind’s eye – but in order to move on from this genital fixation I invite you to think of the body as a gateway to the ‘experience of sex’. From individuals’ sensual experience and emotional connections to how our collective perception of sex and sexual perversions has been shaped by history through ‘scientific’ theories, mythology and religion, allow me to take you on a journey from nose to nether regions and beyond…
A sometimes cute, sometimes rather bulbous protrusion from the middle of ones face, it does much more than add to ‘looks’ or prop up a pair of specs. It is the organ responsible for one of our five special senses: smell, one of the key players in sexual attraction.
Plato believed that because of its position, so close to the brain, the nose exists in direct contact with feelings and desires. He believed perfumes played into the hands of physical pleasure which was merely a distraction from the virtuous pursuits of music and mathematics. He therefore denounced its use, saying perfumes should be reserved for prostitutes alone.
It was once believed that a woman’s bodily fluids could be spoiled through excessive sexual intercourse or too much semen. This is how prostitutes became known as ‘les putains’ – ‘the stinking ones’.
In modern society much effort is made to keep natural odours at bay. However, according to some scientists we maybe masking key signals to the opposite sex. The famous T-shirt experiment – recreated by Guerilla Science in 2011 – apparently proves the hypothesis that we can smell markers of good genes through body odour. Girls and guys were given T-shirts to smell and they had to rate the ‘sexiness’, as well as judging photos. The photos and T-shirts were surprisingly accurately matched by women. Men found women sexier at their most fertile point in the menstrual cycle.
One of the principal functions of pubic hair is to retain odours from glands in the pubic area that serve as a source of arousal. Napolean famously wrote in a letter to his lover:
“A thousand kisses to your neck, your breasts, and lower down,
much lower down, that little black forest I love so well”.
However, the practice of pubic hair removal goes back to the dawn of civilization. The earliest shaving devices discovered are flint blades possibly dating as far back as 30,000 BC. To early Egyptians, a smooth and hairless body was the standard of beauty. The Greeks adopted the ideal of smoothness, recreating it in their sculptures artwork. So much so that allegedly the legendary art critic John Ruskin (never having seen a naked woman before his wedding night other than in art) was so shocked by his wife Effie‘s pubic hair that he rejected her, and the marriage was later annulled. He is supposed to have thought his wife was freakish and deformed.
Pubic trimming was also a form of pest control; prostitutes shaved off their pubic hair to get rid of lice. They were the first women to wear merkins (pubic wigs). Though merkins may perhaps come back into fashion: Guerilla Science ran a Merkin & Gherkins workshop with tech artists MzTEK at the SGP where festival-goers fashioned their very own electronic rave muff!
Touch is one of the central senses stimulated in sexual contact; from the innocent hand holding of children to neck nibbling, nipple tweaking and full frontal genital contact. It is a special sense controlled by the largest organ system of our body – the skin.
The skin can be divided into a colourful map (much like striated rock formations) showing areas that are supplied by different spinal nerves. These are called dermatomes: each conveys sensations of that particular region to the brain. Some areas of the body are much more sensitive to touch than others. ‘Erogenous zones’ are associated with sexual response, and include areas of the genitals, notably the foreskin and glans penis, clitoris and the vulva. Erogenous zones are highly individual – some people love their toes being sucked and foot stroked whilst some people cannot stand it.
The skin also contains different types of receptors such as mechanoreception (pressure, vibration and proprioception), pain (nociception) and heat (thermoception). All of these are utilised in different sexual plays and fetishes or ‘paraphilias’ such as erotic spanking (or spankophilia). Activities range from a simple slap on the bottom, to the use of a spanking paddle or cane.
Many cultures describe pain as an aphrodisiac. The Kama Sutra, in particular, goes into specific detail about the qualities of different bites:
“The hidden bite, the swollen bite, the point, the line of points, the coral and the jewel, the line of jewels, the broken cloud and the biting boar.”
