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A Follow-Up to “Itches Without Scratches

Rick Garlikov

Appetites and desires are strange sorts of things in that while we are happy to satisfy our desires, we do not always want to multiply our desires in order to have more pleasures. Generally one would not want to cultivate poison ivy in order to have more pleasure scratching itches. One would generally prefer not to have the itch in the first place.  And generally adult non-smokers don’t buy nicotine patches or nicotine chewing gum so they can start out at the lowest levels and work their way up to the desire to smoke cigarettes for the pleasure of smoking. And I don’t think they would do that even without risks of cancer or cardiovascular disease. There is no need to try to develop or cultivate an expensive and unnecessary habit you don’t need to satisfy a desire you don’t already have.  Teenagers or children who begin to smoke tended to do so out of a desire to look ‘cool’ or to look or feel ‘adult’ or to satisfy some desire other than the need for nicotine, since the desire or need or ‘itch’ for nicotine was not one they had prior to smoking.

But sometimes one does want to cultivate an unnecessary itch or desire one doesn’t already have, although that might be arbitrary or susceptible to peer or cultural pressures too in the way that beginning to smoke was.  I have been told that drinking coffee and drinking alcoholic beverages are acquired tastes one sometimes has to work at. And many people say they did work at it and learned to enjoy them. Now I, myself, cannot stand the taste of any alcoholic beverage; they all taste extremely bitter to me like rubbing alcohol, with various flavors, though none with sufficient flavor or sufficiently desirable flavor to override the bitterness and extreme displeasure of them.   And I also do not like the taste of coffee or coffee-flavored anything, though it is not as totally terrible to me as the taste of alcohol. So my response to in both cases to people who tell me I just need to work to develop the taste for them is “Why would I want, and why should I want, to go to a lot of effort and much discomfort to develop a taste for having a pleasure I do not miss having and do not desire to have, for something that is not necessary or beneficial?”  That seems like hitting yourself with a hammer to have the pleasure of stopping doing it, or like rubbing yourself with poison ivy leaves after first cutting yourself in lots of places with a knife to get the poison under your skin real well, just so that you can have the pleasure of scratching even more.

And people do sometimes pursue getting itches they don’t have besides drinking alcohol or coffee or pursuing teen fads or Madison Avenue manipulations.  But they do it for reasons other than just scratching their own itches or satisfying new desires; they do it because they think it is right and important.  Several years ago on a TV talk, audience participation, and viewer call-in show, the host, Phil Donahue, interviewed various couples of which one of the partners from each was undergoing a medical or psychological therapy to increase his/her low libido so that it would match that of the sexual partner.  They didn’t want their partners to be frustrated or have to seek sex elsewhere, and they didn’t want to merely go through the obviously uninterested motions of sex to satisfy their partner, because that would be of no real emotional value to either of them. So they were willing to put in the work to increase their libido if they could.  Interestingly, no one in the viewing audience asked the question I thought the most obvious one -- why, if they wanted compatible libidos, the partner with the higher sex drive didn’t undergo treatments or therapy to have his/her libido decreased.

After I pointed that out in an ethics class one time, a female student said “But sex is a good thing, and everyone should be able to have the kind of pleasure and joy it gives.”  When asked, however, whether that meant she would like to have her libido doubled, say, easily with medication, in the sense of being able to enjoy sex twice as often, and twice as much, she quickly declared “No, my sex drive is just about right.”  Notice, this is not a case of diminishing returns or marginal increases that are incommensurate with amount of work to achieve them. It is not like she wouldn’t have time for more sex or being the attractive woman she was, be unable to find a willing partner. When given the theoretical option of having twice the amount of sex and twice the amount of pleasure from it, she didn’t want it.

Now contrast the above with the following by David J. Linden Professor, The John Hopkins University School of Medicine (from

“In the 1930s, the psychologist B. F. Skinner devised the operant conditioning chamber, or ‘Skinner box,’ in which a lever press by an animal triggered either a reinforcing stimulus, such as delivery of food or water, or a punishing stimulus, such as a painful foot shock. Rats placed in a Skinner box will rapidly learn to press a lever for a food reward and to avoid pressing a lever that delivers the shock.

