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G-spot discovery, medicalization and media hype

April 25th, 2012

Dr Petra

This post focuses on research reported today on the discovery of the g-spot. If you are a journalist on a deadline you may find it easier to read through this post now and come back to the links later!

Over the past three years there have been papers published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine claiming to have proved or disproved the presence of a g-spot in cis women.

Earlier this month, the Journal of Sexual Medicine again focused on the g-spot resulting in some pretty hopeless reporting, depressingly from science outlets as well as mainstream media.

Most of the g-spot studies have been limited by a number of problems including a small number of unrepresentative participants having their vaginas examined through ultrasound, or larger studies of women using self-report surveys with confusing questions such as: ‘Do you believe you have a so called G-spot, a small area the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure?’ They also make claims about a lack of research in this area, which isn’t true. There is a lot of research in this area it just posits different ideas about what women find arousing.

Each time studies on the g-spot have been published the media has reacted as though
- these are groundbreaking studies
- the do they/don’t they have g-spots issue is the most pressing topic in sex research
- these studies require no critical attention

And in all these cases journalists – including health and science correspondents – have responded to these studies in one simple way. To frame their stories with the question ‘does the g-spot exist?’

This hides a whole heap of bad science and poor journalism and misinformation on sex, arousal and orgasm.

Today we will see this story repeat itself. This time claiming that women definitively DO have a g-spot.

The study, G-spot Anatomy: A New Discovery (link to be added shortly) by Adam Ostrzenski published in, wait, could it be? Yes! It’s the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The same journal that published all the other papers proving or disproving the existence of the g-spot.

The current study involved an autopsy performed on an 83 year-old woman and claimed to have found ‘the anatomic existence of the g-spot’.

You can expect the media to do four things with this.
1. They will trumpet that YES, THE G-SPOT DOES EXIST! even though previously they said it didn’t (and it did and it didn’t etc etc).
2. They will use this to bring up the same old debate – does the g-spot exist? But they will not critically engage with the research itself.
3. They will fail to notice that a fortnight ago they were having exactly the same discussion.
4. They will use this as another opportunity to report the story using the now well-established tactic of let’s-set-up-a-debate-with-the-ladies-about-their-orgasms.

The media love this do they/don’t they have a g-spot research because it allows them to mix sex and science without being too sexy or in any way scientific. And posing this as a debate topic allows for people to say whether their lived sexual experiences match the study in question.

Any journalist worth their salt should always ask questions about a study they are reporting on. So here are the core problems with the current paper that we should expect the media to answer – but will probably barely see mentioned.

Firstly this is a study based on an autopsy of one woman, so not all that representative. Only last week we saw what happens when the media runs away with excitement on the basis of a limited, single person study. (And yes, that was the Journal of Sexual Medicine too. Are you noticing a pattern here?)

Secondly there is the issue of consent and ethics. This study required a woman or her next of kin to consent to her body being used in medical research. Presumably with specific consent that her genitals may be included in any investigation. The paper does not make it clear what consent was obtained or who from. That is not to say consent was not obtained but with such a sensitive study you would expect this to be explicitly outlined within the paper or press release. Studying tissue samples is a highly emotive area of research and one that is governed by strict ethical and governance procedures (further reading on this topic here).

Thirdly, appropriating a supposed feminist discourse the paper claims ‘The absence of the identification of the G-spot as an anatomic structure created considerable controversies and a biased interpretation of the scientific results worldwide, leading to a monolithic clitoral model of female sexual response. However, women have held the unwavering position that there are distict (sic) areas in the anterior vagina which are responsible for a sensation of great sexual pleasure’

We have been here before with researchers claiming there is a giant global Clitoral Conspiracy denying women information about vaginal pleasure and prioritizing the clit. In that research as with this one no empirical evidence is given to substantiate these claims. Which do not appear to fit with the mainstream media’s general obsession with vaginas. And most reputable sex educators and therapists who focus on people exploring what brings them pleasure rather than telling them what to enjoy. It remains the case that clitoral pleasure is vital to many women’s sexual experience – and it is disingenuous of practitioners to claim otherwise. Discussing this doesn’t mean denying women can’t experience other pleasures, however, and that focus should remain in education and therapy. So we acknowledge diversity in bodies, genders, and what feels good.

Moreover if those who have made the claim that women have consistently reported pleasure from the stimulation of the front wall of the vagina, why then do *they* feel the need to continually survey, scan and now dissect women? Surely if they believe what women say that should just be taken as read?

Fourthly this was an autopsy study so the researcher makes claims about the physiology of a woman but did not apparently talk to her before her death. So we know absolutely nothing about her relationships, her sexual life, what gave her pleasure, what her sexuality was, whether she experienced orgasm or not. Regardless of the physiological findings this paper presents these are meaningless without these other details of the woman’s life.

Finally the author claims he has no conflict of interest. Which is concerning given he runs a Cosmetic Gynaecology practice this is not in itself sinister but it does have a bearing on why he may have an interest in proving the presence of a g-spot and should have been declared in both the press release and the paper. It is remiss of the journal and publisher not to ensure this was done.

