Thursday, December 21, 2006

Part 2 of Pumped Up and Ready for Love: Sex and Fluid Physics

More ways that your experiences during arousal and sex result from changes in your blood flow, and how you can use fluid physics to make it even better.

Listen to the podcast with roboreaders Audrey and Paul.

Circulation's Chemical Connection

Last week, we talked about several ways to increase the volume of blood in your erectile tissues. Generally, the methods involved inhibiting the blood flow out of your groin through the veins - with selectively applied pressure or sexual aids such as cock rings and penis pumps. Another way to enhance your penile or clitoral erection is to improve the flow of blood in towards your genitals.

A simple way to do that is with the use of drugs that relax the muscles that constrict your genital arteries. The relaxed muscles allow the arteries to expand in diameter.

According to the laws of fluid physics, pressure in a tube carrying a flowing liquid will be higher where the tube diameter is larger, and lower where it is narrower.

(Incidentally, that's what happens in an arterial aneurysm. A defect in an artery leads to a bubble in the arterial wall. Because the diameter is larger in the expanded bubble, the pressure increases and leads to a growing aneurysm. It's a vicious cycle that can eventually result in a disastrous pop, or other, equally unpleasant complication.)

The expansion of the diameter of healthy genital arteries, raises the pressure in your erectile tissue, compressing the outgoing veins and increasing the volume of the erectile reservoir.

Urologist Giles Brindley famously demonstrated the approach by injecting his own penis with the muscle relaxant Phentolamine. He displayed the resulting erection, while making a presentation at a medical convention in 1983. Many men faced with erectile dysfunction began injecting their penis's with muscle relaxant, in the years following Brindley's display.

More recently, a growing number of men have opted for drugs such as Viagra and Cialis, which treat erectile dysfunction in a very different way.

The drugs don't affect arteries themselves, instead they change the chemical signals that control the arterial muscles. Although you rely on nerves for movement in most of your body, they don't directly control erectile tissue. Instead, nerves leading into your groin trigger the release of chemicals that cause the muscles in the walls of genital arteries to relax. This allows them to expand in diameter.

As your arousal subsides, enzymes in your erectile tissue break down the chemicals that relaxed the muscles in your erectile arteries. Viagra and related drugs block the enzymes. As a result, the drugs keep the levels of muscle dilating chemicals high, and the blood vessels stay open. In essence, the drugs expand the arterial vessels that lead to the genitals, rather than directly constricting the flow out through the veins, as cock rings do.

The reason that you may have heard that Viagra is not considered an aphrodisiac, even though many people think of it that way, is that it can't lead to erectile tissue engorgement unless your body produces the chemical to relax your genital arteries in the first place. Viagra can't cause arousal, as a true aphrodisiac would; it only works if you are already aroused and your body produces the initial muscle-relaxing chemical.

The enzymes in your genitals that break down the dilating chemicals are unique to your erectile tissue. They're slightly different from the enzymes in other parts of your body. Viagra is designed to block the enzyme that turns off your arousal response. But no drug is perfect. It also mildly blocks the enzymes in the tissue of your retina, which is why some people experience changes in their vision while on the drug. The various side effects of Viagra and other erectile drugs are mostly related to the fact that developing precisely targeted drugs is very difficult.

Viagra should work for women as well as men, leading to enhanced genital engorgement and the improved vaginal lubrication that comes with better blood flow. Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that because arousal in women is more complex than it is in men, most female test subjects found that Viagra did little to improve their sexual experience.

Circulatory Troubles

Anything that keeps the arteries from dilating can hamper sexual response. Arteries hardened by age or disease can't expand to allow the additional pressure and blood supply required for erectile tissues to swell. The nicotine in cigarettes, causes the muscles of the arteries to clamp down and reduce blood flow, particularly in the extremities and genitals. If you must smoke, try not to do it just before having sex, or else the nicotine will work against the artery-dilating chemicals accompanying arousal. Besides, you'll smell better when it comes time for that first kiss.

Even fatty foods can dampen sexual response. High concentrations of dissolved fat make blood more sticky and viscous. Thickened blood flows poorly through your arteries, which means that there's less pressure than there should be by the time blood makes it to your groin. Losing weight by cutting back on fatty foods helps blood to flow better and can increase erectile vigor, which means larger erections and more fully engorged clittorises and labia as well as smaller, sexier waistlines.

The combination of rich food and cigarettes is particularly devastating to blood flow, creating a double whammy on your sexual function. Thick, fatty blood squeezing through nicotine narrowed arteries puts an extra strain on the heart, which is why heart attacks may be more likely to strike as you enjoy a cigarette after a big rich meal.

Assume the Position

Circulatory fluid flow, of course, is responsible for more of the sexual experience than mere genital mechanics. Flushing in your cheeks comes with increased blood flow as small vessels in the skin expand in response to things like overheating, embarrassment, or arousal. In fact, rouge and lipstick may owe their sexiness in part to the fact that they mimic the facial flush that accompanies sexual excitement.

Changes in circulation can also affect the sensations you feel during some activities by modulating the amount of oxygen that gets to your brain. The lightheadedness that comes with riding a roller coaster is in part due to the forces you experience during the ride, which push blood up toward your brain or down to your feet.

People who practice erotic asphyxiation attempt to heighten their orgasmic sensations by reducing oxygen in their brain. Often they achieve the effect through partial strangulation to slow blood flow. It's a highly dangerous activity, and leads to many unfortunate deaths every year, particularly among young men.

There are, however, some much less dangerous sexual techniques that create similar sensations, because they involve positions that modify blood flow without strangulation or asphyxiation.

Your circulatory system is designed to operate best when you're standing up, lying down, or somewhere in between. Veins have tiny valves in them that work against gravity. When you stand, the valves prevent the blood in your veins from backing up into your legs, but the valves only work in one direction. If you stand on your head, you'll feel an increase in the blood pressure in your face and head as the valves in your veins become useless and gravity takes over. Although there's more blood in your upper body when you're upside down, it doesn't flow as well. Your heart will work harder to keep your blood moving, but you will probably experience some lightheadedness due to the reduction of oxygen in your brain.

There are some, rather athletic sexual positions that involve one partner essentially standing on their head to reduce blood flow in the brain, but you can get the same effect by simply hanging your head off the edge of the bed during sex. A slightly less effective method is to stand and bend deeply at the waist while your partner enters from behind or stimulates you, manually or orally. In either position, the longer you do it and the lower your head in comparison to your torso, the more intense the sensation. Of course, you may end up with a throbbing headache when it's all over.


Now you know the basic fluid physics important for sex. Whether or not you experiment with sex toys and methods for modifying the blood flow in your body, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the importance of fluid physics in your sexual activities.

The Physics of Sex will be on vacation for about two weeks, so expect our next episode, "Sex and Sensibility: The Nervous system," in the second week of January.

In the meantime, take a moment to leave your comments and questions about Physics and Sex. Or email us at If we use your comment in a future column, we'll send you a free Physics of Sex coffee cup from our Caf├ęPress store.


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Tim said...

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Anonymous said...

Erectile dysfunction is the inability to attain or maintain an adequate penile erection to penetrate the vagina during sexual intercourse. Some experts feel that the onset of erectile dysfunction causes some men to become depressed while others seem to think that depression is the primary cause of erectile dysfunction.

Anonymous said...

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