“In the 1950s, the psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner modified the chamber so that a lever press would deliver direct brain stimulation through deep implanted electrodes. What resulted was perhaps the most dramatic experiment in the history of behavioral neuroscience: Rats would press the lever as many as 7,000 times per hour to stimulate their brains. This was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus.

“A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure circuit stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly cross foot-shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their newborn nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would self-stimulate as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.”

At first thought, it would seem the rats did want to do what my student didn’t and what most people do not want to do with poison ivy.  The rats not only welcomed the additional pleasure or apparent pleasure, but actively pursued it as much as they could even to the neglect of other pleasures and even to their own detriment.  But I think the behavior of the rats and of people do not contradict each other or necessarily differ. I will explain why, but first, consider the following about research being conducted on implanting an electrode operated from a pacemaker-like device in the brain of women with orgasmic dysfunction in order to help them achieve orgasm, from

“Orgasmic dysfunction is when a woman either can't reach orgasm, or has difficulty reaching orgasm when she is sexually excited.  Around 10 to 15 percent of women have never had an orgasm. Surveys suggest that between 33 per cent and 50 per cent of women are dissatisfied with how often they reach orgasm, according to Medline Plus.”

“The idea is that the implant could be triggered by a hand-held remote control, delivering orgasms at the push of a button – and it could even be programmed to deliver a number of orgasms per week or per day.  “Stuart Meloy, a surgeon at Piedmont Anaesthesia and Pain Consultants in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is behind the technology and came up with the idea by accident. ‘I was placing the electrodes and suddenly the woman started exclaiming emphatically,’ he said.  ‘I asked her what was up and she said, “You're going to have to teach my husband to do that.” ’ “

Notice three things: 1) the dysfunction is about some women being unable to climax “when sexually excited” and presumably then wanting to or working hard to have the orgasm that eludes them.   That can be, and generally is, frustrating when it occurs, but it is not normally frustrating to go around without an orgasm if one has not been sexually aroused.  (More about that shortly, though, since there is at least one exception to it, or partial exception.) 2) The woman did not say “Oh God! Do that again! (and again and again)!”  She said he should teach her husband to do that, meaning either that it was better than any orgasm her husband has helped her achieve or than the ones he usually helps her achieve, if any, or that 3) it is an experience she wants specifically with her husband, not just for the way it feels in itself.  

This last point is important because I now don’t believe it is just the physical experience in some cases that gives us pleasure or that we desire, but the experience under particular circumstances with someone with whom we want to have that experience, that gives us the pleasure.  Even little children do not always just want a particular experience, but want it with a particular person, generally their mother or father or someone else they like for whatever reason. E.g., they might want one person to pick them up and hold them, but not another. They may have an itch or a sore place but not want you to scratch it or tend to it to make it stop hurting, but want someone else to do it or just to suffer through it.  They may even reject being fed by one person but allow another to feed them the very same food thirty seconds later. This then answers the question I raised in the essay “How Can Physical Touch Be Related to Emotional Affection (As It Can Be, and Often Is)?” because it uncovers a false assumption behind the question of why people tend to prefer the touch or kiss of, or sex with, someone they love to the touch or kiss of, or sex with, someone who touches or kisses or does sex better (or has better ‘technique’ or skill at touching, kissing, or sex).  The false assumption is that it is the way the activity feels that makes it good, and the person you are doing it with is just an added bonus or different thing altogether that accompanies the feel or pleasure of the activity. But I now think it is not the activity that we normally desire, but the-activity-with-a-particular-person (or particular-people, when different people are desirable).

(Some people are less discriminating than others about which people they desire and who could thus give them pleasure, but generally people are at least somewhat discriminating in that they don’t want just anyone to kiss or caress them just because, or even if they know, that person kisses or caresses well.  The most obvious case is that of straight people who would not want to be kissed or caressed sexually by someone of the same sex, no matter how well that person might do it. But even profligate men who chase almost anything in a skirt will probably find some women too unappealing, at least while the men are sober, even if that woman were to have an expert touch or great kissing technique.  There are likely some people they would not want to have touch them even with the proverbial ten foot pole.)