Alongside the numerous cosmetic genital procedures he offers, Dr Ostrzenski trains practitioners in procedures including ‘g-spot fat augmentation’ and ‘g-spot surgical augmentation’.

This sounds very much like something that could well be considered a conflict of interest and should have been declared as such in the paper.

I think I would feel less anxious making these criticisms if I had not read Improbable Research’s blog. They have been investigating Dr Ostrzenski and in particular I would draw your attention to him bringing a lawsuit against a peer reviewer he disagreed with. This is sobering stuff.

[Although unrelated to this study, it is worth noting G-spot augmentation is an experimental procedure and in the UK the main practitioner offering this practice was recently struck off by the GMC in a truly tragic case of medical misconduct].

Ricki Lewis also spotted crucial problems with this research and it’s wider claims.

Who benefits from research like this?
We’ve seen how the media benefit from stories like this. Others who benefit include drug companies, who have offered unlimited grants to some of these studies. Cosmetic surgeons, as they can use this research to indicate why g-spot amplification should be performed (despite it having tragic consequences for some women). Sex toy stockists, as they can sell products aimed at either stimulating the g-spot or the clitoris (depending on whether the g-spot is supposed to exist or not). And therapists or sex educators who can promote workshops or counselling that hinges on the supposed confusion around g-spot orgasm.

And who loses out?
The rest of us do! Women and their partners miss out, as these studies do not fully explore the diverse ways women may experience arousal. Trans women are not included in these studies (nor really in any discussions about orgasm). Most studies on g-spots or female orgasm also focus on straight women in relationships, so single women and lesbian or bi women’s voices are rarely heard.

Limited research and poor media pickup results in a situation where misleading stereotypes are repeatedly rehearsed: such as the idea women’s sexuality is understudied, that women’s orgasms are complex and mysterious, that women are unreliable in their sexual response, or that there are superior forms of orgasm that can be related to specific parts of the body.

What could we do instead?

Rather than repeating the do/don’t women have g-spot orgasms we could use this opportunity to ask critical questions about the quality of existing research, what problems this can cause women and their partners, who benefits from the continued g-spot debate, and examine how we might instead celebrate diversity in sexual pleasure. In particular we ought to be asking why the Journal of Sexual Medicine appears fixated on this topic?

Another approach might be to consider how this scenario would look if it were penises under the microscope. While there are undoubtedly distressing issues facing men around penis size and stamina the stereotype for men is they all experience pleasure from their dicks. If you talk to men you discover some get intense pleasure from testicle stimulation and are unable to orgasm without this. Some hate their balls touched. Some get a lot of pleasure if attention is paid to the shaft of the penis. Some find direct stimulation to the glans uncomfortable. Others experience more pleasure from anal stimulation.

Yet we do not suggest because men can and do experience pleasure from different areas in their genitals that there are specific spots that guarantee male orgasm or that men are somehow deficient if they do not experience say, a left testicle orgasm. We don’t scan, survey, or perform autopsies on penises to establish the most sensitive parts. Nor do we have self help books, courses or sex toys designed to coach men into experiencing orgasm through stimulation to specific areas of their genitals.

Indeed suggesting this usually results in people laughing. Why would we do this? But we do seem to feel the need to continue to make women’s bodies and sexual responses seem complex and difficult. Actually that’s not quite true. One journal and the media appear preoccupied with this. Most people are not that bothered and certainly most sex researchers are not.

The take home message is
- there are numerous conflicting messages about the g-spot, many of them from papers with limitations, all recently published in the same journal
- this is not cutting edge sex research nor the prime focus of what sex research is
- this distracts us from the exciting and wonderful stories and studies within sexology – and people’s daily lives
- this makes people anxious about their bodies, sexual experiences and sexual performance
- it gives legitimacy for untested cosmetic gynaecological procedures to be promoted uncritically by the media
- it implies orgasm is solely a physiological experience that is located in specific areas of the genitals (in cis women)
- it suggests particular kinds of orgasm are superior to others or that you should train your body to orgasm in particular ways/locations
- this discourages us to celebrate sexual diversity and pleasure in our genitals and elsewhere, and find what excites and arouses us

How can you help?
Given the media coverage of this story is undoubtedly going to be enthusiastic, extensive and (for the most part) poor, let’s use this as an opportunity to put the media under the spotlight.

As the story spreads through the news look out for the journalists who:
- simply regurgitate the press release
- fail to ask basic questions about the aims/scope/ethics of the paper
- use this as an opportunity to roll out the ‘does the g-spot’ exist story again
- use this as a platform to promote untested cosmetic genital procedures or sex toys but not to talk about the science
- appear not to have actually read the paper

Share your findings on twitter via the hashtag #erronagspot to capture poor (and good) coverage (or if you’re not on twitter but spot something drop me an email at info@drpetra.co.uk and I’ll add it to the list). If you are a journalist or blogger who hasn’t yet covered this story and wants to – please use this blog to help question further the issues raised in the ongoing g-spot saga.

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