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
– A Midsummer Night’s Dream
If you have ever fallen in love you may have an understanding of the madness that comes with those first few months… that feeling of no faults to find.
Nietzsche wrote: “There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness”. Prof Semir Zeki said that perhaps this “reason” can be found in the pattern of neural de-activation that has been observed in the first throws of love.
Prof Zeki is a professor of neuroesthetics at UCL and has spent his career studying the effects of beauty and love on the brain. A study he conducted showed that when a lover views the picture of the one he or she is passionately in love with, large parts of the brain – and particularly the frontal lobes – become de-activated. The frontal lobes are of course the part of the brain that are associated with higher cognitive functions, including judgment, recognizing future consequences resulting from current actions. Thus the implication is that when these faculties are down-regulated our critical judgment of a situation becomes suspended – we may be far less judgemental of the ones we love.
Breasts are widely appreciated and enjoyed, and so they should be – we are the only primates that possess permanent, fully-formed breasts when not pregnant.
Breasts are mammory glands containing 14-18 lactiferous lobes which converge at the nipple. This tissue is supported by oestrogen and so it swells at different times in the menstrual cycle. And when a woman reaches menopause the bodies oestrogen level decreases and the milk glands ‘atrophy’ (or shrink) changing the shape of the breast. Apparently a small to medium sized breast weighs 500g, a large one up to a kilo.
The Greek goddess Artemis of Ephesus had nearly 20 breasts. Hercules was said to have gained his strength by biting the breast of Hera when he was an infant. In Greek mythology breasts are often a symbol of fecundity. In contrast to this is the legend of the Amazons, fierce female warriors who socialized with men only for procreation. They were famed for removing one breast in order to become better warriors by improving their operation of a bow and arrow. The legend was a popular motif in art during Greek and Roman antiquity.
In the 1960s, a rebellious era, some women used their breasts as powerful political tools – most famously when 400 feminists from the ‘New York Radical Women’ publicly burned their bras.
The first known depiction of a heart as a symbol of romantic love dates to the 1200s. It occurs in a miniature decorating a capital S in a manuscript of the French Roman de la poire. In the miniature, a kneeling lover offers his heart to a damsel. The heart resembles a pine-cone (held “upside-down”, the point facing upward), in accordance with medieval anatomical descriptions. The convention of showing the heart point-upward switches in the late 14th century and becomes rare in the first half of the 15th century.
In the history of medicine the anatomy and function of the heart and circulatory system slowly evolved over hundreds of years. As a result the heart has always been an enigmatic organ. Galen (the Greek physician and philosopher) was the first to discover that the vessels carried blood. In line with the four humors, he proposed that arterial blood conferred vitality by containing pneuma (air) and originated in the heart. This idea of the heart carrying ‘vital spirit’ was universally accepted. It is easy to see how this notion of vital spirit became entangled with the emotional experience of love.
Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to accurately draw the heart and begin to understand its physiology. He is of course one of the most famous polymaths in history. Some postulate that his meticulous approach to anatomy arose from his inherent belief that the purpose of art is to ‘paint man and the intention of his soul’.
Plato postulated that if a woman is deprived of sex and she does not bear children then her womb will roam around the body like a wild animal, eventually latching onto the woman’s windpipe causing ‘uterine suffocation’.
Uterine suffocation was described at various points in human history. The Victorians termed it ‘hysteria’, which resulted in a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia and fluid retention. One doctor catalogued 75 pages of symptoms – and deemed the list incomplete.
A famous neurologist named Jean-Martin Charcot developed a novel treatment for hysteria in the late 1800’s. He happened to be a very eminent physician with many famous pupils including Sigmund Freud. In a medical seminar he used a young female suffering from hysteria to demonstrate his treatment. He placed his right hand under her large hooped skirt and vigorously massaged a ‘special place’ between her legs. After a period of applied effort he ‘induced a spectacular response’ that he declared could only be interpreted as a form of mental breakdown’ – and thus a cure for hysteria.
