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The New Scientist, female ejaculation, and six things science has taught us about sex

May 30th, 2009

Dr Petra

Ten years ago I was at a sexology conference where a well-known physiologist told the audience there was no such thing as the g spot or female ejaculation. He’d conducted autopsy investigations on female genitalia and had never found any tissue resembling a g spot, or any place where ejaculatory fluid might be stored. He concluded that any fluid women expelled during orgasm had to be urine.

One audience member was incensed by this claim. She said she frequently ejaculated during orgasm and it definitely wasn’t urine. On being told she was incorrect about her own bodily functions she offered to demonstrate. So later that evening a group of us went to her hotel room for her show and tell (or should I say show and squirt).

This case represents for me the problem around female ejaculation. Groups of scientists (predominantly male) argue that their independent examinations of cadavers tell them what women’s bodies can and can’t do. While women (who may or may not be scientists) state they have experienced ejaculation or vaginally located orgasms. It can often feel like a tussle between cold hard science and warm wet personal anecdote.

The debate on female ejaculation/existence of the g spot has been going on for several decades now. You might be interested in two different takes on this topic from pioneering women sex educators Betty Dodson and Annie Sprinkle.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it was ‘news’ based on the coverage the New Scientist gives the issue this week in their feature Everything you ever wanted to know about female ejaculation (but were afraid to ask)

Sadly, while this piece is reasonably comprehensive, it doesn’t go anywhere near addressing all you may want to know about female ejaculation. Nor does it really grasp the political and historical back plot to this area of investigation, or bring us up to speed on the very problematic contemporary issues raised by the exploitation of the g spot by commercial companies and the drug, cosmetic surgery and herbal products industries.

In a nutshell the ongoing arguments within this debate are as follows:
- There’s no such thing as the g spot and/or female ejaculation
- The g spot/female ejaculation may exist, but not all women have/experience this
- G spots exist in all women so you need to learn how to stimulate yours right in order to enjoy it
- G spot orgasms/vaginal orgasms are superior to all other kinds of sex
- Most women do not orgasm through penetrative vaginal sex alone
- The ‘discovery’ of female ejaculation can reassure women they’re not incontinent and allow them to relax and enjoy sex
- The focus on g spot/female ejaculation shifts the focus of female pleasure from the clitoris or wider body pleasures to vaginal based arousal
- Those who criticise the g spot/female ejaculation are denying women’s voices/avenues of pleasure
- Those who promote the g spot/female ejaculation are pandering to a heterosexual norm of sex that privileges male sexual enjoyment and reduces female pleasure
- Talking about the g spot/female ejaculation in mainstream media has allowed more women to try and experience different orgasmic experiences
- The coverage of g spot/female ejaculation in mainstream media (and particularly porn) has led to many people believing women’s ability to ‘squirt’ is either the norm, or an indication that a ‘proper’ orgasm has been experienced, which has increased performance anxiety.

There are also things we don’t know or are still exploring
-Is the clitoris (a larger organ than first believed) actually what’s being stimulated when women report a g spot orgasm?
- Is g spot stimulation essential for female ejaculation or can it occur with clitoral stimulation?
- What is in female ejaculate (is it urine or something similar to male ejaculatory fluid)?
- When women are shown ejaculating in porn is this usually urine (given the volume produced) – and what impact does viewing such images have on our understanding of sex?

The problem with the New Scientist piece and scientific research that focuses purely on the physiological is it taps into the women-are-mysterious narrative that unhelpfully underpins so much media coverage. It neglects to address the social and cultural issues around female ejaculation. Why are we so fixated on this right now? What happens to women’s self esteem and sexual confidence when we make out g spot orgasms and female ejaculation are either the norm or the pinnacle of sexual experience? How best can we communicate to women (and men) the message that g spot orgasms and female ejaculation is unusual without making this seem like those who don’t experience this are deficient in some way.

The New Scientist fails to tackle any of these issues. Nor does it address the very real problem of pharmaceutical company interest in this area. Many of the studies being undertaken on female ejaculation/the presence of a g spot are Drug Company funded. Clearly there are concerns about what may happen if studies identify why some women appear to have g spots and how this might be used to medicalise and create ‘treatments’ for those who don’t appear to have this. Already we’re seeing a rise in the promotion of collagen g shot ‘enhancement’s delivered by cosmetic surgeons – even though there’s no independent evidence of this procedures long term safety or positive impact on sexual experience.

All of this is worrying since the New Scientist are presenting this story as cutting edge sex science, but in actual fact ignoring masses of sex research that puts the whole g spot/female ejaculation within a current cultural context. Worse still they accompany the piece with Six things science has revealed about the female orgasm which, I’m sad to say, is an example of very poor science journalism.

The New Scientist tells us:

The G spot is real
But this came from a highly critiqued study of 20 women that failed to clearly measure orgasm, which the researchers argued didn’t prove the existence of a g spot, but was funded in part by an unlimited grant from Pfizer. Critique of study and New Scientist’s coverage here

Many women can’t have orgasms (aka 43% of women have a sexual dysfunction)
This doesn’t reveal how the original research that identified the high prevalence of dysfunction was (again) drug company funded and merged dissatisfaction with dysfunction. It failed to incorporate lifestyle factors for female problems. The ‘many women can’t have orgasms’ does not differentiate between lack of desire and inability to orgasm. (All this is tackled in Leonore Tiefer’s fantastic book ‘Sex is not a natural act: and other essays’. Despite being discredited the 43% figure is widely touted by the press (and drug companies). The New Scientist does mention FSD as a medical disorder, but does not explain how the majority of drugs in development for this have not passed trial stage, or when available have not seemingly been effective. The research showing that women don’t often orgasm via penetrative sex alone but can through other forms of stimulation is not mentioned.

Genes affect orgasm frequency
Was based on a questionnaire study which failed to adequately even measure orgasm which in turn led to a festival of bad media coverage and the accusation that women orgasm ‘too easily’.

We could say that the New Scientist is just behind the times, but when they previously promoted the ‘g spot discovered’ research (see above) they were contacted by numerous sexologists (including myself) to point out the flaws in the study. They even published some of these criticisms. The study the New Scientist had brought into the public domain was so limited coverage it even warranted a feature in The Chicago Tribune, and was further picked up on blogs and forums (here’s a couple of good examples from Mysexprofessor and Cory Silverberg.

Part of being a good scientist is to learn from peer review. You have to question why, when so publicly criticised for poor sex reportage, does the New Scientist not only seems unable to take this on board but continues to promote studies they’ve been told are intrinsically flawed as things ‘science has taught us about sex’.

Clearly the New Scientist realises sex sells. What a shame they don’t bother to showcase quality sex research then.

Whatever their reason for focusing on limited/poor sex research that’s in turn poorly reported it’s very clear the New Scientist is not representing sex science accurately and in so doing is actually harming, rather than helping, our understanding of female sexuality.

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