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The clitorocentric conspiracy – new study argues we’re discriminating against the vagina

September 18th, 2009

Dr Petra

There’s been a small amount of media coverage for a study just out that proclaims “Vaginal orgasm is associated with vaginal (not clitoral) sex education, focusing mental attention on vaginal sensations, intercourse duration, and a preference for a longer penis”

It’s been published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, and is co-authored by Stuart Brody and Petr Weiss. You may remember Prof Brody from previous research such as:

You can tell whether a woman has vaginal orgasms based on the way she walks

Penis/vagina intercourse is 400% better than any other kind of sex

Condoms are bad for your mental health

And heterosexual sex is superior to any other kind of sexual activity

These studies (as you’ll see from the links above) are not without their methodological and theoretical limitations. And this current study is no exception.

While it does raise some interesting questions about sexual behaviour – particularly around preference for penis size (which is an ongoing concern for many men), many of the measures used in the study are not clear, and some of the conclusions are not adequately defended.

Here’s why (warning, critical appraisal of a paper follows so skip to the end if you’re not bothered about the science bit!)

The research was conducted on 1000 Czech women by a public research company (under direction from the Institute of Sexology, Charles University, Prague). Although the paper states the sample was representative (compared to census data) the response rate was 53% – which suggests nearly half of those asked to complete the study refused (or were in some way ineligible to participate). This does raise questions about who decided to participate, who opted out, and whether those who did take part were representative of the wider population or were those more willing to discuss sensitive issues with a researcher. The authors argue the sample size is acceptable and is representative of the Czech female population.

We are not told how or where the study was conducted. It’s noted it was a ‘written survey’ but it’s unclear if questions were read out to participants by the researchers or whether participants wrote their answers at a research centre or similar. It’s not declared if participants were on a database of the public research company (as is often the case) or were selected by some other means.

These questions are important because they help us understand who took part and the circumstances under which they answered the questions. Both of which impact upon subsequent answers.

Participants were asked “Have you had a vaginal orgasm [orgasm produced simply from movements of the penis in your vagina, without any additional stimulation such as fingers for the orgasm after foreplay”. They rated their response on a 5 item scale where “1 = never” through to “5- 75% to 100% of penis/vagina intercourse (PVI) occasions”.

This seems to be implying that foreplay and intercourse are entirely separate activities. Yet it may be for some of the women who described more frequent PVI orgasms these were related to additional stimulation not noted in the survey. Without knowing what ‘foreplay’ involved, whether it led to orgasm before intercourse began, or whether it continued alongside intercourse it’s very difficult to clarify what participants were describing.

Participants were then asked to estimate the average time of foreplay and PVI (in minutes). They were also asked to estimate the length of their partner’s penis based on a Czech 20 Crown bank note (14.5cms) which was given as the average penis length. Following this they were asked whether they were more or less likely to orgasm with a longer penis, whether length made no difference, or whether they’d not had enough experience to judge.

These questions are not unreasonable to ask, but they are restricted through self report and estimation which are not particularly reliable measures. Usually we don’t have a stopwatch handy to time our sexual encounters and not all encounters neatly split into foreplay followed by intercourse. Indeed many people might argue that such a divide might reduce the opportunities for sexual exploration and pleasure.

There is no mention of girth, yet penis girth is often cited by women anecdotally and in research (although such research is pretty scarce and limited by small sample sizes). A discussion about girth would help as the women were only asked to describe length but some might prefer a short but wider penis or a longer thin one. Their length/girth preference do not seem to be asked about, nor their partner’s length/girth measurements. (For the record it’s worth noting most studies on this area suggest men are a lot more worried about length and girth than women are (a couple of examples here and here).

The study doesn’t detail how it dealt with demand characteristics where participants can give socially desirable answers. We are aware that small penises carry a stigma and many women (particularly those who care for a partner) may not willingly admit the partner is less than average in length. It is not possible to tell from this study whether this was controlled for.

Although the study asked about global ability to orgasm with partners (your pattern of orgasm across relationships) participants were not apparently asked to describe different encounters with different participants. This could be seen as a limitation since participants may not know whether to try and encapsulate all their sexual encounters or focus on the best or worst ones.

It does focus only on penis/vagina sex but doesn’t ask about similar penetration with dildos which would be worth noting. Do women report the same reactions to a large dildo or is it only a long penis that makes a difference?

Next the participants were asked “How well are you able to focus your mental attention on your vaginal sensations during penis-in-vagina intercourse?”. Answers ranged from “not at all” to “very well” on a 5 point Likert scale. This is an interesting question, but I’m not entirely sure what it means and I’m not sure how participants would understand it. It’s a tricky question since it requires us to reflect on an activity we may not be completely conscious of. I can see why the question was asked, but maybe a more open ended approach to discussing the mind/body experience during sex might have been more enlightening.