Victorian woman flocked to the doctors for their own genital manipulation, their husbands paying for this ‘miraculous treatment’. One newspaper reported the ‘treatment proved immensely popular’ and found an increasing number of woman reporting symptoms of hysteria.
In 1880 inventor Mortimer Granville invented an electrified vibrator – which he did not initially intend to be used as a genital manipulation device, but which inevitably found use by worn-out doctors looking for a labour-saving device that would shorten the treatment time of hysteria. He found the treatment time went from an hour to five mins with explosive effects. Dildos went viral: by the 1920s high brow women’s magazine advertised an increasing variety of dildos that would make ‘the feeling of youth throb within you’.
The clitoris has been described as a ‘tiny love button’, a ‘little pink pearl’, ‘small as a pea’, a ‘bud, a nub, a nib, a knob’. This simply is not true – there is much more to the clitoris than meets the eye…
With more than eight thousand nerve fibers, the clitoris is more richly innervated than any other part of the human body. These fibers are said to interact with fifteen thousand nerves in the pelvic area- a vast erogenous landscape.
When aroused the clitoris becomes engorged with blood and increases in size like the penis. It is in fact formed from the same embryonic tissue as the penis and can be compared structurally to the penis except, of course, it is unburdened with the responsibility of reproduction – it is solely for pleasure. As sex researchers Masters and Johnson said in the 1960s, ‘a woman has an infinitely greater capacity for sexual response than a man ever dreamed of’.
In 1905 Freud, in an essay on sexuality, insisted that the clitoris, which provides much unsupervised pleasure for young girls and adolescents is like ’a pile of pine shavings’ useful only to ‘set a log of wood on fire’ (the log being the vagina, obviously). He deemed the vaginal orgasm to be the mature, womanly orgasm and some argue that this led to the ‘elevation of the vagina’ as the adult woman’s primary means of giving and receiving sexual pleasure.
Although Freud’s views were regressive, he was less threatening than some historical figures. Dr Isaac Baker Brown was a Victorian gynaecologist who performed ‘clitoroidectomies’ (removal of the clitoris) as a treatment for hysteria. Luckily this practice did not take off in England. However, removal of the clitoris and often the labia minora too still takes place in many countries today and is known as ‘female genital mutilation’. According to the WHO, 140 million women and girls are living with the effects of FGM, including 101 million girls over the age of 10 in Africa, where the practice persists in 28 countries. There is an international effort to try and end this practice, which has a huge impact of women’s physical, psychological and sexual health.
To read more about Guerilla Science’s celebration of the clitoris – and our attempts to bring attention to the indefensible practice of FGM – read all about the Curtains of Love, an installation we created for the Secret Cinema’s rendition of Brazil here.
Many thanks to the spectacular Hannah and the indefatigable Evy for another smashing life drawing class – an artistic experience unlike any other.
August 17, 2013
This summer Guerilla Science hired two spectacular interns (paid, mind you) with the generous sponsorship of the Wellcome Trust. Marissa Chazan, a freshly minted cognitive neuroscience masters student from Sussex worked tirelessly to help us produce the best range of events we’ve ever held at the Secret Garden Party. She tells us about her baby: an afternoon session of Sensory Speed Dating…
This summer Guerilla Science turned matchmaker with a session of Sensory Speed Dating at the Secret Garden Party festival. Armed with a plethora of knowledge – thanks to outstanding evolutionary psychologist Rob Burriss – we explored how we use our senses in the strange science of attraction.
First: forget love at first sight, what about love at first smell?
Round one saw our group of blindfolded singletons using their noses to take cautious whiffs of potential partners’ sweaty armpits. Why would we ask grubby mid-festival strangers to smell each other blindfolded? Well, aside from the fact that it was quite amusing to watch, it was also in the interest of science: people are partial to the smells of others that are genetically different, which ensures a healthy genetic diversity when they mate. So sexual selection is actually sensual selection. Wouldn’t Darwin be proud?!
