February 24th, 2008
Earlier in the week the New Scientist released an article about a small scale, previously published piece of research that claimed to have discovered significant differences in the structure of the vagina. Through ultrasound and asking women if they’d had a vaginal orgasm the researchers discovered that 9 women reported having vaginal orgasm and had a thicker vaginal area than the 11 who said they didn’t have vaginal orgasms.
The research, as it turned out, was full of holes (excuse the pun). To be honest if I’d been sent it to review for a journal I’d have rejected it for publication due to the small sample size, and the inability to conceptualise basic concepts like orgasm and sexual history.
For some reason the New Scientist seemed to have forgotten how to read a scientific paper, and instead ran a piece that suggested ultrasound had discovered proof of the elusive g-spot. They must have known this was going to set off a massive media fuss.
And sure enough it did. If you check google news you can see the extent of press coverage of this issue on websites and newspapers. This excludes coverage on TV, radio and the inevitable flush of features that will be in magazines in the next few months. (If the link doesn’t turn up many searches type in ‘g spot’ or ‘g-spot’ and see what happens).
The majority of press coverage, as I gloomily predicted, covered the story pretty uniformly using one or more of the following combinations:
- The g spot has been discovered!
- Science has shown the g spot truly exists
- Here are some facts about the g spot
- A brief history of the g spot
- Some stuff about Freud
- How unlucky women don’t have the g spot but lucky women do
- Cheap and easy tests can now reveal whether you have a g spot or not
Outside of these angles there were some debates that suggested men should no longer worry since some women simply were missing a g spot so there was no need to blame yourself if your partner didn’t have a vaginal orgasm. Or criticisms from some quarters that women who didn’t have a vaginal orgasm were either lazy or suffering from a medical condition. A minority of reports did acknowledge diversity in female sexual functioning or that women should not be made to feel anxious about not having a g spot, a few critical voices were raised. But even there these were based around debates on whether the g spot does or doesn’t exist rather than tackling or acknowledging the whole media fracas over this story wasn’t based on strong evidence. However it was covered, the general refrain throughout reports was women who don’t have a vaginal orgasm were somehow missing out – although science had proved it wasn’t their fault.
Most reports were simply lifted from the newswires; nobody had read the original paper or the New Scientist report. A few papers commissioned writers to talk about the issue and in those cases they didn’t pick their health or science correspondents but instead chose comedy writers or celebrities to pick up on the story and talk about the presence or absence of a g spot in their life and what it meant to them.
Some papers and radio stations also chose to use the story as peg to hang a wider story about g-spot tips on. I had over 30 calls from journalists over the week not asking about the science behind the story, but wanting me to give tips to the ‘lucky’ women who had g spots and sex advice and techniques for the poor women who didn’t have one.
In all cases I discovered that none of the journalists knew the study was only based on 20 people, hadn’t definitely measured the g spot and wasn’t strong enough to prove/disprove its existence. I tried to explain it wasn’t accurate or ethical to base stories on the original research or the New Scientist write up but most journalists couldn’t get their head round the idea that basing a feature on bad science was a problem. They thought they were using the opportunity to share a few sex tips and mention some sex toys – and help women. Although a few journalists confided as soon as the story broke they’d been contacted by sex toy stockists – some even offering to bike over their g-spot stimulating toys.
Nobody had time to read the original paper, the New Scientist report or my blog outlining the limitations of the research. I was told this was all very interesting and ‘useful backplot stuff’ but everyone was on a deadline and the story was hot news so the pressure was on to find a different angle.
Not only was the press coverage highlighting limited research poorly explained, by the close of the week a study that had suggested 9/20 women who had a differently constructed vagina had morphed into the stunning statistic that 75% of women didn’t have a g spot. How that happened we’ll probably never know, but you can be sure from here on in this will become an official media sex statistic.
By either accident or design just after the g spot research broke my colleagues in the US tell me their media printed a flurry of stories advocating (scientifically untested) g-spot collagen injections given at ‘g shot parties’. Again rather than being in the health or science pages these were positioned in the style sections of newspaper supplements. Watch out for more of the same this side of the pond shortly.
Around this time most practitioners (myself included) really lost it and wrote to the New Scientist to express concern about the limited study covered in a very misleading way, and the ethics of releasing to the press something that surely must have been understood would cause hype and misinformation. I’ll keep you posted on how those concerns are treated by the New Scientist.
Some critics also decided to tackle the problem directly in the media by posting on newspaper websites that were uncritically or inaccurately covering the story. They discovered that it was fine to mention the g spot, but when they mentioned the word clitoris their comment was barred or deleted. Which speaks volumes about this whole saga, doesn’t it?
Call me a drama queen but it reminded me a little of the MMR debate. A scientist designs a study that’s limited. However it looks impressive so a journal covers it and the media goes crazy telling us that MMR causes autism. Parents worry and stop getting their kids vaccinated, and children’s health is put at risk.
There are similarities in that a science publication thought something looked exciting, perhaps didn’t check out the research in depth and went to the media hoping for some coverage. And as a result the press misunderstood and misrepresented an already limited study. This has led to bad sex coverage and the promise of more to come.
Now I don’t for one minute want to devalue the MMR scandal which has the potential to cause far more devastating problems to us than the g spot research. Nobody could die from the g spot research. Or could they? If we encourage women to think if they are ‘missing a g spot’ and then tell them that injecting collagen into their minky is going to make them whole again, this does pose risks to health.
You can see how this is going with some of the questions journalists have already asked me:
‘where can women go for tests to see if they have a g spot?’
‘the research says a cheap and easy test is available, when will this be available in shops?’
‘at what age can we test girls to see if they’re missing a g spot – before they start menstruation or after puberty?’
‘what surgical treatment is available for women with missing g spots?’
‘will we be able to repair women’s bodies on the NHS?’
It is not unreasonable to suggest the hype around this story will lead to people having greater sexual anxieties and confusion over how their body would work.
Yeah we got the science story in the papers, and the product placement and sex tips too. Did we do anything to really advance our understanding of female anatomy or reassure women and their partners?
Hell no. But don’t worry it’s not all bad news. The media, some scientists, a drug company, sex toy manufacturers, and plastic surgeons offering g-shot injections will all do very nicely financially and otherwise from this story.
It’s what’s going to happen to the rest of us I worry about.Tweet