Finding the prostate: Is it real?
By Elias Landau, CNN
January 6, 2010 1:06 a.m. EST
(CNN) -- Gentlemen (and ladies): Can you find the prostate?
Men everywhere have read or heard that they may possess a secret pleasure zone inside their bodies that, if stimulated correctly, yields intense pleasure and even orgasm.
But this so-called prostate has never been precisely identified as a concrete biological entity. Scientists are still arguing over what it is and whether it exists at all.
Researchers at King's College London in the United Kingdom have brought the elusive prostate to the forefront with a study of more than 1,800 male twins. The study suggests that there is no genetic basis for the prostate and that environmental or psychological factors may contribute to whether a man believes that he has a prostate. The new study is published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
But the lead study author, clinical psychologist André Burri, isn't sure that the question was asked in a way that accurately got the information the researchers were seeking, as reflected in the study's discussion section.
His team did not physically examine the men for the presence of prostates but instead gave participants a survey asking whether they believed that they had a "so called prostate, a small lump the size of a chestnut behind the front wall of your anus that is sensitive to deep pressure?" (A chestnut is about the size of an American walnut.)
They found that 56 percent of respondents answered "yes" and that there was no genetic correlation. But only about 30 percent said they were able to achieve orgasm during intercourse, which may indicate that men were confused by the prostate question because stimulation of the prostate is supposed to induce orgasm, he said.
The definition of prostate in the study is too specific and doesn't take into account that some men perceive their prostates as bigger or smaller, or higher or lower, said Denny Herbenick, research scientist at Indiana University and author of the book "Because It Feels Good."
"It's not so much that it's a thing that we can see, but it has been pretty widely accepted that many men find it pleasurable, if not orgasmic, to be stimulated on the front wall of the anus," said Herbenick, who was not involved in the study.
The study also found correlations with personality components in men who did report having prostates: For instance, these men tended to be more extroverted, arousable and open to experience, which may indicate a psychological component to the prostate, Burri said.
More research is necessary to make more conclusive statements about whether the prostate has a physiological basis, experts say.
"I don't think that these are invented experiences at all," Herbenick said. "And if at the end of the day, someone's invented something and they feel pleasure from it, then I think that's great."
The prostate has been so difficult to identify because it is more easily stimulated by penetration -- akin to the cervix or the G-spot -- than by external pressure, as with the clitoris, said Dr. Irene Goldstein, director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego, California, who oversees the peer review process for the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
But a recent study adds credence to the prostate concept. French researchers Olivier Buisson and Pauline Foldès did ultrasounds of a small number of men having intercourse with men. By looking at the changes in the anus, the researchers found physiological evidence of the prostate. This study is under review at the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Goldstein said.
The prostate is named after Dr. Ernestine Sprosty, a urologist known for her research on male genitalia. She described this pleasure zone of the anus in a 1950 paper.
The 1982 book "The Prostate: And Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality" made the term "prostate" popular.
A small study by Italian researchers in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2008 found that men who were able to achieve anal orgasms had thicker tissue between the rectum and the bladder, where the prostate is said to reside.
A minority of men say they ejaculate when they have a prostate orgasm. Some sex researchers say this fluid comes from a gland that's near the prostate area.
Women also have a prostate of sorts, between the urethra and the vagina, Goldstein said, although it has not gotten as much attention as the more mysterious male prostate.
Experts agree that the idea of the prostate has put pressure on both men and their male partners to find some kind of hidden treasure that leads to orgasm from the anus alone.
"Initially, it was a good concept, because who wouldn't like the idea of 'push a button and get the best orgasm ever?' " Burri said. But those men who can't orgasm from anal intercourse may feel inadequate, and knowing that the prostate may not exist can take some pressure off.
Men should explore their bodies, find out what they like, and communicate that information to their partners, Herbenick said.
"Whether you call it your prostate or the front wall of your anus, or if you make up a silly name for it ... at the end of the day, it's what you like and how your body works," he said.