There are, of course, some things we enjoy, perhaps even sometimes prefer, doing by ourselves and do not need a companion for them.  But those things which do require a companion or which are potentially enhanced by a companion, often require a companion with whom we desire to share the experience in order to make the experience be enjoyable for us.  Not just anyone can give the pleasure because the pleasure of those particular things is not in the activity or experience itself, but in the activity or experience with a person we want to do it with.

The rats were not asked ahead of time whether they would like to sit around all day pushing a lever to have orgasms.  They were not asked whether they wanted their libidos increased. What the electrodes and impulses did was to give them an experience they wanted to repeat over and over and over. And it gave them such a strong impulse to do that, that they wanted to satisfy the urge more than do anything else.  Presumably you could have shown my student the rats and their joyful pressing of the lever, the smiles on their faces, and the gleams in their eyes, and told her that the woman in Dr. Meloy’s office experienced the same thing, and that she could be given such an implant and lever, and she would still have said “No, thank you.  I am happy with the sex I do have, and I am happy having it with a person, not a lever I just push, even if that lever is somehow the ultimate sex toy that doesn’t even need to touch me?“

[Of course, people sometimes do masturbate alone, but that is because they are in the mood to have sexual stimulation and climax when there is no willing desirable partner available, or they are in the mood to climax as quickly as possible because they are already aroused sexually and are not interested in having to wait or accommodate someone else via unnecessary foreplay, etc.   If the orgasm machine were implanted into a human’s brain, s/he would probably use it on occasion in the latter circumstance, but probably not in cases where they wanted intimacy with a partner and/or the joy of extensive arousing foreplay (by themself or with a partner, especially a particular partner) rather than just an immediate orgasm.] Of course, women with orgasmic dysfunction would probably want to push the button at the point that otherwise frustration, rather than continued foreplay pleasure, would kick in after their partner has aroused them without their being able to then climax naturally.  As pointed out in Evolution and the Myth of (the Significance of) the Male Orgasm, foreplay itself can be pleasant and desirable to prolong, rather than to end too soon by an orgasm.  In such a case, the lever or orgasm pacemaker would cause the psychological/emotional equivalent of a premature orgasm -- one that occurs too soon for the person having it, not just too soon for his or her partner.

It seems to me more than likely that the electrode is not so much in a “pleasure center” in the rats, but in a “desire center” in them.  Orgasms are sufficiently pleasurable to recall them fondly and to look forward to having another one, but only if we already have either the desire to have one because we are aroused or if we are in that odd, but sometimes occurring state, where we are not aroused enough to be able to climax or even to enjoy being touched, but where we wish we could become aroused or enjoy being touched.  It is not that in normal circumstances we wish we were horny, but we sometimes are when we are in that particular state we are almost partly interested in sex, but not enough to enjoy it but too much to just ignore it. That state is the one alluded to before in which we don’t desire to have an orgasm but we desire to desire to have either an orgasm or just pleasant enough arousal, whether it ends in orgasm or not.  But either already aroused or partly interested in becoming (more) aroused, that is when we seek orgasms, not when we have no interest in sex at all. Unless one is capable of multiple orgasms without much or any refractory period, generally one does not seek another orgasm immediately or even as soon as possible even though the first was pleasurable and there is no reason to believe a second one would not be at least equally pleasurable.  

Presumably lower mammals who copulate when the female is in heat do so because the (one in) heat is what makes them both want to have sex or at least makes the male want to have sex more than he normally does.  It is not the pleasure of the orgasm, but the desire to have sex and then the desire for an orgasm because of the sexual stimulation that makes the rats want to have an orgasm and its attendant pleasure. More precisely, I think the fulfillment of desire to have  the orgasm once arousal reaches a certain point, is the pleasure or is perceived as pleasure, rather than the pleasure being something at accompanies that fulfillment.  But either way, if the electrodes only gave the mice the pleasure of an orgasm, but not the desire to have another one soon, the mice would not be pushing the buttons so much.  If I am correct, the electrodes are not just giving the rats an orgasm but the desire to have one also. Pleasurable as they are, most people don’t have orgasms on their minds most of the time.  There are other desires people have. People will sometimes even go ahead and have sex at the beginning of a date so they can enjoy the rest of the date without all the sexual tensions and/or desires that would otherwise impinge on their enjoying the other activities planned for the date.  If the orgasm were just about having pleasure in its own right, that first orgasm would make the couple stay in bed (or wherever) and keep having more, instead of dispelling the desire to just have sex and go ahead to dinner and the movie or the party they planned to attend. The orgasm they have is probably at least as pleasurable as the orgasm the rats have, and yet it doesn’t make them just keep ‘pushing the button’ to have more orgasms.  So the button must also stimulate the desire for another orgasm as soon as possible, as well as the orgasm.