Next our love-hungry hopefuls used their sense of touch to rate a second lot of prospective dates: could they feel out a fancy? Rather than orchestrating a mass-groping session, we simply had the participants feel each other’s faces: a twist on a standard face perception task.
Rob explained that variations in facial features advertise differences in health and genetics, thereby determining our sexual allure—even beard length may signal to potential suitors a man’s implicit genetic attractiveness.
Round three was all about taste, so our pairs of blindfolded strangers were asked to seductively feed each other the decidedly unsexy combination of cherry tomatoes, carrot cake, raw kale, and chocolate.
Eating particular fruits and vegetables can boost different types of skin pigments and make you look more attractive; as Rob clarified, a carrot is better than a sunbed. We also unearthed the sad truth about aphrodisiacs like chocolate: there is no reliable scientific evidence that they work. However, studies have shown that nutmeg can increase libido in rats, so we doused our carrot cake in nutmeg hoping to get our speed-daters as randy as rats…
The hearing round saw our newly partnered singles (still blindfolded of course) telling their best pick-up lines, jokes, or funny stories.
Humour has been shown to be scientifically sexy, while non-verbal characteristics of speech, such as pitch, also affect our instinctive attraction to others.
Round five was definitely the most entertaining – from our point of view: movement. While people commonly assume there are just five senses, in fact there are many more, perhaps at least 20 (although scientists disagree on the exact number).
In this round our blindfolded singletons grinded with different partners to the funky disco sounds of “Jungle Boogie” by Kool And The Gang. As it turns out, how well you move your body affects how attractive you are, because it reliably communicates important information about your condition and vigour.
Last, but not least, we came to the sight round. Finally our hopefuls could quietly feast their eyes upon each other. Evidence shows that this is the quickest way to fall for someone, but we decided to meddle a little more by playing some different kinds of music…
For one partner, we played “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, because sexy music has been scientifically shown to encourage love at first sight. For the next partner, on the other hand, we blasted “Creep” by Radiohead. Hearing Thom Yorke’s soft voice crooning, “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo”, doesn’t exactly set the mood (our control condition if you will). This rings true in the academic literature, because, as Rob explained, women are more likely to give their number to men when listening to romantic songs than other incongruous music.
The pay off came after the rounds were finished and the score sheets tallied as we spotted some of the matches getting to know each other better outside the tent: it seems as though Guerilla Science might just be cupid’s geeky little brother…
Many thanks to Marissa for working tirelessly all summer! All pics of her Sensory Speed Dating creation here on our Flickr Site.
June 20, 2013
In May 2013, the Secret Cinema transformed a 14-storey office block into the dystopian world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Guerilla Science – always eager to bring science to new habitats in unexpected ways – brought a range of creations to crank all the levels up to red. GS Creative Director of Communications Zoe Cormier tells us about what it’s like to build a giant vulva shrine…
“Now, my darling, if you’re looking for something for next season, I’m doing a special on the Autumn Winter Collection,” cooed our russet-haired Dr Curtain, pointing at one of a hundred squares on a giant patchwork vulva quilt.
“Might I suggest this model? It not only will keep you warm and snug during the cold winter months, but is also fantastic for bike riding.”
In the soft red light of the Curtains of Love, shoppers sipped cocktails as they pondered the range of vulvas from our catalogue.
“Or perhaps you’re looking for something for everyday wear? This is a popular one. All neat and tidy, tucked up and out of the way, we think of it as the little black dress of vulvas.”
“I like that one!” a woman said pointing at a sparkly vulva.
“Yes, that’s the perfect one for a Saturday night out!” enthused Dr Curtain. “It’s the one I’ve got on at the moment actually. Now darlings, I’m doing a three for two offer, so don’t feel like you need to settle for just one.”
June 16, 2013
In May 2013, the Secret Cinema transformed a 14-storey office block into the dystopian world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Guerilla Science – always eager to bring science to new habitats in unexpected ways – brought a range of creations to crank all the levels to red.
