February 20th, 2008
A little while ago the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a short paper by an Italian research team who claim they have discovered physiological differences between women who have vaginal orgasms and those who do not.
The researchers studied 20 women, 9 of whom reported vaginal orgasms through intercourse alone and 11 who did not. They followed up this self-report with a series of physiological measures including ultrasound. And discovered the women who reported vaginal orgasms did appear to differ physiologically.
It’s not like we don’t know that women vary physiologically, nor that anatomy can affect sexual functioning, but nevertheless it’s helpful to suggest rather than all women having a g spot that there is variation in the female form.
Previous research in this area is limited by being based mostly on self report rather than observation, and small sample studies. And much of the research on the g spot has either claimed or been interpreted as the idea that all women should have a g spot and we ought to go off on some quest to find it.
This study isn’t claiming that, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking it is due to the media treatment it’s being given.
It’s a very small scale study, a pilot study if you will. It’s interesting, but it’s not about to change the world. But it is going to be wildly misquoted, and my hunch is it will lead to a lot of poor media sex coverage and a lot more anxiety about the female orgasm.
The research probably wouldn’t have attracted any attention, except that the New Scientist decided to feature it, and then they decided to send a press release out about their article which meant the BBC thought they would also write about the research. And since many journalists get their stories direct from the BBC website you can be pretty sure that over the next few days newspapers are also going to pick up on it, followed by countless magazine articles on how to find your g spot.
This is great news for the media, sex toy manufacturers and scientists interested in the physiology of orgasm.
It’s bad news for women who don’t experience orgasm through vaginal sex, as despite this study highlighting there is a variety of physical sexual responses the subtext is still the best anatomical response is a g spot orgasm. Rather than being inept at finding our g spots as previous research led us to believe, it’s now the case we’ll be told if we don’t have a g spot we’re not different, we’re deficient.
As with any story of this kind that snowballs through the media you’ll find that while some people may have read the original paper (for example the New Scientist and BBC did) successive journalists will rely on media reports not the original source material. This is why bad sex reporting is going to happen.
So here’s a whistle stop tour of what the Italian study did and found – so you can see what the research was really about – and spot how this probably won’t find its way into media coverage.
A group of 37 women were recruited into the ultrasound study after previously taking part in research on bladder obstruction. Of the 37 women, four withdrew, and 13 were excluded because of a history of sexual problems or being post-menopausal. The 20 remaining women were interviewed and examined by male researchers who took a physical exam and ultrasound of their pelvic area, and asked them ‘have you ever experienced a vaginal orgasm?’. Researchers were blinded to women’s self report on vaginal orgasm and their ultrasound result. Comparisons later revealed that women who claimed to have vaginal orgasms had a significantly thicker urethrovaginal segments.
The researchers defined orgasm as “the orgasm experienced after direct stimulation of the anterior vaginal wall by penetration, without concomitant stimulation of the external clitoris.” But it’s not clear whether participants in the study were working from the same definition. Since the researchers didn’t appear to take a full sexual history from their female participants we do not know what stimulation they had prior to orgasm. And being able to isolate direct stimulation of the anterior vaginal wall by penetration is difficult. Why not try it yourself at home with a penis, finger or dildo and see what I mean. You’ll be hard pressed not to also stimulate other parts of your vagina.
The researchers state ‘these results raise several questions. What anatomical structures did we measure? Does urethrovaginal space thickness different in all women with vaginal orgasm, or have we identified a subset of patients? Have we measure the controversial G-spot in vivo?’
So it’s fairly clear from this small scale and self-selecting sample of women that there are anatomical differences, but the researchers admit themselves they’re not sure at this time what these differences mean.
Although the study is acceptably designed, there are serious limitations in terms of the way ‘vaginal orgasm’ is operationalised and the study was conducted. Further limitations relate to the participants’ recruited (heterosexual, sexually active, willing to undergo an intimate ultrasound and discuss their sex activity). And curiously participants responses to ‘have you ever experienced a vaginal orgasm?’ were categorised as ‘yes (at least once in the past month’ or ‘no (never)’ which seemingly excludes women who may have had a vaginal orgasm but not within a previous month period. It’s a clumsy categorisation that potentially invalidates the study.
The paper also contains errors of reporting around the study of female sexuality with claims that said research is in its infancy (it isn’t) and has been scientifically neglected (it hasn’t). The researchers suggest they are among the first to study the female sexual anatomy ‘using scientific tools’ which indicates a worrying lack of awareness of a wider body of qualitative, observational, and questionnaire-based research.
Moreover the researchers ignore social and cultural issues in women’s sexual lives, but seem to reinforce the unhelpful stereotype that women’s-orgasms-are-complex. The researchers claim ‘female orgasm is a complex function not perfectly understood’ – which is an oft claimed argument from biomedical researchers but is not supported through wider social research.
The main problem with the paper is it doesn’t really have any clear aims or objectives. Admittedly it claims to be highlighting how there is proof that anatomy plays an important role with sexual functioning, but there’s a curious lack of purpose within the paper beyond this idea.
Which means you can read the paper in two ways. On the one hand it seems to be arguing for a variety in female sexual response due to anatomical differences. Which could be taken as a celebration of female sexual diversity and permission for women not to worry about their g spot – after all, you either have one or you don’t. Alternatively you could read the paper through a deficit model lens – meaning some women have been identified who do have vaginal orgasms and women who don’t are missing out.
It would have been helpful to know why the researchers decided to study this topic, or how they intend to apply their findings. This information is not made clear, but a clue could be spotted in the small print at the end of the paper which indicates the research is funded in part by an unlimited grant from Pfizer.
And that may mean that drug companies are interested in finding differences between women who can and can’t have vaginal orgasms, so those who don’t have vaginal orgasms can be labelled as physiologically and medically deficient and offered some form of treatment to rectify the situation.
Only time will tell what interest Pfizer has in these data, but you can be fairly sure that question or further concerns over the limitations of this research are not going to appear in wider media coverage.
What you are going to see are features that will tell you the g spot has been found, it officially exists, and that some women have superior vaginas. You’ll also see a lot more reports plugging sex toys to stimulate the g spot and a whole load of expert comment from people who’ve probably not read the original research.
It will allow for further bad sex features, a lot of product placement, and setting up a ‘gold standard’ for sex – the vaginal orgasm through penetrative sex alone. It will also mean our attention is diverted from key places that can give us pleasure – for example clitoral stimulation. After all, it’s much easier for journalists to write about the g spot and intercourse than mention the C-word.
While I welcome the chance to learn new things about the female body, anyone working in this area must know if your research can be interpreted as ‘we’ve proved the g-spot exists’ subsequent media coverage will be vast, inaccurate and in places harmful. And at that point you have to ask yourself whether it’s ethical to let your small scale study be spun into something that it’s not.Tweet