This post originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.
Obesity rates are rapidly rising in the United States, so that also means larger pant sizes, wider seats, and more and more overweight people having sex.
There's a scene in the 1999 comedy, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, that applies to this conundrum. Austin, saddened that his female spy colleague Felicity "shagged" Fat Bastard, a ginormous 2,200-pound Scottish henchman, in order to place a homing device up his rectum, questions her decision:
Austin: ...how could you do it?In the years since Austin Powers hit theaters, obesity rates in the United States (PDF) have climbed considerably. Among men, the rate has risen from 27.5% to 35.5%. Among women, it has increased from 33.8% to 35.8%. During that time, Austin Powers' blunt question has been echoed around the Internet in various not-suitable-for-this-blog-post forms: How do morbidly obese people reproduce?
Felicity: I was just doing my job.
Austin: No, I mean, literally, HOW could you do it? The man's so fat, the sheer mechanics of it are mind-boggling.
This query is actually pretty easy to answer: By and large, obese people have sex the same way as everybody else, and they do so just as frequently. Even at levels of morbid obesity -- 250 pounds for a 5'4" woman and 290 pounds for a 5'9" man -- the "mechanics" work out just fine. In a 2001 study, only 11% of morbidly obese women reported "physical problems" as their primary barrier to sex. Instead, the foremost impediment to a healthy sex life was poor self-esteem, stemming from societal stigmatization. This affects both genders, but most of all, it affects women.
"Instead of enjoying their sexual intimacy, they're worried about the size of their stomach or, 'Oh my god, he's going to touch my stomach. What's he going to think about my stomach?'" Duke psychologist Ronnie Kolotkin told NPR.
Martin Binks, director of behavioral health at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center, agrees.
"Unfortunately, people are internalizing society's definition of what it takes to be involved in sex, particularly the body shape -- there are clearly societal biases out there that are influencing us on an individual level and not in a good way. "
Such societal torments, made commonplace in -- for example -- Mike Myers' comedies, are large barriers to intimacy for obese individuals. In an elucidating and inspiring blog post, a sexual educator writing under the pseudonym Ms. Vagina Science urged larger women like herself to avoid being self-conscious and embrace who they are. In the process, she also bravely and openly dispelled a lot of ridiculous inaccuracies about obese sexual activities.
For example, when two morbidly obese people have sex, neither participant will be smothered or crushed, she asserted. (This erroneous belief actually crops up a lot, among both obese and normal-weight individuals.) Sure, extra layers of fat, particularly in the thighs and abdomen, can be obstacles to intercourse, but they can easily be overcome by maneuvering into "fat-friendly" sex positions.
"You may need to move your fat around until it feels comfortable," Ms. Vagina Science advised. "When I was heavier, I'd have to literally pick my belly up and move it around. Same with my thighs."
But while bodily physical barriers can be surmounted, other health conditions induced by severe obesity are more difficult to work around. Obese men sport a 30% increased risk of erectile dysfunction, as well as diminished levels of sexual desire stemming from reduced levels of testosterone. Depression, which commonly plagues obese men and women, also serves as a roadblock, effectively eroding libido.
Far more extreme cases of sexual limitation can also arise, particularly in men. Super obesity can cause testosterone levels to plummet and estrogen levels to skyrocket. This may lead to invagination of the penis, in which the member actually retreats into the bladder. In one unfortunate case, these symptoms were documented in a man weighing 660 pounds! During 20 years of marriage, he and his wife were literally unable to have sexual intercourse.
Considering this man's sad situation, it's likely that Fat Bastard, who supposedly weighed 2,200 pounds, would probably have suffered from the same debilitating conditions. In fact, he actually admitted that he hadn't seen his "willy" in three years. That joking assessment was, in all likelihood, scientifically accurate.
(Image via Shutterstock)