Normally an orgasm itself does not do that, except in humans in the initial phase of the sexual part of the relationship (which when that was just after marriage, was called the honeymoon phase).  But even then, what more likely happens during the honeymoon phase is not so much the desire for another orgasm as soon as possible, but the desire to touch each other and be touched that then leads to the desire for another orgasm at some point.  The desire to keep touching is only temporarily abated, or temporarily changed into the desire to snuggle rather than the desire to arouse again. Then once the desire (along with the ability) to arouse appears again, it leads to the eventual desire to have another orgasm.

Also, if the desire to achieve orgasm like the rats do, then people would always want just ‘quickies’ instead of long states of arousal and foreplay and intercourse that lasts a while.  No ejaculations would be ‘premature’ other than in disappointing the woman who has not climaxed yet. But no guy would, apart from disappointing his partner, would be disappointed by a quick ejaculation at the very beginning of the sex.  Yet many times guys are disappointed that they are done (for) so soon, even if they can go on to satisfy the woman and help her climax in a different way. They feel robbed of good sex because of the sudden orgasm. So if they had the implant, they wouldn’t want to push the button any sooner than  they were really, really ready to end their arousal.

Of course, we should never underestimate the ability of teenagers (1) to try anything that ‘looks like fun’, (2) to succumb to peer pressure to do things that are not fun or enjoyable in themselves, or (3) to give up social interactions for the pleasure/addiction of social media without human proximity.  So the next generation would probably adopt the electrode implants before ‘knowing any differently or better’ and then drive and walk around totally distracted by orgasms if they got up out of bed or off the couch at all -- and if they found orgasms better than whatever they do on their phones now that they cannot seem to part themselves from.  Adults who didn’t use electrodes would probably say the teens are missing the really good parts of sex, but the teens wouldn’t know what they are talking about and think what they were doing was plenty good enough.

The point is, though, that adults (or even teens in the previous paragraph) generally are not looking to increase their pleasures by increasing their desires, though whatever their level of desire is, they want to satisfy it.  Hence, an adult who is able to satisfy their sexual desires with partners they enjoy and also satisfy in return, will, like my student, not likely want to have the orgasm producing implants, but if you installed the implants in them involuntarily, they would probably be pushing the levers like the mice did, because you would have increased their libido exponentially beyond their control and essentially turned them into someone who wants more orgasms than they ever wanted before or would have ever wanted before.  My student was happy with her level of libido, but presumably would have been happy with whatever that level was. She simply didn’t want to change the status quo, at least not in the upward direction.

All that being said, people who are addicted to things they find harmful or otherwise regrettable often want to decrease their desire for it.  A sex addict might want to reduce his/her desire for sex -- so as to prevent their uncontrollably wanting, and being unable to resist, the sex they know they will regret having afterward, and that in some deeper sense, they know they don’t really want, but feel compelled by their biological urges to have.  

And perhaps people sometimes want to be able to learn to like or desire doing things they have to do or feel they should do, so they may add music to doing exercises or may make a game of some sort out of practicing a repetitive skill they otherwise find boring and tedious.  And sometimes we do look for new fun things to do that we didn’t know might be enjoyable, if we are bored with everything we know about that is available to us. But normally, if we are satisfied, we don’t go looking for more desires to have to work to satisfy just because that will give us more pleasure if we do satisfy them.  Generally although we want to fulfill the desires we have (and doing so, or feeling we are progressing in their pursuit brings us pleasure), we don’t just seek to have more desires in order to have more pleasures, at least not without being totally bored or without trying to find a way to enjoy something we believe we really should be doing but don’t have the desire to do in its own right.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.