porn for eunuchs

Wait, hear me out. This is High Science waiting to be born.

I went to a lecture by V. S. Ramachandran. (It should be publicly available in due course.) It was definitely one of the top five neuroscience talks in a life full of neuroscience talks — I’ve gotten knowledgeable enough that it’s reasonably difficult for a lecture aimed at a general audience to teach me something I really want to know, but he succeeded more than once, and gave me at least one idea for a research topic good enough that I’m going to keep it secret for a little while (i.e. until I find out that someone has already done it more cleverly than I ever would).

Anyway, Ramachandran is famous for his work on phantom limb pain — the sensation of an amputated limb’s lingering and usually painful presence. And he knows more than a little bit about mirror neurons, which are these cells in the frontal and parietal cortices that fire both when the organism is doing a given action and when another thing that the organism is observing is doing the same action. So a given neuron fires when you shape your hand a certain way and when your friend does, or whatever. This is commonly thought to be the neural mechanism for empathy and perspective-taking. But, of course, you don’t confuse empathic feelings for real feelings — no matter how strong the empathy is, it’s not a physical sensation. Ramachandran reasoned that maybe the brain makes the distinction by listening to the sensory receptors. Your mirror neurons can’t tell the difference between empathic and real sensation, but if you hear from the sensory periphery that it’s not being touched, you know it’s empathy. And, in fact, when a phantom patient watches something happen to someone else’s body on the limb he’s missing, he feels it in his phantom.

So far, so good. But the real money here lies in porn for eunuchs.

There is a class of men who get off primarily to porn. Whether this is because of a sexual seclusion freely chosen or thrust upon them, I think it is safe to say that these men exist, and that they are interested in ways to improve the “reality” of the sensation, hence the existence of things like Fleshlights and RealDolls. But we now have good reason to believe that the only thing marring the reality of that sensation is the inconvenient presence of a penis that insists on constantly reminding the brain that it isn’t really getting any. The royal road to the ultimate vicarious sex experience is, paradoxically, castration.

I’m hazy on the details, naturally — for example, I don’t know if men can have orgasms without a penis, and I don’t know how well this would work for someone who’s never actually experienced the sensations he’s observing. But, overall, I think the idea is a lot less silly than it seems. Sure, if you think about it as a solution for Simpsonian comic-book-guy types who can’t get a date, that’s good for a laugh, but what about people who are disfigured, disabled, confined to the home for whatever reason? What about people who’ve decided, coolly and rationally, that they don’t want to date or have kids but would like to maximize enjoyment of their vicarious sex? You wouldn’t even have to have an initial round of volunteers; the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are sure to have created some natural (if we view war as “natural”) experiments. (And, insanely, preoperative F-M transsexuals might be another such population — read the article; it’s short, mind-blowing, and totally comprehensible. The upshot for these purposes is that a lot of preop F-M transsexuals — chromosomally female — report phantom penises.) Serious data could be collected on the possibility without anyone going under the knife for science.

The drawbacks of this scheme are obvious, and there are doubtless some non-obvious ones as well. Most people, even the ones I’ve described, would reject it out of hand for perfectly good reasons. But I can’t help but wonder if there is a group of people who could really benefit from it.

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