Women were also asked to recall what they were taught about in sex education in terms of sexual stimulation (ie whether they were told the vagina, clitoris, or both required stimulation for orgasm). This is a useful question to pose, but again is limited as it requires participants to remember events and we know from survey research that participant recall is not always what it seems. It may be what you were taught in sex education when younger you forget or perhaps think you were taught but have learned more recently.

So what did the study find? Well, you already know from the title given above. Women who reported partners with a longer than average penis length, spent longer on vaginal penetration, and had been taught vaginal penetration was important for sex were more likely to report orgasms during intercourse.

And none of this is particularly problematic. In this particular study of this particular group of women there was a correlation between estimated penis length and estimated sexual activity and recalled sex education. It doesn’t mean that all women globally like a longer penis or need one for orgasm. Further research could investigate this claim and whether being taught about vaginal orgasms does make it more likely you experience them as an adult.

What I find problematic is how the discussion part of the paper shifts away from these potentially interesting findings into a critique on sex education and healthcare that doesn’t match the data provided and for which no further evidence is given.

We are told “clitorocentric sex education does not help global partnered orgasmic function” yet what is the evidence for this? Is all sex education ‘clitorocentric’? Is mentioning the clitoris as important for female sexual pleasure (where previously it was not discussed) ‘clitorocentrism’? Is it really accurate to claim this – as presumably clitoral stimulation during penis/vagina intercourse may enhance the experience and increase pleasure thus making a global partnered orgasm more likely? Does a partnered orgasm only exist if it happens during penis/vagina contact? This paper seems to be saying so.

We’re told that encouraging a focus on clitoral stimulation distracts from paying attention to the vagina and therefore reduces vaginal feeling. A quote from another sexologist speaking in 1984 is then included stating ‘for the past 30 years most of us have been telling our patients that there is no such thing as a vaginal orgasm, and as a result, less and less of them are having vaginal orgasms’. No further empirical evidence is given to back up this claim. But it is worth noting that statement was made 25 years ago! If the statement were true of all practitioners, can the same be said now? No effort seems to have been made in the current paper to check.

Indeed Lynne Segal writing in 1994 critiqued Shere Hite’s research on female sexuality for not accurately reflecting women’s enjoyment of penetration. This critical sexology is entirely absent from this paper yet indicates not all practitioners were of the view that women didn’t have vaginal orgasms, nor reported pleasure from penetrative sex.

It certainly isn’t my impression that we teach women that vaginal orgasms don’t exist or they ought to only focus on their clitoris. From looking at the academic research in this area, looking at what therapists advise (or what they are taught) and certainly what’s covered within media sex advice – not to mention what sex toy stockists recommend – it seems vaginal stimulation is not missed out.

Certainly sex educators may well say, when faced with a woman who struggles with vaginal orgasm, that she is not unusual and nor should she worry. But that is not the same as saying she’s okay because vaginal orgasms don’t exist anyway. Or that she shouldn’t bother exploring vaginal stimulation. Most reputable sex educators know that women vary and some orgasm through clitoral stimulation, others through vaginal stimulation, some through both, some via nipple or anal play, some not at all. Making out that any particular ‘kind’ of orgasm is superior is unhelpful.

Brody and Weiss’ paper does not acknowledge this. Instead the paper continues to imply sex educators and health care professionals are unsupportive of the vaginal orgasm and are involved in some kind of systematic and organised plot to praise the clit and ignore the vag.

Instead we are told “Many researchers and clinicians in sexual medicine and sexology employ assessment, intervention and research methods that fail to differentiate between women’s orgasm triggered directly by penile-vaginal stimulation and climaxes from other triggers. Many North American university courses, including women’s studies courses, promulgate texts that falsely claim that vaginal orgasm does not exist, is very rare, or is essentially the same as clitoral orgasm”.

Well, how many is many? A significant amount? If such claims are to be made in a scientific journal really they do need stacking up with actual data that indicates where this is going on. I can think of countless measures of sexual functioning that ask about different ways women experience pleasure. And while women may be told not all women experience vaginal orgasms, or don’t experience them via penetrative sex alone does this mean the same thing as they are ‘rare’?

Ultimately this is a paper that could have raised some interesting questions and challenges for the sexological community*. However the largely unsubstantiated criticisms of sex education (without adequate evidence to support claims) detracts from the findings. The discussion and conclusions are more of a polemic against modern sexology than an exploration of the data found in the research.

The problem with this study is rather than suggesting women can enjoy vaginal sex it continues the refrain of penis/vagina sex being ‘better’ than other kinds of sex and critiques efforts to include the importance of the clitoris within sex advice.

There is no conspiracy among sexologists to deny vaginal orgasms exist or discourage women from vaginal pleasure (although there certainly needs to be more critical work in considering diversity in bodies, what constitutes pleasure, and how certain forms of enjoyment are privileged). But setting up penis/vaginal orgasms as the gold standard of sex means lots of pleasurable experiences could well be denied women.

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