Every Wednesday, The CSPH highlights a Sexuality Professional you should keep your eye on. Their backgrounds are very diverse in order to bring attention to the wide variety of amazing people working in the field. This week we bring you Jim Pfaus!
1. What do you do in the field of sexuality?
I study the neurochemistry and the molecular neurobiology of female and male sexual behavior in rats and humans.
2. Where are you based out of?
The Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
3. What is your focus? What do you do?
Studies in my lab are generally focused on understanding how the central and peripheral nervous systems are wired for sexual arousal, desire, pleasure, and inhibition. We have a particular focus on learned sexual responses in rats. These include conditioned sexual arousal and desire in the presence of cues associated with sexual pleasure and conditioned partner preferences toward rats that bear the conditioned cues. This is an astonishing example of how simple Pavlovian conditioning can turn an allegedly promiscuous and polygamous rat into a “monogamous” rat, with concomitant activation of bonding systems (like oxytocin) in the brain by the conditioned cue. These experiments show the fluidity of sexual responses in rats, as in humans, and show how first sexual experiences with pleasure come to “set” the system. For example, virgin female rats that have experienced clitoral stimulation in the presence of a neutral odor will solicit a scented male far more than an unscented male during their first sexual experience when given a choice to copulate with either one. We assess neuronal activation of monoamines like dopamine and serotonin, and peptides like oxytocin and the opioids, using a variety of immunohistochemical, pharmacological, and molecular techniques. We also examine how the natural actions of steroid hormones, like testosterone and estradiol, activate those neurochemical pathways.
In humans, we are using cognitive tests like the Stroop task, mixed with eye-tracking technology, to examine how different types of erotic photos and videos activate arousal and desire. We are particularly interested in how the ability to be distracted by sexually-explicit visual cues acts as an objective measure of desire.
4. What are your particular goals and passions in the field?
My goal is to learn as much as I can about how sexual responses are organized in the brain and to communicate that information to the scientific community and to the world in general. It is crucial for people doing sexual science to tell the public WHY what we are doing is important, and in particular how it translates into real knowledge and practice in the real world. My goal is to remove the cultural straightjackets that have kept people ignorant about the amazing sexual potential of their own bodies and brains. My passions are to understand sex and to generate knowledge that people can use in their own sexual journeys. I suppose this can be summed up by an old quote by the German sexologist Wilhelm Reich: “Love, work, and knowledge are the wellsprings of life; they should also govern it.”
5. Why did you choose to work in this field?
Honestly? I have always been interested in sex. In Grade 3 I was sent down to the Principal’s office for writing the word “sex” on my notebook. I have no idea why I did it, but his angry red face and my subsequent suspension showed me that this word was special. Then, when I was 12, I experienced my first orgasm. I was totally blown away by how powerful it was and wondered why my body had never done that before. I was reading Homer’s Illiad at the time, and at once I understood Helena’s significance. I was on a mission to discover why orgasms felt good, and I read whatever I could get my hands on in high school, none of which really satisfied my curiosity. Likewise, my courses in human sexuality at the university level, although illuminating, also showed me that we lacked a basic understanding of how sex fits more generally in motivation and how the brain is organized for it. So this laid the groundwork for my studies in graduate school and to the present day.
6. Where did you go for school/training?
I completed my undergraduate in psychology at The American University in Washington, DC., and my Masters and Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. I did a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology and behavior at Rockefeller University in New York City, before assuming a faculty position in psychology and neuroscience at Concordia.
7. Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?
Lots! Just do a PubMed search and you will find most of our papers. But a good overview of our work is in the following:
Pfaus, J.G., Kippin, T.E., Coria-Avila, G.E., Gelez, H., Afonso, V.M., Ismail, N., & Parada,
M. (2012). Who, What, Where, When, (and Maybe Even Why)? How the
experience of sexual reward influences sexual desire, preference, and
performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 31-62.
Georgiadis, J.R., Kringelbach, M.L., & Pfaus, J.G. (2012). Sex for fun: bringing together human and animal neurobiology. Nature Reveiws Urology,9, 486-498.
Pfaus, J.G., Wilkins, M.F., DiPietro, N., Benibgui, M., Toledano, R., Rowe, A., Castro
Couch, M. (2010). Inhibitory and disinhibitory effects of psychomotor stimulants
and depressants on the sexual behavior of male and female rats. Hormones and
Behavior, 58, 163-176.
Pfaus, J.G. (2009). Pathways of sexual desire. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 1506-
8. What would you recommend for future professionals attempting to get into the field?
Follow your passions. Do them boldly. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I was told back in the early 1980s that we knew everything there was to know about sex, that my questions did not have answers, or if they did, no one would be interested anyway. Moreover, I was told I should not expect any kind of academic or research position doing what I do. Well… ha ha ha. NEVER retreat from the pursuit no matter how shaky the ground, and NEVER EVER doubt yourself or your worth in what you do.
9. What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career?
Two aspects are challenging: Getting grants and relating what we do to the public.
It is getting harder, if not downright impossible, to fund sex research in the US and elsewhere in the world. Well, except in Canada. I am lucky to live in one of the few places in the world that still sees the value in sex research in its own right. I am funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Fonds de recherche Santé du Québec. But as the research budgets get tighter and tighter, funding for things like sex decreases. This is why it is imperative that we let the taxpaying public understand the value of what we do and what it means for them, especially if they face problems in their sex life.
10. One must-read: What would you recommend, and why?
Only one?!!? Pick any book by Anaïs Nin (OK, try A Spy in the House of Love). She knew… probably more than anyone and was able to convey it at so many levels. She is one of my great heroes.
Facebook: Jim Pfaus
Conversation with Naomi Wolf: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ttrb-97tFA
Cited by Dan Bergner in the New York Times Magazine: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/magazine/unexcited-there-may-be-a-pill-for-that.html?ref=magazine&_r=1&
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