We invited the fabulous Shoreditch Sisters to join us next to the Curtains of Love in the department store to help everyone craft the bespoke vulva of their dreams. The SSWI’s Roshi Nasehi tells us about sewing the perfect labia…
I’m a newish member of the East London branch of the WI, the Shoreditch Sisters, who have been credited with ‘turning the image of the WI around’. Indeed this is a branch of the WI that want to use the group as more than a platform for making competitive Victoria Sponges which is of course the unfortunate way the WI has been viewed in the past. As a local Shoreditch resident, it has been a pleasure to discover Shoreditch Sisters. The women are warm and welcoming. They are modern and politically aware with a desire to maintain and develop what’s considered to be traditional (and more importantly fun) WI pastimes like craft skills, sewing, and knitting (after all, why throw the baby out with the bath water..?) whilst acting as strong advocates for women’s causes.
The Vulva Quilt has been an integral part of one of their most high profile and important campaigns against Female Genital Mutilation.
I wasn’t a member of Shoreditch Sisters when the ‘Vulva Quilt’ project came about and so felt very enthusiastic about adding my voice and (albeit limited) sewing skills to further activities around this wonderful project (check out the woman’s hour archive link for more information about the original project and also the campaign page).
This particular invitation was to display the Vulva Quilt and run participatory vulva patchwork activities as part of a Secret Cinema event in association with Guerilla Science. Before going, I wasn’t sure how the quilt would work within a Secret Cinema context and in keeping with the Spirit of Secret Cinema, and I didn’t know with which film experience I’d be helping to integrate the quilt and vulva stitching activities. It turned out be Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian fantasy Brazil, which imaginatively explores many of problems of the 80s (and indeed present times) within one complex plot. Amongst the many themes ‘government control’ (in both capitalist and socialist terms), ‘conformity’ and ‘plastic surgery’ come up.
For the event, Secret Cinema ambitiously took over a Croydon Tower Block turning each floor into an exhibition/performance space around a theme from the film including a spooky ‘funeral parlour’ and some fantastic high rise bars towards the top of the building. We were on the third floor and in the care of a very skilled actor playing Dr. Curtain with the quilt displayed in a room called ‘The Curtains Of Love‘. The actor took participants through a “personal shopping experience” where they could browse through the range of vulva shapes and sizes available for purchase.
The quilt is principally a protest against the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation but within this framework it celebrates female diversity, expression and creativity. It asserts that we are all different and beautiful and that we (and certainly our genitalia) do not need to be censored or improved upon. Consequently it worked as a brilliant tool in this playful but effective critique against labiaplasty which is very much on the rise (it is amazing to think that Guerrilla Sciences’ own Zoe Cormier wrote this article about it in 2005 for the Canadian magazine Shameless in an article appropriately titled ‘Making The Cut. and people seemed to respond to the opportunity to make their own vulva patchworks in a creative and interactive way. We were trying to convey that what you already possess is a work of art, so why would you buy a new one? And I am happy to say that I think Secret Cinema goers got it.
Of course there were moments which made me feel as though I was at a weird hen night. This is partly because I do remember making fascinators at my friend’s hen event years ago which kind of involved a lot of the same actions (and for that matter similar ribbony, lacy materials). Also, although the theatrical side was skilfully led by ‘Dr. Curtain’ and though I happen to be a performer (I work professionally as a musician) I was initially a little nervous about holding the (albeit playful) ‘sale’s person’ attitude. I didn’t want to be worthy or lecturing to people on their night out and wanted to join in with the more creative approach of getting people sewing, interacting and questioning. I am pleased to say that I think it worked really well and with the exception of one slightly creepy guy that wanted to film me ‘talking about labias’ (I obviously didn’t let him) I felt that people were engaging with each other in a fun, creative way and the activities stimulated discussions about this kind of surgery.
Ultimately, the message of ‘Vive La difference’ seemed to be acknowledged and accepted by pretty much everyone and I am happy to join in with anything that reinforces that idea.